We continue to work through, psychologically and theologically, the Christological sections of the Apostles' Creed. We've considered two of the four doctrines I set out to review: The Imitation of Christ (Jesus as "Lord" and "Judge") and the Incarnation ("born of the Virgin Mary"). In this post we take up the doctrine of the atonement: "Was crucified."
There is little doubt that the early Christians viewed the death of Jesus in sacrificial terms, mainly through the Hebrew Day of Atonement. According to Leviticus 16 the High Priest would slaughter a goat as a "sin offering" and then sprinkle the blood on the Mercy Seat, the cover of the Ark of the Covenant. The word for "Mercy Seat" comes from the Hebrew kapporeth which means "cover." The notion of "cover" is twofold, being both a literal cover and also the place where the sins of Israel were "covered" over.
The Hebrew kapporeth comes down to us as hilasterion in the New Testament Greek. Hilasterion is the word that is translated as "atonement." Hilasterion has many shades of meaning. Two of the most common meanings are propitiation and expiation. Propitiation refers to making something propitious: something that was an object of wrath or judgment is now considered in a favorable light. Often this is accomplished via appeasement. Expiation refers to making amends or the compensation for a wrong done.
All in all then, hilasterion has two shades of meaning: Appeasement to make something favorable (propitiation) and making amends for a wrong done (expiation). No single word in English captures both of these meanings. "Reconciliation" comes close, but William Tyndale coined the word "atonement" to create a theological term in English that could capture the shades of meaning inherent in hilasterion and kapporeth. Some scholars have contended that "atonement" may be the only significant theological term that is of English origin.
As many of you know, there is great debate about the doctrine of atonement. Again, it seems clear in the New Testament that the early church did view Jesus' death sacrificially. The modern debate swirls around the theology one believes is sitting behind the New Testament metaphor of sacrifice. How, exactly, does Jesus' death function as "atonement"? For example, one need not posit a wrathful God requiring blood sacrifice to be "appeased." In fact, for the first thousand years of the church the sacrifice of Jesus was seen as appeasing the forces of evil rather than God. Further, in the New Testament era the word hilasterion also had liberative connotations. Consider the close parallels between Maccabees 4 17.20-22 and Romans 3.24-26
Romans 3.23-26The Maccabees were a group of Jewish rebels who were successful in freeing parts of occupied Israel. Many were martyrs. In short, the Maccabees were liberating freedom fighters, many dying as heroic martyrs. These martyrs were a "sacrifice" that purified Israel, but there is no wrathful God demanding these sacrifices to be "appeased." Jesus' death can be seen in a similar light, a martyr's death that purifies humanity via a liberation from the forces of evil. No vengeful God is needed.
...for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement [hilasterion], through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
Maccabees 4 17.20-22
These, then, who have been consecrated for the sake of God, are honored not only with this honor, but also by the fact that because of them our enemies did not rule over our nation, the tyrant was punished and the homeland purified--they having become, as it were, a ransom for the sin of our nation. And through the blood of those devout ones and their death as an atoning sacrifice [hilasterion], divine Providence preserved Israel that previously had been mistreated.
Regardless, many people do, evangelicals in particular, believe in what is called penal substitutionary atonement. This is the view that humans, due to their sinfulness, stand under a "death sentence" before a holy God of justice. Jesus takes on this penalty, dying in our place. This "substitution" (Jesus' life traded for my own) makes atonement, bringing peace between God and the person.
In the chapter I wrote I noted the curious psychology involved with penal substitutionary atonement. Specifically, its a potent mix of guilt and gratitude. Which, I think, is why penal substitutionary atonement has such broad appeal. You swing from deep guilt ("I am personally responsible for the death of Jesus.") to deep gratitude ("But Jesus died for me."). It's this whiplash swing of emotions that sets up some of the sadomasochistic indulgences surrounding the cross of Jesus. That is, the more pain Jesus suffers due to my sinfulness the greater the subsequent catharsis of gratitude. The more pain Jesus suffers is all the more pain I've been spared. And if Jesus suffered enormously my relief at avoiding this fate is so much the greater. This is the psychological engine behind a movie like The Passion of the Christ, the emotional escalation of guilt and gratitude which grows more and more intense the more that Jesus suffers.
It's kind of like a theological narcotic. The greater the dose the more intense your high which makes you want more and more.