Debates surrounding atonement theology over the last several decades have centered on two terms, propitiation and expiation. Both of these terms describe the function of particular sacrificial rituals. There is not, of necessity, a conflict between the core meanings of these two terms. They have come, however, to be emblematic of entire theological positions regarding the atoning sacrifice of Christ. Clearing away the accumulated theological baggage from these terms, however, allows them to highlight two important elements of the sacrificial system described in the Hebrew scriptures which will, in turn, reveal elements of the Gospels’ portrayal of Christ’s atoning death. Rather than summarizing two incompatible views or options or theories regarding “how atonement works,” these elements, along with others, convey ways of speaking and understanding sacrifice which together produce a rich, full-orbed understanding of what our Lord Jesus Christ has done on our behalf.
Both propitiation and expiation in the scriptures view sin through an ontological lens. It is a thing which exists in the form of a taint, an impurity, similar to a deadly disease. Like a deadly infection, if left uncontrolled it will not only bring death, but will spread throughout the camp in the wilderness, the nation, and the world. While this is true of sin generally, the presence of Yahweh himself in the midst of his people in the tabernacle and later temple elevates this danger. The Day of Atonement ritual, for example, is instituted in Leviticus in response to the fate of Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron who entered into the tabernacle unworthily in their drunken sinfulness and were consumed by the fire of God’s holiness (Lev 10:1-2; 16:1-2).
In fact, the entirety of the commandments of the Torah is a means of dealing with sin and related contamination in order to allow Yahweh to remain in the midst of his people. The failure of Israel and then Judah to follow it results in the departure of Yahweh from the temple and the removal from the people from Yahweh’s land. The internecine debates within Second Temple Judaism primarily surround what must be done vis a vis the Torah and the way of life of the people to correct the resulting situation. The Christian proclamation within this debate is that Yahweh has visited his people in the person of Jesus Christ. Christ has fulfilled the commandments of the Torah (in filling them to overflowing) and accomplished what they, of themselves, could not. While the Torah prescribed a sort of sin management system, Christ has dealt with sin once and for all, so that the commandments of the Torah now function, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to cure the disease of sin and transform human persons into sons of God.
Within this overall system, sacrificial ritual occupies a central place and it is within the sacrificial system that we see principles of propitiation and expiation. Expiation, as a term related to atonement, refers to the removal of sin. The danger to the community posed by sin and its resulting corruption is remedied by the removal of sin from those so contaminated and ultimately its removal from the entire community. It has become popular, due to baggage loaded into the other term, propitiation, for some to argue for expiation as an alternative, meaning that expiation represents the entirety of the function of sacrifice. The direct connection of expiation to sacrificial ritual, however, is tenuous at best. It is not uncommon, for example, for people, even scholars, to shorthand sacrificial practice by saying that before the killing of an animal the priest would place the sins of the offerer, or the people as a whole, upon that animal and then kill it. Unfortunately, this is something which occurs nowhere in the sacrificial system as outlined in the Torah, nor anywhere in the pagan sacrificial rituals of the ancient world for that matter.
The one ritual in which such a thing occurs is within the ritual of the Day of Atonement (as first described in Leviticus 16). Within this ritual, two goats are set apart and lots are cast (v. 7-8). One of these goats is then taken and the high priest pronounces the sins of the people over it (v. 20-22). This goat is not the goat “for Yahweh.” This goat is not sacrificed. In fact, this goat cannot be sacrificed because, bearing the sins of the people upon it, it is now unclean and unfit to be presented as an offering. The goat is so unclean, in fact, that the one who leads it out into the wilderness is himself made unclean by contact with it (v. 26). The goat is sent into the wilderness, the region still controlled by evil spiritual powers as embodied in Azazel, such that sin is returned to the evil spiritual powers who were responsible for its production. This represents the primary enactment of the principle of expiation in Israel’s ritual life, though the principle is found throughout the Hebrew scriptures (eg. Ps 103:12). The New Testament authors see this element of atonement fulfilled in Christ as he bears the sins of the people and is driven outside of the city to die the death of an accursed criminal (as in Matt 27:27-44; Rom 8:3-4; Heb 13:12-13).
