One of the most common sayings in the Christian faith is that “Jesus saves.” The intellectual observer must ask, however: what, exactly, does Jesus save us from? Here, I will evaluate the Western and Eastern Christian views of this issue—known as atonement—and demonstrate how only the Eastern view is consistent with a loving God.
The most influential and pervasive view of the atonement in Western Christianity today is termed by scholars the penal substitution theory. This theory holds that the sins of Adam and Eve caused God to drive them away from Paradise and incurred his wrath against the human race. Furthermore, God, in his perfect nature, was obliged by necessity and his infinite justice to punish this sin by physical death and eternal condemnation in the tortures of Hell. Yet God, in his “love,” would not leave humankind in this unceasing despair; indeed, that his mercy may be shown, he sent his beloved son, Jesus Christ, to bear our sins and our punishments: guilt, death, and the eternal wrath of God. Christ therefore becomes a substitute for all of mankind, satisfying God’s justice by receiving upon himself the fullness of God’s wrath. Mankind, therefore, is spared from its due punishment, saved by the love and blood of Christ on the Cross.
Building on this view of the atonement, Western Christianity often envisions salvation as a decision by God. In this view, after our lives have run their course, God is seen as the perfect and just Judge, looking upon the entirety of our lives and assigning us either to eternal salvation or unending and unthinkable tortures in the pits of Hell. In this case and the previous one, it is clear that God himself is the source of death. In the case of salvation, God is actively assigning sinners to Hell; this is supposedly derived from his right as the God of the universe. In the former case, God punishes Adam and Eve—indeed, all of mankind—with death and his eternal wrath. Some will contend that death does not originate in God, but rather in sin itself, which brought about death. This is true enough, though it does nothing to differentiate between God’s actively assigning death as a punishment, or passively watching as men lead themselves into death. I argue that Western theology espouses the former, portraying a God who is offended by sin and punishes it with death.
However, these Western conceptions of atonement are flawed and, in fact, contrary to the nature of God. The foremost problem lies in that from which we are being saved. Under the penal substitution theory, we are being saved from the wrath of God. In this view, is not death a punishment by God for sin? When Adam and Eve sinned, were they not punished first by spiritual death, and later, by physical death? And when an individual lives a life of adultery, theft, and lust, is God not the perfect Judge who sends this person to Hell? What is it that we are truly being saved from? Some proponents of this theory hold that it is death and sin from which we are being saved; God, in his love, implemented his wrath on Jesus Christ that we may live free from sin and in communion with him. This sounds great—until you realize that death and Hell are only a reality because God punishes men who do not obey him. Isn’t it clear, then? Are we not being saved from the wrath of God himself?
Western theology’s espousal of salvation from God’s wrath is made even clearer when we closely study the atonement through Jesus Christ. Proponents of penal substitution will readily claim that Jesus Christ was crucified for none other than mankind. Punished with death and living in sin, humans were without hope and without a savior; but God, in his perfect mercy, sent his Son as a substitute for all, bearing the penalty that we, humans, were due! But a closer look reveals that Christ is assuming the penalties that were initially given by none other than God himself! Death, wrath, and condemnation, as we will recall from earlier, are all punishments of man by God. In this way, does not God the Father kill God the Son to fulfill his sense of justice? And for what, exactly? It is none other than the wrath of God. Thus we see that, in the atonement, Christ is saving us from the wrath of God. Westerners euphemistically call this “justice.” Others will call it what it is: an angry God senselessly killing his own son.
Is this what we know as justice?
Is God just, if he cannot forgive sin until he receives satisfaction of his wrath?
Do we love a God who threatens us with eternal death?
I don’t. And neither should you.
Fortunately, the Scriptures reveal a much different picture of God’s justice. In the parable of the vineyard, a landowner hires workers throughout the day to work at his vineyard. Some workers toil for the entire day, while others who were hired at the end of the day worked significantly less. Yet, at the end of the day, the owner gives all the workers the same wage, and says to those who worked for the entire day, “I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Mt 20:13-15).
