Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Christus Victor, a brief case


I begin with an affirmation to the universal church, that Christ's death and resurrection is central to all atonement theories. In that, I agree that each atonement theory is grounded in some portion of the meta-narrative of Scripture. This includes the oft-maligned and majority held Penal Substitution Theory and even the Moral Influence Theory held by many within the Emergent crowd.

Simply stated, Christus Victor is the atonement theory that views Christ's death and subsequent resurrection as a cosmic victory over sin and death, which had kept humanity in captivity. It views the resurrection and the death of Christ as triumphant. This does not say that other theories do not have their place, or do not, in their own way, attempt to work out the same factors in their own views.

However, I do think that Christus Victor ought to be our primary lens by which we view atonement theories. I will offer some reasons why, and I do not expect this to cover each point of atonement nor do I plan on answering objections to my view. I simply am giving some reasons as to why Christus Victor should be our primary lens, and not at the exclusion of other theories.

In the first thousand years of church history, Ransom Theory or Christus Victor was the dominant view of atonement. Adherents included Clement of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa, who wrote:

When the enemy saw the power, he recognized in Christ a bargain which offered him more than he held. For this reason he chose him as the ransom for those whom he had shut up in death's prison. [1]
I think the early church had an aptitude for recognizing the spiritual realm, often equating salvation as a battle for souls, with God and the Devil fighting for each individual. Very theatrical, of course. However, I do think this method of viewing everything through a lens of spiritual warfare, but also God's ultimate victory, is what sets Christus Victor up as the best lens. It is both supernatural in focus and cosmic in scope.


Through St. Paul, I do think Ephesians 6 offers us a glimpse as Christians into another realm. V12-13 speak directly to "wrestling against the rulers, authorities, cosmic powers over this present age, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." Using a militaristic battle cry, we are called to resist such "cosmic powers" and "evil."

Recognizing the role of the "Adversary" as a cosmic schemer of this "present age" is a helpful reminder. Indeed we see the conflict written against "hostile waters" which seems to indicate a time of folklore where the Hebrews believed the earth was enshrined in water, with water being a sinister force. However, God is shown to be king over such hostility, causing it to flee at the "sound of His thunder" (Ps. 77:16). 

It is God who is ultimately victorious over such forces (Hab. 3:15) and who sits above "the mighty waters" (Ps. 29:3-4, 10). Given the language used throughout Scripture to God being bigger than opposing forces and being a force to reconcile and be reckoned with, see Eph. 1:22, Ps. 8:6, 110:1, 1 Cor. 15:27, Colossians 1:15-20. The language of warfare and utter destruction is well attested, almost to the point of being anesthetizing.

You even have the Hebrews adopted foreign "monsters" such as Leviathan. Leviathan (possibly a reference to Tiamat, a Babylonian god of the primordial sea) is shown to be ferocious with many heads and the ability to breathe fire (Job 41:26-27), but was shown to be no match for YHWH. According to Ps. 74:12-14, God utterly destroyed him. The imagery of appealing to foreign gods and monsters of mythical proportions was and is symbolic of YHWH being supreme over such created beings. Even in Colossians 1, Paul explicitly emphasizes the sovereignty and preeminence of Christ against a foreign ruler, namely Caesar, who believed himself to be above all things. In essence, St. Paul is writing a letter of treason against a "principality" and using him as an example of the power of the one true God as both source and sustainer.

Regardless of the terrifying aspect of the worst of creation, we can bet our lives that YHWH is above all things and that this cosmic battle is not eternal in duration. The warfare motif is a strong and consistent theme throughout Scripture, and it is even stronger in the New Testament.


In Adam, we have the consequence of mortality, without any hope of immortality apart from Christ, which is a gift that God gives to the saved. Even in the Old and New Testament (Prov. 12:28, Ezekiel 18:4, I Cor. 15:53-54, 2 Tim. 1:10 and others), we can see that immortality is something to be sought after, and a gift that only God can give. Thus, mankind doesn't seem to be born with immortality and can only become immortal (Strong's 862-- Aphthartos -- Uncorrupted, imperishable, immortal (of the risen dead)). God alone appears to be immortal (Rom. 1:23).

In this, sin has it's grip upon humanity. It not only keeps us from attaining immortality, which is contested in that we may have never had it, but also showcases the full effect of Adam's sin and Christ's death, which brings life and justification (Rom. 5:12-21). In him we have deliverance and the forgiveness of sins.

