A Better Atonement: Union with God

A Better Atonement: Union with God February 22, 2012

Every Wednesday during Lent, I’m going to explore an alternatives to the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement, the dominant theory of the atonement in my part of the (theological and geographical) world. You can read all of the posts, and my past posts on this topic, here. I’ve got an ebook on the subject as well.

This ebook is available now

Orthodox Christians do not suffer under the long, long shadow of Augustine. Now, Augustine was arguably the most brilliant theologian of all time, but that not only means that we get the benefits of where he was right. It also means that the parts he got wrong are particularly difficult to get out from under.

In Orthodoxy, for instance, there is no doctrine of Original Sin — at least not as we Westerners were taught it. And while most of us easily reject Augustine’s argument that sin is passed biologically through the sperm of the man (which is why Jesus was immune), we still generally hold to the doctrine. That’s because Original Sin is a compelling idea, it’s an ontological argument, and it’s the hinge on which our dominant view of the atonement swings.

Orthodox Christians also by a different metaphysic than the one that saddles the Western Church. They are less concerned with the substance-essence debates of the early church. Their starting and ending point is 1 John 4:8 — “God is love.”

Father James Bernstein, an Antiochian Orthodox priest in Washington, writes,

What Is God’s Love?

The original Christian understanding of love and salvation are shockingly different from what we are often presented with in non-Orthodox Christian churches.

First of all: God is love—even before He creates; His love is not just an expression of His will towards creation, or simply an attribute, but rather God loves by nature—because of who He is. Love is intrinsic to His Unknowable Essence.

In other words, God’s love is not a characteristic of God. You know, how Westerners often say things like, “Sure, God is loving, but his love is balanced with his justice.” Or, “Without justice, love is not possible.”

These statements talk of God’s love as an attribute of God. But, for Eastern Christians, God’s very nature is love. It’s not an aspect of God’s being, it is God’s being.

Thus, the Trinity is central to the Orthodox view of the atonement, because the Trinity is an eternal, loving union of three divine persons. And it is into that union that God invites us.

Everything that God does is bent toward an invitation into that divine union. Everything. (See this YouTube video for another Orthodox priest’s take on it.)

The incarnation takes precedence in Orthodoxy — the incarnation of the Logos is the ultimate invitation into God’s love. The crucifixion is an extension of this invitational act. Again, Father Bernstein:

Orthodox incarnational theology, which is at the core of the original Gospel, teaches that God Himself, the second Person of the Trinity, became incarnate, not in order to pay a debt to the devil or to God the Father, nor to be a substitutionary offering to appease a just God, but in order to rescue us from our fallen condition and transform us, enabling us to become godlike.

So, as an alternative to the version of the atonement you were taught in your youth, consider this: The work of atonement that is accomplished on the cross is one of invitation into the eternal, loving relationship of the Trinity — ultimately, into union with God.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • JoeyS

    “Orthodox Christians also by a different metaphysic than the one that saddles the Western Church.”


    • JoeyS

      Also, this is a good idea for a blog series!

  • Great post, Tony!

    The historic vision of theosis was one of mysticism (with our eyes shut), rather that ongoing participation (with our eyes open). Does anyone have further comments on what journeying into theosis might be like “with our eyes open” in the everyday of life? And how might that inform our visions of church and ethics?

  • Many in the Orthodox tradition hold that the Incarnation would have happened even if there had been no fall. The Incarnation is often reduced to “God had to become one of us so he could save us.” But the Incarnation was not ONLY for the purpose of the atonement, but was itself about the divine-human union. And then the atonement continued that mission, making the way for our participation in that union. And, as you observe, not because God had to, but because God is Love.

  • Tony, I love where this post goes, and I look forward to the rest of the series, but I *would* say that Augustine is very much loved in the East, just not the font of all theology like he is in the West. There’s even been a resurgence of interest in Augustine in recent Orthodox theology.

    I also think that “Jesus died for your sins” is a long way from “Jesus died to satisfy the insult to God’s honor which humanity’s sin is” let alone “the Father abused and killed the Son instead of doing it to you, who deserve it.”

