View of Atonement in the Coptic Orthodox Church

Note: This is not a comprehensive explanation of the doctrine of salvation in the Coptic Church, but is a sample of quotes representing a consensus view of atonement in the mind of Contemporary and Early Alexandrian fathers:

Contemporary Fathers

H.H. Pope Shenouda
“The ransom was paid to the Divine Justice. The Old Testament sacrifices were symbols of the sacrifice of the cross. These sacrifices were not offered to the devil but were offered to God. Hence, holy fire came down from heaven and consumed them (1 Kg 18:38), and it is written that God “smelled a soothing aroma” (Gen 8:21) after the sacrifice of our father Noah. Since sin is committed against God (Ps 51:4) then the price of this sin should be paid to God Himself, the devil has no right to ask or to accept a ransom. The devil is just an accuser (Rev 12:10; Job 1). On the cross our Lord offered Himself to the Father (Lk 23:46) and not to the devil.”

H.H. Pope Shenouda – Many Years with Questions of the People
On the cross, however, as the psalm tells us, justice and mercy join together, or mercy and truth join together (not that they are reconciled!). The word ‘reconciliation’ implies the existence of an opposition, and heaven forbid that there should ever be or have been, anything so at odds among the attributes of God! Even the expression ‘join together’ means a joining together before us, in our presence, and is conditioned by our concept of this process, while from the theological standpoint, mercy and justice have been joined together in harmony right from eternity. It is as we have said, that God’s mercy is full of justice and His justice is full of mercy.

Fr. Matta El Miskeen (Matthew the Poor) – The Birth of Christ And the Birth of Man
He stripped Himself, as far as He was able, of all outward glory to devote Himself to participating with mankind in suffering, that suffering which He was born to bear in full on their behalf, so that its curse might be lifted from the sons of men. He finally crowned His suffering with a death freely accepted, as the payment of a debt and a punishment, on behalf of all the sinners of the earth, so that through His death He might win their acquittal. So death is no longer a debt to be paid or a punishment to be undergone by man for his sins and transgressions; it is rather the declaration of his release and forgiveness.

Fr. Matta El Miskeen (Matthew the Poor) – Gethsemane and the Cross: The Tomb and the New Man 
Now I know the reason for the loud cry, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46.) Had it not been for the rejection that wounded Your heart, that You bore alone as a sinner and as the father all sinners, under the Father’s sentence, You would not have been able to die and descend in to the grace for man’s sins and remain buried for three days, fulfilling the punishment for the sin of mankind, mankind would not have been absolved from sin and released from its sentence and its curse, which is death. This is the power of the cross and the power of Him who was crucified.

Fr. Matta El Miskeen (Matthew the Poor) – The Great Day of the Cross – The crucifixion of Jesus 
Christ went to the cross as a representative of mankind, in order to enter the Divine judgment on mankind, while knowing exactly the judgment that was to follow. He advanced towards God’s strict judgment as a lawyer for mankind, but with the shackles of a prisoner. He came in our place, not asking for the acquittal of mankind, but entering peacefully and calmly into the prisoner’s cell, shutting Himself, and standing to receive heaven’s retribution…We then notice His words, “The Son of Man will be delivered.” His words, “the Son of Man” show that Jesus is the representative of all mankind; He is its delegate, its lawyer, the receiver of all retribution in its stead. The “Son of Man” is the primary expression Christ used for Himself, and it carries with it the powerful meaning that he is the representative of humankind, coming from heaven to undergo judgment, taking our retribution on Himself, the final absolution.

Fr. Matta El Miskeen (Matthew the Poor) – The Titles of Christ
He offered him to bear judgment instead of mankind and to fulfill the punishment of death within ourselves and raise us from eternal death by his resur­rection and quicken us with his life. We would thus have undergone judgment before [the day of] judgment and have been freed from eternal damnation and received eternal life as a pledge from now. 

Fr. Matta El Miskeen (Matthew the Poor) – Resurrection and Redemption in the Orthodox Concept
Redemption did not mean merely that Christ should pay the price of our sins, or remove the wrath of God upon the reprobate who were enslaved to sin, but to Christ redemption in the first place meant something beyond forgiveness and reconciliation — to restore to man the love and eternal life which he had lost through transgression and separation from God. This was originally implied in the concept of incarnation as understood by the fathers of the Church such as St. Athanasius who says: “The Word became human that we might become gods in Him” (that is partakers of the divine nature). The aim of incarnation therefore in the view of the Orthodox Church fathers never stopped short at the atonement of the cross or redemption by blood, but always proceeded further to resurrection for the renewal of man as the ultimate end of incarnation. 

