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Many Christians believe that Jesus died to appease the anger of God. One reason for this is 1 John 2:2, which says:

And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.

καὶ αὐτὸς ἱλασμός ἐστιν περὶ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ἡμῶν, οὐ περὶ τῶν ἡμετέρων δὲ μόνον ἀλλὰ καὶ περὶ ὅλου τοῦ κόσμου.

Propitiation basically means to appease the wrath of a god through an offering. How did Swedenborg translate ἱλασμός and interpret 1 John 2:2?

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Preface: 1 John 2:2 in Swedenborg's writings

Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) does not comment directly on 1 John 2:2 anywhere in his published or unpublished theological writings.

He does quote 1 John 2:2 in one of his unpublished notebooks, traditionally titled Scripture Confirmations, which served as a specialized Bible concordance for the composition of his final comprehensive work of systematic theology, True Christianity. In that single quotation of the passage, he translates the Greek word ἱλασμός (hilasmos) into the Latin word propitiatio, which is the standard Latin word for "propitiation." You can see his original Latin here (it occurs in the fourth line of text), and an English translation here.

Introduction: Swedenborg's general approach to "propitiation"

Although Swedenborg does not comment directly on 1 John 2:2 anywhere in his theological writings, he does discuss the concept of the propitiation for sins, mostly in his explanation of the meaning of the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant in the ancient Jewish tabernacle, and also in explaining the meaning of various Old Testament sacrifices and rituals of atonement.

Swedenborg largely skips over the traditional Christian theology that had grown up over the centuries around the concept of Jesus as the propitiation for sins. Instead, he draws his explanation of the meaning of this concept directly from the biblical text. And rather than relying upon later Greek- and Roman-derived philosophical concepts of "propitiation," he seems to assume that the use of the Greek word ἱλασμός and its related forms in the New Testament draw their meaning primarily from the terms in the Hebrew Bible that are commonly translated in the Septuagint using various forms of ἱλασμός—and that this Old Testament usage is the primary referent of the term ἱλασμός as used in the New Testament. The writers of the (Greek) New Testament drew heavily on the Septuagint, which was a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures produced two or three centuries before the birth of Christ.

To understand Swedenborg's interpretation of Jesus as "the propitiation for our sins" as used in 1 John 2:2, then, it will be necessary to delve into the Hebrew word כָּפַר (kaphar) and its derivatives, which are the words most commonly translated in the Septuagint as ἱλασμός and its derivatives, and which therefore provide the primary meaning of ἱλασμός as used in the New Testament.

This we will do below. But first we must cover Swedenborg's view of the traditional Christian understanding of Christ as a propitiation for our sins.

Swedenborg rejected the traditional notion of propitiation as appeasing the wrath of God the Father

Swedenborg was aware of, but rejected, the traditional philosophically-based interpretation of "propitiation" as meaning to appease the wrath of God the Father through the literal shedding of blood and death of the Son of God on the Cross. In Apocalypse Explained, his massive unfinished and unpublished exegesis of the Book of Revelation, he comments on the traditional Christian belief about the meaning of propitiation for sins:

In respect to the first proposition, "That there is propitiation, that is, a propitiation of God the Father by the passion or by the blood of His Son." This involves a rejection or alienation of the human race because of some anger or vengeance, that is called vindictive justice, which was laid upon His Son by God the Father, to the end that by the passion of His cross He might be reconciled to the human race, and thus be propitiated. But who does not see that for God the Father to reject from Himself the human race, or from justice to revenge their alienation, is contrary to the Divine essence itself, which is love itself, mercy itself, and goodness itself? Such vengeance, indeed, could not exist in any angel, and scarcely with any well disposed man, much less with God. Who does not also see that it is difficult to think that such vengeance was laid upon the Son by His Father, or that the Son took such vengeance upon Himself, and that God the Father has mercy from seeing or recalling this, and not from the Divine love itself, which in its essence is infinite, eternal, and immediate towards the whole human race? I do not know, therefore, whether anyone can think from God and with God that he has been rejected of God, and therefore that by the will of the Father the Son was condemned, and was thereby made a propitiatory and a throne of grace. Moreover, justice is a Divine attribute, but not vindictive justice, and still less can it be in one on another's account; and if it is not justice neither is it according to Divine order for one to be saved on another's account, though it may be by means of another. Nor can God be reconciled by any other means than by the repentance of the man himself. To be saved by means of the Lord, and also by means of the passion of His cross, thus by the Lord, is propitiation and expiation, as will be seen in what follows. (Apocalypse Explained #805:3)

