A few weeks ago I attended a funeral in the south of England. The deceased was a faithful Christian lady who had planned her own funeral with great care. For me the service jarred in one place where the congregation were required to sing the controversial hymn ‘In Christ alone’. This hymn is missing from many hymn books because of the words ‘Till on that cross as Jesus died , the wrath of God was satisfied.’ Many people have found these words upsetting and even offensive, as it implies that God could forgive humankind only through an event of supreme violence – the death of Jesus on the cross.
To understand the theology being put forward in this hymn, we have to recognise that Paul does in fact use the word that is translated as ‘anger’ or ‘wrath’ referring to God as well as another Greek word translated as ‘propitiate’. This use of these words might imply support for the words of the hymn but as we shall see there is far more to be found in the New Testament on the sacrifice and the death of Christ than just these ideas of Paul. Even if we take Paul’s thoughts as normative, scholars have indicated that these word ‘anger’ does not imply, as the English translations do, any suggestion of passion or feeling on the part of God. Also as we shall see below, the word ‘propitiate’ does not imply an averting of anger of a vengeful God.
To go a bit deeper into this question of how Christ’s death can be spoken of as a sacrifice, we need first of all to look at what the early Christians thought about sacrifice and how we can understanding the connections they made between the sacrificial system and the death of Christ. To have this understanding we also have to go back further to see what they inherited from Judaism.
In the Old Testament we find three main types of sacrifice. These are all set out in the Book of Leviticus. In the first place we have what are known as communion sacrifices, eating and drinking in the context of a religious rite of sacrifice. These are not prominent in New Testament times. The second type is the whole burnt offering, an expensive type of offering which seems to have had its origins in the idea of feeding a god. The third type of sacrifice is the one that dominates in the Book of Leviticus – the rite of expiation. Expiation was predominantly about dealing the effects of sin by the use of blood rituals. Blood with its associations with the life-force was believed to be particularly effective in cleansing and purifying human sin. There was here no sense of offering anything to God. The sacrifice was simply complying with an ordinance given by God himself to deal with sin, whether moral or to do with cultic impurity. It is argued by scholars that the word for ‘propitiation’ has a meaning very close to that of expiation.
Alongside these three types of sacrifice were two Jewish feasts of particular importance to early Christian thought and which involved sacrifice – the Passover and the Day of Atonement. The feast of Passover was of course originally associated with the Exodus from Egypt and at its heart involved the use of blood smeared on doorposts to avert the Angel of Destruction. Later the feast became one that had to be celebrated in Jerusalem and thus was the occasion of pilgrimage. By the time of the New Testament the most important part of the ceremony was the celebration of thanksgiving for the Exodus and an occasion for the family to come together.
The Day of Atonement is, according to scholars, a very late festival. The book of Leviticus, where it is described, only came into its present form in the 3rd century BC. The best known part of the ceremony involved the ‘scapegoat’ ceremony, the confessing the sins of the whole community and transferring them onto a goat which was sent off into the desert. The other part of the ceremony takes the High Priest into the Holy of Holies to pray for the entire nation. Once again the efficacy of these rituals arises from the fact that they are rites given to the community by Yahweh for this purpose of removing sin.
What are we to make of the idea that the death of Jesus was in some way a ‘substitute’ for human-kind, a sacrifice that God needed in order to forgive sin? For the ‘substitution’ idea to work, it would have to be shown that there was an understanding that Jesus was like the scapegoat carrying the sins of the world on his shoulders. But the only author to use the imagery of the Day of Atonement is the Epistle to the Hebrews (not written by Paul) and mention of the scapegoat is entirely absent. Hebrews 9.22 reinforces the idea that the shedding of blood and the forgiveness of sins are linked together in this God-given rite and there is no suggestion of ‘satisfying the wrath of God’.
The passages in the Old Testament that best illuminate a link between sacrifice and forgiveness are those describing the Suffering Servant in Isaiah. Here the life of an innocent man (who may represent the whole nation) is described and his life and innocent death are seen as having the power to expiate or wash away sin. God lays the iniquity of all on him so that he becomes a sin offering, which will cleanse the people. The dynamic at work seems to be that an innocent good man can in some way allow his innocent suffering to effect a washing away (expiation) of sin on behalf of others. All through their history the Jews had noticed that sin separated them from God and in these chapters of Isaiah they caught a glimpse of a new way that the suffering of the Exile might be used in some way to effect a washing away of sin. This they linked to the old blood sacrifices of the Temple. Although God allows this suffering, there is nothing to suggest that the Servant is ‘satisfying God’s wrath’ in any sense.
In my first attempt at this blog post I went on in more detail to discuss the Epistle to the Hebrews and the way that he understands the death of Christ to fulfil the Day of Atonement ceremony . But neither the language of Hebrews nor the allusions to Suffering Servant narratives that are picked up in the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper point to the ‘substitutionary sacrifice’ ideas that can be read out of Paul. The conclusion of this blog post is to say that there is not one idea in the New Testament to explain the death of Christ in the language of sacrifice but several. To say that there is one Biblical view on this topic does violence to the Biblical text. For myself I far prefer the Hebrews image of Christ entering heaven with humankind in his train to Paul’s language of anger and propitiation. We have those glorious words that used to be in the Anglican ASB. ‘Since we have a Great High Priest who has passed into the heavens …. let us draw near with confidence with boldness to approach the throne of grace’.
Let us rejoice in the diversity of ideas and images that a close reading of the New Testament gives us to have an insight into the deeper meaning of Christ’s death. The Bible, as I shall never tire of saying, is a far more complex and diverse document than sloganised (ignorant!) preaching would indicate. Let us celebrate this nuance and not be trapped by a preaching that wants to trap us into believing that there is only one way of talking about any particular doctrine. The Bible in fact gives us a glorious diversity of ways of expressing truth.
To return to the theology of the death of Christ, we have, I believe, in the theology of Hebrews a well rounded and coherent symbolic account of its significance. For all its complexity, the book has little truck with the idea that God ‘needs’ a death in order to forgive sin. The idea is also alien to the gospel of St John. Jesus’ words, according to John, sum up a vision close to that set forth in Hebrews. ‘But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.’ The risen ascended Jesus represents humanity and embodies it in himself. Thus he can lift it up to God to be ‘ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven’. That sentiment is a deeply resonant message and could be said to be normative for the whole of the New Testament.
Note: I am taking it as read that Paul is not the author of Hebrews. With 99% of scholars I understand this book to be a theological treatise, probably written in Alexandria in Egypt in around 65 AD. The mention of Paul’s name in the beginning is not of itself evidence of anything, unless you hold on to a theory that all versions of scripture are protected from being corrupted by later editors. I do not hold this view!