Was Jesus Sent to Heal Man or to Heal God?: Introduction

Was Jesus Sent to Heal Man or to Heal God?

This question is not meant to be funny; it’s a legitimate question in light of the prominent western theological view of Christ’s atoning work. According to the general atonement theory among Roman Catholics and Protestants, Jesus’ atoning work is understood as a “propitiation” for sin. What exactly does propitiation mean? In Christian theology, propitiation is a term used to understand the death of Jesus on the cross as a work that appeased the justice of God and effected a reconciliation between God and mankind.  A basic knowledge of the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement as it developed in Western Christian thought is of great importance, and if the casual reader who may not have been expecting a history lesson will bear with me I believe this short summary will be well worth the time.

In his work, Cur Deus Homo?, Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) set forth to answer the question of why God took on human nature in the person of Jesus Christ. His thesis was to become the chief rubric with which both the Roman Catholic Church and the various Protestant denominations would understand the atoning work of Christ. According to his theory sin is basically the failure to render God his due, and in failing to give God his due mankind not only takes from God what is rightfully his but also offends his honor. Thus, mere compensation for what was taken is not enough, added punishment for the guilty must be inflicted (Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, 1.11).* In short, God’s violated honor had to be made right and to accomplish this one of two measures had to be taken: (a) either mankind must be punished (with eternal hell fire), or (b) a worthy satisfaction that could be substituted for mankind’s due punishment must be produced (Cur Deus Homo, 1.13). Thus, according to Anselm, the incarnation of Christ was necessary to provide God with a worthy satisfaction for his damaged honor.

If one follows this logic our original question requires serious consideration: for whom did Jesus come to heal, man or God? A dishonored God that requires punishment to reign down on someone or something in order to restore his divine equilibrium is a God who seeks personal healing; not altogether different from a mafia godfather who requires punishment for his wounded ego.

With the presuppositions of this atonement theory in view, it is no wonder that Western Christian thought developed as it did. The idea that “justification” before God is a matter of “imputed righteousness,” rather than an actual living righteousness, makes perfect sense. If it is God’s mind that needed changing, via Christ as a propitiation for sin, then no real change is necessary within man. The believing Christian is merely “declared” righteous but is in no wise subject to actual righteousness. Grace, under this premise, is understood in a one-dimensional fashion as a sort of spiritual covering that disguises the sinner before the eyes of God, causing God to see Jesus instead of the sinner, thus avoiding His wrath.

This entire scenario grows very confusing when the believer attempts to rationally marry the idea of a wrathful, vengeful God with the idea of an eternal loving God; or when one tries to imagine that God’s attitude towards His creation needed changing, which raises the question of whether or not He is eternally consistent within His own being. If one continues this awkward path long enough he or she may as well ask: is it really that “God so loved the world that He sent His only Son…” or did the Apostle mean to say, “For God so detested the world that He sent His only Son…”?

These are only a few observations concerning the idea of propitiation that come to mind. In a future article we will dive deeper into an ongoing debate concerning the very word used in Scripture, “ιλαστηριον” (hilasterion), which most English bibles translate as “propitiation” but has an alternative meaning of “expiation,” the term embraced by both the Jewish and Eastern Christian traditions. Hope you’ll join the discussion.

Thanks for reading!

*In his text, Christian Theology, Millard Erickson notes that Anselm’s writing must be understood in light of the powerful feudal system that structured all of the culture in which he found himself. Justice and law had become more of a personal matter; violations of the law were thought of as offenses against the person of the feudal overlord. In matters of private offense, various forms of satisfaction could be substituted for punishment (p.814).

34 thoughts on “Was Jesus Sent to Heal Man or to Heal God?: Introduction

  1. That’s interesting. That was a church history segment I did not know anything about.

    I remember in my Greek classes in college, we talked about the verb “to justify” in one particular verse. I’d always heard that word interpreted as “to declare someone just/righteous,” but the verb is constructed in a way that suggests, “to cause someone to become just/righteous.” It’s like the difference between saying, “I declare this object shiny” and taking the time to polish it. The professor was trying to challenge us and say, “So, what are you going to do with this, because it indicates a different reading than the one you’ve always heard?” And we were like, “Hmm, I think I’m going to keep reading it exactly the way I’ve always heard.” 🙂 Because it’s easier. It just kind of breaks down after a while.

