A Patristic View of Christ’s Death on the Cross

Today’s homily is going to be longer and more catechetical than my typical homily. Since many of our people are recent converts, I want to discuss the theological significance of Christ’s death upon the Cross. Almost anyone growing up Protestant has done so under the imposing shadow of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) Theory – which I will argue, misrepresents who God is.

PSA IN A NUTSHELL

In Protestant circles, the predominant theological theory about why Christ died on the Cross is undoubtedly some form of substitutionary atonement, often Penal Substitutionary Atonement.

It can be explained by imagining a cosmic scale that represents divine justice. Mankind was created sinless but then sinned against God, causing the scale of justice to become imbalanced. The imbalance caused a rift between God and humanity that was impossible for humanity to heal – for all of mankind inherited Adam’s guilt and sin, and no human effort could reverse that. This rift caused God to look upon humanity with wrath. Though He was greatly angry with us, He also wanted to resolve this division between God and man. But He couldn’t because the binding force of justice would not allow Him. Great punishment and payment was needed.

Since it was impossible for humanity to correct the problem, God sent His only-begotten Son who willingly died as a substitute for us. He took our penalties of torment and wrath upon the Cross. He was a perfect, spotless sacrifice, and therefore only He could balance the cosmic scale of divine justice.

Josh McDowell, a popular Protestant apologist, takes this concept to its logical conclusion. He writes in More than a Carpenter that Jesus not only died for us humans but also “for God the Father.”

God wanted to draw close to us but could not; He was hindered by the force of justice. Therefore, Jesus had to die for the Father as well. Through the Son’s sacrificial death, the Father imputes the Son’s righteousness upon us – hiding our corruption and sin under Jesus Christ who covers us. No ontological change takes place within us. Instead, Jesus’s blood covering us enables the Father to be with us.

DECONSTRUCTING PSA

The problems with such a widespread belief about God are multitudinous. Let’s look at a few of them:

  1. Introducing divine justice as a force more powerful than God is problematic. Anything that can bind God or force Him to take certain actions is inherently greater than God. To avoid polytheism, it is necessary for proponents of this system to attribute this limiting or binding force to the divine nature.
  2. However, attributing this binding divine justice to God’s nature presents another problem. If God wants to be close to us but cannot because of His inherent justice or offended honor, then it presents a “schism in the very idea of God” (George MacDonald, Justice). God wants something but another part of Him refuses it. Truthfully, there are no opposing thoughts or attributes within God – one aspect desiring love and mercy, the other binding Him to nearly insatiable justice. God is not like fallen humanity with conflicting desires or energies. He is whole and completely unified in will and activity. There cannot be competing or opposing desires within Him.
  3. The idea that justice can be achieved through the torment and death of innocent victims is irrational. It is unjust to punish innocent people. Even though our Lord was willing to be sacrificed, how does the persecution of the innocent correct an imbalance in divine justice? It only imbalances it further. Any human judge who gave the death sentence to an innocent child in place of a convicted murderer would be called wicked and unjust – even if the child were willing to go along with the plan. It is even worse if we assume God needs this sort of injustice to gratify some sort of divine desire. As the old saying goes, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
  4. This system places the problem upon God. Many humans would be content to merely live and die. But because our sins offended His honor and sense of justice, we are bound for an eternity of torment in hell. In this system, God needs to be saved from an overbearing sense of justice and we need to be saved from God. But God is “good and the lover of mankind” (Divine Liturgy).
  5. Divine justice in substitutionary atonement theories requires payment. In this system, there is no forgiveness possible in God’s nature without payment. Yet it is possible – even for unbelieving men – to forgive one another for grievances without demanding any form of payment. A sincere apology can reunite two men who have hated one another for years, more so than any great sum of money.Consider the parable of the unmerciful servant that we read a few weeks ago. He’s forgiven a great, impossible debt without any bloodshed or restitution. He then goes out and demands payment of one of his fellow servants. He was condemned by the king because he would not freely forgive as the king did.

    God requires us to forgive one another (Matt. 6:15, 18:21-35) without desiring revenge or satisfaction. We are given this command by God to forgive and love unconditionally so that we may be like He is – not because we are better than He is. God is not interested in payments anyway.

    Some people will argue the forgiveness of sins requires the shedding of blood. But consider the story of the paralytic (Matt. 9) whose sins are forgiven without any animal being killed or Christ cutting Himself. Consider also the women who washed our Lord’s feet with her tears. The Lord said, “Your sins are forgiven” (Lk. 7:48) but no blood was shed. To limit God’s power of forgiveness is to demote God to something less than divine.

  1. God doesn’t change. If God had a need (unsatisfied justice or offended honor) that required satisfaction, then that means there is something changeable within God. But as God said through the Prophet Malachi, “For I am the LORD, I do not change” (Mal. 3:6); for God is “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). Teaching that God has needs that can be satisfied means that God is not perfect – He is lacking. Conjuring up images of a wrathful God that needs appeasement is far more pagan than Christian.
  2. Lastly, this system places salvation outside of us and requires nothing from humanity except an acknowledgment of the system itself. It saves us from hell by imputing God’s righteousness to us without any internal transformation.

