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).