Theories of Atonement: Did Christ die to pacify God’s wrath?

SUMMARY

If Jesus did not die, we could not be saved. On this we agree, but there are different Theories of Atonement that attempt to explains HOW His death atoned for the sins of God’s people. 

One horrible distortion of the gospel is that God was angry and that Christ died to pacify His anger. According to the Bible, Christ was the Means of reconciliation but it was God that took the initiative to save us.

A softer variation of this theory is that sin distorts Justice, that Justice demands that someone must suffer and that Jesus died to restore the equilibrium of Justice. However, how can it be just to torture an innocent Person for the sins of other people? 

Another variation on the theme is that Jesus lived a sinless life and that His righteousness is imputed to sinners.  This is better than the previous versions because it takes the focus away from God’s wrath. However, this theory is based on a literal interpretation of and emphasis on the word “justified,” which is only one of several Metaphors of Salvation.

People sometimes say that God was reconciled to His creatures, as if God was changed by Christ’s death. However, Paul always wrote that people are reconciled to God; never the other way round.  In other words, Christ’s death did not change the Father. 

A very different explanation is that sin gave Satan ownership of this world. He held humanity captive. However, became part of humanity and His death triumphed over the evil spiritual forces. 

The moral influence theories of atonement suggest that believers are moved to repent and reunite with God when they see God’s love expressed through Jesus’ life and death.  This is certainly true but does not explain why Jesus had to die.

THEORIES OF ATONEMENT

It is generally accepted that, if Jesus did not die, we could not be saved:

God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8, NRSV)

The difficulty is to explain HOW His death atoned for the sins of God’s people. There are many different explanations of this:

PAID THE REQUIRED PRICE

Some say that Christ, by His death, paid the required price, but to whom was the price paid?  It was not paid to God, for we were held prisoner by Satan.  Neither was it paid to Satan, for what could God owe to Satan?

GOD WAS ANGRY

Others propose that God was angry and that Christ died to pacify God’s anger. However:

(1) MAN IS HOSTILE.

Firstly, it is not God that was hostile to man; we were hostile to Him:

You were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds” (Col. 1:21). (This implies that evil deeds” are acts of aggression against God.)

We previously “were enemies” (Rom. 5:10).

Belonging to the race of Adam, we are born alienated from God. People are angry with Him. They try to exclude Him from their lives in all possible ways.  A common method is to insult God by using His name in vain and even to use His name as a swearword.

(2) GOD TOOK THE INITIATIVE.

Secondly, the Father is not angry with His enemies. rather, it was God that took the initiative to save man (Col. 1:22); not the other way round.  For example:

God so loved the world that He gave His only Son (John 3:16). See also Romans 5:6-8, quoted above.

Colossians 1:20-22 uses the word “through” four times, explaining what God did through Christ.  “The Father … made peace through the blood of His cross” (Col. 1:19-20). The Father “has now reconciled you in His (Christ’s) fleshly body through death” (v22). Christ was the Means of reconciliation, but it was the Father who redeemed us.

It is the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints (Col. 1:12), who delivered us from the power of darkness and who transferred us into the kingdom of the Son (Col. 1:13).

To say that sin made God angry and that He was eager to punish us, but that Christ took our punishment and pacified God is a blatant contradiction of the Bible, for God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son.

RECONCILED TO HIS CREATURES.

People sometimes say that God was reconciled to His creatures, as if God was changed by Christ’s death on the cross, but the word translated reconcile is used a number of times in Paul’s writings, and it always says that people are reconciled to God; never the other way round.

To reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross” (Col. 1:20)

Reconcile them both (Gentiles and Israel) in one body to God through the cross” (Eph. 2:16)

While we were enemies we were reconciled to God” (Rom. 5:10)

God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ” (2 Cor. 5:18)

We beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20)

In other words, Christ’s death did not change the Father’s attitude towards people; it is man that changed. 

JUSTICE DEMANDS THAT SOMEONE MUST SUFFER.

As a child, growing up in reformed circles, I often heard that sin perverts justice, insults God’s honor and that God’s righteousness or justice demands that someone had to suffer. Therefore, Jesus suffered what we deserve so that we receive what He deserves: Jesus died to restore the equilibrium of Justice in the universe. 