    Finally, close cousins of Anselm’s theory could be described well by your final statement in bold. It doesn’t have to be an either/or when looking at atonement theories, and a cocktail atonement might be a fuller picture.

    Personally, I do think that union with God indeed must be the focus if we’re really talking about at-one-ment (cheesy and etymologically accurate), but there are various ways of getting there. The extreme versions of penal substitution are what gets to me, but not every version, as I think they do describe well some of the NT writers’ theology.

    • ME

      Good stuff.

      Are there any theories that Jesus didn’t come for atonement? It seems to me God can bring us to him any way he wants and it wouldn’t be “necessary” for Jesus to die for atonement to happen.

  • Mike

    I loved your comment negative, especially that “it doesn’t have to be either/or when looking a atonement theories”, “focus”, and “extreme versions of penal substitution theory”. I think focus and balance are real keys here. There is a lot of scripture that one has to ignore in order to not see some sort of “penal substitution” aspect of Christ’s death. Thanks for commenting.

    • Carl

      “There is a lot of scripture that one has to ignore in order to not see some sort of “penal substitution” aspect of Christ’s death. “


  • Great post, Tony! I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

    It’s a bit too broad a stroke though, don’t you think, to characterize all of Western Christianity this way? I mean Thomas’ soteriology doesn’t hinge on original sin. For him, Adam did not enjoy the beatific vision even before the fall—the problem is much deeper than sin.

  • Chris

    “”in order to rescue us from our fallen condition and transform us, enabling us to become godlike.”

    Everything in this post sounded great to me until this last line. I wish you/he had expanded upon this statement more. It’s not just that I have apprehension over the “becoming godlike” part, which the new testament seems to offer numerous cautions against, but it seems to take away the distinctive that substitutionary atonement provides. By that I mean, if our goal is to become godlike, we become like every other religious system. You can decide whether that’s good or bad. But it seems to me that substitutionary atonement is the one distinctive among all major religions that says we are other than God (or god-like), all the while reconciling us to Him.

    Very interesting.

  • I will note (since I read his blog and have listened to his podcasts over the years) that Steve Robinson (from the video) is a tonsured reader, not a priest.

  • John

    Thanks Tony, this is great. Looking forward to more.

  • I also have some reservations with the god-like phase. Time and time again, humans have been trying to be god-like (Fruit of Knowledge, Tower of Babel, etc) and time and time again, God has been angered by this. So, I am not really interested in pursuing a god-like perception of myself.

    • Phil Miller

      I think you’re reading more into that term than what is meant. He’s talking about the concept of theosis, which is pretty common understanding of salvation in the patristic writings. It’s the concept that Paul is getting at when he says we are partakers of the divine nature. It’s not that we’re obtaining enlightenment or some elevated status, it’s that our nature is being transformed to be like God’s.

    • Nick Ruiz

      God was angered whenever humankind “tried to make a name for themselves”, which is what I think you mean by your examples before. Yet God wasn’t angry with Jacob for wrestling with him and demanding that God give him a name. Jacob was seeking identification from God and from that name, Jacob received even more of his covenant promise. Similarly as Christians, our journey can be partly seen as seeking an identity from God in terms of our relationship. And that identification should make us more god-like (or like God, as many of us would prefer) as we allow ourselves to bear the image of God.

    • Paul Stetsenko

      The Orthodox Church has taught for the past 1500 years that we are indeed, god-like and made in the image of God. The phrase “according to His likeness” has been interpreted by the Orthodox Church as “made god-like,” members of the Divine family, but not in a perfect state; rather, like children with a potential (!) to grow in sharing in the divine energies, gradually growing in ever-close union with God. (Think of Psalm 82: “I have said, Ye are gods, and all of you are children of the Most High.”)

      This was interrupted by humanity’s fall, which was no accident but the result of the misuse of its own free will. By partaking of the Tree of Knowledge, humanity matured too rapidly, its eyes opened to the realities they could not possibly fathom or handled in their immature state. One has likened the fall to a situation when young children are exposed to the things they should not even know about, such as violence, graphic sex, scenes of murder, which scars them for life. When God sent Adam and Eve, his own children, away from the Garden, it was not to punish them; it was to protect them from themselves, for if they were to stay, they would have exercised their free will again and eaten of the Tree of Life, which would make the evil eternal. If sending them away might seem as punishment (that is, taking away their freedom of choice), think what you’d have to do to your own teenage children once you have found them hiding in the closet, giggling, high on crack.

