Questions & Answers on Atonement

The God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New. To deny God’s condemnation for sin and present Him only as a loving Father sounds appealing, but is not Orthodox at all. To do so would be to promote a form of the heretical doctrine of Marcionism. Marcion considered the God of the Old Testament who punished sin, to be a separate inferior “god” from the loving God of the New Testament.  Marcionism was condemned in the 2nd Century by the Early Church. Below are some common questions and answers in regards to the topic of atonement.

Question: Wasn’t the idea that the cross represented a judgment/punishment for sin which Christ endured as a “substitute” for sinners, absent from the Church before Anselm of Canterbury?

Answer: This is a myth. For the first 1000 years before Anselm, both Eastern and Western Church fathers explained explicitly that Christ bore the “wrath” of God and “curse’ of the Law on behalf of sinners as their “substitute” and “exchange”. The word of “ransom” is repeated in scripture multiple times in regards to our redemption. A ransom denotes an “exchange”– that is to save someone via the exchange or “substitution” of something (or someone) else. The church fathers explained “ransom” to mean that Christ gave his body for our bodies and soul for our souls as an exchange and substitute for all, to satisfy the penalty of death:

“For He did not die as being Himself liable to death: He suffered for us, and bore in Himself the wrath that was the penalty of our transgression, even as Isaiah says, Himself bore our weaknesses.” – St. Athanasius (296 – 373 AD) – Letter to Marcellinus 

“But it was not possible to pay one thing as a ransom in exchange for a different thing on the contrary. He gave body for body, and soul for soul, and a perfect existence for the whole of man : this is Christ’s exchange, which the Jews, the foes of life, insulted at the crucifixion” – St. Athanasius (Contra Apollinarium, 1.17)

Question: Isn’t the Orthodox view that God deals with us as children and not as “criminals” as if in a court room?

Answer: Yes, but we must not forget how we attained this grace of adoption as children of God, and not erroneously deny God’s condemnation for sin, as per the Law. Prior to the cross, sinners were bound by legal ordinances of the Law, subject to curse and condemnation for sin. Prior to the grace of the New Testament, those who blasphemed, committed adultery, cursed parents, etc. were put to death as criminals without mercy under the Law of Moses. This Law was put in place by God. Thus, to argue that God does not punish and only deals with us as children, is to argue that God changes and/or that the God of the Old Testament is not the God of the New Testament. Indeed we are under grace and not under the Law through Christ, but this only the case for those who enjoy the heavenly citizenship by adoption as children of God, through and baptism. But this grace was only given after Christ redeemed sinners from the curse of the Law, having suffered the accursed death of the cross (Galatians 3:13) on their behalf. This was only possible after Christ cancelled “the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross (Colossians 2:13-14).” Prior to this, God “bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” (Romans 11:32). Apart from this grace of adoption, whoever denies Christ, “the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36). St. Athanasius explained that prior to the cross, death gained a “legal” hold over us and it was impossible to evade the law because it was laid down by God for transgression, and God’s word could not be broken:

“For death, as I said above, gained from that time forth a legal hold over us, and it was impossible to evade the law, since it had been laid down by God because of the transgression, and the result was in truth at once monstrous and unseemly. For it were monstrous, firstly, that God, having spoken, should prove false—that, when once He had ordained that man, if he transgressed the commandment, should die the death, after the transgression man should not die, but God’s word should be broken.” — St. Athanasius (On the Incarnation of the Word)

Thus, those who deny the juridical element to our redemption, not only imply that the God of the New Testament is a different God from the God of the Old Testament, but also deny how we were transitioned from the condemnation of the Law to grace, as children of God through Christ. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (John 1:17)

Question: If Christ died “instead of us”, whey do we still die?

Those who deny Christ’s substitutionary death often ask this question rhetorically (as if they have made some brilliant argument): “If Christ died ‘instead’ of us, why do we still die?” But their argument is quickly invalidated simply by turning the same question back on them: “If Christ conquered death by death, why do we still die?” For to persist in denying substitutionary atonement on grounds that we still die physically, would also invalidate belief that Christ conquered death by death, since either way, we still die physically. Yet even if we do still die physically (until the resurrection of our bodies at the Second Coming), the physical death we die is no longer called “death”, but is called “sleep” or departure, on account of the Lord’s death instead of us:

“Do we no longer die that death? We do indeed die, but we do not continue in it: which is not to die at all. For the tyranny of death, and death indeed, is when he who dies is never more allowed to return to life. But when after dying is living, and that a better life, this is not death, but sleep. Since then death was to have possession of all, therefore He died that He might deliver us. – St. John Chrysostom (Homilies on the Epistle to the Hebrews)