    • “And we were like, “Hmm, I think I’m going to keep reading it exactly the way I’ve always heard.”

      Classic, all too familiar in my seminary experience as well. Though, I’d have to say, I had so many “a’ha” moments that by the end I wasn’t sure what I was going to keep thinking.

      Love your professor’s analogy too. Thanks, Jessica!

    • There is no conflict between God’s justice or wrath and His love, His wrath is not some thing in itself like with humans, but grows out of His love, for whoever or whatever was harmed. The created order and the souls of the sinners are harmed by the sin. Since you can’t separate the sin that much from the sinner, it being an outgrowth of the sinner’s warped soul and choices and mentality, the wrath falls on them for what they do to themselves and to others.

      That is why we need regeneration, and salvation as ongoing process of sanctification and refinement of godliness in us.

      The present notion filtering into Orthodoxy of there being a problem between wrathful and loving God, and that no justice was involved, and the view of “wounded ego” is not Orthodox in origin but comes from Met. Anthony Khrapovitsky himself drenched in worldly philosophy as he grew up, and constructed a notion “Moral Redemption” which almost got him a heresy trial, but the political situation was bad enough and he agreed to shut up, but his followers after his death kept this going. This is the same kind of thinking, the narrow insulted ego thing and supposed injustice, and supposed wrongness of the idea of justice in God, that was already afoot for centuries in esoteric and other heretical and dubious writers, and has gained considerable ground in liberal Protestantism.

      St. Athanasius in On The Incarnation says that God had a dilemma, let His creation dither off into destruction, which was unthinkable, or violate His Word ergo His own integrity, by taking us back without cleansing and without the sentence of death being carried out. Also unthinkable. The solution was that One of The Holy Trinity would Incarnate (and since Jesus is described as “the lamb slain from the foundation of the world,” I think in Revelation this was agreed on before creation began, to deal with what would likely happen if it did happen) and would suffer the sentence of death on behalf of those who would repent.

      Now, ALL whether repentant or not, have received this much salvation, that ALL are slated to be resurrected with immortal and indestructible bodies, but where and how they will spend eternity in these bodies, whether in varying degrees of damnation or varying degrees of blessedness, depends on repentance and accepting Jesus Christ as King and God and as the Lord and Master of their lives.

      St. John Cassian in explaining why prayers are offered at a given hour says that this is because this was when Jesus paid for our sins or some similar phrase that is very Atonement oriented. St. Symeon the New Theologian in The Sin of Adam also speaks of original sin NOT as personal guilt for Adam but as inherited warp or stain that produces warp, which leads to personal sin. A built in bad attitude, of varying degrees, manifesting in different ways in each individual, and the main power of it broken by “salvation.”

      At least one akathist speaks of Jesus Christ coming to cancel debts.

      God loves mercy. True the typical short stated Atonement doctrine is too narrow. But all the Redemption features Orthodoxy focusses on, takes this as the hingepin the rest turns on.

      Yes the Crucifixion was to heal mankind and nature, not to heal God as if He needed healing, and this without His having to compromise His integrity as St. Athanasius points out. God’s love is greater than His wrath as shown by The Crucifixion, which after all was a short time and long over with, Jesus being risen from the dead and “death has no more power over Him.”


  2. Eric, a lovely thought. Anselm is a fantastic example of the truism that all theology is done in context. Much like our own times, Anselm’s feudal society was one bent on the centrality of ‘due,’ recompense and revenge. From this context it is easy to see why one might imagine God (or a god made in the image of man) as a ruthless despot in demand of the due human beings prioritised. Rather than focus on a God who is “eternal loving,” I try to focus on the mathematical formula of 1 John 4:8 — “God is love.” One does not go without the other. If we are prepared to use this, and only this, as our point of departure in theology then we can appreciate something of the radical nature of what Jesus of Nazareth brought. A wounded humanity (the object of God’s love) wounds God as a sick child hurts a loving parent. So in this it may be understood that God’s action in the Incarnation; the life, death and resurrection of Christ, was an act of God to heal God in healing humanity. I look forward to reading the next instalment.

