Why Did Christ Die on the Cross?
That question plagued me when I was exploring Orthodoxy years ago. I could find no satisfactory answer from anyone. There is a certain amount of discomfort that modern Orthodox seem to have with Christ’s death as a ransom or payment for our sins. It is one of the oldest images – offered in the divine scriptures themselves – yet it is frequently dismissed in modern Orthodox circles as some product of Medieval Theology that tries to explain the death of Christ in “Western,” “legal,” “juridical,” or “forensic” terms.
The whole story of Christ – if we stop to think about it – was the most bizarre and unpredictable event to occur in the history of humanity. Christians scandalized people everywhere trying to explain it – heresies developed trying to free men from the theological tension of the Incarnation and the Cross.
First, God became a man in the Incarnation. That alone is scandalous – the purest and highest God wanted to soil himself with our dirty humanity. Even with a virgin mother, he still had an ordinary birth and he had to be fed and cared for as a baby and child. He was hungry, used the bathroom, sweated, bled, and wept. Is that not all unbecoming of a god, let alone the most high God?
Next, God then allowed himself to be stripped naked, beaten nearly to death, and then hung upon a cross to die in the most public and humiliating way. That is even more scandalous! We’ve had nearly 2,000 years to ponder it so the story has sadly lost most of its impact. However, a crucified God was madness to the ancient Greeks and a theological stumbling block for the Jews (cf. 1 Cor. 1:23). After all, “Cursed is he who is hung upon a tree” (Deut. 21:23).
In this essay, I will attempt to show that Christ’s death as a payment or ransom – while scandalous – has always been universally accepted Christian theology. We Orthodox need not be ashamed to proclaim that. Secondly, I will explain how that mode of understanding can only bring us so far, and that the theology of theosis, developed so wonderfully in the Christian East, brings the soteriological story to a beautiful finale.
CHRIST’S DEATH – THE PAYMENT FOR OUR SINS
Here’s what I heard growing up in Protestantism: you sinned, your sin made you indebted to God, your debt was unpayable, God sent his Son to die for you, now your sins are forgiven through the blood shed on the cross if you have faith in God. The emphasis in most Protestant hymns is upon the salvific sacrifice of Christ upon the cross – he died in our place. This idea is the basis of Satisfaction Atonement or Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory (PSA).
PSA is often embellished with images of a wrathful Father God who would have destroyed humanity if his Son had not intervened on our behalf. The Son of God then offers himself as an atoning sacrifice to appease the innate justice and wrath of God. However, we Orthodox do not accept the images of a wrathful God needing blood.
Yet we can grant that both the scriptures and the Fathers of the Church utilized the imagery of Christ as the sacrificial lamb, a debt that needed to be paid, and righting the wrong of the original sin that infects all of humanity with death and an inclination toward sin. Without getting into all of the scholarly discussions regarding Satisfaction or Ransom Atonement Theories, I will simply present what the scriptures and the fathers wrote while avoiding labels.
Several biblical passages can be referenced that support Christ’s death as a ransom, paying a penalty, or as a substitute:
- For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matt. 20:28, Mark 10:45)
- You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot (1 Pet. 1:18-19).
- He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed (1 Pet. 2:24).
- But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself (Heb. 9:26).
- Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life (Rom. 5:9-10).
- They are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation [propitiation] by his blood, to be received by faith (Rom. 3:24-25).
- He is the expiation [propitiation] for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world (1 Jn. 2:2)
EARLY CHURCH SUPPORT
THE EARLIEST ACCOUNT
Probably the earliest hint at such theology comes from the Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, which was probably written around AD 120-130 by a “disciple of the Apostles.” Mathetes – whose name in Greek means disciple – writes,
He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked…For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! (Chapter IX)
However, there is no hint of the Son trying to appease God’s wrath. Quite the opposite!
God…proved Himself not merely a friend of mankind, but also long-suffering. Yea, He was always of such a character, and still is, and will ever be, kind and good, and free from wrath (Chapter VIII).
