The Mysterious Victory of the Cross Over Evil

This semester I’ve been teaching a course on The Doctrine of God and the Work of Christ, and we’ve had lectures on the death of Jesus in the last two weeks. During the lectures we’ve looked at the various modes or images of the atonement with a view to expositing the many things that the cross achieved. We’ve noted that Satisfaction, Exemplary, Penal Substitution, and Christus Victor images are not mutually exclusive. I’ve also argued, see here, that Christus Victor is the hub of the atonement. While the cross is many things – a sacrifice, an example, a source of transformation – it is fundamentally God’s victory over evil: personal evil (sin), impersonal evil (suffering), and supernatural evil (Satan). I like how Calvin put it: “And so, by fighting hand to hand with the power of the Devil, with the horror of death, he won the victory over them and triumphed, so that now in our death we should not fear those things which our Prince has swallowed up” (Institutes II.16.11).

On the same theme, Simon Smart of CPX has a good piece on ABC’s The Drum on The Mysterious Victory of the Cross Over Evil. Smart writes:

 “The impenetrable mystery of evil meets the paradoxical mystery of the cross,” is how French theologian Henri Blocher puts it. For those still convinced by the veracity of the gospels, Jesus’ crucifixion and his resurrection tell us of God’s mastery over evil and his plan to ultimately defeat it once and for all. That’s what will be being preached in churches this weekend if you are tempted to look in. Through what looks like the ultimate defeat, the cross, evil is crushed, turned back on itself, conquered in the end by love and self-sacrifice. It’s not until we face the reality of “Friday” that the full joy of resurrection Sunday becomes apparent. That is real joy as opposed to the limited and superficial optimism to which our culture appears prone. Easter is the news that while evil is all too real, both around us and to some extent within us, there exists in the Christ story a defiant hope and a promise of ultimate justice, restoration and the renewal of all things. It’s the notion that God is not indifferent to human struggle and pain. It’s a vision that will still have the capacity to inspire countless millions around the world this Sunday.

  • Doug Campbell

    Thanks for the post. It struck a chord. Last week, I preached from John’s account of ‘Palm Sunday’ (including John 12:30-31) and was struck by Jesus’ emphasis on his approaching battle and triumph over the evil one. This is a helpful reminder that we preachers/Christians should be careful to present Jesus and his agenda at Easter rather than replacing him with our own or our one pet theory of the Cross. Happy Easter!

  • Tim

    I’ve been pondering recently whether perhaps many Christus Victor and Penal Substitutionary atonement advocates (not that they are mutually exclusive, as you noted) often end up talking past each other due to the ways they often speak of “Cross” and “atonement.” I wonder if it may be helpful in discussion to differentiate (without divorcing) the totality of Christ’s work on the cross from atonement per se. It seems to me that the Christ’s work on the cross includes atonement (in the PSA sense), but accomplishes much more than just atonement (e.g., victory over the powers, death of the old Adamic humanity, destroying sin “in the flesh,” moral example, etc.).

    I realize that many proponents of other “theories of atonement” might disagree with this view, but I get the sense that too many PSA advocates come with the presupposition that whatever Christ accomplished on the cross must have been in penal substitutionary terms – so they hear attempts to emphasize other aspects of Christ’s work on the cross as a denial of the penal substitution. After all, if the Cross *just is* about atonement (understood in PSA terms), then all these other emphases are going to be perceived as simply diluting the “true” message of the Cross.

    On the other hand, I get the sense that many advocates of other models want to emphasize other legitimate aspects of the work of the Cross, and categorize these under the heading of “atonement” – and if “atonement” *just is* everything (or most of what) Christ accomplished on the Cross, then to propose something other than PSA it can often seem necessary to dismiss PSA.

    Michael, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. Would it help discussion if both sides would distinguish more clearly between “atonement” and “what Christ accomplished through the Cross”?


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