The primary points Swedenborg makes here in rebutting the traditional Christian divine wrath- and justice-based concept of "propitiation" are these:

  • It is contrary to the nature of God's love, mercy, and goodness for God to reject humanity.
  • It is contrary to the nature of God's love, mercy, and goodness for God to execute vengeance upon God's Son.
  • God's infinite love and mercy go out directly to the entire human race.
  • Divine justice is never vindictive justice.
  • Divine justice does not save one person due to the actions of another person (in this case, the Son of God), although that other person may be the means of saving the person.
  • The only way for a human being to be reconciled to God is for that person to repent from his or her sins.

Atonement in the Old Testament

As stated in the Introduction above, Swedenborg draws the meaning of "propitiation" primarily from its usage in the Hebrew Bible.

Although there are a two or three Hebrew words that are translated into English as "propitiation" and "expiation," the most common one by far is כָּפַר (kaphar).

כָּפַר is a Hebrew root word whose primary, concrete meaning is "to cover over." Its first use in the Hebrew Bible is in the story of the building of Noah's ark:

Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. (Genesis 6:14, italics added)

Here the Hebrew word for "cover" is a form of כָּפַר. And in a play of words not reproducible in English translation, the Hebrew word for "pitch" is כֹּֽפֶר (kopher), "pitch" being something that covers things over. This gives a sense of the original, concrete meaning of the relevant Hebrew word.

It is from this concrete meaning of כָּפַר that it derives its more figurative and abstract meanings: "to expiate or condone, to placate or cancel:—appease, make an atonement, cleanse, disannul, forgive, be merciful, pacify, pardon, purge (away), put off, (make) reconcile(-liation)" (from Strong's definition of כָּפַר).

The original meaning of the Hebrew word, then, does not point to the appeasement of an angry God, but rather to God "covering over" sins, which is a Hebrew idiom for forgiving sins out of mercy. It also has the sense of purging or cleansing away sins.

This leads to Swedenborg's understanding of "propitiation" in the Old Testament and in the Bible generally.

The mercy seat, or propitiatorium

Swedenborg's most extensive discussion of "propitiation" comes in his exegesis of the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant, whose description first appears in Exodus 25:17–22. Here is the first half verse of that description:

Then you shall make a mercy seat of pure gold. (Exodus 25:17)

The Hebrew word here translated "mercy seat" is כַּפֹּרֶת (kapporeth), which is derived from the Hebrew word כָּפַר.

The common Latin translation of this word, which Swedenborg uses in his exegesis, is propitiatorium (see the Vulgate translation of this verse), which, obviously, is derived from the Latin word for "propitiation."

Swedenborg's exegesis of the mercy seat

This, then, is Swedenborg's key reference in the Bible for his explanation of the meaning of "propitiation" throughout the Bible. Here is the opening summary from Secrets of Heaven (Arcana Coelestia) #9506, where Swedenborg comments on the first half of Exodus 25:17. (For his full exegesis, click the number link just above.)

"And you shall make a mercy-seat from pure gold" means the hearing and reception of all things that belong to worship arising from the good of love. This is clear from the meaning of "the mercy-seat" as the cleansing from evils or forgiveness of sins, consequently the hearing and reception of all things that belong to worship, dealt with below; and from the meaning of "gold" as the good of love. (Secrets of Heaven #9506, italics added)

He then goes on to speak in more detail about the meaning of the mercy seat as hearing and receiving everything related to worship because God spoke to Moses and the priests from between the cherubim on the mercy seat. And he states that only people who have been cleansed from evils and sins can hear and receive these things from God, as symbolized by the requirement that Aaron, the high priest, engage in rituals of purification and atonement before entering the Most Holy Place where God would speak to him from between the cherubim.