Also as St. Cyril explained:

For henceforth, by the death of Christ, death for us has been transformed, in a manner, into sleep, with like power and functions. For we are alive unto God, and shall live for evermore, to the Scriptures. Therefore, also, the blessed Paul, in a variety of places, calls those asleep who have died in Christ…we were transformed into His Image, and undergo, as it were, a different kind of death, that does not dissolve us in eternal corruption, but casts upon us a slumber which is laden with fair hope, after the Likeness of Him Who has made this new path for us, that is, Christ. – St. Cyril of Alexandria (Gospel According to St. John, Book XII)

Additionally Christ died “instead of us” in the sense that He died the accursed death of the cross, so that even when we die physically now until the general resurrection, our death is blessed in the Lord. In other words, Christ died the accursed death of the cross to take away the curse of the Law and condemnation of death, so that death for the saints is a blessing, not a curse:

For no longer now do we die as subject to condemnation; but as men who rise from the dead we await the general resurrection of all, “which in its own times he shall” show,” even God, who has also wrought it, and bestowed it upon us…Why, now that the common Saviour of all has died on our behalf, we, the faithful in Christ, no longer die the death as before, agreeably to the warning of the law; for this condemnation has ceased; but, corruption ceasing and being put away by the grace of the Resurrection, henceforth we are only dissolved, agreeably to our bodies’ mortal nature, at the time God has fixed for each, that we may be able to gain a better resurrection.  

Interestingly, such a question exposes a lack of comprehension that it was not only to save us from physical death that Christ died “instead of us”,  but even more importantly, from spiritual death:

He in our stead paid our debts: He bore our sins; and as it is written, “in our stead He was stricken.” “He took them up in His own body on the tree:” for it is true that “by His bruises we are healed.” He too was sick because of our sins, and we are delivered from the sicknesses of the soul. – St. Cyril of Alexandria (Gospel According to St. Luke)

Thus, because the Lord died instead of us the cursed death of disobedience on the cross, we are liberated from the curse of sin and corruption of death. We have hope of partaking of the first resurrection, which is the resurrection of the soul from sin, as well as of the second resurrection which is resurrection of the body. Thus Christ’s death saved us from physical as well as spiritual death, even if we fall asleep now in the Lord until “the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” (1 Cor 15:26)

Question: “Does the Bible teaches that God poured His wrath, hatred and indignation upon Jesus on the Cross?”

Answer: No one said God poured out “hatred”. This is a misrepresentation propagated by those who promote Neo-Marcionism. God loves the world (John 3:16), but condemns sin. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23) and

Cursed is anyone who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out.” (Deuteronomy 27:26).

God’s word cannot be broken merely on account of His love for us. The cross satisfied God’s truth and judgement regarding sin as well as manifested His love. For this reason scripture says:

“I will sing of mercy and judgment: unto thee, O LORD, will I sing.” (Psalm 101:1)

“The chastisement of our peace was upon Him” (Isaiah 53:5)

Regarding Christ, scripture also says:

You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily on me” (Psalm 88:6-9)

“Jesus told them, “for it is written: “‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ (Mark 14:27)

But God commends his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. (Romans 5:8-9)

“For He did not die as being Himself liable to death: He suffered for us, and bore in Himself the wrath that was the penalty of our transgression, even as Isaiah says, Himself bore our weaknesses.” – St. Athanasius (296 – 373 AD) – Letter to Marcellinus 

Question: Doesn’t the word “justice” mean “righteousness” with regard to God, and not judgement or retribution of God? Isn’t a juridical understanding of the word “justice” foreign to the early Church fathers, and is only a pollution of Western/Protestant theology?

Answer: No. Depending on the context, the church fathers used the word “justice” to speak of God’s righteousness or goodness, as well as God’s judgment, punishment, and retribution for sin. In addressing heresies, St. Irenaeus explained that God’s goodness must also be accompanied with “exercise of justice” (judicial). Otherwise, God would be deprived of the true characters of deity:

St. Irenaeus (130 – 202 AD) – Against Heresies
For he that is the judicial one, if he be not goodis not God, because he from whom goodness is absent is no God at all; and again, he who is good, if he has no judicial power, suffers the same [loss] as the former, by being deprived of his character of deity…For He is good, and merciful, and patient, and saves whom He ought: nor does goodness desert Him in the exercise of justice, nor is His wisdom lessened; for He saves those whom He should save, and judges those worthy of judgment.