      Yet, the Orthodox Church does teach something about sin, not in an Augustinian fashion though. Sin is not a deed, or action — it is a disease. Adam’s sin is not inherited from parent to child. The image of God, the god-like nature was not erased in humanity; rather, it was distorted, tarnished, or broken. Yet a broken mirror, a tarnished mirror, a disfigured mirror is still a mirror! It does not lose the ability to reflect the divine light. What the fall brought was the change of the environment, and that change has affected us.

      To restore the fullness of this god-like nature in us so that we again re-acquire the potential to grow in divine likeness, God became man. This is what the great Orthodox theologian St. Athanasius meant when he summarized the whole teaching of Christianity, “God became man so that Man would become God.”

      The Orthodox way is not really becoming something or someone you are not. It is more like becoming more of yourself than you are in the present. It is not pursuing a perception of oneself as god-like; it is uncovering that god-like nature, bit by bit, in oneself, which is already there. A good analogy would be making of a statue out of a block of marble. You do not pile more marble on top of it; you cut into the marble to reveal the statue that is already there. That’s the Orthodox way.

    • Gotcha! I am an active lay member of my church; and I am by no means a theologian. Therefore, some of the specific terminology trips me up from time to time. It definitely makes more sense now…being god-like is turning ourselves more into the person God intended us to be from the beginning.

  • Casey

    I suppose I’ll chum up the waters a bit.

    Tony, I’d like to hear you articulate and defend the PSA theory as best as you can. Can you at least point me to who you would consider to be the most able defenders of the position? It would be helpful to know what these “better” atonements are “better” than.

    From where I sit, I see penal substitution as the center not the circumference of God’s atoning work, the essential foundation not the whole structure. To put it another way, penal substitution is an answer to a specific question about the work of Christ not the answer to every question. It does not seek to explain every benefit or consequence of Christ’s sacrifice, but it does reveal how a holy God can justly forgive sin which is the source of all the other benefits.

    Frequently I see criticisms coming against PSA that tend to think in terms of either/or rather than both/and. So frequently critics of PSA set up a choice between two ideas. God’s judgement is either, intrinsic or extrinsic, restorative or retributive. Or the cross is either about legal imputation or costly identification, our relationship to God is either forensic or personal. God is in essence love or justice. It seems that this tendency is related to a desire to have all teaching appear rational and reflects an unwillingness to recognize the creator/creature distinction. Agree or no?

    Advocates of PSA are often accused of isolating the legal metaphor, but in the best exponents I have found the opposite to be true. In them, each of the main sets of models found in scripture are presented not as options to be selected from but as different perspectives all vital to appreciating the death of Christ for us. In such expositions the penal category is seen as the unifying and underlying concept. So, for instance, we are released from bondage to spiritual powers because we are no longer liable to the penalty due to sin and the Devil’s chief weapon of accusation is removed because the price has been paid in full. Same goes with our union with Christ and our ability to be imitators.


    • Casey, it’s a fair question. I’ve been wondering whether I should play Devil’s Advocate and defend PSA in one of these posts. I just may, though I think it is a severely deficient model. It’s not the center, as you propose. It is, instead, a hammer that came and crushed all other understandings. Only now are we in the West recovering those alternatives.

      • Casey

        You should do your best to defend PSA, because then your assertions can be tested against your argument. As it stands now, your assertions are flittering around with no real substance to weigh them down. Saying that PSA is a hammer that crushed all other understandings is a good soundbite that tickles ears, but doesn’t mean much on its own terms.

        • Casey, that was an historical statement, not a qualitative judgement about PSA. Historically speaking, PSA has crushed all other atonements in the West for the past few centuries.

  • Pingback: Join Tony Jones in Search for a Better Atonement – Pomomusings()

  • Nick Ruiz

    Good article, Tony. Honestly, though, this theological interpretation of atonement doesn’t seem any different from the Protestant teachings I’ve heard throughout my life. So, either (1) I’m missing something, (2) you are very good at writing in a way that bridges the gap, or (3) there isn’t a real difference. Or perhaps they aren’t mutually exclusive.

