Eastern and Western Christians agree that sin separates humanity from God and that Christ reversed that separation. But what is sin, and what did Christ do to reverse it? That is where they disagree. This blog looks at the Differences in the understanding of sin, salvation, punishment, heaven and hell between East and West and between the ancient and modern.
How does the Eastern understanding of Christian salvation differ from that of the West? Before we begin to examine this question, there are two important things to note. The first is that in such a short piece of writing I am going to have to over simplify things horribly. Please do not take what I have written as the whole story or anything near it. If you are interested in getting a fuller picture, I will provide some further reading at the end. The other thing to note is that all Christians adhere and accept the basic statement of the Christian faith, as summarised in a Creed. In fact, the way we decide whether a church is truly Christian or not is whether they adhere to this kind of creed. The version of the ancient Christian creed the Orthodox Churches prefer is the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, the one we recite in every liturgy and many other formal prayers. Other Churches have creeds with slight variations on this one, but the variations are not really relevant to the discussion at hand.
But if we all hold to much the same creed, we do not all interpret it in the same way. Apparently, there is no official statement made by an ecumenical council on how the section about salvation in the basic Christian creed is to be interpreted, which is one reason why there are so many interpretations around. Starting with St Augustine, and moving through St Anselm and St Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church moved towards a view of salvation that cast God as something like a feudal lord dealing with his peasants or serfs. The ignorant and disobedient serfs withdrew their rightful service from their Lord, thus dishonouring or offending Him, and deserving punishment for this crime. “The honour taken away must be repaid, or punishment must follow” (St Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, book 1, chapter 8). Christ came to offer the service that we failed to offer, thus restoring the honour of the Father and averting the need for us to be punished for our crime. The Protestant Reformation sought to interpret the Christian creed afresh, using only the Bible as a guide. But of course, the Bible too needs to be interpreted, and again, there can be many differing interpretations. Martin Luther and particularly John Calvin took St Anselm’s satisfaction model to the more extreme penal substitution model where Christ did not satisfy the wounded honour of the Father and offer the service humanity owed on their behalf, but actually took the punishment of their sin on their behalf. They also introduced a full legal vocabulary and explicitly legal precepts to describe what happens in salvation.
The Orthodox solution is to go back to the sources. How did the first Christians understand salvation? What analogies or models did they use to try to explain it? Here we find the Orthodox willingness to accept the mystery of salvation, an acknowledgement that we are simply not be capable of fully comprehending this profound mystery of God’s love, but that all we say about it will necessarily fall short of the reality. Nonetheless, we find in the writings and thought of the ancient Fathers much to guide us. These ancient principles have been elaborated and developed, and expressed in modern language by many of the great Orthodox theologians of the twentieth century in particular. This is a trend that has been dominated by the Eastern Orthodox family of the Church, but the Oriental Orthodox in general and the Coptic Church in particular are beginning to take on the task of returning to their ancient roots with increasing momentum, even as I write. This series of blogs is a small example of that trend.
So how did the ancient Christians interpret salvation? The two most common interpretations turn out to be those called the Ransom Theory (or Christus Victor) and the Moral Influence Theory. In oversimplified terms, the Ransom Theory sees human sin as selling us into slavery to the forces of evil. By sinning, we make ourselves members of the kingdom of darkness, and being enslaved by the corruption of our nature, we are unable to escape from our captor. Christ becomes human in order to begin the process of sanctifying humanity once more and restoring it to its original honour and purity, restoring it in fact, to that perfect image of God. He dies on the cross as a result of the powers of darkness and like all before Him, is swallowed up by darkness and death. In this way, He offered His life as “a ransom for many” (see Matthew 20:28 and 1 Timothy 2:6). But of course, Christ is not like any who came before Him, for He is not just a man, but God incarnate. Death cannot constrain the Author of Life, nor darkness the Uncreated Light, and so He burst forth from the bonds of death and thereby broke its power over humanity (whose nature He now shared) forever. This is where the other title for this interpretation comes in: Christus Victor simply means “Christ victorious”, and the victory He won was over the power of darkness and death. Because He is fully human, He has defeated death’s power forever over humanity and set them free.
