Most western Christians today understand the atonement as a sort of legal-transaction that took place between the Father and the Son that got humanity “off the hook.” The legal-transaction scenario goes something like this:
God’s holiness demands that all sin be punished, which in turn requires that sinners go to eternal hell. The trouble is, God also loves sinners and doesn’t want them to go to hell. So, to resolve this dilemma, the Father sent the Son to suffer the penalty for our sin. On the cross God’s wrath against sin was vented on Jesus. So now when people believe in Jesus, their sin is forgiven and God declares them righteous. Now they can go to heaven instead of hell. This view is usually referred to as the “Penal Substitutionary” view of the atonement.
Now, I know there are some verses that can be appealed to in support of this view (e.g. Isa 53; Rom. 3:25), though these passages can also be interpreted in other ways. But this aside, over the years I’ve become increasingly puzzled by this view. I don’t doubt for a second that Jesus died in our place and suffered the full consequences of our sin. I’m just unclear how we can say that God was venting his wrath on Jesus or how this would get us “off the hook.” It raises a lot of questions.
For example, if God demands that someone“pay the price” for sin before he forgives sinners, does God ever really forgive people their sins? If you owe me a hundred dollars and I hold you to it unless someone or other pays me the owed sum, did I really forgive your debt? Yes, you got off the hook. But forgiveness is about releasing a debt — not collecting it from someone else.
What really concerns me about this legal-transaction view, however, is that it seems to make the atonement something that changes God, not us. God allegedly vents his holy wrath against sin by punishing Jesus on the cross. And this somehow (I’ve honestly never understood this “somehow”) enables God to accept us. But this transaction between the Father and the Son leaves us just as we are. I find this troubling.
Most contemporary Christians don’t know it, but the legal-transaction view of the atonement didn’t become widespread until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. The dominant view of the earliest Christian was very different from this. They of course believed Jesus died in our place and reconciled us to God. But they understood this not as a legal transaction but as part of God’s warfare against the devil. In their view, the main thing Jesus came to do was destroy the devil and liberate humans from his oppression. This view has been labeled the Christus Victor (Latin for “Christ is Victorious”) view of the atonement.
I for one think this older view is more biblical and less problematic than the Penal Substitution view. And I am convinced it can make a profoundly positive impact in how Kingdom revolutionaries understand their calling and live out their lives. So I want to flesh it out a bit.
Here’s a summary of the biblical teaching behind the Christus Victor view of the atonement:
The Bible teaches that Jesus came into this world to “drive out the prince of this world” (Jn 12:31), to “destroy the works of the devil” (I Jn 3:8), to “destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14-15) and to ultimately “put all his enemies under his feet” (I Cor 15:25). Jesus came to overpower the “strong man” (Satan) who holds the world in bondage and to work with God’s newly liberated children to “plunder his house” (Lk 11:21-22). He came to end the reign of the cosmic thief who seized the world to “steal and kill and destroy” the life God intended for humans (Jn 10:10). Jesus came to earth and died on the cross to disarm “the rulers and authorities” and make a “public spectacle of them” by “triumphing over them on the cross” (Col 2:15).
In short, Jesus’ main mission was to bring an end to the cosmic war that had been raging from time immemorial and to thus set Satan’s captives free ( Lk 4:18; Eph 4:8). This is the Christus Victor view of the atonement.
The point is that the incarnation of the Son of God was first and foremost a military maneuver. Jesus came to bring an end to Satan’s regime and reclaim the earth, humans and the entire creation as the domain in which God is King. He came to establish the Kingdom of God by vanquishing the kingdom of darkness.
Everything Jesus accomplished – including revealing God’s character, dying in our place and giving us an example to follow — can be understood as aspects of his military campaign to vanquish the powers of evil.
For good overviews on various views of the atonement, including the Christus Victor view I shall defend in a moment, see P. Eddy and J. Bielby, The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006).
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