H.G. Bishop Raphael (Former Secretary of the Coptic Holy Synod) – Lecture on the Salvation from the View of St. Athanasius
“Take heed, because you are scholarly and read [a lot]. Currently, there are some who call themselves the “illumined”. They say things the church fathers never said, which they claim the fathers said. They say that “God doesn’t punish.” You will see in the words of Athanasius that God does punish. They also say that there is no “substitutionary death”, or for anyone to die “instead of” someone else. Then what did Christ do? They say He died “for us”, not “instead of us”. So what’s the difference?…This is mere sophistry. You will find that St. Athanasius speaks of a “substitutionary death” and death “instead of” us.  [St. Athanasius said] it is impossible to escape the sentence of the Law.”

H.E. Metropolitan Serapion (Answer to Question about Death & Punishment – From Series of Lectures at St. Maurice Coptic Orthodox Church)
There is a punishment. If you want to say someone who sins separates himself from God, just as a student fails because he didn’t study [that’s fine], but there is sentence pronounced upon him. There is a sentence of death pronounced upon him “the day you eat of this tree you will die.” But there is a result. What is the result? It is not that God wants to kill him; he separated himself from God. Just as in the end God will say to some “Depart from me you cursed.” Did He force them to depart, or did they depart of their own will? If someone is far from God and doesn’t believe in Him, how will he enter the Kingdom? How will he be with God, if he doesn’t know God? Here, will God punish him, or will he punish himself? Both. 

H.G. Bishop Youssef (Suscopts Website)
Jesus Christ’s death accomplished salvation for the human race by fulfilling Divine Justice. It is not a matter of mere penal substitution. Jesus Christ’s death is very relevant to each of us for our salvation. He paid a ransom for us who were sentenced to death. Though humanity was created in the image of God, by sin, Adam begot all generations in his corrupted nature. By the grace of God who instituted the Holy Mysteries [Sacraments], we were granted a new birth through the Holy Mystery of Baptism. Through this Holy Mystery, we die with Jesus Christ and are raised with Him also, putting on Christ and the new man.  Thus, we were grafted into the body of Jesus Christ. By the death of our Lord Jesus Christ on the holy cross, we were granted forgiveness, because Divine Justice was satisfied by the shedding of blood (Hebrews 9:22). Now restored by Jesus Christ’s incarnation, in Heaven, we will grow in the “likeness of God.” Jesus Christ took what is ours and gave us what is His, as we pray in the Friday Theotokia”

H.G. Bishop Suriel – From Sermon “The God of Love and Salvation”
A human can only pay the penalty of his own sin.  Angels could not do the job because they also are limited created beings.  No one could except God Himself.  And God wants so much to save us because of His great love for the creation. As St Paul says about Jesus, “Who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”  This is God’s desire for each one of us, “Who desires all amen to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.”The Bible also tells us in the Book of Isaiah in the Old Testament, “(Isaiah 59:16) He saw that there was no man, And wondered that there was no intercessor; Therefore His own arm brought salvation for Him; And His own righteousness, it sustained Him.”…The only candidate that has these credentials is Jesus Himself who paid the price in full on the cross and bore the sins of humanity and gave us eternal life and eternal joy.

H.G. Bishop Mettaous – How to Benefit from the Holy Liturgy
The crucifixion of Christ is the apex of Divine mercy for our falling mankind, for on the cross, “Mercy and truth have met together” (Psalm 84, a Sixth Hour psalm).

H.G. Bishop Youanis – Paradise of the Spirit
Is there a contradiction to God’s justice, which states that “The wages of sin is death?” (Romans 6:23) This could have been true if God’s mercy had not interfered. But God’s mercy has met God’s justice and that is what David stated, “Mercy and truth are met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” (Psalms 85:10) God’s mercy did not contradict His justice, but it found a solution. That solution is based on God’s death to redeem man who sinned.

