An Orthodox Understanding of the Atonement

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How does the Eastern Orthodox Church view and articulate the atonement of our Lord? This question arises from many converts to the Eastern Orthodox Church, particularly here in America. Many come to the Eastern Orthodox Church looking to leave behind what they may consider harsh or even terrifying notions of God unleashing His wrath upon His Son on the cross. This can become strained when they then come to see the Orthodox Church, through Her fathers and hymnography, employ the same terms and verbiage as their former tradition. So, does the Eastern Orthodox Church thus employ a Penal Substitution model of the atonement?

In short, no, She does not. How, then, should we properly order these terms, and their application, to properly understand the Church’s teaching on the atonement? A short gloss of the Evangelical concept of Penal Substitution (from here “PSA”) is that God required someone who was equal to Him in rank to satisfy the breaking of His Law, in order that He might remain just and that there be justice. In this view, God pours out His wrath upon Christ, wrath due to us in our sins, and since Christ is equal to God—since He is God—this satisfies the besmirchment of the Law, that first disobedience of Adam.

There are a lot of terms there, all of which are used by the fathers. However, the Eastern Orthodox Church not only understands these terms in a radically different way than do Evangelicals, they are also radically different in their application. Let’s go through each term, one by one.

What is the Orthodox understanding of justice?

But further, Almighty God is celebrated as justice, as distributing things suitable to all, both due measure, and beauty, and good order, and arrangement, and marking out all distributions and orders for each, according to that which truly is the most just limit, and as being Cause for all of the free action of each. For the Divine Justice arranges and disposes all things, and preserving all things unmingled and unconfused, from all, gives to all existing beings things convenient for each, according to the due falling to each existing thing.

~St. Dionysios the Areopagite, Divine Names, Caput 8.7

St. Dionysios reveals to us that when the Church and the Scriptures employ the term “justice,” it is not a legal term, but one regarding the proper order of things. Divine justice is the perfect intended ordering of the cosmos by God. Divine justice does not only refer to the pre-lapsarian (before “the Fall”) order of the cosmos, but also to the way God originally intended Adam to pastorally guide the cosmos. In the Crucifixion, we are given something more than what Adam had in the Garden.

St. Mark the Ascetic says, “Afflictions bring blessing to man; self-esteem and sensual pleasure, evil” (On Spiritual Law 42, Philokalia vol. 1).

In this world, what we consider pleasure is evil because it is a continuation of the unstructured-ness, or the fallenness of creation. But afflictions in this world are a direct result of the re-ordering to that original and perfect order. As we just went over, this is what we call Divine justice. It would be unjust for God to leave His creation disordered, to leave us in our fallen state. The only just thing for God to do would be to undo it. This undoing, and in fact redoing, causes us affliction, as stated directly above. This affliction some refer to as satisfaction, specifically, the satisfying of the return to the natural order. Where the non-Orthodox tend to use “satisfaction” to refer to something that affects or pertains to God having His wrath “satisfied,” the Church understands satisfaction as something affecting or pertaining to man. We see here that not only is satisfaction understood radically differently, it is applied radically differently.

Why, then, does the apostle say that God is reconciled with man? (cf. Rom 5:10, 2 Cor. 5:18, 5:20, Col. 1:20-21).

St. Dionysios the Areopagite. Photo: St. Dionysios the Areopagite. Photo:
But the gifts of the unfailing Power pass on, both to men and living creatures, and plants, and the entire nature of the universe; and It empowers things united for their mutual friendship and communion, and things divided for their being each within their own sphere and limit, without confusion, and without mingling; and preserves the order and good relations of the whole, for their own proper good, and guards the undying lives of the individual angels inviolate; and the heavenly and the life-giving and astral bodies and orders without change: and makes the period of time possible to be.

~St. Dionysios the Areopagite, Divine Names, Caput 8.5

The Superessential Power not only empowers all things—it resides in all things. Man is not only reconciled with Eden, with creation, but creation is reconciled with man. The energizing Power, which is God, and which was before the foundation of the world, is reconciled with man. Paradise, that bosom of Abraham, which is God Himself, which once spit out man, welcomes man. It “reconciles” itself with man. I believe we can even take this further: The Image, which is God, and which we have scarred, reconciles itself with man. The nous, that great and wondrous conduit to things unknown, dark and dirtied as we have made it, is reconciled in man. Our actions, filled with the energizing Power, are one hundred percent ours, and one hundred percent God’s, thus reconciling our actions with God within ourselves.

