“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mk 10:45)
It will surprise many readers to discover that the Penal Substitution theory of atonement is a more recent development in the history of the Church and her doctrine. The theory that lays claim to being the standard view for many centuries prior to the Protestant Reformation was the Christus Victor (Christ the Victor) theory in which the atonement was seen as victory over Satan and the forces of evil. The central theme of this classic view is that Christ—Christus Victor—fought against and triumphed over the evil powers of the world to which humankind was in bondage. His demise overcame the hostile spiritual powers and, as a result of His sacrifice and victory, captive sinners were freed and given eternal life. This interpretation (known variously as the Classic, dramatic, or ransom theory) was the dominant church view for 1,000 years and remains the view of some contemporary theologians.
Christus Victor is a complex theory as viewed through the Scriptures. The reader must first see the motif of spiritual warfare that winds its way throughout the Bible. If this motif is placed in a primary position, the entire narrative of the Bible is viewed as the story of God’s ongoing battle with spiritual and human agents who oppose Him and threaten harm to His creation and His ultimate victory. The OT view that what occurred in the spiritual realm affected human history is encapsulated in Job 1-2 (Ps 82; Daniel 10). Yahweh is portrayed as continually at war with these forces and it is through his strength alone that chaos is held at bay. There is an acute awareness that the earth is held hostage to these evil forces such that only a radical move by God would be able to overcome them. Jesus spoke to the belief that Satan was the ruler of this world (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11). [This should not be understood as Satan higher in order than Jesus. Instead, he is to be viewed as the functional lord of this world.] Satan is portrayed as possessing ‘the kingdoms of the world’ (Luke 4:5-6; 1 John 5:19) and as having authority over them. Paul attributed the fundamental evil of the world’s systems (Gal 1:4) to this rule. Viewing the atonement through this prism logically sees Jesus as overcoming this rule and restoring control to the Trinity.
Ireaneus interpreted this motif by seeing Adam’s disobedience as placing humanity under the dominion of Satan. Rising from the dead, Christ conquered Satan releasing sinners from his control. This victory was foreseen in the great proto-evangelism of Genesis 3:15: …he will crush your head. Ireaneus wrote “Redeeming us with his blood, Christ gave himself as a ransom for those who had been led into captivity.” (Ireaneus, Against Heresies) Origen followed suit in this belief maintaining that because of sin, human beings were bound by Satan. He said that as a ransom payment for these souls, Satan demanded the blood of Christ. As God handed over Christ, Satan released his hostages. Later patristic writers such as John of Damascus took umbrage with the trade of the precious blood of Christ to Satan suggesting that what the devil received was an empty shell of Christ, tricking him.
The Theological Advantage of the Christus Victor View
Proponents of this view of atonement suggest that it is the superior theory because all of the other views are encompassed within its framework. It further offers that there is no temptation for people to suppose that they are participating in the kingdom when there is no evidence of the kingdom in their lives in contrast to the individual outlook of the western Church. Its focus is on the demonic dimension of fallen social structures. Theologically, the advantage proposed of the Christus Victor view is that it solves multiple problems simultaneously. Through the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the All-Wise God was able to:
- Defeat Satan and his cohort (Heb 2:14; 1 Jn 3:8)
- Reconcile all things to Himself (2 Cor 5:18-19; Col 1:20-22)
- Forgive our sins (Acts 13:38; Eph 1:7)
- Healed our sin-corrupted nature (1 Pet 2:24)
- Poured His Spirit on us and empowered us to live in relation to Himself (Rom 8:2-16)
- Gave us an example to follow (Eph 5:1-2; 1 Pet 2:21)
Those who apply this theory of atonement see that it encompasses the variety of atonement views under a single theory where the others tend to emphasize one or two of the above points but not all of them.
Christ releasing humanity from the bondage of sin and Satan lies through His sacrifice is core of the Christus Victor view of atonement. It is a theory that spans the whole of the Bible from Genesis 3 to Revelation 20 and it was the dominant view of the early church. This theory is most often proposed as the framework into which the other narrower views can be organized because it covers such a wide range of theological issues. It also encourages the Christian to take seriously the devil, an idea which has fallen from favor in the modern Church.
Image by Leonard Matthews