It has taken a long time for this to sink in for me, to unwind the mental structures developed in my mind since the earliest days of childhood, but – the Orthodox Church does not teach substitutionary atonement. I guess I have known this somewhere in my mind for a few years, but it finally sunk in during a sermon a few months ago. Despite this fact, the lack of substitutionary atonement theology in the Orthodox Church is one of my biggest reasons for converting.
Substitutionary atonement, in general, is the belief that because of our sin God needed to punish us, to carry out his murderous wrath…but because God is so full of love for humanity, he sent his own Son to earth to take the punishment of His wrath instead. (Please note that I am not a theologian and I did just note that there are at least eight different versions of this Protestant belief on Wikipedia.)
The thing is…substitutionary atonement does not make any sense to me! Why would God, a good loving God, a God who is always the same, and unchanging be so filled with his uncontrollable and inconsolable wrath for His beloved creation that He wants to punish them all with death? But instead, God decides to send His Son to earth to take the punishment for us? How is this good news? Aside from the fact that we have learned that the sovereign power of the universe has found a way to control His anger and wrath? Honestly, I find it utterly confusing. I find it inconsistent with a loving God and the loving God our hearts desire, The Loving God who put that desire there for us. The God of substitutionary atonement seemed mean and erratic to me, and consequentially, everything else about my faith seemed more trivial.
“Well, see there is God and he created the earth and Adam and Eve sinned, so we are all sinners…and we all sin now, so God wants to punish us, but instead of punishing us, he decided to punish His Son, and I don’t know why he did it this way, but this seems to be the ticket out of hell…so okay, I’ll go along with that, because I sure don’t want to go to hell. And while I’m at it, I’ll try to stop sinning, even though I’m already saved, because I love God, even though, to be honest, I don’t really like Him.”
Honestly, I think that was my understanding of the Protestant gospel for a long time. I know there are Protestants with a more robust understanding of this sort of atonement (or some that hold the Orthodox view), but this was my basic understanding prior to my conversion to Eastern Orthodox Christianity – and… I had been raised going to church.
Like most things in Orthodoxy, I can’t say, well we don’t believe in this, but we believe in that and have that be the explanation. Everything in Orthodox theology ties together, creating a beautiful story of a “Hero saving the day. “
My new understanding of the Good News, as briefly as possible:
God created the heavens and the earth. God created man. Adam and Eve were the first two humans. They sinned out of their complete free will and were cast out of the Garden. Because of their sinful actions, they could no longer be in Divine Communion with God. Prior to them sinning, there were going to live forever with God in Paradise. After sinning, they faced their mortality. (In the Orthodox understanding, the wages of sin is death, literally.) From then on, all humans die (and after death, go to Heaven or Hell since the time of Christ’s death and resurrection). Humans are not born guilty of Adam and Eve’s sin, deserving of immediate death at birth, but are born with a fallen sin nature inclined to sin, doomed to be alienated from God forever, while on earth and in the afterlife. (Not because of God’s wrath, but because we are fallen humanity and incapable of being in Divine Communion with God. Think even of two puzzle pieces that used to fit together, but no longer do, unless the faulty puzzle piece is remedied.) Humanity has become fallen and distorted. Christ died for all of humanity and desires that all be saved. Christ died to redeem our sinful nature. We can either accept or reject the gift of salvation through following Christ or not following Him. When we are baptized, we are cleansed of the consequences of ancestral sin (from the youngest newborn to the oldest adult) and as we take Holy Communion we partake of the Divine Nature of Christ literally – healing our souls and bodies from the sickness of sin, so that Lord willing, we sin less and less as we age and learn to live more fully. Thus, why we sing, “God Grant you Many Years” at Birthdays and Names Days.
Now, this make sense!! This sounds like a loving God. Humanity is under a spell of sin. In the Orthodoxy understanding, sin is a sickness…a spell…a curse. It hurts. Its painful. Its hurt us. It hurts others. We are lonely, cold, and alone. Christ came to earth to save all of us! Not just so we “don’t go to hell”, but so that we can be healed from our sin, starting today, and start to become healthy, more fully human, and truly live.
When we partake of Communion, we are partaking of The Antidote to the illness of sin of the soul and body. Sometimes I think of Baptism like being saved from a deadly car accident and the Sacraments following that, like the physical therapy needed afterwards.
I also think of the scene I saw in a Wonderworks version of Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when Aslan (who respresents God in the story) breathes on the people who had been turned to statue and then turned to life again. This picture story has always helped me wrap my mind around the Orthodox Christian take on atonement.
When I think of the Orthodox Christian Gospel, the ancient Gospel of The Bible, the term Good News finally makes sense. I understand better why God is love, why Song of Solomon is in the Bible, why Christ is called the Bridegroom and the Church is the Bride.
Lastly, I would like to apologize for anything I have written that is not theologically sound on the Orthodox or the Protestant side. I am still learning to grasp Orthodox beliefs and I can only speak from my limited experience in the Protestant world.
May the Lord be with you!