The Atoning Work of Christ: The Christus Victor Theory
What is Christus Victor?
While there are different versions of the Christus Victor view, the main idea is that mankind has been held captain by sin, Satan, and death and that Christ came to defeat those evil forces so that we might be reconciled to Him. In each of the different authors who I will present, you will see some slight variations, but in general, this is the outline of the Christus Victor view.
Although this viewpoint is rare in the protestant tradition, one pastor who supports this view is Greg Boyd of Woodland Hills Church. In the book The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, Boyd contributes a chapter to defend and explain the Christus Victor view. Boyd emphasizes that Satan has dominion over this world and is holding us captive. Therefore, salvation, in part, is deliverance from Satan. Boyd analyzes Acts 26:17-18 which states:
“I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (NRSV).
In light of this passage, Boyd states that because God has set the Gentiles free from the power of Satan, “they would be in a position to ‘receive forgiveness of sins’ as well as a place among the community that is set apart (sanctified) by God. Salvation clearly involves forgiveness of sin, but this forgiveness is itself rooted in a person getting freed from Satan’s grip” (Boyd, The Christus Victor View of the Atonement, 3).
Salvation is not necessarily from God’s wrath or hell, rather, salvation is something that affects the whole of creation. Christus Victor, as presented by Boyd, is not about “my personal salvation”, it is about the salvation of the entire world of which we are only a small part (4).
Even Christ’s life was part of this conquering of Satan and evil powers. Boyd gives numerous examples of this, for instance, when Christ heals on the Sabbath he is “waging war against the powers and exposing the systemic evil that fuels religious legalism and oppression. He was conquering evil with love” (5).
“Everything about Jesus’ life must be understood as an act of defiance against the powers, precisely because everything about his life was an act of self-sacrificial love” (5).
While in the penal substitution view, Christ died as our substitute and took God’s wrath upon Himself in our stead. In the Christus Victor view, Christ died as our substitute and took upon himself all the natural consequences of sin that we would have experienced, that is: death and suffering.
While the Christus Victor view is often presented as the idea that God bought off Satan – that Jesus was the ransom payment to the devil, Boyd states that this idea of ransom in scripture is not meant to be taken literally. “The word ‘ransom’ simply means ‘the price of release’ and was most commonly used when purchasing slaves from the slave market. Hence, the Christus Victor model can simply take this to mean that Christ did whatever it took to release us from slavery to the powers” (6).
I do want to make mention of one other person who has greatly influenced the rise of Christus Victor, that is Gustav Aulén who wrote in 1931. His book is considered a classic and he provides a historical analysis arguing that the traditional viewpoint of the Church Fathers is the theory of Christus Victor and that it wasn’t until Anselm’s theory of Penal substitution that Christus Victor became less known. Aulén’s book is well worth the read.
Where did it originate?
Although in the first several centuries after the time of Christ, there was no theory called “Christus Victor,” strong elements of the view can be seen throughout the Church Fathers from as early as the 3rd century if not before. Some of the Fathers that presented this view of the atonement were Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa, Athanasius, and Origen, to name a few.
For this post, I intend to focus mainly on Gregory of Nyssa’s (335-395 AD) explanation of the atonement found in The Great Catechism because more than the other fathers, he delves into this idea “tricking” Satan which is often one of the biggest criticisms of Christus Victor.
Gregory’s line of thought starts out by acknowledging that man has been deceived by “the great advocate and inventor of vice,” Satan (XXI). The Devil spread the glamour of beauty over the hook of vice, and man, in his ability to freely choose, took the bait. Man became “fettered prisoners” and in “bondage of slavery” to Satan (XV). God, having made man in his image took pity on mankind and desired to free them from their plight.
Gregory goes on to describe Christ and his great miracles and how when Satan saw that Christ had such power, he “saw also in Him an opportunity for an advance, in the exchange, upon the value of what he held. For this reason he chooses Him as a ransom for those who were shut up in the prison of death” (XXIII). In exchange for mankind who were captive by sin and death, Satan accepted Christ as a ransom:
“In order to secure that the ransom in our behalf might be easily accepted by him who required it, the Deity was hidden under the veil of our nature, that so, as with ravenous fish, the hook of the Deity might be gulped down along with the bait of flesh, and thus, life being introduced into the house of death, and light shining in darkness, that which is diametrically opposed to light and life might vanish; for it is not in the nature of darkness to remain when light is present, or of death to exist when life is active” (XXIV).
And so, what then, is atonement for Gregory? It is the Christ victorious in that He triumphs over Satan so that life is brought to those who were once doomed to die, it is cleansing for those who were once polluted with sin. He does this by paying a ransom to Satan which Satan eagerly receives not knowing that Christ is God.
The main critique of course, is that in veiling the deity of Christ, God deceives Satan. This seems to go against God’s character. Gregory later defends his case against this notion, but I will not be going into depth on it here. The reason being, that the Christus Victor theory works perfectly well without God having deceived Satan. As Boyd says, the idea of ransom in scripture was likely not meant to be taken literally.
The idea of the atonement for Gregory continues even further and does not stop merely at Christus Victor but we’ll look at his ideas as well as other Church Fathers ideas on this in the next blog posts.
What was the cultural context?
St. Gregory was, of course, influenced by the culture around him, and wrote The Great Catechism mainly as a logical explanation of belief so that Christians could defend their faith. Gregory was largely influenced by another Church Father, Origen, who also held to the belief that the ransom could not have been paid to God (because God was not holding sinners captive) so the ransom had to have been paid to the Devil.
What did the cross achieve under this view?
Christ lived a life of love to actively fight against the forces of evil, Christ died to fulfill the law of sin and death, and in his resurrection, he defeated sin death, and Satan so that they no longer hold power over us. We, in participating in that death, are able to live in participation in the life of Christ.
Which scriptures support this view?
1 Corinthians 15:24-26 – Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
Romans 5:17-19 – If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous
Romans 6:9-11 – We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Acts 20:28 – Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son.
Hebrews 2:14-15 – Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.
All Scripture was taken from the NRSV.
What are some common criticisms?
- It makes sin an objective force outside of man’s nature, eradicating personal guilt and need for forgiveness and grace.
- Satan is given too much power, even an equal to God.
- In some versions of Christus Victor, God seems to deceive Satan which would go against the good character of God.
- This view puts too much emphasis on Christ as Divine rather than Christ as human.
This blog post is the third blog in a series on the different atonement theories. My first post on “penal substitution” can be found here. The second post, on “moral influence theory” can be found here. The next post, on the recapitulation theory can be found here. Please feel free to comment below with thoughts, criticisms, or opinions in regards to the posts.