From Father Thomas Hopko’s podcast, Speaking the Truth in Love:
What seems to be the teaching — and here we each have to read the Scriptures and follow the Church teachings and the councils and the Fathers to try to understand this properly — what seems to be the teachings is that he loves perfectly, he fulfills all righteousness, he fulfills all aspects of how we ought to relate to God properly. When we are fallen into sin — and God gives us the Law of Moses that is a pedagogos, a teacher to the coming of Christ — he fulfills all of the teachings of the Torah of Israel. He’s born into the world, he’s offered in the temple, he’s circumcised on the eighth day, he keeps the Law perfectly. It’s his perfect keeping of the Law, which is ultimately perfect love for God and neighbor, that is what redeems us. That is what is going to remove the wrath of God from us, because, if you have an Adam, a real Adam, a real human being, who really is God’s Son and lives like God’s Son, which we were all created to do — Adam and Eve, they were created to be children of God. Adam is called Son of God in Scripture. He was created to be really what God is by grace, and he failed through sin. But when he fails through sin, the way he gets forgiven and redeemed is not by offering sufficient punishment and pain according to the sins he has committed, it’s, rather, that he is saved by one who keeps the Law, who does the commandments. And it’s interesting, that in Orthodox Church Holy Week, over the tomb of Jesus, when he lies dead in the tomb, is the 118th/119th Psalm, the real long one about the commandments, the ordinances, the statutes, the words, the laws of God that are kept by Jesus that then save us and redeem us from the curse of the Law.
Because the curse is lifted for what reason? Not because sufficient punishment was made, but the curse is lifted because righteousness has been effected. You have a sinless life. You have a sinless messiah, taking on himself the sin and curse of the world, so that God’s wrath would not directed against us again, if we offer it to God, and he offers himself on our behalf to God, and we say to God, “Lord, we’re sinners. We’ve broken all the commandments, but our messiah, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has fulfilled all the commandments. He has done this for us and for our salvation.” That’s why he came into the world.
So, Jesus on the Cross is the perfect lover. He’s the perfect human being. He’s the absolutely sinless man and therefore he is that one man, that new Adam, who comes from heaven to fulfill the Law of God in our place, so that in and through him and by faith in him God will consider us righteous before himself, because we do finally have a human being, an Adam, that we can live according to him and therefore be delivered from the curse of the Law and the wrath of God.
I’ll be mulling this over for the foreseeable future, but this view of the atonement–which I hear primarily coming from the Orthodox quarters of Christianity–makes a lot of sense to me. Punishment in and of itself is arbitrary. The idea that Christ is someone who came to earth in order to take our place for the corporate punishment God had been inflicting on humanity does not fit well with the nature and effects of sin.
As I understand it, sin is a fundamental disordering and deteriorating force within the human person. (I’m getting this idea from Dante and Athanasius…among others). Death is the natural consequence of sin, not an imposed punishment from God. God doesn’t place people in hell the way parents will place their kids in timeout for breaking a rule. Sin goes to the heart of the individual, making them disposed to self-destruction.
If, as I believe it is, this is an accurate way of describing sin and its effects, then no amount of substitutionary punishment will resolve the problem of sin. I can imagine, for example, my brother willingly receiving the timeout punishment in my place, even though he didn’t break the rule about eating ice cream right before dinner. But what does it matter? My appetite is already ruined and my parents remain disappointed in what they perceive to be my brother’s behavior. No redemption of any kind has taken place. Sin continues to reign in my own heart even though I’ve escaped the punishment.
So what’s the alternative? Something like Hopko’s description of the atonement. In Christ, humanity itself is revitalized. We are shown a way forward, secure in the knowledge that salvation is possible thanks to the trail blazed by Christ and his ongoing intercessory work on our behalf.
Maybe I’m overstating the significance of this difference and/or maybe I’m wrong–Lord knows I’m not a professional theologian by any stretch of the imagination. But given the condition of human nature and the effects of sin, any understanding of the atonement–specifically how it works–requires a careful explanation that complicates and supplements the idea of Christ-as-substitute.