    • “A wounded humanity (the object of God’s love) wounds God as a sick child hurts a loving parent…the life, death and resurrection of Christ, was an act of God to heal God in healing humanity.”

      Beautifully put. Certainly God is always wounded, in some sense, every time we choose death over life, particularly post-Christ’s sacrifice. A loving God could not be but saddened by His kids torturing themselves when healing is right in front of them. But the idea that our self-inflicted wounds somehow enrage God to the point where He desires to torture us for eternity as some sort of retribution is something only a sick thinking humanity could create. Truly, as you said, a creation of god in our own image.

    • In fact a friend of mine wrote something interesting in his doctoral dissertation about our odd construct of God. I wish that I could lay my hands on it, as it is worth quoting in full. For now a paraphrase will have to do. He said that our Sunday School take on God was like a weekly visit to a kind old uncle. We get dressed in our Sunday best and sit in his parlour with our parents like good little children, but he has a basement where he tortures his naughty nieces and nephews.

  3. I agree with what you are saying but regarding the last verse that you used, I don’t think that we can just change what the author said. We cannot question too much what the author says because If you really believe that the bible is the inspired word of God then it is all the inspired word of God and he meant to say what he meant to say. Regarding the marriage of a wrathful God and a merciful God paul answers that for us is Romans 9:22-23 “What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath- Prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory.” I do appreciate what you are saying though and it does make you think because Christ came to fulfill the law, but I believe that, and I came to this conclusion after much thinking,writing and praying, that Christ came to fulfill the payment of death and that is how he fulfilled the law. Once again thank you for making me think.

    • Sorry a little clarification on that first statement. I do think that we need to look at things in new ways and see what God is trying to communicate but not read things that are not there.

    • Dustinlnz, I fear that you may have missed my sarcasm concerning the last verse. I’m actually making your point: that we must believe what the Bible says and not substitute our own peculiar doctrine, thus it was because God loved the world that He did what He did through Christ and not because He detested it. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

    • Dear Dustinlnz, your opinion is most interesting, for sure, but I am afraid that yours is a bleak theological landscape to which I cannot subscribe. On the first point you have said that ‘we cannot question too much what the author says.’ The logical conclusion of this would be that the God who created our intellect requires of us that we do not use it when it comes to questions of its maker. This is an absurdity, and this I cannot do. In support of this you have claimed that there has been an attempt to change what the author has said. I shall presume this was the passage quoted by Eric from the Gospel of Saint John (St. John 3:16). Eric quoted this, “God so loved the world that He sent His only Son…” The author wrote, “*Οὕτως γὰρ *ἠγάπησεν *ὁ θεὸς *τὸν κόσμον, *ὥστε *τὸν υἱὸν *τὸν μονογενῆ *ἔδωκεν…” Let us break this down; *Therefore *he loved *the God *the world *that *the son *the begotten *he gave.

      This last verb may be a cause for concern; ‘ἔδωκεν,’ (third person, aorist active, indicative and singular) — he gave, he bestowed, he sent, he presented. So my finding here is that there is no problem with the ‘translation’ provided by the author. We must now ask why God ‘gave,’ ‘bestowed,’ ‘sent,’ or ‘presented’ his begotten (no ‘only’ in the Koine) son. Was it that he would die ‘for’ us and so give propitiation for our sins? Or was it a divine act of solidarity; that God in Christ would be ‘with’ us in our suffering? Well the answer may be found in Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans. He writes: “For God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died ‘for’ us (Rom 5:8 NRSV).” Here, in ‘translation’ it would appear that you are correct; Jesus did die on our behalf. Sadly, this is not what Paul wrote (he did not speak or write in English).

      The preposition ‘for’ in the verse above is the Greek word ‘ὑπὲρ,’ meaning ‘for’ or ‘with.’ This gives us an alternative; Jesus died ‘for’ us (a propitiation) or he died ‘with’ us (an act of solidarity). You may have to turn to the Nativity story for the authors’ intended meaning. “Look, the young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, ‘God *with* us.'” Well, I think there you have my answer. There was no error in the translation nor in the intention of the author.