St. Athanasius explained that God’s “justice” is tempered by His mercy:

St. Athanasius (296 – 373 AD) – Letter to Marcellinus
And when you have yourself experienced His power in judgement (for always His justice is tempered by His mercy) the next Psalm [101] will express your need.  If through the weakness of your nature and the strain of life you find yourself at times downcast and poor, sing for your consolation Psalm 102…

St. John Chrysostom explained that because God is “just”, He recompenses to each according to what they deserve:

St. John Chrysostom (349 – 407 AD) – Homilies Concerning the Power of Demons
If there is a God, as indeed there is, it follows that He is just, for if He is not just neither is He God, and if He is just He recompenses to each according to their desert. But we do not see all here receiving according to their desert. Therefore it is necessary to hope for some other requital awaiting us, in order that by each one receiving according to his desert, the justice of God may be made manifest.

St. John also explained that if there were no judgment, God would not be “just”:

St. John Chrysostom (349 – 407 AD) – Homilies on Colossians
For such is ever the devil’s way; he puts forward everything in a wily, and not in a straightforward manner, to put us on our guard. If there is no Judgment, God is not just (I speak as a man): if God is not just, then there is no God at all…Seest thou the drift of this satanical argument?…Let us then not be persuaded by him. For there is a Judgment, O wretched and miserable man!

St. Basil explained that the pains of hell are the “just punishment” of transgression, since God is both “just and merciful”:

St. Basil the Great (330 – 379 AD) – A Treatise on Baptism
Let it be remembered that the glory of heaven is a gratuitous supernatural favor: and that the pains of hell are the just punishment of voluntary actual transgression…God is just and merciful, and if His dispensations seem severe, we must nevertheless adore them, and await with patience the full manifestation of their justice in the light of glory.

Question: “Who kills man? God (because we are guilty before Him)? Or sin?”

Answer:  Both. What kills a man who jumps off a cliff? The frailty of his humanity or the law of gravity? If we say the frailty of humanity, did not the law of gravity give power to death on account of the frail humanity? Likewise, the law of death (put in place by God) gives power to death on account of sinful humanity. Thus, those who die on account of sin do not only die as a natural consequence, but also due to the “guilt” “charged” against them by the law of God:

“The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.” (Ezekiel 18:20)

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law (1 Corinthians 15:56)

 Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him (Luke 12:5)

Thankfully, Christ redeemed (“ransomed”) us from the curse of the Law by dying a cursed death on our behalf (Gal 3:13).

Question: “Do we need to be saved from God (His wrath and punishment) or from sin (its results upon our human nature)”

Answer: Both.

Sinful human nature required renewal. Christ sanctified (“deified”) our fallen nature via and His incarnation while the Holy Spirit continually renews our nature to the image of God:

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26)

We are also saved from punishment:

“…wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead–Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath” (1 Thes 1:10)

He that believes on the Son has everlasting life: and he that believes not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abides on him. (John 3:36)

Question: “Does the Bible teach that, in order to forgive, God has to punish someone (by causing pain and suffering)?”

Answer: Not exactly, but here is what scripture says:

“In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” (Hebrews 9:22)

“For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.” (Lev 17:11)

In other words, the blood and life of the innocent was offered in order for the guilty to receive forgiveness. Does this not inevitably involve pain and suffering for the sacrifice being offered? For this reason, Christ also suffered for our sake and offered Himself as a sacrifice and “ransom” to God for our sins:

For Christ also suffered once for sinsthe righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.  (1 Peter 3:18)

For this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. (Matthew 26:28)

“God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood–to be received by faith.” (Romans 3:25)

“Then, since He is an High Priest, insomuch as He is Man, and, at the same time, brought Himself a blameless sacrifice to God the Father, as a ransom for the life of all men” – St. Cyril of Alexandria – On the Gospel According to John,  Book XI

Question: “How does God ask us to forgive unconditionally, if He does not do the same?”

Answer: This logic is severely flawed. If a father imposes a bed time for his little child, does the father also have to abide by the same rule? God’s role as judge is inherently different from ours as His children and servants. Will we also judge the world like Him? (We will “judge” the world, but not in the same manner that God will do so). As if it were not already obvious, the below scripture makes clear the distinction between our duty to forgive, and God’s role as judge:

Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. (Romans 12:19) 

 and again: 

“what shall we say? Is God unrighteous who takes vengeance? (I speak as a man). God forbid: for then how shall God judge the world? (Romans 3:5-6)

Question: Doesn’t the idea that God has to punish sin bind God to necessity?