This formulation is a bit softer than to say that God was angry, but it still is a horrible perversion of the grand Bible message.  It presents God as subject to Justice.  And how can it be just to torture an innocent Person for the sins of another? 

The most important message of the Bible is that God so loved the world so much that He gave His only begotten Son to redeem us. That is the foundation of every other doctrine. To corrupt the doctrine of God’s love is to corrupt the entire Bible, for it permits man to justify and continue his own mad anger and cruelty.

The Bible reveals the infinite God as wise, loving and just. The concepts in the Bible are infinitely high above the thoughts of man, and continually elevates man’s mind.  To say that the suffering of an innocent person would satisfy God’s justice seems utterly inconsistent with His character.

CHRIST’S RIGHTEOUSNESS IMPUTED TO SINNERS

Another variation on this theme is that Jesus lived a sinless life and that His righteousness is imputed to sinners.  This is better than the previous versions because it takes the focus away from God’s anger or justice and focuses on the wonderful message that Jesus remained without sin even when subjected to the greatest possible temptation and torture. 

However, this theory presents salvation as a mechanical process, similar to the Jewish system where they thought that they are justified by the ceremonies and rituals of the Mosaic Law. See the article Justified! for a further discussion of this view:

That article asserts that “justified” is only one of several Metaphors of Salvation, and we should not, therefore, interpret the word ‘justify’ literally and emphasize it over the other metaphors when trying to explain how a person is put right with God.

TRIUMPH OVER EVIL SPIRITUAL FORCES

A very different explanation is that sin gave Satan ownership of this world. Humanity was his captives. However, Christ’s death was a triumph over evil spiritual forces which “disarmed” Satan and his followers (Col 2:15), rendered them “powerless” (Heb. 2:14) and threw them “down to the earth” (Rev. 12:9).  In this explanation, that which prevented man’s salvation was not with God – His anger or His justice – but sin.

This was the view held by the church until Anselm confused the matter in the 11th century. It is also the explanation which I prefer. In the following articles I explain how it is that Satan has any right if God is almighty, and how Christ destroyed Satan’s rights:

(a) Christ’s death proved that God judges rightly.
(b) Why Jesus had to die

MORAL INFLUENCE

A still further alternative explanation is that believers are moved to repent and reunite with God when they see God’s love expressed through Jesus’ life and death.  This is called the ‘moral influence theory’.  This is certainly true but does not explain why Jesus had to die.

CONCLUSION

Granted, this is a rather superficial discussion of the Theories of Atonement.  I hope to study this subject in more detail in the future.  Other useful resources which the reader may consult include the following:

Joshua Thurow surveys the various ways Christians have thought about Jesus’s unique atonement through his death.

Noah Worcester does not find any reason to accept the “penal substitution” theories of atonement, on which God’s holiness requires him to punish someone in order to forgive, so that Jesus takes the punishment due us, cooling off God’s wrath, enabling him to forgive. But he does find evidence that according to the New Testament, Jesus’ sacrifice was a demonstration of God’s love for us.

 

 

Christ appears before God for us; the Mediator of a new covenant.

Jesus our high priest

After Jesus overcame, He sat down on His Father’s throne of grace, where He serves as our merciful high priest.  He sympathizes with our weaknesses.  If we, who are tempted, draw near to God, Jesus will come to our aid.  He will give us mercy and grace.  God promised, “their lawless deeds I will remember no more”, and our high priest Jesus guarantees that new covenant promise.

Purpose

This is the third in a series of articles on Hebrews’ teachings of Christ as our high priest.

In the first article (How Jesus became high priest) it was noted that God perfected Jesus through suffering.  Therefore Jesus could offer Himself without blemish to God, making purification of sins through death.  After His resurrection, Jesus sat down on His Father’s throne.  On the basis of Psalm 110 (verses 1 and  4) the writer of Hebrews interprets this event as Jesus becoming our high priest in the tabernacle in heaven.

In the second article  (Jesus is a better high priest) it was shown that the Levitical priesthood was merely a copy and shadow of the tabernacle in which Jesus serves, and for that reason was unable to do away with sin.  “Perfection” is only possible through Christ, based on His better sacrifice, which is the sacrifice of Himself.

In this third article the question is what Christ has been doing since he became our high priest, and what He is still doing today.