Augustine continues the theme of our being saved from death and the devil through Christ’s death,
For whereas by His death the one and most real sacrifice was offered up for us, whatever fault there was, whence principalities and powers held us fast as of right to pay its penalty, He cleansed, abolished, extinguished; and by His own resurrection He also called us…
And so the devil, in that very death of the flesh, lost man, whom he was possessing as by an absolute right, seduced as he was by his own consent, and over whom he ruled…
Being Himself put to death, although innocent, by the unjust one acting against us as it were by just right, might by a most just right overcome him, and so might lead captive the captivity wrought through sin, and free us from a captivity that was just on account of sin, by blotting out the handwriting, and redeeming us…
The nations acknowledge and with pious humility imbibe the price paid for themselves, and in trust upon it abandon their enemy, and gather together to their Redeemer (On the Trinity, Book 4, Chapter 17).
ST. SYMEON THE NEW THEOLOGIAN
Thus God, Who is incomparably higher than the whole visible and invisible creation, accepted human nature, which is higher than the whole visible creation, and offered it as a sacrifice to His God and Father. Being shamed by such a sacrifice (I speak thus), and honoring it, the Father could not leave it in the hands of death. Therefore he annihilated His sentence and, first of all and at the beginning, resurrected from the dead Him Who had given Himself as a sacrifice as a redemption and as a substitute for men who are of the same race as Himself 
In our Divine Liturgy of St. Basil, the priest prays,
He gave himself as a ransom to death, in which we were held captive, sold under sin .
Additionally, St. Gregory of Nyssa in his Great Catechism and Origen in his Commentary on Matthew also utilize ransom imagery.
However, St. Gregory the Theologian (of Nazianzen) was quick to point out that this language about ransoms and debts being paid should not be stretched too far. By our sins, we made ourselves slaves of the devil and captives of death. However, neither death nor the devil had any real legal rights over us. It is not as if God, wanting us back, realized he owed the devil a great sum to legally retrieve us. The devil himself owes his existence to God, and continues to exist only because God allows it.
I won’t quote the entire lengthy passage, but St. Gregory affirmed, “We were detained in bondage by the Evil One, sold under sin” but that the payment of our redemption certainly did not go to the devil, as if God owed him anything. Rather, “The Father accepts Him [Christ’s sacrifice], 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, that He might deliver us Himself, and overcome the tyrant, and draw us to Himself by the mediation of His Son (Second Oration on Easter, Chapter XXII).”
WHY ALL OF THIS SACRIFICIAL LANGUAGE?
Someone could rightly ask, if God did not really owe anyone anything, why do we find all of this language about ransoms and debts being paid? Why sacrifice Christ on the cross at all?
God wanted to show his inconceivable love for us. If he had simply shown up, uniting human nature to the divine nature and thereby ontologically raising it from the mire of sin, death, and corruption, it would not have made nearly the impression. 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 lays downs his life for his friends. But Christ – being the God-man – laid down his life not only for friends but for his enemies, for those of us who had not yet come to obedience (cf. Rom. 5:10, Jn. 15:14).
God needed to raise us from the sub-natural man to the natural man. Mankind was created in the image and likeness of God, in complete communion with God, and clothed in the glory of God. We then fell from being in a natural state “according to nature” to being sub-natural or “contrary to nature.” The nakedness Adam and Eve found themselves in was due to losing their natural “clothing” of God’s glory. Instead, they were clothed in a state of death and corruption, called “garments of skin.” The righting of the ancient wrong reversed the captivity of death over humanity.
Sacrifice was the way of Jews and pagans. A sacrifice – in the ancient mind – was the only way to appease a deity. Christianity would have appealed to almost no one if some sacrifice had not been made to make humans right with God. Such a mindset is foreign to us living in a post-Christian society, but it was prevalent among pagans and Jews.
Christ desired to join us in death. Fully entering the darkest abyss of human experience, Christ willingly took upon himself a publicly disgraceful death, abandoned by those whom he loved. Elevated into the air, in a position between earth and heaven, his arms were outstretched embracing the entire world . He entered into the realm of the dead, invading it like a great military general, setting the captives free and conquering the realm that seemed beyond the reach of even the greatest gods.