This wondrous and great gift is also unmerited, which is why Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other (Ps. 85:10). Divine justice, that perfect original ordering of the world, with things living in accordance with their nature, is a direct outflowing of truth: Justice is akin to an energy of truth, a perceiving of that which is true, and mercy is a direct outworking of His justice. As St. Augustine writes in his commentary on the same psalter verse: For if thou not love righteousness, thou shalt not have peace, and as the Beatitude says, Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Some may say that I have simply rehashed what is commonly referred to as the Christus Victor model of the atonement, except that Christus Victor still suffers from the same Monergism, that concept that God gives salvation to an individual regardless of his cooperation, as does PSA. As highlighted above both in the commentary by St. Augustine and the Beatitude, these are actions that we ourselves must take. That is why the Orthodox Church espouses a synergistic concept of the atonement. There are actions we must take. Apply this to John 14: I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life—they are intricately woven together. When you are on the Way, that is doing righteous works and learning the proper ordering of things, which is Truth, you are given Life.

This Divine Justice, then, is celebrated also even as preservation of the whole, as preserving

and guarding the essence and order of each, distinct and pure from the rest; and as being genuine cause of each minding its own business in the whole... And since, without missing the mark of the sacred theology, one might celebrate this preservation as redeeming all things existing, by the goodness which is preservative of all, from falling away from their own proper goods, so far as the nature of each of those who are being preserved admits; wherefore also the Theologians name it redemption, both so far as it does not permit things really being to fall away to nonexistence, and so far as, if anything should have been led astray to discord and disorder, and should suffer any diminution of the perfection of its own proper goods, even this it redeems from passion and listlessness and loss.

~St. Dionysios the Areopagite, Divine Names, Caput 8.9

We understand the redemption of the world to be precisely a restoration of it to its original state, while also being a reconciliation of man to God and God to man. Our love for the fallen world, for this improper order, brings affliction upon ourselves. So God, because He is just, in His mercy sends His only Son to redeem the world. He satisfies our fallen state by redeeming and reconciling the world both to and in Himself, but also to and in ourselves. He invites us to become co-workers with Him in this great restoration, and, leading us on the way of righteousness, teaches us truth, and ultimately, grants us life everlasting.

