The propitiatory or expiatory* nature of Christ’s death on the Cross is perhaps poorly understood in much of contemporary Orthodox theological discussion, and as a result, the notion of the sacrificial atonement of Christ is often minimized or excluded altogether. As an almost knee-jerk reaction to Anselmian notions of penal substitution that have taken hold in the Catholic and Protestant West, Eastern Orthodox discussions of the Cross tend to focus upon the destruction of sin and death in classic Christus Victor terminology to the virtual exclusion of the sacrificial terminology of the Bible.
A fresh example of this has recently been published in a post by David O’Neal entitled “Orthodox-Buddhist Engagement in America (or anywhere else)” on the blog Red River Orthodox: Eastern Christianities Engaging “the West.”
In the post, the author, a self-proclaimed practitioner of both Orthodox Christianity and Zen Buddhism, describes the Orthodox notion of salvation thusly:
This encounter revealed salvation to be an unending process, an eternal movement expressed by the word theosis. This salvation was revealed in the person of Christ, in whom the transcendent, ineffable reality was revealed to be profoundly intimate with us and whose self-emptying death confirmed the truth he embodied to be indestructible.
This understanding of the death of Christ is not the Orthodox Gospel, because it omits any mention of the atoning nature of the death of Christ. In fact, the author himself admits his uneasiness with the atonement, stating:
Over the past thirty-five years, I’ve come to understand and accept a great deal more than I did the day I was chrismated, including some things that puzzled me at the first encounter, but there remain elements of our faith as they’ve been presented to me that I haven’t bought yet and may never. Among these is the notion of Christ’s death as atonement, an idea usually traced back to the Book of Hebrews.
The atonement of Christ is not merely “traced back to the Book of Hebrews” but is drawn from principles comprised of the entire Old Testament Scriptures. As a response to this stated uneasiness with the atonement of Christ’s death, I would like to discuss an Orthodox approach to the atonement by examining two passages of Scripture, Isaiah 53:3-6, 10a and Romans 3:25. (As a biblical scholar and Hebraist, I will discuss Isaiah 53 from the Hebrew text with the aim to establish it as being in harmony with Orthodox theology rather than in conflict with the notable variants found in the Septuagint version traditional within Orthodoxy.)
Isaiah 53:3-6, 10a
Contextually, Is. 53 is one of four “Servant Songs” found in Deutero-Isaiah (the second portion of the book comprising chapters 40-55, dealing with the Babylonian Exile), in addition to 42:1-4, 49:1-6, and 50:4-9. These hymns all speak of an enigmatic “Servant of Yahweh†” variously interpreted by Christians and Jews as being Jerusalem and/or the Messiah. Both interpretations are in fact compatible with Orthodox Christian theology, and arguably the combination of the two provides the fullest interpretation.
Verses 3-6 and 10a provide the problematic crux of the Song, here given in Hebrew with my own translation, made overly literal for the purposes of making connections between repeated words, indicated by bold type. (There are no significant differences between the text of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Masoretic Text).
|(3)נבזה וחדל אישים
וידוע חליוכמסתר פנים מננו
נבזה ולא חשבנהו
(4) אכן חלינו הוא נשא
ואנחנו חשבנהו נגוע
(5) והוא מחלל מפשענו
מוסר שלומנו עליו
(6) כלנו כצאן נעינו
(10a) ויהוה חפץ דכאו החלי
|Despised and rejected by men
A man of pains
And acquainted with sickness,And as turning [our] face from him
He was despised, and we did not esteem him.
Surely he has borne our sickness,
We esteemed him stricken,
And he was pierced for our transgressions,
The chastisement of our peace was upon him,
All we like sheep have gone astray,
And it pleased Yahweh to crush him – he has made him sick.
The Servant of Yahweh as depicted in this text is most naturally understood as a personification of Jerusalem, destroyed by the Babylonians in 596 BC. Similar to the book of Lamentations, this song is a lament on the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, once the glorious dwelling of God, now “despised and rejected,” acquainted with pain and sickness. Yet the song is also a theological reflection upon this cataclysmic event, whereby the Jews attached profound meaning to an otherwise senseless act of destruction. The author makes a significant move in separating the identity of the people from the city of Jerusalem, for he knew that a remnant of the people had been saved from the destruction of Jerusalem by being taken into exile. Jerusalem was destroyed, yet they were spared. The author realized that the destruction that was due them because of their idolatrous sin was instead placed upon Jerusalem itself as a substitution, thus making the destruction of Jerusalem an expiating sacrifice for the sin of the people now saved in exile. As in the days of Joshua, when the armies of Israel purified the Holy Land of Israel from the idolatrous Canaanites through holy war (ḥerem), so now the Holy Land had been purified of idolaters—this time, God’s covenant people themselves.