This interpretation is beautifully expressed in a little rubric performed by the Coptic priest when he offers incense around the church during Raising of Incense or the liturgy. After spreading the beautiful aroma of the Gospel of Christ throughout the church (representing the world) he stops in the middle of the church and offers incense in the four cardinal directions while quietly making the following proclamation:
EAST: Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever.
In one hypostasis we worship and glorify Him.
This is He who offered Himself as an acceptable sacrifice on the Cross
For the salvation of our race.
NORTH: His Good Father inhaled His aroma in the evening on Golgotha.
WEST: He opened the gate of Paradise and restored Adam to his original rank.
SOUTH: Through His cross and His Holy Resurrection
He restored humanity once more to Paradise.
You will notice this is a summary of what we have just outlined above. And there is another expression of Christus Victor in the resurrection hymn (note the second line especially):
Christ is risen from the dead.
By death He trampled death,
And those who were in the tomb,
He granted them eternal life.
The second common interpretation of salvation in the early Church is the Moral Influence Theory. This focuses attention on Jesus as the perfect Man, humanity as it was always meant to be. One of the things you need if you are trying to rehabilitate yourself from illness is a goal to aim for, a template of perfect health to copy. By becoming a full human being, the Logos of God gave us that template. When we hear His teachings and follow them, when we observe the example of His life and emulate it, we are thereby transformed, little by little, with the grace of God working in us, and we become more and more like God, whose likeness we see perfected in Christ.
Now these and other ancient interpretations of salvation are not mutually exclusive. They complement each other and each gives us a different insight into what God did when He saved us. They are, however, in stark contrast to the interpretation of salvation that gained popularity in the West and came to dominate both Catholic and Protestant thinking. This we can call the Penal Substitution view. As we saw earlier, it portrays God as a powerful Master who is somehow offended by sin. Sin becomes a crime against His goodness, and of course, crimes are justly judged and punished (hence the ‘penal’ part of the name). When His beloved human creation falls into sin, the Great Judge cannot revoke His own laws and the punishments they prescribe, for that would mean God is inconsistent with Himself. Therefore, He devises a way to solve the problem: He will send His own Son into the world as a human, and as a human, He will substitute for all humanity and bear the punishment which they earned for themselves by sinning (hence the ‘substitution’ part of the name). Thus the price of sin will be paid, justice will be satisfied, and humanity can walk free to return to a blessed state with God.
Many Copts will be familiar with this story, for it has seeped in to Coptic life over the centuries, most probably due to the influence of Western visitors, missionaries and Crusaders and tourists of various ages of history. And it is true that the ancient Fathers do occasionally use the language of crime and punishment to describe sin and salvation – even some passages in the Bible use this language. But if we go back and study the overall thought of the ancient Christians we find that this was never understood as something to take literally.
In fact, if we go into the very language we use in the Coptic liturgy we will find a powerful insight into how its ancient authors understood sin and salvation. Consider the phrase we repeat in the hymn before the readings. “Grant us the forgiveness of our sins”. Now in English (and Arabic for that matter), that is easy to fit into a Penal Substitution view; we are asking the Judge to be lenient with us in spite of our crimes. But the Coptic original is “ari-ehmot nan em-pi-ko evol ente nen-novi”. The critical words here “ko evol” which literally means, ‘put away’ or ‘cast away’ our sins. We are asking for God to remove our sins from us, to excise or extract our sins from us. While this meaning can be made to fit a legal interpretation, it fits far more naturally into the health interpretation: sin is a disease that we ask the Physician to please remove from us, that we may be healthy again.
This becomes even more obvious in the congregation’s response at the end of the Sanctus of St Basil’s liturgy: when the priest reminds us that Christ will come to judge each one according to their deeds, we respond, “According to Your mercy, O Lord, and not according to our sins”. The Greek word we use here for sin is “hamartia” which literally means, ‘to miss the mark’ as in an archer missing his target. This word reflects the ancient Christian understanding of sin as missing the point. It is not so much a crime as a failure. When we sinned, we forgot who we really were, we ceased to live the lives for which we were made, we forgot our destination and lost our way. Now the cure for this kind of error is not punishment but correction; we need to be set straight again, we need to be put back on the right path.