Jonathan Hill


David Morrison7/10/2023 5:06 pm
To the Edidtor...I just read your answer to my comment here of Dec., '22. I don't appreciate it being hinted that I made something up. The priest mentioned in my comment...a priest in Washington State...did say to me that the Blood of Christ didn't do a thing for me or anyone else. I will privately give you his name and parish if you like.
scott foresman12/29/2022 7:05 am
“By the blood of God the poison of the serpent is washed away; and the curse of a just condemnation is loosed by the unjust punishment inflicted on the Just” “For it was fitting that wood should be healed by wood, and that through the Passion of One who knew not passion should be remitted all the sufferings of him who was condemned because of wood” from 'Great Vespers of The Universal Exaltation of the Cross'
Editor12/17/2022 9:23 pm
David M: Although it seems an unlikely story, if this really did happen, surely it is the failing of that one priest. The Orthodox Church of course believes, as stated in the Liturgy, "My Blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you and for many, for the remission of sins." It would be very strange for a priest to celebrate the Liturgy, read these words, and yet not believe them, and moreover tell his parishioners not to believe in them. You would have done well to simply find another priest. That is, if this really happened.
David M.12/17/2022 7:55 pm
Holy Scripture is quite clear...please read Romans 5:9 and II Corinthians 5: 19 1 20...that the shed Blood of Christ on Calvary does, in fact, reconcile us to God. Our Lord Himself says, on that last Passover night, that the Cup is the New Covenant in His Blood shed for the forgiveness of sins "for many". And again it is written: "Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins." A few years ago, in the Orthodox parish I was attendng, right after Confession, I was praying a thanks that the priest overheard. In it I thanked God for sending His Son to die for us. The priest stopped me and asked, "You don't really believe the Blood of Christ did anything for you or anyone else, do you now?" His mockery made me leave the Orthodox churches.
Yasen12/20/2021 11:20 pm
The Patriarchal encyclical from 1895 by the Constantinopolitan Patriarch Anthimus VII (1895-1896) from 1895 which is a reply to the Papal encyclical of Pope Leo XIII (1853-1903) Praeclara Gratulationis publicae (On the Reunion of Christendom) summarizes the heretical deviations of the Papacy but does not mention the penal subsitutionary atonement: ,,VI. And indeed for the holy purpose of union, the Eastern orthodox and catholic Church of Christ is ready heartily to accept all that which both the Eastern and Western Churches unanimously professed before the ninth century, if she has perchance perverted or does not hold it. And if the Westerns prove from the teaching of the holy Fathers and the divinely assembled Ecumenical Councils that the then orthodox Roman Church, which was throughout the West, even before the ninth century read the Creed with the addition, or used unleavened bread, or accepted the doctrine of a purgatorial fire, or sprinkling instead of baptism, or the immaculate conception of the ever-Virgin, or the temporal power, or the infallibility and absolutism of the Bishop of Rome, we have no more to say. But if, on the contrary, it is plainly demonstrated, as those of the Latins themselves, who love the truth, also acknowledge, that the Eastern and orthodox catholic Church of Christ holds fast the anciently transmitted doctrines which were at that time professed in common both in the East and the West, and that the Western Church perverted them by divers innovations, then it is clear, even to children, that the more natural way to union is the return of the Western Church to the ancient doctrinal and administrative condition of things; for the faith does not change in any way with time or circumstances, but remains the same always and everywhere, for 'there is one body and one Spirit,' it is said, 'even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all." ( The Patriarch mentions the biggest heretical deviations of Rome - the Filioque addition to the Creed, the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist, the purgatory, the practice of sprinkling instead of immersion in baptism, immaculate conception of the Most Holy Virgin Mary, the teaching of the created grace, the infallibility and the claim for supremacy of the Pope. But he does not mention among them the penal subsitutionary atonement in the above-mentioned aspect. It is evident that throughout the whole history of the Orthodox Church the penal subsitutionary atonment was never refuted and so was not considered an non-Orthodox teaching which is a Western influence. So the theory that it is a Western influence on Orthodox theology is a 20th century modernistic myth. There must be noted that modernists recognize the term PSA only in the sense of Christ saving us from death by subsitututing it with His Death on the Cross but reject the term in the sense of Christ saving us from God's wrath and the eternal punishment - the second death, by substituting with the penalty of the Cross the penalty awaiting the unrepented sinners.
Yasen12/20/2021 11:17 pm
The monks mention celebrating the claim for the primacy of the pope, celebrating the Eucharist with unleavened bread, the Filioque. But they do not mention the penal substitutionary atonement and the satisfaction of God’s wrath as a Roman heresy. But they do not mention the penal substitutionary atonement as a Roman Catholic heresy. The differences between the East and West were discussed also during the negotiations at the Councils of Ferrara 1438-1439) and Florence (1439-1449) that led to the setting of the Ferraro-Florentine union of Rome and the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1452. In his 1444 Encyclical letter ( St.Mark of Ephesus who opposed the establishing of the union, mentions among the fundamental heresies of the Roman Church the Filoque, the addition to the Creed, the claim for the supremacy of the pope, the celebrating of the Eucharist with an unleavened bread, the purgatory, the moment of the consecration of the Blessed Sacrament. But he does not mention among the fundamental heresies of the Roman Church the penal substitutionary atonement. In his 1570s' letters to the Lutheran theologians of Tubingen, Patriarch Jeremias of Constantinople (1572-1595) does not mention, especially in his commentaries on the Augsburg confession of faith, the mentioned aspect of the penal substitutionary atonement as a false teaching of the Lutherans. The Pan-Orthodox Council of Constantinople of 1672 which condemned Calvinism and the total depravity of the unregenerate man, and affirmed the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father alone, also does not mention as a heresy of Western Christianity the penal subsitutionary atonement. The Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs of 1848 to Pope Pius IX summarizes the main heretical deviations of the Papacy – the Filioque, the papal claim of supremacy over the Church by jurisdiction but does not mention the penal subsitutionary atonement among the biggest heretical deviations of Rome.
Yasen12/20/2021 11:16 pm
Yes, God’s wrath is not a passion because the divine nature is passionless. But the penal substitutionary atonement which is the legal understanding of Christ’s Sacrifice as satisfaction of God’s wrath in the sense that Christ fulfilled God’s justice by dying instead of us, thus saving us from mortality and from the otherwise impending penalty for our sins - the second death in the Gehenna which is the eternal punishment for the unrepented sinners, is an Orthodox teaching. If we go through the history of the Orthodox polemics with the West regarding the Western deviations of the ancient faith. We will see nowhere a rejection by the Orthodox theologians of the penal subsitutionary atonement as supposedly a Western error. If the penal substitutionary atonement in the mentioned aspect, was a Western heresy, it would have been condemned as such exactly in the polemics of the Orthodox with the West, for example during the attempts for a union between Rome and the Eastern Orthodox Church because during those attempts there clearly arose the dogmatic differences between the East and the West. In the Encyclical letter of St.Photius (867) to the Eastern patriarchs (when Rome had not yet fallen into a schism but had already embraced heresies), St.Photious mentions the heresies of Rome. ( He mentions the heresies of Rome – the celibacy of the priesthood, the rejection of the validity of the chrismation made by priests, the fasting on Saturdays, the heretical Filioque addition in the Creed. But he does not mention the penal subsitutionary atonement. The Definition of faith of the Local Council of Blachernae, in Constantinople ( 1157 CE) says that God was offended when His commandment was violated by the first man: ,,…The God-man Word during the Lord's Sufferings, brought the Salvific Sacrifice to the Father, to Himself and to the Spirit, from Whom (plural – the Three Persons) man was summoned from nothingness to being, Whom (pl.) he offended, violating the commandment, and with Whom (pl.) the reconciliation was made through the sufferings of Christ. ...‘‘ After the acceptance by emperor Michael VIII Paleologos of an union with Rome which was, however, short-lived, the Athonite monks of the Bulgarian Zographou monastery sent a letter to the emperor in which they pointed out the major heretical teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and the penal subsitutionry atonement in the aspect of Christ taking the penalty of the Cross as a replacement of the everlasting punishement of the hell fire that we would otherwise undergo, thus saving us from that everlasting punishment, was not among them: ''26 Monkmartyrs of the Zographou Monastery on Mount Athos In the year 1274 at the Council of Lyons (in France), the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Paleologos decided to buttress his waning power by forming a union with Catholic Rome. This step evoked universal discontent. In 1278, the emperor issued a decree to introduce the Union at Constantinople by forceful measures, if necessary. Mt. Athos stood in firm opposition to the Union. The Athonite monks sent a letter to Michael pointing out that the primacy of the Pope, his commemoration in the churches, celebrating the Eucharist with unleavened bread, the insertion of the “filioque” [“and from the Son”] into the Creed, could not be accepted by Orthodox, and they asked the emperor to change his mind. “We clearly see,” the letter said, “that you are becoming a heretic, but we implore you to forsake all this and abide in the teachings that were handed down to you.... Reject the unholy and novel teachings of a false knowledge, speculations, and additions to the Faith. (
Joa Hatz5/1/2018 9:35 am
Can someone please recommend good, academic books on the orthodox view of the atonement?
Castrese Tipaldi7/29/2017 3:44 pm
Christ had to die as a man in order to be resurrected, in the body, and free us from the bondage which subjects this world, because of the Fall, to the evil one, a bondage aptly summed up in a few words: the fear of death!

