A Better Atonement: Christus Victor

A Better Atonement: Christus Victor February 29, 2012

Every Wednesday during Lent, I’m going to explore an alternatives to the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement, the dominant theory of the atonement in my part of the (theological and geographical) world. You can read all of the posts, and my past posts on this topic, here. I’ve got an ebook on the subject as well.

This ebook is available now

In 1930, a relatively unknown Swedish bishop and theologian revived an understanding of the atonement that had largely been forgotten for 1,000 years. Gustaf Aulén’s book, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Atonement was translated into English the next year, and it’s stayed in print ever since.

The Christus Victor model, Aulén argues, was the predominant theory for the first millennium of the church, and it was held by the majority of the church fathers whom we still revere. Along came Anselm and changed the game — for reasons I’ve written about before and will discuss in an upcoming post — and CV was relegated to history’s rubbish bin. Until Aulén.

Today, CV has had something of a resurgence. 😉 That’s been led by Greg Boyd — who’s personal brand was called, until recently, Christus Victor Ministries — and others.

CV falls under a broader umbrella called the Ransom Theory. In this understanding, the original sin of Adam and Eve placed all of humanity under subjugation to Satan. Christ, the second person of the Trinity, came to Earth and died, giving his life as a ransom for many.

At this point, CV may sound like the penal substitution model that many of us grew up with. But that’s where Aulén said we’re wrong. The early church did not understand the death of Christ as paying a penalty in some transactional sense that only God’s son could pay. The crucifixion is not, in that sense, cosmically necessary to reconcile God and humanity.

Instead, Christ’s death is God’s victory over sin and death. God conquers death by fully entering into it. God conquers Satan by using the very means employed by the Evil One.

Thus, the crucifixion is not a necessary transaction to appease a wrathful and justice-demanding deity, but an act of divine love.

God entered fully into the bondage of death, turned it inside out by making it a moment of victory, and thereby liberates humanity to live lives of love without the fear of death.

It’s a beautiful thing, the crucifixion, in this view. And, for those of us who are robustly trinitarian, it maintains an egalitarian view of the Trinity — one in which the Son and Spirit are not junior partners in the atonement.

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  • James

    Definitely a more historically accurate view of the atonement. Good citation of Anselm gumming up the works, too. I would add, if the CV model holds to the language of “ransom,” what type of transaction is taking place? I mean, who’s paying off who? Is God paying off Satan thru Christ’s death? Is Satan agreeing to let humanity alone, i.e. cutting a deal with God? I think there’s still some problems with this ransom analogy that I’m guessing the Biblical authors didn’t intend.

  • Tom

    N.T. Wright’s latest Simply Jesus includes this as well as other new thoughts on redemption and the kingdom of God. Great stuff. Thanks!

    • Tom

      Or I should say new “old” thoughts.

  • Where’s Tony the Great’s but?…kiss kiss. Great stuff, Tony, kiss kiss.

    Tony, you might as well go out one night and preach against the full Moon. ” Stop you foul Moon!”

    You don’t even believe in Satan, Tony. You don’t give a hummingbird’s fart. Like a dog over a piece of meat, you go after to deconstruct ANYTHING.

    You are not “truth to power” you are about your own vanity.

    • Scot Miller

      Someone’s a bit cranky today…. poor little Lockie…. sounds like someone needs a nap… or a snack…

    • JPL

      Sometimes I begin to feel that Tony’s becoming abusive by not perma-banning the IPs of commenters like this. They honestly add nothing, simply coming hear to berate and attack. I find they really ruin participation in the forums. Can’t we vote these asshats off the island or something?

    • JPL

      I mean, has anyone actually ever followed this guy’s link? His account on DeviantArt has this fine bit of self-description:

      “I eats, drinks, and sleeps the book of Revelation. The present times are warped, but the future is even more so.

      I try to spend at least 6 hours a day drawing. Then another 6 hours researching the Bible and what it says about the future. I create my comic from these to tensions: drawing and the Bible.”

      Beyond the poor spelling and grammar, the images are of fine Christian things like inverted crucified aliens, drawn with all the skill of an 10th grade stoner. If the guy’s not loaded on six kinds of dope I’d be damned surprise. Do we really have to play nice with people like this?

  • Jonathan Evans

    I’d commend Love, Violence, and the Cross by Greg Love – a book on alternatives to the penal substitution model, including his own.

  • ME

    “The crucifixion is not, in that sense, cosmically necessary to reconcile God and humanity.

    Instead, Christ’s death is God’s victory over sin and death. God conquers death by fully entering into it.

    It’s a beautiful thing, the crucifixion, in this view. ”

    That articulates exactly what has been rumbling incoherently through my head.

  • James

    Actually Lock if you grab some books on Historical Theology, you’ll see that Tony is in fact, correct. The bigger question is, why are you so afraid of what Tony writes? Does it threaten your faith?

  • Rob

    doesn’t CV give a little too much power to satan? doesn’t CV make God out to be a trickster who tricks the devil into releasing us from sin?