In this same vein, deliverance from sin and death seems to be a dominant theme in Scripture. Mark 10:45 speaks about Christ "giving His life as a ransom for many." In the present context of servanthood and submission, to think of the Son of Man as anything less than a conquerer was unheard of. Christ as a servant did, in a cosmic way, destroy everything that was sin. Moltmann speaks of this as such:

God allows himself to be humiliated and crucified in the Son, in order to free the oppressors and the oppressed from oppression and to open up to them the situation of free, sympathetic humanity.
The line of thinking is deliverance from bondage and oppression and the sin of this world. In refuting the heresy of the time, St. Paul speaks of this as "For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time" in I Timothy 2:5-6. As is seemingly consistent with Pauline literature, the idea of past bondage is given over to Christ, who destroyed the "old man" that was once Saul, and is reborn as our St. Paul.

We are not ransoms, but prisoners. Prisoners to, simply put, sin. This includes to our flesh but also to the "God of this age" (2 Corinthians 4). In Jesus laying down his life as a substitute, he effectively destroyed what had reigned as condemnation. In fact, much of his earthly ministry was to subvert the effects of the Law, and his death, by perverse trial and condemnation by a ruling principality, culminated in the utter worthlessness of "human justice."

The cosmic significance is staggering, and seems to fit better within Christus Victor.


This is the easiest part to argue for. It isn't often that you have Thomas Schreiner and N.T. Wright in agreement on one topic. However, I do think Christus Victor strongly supports IE and I shall give some examples.

All things are seen as "already established" and "awaiting consummation." Christ's ministry on earth included the healing of the blind, casting out demons and speaking in tongues. When the 72 returned to Jesus, they proclaimed that "even the demons are subject to use in your name!" (Lk. 10:17). Having unclean spirits proclaiming Jesus as "the Son of God" (Mark 3:11) symbolizes the uniqueness of Christus Victor in that it is shows the effects it has upon believers, but also demons.

The idea that the Kingdom of God was established and birthed in the 1st Century and is awaiting the full consummation is a widely held Christian belief. I believe it fits perfectly with Christus Victor.


To emphasize God and Christ's victory of sin itself is also foundational to the Christus Victor model. Given the warfare motif as seen above, to believe that God reconciled "all things to himself" (Col. 119-20) seems to suggest spiritual entities as well on top of the possibility of the "new earth" being "won over." This is speculative so I won't insist upon it.

In Ephesians 1, we see that God putting "his enemies beneath his feet" seem to signify the utter end of sin in the sense of "already, not yet." This fits perfectly with God's perfect love in saving sinners from bondage, and that nothing can ultimately separate us from him (Rom. 8:35-39, John 1:29, 3:16).

This holds true to the teaching that the "Adversary" is "driven out" (John 12:31). In doing so, Jesus "disarmed the powers and the authorities, [He] made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross" (Col. 2:13-15).

The cross symbolizes the ultimate destiny of sin, the cosmic significance of God triumphing over this temporal evil, and that paying such a cost is "costliest grace," according to Bonhoeffer. This world has been "set free" and "liberated from bondage" (Rom. 8:18-23).

The cross symbolizes God's perfect love, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8).

The cross symbolizes the healing brought forth by Christ's desire to save and to heal (Matt. 8:1-17, with emphasis on v17).


Gregory Boyd sums up Christus Victor as thus:

Whereas other models tend to isolate the meaning of Christ's death from his lifestyle, his healing and deliverance ministry, his teachings and even (in some cases) his resurrection, the Christus Victor model reveals the profound interconnectedness of everything Chris was about. All these things are ultimately about one thing: establishing the reign of God by vanquishing the reign of Satan and the powers through the power of self-sacrificial love. [3]
In summation, Christus Victor seems to not only emphasize the cosmic scope of all things, but also maintains substitutionary atonement and the element of sacrifice. It can include the Healing View and the Moral Influence, with Jesus' moral teachings, healings and living by example central to His ministry.


[1]. Gregory of Nyssa, "An Address on Religous Instruction," Chapter 23. LCC, III, 300.

[2]. Jurgen Moltmann, "The Crucified God."

[3]. Gregory Boyd, "Four Views of the Atonement," 46.


  1. Does this view currently stand in stark contrast with other christian views or the atonement?

    1. Hey dude.

      For many in the Reformed camp, Penal Substitution seems to be at odds with my view of the atonement.