Moreover, in the famous parable of the prodigal son, will we claim that God is just when the Father gives the belligerent, disobedient younger son all of his riches, over the elder son who obeyed his Father all his life? Saint Isaac the Syrian writes that the prodigal son “wasted his wealth in riotous living, and yet only for the contrition which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck, and gave him authority over all his wealth.”
In this light, we see that God’s justice has nothing to do with our human perception of the idea. Rather, God’s justice is revealed to us in the Scriptures as his pure goodness and love, which are actually given in an unjust manner. In this way, we see that penal substitution imposes a human conception of justice—one where God demands punishment for sin and cannot freely forgive—onto God. Though this imagined deity may closely align with human judicial systems, it is not the God of Scripture.
The Eastern theology of the atonement and salvation proposes a radically different means of envisioning God. Beginning with the sins of Adam and Eve, this theory holds that in their sin, humankind was driven away from God, and thus death entered the world. The crucial difference, however, is that God is not punishing man with death; it is man actively choosing against God that lead to death. As Saint Irenaeus puts it, “Separation from God is death, separation from light is darkness… and it is not the light which brings upon them the punishment of blindness.” In this view, death is not a punishment by God; it happened in spite of his will. In granting mankind free will—the freedom to choose to be with or without him—God left the possibility open that men would leave him. And thus, following the metaphor of Saint Irenaeus, humankind strayed from God, the light, into darkness. Will we say that it was the light which blinded humankind? If a person finds shade from the sun, was it the sun which afforded this person shade? That would be foolish. Therefore, it was of humankind’s own volition that death entered the world.
The narrative of the atonement and salvation becomes a dramatically different one under Eastern theology. In considering the sins of humankind, God is not envisioned as reacting wrathfully and thus requiring satisfaction for his eternal justice; rather, God grieves and desperately reaches for man to come back to the light. Though he detests our sin, it is not us who he hates; rather, he detests sin precisely because it draws us away from him. His pride is not offended, nor does his sense of justice need to be fulfilled by inflicting wrath on Jesus Christ. Instead, in the Eastern understanding, the problem was in the nature of mankind itself. When Adam and Eve sinned, all of humanity did not suffer from the guilt of their action, but they did suffer the consequences: death, fragmentation, inclination to sin, brokenness, and separation, both from each other and from God. In this way, forgiveness of sin was not the problem; God could forgive our sins, but what could he do to the sting of death? Having sinned, death—both physical and spiritual—had taken hold of humanity.
The Eastern view of atonement, therefore, is this: Christ, while we were still sinners, was crucified and resurrected, bearing our sins and defeating death through death. In this way, humanity is being saved, not from the wrath of God, but rather the power of evil, which is death and sin. Christ, through his crucifixion and death-defying resurrection—defeats the power of evil which held humanity in bondage. It is for this reason that Eastern Christians often chant, “O death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and life reigns.” Having seen that the problem was not an offended, wrathful God who demanded punishment, but rather the power of evil which held mankind in bondage, Christ participates in this death and defeats it through his resurrection.
God therefore invites all to participate in Christ’s victory over evil. As the Apostle Paul declares, “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:10 -11).
Looking back to the West, I find myself wondering if there has ever been a time in history when so many people have hated God. Now, perhaps more than ever, atheists and agnostics have found reason to detest God. Most Christians would consider these people to have unjustifiably rejected God.
But I don’t.
How can I consider that someone has unjustifiably rejected God when he or she has been sold a lie about a wrathful God who is going to send people to eternal Hell when they die? Is not his or her hate justified? And is not the Christian who judges this person the one who is lacking in love?
To Christians and non-Christians alike: do not believe everything you have been told. God does not demand punishment for sin, nor did he senselessly kill his Son to appease his sense of justice. Do not threaten people with Hell, nor let yourselves be threatened by others with Hell. Do not believe in a wrathful God, nor convince others of this detestable fiction. God is loving, and he invites us all to participate in Christ’s victory over the power of evil.
The Claremont Ekklesia: Fall 2013 Issue