Fr. Thomas Hopko on common misunderstandings of the Atonement:
According to the scriptures, man's sins and the sins of the whole world are forgiven and pardoned by the sacrifice of Christ, by the offering of His life -- His body and His blood, which is the "blood of God" (Acts 20:28) -- upon the cross. This is the "redemption," the "ransom," the "expiation," the "propitiation" spoken about in the scriptures which had to be made so that man could be "at one" with God. Christ "paid the price" which was necessary to be paid for the world to be pardoned and cleansed of all iniquities and sins (1 Cor 6:20; 7:23).
In the history of Christian doctrine there has been great debate over the question of to whom Christ "pays the price" for the ransom of the world and the salvation of mankind. Some have said that the "payment" was made to the devil. This is the view that the devil received certain "rights" over man and his world because of man's sin. In his rebellion against God, man "sold himself to the devil" thus allowing the Evil One to become the "prince of this world" (Jn 12:31). Christ comes to pay the debt to the devil and to release man from his control by sacrificing Himself upon the cross.
Others say that Christ's "payment" on behalf of man had to be made to God the Father. This is the view which interprets Christ's sacrificial death on the cross as the proper punishment that had to be paid to satisfy God's wrath over the human race. God was insulted by man's sin. His law was broken and His righteousness was offended. Man had to pay the penalty for his sin by offering the proper punishment. But no amount of human punishment could satisfy God's justice because God's justice is divine. Thus the Son of God had to be born into the world and receive the punishment that was rightly to be placed on men. He had to die in order for God to receive proper satisfaction for man's offenses against Him. Christ substituted Himself on our behalf and died for our sins, offering His blood as the satisfying sacrifice for the sins of the world. By dying on the cross in place of sinful man, Christ pays the full and total payment for man's sins. God's wrath is removed. Man's insult is punished. The world is reconciled with its Creator.
Commenting on this question about to whom Christ "pays the price" for man's salvation, St. Gregory the Theologian in the fourth century wrote the following in his second Easter Oration:
Now we are to examine another fact and dogma, neglected by most people, but in my judgment well worth enquiring into. To whom was that Blood offered that was shed for us, and why was It shed? I mean the precious and famous Blood of our God and High Priest and Sacrifice. We were detained in bondage by the Evil One, sold under sin, and receiving pleasure in exchange for wickedness. Now, since a ransom belongs only to him who holds in bondage, I ask to whom was this offered, and for what cause? If to the Evil One, fie upon the outrage! If the robber receives ransom, not only from God, but a ransom which consists of God Himself, and has such an illustrious payment for his tyranny, then it would have been right for him to have left us alone altogether! But if to God the Father, I ask first, how? For it was not by Him that we were being oppressed. And next, on what principle did the Blood of His only-begotten Son delight the Father, who would not receive even Isaac, when he was being sacrificed by his father, [Abraham,] but changed the sacrifice by putting a ram in the place of the human victim? (See Gen 22). Is it not evident that the Father accepts Him, but neither asked for Him nor demanded Him; but on account of the incarnation, and because Humanity must be sanctified by the Humanity of God, that He might deliver us Himself, and overcome the tyrant (i.e., the devil) and draw us to Himself by the mediation of His Son who also arranged this to the honor of the Father, whom it is manifest He obeys in all things.
In Orthodox theology generally it can be said that the language of "payment" and "ransom" is rather understood as a metaphorical and symbolical way of saying that Christ has done all things necessary to save and redeem mankind enslaved to the devil, sin and death, and under the wrath of God. He "paid the price," not in some legalistic or juridical or economic meaning. He "paid the price" not to the devil whose rights over man were won by deceit and tyranny. He "paid the price" not to God the Father in the sense that God delights in His sufferings and received "satisfaction" from His creatures in Him. He "paid the price" rather, we might say, to Reality Itself. He "paid the price" to create the conditions in and through which man might receive the forgiveness of sins and eternal life by dying and rising again in Him to newness of life (See Rom 5-8; Gal 2-4).
By dying on the cross and rising from the dead, Jesus Christ cleansed the world from evil and sin. He defeated the devil "in his own territory" and on "his own terms." The "wages of sin is death" (Rom 6:23). So the Son of God became man and took upon Himself the sins of the world and died a voluntary death. By His sinless and innocent death accomplished entirely by His free will -- and not by physical, moral, or juridical necessity -- He made death to die and to become itself the source and the way into life eternal. This is what the Church sings on the feast of the Resurrection, the New Passover in Christ, the new Paschal Lamb, who is risen from the dead:
Christ is risen from the dead! Trampling down death by death! And upon those in the tombs bestowing life! (Easter Troparion)
And this is how the Church prays at the divine liturgy of Saint Basil the Great:
He was God before the ages, yet He appeared on earth and lived among men, becoming incarnate of a holy Virgin; He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being likened to the body of our lowliness, that He might liken us to the image of His Glory. For as by man sin entered into the world, and death by sin, so it pleased Thine Only-begotten Son, who was in the bosom of Thee, the God and Father, who was born of a woman, the holy Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, who was born under the law to condemn sin in His flesh, so that those who were dead in Adam might be made alive in Thy Christ Himself. He lived in this world and gave commandments of salvation; releasing us from the delusions of idolatry, He brought us to knowledge of Thee, the true God and Father. He obtained us for His own chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. Having cleansed us in water, and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit, He gave Himself as a ransom to death, in which we were held captive, sold under sin. Descending through the cross into Sheol -- that He might fill all things with Himself -- He loosed the pangs of death. He arose on the third day, having made for all flesh a path to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible for the Author of Life to be a victim of corruption. So He became the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep, the first-born of the dead, that He might be Himself truly the first in all things ...
(Eucharistic Prayer of the Liturgy of St. Basil)