So in Swedenborg's theology, the primary meaning of "propitiation" draws on the key meaning of the original Hebrew words, in which "to cover over" is taken as a metaphor for mercy and forgiveness of sins, which happens only when worshipers of God repent from their sins according to God's commandments, and are thus cleansed from their sins by God.

For additional passages in which Swedenborg comments on the meaning of "propitiation" in relation to sacrifices for atonement prescribed in the Old Testament, see Secrets of Heaven ##10122, 10124, 10127.

Swedenborg's general understanding of "propitiation"

Here is Swedenborg's brief summary of the meaning of "propitiation" and other traditional Christian concepts that are related to sacrificial worship in the Old Testament:

Sacrifices and burnt offerings in general served to mean the regeneration of a person by means of the truths of faith in the Lord and forms of the good of love to Him, both received from the Lord . . . . The pardoning of sins, expiation, propitiation, and redemption are nothing other than purification from evils and falsities, the implantation of goodness and truth, and the joining together of these, which is regeneration. (Secrets of Heaven #10042:5)

"Regeneration" here means spiritual rebirth, or in New Testament terms, being born again. Swedenborg saw this as a process that involved repenting from our sins, reforming our desires, thoughts, and actions, and becoming a new person motivated by God's love, guided by God's truth, and doing good deeds for our fellow human beings ("the neighbor," in biblical terms) from the power of God's love and truth flowing through us.

So although Swedenborg does use the traditional word "propitiation," his understanding of it is not derived from traditional Christian theology, nor from the more philosophical definitions of it that have developed over the centuries, but rather from the key words and passages in the Bible itself that define the concept.

These key words are occasionally used in the Bible to speak of appeasing someone's wrath, such as in the story of Jacob reuniting with his estranged brother Esau in Genesis 32:1-21, 33:1-17, as seen specifically in this verse:

For he [Jacob] thought, "I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterwards I shall see his face; perhaps he will accept me." (Genesis 32:20)

However, these words are used far more often in the sense of forgiving sins out of mercy. And it is this primary meaning that Swedenborg draws upon in his understanding of "propitiation."

And he insists that although God does indeed forgive all of our sins out of pure love and mercy, the only way we can receive that forgiveness is to repent from our sins and live a new life of love and service to our fellow human beings, as Jesus Christ and the entire Bible command us to do.

Summary and conclusion

"Propitiation," as Emanuel Swedenborg understands it, has nothing to do with appeasing the supposed wrath of God the Father at our sins, as understood in traditional Christian theology. So it does not mean God being appeased by the shed blood and the death of his Son on the Cross.

There is no need for such appeasement, Swedenborg says, since such wrath and vengeance cannot be attributed to a God of pure love and mercy. God's "wrath" and "vengeance," when encountered in the Bible are, rather, metaphors for how God's love strikes people who are in opposition to it because they are actively engaging in evil desires, thoughts, and actions. For more on this, please see my article, "What is the Wrath of God? Why was the Old Testament God so Angry, yet Jesus was so Peaceful?"

Instead, Swedenborg says, "propitiation" has to do with God "covering over" our sins, meaning forgiving them out of pure love and mercy—which forgiveness we receive when we repent from our sins and live a good life instead, as God commands us to do throughout the entire Bible, both Old Testament and New.

And this, Swedenborg says, we cannot do by our own power, but only from the power of the Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ working in us and through us—as Jesus himself said:

I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)

  • Excellent answer Lee. I have come to agree with this interpretation as well. A merciful covering of our sins. Check out Luke 18:13. +1 for you, +1 for Swendenborg, and answer accepted! – anonymouswho Feb 1 '17 at 1:40

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