Not long ago a well-intentioned woman sent me correspondence dealing with an annulment for which she was applying. In the correspondence was a short tract put out by her Church (non-Catholic) that cited several Scripture verses emphasizing that all humanity is sinful but that Christ is the propitiation for human sin. In the correspondence, she explained that she was applying for an annulment for the sake of her current husband but that she believed that Christ was the propitiation for sin and that forgiveness was through Christ. She misunderstood the purpose of an annulment, as it has nothing to do with forgiveness but rather determining if a person is free to marry considering Matthew 19.
However, I found her discussion of Christ as propitiation for sin quite interesting and it got me thinking about the different emphases among various religious traditions about the dynamics of our relationship with God through Christ. The process is essentially the same across all major Christian traditions, though different traditions tend to emphasize different aspects of the process.
In ancient times, many cultures thought of the supernatural world in ways very similar to the world of everyday life. It could be wonderful and at other times very dangerous. Like this world it was inhabited. Spirits lived in the supernatural world. They were the spirits of human beings who had died on Earth, as well as the spirits of animals and even beings that had never incarnated on Earth. Some spirits were good, others were evil and still others were not particularly good but neither were they particularly evil. The idea of an all-powerful God, like the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam had not yet developed.
In those days religion was about not offending the inhabitants of the spirit world, getting back in their good graces if you did offend them and getting their help in dealing with the problems of life. They were sort of like neighbors or relatives that were part of your social network and with whom you had to learn to live.
Human societies grew more complex and urbanized as agriculture developed; so did the understanding people have about the supernatural. Just as kings and queens had developed in human society, people believed that there were powerful spirit beings who were not just local spirits but divine beings who had vast power over the winds, ocean, and the fate of nations. These kings and queens of the supernatural were considered gods.
The myths of these ancient societies describe these gods as fighting among themselves much of the time and not particularly interested in the goings on of human beings. However, they had responsibilities for their various realms, as did human kings and queens, and if they neglected their responsibilities disaster could follow for humans. If the gods didn’t send the rains because they were too caught up in their own adventures, there would be a drought and people would perish for lack of food and water. While it was still an important part of their belief system to avoid offending the gods, get in their good graces again if the gods were offended and get their help with the everyday problems of life, reminding the gods to do their jobs was also seen as part of the duty of religion.
People were expected to honor the gods by attending services at their local temple, offering sacrifice, practicing pious rituals in their homes and taking part in civic events, as religion was very much caught up in community life. Attending a local sporting event was often seen as a religious activity, as sporting events usually occurred in a religious context.
Over time moral failures were added to the ways you could offend the gods. Not only were you expected to perform ritual activities but you were also expected to be a person of virtue. It is one thing to attend a sporting event and take part in a few expected rituals. It is a very different thing to be honest in your business dealings, faithful to your spouse, loyal in your commitments and consistently seek the good of others. Rituals demand little of us but virtue makes great demands on our lives.
Given their sense of the difficulty of virtue and their constant failure at meeting this new demand of the gods, it seemed that they constantly needed forgiveness for their failures and to re-establishing a right relationship with the divine. The emphasis in their sense of religious duty was on propitiation; that is, making things right with the divine because of their moral failures.
The Hebrew/Jewish tradition saw this relationship in the context of a covenant agreement between God and humanity. They moved away from an idea of the divine as a polytheistic community and toward the idea of one, all-powerful God. The covenant agreement saw God as acting in history on behalf of the Hebrew/Jewish people. They would be God’s people and God would protect them. Their part of the agreement was to follow the commandments that were given to them by God through Moses. These commandments contained both ritual and moral requirements. Propitiation was an important element of this religious tradition, as both the Jewish people as a nation and as individuals struggled with mixed success to be faithful to the covenant.
By around the first century the situation had gotten so bad that many Jewish people had given up hope that they would be able to remain faithful to the covenant, as they were an oppressed nation living under the yoke of Roman Imperialism. They hoped for a Messiah who would be sent by God to once more intervene in history for the sake of his people. They thought that God would send a military or political Messiah, like King David, who would raise up the Jewish people and free Israel from the yoke of Rome. Over a two-hundred-year period there were about a dozen men who were considered the Messiah. In each case the supposed Messiah failed to take back Israel through military might. Jesus of Nazareth was among those that was thought to be a Messiah, yet he was different in that he didn’t try to raise up an army. His focus was on moral principles, forgiveness, right relationship with God and compassion toward everyone, especially those in need.