But it might be responded that the priest used the word ‘judge’ in the priest’s prayer that precedes this response, when he says that Christ is coming again to “judge the world in equity” and “give each one according to his deeds”. Doesn’t that indicate a judicial interpretation? Well, if you take both words together, you find it makes far more sense to understand judging here not in a legal sense of crime and punishment, but in the sense of judging an Olympic gymnastic competition, or judging which tomatoes are ripe and which are not. The Great Judgment is thus understood not as time of divine revenge for misdeeds, but as time when the truth comes out. Christ sorts us into sheep and goats not as punishment or reward, but as a matter of proclaiming or revealing to the world the truth of what each of us has chosen to become; whether each of us has hit the mark or sadly missed it.
When you take divinely revealed truth and tinker with it, things go wrong. As far as I can see, the ancient interpretation of salvation fits together perfectly and consistently. But this cannot be said of the Penal Substitution interpretation. For example, it requires that God be capable of being offended, like a human being. How exactly is the unchanging God’s infinite majesty and glory lessened by the sins a puny human being? It also means that the God of Love asks for the most horrible and evil death of His own Son, just to “satisfy His own honour”. And many have questioned how we can reconcile the all-loving nature of God with His apparent refusal to simply forgive human sin once the person has repented. Robin Collins illustrates this nicely with a parable:
There was a man who had two sons. The younger said to his father, “Father, give me my share of the estate.” So the father divided his property between them.
Not long after that, the younger son went off to a distant country, squandered all he had in wild living, and ended up feeding pigs in order to survive. Eventually he returned to his father, saying, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me one of your hired servants.”
But his father responded: “I cannot simply forgive you for what you have done, not even so much as to make you one of my hired men. You have insulted my honor by your wild living. Simply to forgive you would be to trivialize sin; it would be against the moral order of the entire universe. For ‘nothing is less tolerable in the order of things than for a son to take away the honor due to his father and not make recompense for what he takes away.’Such is the severity of my justice that reconciliation will not be made unless the penalty is utterly paid. My wrath–my avenging justice–must be placated.'”
“But father, please…” the son began to plead.
“No,” the father said, “either you must be punished or you must pay back, through hard labor for as long as you shall live, the honor you stole from me.”
Then the elder brother spoke up. “Father, I will pay the debt that he owes and endure your just punishment for him. Let me work extra in the field on his behalf and thereby placate your wrath.”
And it came to pass that the elder brother took on the garb of a servant and labored hard year after year, often long into the night, on behalf of his younger brother. And finally, when the elder brother died of exhaustion, the father’s wrath was placated against his younger son and they lived happily for the remainder of their days.
We may seriously question whether the father in this parable is really a good reflection of God’s Fatherhood. He certainly seems quite different from the Father depicted in the original parable told by Jesus. And yet, this parable accurately depicts how the God of Western theology reacts to human sin.
The Eastern model, on the other hand, accords beautifully with Christ’s original parable. Rather than being indignant over His younger son’s misbehaviour, the Father sorrows. Upon his repentance and return, the Father rejoices and expects no compensation form the younger son, nor does He insist on giving him the punishment he most surely deserves. The Father in the original parable is not so much concerned with His own rights, nor His own dignity that has been wronged, nor even with simple justice (hence the anger of the older son). He is concerned with the healing of His diseased son, with the restoration of His lost son, and with the resurrection of His dead son. This is truly a Being of consistent, pure and unlimited Love. This is the kind of God who changes people from the inside, transforming their fallen and selfish natures into natures of sincere and whole-hearted divine love, rather than the kind of God who governs through fear and the rule of law, and thus exacts only outwards obedience.