Answer: This is a logical fallacy and a mischaracterization of Christian doctrine. God doesn’t “have to” punish sin. He “chooses” to punish sin as a deterrent for our own good and for the preservation of the truth of His word. Since God made it clear that the wages of sin is death, if the sentence of death is not fulfilled on account of sin, God would be found a liar. God’s word cannot be broken. This doesn’t mean that God is “bound to necessity”, but that His word is truth.

Question:  How are we to understand one member of the Trinity (the Father) being wrathful towards another member of the Trinity (the Son), when they are, along with the Holy Spirit, one and the same God? Can God be truly angry with God? Can God actually punish God?

Answer:  The Father is not “angry” with His Only-Begotten nor is there a separation of their wills, nature, or essence. The will of the Triune God is one as God is one. However, God’s “wrath” is against sin and not against Himself. Appropriating our humanity (though He was without sin), Christ willingly bore our sins and the consequent debt for our sins, which is the curse of the law and sentence of death. He did so, in order to free us from both:

He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24)

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” (Galatians 3:13) 

He in our stead paid our debts: He bore our sins; and as it is written, “in our stead He was stricken.” “He took them up in His own body on the tree:” for it is true that “by His bruises we are healed.” – St. Cyril of Alexandria (378 – 444 AD) – Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke

In other words, God annulled His own sentence via the condemnation of the the sinless Christ:

For this reason the action of Him who had pronounced sentence became necessary, that He might by His own act annul His own sentence, after He [Christ] had been seen in the form of him that was condemned, but in that form as uncondemned and sinless” – St. Athanasius, Contra Apollinarium)

“He gave himself a ransom,” he saith, how then was He delivered up by the Father? Because it was of His goodness. And what means “ransom”? God was about to punish them, but He forbore to do it. They were about to perish, but in their stead He gave His own Son, and sent us as heralds to proclaim the Cross. – St. John Chrysostom (349 – 407 AD) – Homily on Timothy

Question: How is it that “God is love” but also requires sacrifices for sins? What are we to make of all the instances in the Bible where God forgives people without demanding a sacrifice (e.g. the prodigal son)?

Answer:  This is a false dichotomy; the law of sacrifices did not contradict God’s love. God didn’t “need” reparation or offering for sin. God was not pleased with Old Testament Sacrifices as they could not forgive sin. It is humanity that needed sin offerings in order to not take sin for granted, despise God, and die as a result. These sacrifices were also a type and shadow of Christ’s true sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins, with which God was well pleased. Thus, sacrifices were for humanity’s benefit and not for God’s. Nevertheless, scripture makes clear that an offering for sin was a prerequisite for a sinner to receive forgiveness.

“And he shall bring for his transgressions against the Lord, for his sin which he has sinned, a ewe lamb of the flock, or a kid of the goats, for a sin-offering; and the priest shall make an atonement for him for his sin which he has sinned, and his sin shall be forgiven him.”(Leviticus 5:6)

And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission. (Hebrews 9:22)

Without the shedding of blood there is no remission. Old Testament sacrifices could not truly remit sins. God did not punish and forgave sinners in the Old Testament who repented and offered sin/guilt offerings  because it was all Old Testament sinners had to offer. However, such sacrifices were a type and shadow of the true Sacrifice of Christ for the remission of sins:

God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:25-26)

In summary, God “forgave” in the Old Testament. Actual remission of all (Old and New Testament sins) was attained through the blood of Christ in the New Testament. Regarding the Prodigal Son, one parable alone doesn’t (and wasn’t intended) to explain all the dimensions of God’s truth. We must consider all the parables. Nevertheless, St. Cyril of Alexandria explained that the fatted calf slain in the parable of the Prodigal symbolized Christ. Thus, even forgiveness of the Prodigal Son was still not without an offering (sacrifice) for sin:

For whether we call it calf or kid, Christ is to be understood as the sacrifice offered for sin. But He was sacrificed, not for the Gentiles only, but that He might also redeem Israel, who by reason of his frequent transgression of the law had brought upon himself great blame.” – St. Cyril of Alexandria

Therefore modern soteriology that denies God’s punishment for sin and purports to be “Orthodox” is not Orthodox at all, but is a form of Neo-Marcionism. As previously mentioned, Marcionism was already condemned by the Orthodox Church.

Additional verses on atonement  

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