The Limitations of Propitiation

Let me tell you about an email I received recently, and what I said in response, and then I'll explain why I think there are limitations to propitiation.

A man I’ve never met before got in touch with me a few days ago, to thank me for my book and to ask me some more questions about the gospel. Here’s the essence of it:

I am a retired Police Officer / Detective and a suffering agnostic. I have become more and more interested in the spiritual side of existence and the life of Jesus. About five years ago I completed the Alpha course and while I enjoyed it I still didn’t really feel as if I get it! I have read a large number of books in an effort to “prove” that Christian belief is right or indeed wrong. Unfortunately, I have failed to prove anything beyond reasonable doubt, as it were. I now realise I never will. Your book is written in such great down to earth language that it really puts the questions into perspective. So often the books I have read have been written by academics for academics. You hit all the nails on the head.
However there is one aspect of Christianity I just can’t understand and is a major stumbling block for me: atonement. Why did God have to allow his only son to be so brutally sacrificed in order to forgive our sins? If he is a loving, caring God, surely he could forgive in some other way? If the death of Jesus was to allow proof of God’s existence, and to allow a spiritual living God to come into the world, I understand it. But how does the death of Jesus reconcile us with God? I understand the fall, and free will, but surely that was part of his design? Why not forgive anyway? I am lost on this point. Can you help?

It’s a great question. How would you answer it? Bear in mind that this man already knows a fair bit about the Christian message: he’s done Alpha, with its second week on “Why did Jesus die?”, he understands what the cross is said to do, and he knows words like “atonement”. So what would you say?
Here’s the main section of my response the next day:

The scriptures describe the atonement using a number of different word-pictures, although in many Christian circles only one or two of them are mentioned (which may have been true in the churches you’ve visited, I’m not sure). Each word-picture explores a different aspect of the atonement, and so provides a subtly different answer to the question of why Jesus had to die, although ultimately the answers all come together. Here’s a quick summary of the main ones:
Redemption. This picture comes from the slave market in the ancient world, and it pictures us as slaves of sin, God as the patriarch of our clan who wants to ransom us out of slavery, and Jesus as the ransom-price to set us free. So in this picture, Jesus has to die to liberate us from captivity.
Victory. This is a battlefield picture, obviously, in which God is at war with sin and death. From the very beginning, sin and death have not just been things we need to escape, but things which need to be defeated completely so they cannot afflict the earth any more. In the atonement, Jesus defeats sin and death by taking them upon himself, which is why he had go die, and then conquering them in his resurrection.
Propitiation. This is a temple sacrifice picture, and it’s the image you may be more directly familiar with from your Alpha experience (whether or not they used that word!) It means that God, because he is righteous, is angry about sin, and seeks to judge it and condemn it in humanity - so Jesus dies as God’s representative, to take the anger of God upon himself, so that there is none left for humans who put their trust in him.
Forgiveness. You make the point that surely, God could have forgiven in some other way than allowing Jesus to be sacrificed, and I completely understand where you’re coming from. Two things might help you on this one. Firstly, remember that Jesus is God in human form, so rather than God sacrificing a third party, the cross is actually God sacrificing himself. And secondly, the essence of forgiveness is that you take the pain of what the other person has done upon yourself, in order to let them go free - and in the atonement, that’s exactly what God does. Forgiveness, almost by definition, involves absorbing the other person’s sin onto yourself. Which, in Jesus Christ, is what happens at the cross.
Union with Christ. The Christian message is, perhaps more than anything else, about being united with Christ, so that what is true of him becomes true of us. In that sense, Jesus dies so that we can be counted as having died in him, and rises again so that we can receive new life in him. Human beings are all destined to die; when we are united with Jesus, his death counts as our death, and his life counts as our life, so we inherit the resurrection.
There are a load more, which I won’t bore you with (I’ve actually written another book, GodStories, which presents fifty or so different ways of expressing the Christian gospel), but those are the main ones. In a sense, I’m saying that the answer to the question “why did Jesus have to die?” has several overlapping answers, including identification with us, atoning for sin, releasing us from slavery, representing us before God, and defeating death’s power. I hope some of that makes sense.

That may or may not be what you would have said, and I’m certainly not posting it as a model answer or anything. The point I want to make is this: the doctrine of propitiation is absolutely true, and a non-negotiable aspect of the Christian gospel - but it is not the only way of expressing that gospel, and in many ways it is the least comprehensible way of presenting it to secular modern people. We still have marketplaces, ransoms and slavery in the modern world (redemption); we still have battles (victory), and family (adoption), and interpersonal relationships (forgiveness, reconciliation), and law courts (justification). But secular modern people do not understand temples or sacrifices, and thus the whole framework behind the propitiation model of the atonement can be very difficult for them to understand. So if someone asks, “Why did Jesus have to die?” and we reply, “To satisfy God’s wrath against human sin”, what we are saying is true, but limited (that is not, after all, the only thing that the death of Christ accomplishes), and quite possibly incomprehensible to many, at least in the first instance.
That doesn’t mean we don’t talk about it. Far from it! But it may mean we need to do two things that evangelicals have not always been very good at: explaining the gospel using a variety of biblical images, so that the full range of the atonement can be seen, and telling the big story of God, his world and his people, so that the whole concept of propitiation (not to mention the other models) is put in a context that makes sense of it. If we don’t do these things, then I suspect we will increasingly find that the people around us have no idea what we’re talking about. Even if they’ve done week two of Alpha.
Andrew is the author of several books including, most recently, If God, Then What?.

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