A sacrifice was necessary, indeed, a sacrifice for us, but to the satisfaction of nobody but us, our needs, and only in the measure that this satisfaction of our vital (in the true sense) needs is the good pleasure of God, then, to the satisfaction of God.

Death should be destroyed, but only in a way preserving our free choice, to join the Way (and this means the Cross in this world), teached by the Truth, to Life everlasting.
Fr. John Whiteford7/28/2017 6:54 pm
St. Gregory Palamas:

"Man was led into his captivity when he experienced God's wrath, this wrath being the good God's just abandonment of man. God had to be reconciled with the human race, for otherwise mankind could not be set free from the servitude. A sacrifice was needed to reconcile the Father on high with us and to sanctify us, since we had been soiled by fellowship with the evil one. There had to be a sacrifice which both cleansed and was clean, and a purified and sinless priest" (Christopher Veniamin, trans. Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009) p. 124).

"Christ overturned the devil through suffering and His flesh which He offered as a sacrifice to God the Father, as a pure and altogether holy victim -- how great is His gift! -- and reconciled God to our human race" (p.125).

"For this reason the lord patiently endured for our sake a death He was not obliged to undergo, to redeem us, who were obliged to suffer death, from servitude to the devil and death, by which I mean death both of the soul and of the body, temporary and eternal. Since He gave His blood, which was sinless and therefore guiltless, as a ransom for us who were liable to punishment because of our sins, He redeemed us from our guilt. He forgave us our sins, tore up the record of them on the Cross and delivered us from the Devil's tyranny (cf. Col 2:14-15)"( p. 128f)."
Baboi George7/28/2017 3:04 pm
\\o// The Indian [Malankara] Orthodox founded by St Thomas in 52 A.D. where the paraphrase quoted as when Jesus Christ assures the disciples saying"I am the way, and the truth, and the life" emphasis the atonement. Doing the right [works] and discerning/choosing [TRUTH] we are given [Life] freedom- These are intrinsically linked... In Lifestyle application these are 'Divine Judgement' to paradise - May God Bless
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