    Was anyone else shocked/surprised by Tony’s points here?

    • Nick if this jibes with what you heard growing up as a Western Protestant, then I’d like to know what church you went to!

      • Nick Ruiz

        Perhaps I should explain slightly. I come from a varied Protestant background. The only thing that didn’t jive so much for me was the complete rejection of PSA in Bernstein’s comment: that Jesus was crucified “not in order to pay a debt to the devil or to God the Father, nor to be a substitutionary offering to appease a just God, but in order to rescue us from our fallen condition and transform us, enabling us to become godlike.”

        Why can’t it be both? I think the implications of the cross go beyond just appeasing God. It’s obviously an act to rescue God’s people from their sin and to restore them back to their pre-“fallen” situation. Of course, that restoration is a process that we talk about in both “sanctification” and “justification”.

  • Katarina Davidovic Marotto

    Thank you Tony. I am very glad that you have brought the attention of many to the Eastern view. We need to know and be enriched in our understanding. It will be a facinating journey of discovery. I am a cradle Orthodox who came to know Christ through the Protestant tradition, but went back to my roots while at university and was greatly enriched. U might have heard of Light form the Christian East, by James R. Payton Jr., IVP. If not, you will greatly enjoy it.

  • Mark Armstrong

    Tony, does it have to be one or the other or either or. Can it be a substitutionary atonement that brings us into a greater union with the love feast of the Trinity? Can there be original sin along with the richness of what the Orthodox church believes?? Maybe you were not saying it is one or the other but I find that we westerners have a hard time with mulitfacitedness…….is that a word………anyway thanks for opening my eyes to greater depth concerning the atonement. I look forward to your future posts.

    • Nick Ruiz

      Haha, I just said the same thing without seeing your comment. I agree.

  • Paul Stetsenko

    That’s a great article, Tony! It is so wonderful to see the Protestants discovering the gifts of Orthodoxy, especially now when most mainstream churches slide down the path of “secular Christianity.”

    I’d like to offer some additional explanations on the Orthodox view of “Why Jesus have to die.”

    Let us recall that when Moses concluded the Old Covenant, he took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant, which God has made with you concerning all these words.” [Exodus 24:8]. This ritual may seem barbaric to us but only until we understand its true meaning and mystical significance. This is no magical act but the very locus of direct contact with God, or communion with God. The Book of Leviticus–the first worship manual–gives this explanation, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh atonement by reason of life.” So the blood, the very essence of life, is to re-connect the people to God, to re-establish the lost union, and not, as some spiritually disoriented minds perceive it, to satisfy the angry deity, or to make a payment for the ancient debt, or to create a substitution for sins. The blood sacrifice is not for God, but for the people. This connection through the sacrifice of blood is only a temporary remedy. When you think of sin as a disease, the sacrifice of blood does not address the disease itself but alleviates the symptoms at best; the sickness is still there. To begin the true healing, the second person of the Trinity came down to us and assumed our fallen nature. He suffered and died to show us how to endure suffering and to give meaning to our own suffering and death. He accepted the Cross so that we might be able to bear our cross. He showed what obedience is by doing what Adam refused to do — to die to sin. The blood shed by Jesus—the innocent Lamb who takes away the sins of the world—reunites us with Him through a New Covenant.

    This explains the strange words pronounced by Jesus on the eve of His death. During the last meal, He took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it to His apostles, saying, “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

    The Old Covenant was sealed with blood of oxen, but the New Covenant is sealed by the gift of Christ who voluntarily shed his own blood and gave his life through the voluntary abandonment of His divinity. Just like it is with the sacrifice of Isaac, we are clearly shown that the history of salvation is made up not only of God’s decisions, but also of humanity’s will and cooperation.

