Theology & Spirituality

Permuting Atonement Theories: Leviticus 16 as a Typological Foreshadowing

In modern Western theology, we like to think in categories. While these are generally helpful, they can also cause polarization and controversy: Calvinism vs. Arminianism, Dispensationalism vs. Covenant Theology, Complementarianism vs. Egalitarianism, Young Earth Creationism vs. Evolutionary Creationism, and the list could go on. While useful and necessary, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the original writers of the biblical text and their immediate audiences would be strangers to many of these labels. Instead of falling into the extremes of demonizing or over-identifying with these categories, we should be open to hearing from multiple perspectives to understand how they contribute to the discussion.

One issue where this occurs is in debates surrounding Atonement “theories,” which seek to account for what Christ accomplished on the cross. Two prominent models are Christus Victor and Penal Substitution. Christus Victor is the idea that Christ’s death paid a ransom to Satan for sinners. But Christ ultimately defeats the Devil, sin, and death through his Resurrection. Penal Substitution, on the other hand, emphasizes that Christ took the punishment intended for us in order to satisfy God’s wrath towards us.

When one embraces Christus Victor at the expense of Penal Substitution (or vice-versa), it can quickly cause one to lose sight of important biblical themes. Instead of viewing these as separate “models,” perhaps it is better to view them as complementary themes which, when taken together, propel us deeper into the paschal mystery: Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. Interestingly, these two themes are integrated to foreshadow this mystery of the faith in Leviticus 16, in the liturgy for the Day of Atonement.

Leviticus 16 provides instructions for the liturgy of the Day of Atonement. Aaron is to receive a ritualistic washing prior to putting on his priestly vestments. He first sacrifices a bull to the Lord on behalf of his sins and the sins of his household. Then, he takes two male goats from the congregation of Israel and casts lots to determine their fates.

The first goat is to be offered to the Lord as a sin-offering, a sacrifice intended to purge any pollution from Israel’s sanctuary. Its blood would be sprinkled on the mercy seat, “Thus he shall make atonement for the sanctuary, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins; and so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which remains with them in the midst of their uncleannesses” (Leviticus 16:16; NRSV).

Aaron then places his hands on the second goat, transferring the sins of the Israelite community onto the animal. Then he is sent into the wilderness to Azazel, an unclear name that may signify some sort of desert demon. It is interesting that the goat offered to God is pure, but what is offered to this demonic being is laden with the sins of the Israelites, as if the whole thing is making a statement of Israel’s God’s superiority over the demon. But it’s important to note that both themes of the different Atonement “models” are present in this liturgy: satisfaction of God’s demand for purity and some sort of payment to a demonic being.

The reason the Day of Atonement is significant for Christians is because it typologically anticipates the sacrifice made by Christ. Perhaps it’s coincidence, but the casting of lots are also associated with the sacrifice of God’s Son (Matt 27:35; John 19:23). Nevertheless, the author of Hebrews 9:11-14 makes it very clear that Christ fulfills the sacrifice made to God on the Day of Atonement:

But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For it the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!

Christ’s death doesn’t just purify a sanctuary but makes the whole earth God’s Temple, it is God reconciling all things to himself (2 Cor 5:19). This sacrifice is the basis of our justification, according to Romans 3:25-26, “God put forward [Christ Jesus] as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith…it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.”

But what about the goat sent to Azazel? Christ also fulfills that. Scripture uses the term ransom to describe Christ’s death (Mark 10:45; 1 Tim 2:5-6). It begs the question: to whom is the ransom paid? What is he liberating us from? The answer can be found in Hebrews 2:14-15, “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by fear of death.” Just as the goat sent to Azazel was almost a sarcastic gesture, so was Christ’s ransom paid to Satan a statement of his ultimate victory. St. John Chrysostom compares the devil to a tax collector who throws a man in prison who owes no debts.1 Perhaps an even better analogy would be a tax collector throwing the son of the king who employs him into prison. No doubt, the tax collector would lose all legitimacy, his position, and maybe even his life.

Christus Victor provides a cosmic framework by which salvation-history becomes more intelligible. Humanity is not a passive victim. Rather, we actively align ourselves with the dominion of the devil through sin. Christ’s Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection can be understood as the blueprint of a dramatic rescue mission by which he breaks Satan’s power and dominion. If faith has to do with allegiance, as argued by Matthew Bates, then this rescue mission also corresponds with Penal Substitution. Before Christ, we were enemies of God (Rom 5:10; Col 1:21), deserving of his wrath. We were active participants in our own demise, deserving of God’s wrath (Rom 1:18). Thankfully, Christ’s death does satisfy this wrath by enabling us to transfer our allegiance from a kingdom of darkness and death to the kingdom ruled by Christ who “gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2).

Instead of falling into the trap of polarization on the Atonement, it would be beneficial for Christians to consider a permutation of multiple Atonement “models.” It’s unlikely the Early Church would have thought rigidly along such systematic lines. Instead, to develop a more robust theology of Atonement, Christians should draw the major themes out of Scripture into a holistic understanding of what Christ accomplished for us on the cross. The liturgy of the Day of Atonement found in Leviticus 16 looks forward to the ultimate interweaving of these themes in Christ on the cross.

  1. Gustauf Aulen, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement (New York: Collier Publishing, 1969), 51.
Wesley Walker

Wesley Walker

Wesley is from Raleigh, North Carolina. He went to Liberty University for his undergraduate and graduate degrees in Biblical Studies where he was also on the debate team and is working on his STM at Nashotah House Theological Seminary. He currently resides in Annapolis, Maryland and is a priest at St. Paul's Anglican Church (APA). He lives with his wife Caroline, their son Jude, and their dog. He co-hosts The Sacramentalists Podcast.

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