So the Eastern model sees God more as a compassionate Physician than as a stern Judge. Sin is not a crime so much as it is a disease, one we choose by our own free will. God is not offended by sin, but rather weeps over it, for it is the corruption of the perfection in which He created us, and His goal is not to punish us, but to heal us and restore us once more to our original state in His image and likeness. But where then does punishment come into it, for it is surely present in both the Bible and the ancient Fathers? Well, punishment is seen not as something imposed by God upon the sinner, but as the natural consequence of sin. If you move out of the light, where is there left for you to go but darkness? If you reject life, what remains but death?
It is remarkable how many of the contradictions and problems that the Western understanding of salvation raises are simply dissolved away by the Eastern understanding. Sin cannot harm God in any way, but it does make His creation less good than it should have been, and that is something that is natural for God to work to reverse. And no longer is God asking His Son to suffer horribly to satisfy His offended honour, but the Son willingly chooses to “enter the leper colony” with the medicine that can heal the lepers. He is even willing to endure the lepers turning on Him and killing Him (they are sick people, after all!) just so long as He can heal them in the end. And it explains nicely why God couldn’t just “forgive everyone” and pretend it never happened: when we sin, something changes in us so that we no longer desire goodness or truth or light or life. We use the free will He gave us as a good gift to reject the Giver in favour of selfishness. We do not want to be with God, for we choose instead to be our own god. The problem is not an offended God who needs to get over it, but a sick patient who no amount of forgiveness is going to heal. The patient needs therapy, not good wishes, and that is what Christ came to do according to the Ransom / Christus Victor and Moral Influence theories we discussed above.
This interpretation also has consequences for how we understand heaven and hell. Now there is a difference between Western and Eastern theology about where we go when we die. In Western thought we go straight to heaven or hell, come back for judgement at the end of the world, and then go back again to heaven or hell. But the Eastern view is that the disembodied soul goes into a state of diminished, disembodied existence, a half-life if you will, since without a body we are incomplete humans. This “Waiting Place” or intermediate state is called Paradise if one is good, but Hades if one is evil, and the good or evil we have chosen to be is its own reward or punishment. Then at the Judgment, the soul is resurrected in a spiritual yet physical body of which the resurrected Christ was the prototype, is judged, and then passes to its eternal state in Heaven or Hell. This model certainly makes more sense of the Biblical passages than the Western view.
But it is not this difference I wish to highlight here. Rather it is the question of how a good God can cast the humans He created into an eternal punishment in Hell. Why not give them a second chance, or even a millionth chance if that is what it would take to save them? The Western view has no answer for this, other than that God has made His rules and cannot change them, infinite love notwithstanding. But the Eastern view resolves this dilemma immediately, when we remember that sin is a disease, not a crime. If the patient prefers to be sick but independent of God, then God honours his free choice and gives him what he wants. Like the father of the prodigal son in the real parable, God punishes no one, but the son is in fact punishing himself so long as he chooses to remain starving in the pig-sty. And that is the Eastern conception of Hell. It is not locked from the outside with suffering prisoners pounding on the door for release, only to have their entreaties fall on deaf divine ears, but it is locked on the inside, and the prisoners are there of their own choosing. And of course, this interpretation leaves no room for the Catholic doctrines of purgatory where you can ‘pay off your debt’ to God and then qualify for heaven, nor for the excess ‘virtues’ of Christ and the saints that you can acquire by praying extra masses and put against your loved ones’ account in purgatory to shorten their time there.
What makes the Eastern view even more appealing is its lineage. The fact that it is so ancient, that it was the most common view to be found in the thought of the first Christians, makes it more likely to be truer to the original Gospel of Christ as He bestowed it upon His disciples and followers. In the next post we shall see that this ancient basis is applied in Orthodox Christianity to more than just theories of salvation.
Further Reading: The Orthodox Way, by Kallistos Ware.
 Robin Collins. 1995. Understanding Atonement: A New and Orthodox Theory. Work in progress.
http://home.messiah.edu/~rcollins/Philosophical%20Theology/Atonement/AT7.HTM accessed November 2013.