    The word “atonement” comes from the Latin adunamentum, which means “at one with,” “unity,” “reconciliation.” This archaic meaning of atonement was fully in agreement with the teachings of the Apostles and their pupils, the Church Fathers. The ancient doctrine of atonement meant exactly this: the unity of God and humankind as accomplished through the Incarnation, death, and Resurrection of Christ, and his Second Coming. However, about a thousand years ago in the West, this doctrine was abandoned and replaced with a different teaching. This new interpretation even changed the meaning of the word “atonement,” giving it a completely new definition – that of satisfaction, punishment, or reparation for a wrong.

    This change in the dogmatics was largely based on the 11th c. writings of Anselm of Canterbury and his “satisfaction theory of atonement.” According to this new doctrine, the sin of man provokes the wrath of God. Since we have inherited an infinite sin, it would take an infinite sacrifice to appease God’s wrath, whose honor was infinitely offended by humanity’s fallen nature. Thus, it should take no less than the death of God’s own Son to provide that infinite satisfaction – because no other sacrifice could possibly satisfy the anger of God the Father. About a thousand years ago, the Roman Catholic Church began to teach that with His blood, Christ propitiated God the Father by His infinite suffering. A legal transaction is made: Man is saved by accepting the justification by faith and is thus transferred from the category of the damned to that of the saved.

    This juridical view of God as a vengeful judge has persisted through the centuries. John Calvin accepted the idea of Anselm as the basic set of presuppositions, took it a step further, and developed a doctrine of salvation that focused on punishment. The logic of this view is that by sinning, humanity is punished by God with suffering. The suffering of Jesus constituted an acceptance by Him of those punishments as a substitute sacrifice and diminishing of God’s wrath. Christ’s death alleviated the wrath of God and thus satisfied the debt humanity owed to God. He suffered in our place, and by doing so, Christ has changed our legal status, permanently. This doctrine is reflected in the sufferings of the crucified Jesus as these sufferings become a substitute for our punishment. This approach makes the Resurrection of Christ secondary in importance and not even necessary. Indeed, if we read the dogmatic theology of the last 500 years attentively, we might even notice that the Resurrection of Christ was often added almost as an appendix, as if the writers (and preachers) did not quite know what to do with it.

    If the Protestants do not recover the ancient understanding of Christ’s mission to the world, the message of Christianity will become less and less relevant, and more and more often we shall hear the same question from our children and youth, “And why did Jesus have to die? This just does not add up…” The understanding of the early Church had an entirely different set of presuppositions about God, sin, Christ, and the Resurrection – and of our relationships with them. The theologians of the early Church taught that Christ assumed our suffering, our pain, and our death out of love for us. How was it done? Through the Incarnation: God Himself assumed our humanity in order to bring it to its fulfillment – the restoration of the image of God in all of us. God Himself assumed our fallenness that He might heal our brokenness. The healing and fulfillment of our humanity is not in His suffering and death, but in His Resurrection. Christ revealed to us that God is not the punishing and vengeful judge, but our loving Father who suffers all things for the sake of our redemption.

  • Brian

    Mike-Carl: Really? Go read some Borg and Crossan.

  • Carl

    Brian, go read some Bible.

  • Pingback: Session 2 Reflection | Lenten Study()

  • Pingback: Let’s talk Atonement During Lent (For Insiders and Outsiders) | Henry M Imler()

  • Pingback: Links and Notes for June 5 | Leadingchurch.com()

  • Pingback: Tony Jones acerca de la doctrina de la expiación « Blog de Estudios Bíblicos()

  • Tony, great post. I was raised protestant and my own mind has argued with these ideas of justice, but I thought nobody stood by me. It turns out that a multitude of Christians in the east have understood what I am struggling to come to grips with, for centuries. It is impossible to balance love and justice. God is love, therefore God does what love does, it is His nature to restore man. He didn’t look upon me as someone to hate, but someone who he always loved, even before the world began, and he longed for me to come into union with him all that time.

    This is good news like I have never heard it before. Instead of God throwing me a life saver, he sent me a savior who became fully human so that through his complete work he could restore me to himself, because he loves.

  • 99Loretta

    The bible has a great deal to say about the atonement (or at-one-ment) between God and mankind. It is obtained by the sacrifice of the Messiah Jesus Christ and the blessings will be distributed by him.


  • Pingback: Why Would a Protestant Convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity? | Conciliar Post()