If we ignore divine justice… then what is the point of the cross anyway?
… What is its necessity? Is the cross simply a play just so the Lord Christ reveals His love? Also, what is the meaning of the word redemption? When He speaks of giving “His life a ransom for many” (Mat 20:28), or “Who gave Himself a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:6). Has the term redemption become meaningless? They deny the Redeemer offering Himself instead of the sinner, placing Himself in the place of the sinner, while the Holy Scripture is clear as Isaiah the prophet says: “The LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Is 53:6); John the Baptist said: “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn 1:29); Isaiah says again: “You make His soul an offering for sin” (Is 53:10); in his first epistle, our teacher St. Peter says: “Knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things… but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Pt 1:18-19); our teacher St. Paul says: “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (Gal 3:13); again: “For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Cor 6:20); and yet again: “Having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Col 2:14). What does tearing apart the handwritten debt against us mean, but fully paying the debt by the cross! So, why do we count the debt as a reproach to the beloved Savior?

H.E. Metropolitan Bishoy – The Dogma of Atonement and Redemption 
If we had been crucified with Christ on the day of His crucifixion, so that He was not crucified for us but with us, as some claim, are we crucified with Him once more in Baptism or not?! Is it allowable for the crucifixion to be repeated for Him or for us? What is the use of the sacraments and of Baptism? What is the use of the Holy Spirit in the Church?!! We are granted the communion of death with Christ at baptism. Thus Saint Paul the Apostle says: “For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection” (Rom. 6:5). When He says: “we have been united together” it implies that this happened during the Baptism, not before. We are warning about this strange and dangerous teachings that destroy the dogma of redemption. 

Previously I have shown the stereological thought in the theology of St. Athanasius including the following points: 1. We would have never been redeemed if God the Word (the Logos) had not become Man. For man is in need of the Creator to redeem his fallen nature to its origin, granting it the image of God, restoring it from corruption to incorruption. In Him mankind overcame death and was recreated. 2. As the Son of God is one with the Father in essence (ousia), He offered Himself as a Sacrifice, paying the debt of our sins, and achieving the divine justice and mercy 3. The Logos is God who defeated Satan not only for Himself, but also for our sake. 4. Being God, the incarnate Logos He regained for us our honor, granting us to be children of the Father in the Holy Spirit. St. Athanasius says: [He was made Man that we might be come gods.] [For although there is one Son by nature, True and Only-Begotten, we too become sons, not as He in nature and truth, but according to the grace of Him that calls us, and though we are earthly humans, we are called gods.] 5. The Incarnation presented us to God, the Incarnate Logos reveals the Father to us, and the Father attracts us to the Son (John 17:26; 6:44).

Fr. Tadros Malaty –The Book of Revelation
And He treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of God, for He alone is the Almighty God who can bear the wage of sin in His body. Thus, He dies on our behalf, and He lifts us up, out of our death. On the cross, He carried our sins that makes the Father hid His face from us, for He can’t bear them. Through His resurrection we are victoriously risen

Fr. Tadros Malaty – School of Alexandria, Part 2
Origen interprets Christ’s death as an act of vicarious substitution or propitiatory sacrifice. He argues that, as the Leader of the Church, Jesus is the head of a body of which we are members; He has taken our sins upon Himself, has borne them and has suffered freely for us. As a true priest, He has offered the Father a true sacrifice in which He is Himself the Victim, thereby propitiating the Father. The Son offers the Christians’ own gifts of pity, justice, piety, peace. He offers the lives of transformed believers.

Coptic Liturgy/Prayers

 Liturgy of Saint Gregory
I laid aside Your law by my own opinion. I neglected your commandments. I brought upon myself the sentence of death. You O my Master have turned for me the punishment into salvation. As a good shepherd you have sought the stray.

Fraction to the Son – Divine Liturgy
He ascended upon the Cross that He may bear the punishment of our sins. We are the ones who sinned, and He is the One who suffered. We are the ones who were indebted to divine justice because of our sins, and He was the One who paid the debts on our behalf.

Agpeya (Coptic Orthodox daily book of prayers) – A Prayer for Repentance  
Do not judge me according to Your justice, but according to Your mercy for no one will be justified before You. Dress me in a new attire that befits Your glory.  

Early Alexandrian Fathers

St. Clement of Alexandria (150 – 215 AD) – The Instructor, Book 1, Chapter 9
For He,” it is said, “is merciful; He will heal their sins, and not destroy them, and fully turn away His anger, and not kindle all His wrath.” See how the justice of the Instructor, which deals in rebukes, is shown; and the goodness of God, which deals in compassions. Wherefore David — that is, the Spirit by him — embracing them both, sings of God Himself, “Justice and judgment are the preparation of His throne: mercy and truth shall go before Thy face.” He declares that it belongs to the same power both to judge and to do good. For there is power over both together, and judgment separates that which is just from its opposite. And He who is truly God is just and good; who is Himself all, and all is He; for He is God, the only God.

