Okay, I grew up with the idea that God is sadistic and is breathing down our necks for any small sign of sin. Not very pleasant, yes.
I did not grow up knowing anything about Jesus other than he died on a cross and He's the Son of God. My mother focused on Hell and damnation and all that fun stuff.
Here's my problem: I don't understand Jesus' sacifice. I don't. (shrugs) Here's what I don't understand:
1. Why didn't God just forgive the First Parent's sin of eating the apple?
2. Does Jesus' death mean that God would only forgive us through the death of someone innocent for our filthy sins?
3. Does Jesus' death mean that God apparently sacrificed himself to himself to save US from himself? I know WHO the sacrifice was for, but WHO was the sacrifice paid to?
4. Did Jesus have to die for God to be merciful towards us and let us into Heaven?
5. If Jesus died to save us from the wrath of his Father, angry that humanity is less than perfect, does that then show a selfish, vengeful, unjust and malevolent being? If not, explain.
I would really appreciate it if people would try to teach me and not write something sarcastic or angry about my ignorance.
These are excellent questions. This stuff is what got me more interested in Orthodoxy. Do you have a Protestant background? Anyway, I'm not the expert, but I'll try to answer your questions.
I think you might be coming at this from a Protestant perspective. The classic Protestant way of understanding Jesus' death is that God the Father is holy, and He must pour out His wrath on sinners because He can't stand the sight of them and His wrath must be satisfied
. God is also supposed to be merciful, so in order for God to be merciful, He sent His Son to suffer His wrath on our behalf. In other words, Jesus has to bear all the punishment we deserve.
Obviously, there are some things wrong with this picture.
First, the Holy Trinity has one will. That means that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all share the same actions and dispositions toward humanity. The Father's anger over our sin is shared by the Son and the Holy Spirit. Likewise, the self-sacrificing love of the Son is shared by the Father and the Spirit. Because they share the same will, it is strange that the Father would be so wrathful, and yet the Son be so merciful and self-sacrificing. Protestants make a lot out of the Father's "sorrow" over sending His Son to die and suffer His own wrath, but it's hard to see that as significant in the slightest.
Second, the almost exclusive mode in which we relate to God, in Protestantism, is one in which we have to pay off our debt of unrighteousness or suffer the punishment. Why can't God deal with us directly as persons instead of as delinquent debtors or dirty underwear? Granted, Jesus is supposed to have paid our debt for us, and to have been righteous enough for all of us, but the problem still remains: God deals with us like a creditor, not like a Father
Third, according to this Protestant understanding, God is soooo holy that He can't let us in His sight, and must punish us for ever and ever, and yet our sin is so detached from us that it can arbitrarily be credited to His own innocent Son! If God was so concerned with justice, why wouldn't He care that the guilty party doesn't get punished? Why would we consider God just when He sends an innocent person to die in a criminal's place? It seems that it doesn't matter to the Protestant god who
gets punished, just that someone does.
These are all huge problems, in my opinion. The Orthodox understanding of these things, as far as I know, is much different. The Holy Trinity loves all people, and cannot stand the sight of us perishing. Although God can forgive us when we repent, He can't simply erase our physical death and corruption like He can erase our offense to Him. He also can't heal our passions, our sinful addictions, just by forgiving us. In order for us to experience eternal life, we must repent and become united to the life of God
in Jesus. This is why the eternal Son of God came to be a man - to be the second Adam. We all died on account of our corruption in Adam, and we will be made alive by union with the life of God in our natural and spiritual union with Christ. Jesus took on our human nature in order to fill it with His life, not to satisfy the wrath of the Father
. Remember, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all share the same wrath and the same love and mercy. We can use the analogy of payment of a debt to describe Jesus' sacrifice in a way, but it isn't the operative understanding of His reason for becoming man. Jesus became man to unite us to Himself and to the Trinity as a whole. He became an infant to save infants, and child for children, and young adult for the same, an adult for the adult, and He suffered every temptation, yet without sin, so that through our union with Him, our corruption at every stage of life might be healed. He even died on a cross, voluntarily, in order to destroy the bonds of death
. On Pascha we sing, "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.
" Christ literally destroyed death, thereby transforming our physical death in this life into a gateway to the life of God. Thus, hell is not a place God created where He is just pouring out His wrath on us, but a state in which we are united to God but refuse to unite our hearts to him. Those who experience His light experience it as eternal life and infinite love, but those who experience Him in unrepentance, experience Him as a consuming fire. It is not by His choice that we suffer, but by our own choice. This is why we pray for the dead: God is ever-merciful!