Christ as the victorious leader into life above nature. Christ rose from the dead and was the first human to defy death and show that it had no lasting victory over us. Not content to merely right the wrong, to bring humanity from its sub-natural state of corruption to a natural one, Christ preserved his humanity, seating it at the right hand of God in the heavens. He invites all of us to become one with him, to “partake of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4), to become deified in a process the Eastern fathers call theosis.
Other facets. There are numerous other important teachings regarding the Cross, such as our death in Christ and with Christ, and joy coming to all of the world, and even attaining to the vision of God through the mystery of the Cross . Those beautiful teachings usually hold the primary place in Orthodoxy. My purpose here is to bring out an aspect that we often neglect.
Humanity was made incorrupt and sinless. In this natural state of communion with God, we lived according to nature. However, sin entered through our disobedience and we began living contrary to nature. In this sub-natural state, death and corruption ruled over us. To slow our descent into further decay, the Law and Prophets were sent by God. However, these could not save man from death, they could not restore man to his natural state of being in constant communion with God and being clothed in glory.
Something greater was needed. God could have chosen another method to save us . The one that pleased him the most, however, was to send his Son into the world, to take on human flesh, to teach us righteousness, to die a cruel death, and to rise from the dead on the third day. His innocent death on the cross was a ransom paid for our sins. The ancient wrong was set right, and a superior sacrifice to end all sacrifices was made. Now it was possible to restore humanity to a state according to nature.
Yet God was not content to merely restore that which was corrupted. Perhaps an angelic creature made flesh could have restored us through its sacrificial death. But God wanted to do more than restore us, he wanted to grant us spiritual sonship, make us inheritors of the kingdom of God, partakers of the divine nature. All of that was only possible through God becoming incarnate, uniting divine nature to human nature, and then seating it on the throne of glory in the heavens.
While our humanity was raised from its fallen sub-natural state to one according to nature by the sacrificial ransom of Christ on the cross, the union of the human and divine natures made it possible for us to become by grace what Christ is by nature – to attain to a super-natural state.
Today, we dwell in the sub-natural state of sin, caught in various cycles of temptation. The saints attained – and continue to attain – the natural state in which sin does not actively dwell within them. Additionally, they are in constant communion with God. Some of them are brought by grace to a super-natural state in which, like Christ after his resurrection, they are endowed with supernatural abilities. Yet these things are only a foretaste of what will come at the resurrection of all on the Last Day.
There is no reason for Orthodox Christians to shrink back from the language of sacrifice, ransom, and debt payment found in the Bible and many Fathers of the Church. There is soteriological harmony present when we see salvation as a progression from being contrary to nature to according to nature to above nature. While we reject anything that distorts God’s character – such as God being bound by justice, desiring an instrument of wrath, or needing revenge for his honor being offended – not even St. Gregory the Theologian rejected the language of Christ’s death being a ransom. Neither should we.
While the emphasis has differed as Christianity has been taught throughout the world in the last 2,000 years, we Orthodox in the West have the opportunity to complete the painting of the soteriological picture – to make the much-needed final brushstrokes that complete the image of salvation. Theosis is not a unique teaching to the Christian East, but it is something that has become diminished, forgotten, or misunderstood in the Christian West. May God be with us as ambassadors of the fullness of the Gospel in this world that needs it.
References and Bibliography
 A prayer from the Anaphora. Hieratikon, Vol. 2. St. Tikhon’s Monastery Press, 2017, pg. 183.
 St. Symeon the New Theologian, The First-Created Man, St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2013, pp. 47-48.
 St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies: Homily Eleven. Mt. Thabor Publishing, 2014, pg. 78.
 Ibid, Homily Sixteen, pg. 115.
 All of that is more eloquently discussed by St. Athanasius in his On the Incarnation.
A wonderful talk by Archimandrite Damascene on the Cross and Christ: http://orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/christcross.aspx