August 21, 2016

Which Is Explanatorily Prior: Propitiation or Expiation?

Dear Dr. Craig,

I have been following your "Join Me In My Study" video series on the doctrine of the atonement. In the second and third videos, you distinguish between two functions of the Levitical sacrifices: propitiation and expiation. I see a potential conceptual problem here and would love to get your thoughts on it. It seems that expiation renders propitiation superfluous. If expiation entails that Israel's sin is expunged, why the need for propitation? God's wrath will not be triggered by the sins of the people, because their sins have been wiped away.

A similar problem may arise in the opposite direction, also. If propitiation occurs, why the need for expiation? God is appeased by the propitiatory sacrifices despite the uncleansed sins of the people.

Thank you, Dr. Craig.


P.S. Would you ever consider giving a video tour of your study? I am sure many aspiring scholars (including myself) would love to see the organizational habits of a highly efficient scholar like yourself.

United States

Thank you, Hayden, for giving me the chance to promote our newest video outreach via Facebook, “Join Me in my Study”! It was suggested to me that folks might enjoy a short video clip each week sharing what I’m currently studying, and I’ve enjoyed doing these informal, unrehearsed videos.

Your question is one that has puzzled me, too, especially with respect to Christ’s atoning death. In fact, I’ve actually seen evangelical scholars taking opposite views on this question, some saying that because God has been propitiated our sin is expiated, and others saying that because our sin has been expiated God is propitiated!

My initial inclination was to take these two aspects of the atonement as two sides of the same coin rather than as hierarchically arranged in an order of explanatory priority. I don’t see this as conceptually problematic. In terms of explanatory priority, one is not before the other; rather they are on the same level. Christ’s atoning death expiates our sin and propitiates God “simultaneously,” as it were.

More recently, I’ve come to think that if we understand propitiation as it is usually understood theologically, not as the turning away of God’s anger, but as the satisfaction of divine justice, then it seems to me that propitiation is, indeed, explanatorily prior to the expiation of our sin. For ask yourself: what is it that annuls my guilt? Why am I no longer guilty before God? The answer is, punishment. Just as a person found guilty by the court and sentenced to, say, ten years' imprisonment is no longer guilty after his sentence has been paid because he has been punished for his crime, so Christ by dying has paid the punishment due me for my sins. Because the penalty has been paid, justice is satisfied and as a result I no longer bear my guilt. My guilt before God has been expiated by punishment. So propitiation is explanatorily prior to expiation.

Expiation cannot be explanatorily prior to the satisfaction of divine justice because apart from punishment nothing has occurred to cancel my sin. One could say, again on the analogy of human criminal justice, that God simply pardoned me and so my sin is expiated. But then Christ’s death becomes irrelevant, and one no longer has a Christian atonement theory. Neither can expiation be on the same explanatory level as propitiation, for it is punishment which satisfies the demands of divine justice, with the result that my guilt is removed.

So I’m inclined to agree with those theologians who say that propitiation (satisfaction of divine justice) is explanatorily prior to expiation (the removal of guilt).

Oh, right, as to my study, I doubt I’ll be giving any tours soon, since it wouldn’t amount to much—though I’m happy to give a prize to the first person who can identify the green, multi-volume set of books that grace the bookshelf behind me. Just go to https://www.facebook.com/reasonablefaithorg/.