You probably know the story of the Trojan War. It is a war best known for how it ended.
The legend goes that after 10 years of trying to break into the City of Troy the Greeks finally gave up. Or it appeared so. What they really did was pull off a grand deception. The Greeks built a large wooden horse and packed the inside with Greek warriors. They rolled the horse up to the gates of Troy and left it as a gift. The Trojans bit down hard on the bait. The Trojans believed horses were sacred and this over-sized equus even came with an inscription, dedicating it to the goddess Athena.
There was another reason the Trojans took the horse as a gift. After it was delivered, the entire Greek fleet sailed away out of sight. It appeared they had given up the fight. So the Trojans pulled the horse inside the city walls and celebrated. They celebrated the end of the war in good Irish fashion, falling into a drunken sleep. In the night, Greek warriors climbed down out of the horse and captured the city, burning it to the ground. That is how the Trojan War ended.
But how did the Trojan war begin? Well the war started after a Prince kidnapped a Princess. The Prince was from the city of Troy. His name was Paris. The Princess he stole was a Greek. Her name was Helen. Paris brought Helen to the city of Troy and there he married her. Her Greek husband, however, the King of Sparta, was not going to stand by quietly. He sent a force of a thousand ships to recover Helen from Troy. The General set in charge over that enormous fleet was Agamemnon, the King’s brother.
While sailing to the City of Troy, something horrific happened. A gruesome deed was committed against General Agamemnon’s daughter. It was a gruesome deed that occurs hundreds of times in myths like this and has happened hundreds-of-thousands of times in human history upon the altars of pagan religions. Agamemnon’s daughter was slaughtered to satisfy angry gods, slaughtered by her own father. The Greek fleet had run into a dead sea, no wind. So Agamemnon sent for his daughter and ceremonially sacrificed her to appease the anger of the gods. The winds were restored and the fleet sailed to Troy.
Now here’s the most interesting thing: there is a word the Greeks used to describe what Agamemnon did when he sacrificed his own daughter to the gods. It is the word propitiation. To propitiate means to satisfy wrath. In the pagan religions throughout human history the gods were constantly losing their temper. They would get jealous or offended by human actions then, in anger, they would withhold some human necessity — rain, wind, crops, offspring. To appease the anger of the gods, to satisfy it, a sacrifice of propitiation was required. There must be blood.
As you might know, propitiation is not exclusively found in pagan religions. In Romans 3 Paul says: "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins" (Rom. 3:23-25).
There it is. At the heart of the Christian message is a blood sacrifice, a propitiation, that was required to satisfy the wrath of God. At the heart of the Christian message is a bloody deed, a propitiation, that appears to put Christianity in league with the pagan religions. And that does not make things so easy for the Christian message in the 21st century - or many before it.
When people discover that the core teaching of Christianity is a blood sacrifice, a propitiation, they hear it just the way you hear the legend of Troy. It is an interesting story. It is a gripping tale. There’s even a beauty to it, in a dark sort of way. But ultimately, for many people who have been exposed to the ancient blood myths, the Christian gospel is just another one. "It is a story that explains the ignorant people of the past," they say, "but we certainly don’t need it to explain life now. Maybe we should learn some lessons from it, but let us not go so far as to say we have faith in it, that we have faith in this ancient blood sacrifice."
On contrary, we should go that far. We must. We must go so far as to cast all faith, hope, and love before this blood sacrifice, the propitiation of Jesus Christ. Even though his blood sacrifice stands conceptually near the sacrifices of pagan religions, most significantly is how far it stands above them. Christian propitiation is not just another blood sacrifice in the tradition of Agamemnon’s daughter. Let me show you why with three reasons.
(1) In the pagan religion the gods need to be propitiated because they are regularly losing their tempers. For example, the reason the winds failed for Agamemnon on his way to Troy is because the goddess Diana was upset. Agamemnon had boasted that he was a better hunter than the gods so Diana stopped the winds. In Christian propitiation, God is not a moody, vindictive, ill-tempered juvenile deity. His anger is not so human as that of the Greek gods! The anger of the one true and living God, his wrath rather, is a pure and determined steady resolution against evil and all that lacks conformity to his holy law. Almighty God does not suffer the unpredictable spikes of pettiness so common among mortals.
(2) In the pagan religions man must satisfy the anger of the gods himself. There is a strict justice. No substitutions are allowed. Those who have offended must also be those who propitiate. In Christian propitiation God himself takes the responsibility of propitiating his own wrath. Man does not have in his possession or in his person a sacrifice sufficient enough to satisfy God’s wrath. Man does not have a blood pure enough to satisfy God’s wrath. What is required is a Lamb that is without blemish or defect (Hebrews 9:14). Only God has such a Lamb - the eternal Son born of the virgin Mary - and God has gladly presented him as a propitiation, a sacrifice of atonement, a substitute (2 Cor. 5:21). As John Stott said: “God himself gave himself to save us from himself.” Propitiation in paganism, on the other hand, is just another work of man.
(3) In the pagan religions after the deed of propitiation has been done, the mood of the gods change, yet the gods are still moody by nature, just like the humans who worship them. No one knows the next time their anger will be stirred. In Christian propitiation, God is not changed at all in his character or purpose because of the propitiation. God's gracious character and redemptive purpose was set from before the creation and before the fall (Eph. 1:4; Rev. 13:8). This is most notably demonstrated in that God took the initiative in propitiating his own wrath (#2 above). He was already covenantally and graciously determined to redeem his elect from condemnation through Christ. So God was not brought to a new mood toward man through Christ’s propitiation. Christ’s blood sacrifice revealed and accomplished in time that which God was determined to do before time - manifest his love for the elect, his justice upon evil, and his glory in the Son.
So there we have at least three reasons to see the distinctions between pagan blood myths and the Christian faith. What we have not done is traced the historical record to demonstrate the borrowing the pagan myths have done from the atonement practice found in ancient pre-Israel and fully matured in Christ crucified. That tracing is quite complex and not a straight line. It is homework worth doing. But what we have above is more immediately useful to the important task of demonstrating that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is no god like the gods of men made by men in man's image.