Between the writings of the fathers and our liturgical hymnography, there are a number of different analogies or explanations for the purpose behind the death of Christ.
For example, some have spoken of it as a ransom for the devil, while the majority of Orthodox hymns and liturgical references point to the death of Christ as defeating death itself, eliminating the corruption—both psychical and physical—that resulted from Adam’s transgression.
As the great Paschal hymn says:
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.
And on the other hand, the Synodikon of Orthodoxy:
The Church which is purified from the blood offered to demons by the blood which flowed in mercy from your side cries aloud to you, Lord: I will offer you a sacrifice of praise!
Christ’s death (and resurrection) was for restoring fellowship between an incorruptible and Life-giving God and a corrupt and death-tainted humanity. It was to re-connect (a literal interpretation of “religion”) man with God.
One can certainly see in many of the fathers an emphasis on Christ’s death for our sins in the sense that He died in order to remove (expiate) our sins and create in us a clean heart (cf. Psalm 50/51, a process that is begun in Baptism and renewed through Confession and the reception of the Eucharist “for the remission of sins and life everlasting”). While the idea of Christ being our substitute is present in some writings, it is not necessarily a central point. We must remember that Christ did not suffer so that we wouldn’t have to. Rather, He died so that we could also handle suffering along with him—unto the resurrection of life.
On the other hand, noticeably lacking (with a few exceptions) in the Orthodox Church is a “penal” or vengeful theory of the atonement; that is, that Christ was punished by the Father on the Cross in order to appease the Father’s wrath and anger towards us. Many eastern scholars have attributed this more closely with paganism than Christianity, to be blunt. Instead, the scriptures of the New Testament explain that Christ’s death shows the incomprehensible love of God towards humanity (Rom. 5:8), and not His anger/wrath—while we were yet sinners.
Attempts to explain God’s wrath or anger towards the Son creates not only both an economic and ontological Trinitarian nightmare, but also presumes that one could somehow understand God’s “feelings” beyond mere anthropomorphisms, which ever and again fall tremendously short of the truth. God is not emotional as we are, filled with passions and subject to change. He is as constant as the northern star.
In studying the history of the penal theory of the atonement, it becomes apparent that a key scripture text for its justification is Isaiah 53. Two portions of this prophecy are most noteworthy, verses 4 and 10. These are rendered in the Tanakh (i.e. the Masoretic Text, via the Aleppo and Leningrad Codices, ca. A.D. 940–1008) as follows:
53:4 – Yet it was our sickness that he was bearing, our suffering that he endured. We accounted him plagued, smitten and afflicted by God.
53:10 – But the LORD chose to crush him by disease, that, if he made himself an offering for guilt, he might see offspring and have long life; And that through him the LORD’s purpose might prosper.
In the rabbinical (post-Christian, Judaic) understanding, this passage—and the Suffering Servant figure of Isaiah—is a reference to the people of Israel as a whole, but not to any one person. The Alexandrian presbyter Origen mentions this interpretation among the rabbis of his own day (A.D. 284):
Now I remember that, on one occasion, at a disputation held with certain Jews, who were reckoned wise men, I quoted these prophecies; to which my Jewish opponent replied, that these predictions bore reference to the whole people, regarded as one individual, and as being in a state of dispersion and suffering, in order that many proselytes might be gained, on account of the dispersion of the Jews among numerous heathen nations. —Contra Celsum 1.55
Despite attempts to make the Suffering Servant the nation of Israel as a whole, Christians have always seen this as a reference to the sufferings of Christ, who in His own life re-capitulated and fulfilled the entirety of the life of Israel. Just as Christ is the new and true Temple, He is also the new and true Israel.
The Great Isaiah Scroll (1Q Isa, found among the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 20th century) shows a similar, but slightly different reading than the medieval text:
53:4 – אכן חולי‸י‸נו הואה נשא ומכאובינו סבלם ואנחנו חשבנוהו נגוע ומוכה אלוהים ומעונה
53:10 – ויהוה חפץ דכאו ויחללהו אם תשים אשם נפשו יראה זרע ויארך ימים וחפץ יהוה בידו יצלח
In both manuscripts, the Suffering Servant is “afflicted” and “struck down” by God, with the statement made that the Lord (Yahweh) chose and was willing to “crush” him—both by disease and suffering (depending on the reading). While only speculation, it is possible that a scribal error has produced crush instead of purify in v. 10, as דָּכָא (crush) could’ve been wrongly copied instead of זָכָה (clean/purify), close to the Aramaic דְּכָא (which means clean or pure, as in a moral sense).
The oldest manuscript of this text—the Greek translation(s) of the Old Testament or Septuagint—presents a reading of Isaiah 53 that is slightly different from both Hebrew readings:
53:4 – This one bears our sins and suffers pain for us, and we accounted him to be in trouble and calamity and ill-treatment.
53:10 – And the Lord desires to cleanse him from his blow. If you offer for sin, your soul shall see a long-lived offspring.
While the idea of substitution is arguably present in the Septuagint (LXX), a “penal” notion of the appeasement of a vengeful deity is not. There is no reference to God striking down the Servant or afflicting him, nor is God willing to crush him (through either disease or suffering). Instead, v. 10 shows that the Lord “desires to cleanse him from his blow,” which would align with an idea of a copyist’s oversight in the Hebrew. The “trouble” and “calamity” experienced by the Suffering Servant is also not blamed on God in the Greek, as it seems to be in both Hebrew manuscripts.
If the Jews read Isaiah 53 as the sufferings of Israel as a whole, would it not be comforting to believe that this suffering was being done under the providential hand of God, rather than random and meaningless suffering? Considering that the fulfillment of this prophecy and its adjoined promises have not come to pass for the Jewish people as a whole—if we read it according to their interpretation—the idea of an error is less likely, with an intentional change in meaning more probable.
It certainly begs the question and could lead one to speculate further on the discrepancies between the older Greek and the more recent Hebrew editions of this prophecy. Unfortunately, we can’t examine either Theodotion or Aquila’s Greek translations (second century A.D.), as they are both lost.
I don’t propose to have a definitive answer to this dilemma, but I do find it interesting that—in the first millennium of Church history, prior to the composition and editing of the Masoretic Text (10th–11th centuries)—there was no predominant explanation of the atonement that explicitly agrees with the “penal” theory, a view that has become predominate in the West and especially within Protestantism, following the work of Anselm of Canterbury. Worthy of note is the fact that all Protestant and most Roman Catholic translations of the Old Testament today are (largely) based upon the medieval Hebrew text.