The Christus Victor Theory of the Atonement

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In my last post I gave a quick outline on the nature of the atonement, particularly highlighting Robin Collins’ “Incarnational View”, which has its roots in Eastern Orthodox theology of theosis. Another view that I find particularly helpful is the Christus Victor model, which also has its roots in the E.O.C. and the early church fathers. Before we look at the Christus Victor model, I think it’s important to contrast it against the main model over the past few centuries, and that is the Satisfaction or Penal Substitution model.

Penal Substitution

For the sake of space I’ll present a rough sketch of this view and point out some of its deficiencies. Developed by St. Anselm in the 11th century, the picture is that Christ paid the debt of obedience that we owe God for our sins.  Out of this evolved the Penal theory by the Protestant Reformers, and it’s basically what you see today in a lot of Christian tracts. The basic claims are this: Our sins accumulated a debt so large no one can pay it. God is love, but his justice demands that sin should be punished, or a debt should be paid. Christ satisfied the demands of Divine Justice by accepting the punishment we deserved. Therefore, God no longer has to punish us but can legally bless us.

Objections to this view are as follows: It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense how justice be satisfied by one person accepting the punishment that another deserves, especially given that God the Son is the One who has been wronged, or sinned against. It also seems to turn the atonement into some sort of legal requirement. And if that is the case, how exactly does God pay God for the sins of men?

Christus Victor

Christus Victor is a more developed version of the Ransom Theory of the atonement. Various versions of it were expressed in the writings of the early church fathers, such as Origen, Irenaeus and Athanasius. C.S. Lewis is probably the most famous of its more modern proponents, and you see it especially expressed in The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe. In a nutshell, God makes a bargain with the devil. Jesus is the ransom price on Satan’s claim to humans, who became his through the fall. Satan is tricked, because he didn’t realize that Christ couldn’t be kept in the bondage of the grave.

The Christus Victory theory doesn’t really say that Jesus’ death on the cross paid off either God or the devil, rather it was just God doing whatever it took to release us from the Satanic bondage of sin and death. St. Anselm – who thought much in the Latin legal terms of his day – argued that as an outlaw, Satan could hold no such claim on humanity and questioned why God would set up such a world in which Satan could ever gain such legal rights over humanity. Thus the Ransom view became less popular.

In spite of Anselm’s qualms, the scriptural data for the Christus Victor view is strong. The New Testament is replete with warfare terminology and descriptors of Satan. Paul calls him the “god of this world” and the “prince of the power of the air”.  John says that “the world is held under the sway of the wicked one”. Jesus calls Satan the “thief” who has come to “steal, kill and destroy” as well as “the prince of this world”. In the temptation of Christ, Satan offers him “all the kingdoms of the world” if he bowed and worshiped him.  Jesus did not deny this point, but rather quoted a passage from the Pentateuch to show his refusal to give. Christ also depicts Satan as the “strong man”, but depicts himself as the “one stronger” who can bind the strong man and plunder his goods. In forgiving sins, healing the sick, exorcizing demons, working miracles, criticizing legalistic religious leaders,  Jesus sees himself as tearing down the demonically inspired social constructs that have devoured men and women for centuries.

Redemption is spoken of as Christ “delivering those who were under he who had the power of death, that is the devil”. It speaks of Jesus as being manifest “to destroy the works of the devil”. Paul tells us “the Father…delivered us from the kingdom of darkness” and Christ as “having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in Him.”

Nowhere in scripture do we see God making some sort of deal with the devil to ransom men, and we should rightfully reject along with Anselm the idea of God being deceptive when dealing with Satan. These were all blanks the early fathers sought to fill in, but a further look at the scriptural data found in the NT give us some clues that allow us not to appeal to mythology.

The NT continually speaks of the mystery of God’s eternal purpose. Peter tells us that the prophets didn’t understand what they were prophesying as it pertained to the Messiah, and the angels themselves longed to look into such matters. Paul speaks of the a mystery that was hidden in God but now has been revealed, that through the church the manifold wisdom of God is now revealed to the principalities and powers in the heavenly realms. Moreover, he also speaks of a “mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” It is plain that Satan instigated the betrayal and arrest of Jesus through Judas, the Roman government and the Jewish Sanhedrin. We see from Daniel 10, Ezekiel 28 and Isaiah 14 the idea of a “double-kingdom”, where there are government heads who are subject to an evil power above them which God wars against.