    • Phil Miller

      There is an element of trickery involved, I suppose. I guess I tend to look at it more in the way where it’s God allowing His enemies to exhaust all of their arsenal against Him. Having still failed to defeat Him, they are left with nothing. In the Orthodox liturgy for Pascha, there’s a line that says, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” So by embracing death for Himself, Christ robs it of its power, and kills death.

      Jurgen Moltmann explains the cross as being the place where God and God-forsakeness coexist. And, actually, it is in the most God-forsaken places where we will actually find God. The resurrection assures us that hope and life, or new creation, can arise from such places. These themes are all related to Christ conquering His enemies. I think there’s just different ways of telling that story.

      • BryanJensen

        Yep, just like were Jesus to exist in an alternate reality called Narnia. 😉

  • Jay

    Like the four blind mind describing the elephant, most certainly, the faith communities are trying to explain the way a broken creation is restored to God through Jesus. It would seem simplistic to try to chose only one as the only right view.

    • Evelyn

      I think the only right view is that we accept Christ’s ministry, the way that Christ suffered on the cross, and the way he died and was resurrected as a teaching and that we follow that teaching. Unfortunately most of us find it completely impractical to do so and yet still want to call ourselves “Christians” so we find ways not to follow Christ by making him do the work for us. By definition, if something doesn’t make sense to you it is nonsense.

    • thanks for the many thoughts; i’m finishing up my final seminary class after 10 years of study. after finishing a paper on the christus victor model of atonement, i’ll be finishing my book – I Hate Book on Christian Dating, I promise this isn’t one… in chapter 11 i write, “Answers of faith mean nothing unless you’re speaking in a language your audience understands.” yes, we need to stay true to the truths of Christianity, but as communicators of our faith, we also need to be discerning, knowing our audience well enough, to know what might be effective for framing and articulating Christ’s saving love.

      With that having been said, I love the post up above about the elephents. 🙂 And yes, even the story of Jesus’s life here on earth has 4 different “theories” presented to hep the greatness of his life and work.

  • Evelyn

    1) I think this theory puts major emphasis on the divine nature of Jesus rather than on his human nature.
    2) God can’t die.
    3) Turning death inside out and making it a moment of victory is a gross glorification of human suffering and human demise. The only victory that we can get from death is the realization that life is a gift which leads us to live our lives more fully and meaningfully.
    4) The only way I am liberated to live without fear of death is if I realize that I’m going to be completely unconscious of my own death so that, in essence, my death doesn’t really exist for me. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I am liberated to live a life of love. Perhaps if I could see the resurrection of everyone that I have known who has died, I might feel liberated to do so but in the meantime my will to live trumps any sort of ideal centered on “love”.

    • James

      1) Only if you have a problem with the very idea that Jesus is divine, or that humans need divine help to be saved. Christus Victor is a picture of God, in humanity, overcoming the greatest enemies of humanity so that we can be restored to fullness of life and relationship with God.
      2) One wouldn’t think so, but that’s what happened.
      3) You are rejecting large parts of the Biblical with this arbitrary judgment, as if your idea of human life and human good trumps everything. God is the source of human life. Death is our common enemy. We are subject to death but God is Lord over life and death. God in his grace and mercy overcame death by death for us. God’s future consists of nothing but life. How is that not beautiful? “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life
      for one’s friends.”

      I understand the criticisms of vicarious, penal, substitutionary atonement. and I like Tony’s description of Christus Victor, especially his conclusion, as well as the comments here relating to Incarnation. There’s a very excellent book on the subject by Scott McKnight with a forward by Tony Jones: “A Community Called Atonement.”

    • 1. Not if you consider your own point (2) closely.
      2. God can’t, unless he becomes human, which is precisely what happened, and pretty much debunks your previous point (1).
      3. Not so, it’s showing that death has no victory in the end – God has the victory and “where, oh death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55)
      4. Perhaps your way of dealing with death, but it doesn’t sound like it work in practice – at least not in my own.

      I realise this post is old but I’ve written this reply anyway because people (like me) do still find these things in Google 🙂

  • Sean

    Great piece, Tony. I think ransom theory has some of its own flaws. You can’t really press the “ransom” metaphor too terribly far. Questions arise: To whom is the ransom paid? Is the ransom paid to Satan by God the Father (the first person of the Trinity)? If so, why is the First Person of the Trinity paying Satan? Does the First Person of the Trinity pay himself the ransom?

    The church never spoke in council about the nature of the atonement as it did about the Trinity and the two natures of Christ (fully human and fully divine). I think at last count there are something like 12 different theories of the atonement that can be found in use in the universal church. Substitutionary, vicarious, penal is unique to English speaking evangelicals and likely the messiest and most flawed of the theories since it makes God the Father look like a child abuser.

    I personally find an atonement theory that is grounded in the Incarnation to be most helpful. God’s emptying himself (kenosis) and taking on our human flesh and becoming one of us and suffering a brutal and horrible death is God’s point of complete identification with humankind. We all suffer, and God enters into our suffering. So God knows what it means to be human. And we in turn, because we have known Jesus Christ, can identify with God. This, I think, drives us toward theosis (sometimes called participation). As Athansius had it, “He became what we are that we might become what he is.” (Hey, Tony, you like Patristics, right, what with the Didache book, and all?) That seems a lot like at-one-ment to me.

