Today I encountered an awesome quote from Gregory of Nazianzus, a fourth century Christian theologian who was largely responsible for our understanding of Jesus being fully divine and fully human at the same time, which was established at the Council of Chalcedon. Gregory writes the following about the mystery of the cross:
God, not being a bloodthirsty God, did not require or desire the sacrifice of his Son to himself. Nor was it an offering to ‘pay’ the devil in order to ‘buy’ man’s freedom, since nothing was owed to the devil. But the empirical result of Christ’s death was the destruction of sin, the destruction of him who had the power of death (the devil) and the destruction of death. The death of the sinless one and his resurrection, had these results.
The mystery of the cross is that it “pays” for our sin in some kind of way, but it’s ambiguous who the recipient of the payment is supposed to be (if we’re honest about what the Bible actually says). For Gregory, it’s self-evident that God can’t possibly be the recipient of the payment of Christ’s blood since He’s not bloodthirsty. But try telling that to the vast majority of evangelical Christians today who do in fact believe that God is bloodthirsty and find that to be His most attractive feature. It’s important to name that nowhere in the Bible is the cross explicitly identified as the satisfaction of God’s wrath, even though this is the primary way that it is described in evangelical theology today. The closest you can get to that is in the suffering servant passage of Isaiah 53 which is as much about Israel as it is about Jesus. Our deformed theology today is a tragic result of a well-intentioned error on the part of 11th century theologian Anselm in explaining why Jesus needed to be fully human and divine.
The more popular view when Gregory was alive was that the cross functioned as a ransom payment to the devil, since most of the New Testament language that talks about the cross as a payment describes it in the terms of a “ransom” payment like you would pay to a kidnapper or a bail bondsman. But this view was scandalous enough to ultimately be abandoned completely because it suggested that the devil deserved to get paid back, which is why Gregory says that can’t be the truth since “nothing was owed to the devil.”
So what Gregory says is that even though it’s unclear who actually gets “paid” by the cross, Jesus uses it to destroy sin, Satan, and death. To me, this means that in a way we ourselves are the recipients of the payment of Jesus’ blood rather than God or Satan (since Satan is just an anthropomorphic representation of the forces of cynicism and accusation that entrap humanity in a poisonous existence). Through the sacrifice of the cross, God disempowers the Satanic lies that have held us captive. It’s not that there’s a person named Satan who “deserves” to be paid a ransom, but rather that the ransom payment of Jesus’ blood liberates us from the evil voices of cynicism, shame, and vengeance that we have been seduced by.
Of course, it’s easier just to use the shorthand and talk about Satan as a physical, literal person. But when we do so, we need to recognize that neither satan (in Hebrew) nor diabolos (in Greek, which cognates into “devil”) are proper nouns in their original Biblical usage. This is an illusion created by our translation of these words into English as names for a specific person. They were abstract common nouns that were built from verbs that mean “accuse” or “slander” in each of those respective languages.
In any case, if we accept Jesus’ payment on the cross, that means that we accept the freedom from shame that allows us to confess our sins openly and receive God’s forgiveness and sanctification. It means that we accept the freedom from vengeance that allows us to hand over to Jesus all the ways we have been hurt by other people and accept His cross as a payment for sins that have been committed against us. It also means that we accept the freedom from death established by Christ’s resurrection that allows us to transcend the neurotic instinct of self-preservation that dominates human existence for so many people.
If only evangelical Christians today had the common sense sensibilities of Gregory of Nazianzus (to whom we are indebted for so many presuppositions about Jesus that we take for granted), then we could drop-kick one of the chief stumbling blocks that keeps non-Christians turned off to our faith. We do not worship a bloodthirsty God; we worship a God who knew the extraordinary measures by which He would need to prove His mercy decisively and irrefutably so that no Satanic lie could ever hold us hostage.