Theories of the Atonement – Christus Victor

Before we finish this series by answering the major objections to the Substitution theory, I want to give some attention to a very important and much more recent theory of the atonement.  It is often referred to as the Christus Victor theory. As Substitutionary atonement has been very widely criticized in recent church history, Christus Victor has exploded in popularity.

This is actually a revived, but much improved version of the Ransom theory.  It’s modern proponent is  Gustav Aulen (1879-1977)In Christ’s death He won a victory over the hostile spiritual forces (think: demons, sin, the law, etc) that oppress and usurp man in the earth.  Aulen’s theory avoids some of the more grotesque and absurd aspects of the Ransom theory, namely the idea that something was owed to Satan by God and that Jesus was human “bait”, to lure Satan into a defeat.

Instead Christus Victor focuses on the power and might of the Son of God.  It highlights humanity’s very real problem of being under the oppression and deception of spiritual forces…often beyond our control…and the very real and present victory that Jesus has won over these enemies of our souls. This theory has much to commend it, both Biblically and experientially.

Here are some Biblical texts that support this theory:

The one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. (1 John 3:8)

When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are undisturbed.  But when someone stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away from him all his armor on which he had relied and distributes his plunder. (Luke 11:21-22)

Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. (Heb 2:14-15)

having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him. (Col 2:14-15)

 “THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME,
BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR.
HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES,
AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND,
TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED,
TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD.”  (Luke 4:18-19)

Christus Victor is the initial way the atonement speaks to animistic peoples today, that is, people who live in the grip of spiritualism, witchcraft, and endless fear of being cursed by spiritual powers. They find in Jesus a compassionate Savior who liberates them from dark powers.  There is glorious power in the name of Jesus.

Cultural background.  Christus Victor is definitely much more palatable to modern and post-modern sensibilities.  For it removes the scandal of the cross and the way that the gospel confronts each person with their sin.  It is no secret that the biblical concept of sin is out of vogue in our society.  It’s a word that is almost extinct in western vocabulary.  The holy and just God who the Bible continually reveals will someday return to judge the living and the dead, has been abandoned for a God who is more of a moralistic therapist.  He gives great advice, is always up there if you need Him.  But He never makes demands.  He never confronts or condemns. He basically exists to make you happy and help you experience your dreams.

There are some real problems with making Christus Victor the predominate view or meaning of the atonement:

  • By highlighting our victimhood, it can lose the weighty reality of our guilt.
  • By focusing on our liberation from hostile powers in the world around us, it can lose sight of the forgiveness we need from the God that we have sinned against and to whom we will all give an account.
  • While the New Testament hinges Christ’s total victory for us in His substitution at the Cross, Christus Victor posits His victory in His superior power and might.
  • Usually those who publicly preach and promote Christus Victor, conveniently avoid strong reference to personal guilt for sin or the need for divine forgiveness.
  • Interestingly, the Eastern Orthodox church, which has for centuries promoted Christus Victor, has NOT failed to also highlight the reality of human guilt and the need for divine mercy and forgiveness.  Here is a suggested morning prayer that Eastern Orthodox believers are encouraged to pray each day:

Arising from sleep I thank you, O holy Trinity, because of the abundance of your goodness and long-suffering, you were not angry with me, slothful and sinful as I am. Neither have you destroyed me in my transgressions, but in Your compassion raised me up as I lay in despair, that at dawn I might sing the glories of your Majesty.

  • Though Christus Victor clearly reminds us of some crucial and often forgotten aspects, it is important to realize that it is still a secondary theme of the atonement in the Bible.  This we shall see more clearly in the next (and last post) of this series.

2 thoughts on “Theories of the Atonement – Christus Victor

  1. Rusty Etheredge says:

    Dane, this is good bull. Thank you for your attention to the One True God. It would be very interesting to see you develop something along the lines of how this Peace of the Christ relates to the statement somebody made somewhere: “As long as there is One True God, there will be killing in His name.” There is another wave that washes on this shore: the mandate in Matt. 28: 19-20. Nowhere does Jesus admonish us in ‘going there and making disciples’ to take up arms, as Christians have been wont to do historically, even though Jesus Himself took up arms against the money changers and sacrifice sellers in the Temple, shouting to them, “You will not turn My Father’s House into a den of thieves!” There is no propitiation in those over turned tables and stripes He applied with his whip. This other wave washes this same shore: Jesus did not call us to sacrifice ourselves in the face of immanent death as per his Holy Sacrifice on the cross (and I refer not to the cross as the Penitentes do), explicitly informing us that He did this for us in obedience to His Father’s will: once done by Jesus in God’s name, done forever more and irreproducible in our faulty weaknesses. Peace and Love to you and yours, all of ’em. I do sorely miss Bill and you boys and Dad. Rusty Etheredge

    • Thanks for the comments, Rusty! Boy do I also miss our dads. They helped frame in my mind what true masculinity and true authority look like. They were strong men…but incredibly gentle.

      Yes, in Jesus’ clearing of the Temple there was, as you say, no propitiation.

      It makes me remember the prophecy that John the Baptist spoke of Jesus early on, “As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

      The first Advent was in “weakness” and mercy…an outpouring of grace and propitiation. This is how He secures the wheat.
      The second Advent will be in power and judgment…an outpouring of wrath and vindication. This is how He will deal with the chaff.

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