Thus Satan plays right into God’s hands, instigating the murder of Christ whom he could not hold in death. Jesus said the command he received from the Father was the power to lay down his life, only to take it up again. (Jn. 10:18). Unable to understand this, (as was Jesus’ own disciples until the resurrection, for that matter) Satan is defeated. Quoting Romans 5:17

For if, through the transgression of the one individual, Death made use of the one individual to seize the sovereignty, all the more shall those who receive God’s overflowing grace and gift of righteousness reign as kings in Life through the one individual, Jesus Christ.

Satan – who had the power of death – no longer holds the sovereignty, but now those who are in Christ have been put back in their rightful place as viceroys over God’s creation. (Gen. 1:26-28). In Adam we are slaves, but in Christ we are more than conquerors, and seated with Christ at God’s own right hand. (Rom. 8:37, Eph. 2:6)

As our substitute, Christ willingly allows himself to be overcome by the full force of Satan’s kingdom to be our substitute, thus taking what we deserved and erasing the Law, which gave Satan access to accuse us and lord it over us.

A common critique of this view is that it doesn’t take sin seriously enough. That by embracing Christus Victor, we are seeing ourselves merely as victims and not having accountability with God. I agree that Flip Wilson Christianity is not something we should eagerly embrace. But I think that critique falls flat because it is sin and an overall lack of spiritual awareness that “gives place to the devil” (Eph. 4:27, 1 Peter 5:8-9). We are to stay vigilant of the serpent’s cunning, so that our minds are “somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ”. In other words, we’re not seeing ourselves merely as rescued casualties of war, but militant soldiers who treasure the freedom that has been won and will fight at all costs “take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”  (Phil 3:12) We do not want to repeat Adam’s folly, even if the consequences cannot be as great.

The Christus Victor model seems to me to present a more congruous and holistic model of the atonement, and it’s one that doesn’t ignore the enemy of our souls, and it presents the redeemed as not just forgiven sinners, but viceroys in God’s kingdom. It seems like the modern evangelical church doesn’t take Satan seriously enough, and all too often when evil happens God’s mysterious purposes are appealed to. On the other hand, this view does not necessitate one to see a devil on every doorknob, but it rather provides a worldview that see the evils in this world as a spiritual, rather than merely a natural enemy, while also seeing oneself as being loved by God enough to be rescued, and furthermore, made victorious with Christ. (1 Jn. 5:4, Jn. 16:27-33)

10 thoughts on “The Christus Victor Theory of the Atonement

  1. Fantastic post. All these views are fascinating to me. I confess I haven’t thought as hard as I probably should about these different ideas of atonement, I’m too busy off in “arguments for the existence of God land.” Thanks for this thought-provoking post.

    • Hey J.W. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I haven’t really looked much into the different theories either until recently. I’d definitely recommend Robin Collin’s paper on the subject.

      The Normal Christian Life by Watchman Nee is considered a class, and is one book that I think provoked my thought into this area more than others. It’s also a very easy read.

      Gustaf Aulen’s book on Christus Victor provides some thought-provoking history of the different views over time as well.

  2. Pingback: Christus Victor – Biblical? | Unsettled Christianity

  3. Sorry, it sounds silly when I try to explain it. I’m not a big HP person myself. I just noticed that it presented a Christus Victor atonement theory when I watched the movie this weekend.

    The villain Voldemort has these various horcruxes (a magical device that gives him power and allows him to live forever). In the last book, Harry realizes that he himself is a horcrux. So, if Harry wants to defeat Voldemort, he has to allow Voldemort to kill him. When Voldemort kills Harry, he unwittingly destroys his own power. Then Harry is somehow resurrected and finishes Voldemort off.

    It might be a little bit of a sketch, but I think that Rowling was attempting to present C.V.

  4. Pingback: Atonement: Christus Victor | One In Jesus

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