Origen (185 -254 AD) – De Principiis, Book 2
By all which it is established, that the God of the law and the Gospels is one and the same, a just and good God, and that He confers benefits justly, and punishes with kindness; since neither goodness without justice, nor justice without goodness, can display the (real) dignity of the divine nature.

Origen (185 -254 AD) – Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Book 12
But the saying, “What shall a man give in exchange for his own life,” if spoken by way of interrogation, will seem to be able to indicate that an exchange for his own life is given by the man who after his sins has given up his whole substance…A man, therefore, could not give anything as an exchange for his own life, but God gave an exchange for the life of us all, “the precious blood of Christ Jesus,” according as “we were bought with a price,” “having been redeemed, not with corruptible things as silver or gold, but with precious blood, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot,” even of Christ.

Origen (185 -254 AD) – Origen Against Celsus
He continues in this strain: “If he had determined upon these things, and underwent chastisement in obedience to his Father, it is manifest that, being a God, and submitting voluntarily, those things that were done agreeably to his own decision were neither painful nor distressing.” But he did not observe that here he was at once contradicting himself. For if he granted that He was chastised because He had determined upon these things, and had submitted Himself to His Father, it is clear that He actually suffered punishment…

St. Alexander of Alexandria (250 – 326 AD) – Epistles on Arianism
Who compelled God…to be nailed to the tree, to be buried in the bosom of the earth, and the third day to rise again from the dead; in the cause of redemption to give life for life, blood for blood, to undergo death for death? For Christ, by dying, has discharged the debt of death to which man was obnoxious. Oh, the new and ineffable mystery! The Judge was judgedHe was condemned that He might impart compassion; He was bound that He might set free; He was apprehended that He might liberate; He suffered that He might heal our sufferings; He died to restore life to us; He was buried to raise us up.

St. Athanasius (296 – 373 AD) – Letter to Marcellinus
And Psalms 88 and 69, again speaking in the Lord’s own person, tell us further that He suffered these things, not for His own sake but for ours. Thou has made Thy wrath to rest upon me, says the one; and the other adds, I paid them things I never took. 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) – Later Treatises of S. Athanasius
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, as they passed by and shook their heads. For neither did Hades endure the approach of a Godhead unveiled; this is attested both by prophets and apostles.

St. Athanasius – On the Incarnation of the Word
He had come to bear the curse that lay on us; and how could He “become a curse” otherwise than by accepting the accursed death? And that death is the cross, for it is written “Cursed is everyone that hangeth on tree.” Again, the death of the Lord is the ransom of all..

St. Cyril of Alexandria (378 – 444 AD) – Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, Book XII
For, in His own Person, He bore the sentence righteously pronounced against sinners by the Law. For He became a curse for us, according to the Scripture: For cursed is everyone, it is said, that hangeth on a tree. And accursed are we all, for we are not able to fulfil the Law of God: For in many things we all stumble; and very prone to sin is the nature of man. And since, too, the Law of God says: Cursed is he which continueth not in all things that are written in the book of this Law, to do them, the curse, then, belongeth unto us, and not to others. For those against whom the transgression of the Law may be charged, and who are very prone to err from its commandments, surely deserve chastisement. Therefore, He That knew no sin was accursed for our sakes, that He might deliver us from the old curse. For all-sufficient was the God Who is above all, so dying for all; and by the death of His own Body, purchasing the redemption of all mankind. The Cross, then, that Christ bore, was not for His own deserts, but was the cross that awaited us, and was our due, through our condemnation by the Law. For as He was numbered among the dead, not for Himself, but for our sakes, that we might find in Him, the Author of everlasting life, subduing of Himself the power of death; so also, He took upon Himself the Cross that was our due, passing on Himself the condemnation of the Law, that the mouth of all lawlessness might henceforth be stopped, according to the saying of the Psalmist; the Sinless having suffered condemnation for the sin of all…But our Lord Jesus Christ is not ashamed to bear the Cross that is our due, and to suffer this indignity for love towards us…