But, sin is separation from God and His love. And to be honest, hell is preferable to such separation. It would be better to dwell in hell with love for God than to somehow be in heaven with sin separating us from Him.

Ultimately, love for God is heaven while love for sin is hell. These atonement theories generally do not require interior healing since the salvation of God is imputed upon us, happening as a mostly-external process.

RECONSTRUCTION

Of course, there is imagery in both the Scriptures and Church Fathers of ransom and sacrifice – regarding Christ’s death on the Cross. Who was the sacrifice offered to? Who were we ransomed from?

St. Gregory the Theologian tells us not to take this imagery too far. Ransom and sacrifice motifs are allegories. Neither death nor sin have being or ontology – we personify them to make theological analogies. The devil has being, but God doesn’t owe him anything. Everything and everyone that exists does so by borrowing their existence from God – even the devil. Only God can self-exist. So everything and everyone are perpetually indebted to God for their existence. God didn’t owe the devil, sin, or death anything, so no literal payment was made to them. God also didn’t require payment to Himself.

St. Gregory writes, Is it not evident that the Father accepts Him, but neither asked for Him nor demanded Him? But on account of the Incarnation, and because Humanity must be sanctified by the Humanity of God (Oration 45: Second Oration on Easter, Chapter XXII.).

Why the Sacrificial Language?

Understanding Imagery. First, when speaking of spiritual things, we must remember that human language is subpar in expressing what God has done for us. Frequently, Scripture uses imagery to convey concepts, and allegorical imagery should not be pushed too far. For example, St. Paul writes, “You are not your own…you were bought at a price” (1 Cor. 6:19-20).

It is not as if God lost ownership of humanity and had to enter a contract with someone to buy us back. The language expresses a reality – that Christ’s precious blood purchased and redeemed us – but not in a way that humans make purchases or save captives through ransom payments. The Scriptures were written by ancient Near Eastern people who frequently expressed themselves in metaphor, allegory, hyperbole, and other ways that are less common to modern, Western minds. While these ancients would rightfully assert their imagery is true, what is not always true is the conclusions we draw from systematizing their imagery in a literal way.

Held by Sin, death, and the Devil. With the above said, we understand that through our sin, we metaphorically sold ourselves to death, “for the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). We were “enslaved to sin” (Rom. 6:6, cf. John 8:34). But God ransomed us from sin and death even though those things have no true ontology or personhood (as previously mentioned).

Sacrifice was the way of Jews and pagans. A sacrifice in the ancient mind was the only way to reconcile humanity to a deity – whether one was a Jew or Gentile. Christianity would have appealed to almost no one if some sacrifice had not been made to set humanity right with divinity. Such a mindset is foreign to us living in a post-Christian society, but it was universal in the ancient world.

God wanted to show his inconceivable love for us. If God had simply shown up – uniting human nature to the divine nature – ontologically raising it from the mire of sin and death, it would not have made much of an impression on us. Our Lord Himself said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13). So, a man of great love lays down his life for his friends. But Christ – being the God-man – goes even further. He laid down His life for His enemies, for those of us who had not yet come to obedience (cf. Rom. 5:10, Jn. 15:14). The entire passion drama was for our sakes, to prove how much He loves us, and not from any necessity in God. In other words, God did not need it, but we needed it to understand His extravagant love more deeply.

Closing

There are a multitude of other reasons: Christ desired to join us in death, He is the victorious leader over sin and death, He desired to redeem suffering itself, He taught us to die to ourselves in obedience to God, He wanted to make the Eucharist possible, etc. A multitude of mysteries are revealed through the Cross – too much to discuss this evening in a vesperal service.

It’s quite possible to believe in our Lord’s death upon the Cross without bringing in distorted views of justice or heretical images of a wrathful God who needs blood.

We serve a God who loves mankind, whose “lovingkindness brings us to repentance.” Only in this way can we look at the Cross and see nothing but God’s pure and perfect love poured out for us.

(This homily was an attempt to summarize a chapter “Why Did Christ Die on the Cross?” in my book Becoming Human. Please see it for a fuller explanation with many biblical and patristic quotes. I must also mention my indebtedness to George MacDonald’s sermon Justice, which greatly helped in restoring within me a patristic approach to this topic.)

2 thoughts on “A Patristic View of Christ’s Death on the Cross

  1. One of the things I have noticed in listening to Thomas Hopko’s lectures, which doesn’t seem to come up much, is the idea of ‘kenosis’, ‘self-emptying’

    https://www.ancientfaith.com/specials/hopko_lectures/the_magnificat_-_what_it_means_to_be_poor

    ‘if you want to be first, then you must become last; if you want to be rich, then you must become poor; if you want to live, then you must die…’

    Could you comment/expand upon that idea, what is your take of that sort?

    1. I strongly concur that the Cross is an example of kenosis, and not just “an example,” but “the example” of it. From the Incarnation to the Cross, our Lord humbled Himself and saved us. Meditating upon that along with the book of Hebrews would make a good study.

      But it won’t do you any good if I meditate upon that theme for you, so I’ll let you do so 🙂

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