    Tony, you are wise to highlight Christus Victor’s emphasis on Christ’s victory over sin and death in the cross and resurrection. It is incredibly powerful stuff and must, I think, be included in any discussion of what atonement should be.

  • Britt

    Tony, what are your thoughts on Narrative Christus Victor? I know J. Denny Weaver published a book recently called “The Nonviolent Atonement,” which introduces this model. I’m curious to know your thoughts on the topic, and whether or not the traditional Christus Victor model can depict God as being nonviolent. Just a thought.

  • Daniel

    Interesting post Tony. I study here at Regent College in Vancouver and one of my professors, Hans Boersma, wrote a book entitled “Violence Hospitality and the Cross.” He explains the different theories of the Atonement from the notion of God’s Hopitality. He includes what you talked about, and also LatinAmerican Liberation Theology. I think it’s a beautiful work, I really recommend it.


  • This is basically the metaphor for atonenment presented in “The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe” – is it not?

    Anyhow – It seems to me that what actually happened on the cross is beyond our comprehension and so we are given multiple metaphors as means for us to get just an idea of what an incredible and wonderful thing Jesus did for us. Any metaphor pushed too far begins to have problems. And, why would we pick just one metaphor since the Bible seems to give us multiple.

    • Nathan, yes, this is exactly Aslan’s role.

  • Michael Jordan

    really wonderful series on the atonement here. Thank you!

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  • Casey

    Good post, Tony.

    Let it be known that I am a wholehearted supporter of Christ’s victory over Satan, sin, and death! Yet Christ’s victory, for all its objective reality, does not automatically or coercively transform the world. Creation’s goal has been revealed and the means to that goal made available, but the end has not yet come. History still remains history and its own hostile elements still persist. The nations rage and men still choose the curse over Christ. Assuming that humans are separated from God because we are held in bondage to “power and principalities” opposed to God, the Christus Victor model of the atonement views Christ as the victorious king who defeats these powers, frees us from their propaganda, and enables us once again to embrace our true humanity and God-given purpose. But what does it make of sin? How exactly is the victory won? And why was it necessary for the Son of God to be holy, unstained by sin, and sacrificed on the cross in order to achieve God’s cosmic victory?

  • Could it be that instead of paying a ransom, Jesus stormed the castle and liberated the captives? Luke 4 suggests that Satan rules the kingdoms of the world, and then later Jesus quotes Isaiah stating that he has come to release the prisoners and liberate the oppressed. He demonstrates this by healing the sick, etc., and gathering other “liberators” into his camp – disciples to whom he teaches to love enemies and treat others with kindness the way that God does.

    No one can really understand why God in his wisdom allows Satan some ruling role in the world, except that without this role, the concepts of Love, Freedom, Faith, and Hope would have no counterpoint and might be hard to define at all. The cost of Free Will is to keep around the accuser. But he’s already defeated, and is still being defeated by the kingdom that Jesus established on Earth.

    I suppose that’s just liberation theology? Btu then liberation theology is similar to Christus Victor in Jesus has won our freedom by defeating death.

    • Edo

      That’s something I’ve thought myself… Christus Victor makes much more sense in light of the Harrowing mythology.

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  • troy loop

    nature abhors a vacuum, so along came Aulen.
    My pastor just jumped on the emerging church teaching of this (heresy?) and sounds more like a christian science teacher than anything….of course having a “masters” degree in theology, that will happen. Let condescension begin…..

  • I should publish a website link to it web page on my blog. Many thanks!

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  • Doug Webber

    Nice blog post. The Orthodox church does not follow the idea of vicarious atonement as the Catholic and Protestant churches. Nor does the New Church, or Swedenborgian churches. I discuss this a little bit in “The Error of Vicarious Atonement” http://dream-prophecy.blogspot.com/2013/12/the-error-of-vicarious-atonement.html

  • Sheldon T. Bennett

    I don’t see a trinity at all – I see GOD coming in the FLESH as He said He would and

    Isaiah 9:6

    King James Version (KJV)

    6 For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called:

    Wonderful – JESUS or YahShua – GOD OUR SAVIOR

    Counsellor – JESUS or YahShua – GOD OUR SAVIOR

    The Mighty God – JESUS or YahShua – GOD OUR SAVIOR

    The Everlasting Father – JESUS or YahShua – GOD OUR SAVIOR

    The Prince of Peace – JESUS or YahShua – GOD OUR SAVIOR

    He “(GOD- not a piece of Him or a part of a trintiy) came and Did dexactly as HE (GOD) stated and then left and Came AGAIN as THe HOLY SPIRIT – Filling His TEMPEL – That BEING those WHOM HE(GOD) WOULD INDWELL – again no Trinty – GOD Coming.

    You can KNOW Him as a FATHER
    You can KNOW Him as a BROTHER


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