Because the death and resurrection of Jesus are central to Christian faith, they have been the subjects of theological reflection from the beginning. Such reflection has often taken the form of constructing “theories” about how the atonement “works.” And even though no specific theory found its way into the creeds, the Nicene Creed does capture the church’s fundamental insistence that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate “for our sake.” Just how Jesus’ death was “for our sake,” however, has occasioned no little debate.
GUSTAV AULÉN AND CHRISTUS VICTOR
In recent years, the theory of atonement known as Christus Victor (“Christ the victor”) has been both championed and criticized. Curiously, however, the particular emphases with which Christus Victor have come to be associated seem to owe surprisingly little to the seminal work of Gustav Aulén, a Swedish professor who published a series of lectures on the atonement, arguing that Christus Victor was the classic view held in the early church. Although Aulén’s contention, as well as his threefold typology of atonement theory, have been criticized as overly simplified, the publication of Aulén’s book in English in 1931 stimulated renewed interest in this theory.1
In a nutshell, Aulén argued that Christus Victor, the classic view of the atonement, has at its center continuous divine action: from beginning to end, atonement is the act of God through Christ, in which the powers of sin, death, and the devil are overcome, and the world is reconciled to God. Paul’s statement that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” epitomizes this view. Aulén spoke of this view as “dramatic,” “dualistic,” and “objective”—dramatic and dualistic, because it assumed a narrative of conflict between God and the powers of evil, sin, and death, in which God triumphs over these powers; objective, because it posits that God took the initiative to decisively change the relationship between God and the world.
According to Aulén, Christus Victor thus stands critically over against subjective theories, exemplified by Abelard, which view the atonement as effecting a change in human beings, but not in God. Perhaps less persuasively, Aulén argued that Christus Victor also differs from the “Latin” (that is, Western) understanding of the atonement, as represented by Anselm and others, because they depend on a discontinuous divine work. That is, the sacrifice offered by Christ to God on behalf of humankind “interrupts” the continuous divine work, the movement from God to human beings, by requiring a movement in the other direction, from human beings to God.
But in the classic view (i.e., Christus Victor), God’s will to reconcile is worked out in a continuous divine work that triumphs over sin, death, and the devil, and at the same time passes judgment on them. Sacrifice is the means by which God acts to reconcile the world, the means through which the “divine will-to-reconciliation realizes itself.” In one continuous divine work of sovereign love and grace, God reclaims what is his own. For Aulén, Christus Victor was a double-sided theory of atonement, with God both as subject (Reconciler) and object (Reconciled).
+ Gustav Aulén (1879–1997) was the Lutheran Bishop of Strängnäs, Sweden, and the leading figure in a movement called Lundensian Theology—referring to a mindset in the theology faculty at the University of Lund. He was also the author of Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement (1931), a book that has had considerable influence in the study of theology on the issue of the atonement. His “classic” view emphasizes Christ as the victor over the evil powers of the world, making possible reconciliation between humanity and God. Aulén is also lesser known as a composer of widely used church music, particularly in the Swedish Lutheran Church.
CONTEMPORARY ADVOCATES OF CHRISTUS VICTOR
Those who champion Christus Victor today often do so because they find it an alternative to penal substitution or satisfaction theories in which God requires Jesus’ violent death in order to forgive, restore, or reconcile his people.2 Again, champions of Christus Victor often define the work of the cross as a nonviolent protest against social or institutional evils, such as nationalism, militarism, and racism. The cross is understood not as a work of the love or grace of God but rather of the powers of evil that God overcomes. Finally, advocates of Christus Victor today often argue against theories that feature God’s wrath, personal guilt and punishment, or satisfaction made to God, because of their alleged individualism on the one hand and need for violence on the other.
Although Aulén’s account of Christus Victor does resonate with these contemporary construals at some points, Aulén’s account held together the deliverance of human beings from the powers—of evil, sin, and death—with the death of Christ on the cross and with the deliverance of humankind from God’s judgment. But on Aulén’s account, this “classic view” did not presume that God had to deal with sin before God could offer life, but that God offered life, or reconciliation, and thereby dealt with the effects of sin, such as alienation and death. There is no transaction that disposes God to be gracious so that humankind may be saved; in God’s gracious initiative, salvation takes the form of giving life to the world.