Again, Jesus did not come to suffer the wrath of the Father on our behalf, rather, He came to unite us with himself, fill us with His life, and destroy death for us. Here are some quotes from the Fathers to that effect:
"And being clothed with the Spirit, [the prophets] saw that none among the creatures was able to heal that great wound, but only the bounty of God, that is to say His Only-begotten, Whom He sent to be the Saviour of all the world, for He is the great Physician, Who is able to heal the great wound.
And they asked God and of His bounty the father of creatures spared not His Only-begotten for our salvation, but delivered Him up for us all and for our iniquities. And He humbled Himself, and by His stripes we all were healed. And by the word of His power He gathered us out of all lands, from one end of the world to the other end of the world, and raised up our hearts from the earth, and taught us that we are members one of another." - St. Anthony the Great
"For by the sacrifice of His own body, He both put an end to the law which was against us, and made a new beginning of life for us, by the hope of resurrection which He has given us. For since from man it was that death prevailed over men, for this cause conversely, by the Word of God being made man has come about the destruction of death and the resurrection of life; as the man which bore Christ saith: For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive: and so forth. Fort no longer now do we die as subject to condemnation; but as men who rise from the dead we await the general resurrection of all, `which in its own times He shall show,' even God, Who has also wrought it, and bestowed it upon us." - St. Athanasius
"God's Majesty that had clothed Itself in all sorts of similitudes saw that humanity did not want to find salvation through this assistance, so He sent His Beloved One who, instead of the borrowed similitude with which God's Majesty had previously clothed Itself, clothed Himself with real limbs, as the First-born, and was mingled with humanity: He gave what belonged to Him and took what belonged to us, so that this mingling of His might give life to our dead state
." - St. Ephraim the Syrian
"If it was for us that the Word of God in His incarnation descended into the lower parts of the earth and ascended above all the heavens, while being Himself perfectly unmoved, He underwent in Himself through the incarnation as man our future destiny
. Let the one who is moved by a love of knowledge mystically rejoice in learning of the great destiny which He has promised to those who love the Lord." - St. Maximos the Confessor
"The purpose of the incarnate economy of God the Word, which is proclaimed by all the divine scriptures and which we read but do not understand, is surely summed up by saying that He has shared in what was ours to let us share in what was His. The Son of God became the Son of Man in order to make us men the sons of God. By grace He lifts up our race to what He is by nature. He gives birth to us from on high in the Holy Spirit, and then straightway leads us into the kingdom of heaven; or rather, He gives us the grace to have this kingdom within us. We therefore have more than just the hope of entering here; we really possess it as we cry out: 'Our life is hidden with Christ in God.
" - St. Symeon the New Theologian
"The Devil had used the flesh as an instrument against us; and Paul knowing this says, 'But I see another law in my members warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity' (Rom. 7:23). By the very same weapons, therefore, wherewith the Devil used to vanquish us, have we been saved. The Lord took on Him from us our likeness, that He might save man's nature: He took our likeness, that He might give greater grace to that which lacked; that sinful humanity might become partaker of God
." - St. Cyril of Jerusalem
So, now that we have more information to shed some light on this, we can answer your questions.
1. He can forgive us, but we need to be united to Christ in order to be reunited with the eternal life of God. God's forgiveness alone won't overcome the death we have caused for ourselves. Our union with Christ by the Holy Spirit and the Eucharist, however, will destroy our death once and for all.
2. God would never punish a righteous person on behalf of a guilty one. Therefore, Jesus didn't come to suffer punishment. God doesn't want to punish us and destroy us in the first place! He wants us to abandon our destructive ways and to cease being separated from Him. The whole Trinity wants our salvation, together.
3. No! Jesus died to destroy death for everyone, and through His mercy in our prayers, works, and partaking of the Eucharist, His own body and blood, we can partake of the life of the Trinity. The whole Trinity wants our salvation, together.
4. Jesus' Incarnation, death, and resurrection, are God's mercy. God doesn't want to just give us a ticket and "let us into heaven." He, and His Son, and the All-Holy Spirit want us to be united with them.
5. Absolutely! Fortunately, our God isn't like that at all. He is ever-merciful, long-suffering, and willing to send His Son to destroy death and give us life. He has nothing but love for us. Even His anger is the anger of a loving Father for His creation.
I hope that answers your questions, and I hope you can be free from this notion that God is constantly waiting for you to slip up so He can throw you into hell forever. I read from some Orthodox elder that when you have a true spirit of humility and self-abasement, that is from the Holy Spirit, it will naturally lead you to hope in God's mercy in Jesus Christ. If it leads you to despair, then it is from the devil and it must be rejected. We must be always humble and abased, but always thankful for God's never-ending love for us.
Every time you look at the icon of our Lord Jesus Christ, remember the cross in His halo, which is His suffering for you, and the weapon He used to destroy death, the devil, and all the demons, on your behalf.