      I don't think it stands in contrast necessarily. I tried to show above that CV can account for substitutionary atonement, on top of most other views.


  2. Well, as always, I like to qualify by saying essentially, I don't know what I'm talking about. More specifically, I haven't really waded into any of these controversies concerning different theories of the atonement, but who knows, maybe that's a good thing and I can look at this with a less biased view. Also, since I'm still trying to process this, be warned that the following is long, rambling, and largely unedited.

    So I'll just start off this; I didn't really find anything in this that I disagree with, despite the fact that I believe that substitutionary atonement is at the heart of the gospel. On each of the few occasions I've tried to read up on Cristus Victor, I always come away wondering what the big deal is. I never had a problem reading the Bible and thinking that Christ came both to rescue us from sin and Satan, and the wrath of God.

    So I think I agree with you that Cristus Victor and Substitutionary Atonement can coexist. I disagree that Cristus Victor ought to be the primary lens through which we view the atonement, rather I see each as part of the gospel, offering a very important perspective on the fullness of what Christ accomplished.

    I guess I'm not totally clear on what's at stake here. Are we trying to explain what the primary problem man faces? Or ultimately what Christ accomplished on the cross? Or are we concerned with what we should tell non-believers in order to win them to Christ?

    I guess the main problem I have with Cristus Victor is that it if you elevate to a primary role it seems to discount our responsibility for our sin. The focus goes from us being guilty of transgressing God's law, to us being oppressed and in bondage to Satan and sin. But I think the Bible is clear that both are true, which means that we are in an even more desperate situation than you described. Not only are we oppressed by sin and Satan, but God Himself is also burning in Righteous wrath against us. Our situation is thus at first glance utterly hopeless, until we find that God, inexplicably decided to show incredible love to rescue us from sin and Satan and to atone for our guilt by taking it upon Himself to pay the penalty for our sins, satisfying His own righteousness, destroying sin and Satan, and demonstrating a totally unique love that is only seen in God. The victory is all that much sweeter when we understand that the One we made our enemy has come to rescue us at incredible cost to ourselves; that is a love that is found nowhere else.

    So, yeah, by all means, emphasize the victory of Christ over sin and Satan. But I see no reason to at the same time downplay the sacrifice of Christ to atone for our sins and satisfy God's wrath.

  3. Oh, oh, one more thing. I always have a hard time understanding Christ's death when viewed exclusively through the lens of Christus Victor. In other words, if Christ's death was not to satisfy God's wrath or to pay the penalty for our sins, how did dying defeat sin and Satan?

    I can see how it would expose the sinfulness of man, who crucified their Creator unjustly, but wouldn't that be a victory for sin and Satan? In what sense was Christ's death "for us," if not to substitute Himself in our place and take our penalty?

    That aspect has never really been clear to me.

    1. "So I'll...wrath of God."

      Cool. ;)

      "So I think I agree with you...what Christ accomplished."

      So you would hold to the Kaleidoscope model of atonement theory? I think Christus Victor, when viewed holistically, can function in such a way.

      "Or ultimately what Christ accomplished on the cross?"

      For me, I think that is the biggest factor in consideration right now. What He accomplished and brought forth through His death.

      "Or are we concerned with what we should tell non-believers in order to win them to Christ?"

      That is also a concern of mine, but not as high on my list. I think viewing gospel and atonement through the lens of liberation and (ultimate) victory can offer a compelling and often very personal apologetic method.

      "I guess the main problem I have with Cristus Victor is that it if you elevate to a primary role it seems to discount our responsibility for our sin."

      I disagree. If one presumes Penal Substitution (known as PS hereforth) and a Calvinistic view of Scripture, then one can agree with you. However, I see no discount of human sin in CV (Christus Victor) as our sin is what brought forth such catastrophe, and is why we suffer from and perpetuate such kinds of evil.

      So I fail to see any problem in relation to human responsibility for sin in terms of CV. Nothing, at least, that is inherent to the theory. Instead, it seems to be what people bring to said theory, which doesn't discount experience but it does make it culpable. If that makes sense. ;)

      "The focus goes...than you described."

      Yes and not necessarily. CV doesn't deny either.

      "Not only are we oppressed by sin and Satan, but God Himself is also burning in Righteous wrath against us."

      This can be disputed for months. Suffice to say, I think God burns with righteous anger towards sin, not sinners. I'm willing to agree to disagree. I see some warrant in Scripture for your comment, but not enough to consider it primary in atonement theory. Which is why I didn't include any specifics on it.