Few doubt that the belief in “Christ the victor” runs throughout the New Testament. The New Testament anticipates the final victory of God in Christ, where every knee shall bow to the one who is Lord (Phil 2:11); when God will have made all the enemies of his Son “a footstool for his feet” (Luke 20:43; Acts 2:35; Heb 1:13; 10:13); and when the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ (Rev 11:15). God will triumph. But does Christus Victor, and the biblical motif of God’s triumph, account for the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection in the New Testament?
THE WITNESS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT TO CHRIST THE VICTOR
In order to answer that question, it will be helpful to keep in mind two primary questions: (1) What is the plight of humankind? (2) How does the death of Jesus address that plight? I propose to look briefly at the Gospel of John and a few passages in Paul to show how certain texts lend themselves to an understanding of the atonement that can aptly be classified under the rubric of Christus Victor. Both John and Paul emphasize the cross as an act of God’s initiative and grace, and that, in Christ, God brought salvation—life—to the world. Both portray human beings as captive to sin and death, and in need of deliverance or liberation. Both present the cross as God’s victory over the ruler(s) of this world. Finally, both also present the cross as central to God’s reconciling or life-giving work, showing not only the lengths to which God will go to reclaim his own, but the depths of the human plight as well. While these emphases may not be the exclusive property of Christus Victor, Aulén did bring them to the fore in his articulation of it.
THE GOSPEL OF JOHN
The Gospel of John begins with reference to the Word, through whom the world was created and in whom there is life—for the world, for all persons in it (1:4). This Word became flesh: he was Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Messiah (1:4,17). Jesus’ work consisted of making God, the living Father and source of all life, known through his words and his deeds (1:18; 6:57). Jesus’ works, his “signs,” reveal his glory as the one who is and brings life from God (2:11; 11:4, 40). In his signs, Jesus provides food and drink (2:1–11; 6:1–15), restores the sick and ailing to wholeness (4:47–52; 5:1–9; 9:1–7), and raises the dead to life (ch. 11). In his words, Jesus presents himself as the one who embodies and offers eternal life from God: he is the bread that gives life to the world (6:35), the light that shows the way to the Father (8:12; 9:5), the shepherd who protects the sheep from death (10:11–18), the one in whom there is resurrection from the dead (11:25–26), and so on. To follow Jesus, to believe in him, to know him, to trust him, is to have that life that he brings.
+ The Gospel of St. John, or the Fourth Gospel, is an account of the public ministry of Jesus Christ wherein, according to scholar Marianne Meye Thompson’s book The God of the Gospel of John, an understanding of the identity of God is central. God the Father is the main subject of the Gospel, she argues, and only in relation to the Father is Jesus properly understood as the one who is “with God” and “is God.”
As sketched here, this is the solution to the human predicament. But that solution also reveals the human plight, namely, human beings are in darkness, where darkness is construed as ignorance, a failure to believe in God and the one whom he has sent. In John, unbelief is the epitome of sin. In their sin and unbelief, human beings are slaves, captives, unable to free themselves, and hence subject to death (8:21, 24, 31–36), but the Son can set them free. Again, they are blind to Jesus’ identity and, in their blindness, guilty (9:39–41). But the Son can open their eyes as he did the eyes of the man born blind. Like sheep vulnerable to predators, and like Lazarus, people are subject to death, but the one who is resurrection and life can protect them and give them life. He calls them by name, and they follow him (10:3–4) and come out from the tombs (5:25, 28–29; 11:43). In short, Jesus speaks and they live. His initiative to heal, restore, and give life dominates the narrative. Salvation is life, and from beginning to end, from creation to final resurrection, God’s will for the world is that it should live.
On the cross, Jesus revealed the depths to which he would go to protect his threatened flock from death: the life of the world would be given in death, bringing the work of the life-giving Word to completion (19:30). Here the “ruler of this world,” where “the world” consists of those who do not believe, is judged and driven out (12:31; 14:30; 16:11). Here the life-giving and purifying water and blood “take away sin” (1:29) so that Jesus’ disciples may extend the forgiveness of sins (20:21–22). Here, no less than in his life, Jesus reveals the glory of God, the love of God for the world, love that will go to death to bring life to the dead and light into darkness. There is no transaction from the human side that disposes God to will to give life; rather, the living God wills life for the world, and the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Word of life all testify to and embody God’s life-giving purposes. The direction of the movement is from God to the world; life reaches into death, light into darkness.