2:17-18 Makes propitiation

The first reference to Jesus as “high priest” is found in 2:17. This verse states that, as high priest, He makes “propitiation for the sins of the people”.  The word “propitiation“, in normal English, means an appeasement; a payment which satisfies; to appease the wrath of an angry god.  The word translated “make propitiation” (2:17) is hilaskomai (Strong’s G2433), but there is absolutely no need to read into this word that God is angry with sinners, and has to be pacified.  This is indicated by the following:

1. This word hilaskomai appears only in one other place in the Bible, where it is translated as “be merciful”:

But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” (Luke 18:13)

2. The KJV translates hilaskomai in Hebrews 2:17 as “make reconciliation”.  “Reconciliation” is used several times in the Bible to describe what happens when man turns to God, and it is always man that is reconciled to God; never God that is reconciled to man.  In other words, it is man that needs to change; God has always been willing to accept man.  See the article Metaphors of Salvation for more information.

3. The NIV translates hilaskomai in Hebrews 2:17 as “make atonement”, which is a more neutral word.  The word atonement originated when the Bible was first translated in English.  At that time people used the word “one” as a synonym for the verb “reconcile”.  In other words, when you reconcile two people, then you “one” them.  “At-one-ment” was used to indicate a restored relationship.  See the article Atonement for more information.

4. We should therefore rather allow hilaskomai in Hebrews 2:17 to be explained by the context, namely that hilaskomai means that He is “merciful” (2:17) and “come to the aid of those who are tempted” (2:18).

God is not angry with sinners.  Rather, He so loved the world that He sent His Only Son (John 3:16).

4:14-16 Receive mercy and find grace

The second time that we read in Hebrews about Jesus as high priest, is in 4:14-16, which is also the introduction to the great center section in Hebrews on Christ as our high priest.  In 2:17 we read that He is “merciful”, but 4:15 goes one step further by explaining how He feels towards sinners, namely that He sympathizes with our weaknesses; “therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (4:16).  This is also an interpretation of the word hilaskomai in 2:17. In other words, hilaskomai means that Jesus intercedes for us so that “we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need”.

Mediator of the New Covenant

The covenant is an important concept in Hebrews.  The word “covenant” is used 21 times in Hebrews and the quotation in Hebrews 8, of the new covenant promise in Jeremiah 31, is the longest quotation in the entire New Testament.

God made the first covenant with Israel “on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt” (8:9).  The new covenant includes that God will put His laws into their minds and write His laws on their hearts.  His people will therefore not teach one another, “for all will know me” (8:10-11).  One may argue that this promise has not yet come true, but it is important to note that Hebrews associates the new covenant with Christ’s ministry as high priest:

7:22Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant”.  [It is “a better covenant” because it “has been enacted on better promises” (8:6).]

9:15 He is mediator of a new covenant” (9:15).

12:24Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant

But what is this new and better covenant?  As mentioned, Hebrews 8 contains a very long quotation of the new covenant promise in Jeremiah 31.  Hebrews 10 repeats the two main points of that new covenant, namely:

10:16 I will put My laws upon their heart, and on their mind I will write them”.

10:17Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more”.

However, if we consider the context of the quotation in Hebrews 10, namely to “make perfect” (10:1), which means to “take away sins” (10:4), and “forgiveness” (10:18), then we see that the main promise in the new covenant, for the writer of Hebrews, is the second point above, namely, “their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more”.  Jesus is the mediator of this promise, which means that Jesus is the go-between between God and man; not to appease God’s wrath, but as guarantee of God promise “I will remember their sins no more” (8:12; 10:17).

9:24 Appear in the presence of God for us

This concept of Jesus as Mediator of the new covenant is well summarized in the following statements:

9:24Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us”.

7:25 Jesus “always lives to intercede for” “those who come to God through him” (7:25 NIV).

Summary

Jesus said “I … overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne” (Rev. 3:21, cf. Heb. 1:3).  His throne is the “throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16).  Our high priest Jesus is “merciful” (2:17) and sympathizes with our weaknesses (4:15).  He will “come to the aid of those who are tempted” (2:18).  If we “draw near”, we will “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (4:16).  God promised, “their lawless deeds I will remember no more”, and our high priest Jesus guarantees that promise.

NEXT: Draw near with confidence

TO: General Table of Contents