      "Our situation is thus...found nowhere else."

      I don't see much I disagree with.

      "So, yeah, by all means, emphasize the victory of Christ over sin and Satan. But I see no reason to at the same time downplay the sacrifice of Christ to atone for our sins and satisfy God's wrath."

      I think any downplaying is being read into the theory, as what I've proposed doesn't downplay any such human sin or God's wrath against that which is not a part of His kingdom.

      "I always have a hard time...defeat sin and Satan?"

      I think you are setting up CV as something it is not. Under CV, Christ paid such a penalty, namely death. In death, Christ took care of half the equation. However, in such his resurrection, leaving an empty tomb, He showed that the ultimate price of sin (which is death) is utterly incapable of holding Him.

      It is just that CV is a broad category than most people are used to seeing. It is not that it doesn't include some of the things you are saying.

      "I can see how it would expose the sinfulness of man, who crucified their Creator unjustly, but wouldn't that be a victory for sin and Satan? In what sense was Christ's death "for us," if not to substitute Himself in our place and take our penalty?"

      I fail to see how Christ's resurrection, showcasing the utter defeat of death and hell, does anything less than being a victory over sin and Satan. CV affirms that Christ substituted himself and took the penalty (Death), but that is not the entire story, nor is it primary. What detractors of CV sometimes miss is the idea of cosmic redemption including abstracts (death/hades), which is strongly at play in CV. Christ's death, showing that sinner can not only be redeemed and saved, but have now been given power OVER death by the power of Christ.

      Much more could be said, but I don't want to write another manifesto. XD


  4. Hi Nick,

    I appreciate this article: -) Some day, I hope to write about atonement at length. I hold a to combination of governmental atonement and Christus Victor.


  5. Believe it or not, as a Reformed guy, I am very sympathetic to the Christus Victor theory of atonement. I'm still inclined to see Penal Substitution as the primary theme, and the means by which Jesus is victorious over Satan, sin, and death. However, that said, what are the one or two primary resources you recommend for those interested in digging into the Christus Victor theory?

    1. Hey Brandon.

      1. Greg Boyd has some online material. He's a pretty staunch CV advocate. He interacted with Tom Schriener and Joel Green in "Four Views of the Atonement." Quite good.

      2. "Christus Victor" by Gustaf Aulen is a pretty standard text on the issue. Written in the early 20th century.

      3. C.S. Lewis (and his Master, George MacDonald) both advocated the view in their literature, particularly The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

      Thanks for asking. ;)


  6. To start, I like the post. My thoughts on the issue are that the primary difference between substitution and Christ Victor are that in one, God does the punishing to Jesus, and the other Jesus willingly takes punishment from us in order to turn it on its head. In one, God punishes Himself on our behalf, the other God suffers from us on our behalf. I think the latter makes more sense in terms of the "Suffering Servant" of Isaiah.

    But ultimately it is better to admit that they are all simply metaphors for something we can't really understand, and as long as we don't push them as literal mechanistic explanations they can all live in peace. The problem is that penal substitution (especially the necessary kind) doesn't have much room for others. Also I think that it tends to view OT sacrifices in an absurd manner and devalue what God's covenants are about. I don't think biblically it carries much weight to say that sacrifices actually provide an offset to sin that is "required" or "necessitated" by God's holiness or justice.

    Thoughts from my blog on this

    1. I like the post too. Wow. Thanks. Very thought-provoking.

      I haven't yet been able to review your citations to Paul (who has the closest view to what the earliest disciples were doing and thinking) in your context, but I was immediately struck by your assertion, "I do think that Christus Victor ought to be our primary lens by which we view atonement theories."

      This assertion (and your understanding of Christus Victor) strikes a powerful resonance with my thinking about the absolute sovereignty of Almighty God: I am confident that both Reformed theology and "Christus Victor" notions reflect a shared understanding that it is our individual and corporate (churches') faith in Christ, and our individual and corporate love for one another (love as a fruit of that faith), that allows us to "rest easy" in Almighty God's plan, and His execution of that plan, for our individual lives and for our churches, and -- for all of His world. (See 2 Cor. 5:17-19)

    2. Penn, you humble me. Thank you.

      The post is indeed rough (well, rough-ish) and I'm open to tweaks and thoughts. But, I do think CV can fully incorporate Reformed Theology, and does it better than PS.