A much more widespread concept which falls under the category of expiation is that of purification, purgation, and washing from sin often associated with blood. This is not so much expiation enacted within sacrificial ritual as it is a result of sprinkling or smearing of blood which wipes away sin. This idea is at the core of the terms translated “atonement” in Hebrew itself. As part of the sacrificial offering of the other goat, the goat “for Yahweh,” its blood is drained and is used to purify the sanctuary, the altar, and the rest of the accouterment of the tabernacle (Lev 16:15-19). The annual Day of Atonement ritual takes place in addition to the regular cycle of sin and guilt offerings that take place throughout that year and has, as its key purpose, the cleansing of the sanctuary itself. While sin has been managed through these other offerings, it has left a resulting taint and corruption in the camp which is especially dangerous in the place in which Yahweh himself resides and so this must be purified. Once again, handling this blood which absorbs and removes sin renders the high priest himself contaminated and so he must purify himself before he goes on to offer the rest of the animal to Yahweh (v. 23-24). This element of washing and purification from sin is found throughout the Hebrew scriptures (eg. Ps 51:2, 7), forms much of the basis of the understanding of baptism beginning with that of St. John the Forerunner, and is applied to the operation of the blood of Christ by the New Testament authors (eg. Eph 1:7; Col 1:20; Heb 10:3-4, 19-22; 1 Pet 1:18-19; 1 John 1:7; Rev 1:5).
The term propitiation has been freighted with a great amount of theological baggage. Specifically, it has been used as a sort of synecdoche for the systematic view of penal substitutionary atonement. Many now take it to refer to the appeasement of God’s wrath through the punishment of a substitute for the sins of a person or people. Attempting to import this conceptual whole into the sacrificial system as established in the Torah is simply impossible. Much of the sacrificial does not even involve the killing of an animal. Offerings of the sacrificial system are always food. There is a sacrificial meal involved in which the offerer and those bringing the offering eat and/or drink a portion of the meal while a significant portion, the best, is offered to Yahweh. Animals which are going to be a portion of these offerings and meals are, of course, killed as they would be before being a part of any meal. But there is no attention paid to the mode of their killing by the text of the Torah. Precise details are laid out regarding how they are to be butchered and what is to be done with the various parts of the animal and the cuts of meat. But their killing is not even ritualized. This likewise means that some sort of punishment or suffering on the part of the sacrificial animal is no part of the ritual. Even in the case of whole burnt offerings in which the entirety of the animal is burned and thereby given to Yahweh, it is not immolated alive but is killed first, unceremonially.
Propitiation itself, however, has a much simpler meaning. Literally, of course, it means to render someone propitious, meaning favorably disposed. At its most simple level, it refers to an offering which is pleasing to God. Unlike pagan deities, Yahweh does not require care and sustenance in the form of food from human worshippers. There are, however, significant instances of his sharing of a meal in a literal sense (eg. Gen 18:4-8; Ex 24:9-11; and of course numerous meals shared by Christ in the Gospels). The more common language used in the scriptures for God’s appreciation for his portion of sacrificial meals is that these sacrifices are a pleasing aroma (as in Gen 8:21; Lev 1:9, 13; 2:2; 23:18). This same language is applied to the sacrifice of Christ in the New Testament (as in Eph 5:2 and the Father’s statement that in Christ he is “well pleased”). In the Greek translation of Numbers 10:10, the language of a memorial is used to describe the sin offering as its smoke rises to Yahweh. This language is applied to prayers and almsgiving elsewhere in the scriptures (Ps 141:2; Acts 10:4; Rev 5:8). The party who is being propitiated through atonement may be wrathful toward the one who makes the offering (as, for example, Jacob assumes in Gen 32:21 regarding Esau), but this is not necessitated by the language of propitiation as such.
Understanding the wrath of God as a function of his presence, of his justice and holiness, there is another element of propitiation which is directly relevant to wrath. This is the protective function which sacrificial blood and incense offerings serve in relation to Yahweh’s presence. Part of the Day of Atonement ritual is specifically oriented toward allowing Aaron to enter the most holy place without dying as had his sons (Lev 16:11-14). An obscuring cloud of smoke, as well as the blood of a bull to wipe away the sins of himself and his priestly family, are required because, on that day, Yahweh himself would appear, would make himself present, in that place (v. 2). The blood of the sacrificial lamb, which was utilized as a meal, at the Passover served a similar protective role (Ex 12:21-23). This is not protection from a loving God. Rather, it is a means provided by that loving God to allow sinful human persons to abide in the presence of his holiness. This same sort of protection language is utilized regarding the blood of Christ (eg. Rom 3:24-25; 5:9; Eph 2:13; Heb 10:19-22; Rev 12:11).
Propitiation and expiation, themselves being seen from a variety of perspectives, are inseparable elements of what atonement means in the scriptures. They, along with other elements already and still to be discussed, form the cohesive understanding of Christ’s own sacrifice on the cross. These are not abstract principles, theological rationales or arguments. They are not constructed ideas used to explain mechanisms by which salvation takes place. Rather, they are highlighted moments of experiential reality. The core of Israelite, Judahite, and Judean religion was sacrificial ritual which brought about states of being and consciousness in its participants and the world itself. Ancient people, the first Christians understood the self-offering death of Christ in terms of this lived experience. This post and the others in the present series seek to reestablish access to this experience of God through delineating the shape of that experience for our fathers in the faith.