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. 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.
1) PRINCIPALITIES, POWERS & THE WARFARE MOTIF
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.
2) RANSOM & IMMORTALITY
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.
3) INAUGURATED ESCHATOLOGY & "ALREADY, NOT YET"
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.
4) YHWH'S FINAL VICTORY
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. 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.
. Gregory of Nyssa, "An Address on Religous Instruction," Chapter 23. LCC, III, 300.
. Jurgen Moltmann, "The Crucified God."
. Gregory Boyd, "Four Views of the Atonement," 46.