    • I think that you misread what I was trying to say. As I said in my clarification comment that I think it is important to study scripture and develop theology. If there had been no use of intellect the reformation would never have happened and there would not be the gospel as we know it today but a propaganda. So I do realize the importance of using intellect and I get something new out of the scriptures every day. I tried to clarify that I do think it is very important that we use our minds and not just read what is on the surface but analyze and pull truths from the scripture that are below the surface level. I was just trying to convey that that we cannot say “or did the author mean to say” because we are not the author and the author wrote what they wrote for a purpose. Because “with” and “for” are prepositions that show a connotation of love. God sending his son to die “with us” or “for us” does not show a God that detests us but a God that loves his children and did not want his flock to go astray.

    • Au contraire, there is a real difference between ‘for’ and ‘with,’ and we can attempt to get inside the mind of the author. A God who sends his Son to die ‘for’ humanity is quite obviously a God who demands human sacrifice (Jesus is fully human). A God who in Christ dies with us (Jesus is fully God) is a God who shares with us our burden in love. There is a cosmos of difference. It is not my intention to fall out with you, so do not see in this me being mean. I wish only to show the logical ends of what you are saying.

      Furthermore, you make the rather insulting suggestion that we would not have the gospel as we know it today had it not been for the Reformation(s). Does this mean that the codices of the New Testament held by the Orthodox and the Catholic Church were somehow wrong? I believe that Tyndale, Wycliffe and Luther all translated from the Vulgate of the Catholic Church. Did they change it to make it better in any way? I doubt that you intended any insult, but I would urge you to review this comment.

    • Yet having Christ die for us was still an act of love in that he took our place. And I am sorry once again for any lack in clarity. I am saying nothing of the scriptures but of people who did not accept what the spiritual leaders at the time were showing to the people. That they wanted the whole scripture spread not just a selection, or the whole scripture but purposefully in a language not understood by the masses. I was making a comment about using intellect to retrieve truth from scripture.

    • Dustinlnz, may I submit to you that Christ died in our place, not in the sense of taking the wrath of God on our behalf, but rather to reconstitute human nature with the “image of God” that was lost in the fall. Christ’s sacrifice was a “turning back” to God that none of us could have accomplished in our own effort. When we are baptized in Christ we are baptized into His death – His death accomplished our returning to God, our healing, our changing from death to life, and we are raised in His life. Christ did not perform the act of a “body-double” on our behalf to be tortured and killed by the Father who needed innocent blood in order to be placated (a doctrine the ancient pagan Mayan would have been just fine with). And let us not overlook the small deal about Jesus being God. If God placates Himself with His own torture and death we have perhaps the most confusing and bizarre of faiths.

    • Yes this was an act of love much in the same way that strangling the pet dog is to show the beloved children what could have happened to them. I am very sorry, but I don’t buy this theology.

  4. Will you touch on the LXX use of hilasterion, that is, as the place of expiation/propitation (the “mercy seat”)? The imagery used of the Tabernacle/Temple, especially in its Levitical context, makes some astounding insights possible: why did God require sacrifice in the first place? Out of anger or out of love (I opt, and I think Leviticus opts, for the second)? etc.

    It is a fruitful discussion — thanks for starting it off.


    • Russ, you’re going to ruin my surprise. 🙂 Yes, I’ll be arguing that both the Hebrew/Jewish and the Eastern Orthodox understanding of hilasterion is that of expiation (i.e. to purge or remove sin), and take it a step further to show that Christ ‘s expiation work is the work of love, that of the Great Physician – of healing. Which is a notion that is 1000 miles away from placating or appeasing God, as popularly believed in the west.

  5. I’ll be interested to follow this, as we’ve had some discussions regarding it. You know my thing – the Bible’s view is always more complex and interesting than our attempts to “say” what was happening in the cross of Christ, and anything that drives us back to a fresh reading of Scripture is a good thing.

    Interestingly, Pope Benedict translates “hilasterion” exclusively as “expiation” in his Jesus of Nazareth series, and he’s pretty “Western”, dontcha think? 😉

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  7. I remember hearing in a sermon once (not Orthodox) that in the Old Testament Jews used to sacrifice a goat to God once a year as Atonement for their sins and Christ came to fulfill that role in the New Testament for mankind – He became our scapegoat. Is this accurate?

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  10. There is both a sacrifice for propitiation and the goat sent out for expiation. I don’t see how you can leave out one of those aspects when you come to the meaning of the atonement.

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