This notion of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile as sacrificial atonement fits within the broader scheme of ancient Israelite religion, where holiness and ritual purity were maintained as the means by which the covenant people of God enjoyed his presence. The Land and the People were holy, set apart to God, and purified of all idolatrous pollution that would render them profane and separated from their holy God. When any sin threatened to sully the holy purity of God’s people or the land, sacrifices would be made, which would expiate or destroy the sin symbolically placed upon the sacrificial victims. The blood of the sacrifices purified and sanctified the people, reconciling them to their covenant relationship with God. When the idolatry of the people became too great, God determined to make a final expiation of the sin of idolatry by destroying the Holy City of Jerusalem. Just as with an animal sacrifice, the substituted sacrificial victim was destroyed while the offending sinner was saved. So Jerusalem became the substituted sacrificial victim while the exiled remnant was saved. Yahweh laid the iniquity of the people upon the city, and he was “pleased to crush” the city. In what way was he pleased to do so? It was not that God was pleased to inflict punishment upon his people or destroy his abode among them, rather, he was please to purify the city and eradicate idolatry from it.
Understanding the Servant of Yahweh in Isaiah 53 as representing Jerusalem as an expiating sacrifice for the remnant exilic people now allows us to extend its interpretation to Jesus the Messiah as the Servant of Yahweh. From 586 to 596 BC, Jerusalem became a place of atonement, whereby the sin of Israel was expiated and destroyed, and this notion of a “place of atonement” is the precise meaning of the Greek term ἱλαστήριον as used by St. Paul in Romans 3:25:
|ὃν προέθετο ὁ θεὸς ἱλαστήριον διὰ τῆς πίστεως ἐν τῷ αὐτοῦ αἵματι εἰς ἔνδειξιν τῆς δικαιοσύνης αὐτοῦ διὰ τὴν πάρεσιν τῶν προγεγονότων ἁμαρτημάτων.||Whom God set as a place of atonement through faith in his blood for the demonstration of his righteousness on account of passing over formerly committed sins.|
As the sins of all Israel were placed upon Jerusalem resulting in its destruction, so then the Messiah took upon himself the sins of the whole world and was destroyed through his death upon the cross. As in Isaiah 53:6 and 10a, God is the agent of this action. It was God who established Jerusalem as a place of atonement and it is God the Father who sets up his own Son as the place of atonement, a true atonement foreshadowed by the sacrifice of animals under the Law of Moses. Whereas God had previously overlooked sin requiring only animal sacrifice, which accomplished nothing (Heb.10:4), he now moves to expiate the sins of the whole world in order to demonstrate his righteousness. Those who have faith in the sacrificial blood of the Messiah enjoy the benefits of this expiation. This stands in contrast to the Anselmian notion of penal substitutionary atonement. Rather than “punishing” sinners, God expiates or destroys their sin.
Within the divine economy of salvation, there are, to use St. Paul’s terms in Romans 9, “vessels of wrath” and “vessels of mercy.” Vessels of wrath are those vessels chosen by God to bear the expiation of sin: Jerusalem at the beginning of the Exile, Jesus the Messiah at his crucifixion, and as St. Paul explains in Romans 9-11, the unbelieving Jews today. Because the vessels of wrath bear the wrath of God upon sin, the vessels of mercy, the remnant people of God chosen by grace, enjoy the demonstration of the righteousness of God as salvation. But, as Jerusalem was destroyed, so it was rebuilt, as the temple of the Messiah was destroyed, so it was also rebuilt in three days, and as the Jews have been “cast off,” so St. Paul tells us their acceptance will be as “life from the dead.” The vessels of wrath are never entirely obliterated, but as Isaiah 53 continues in verse 10b, “He shall see his seed, / He shall prolong his days, / And the pleasure of Yahweh shall prosper in his hand.”
The atonement of Christ may be difficult to understand outside of the context of ancient Israelite sacrifice and the Jewish theological reflection on the Babylonian Exile. However, contextualized by the Jewish background of Christianity, the principle of an expiating atonement may be described and championed as an essential element of Orthodox theology without recourse to Anselmian language of “punishment” or penal substitutionary atonement. The Orthodox East has conditioned itself to speak of the atonement of Christ as accomplishing the “death of death,” the destruction of sin and death by the death of Christ, and this language is essentially the same as that of expiation, for expiation is the destruction of sin and the death that it causes. Because of the foreign nature of Israelite sacrifice, the sacrificial language of the atonement may be poorly understood and thus minimized, yet it remains vitally important and completely compatible with Orthodox theology. As the above linked blog post by David O’Neal illustrates, it remains properly the “stumbling block” by which the Gospel of Jesus Christ may be distinguished from counterfeits, though they be dressed up in Orthodox verbiage of “theosis” and “kenosis.” There is no theosis without the expiatory sacrifice of Jesus Christ, nor is his kenosis meaningful save that his “emptying” was that of taking upon himself the sins of the whole world.
* We might understand expiation of sins as if sins were like germs on a dirty countertop. The countertop is sprayed with Lysol, which destroys the germs, and they are wiped away clean. Propitiation is a term used to describe the worshipper who offers a sacrifice in order to appease the wrath of a deity. Phenomenologically, propitiation describes the act of the worshipper, while expiation describes the effect of the sacrifice itself. For our purposes, we will focus upon the expiatory nature of Christ’s death on the cross.
† While there are some who avoid the use of the full pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton, YHWH, the vocalization “Yahweh” has become the standard pronunciation accepted throughout academia and is believed to be a fairly accurate pronunciation of the name of the God of Israel. While some may regard it as being too holy to pronounce, Christians regard the name of Jesus as being the most holy name of God, which we pronounce in every tongue, confessing that “Jesus Christ is Lord.”