A LOOK AT PAUL
Although Paul can speak simply of the “forgiveness of sins” (Eph 1:17; Col 1:14) and of the death of Christ “for our sins” (1 Cor 15:3; Gal 1:4), one of the particularly striking features of Paul’s presentation of the plight of humankind is that he tends to speak not of “sins” in the plural but of “sin” in the singular. He personifies sin as a power. People are under the power of sin (Rom 3:9; 1 Cor 15:56; Gal 3:22); it exercises dominion over them (Rom 5:21; 6:12, 14) and dwells in them (Rom 7:17, 20, 23); they are enslaved to it (Rom 6:6–7, 16-18, 20; 7:14) or are simply “under sin” (Rom 7:14). And sin leads to death (Rom 5:12, 21; 6:23; 8:2). Captive to the power of sin, enslaved to it, human beings need a deliverer, a savior, someone who can break the power of sin, who can “set us free from the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:2).
+ The Apostle Paul (ca. AD 5–67) is one of Christianity’s most influential writers and adherents. Prior to his conversion experience, when he was known as Saul of Tarsus, he viciously persecuted early disciples of Christ. When the resurrected Jesus appeared to him in a light so great he was struck blind, Paul repented of his actions and became a proponent of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. Writings attributed to him after that time form a significant portion of the New Testament.
In speaking of captivity to sin, Paul assumes the guilt of the captive; otherwise he could not write that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” for those whom Christ sets free (Rom 8:1). Sin exercises its dominion in death; but those who are baptized into and buried with Christ die with him in his death so that they may be raised with him to newness of life (Rom 6:3–12). These captives do not merely need a pardon for the deeds that landed them in prison. They need, in Paul’s view, to be released, and to be “transferred” from the prison of sin and death to the realm of light and life. It is not that Paul denies that sins need to be forgiven, but that the problem is something far more deeply rooted: sinners sin because they have become captive to the power of sin. They need liberation. Again, this is not something that they can accomplish. On analogy, one may think of the Babylonian exile: the Israelites were sent into exile, taken captive, as a punishment for their sins. Subsequently they are said to be ransomed or redeemed—terms used for the release of a prisoner or a slave. These prisoners are not innocent of wrongdoing; they need to be ransomed precisely because they have been guilty of misdeeds. And it was God’s gracious initiative to redeem them out of that captivity.
In Christ, God has “rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:13–14). The order of the action is important: God has rescued us; God has transferred us; in Christ we have redemption and forgiveness. Paul does not write, “God has forgiven us so that he may then rescue us.” Rather, God rescues us out of darkness and brings us into the kingdom of his beloved Son and that rescue act is our salvation. By his gracious initiative, God brings us into the realm of life where we find that our sins are forgiven. As Paul writes elsewhere, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor 5:19). Here, the order is the same: God’s “will to reconcile” proceeds and is the basis for the subsequent non-reckoning of trespasses.
Whatever the shortcomings of Aulén’s work, his discussion shows that the primary question to be asked and answered was not, what must human beings to do have life or to be reconciled to God? Instead, the primary question is, what has God done for them? The answer is that God has taken the initiative in Christ to gain victory over the powers hostile to God and all God’s creation, including sin, death, and the devil. To be sure, any theory of the atonement can make the point: salvation is both the gift and work of God. But the imagery of release from captivity, of giving life as salvation, and of overcoming the powers of sin, death, and the devil, show God as the actor in the drama from beginning to end, without in any way minimizing the importance of the cross.
God’s act of reconciliation assumes God’s initiative no less than does the creation of the world. The God who calls into existence things that do not exist also gives life to the dead (Rom 4:17). From beginning to end, God is turned toward the world for its redemption, for its life. That is what we see in the incarnation of the Word, the ministry of Jesus among his own, his death “for us,” and the resurrection to life. Sin is powerful; death is powerful; but they are not all powerful. The promise of the New Testament witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is that through them God has overcome the power of sin, death, and the devil. These are no longer the destiny of those who are in Christ, who have been set free from sin and death. Indeed, Christ is the victor!