St. Cyril of Alexandria (378 – 444 AD) – Commentary on the Gospel of St. John
And the meaning of the figure is in no way affected by the fact, that the men who hung by His side were malefactors; for we were by nature children of wrath, before we believed in Christ, and were all doomed to death, as we said beforeAnd the title contained a handwriting against us—the curse that, by the Divine Law, impends over the transgressors, and the sentence that went forth against all who erred against those ancient ordinances of the Law, like unto Adam’s curse, which went forth against all mankind, in that all alike broke God’s decrees. For God’s anger did not cease with Adam’s fall, but He was also provoked by those who after him dishonoured the Creator’s decree; and the denunciation of the Law against transgressors was extended continuously overall. We were, then, accursed and condemned, by the sentence of God, through Adam’s transgression, and through breach of the Law laid down after him; but the Savior wiped out the handwriting against us, by nailing the title to His Cross, which very clearly pointed to the death upon the Cross which He underwent for the salvation of men, who lay under condemnationFor our sake He paid the penalty for our sins...For we are justified, now that Christ has paid the penalty for us; for by His stripes we are healed, according to the Scripture.

Non-Alexandrian Fathers

St. Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130-202) , Against Heresies Book V, Chapter 16-17
For we were debtors to none other but to Him whose commandment we had transgressed at the beginning
by transgressing whose commandment we became His enemies. And therefore in the last times the Lord has restored us into friendship through His incarnation, having become “the Mediator between God and men;” propitiating indeed for us the Father against whom we had sinned, and cancelling (consolatus) our disobedience by His own obedience; conferring also upon us the gift of communion with, and subjection to, our Maker. For this reason also He has taught us to say in prayer, “And forgive us our debts;” since indeed He is our Father, whose debtors we were, having transgressed His commandmentssince He was man, and since He was God, in order that since as man He suffered for us, so as God He might have compassion on us, and forgive us our debts, in which we were made debtors to God our Creator. And therefore David said beforehand, “Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the LORD has not imputed sin;” pointing out thus that remission of sins which follows upon His advent, by which “He has destroyed the handwriting” of our debt, and “fastened it to the cross;” so that as by means of a tree we were made debtors to God, [so also] by means of a tree we may obtain the remission of our debt.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (313 – 386 AD) – Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril
For we were enemies of God through sin, and God had appointed the sinner to die.  There must needs therefore have happened one of two things; either that God, in His truth, should destroy all men, or that in His loving-kindness He should cancel the sentence.  But behold the wisdom of God; He preserved both the truth of His sentence, and the exercise of His loving-kindness.  Christ took our sins in His body on the tree, that we by His death might die to sin, and live unto righteousness… 

St. John Chrysostom (349 – 407 AD) – Homilies on Colossians
Seest thou how great His earnestness that the bond should be done away? To wit, we all were under sin and punishment. He Himself, through suffering punishment, did away with both the sin and the punishment, and He was punished on the Cross. To the Cross then He affixed it; as having power, He tore it asunder.

St. Augustine (354 – 430 AD) – REPLY TO FAUSTUS THE MANICHAEAN, Book XIV, p.7
He was cursed for our offences, in the death which He suffered in bearing our punishment…The believer in the true doctrine of the gospel will understand that Christ is not reproached by Moses when he speaks of Him as cursed, not in His divine majesty, but as hanging on the tree as our substitute, bearing our punishment, any more than He is praised by the Manichæans when they deny that He had a mortal body, so as to suffer real death…Confess that He died, and you may also confess that He, without taking our sin, took its punishment.  Now the punishment of sin cannot be blessed, or else it would be a thing to be desired.  The curse is pronounced by divine justice, and it will be well for us if we are redeemed from it.

Gregory the Great (540 AD – 604 AD) – Morals on the Book of Job
Who else is set forth by the title of ‘ the balances,’ but the Mediator between God and man, Who came to weigh the merit of our life, and brought down with Him both justice and loving-kindness together? But putting the greater weight in the scale of mercy, He lightened our transgressions in pardoning them. For in the hand of the Father having been made like scales of a marvelous balancing, in the one scale He hung our woe in His own Person, and in the other our sins. Now by dying He proved the woe to be of heavy weight, and by releasing it shewed the sin to be light in mercy’s scale...
He ‘ was destroyed without cause,’ Who, being made incarnate, had no sins of His own, and yet being without offence took upon Himself the punishment of the carnal 

Related Readings

Atonement in the Early Church
Atonement in On the Incarnation of the Word
Questions & Answers on Atonement

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