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.