Christus Victor (The Victory of Christ) – Part 1

“Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out.” — John 12.31Part 1

I have gotten so much positive feedback from last week’s eSight! I’m so humbled by the encouraging emails that have come in. Also, I’ve gotten a lot of really good and very thoughtful questions. Most of the questions, I have noticed, have one thing in common: they are rooted and grounded in Anselm’s paradigm of defining the Atonement by contrast to the paradigm I was writing from, hence the questions. Let me quickly and simply explain what I mean by this. Within Christianity today, there are actually three acceptable paradigms in which to interpret the purpose of Jesus’ death and resurrection on our behalf. The oldest paradigm, going all the way back to Jesus, the Apostles, and the first few centuries of Christianity, is the paradigm of Christus Victor. (Latin for Christ is “Victor”, I’ll explain what this is at the end of this eSight.) The second paradigm appeared in its fully developed form in 1097 in a book written by Anselm of Canterbury, a Benedictine monk who later became Archbishop of Canterbury. It must be noted that, although he was a latecomer to the party (a thousand years after Christ and the Apostles), his views regarding the purpose of Christ’s atoning work would become the central belief in medieval Christianity and much of the theology of the Protestant Reformation. His teaching regarding the purpose of Christ’s death is the paradigm many Christians are raised in. Many mistakenly believe that Anselm’s way of interpreting the Cross is their only option and, in all fairness, Anselm’s views are not all bad. Many have come to a deep abiding love and appreciation for Christ and His Cross through Anselm’s paradigm. However, in an effort to be very honest as well, many have been driven to atheism by Anselm’s views, too. Anselm’s view came to be known as penal substitutionary atonement (I’ll explain this a little more in a moment). It is important to realize that Anselm’s theories are not the only acceptable Christian option when it comes to interpreting the purpose of Christ’s death and resurrection. Finally, in the seventeenth century, a reformer named Hugo Grotius developed a view that interpreted Christ’s suffering as being for the purpose of God revealing to us the consequences of sin with the hope of inspiring holiness in living. The cross, according to Grotius, preserved God’s moral government. Therefore, this paradigm is called the moral government theory. Other views have existed in Christian history (such as Abelard’s moral influence theory) but these three (Christus Victor, penal substitutionary atonement, and the moral government theory) are acceptable ways of interpreting Jesus’ death and resurrection within Western Christianity today.

Again, most of the questions that came in to RHM last week were a result of trying to understand many of my statements from within Anselm’s penal substitution model rather than from within the paradigm I myself subscribe to, which is the early Christian Christus Victor model. I want to be clear: I do not think that those who subscribe to Anselm’s penal substitution model are any less in love with Jesus or any less committed to Him. I deeply believe that our fellowship with one another should be based, first and foremost, on our common love for Jesus and our commitment to love and serve Him and others. Doctrinal agreement is secondary and something we are all in the process of reaching. On a personal level, I have what I consider fundamental and philosophical questions concerning some of the presuppositions that Anselm’s views are based on. I vowed years ago never to teach or preach something if I did not, at the very minimum, first have, at the very minimum, my own questions answered concerning it. I feel most at home understanding the statements made by the New Testament authors (including Paul) when I read them from within the Christus Victor paradigm. However, many of you have sincerely shared that you are not familiar with this model, having been raised, much like I was, with Anselm’s theory as the only explanation available. Therefore, I’d like to spend this and the next two (maybe three) eSights sharing with you what the Christus Victor paradigm actually is and some of the truly revolutionary and heartwarming reasons that I feel it most eloquently brings forth the beauty of God’s character of love. I will be keeping this simple rather than involving the complexity that is usually associated with atonement theory comparisons. I also want to say that, although I will give careful consideration to an appeal to reason and intellectual honesty, these next few eSights will be addressing this topic from the point of view of why-it-matters, a “heart” level of discussion, rather than strictly the typical dry, cerebral, and intellectual one that puts many of us to sleep within the first few sentences. So buckle your seat belts; here is a brief introduction, to be continued next week.

First, Jesus saw Himself going to the cross primarily to confront the Devil. He saw His mission to destroy Satan and his works.

John 12.31 — Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out.

John 14.30 — I will not say much more to you, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold over me.

Luke 11.21,22 — When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are safe. But when someone stronger attacks and overpowers him, he takes away the armor in which the man trusted and divides up his plunder.

I want to be very clear here. I know the problems that this view produces for many of our post-modern, naturalistic thinkers in today’s society. As a follower of Jesus, I continue to revisit the historical evidence that I myself have come to base the intellectual foundation of my own faith in Jesus upon. And although I will be the first to agree that, yes, a belief in the devil or Satan has been grossly abused. Many accuse Christians of inventing the devil to absolve themselves of guilt (“the Devil made me do it.”) However, as a follower of Jesus, I cannot deny that Jesus Himself taught that there actually is an Enemy, and it was defeating this Enemy that His entire ministry was centered on and that His death and resurrection would climax in. This is the Christus Victor paradigm. The penal substitution model focuses exclusively on the theory that Jesus’ death was a payment of God’s penalty for sin (sin that I couldn’t help but participate in ? no one can go from birth to the grave without sinning at least once ? a situation I didn’t ask to be born into; a situation that I can’t save myself from, and yet a situation that somehow I am supposed to be punished for. If this doesn’t make sense to you, welcome to the club. This is my most significant question personally about what Anselm taught). The Christus Victor paradigm takes very seriously the claims and accusations of the “Accuser” and presents the death and resurrection of Jesus as God’s means of overthrowing both (Revelation 12.10). In Anselm’s view, the purpose of Jesus’ death was to appease God. In the Christus Victor paradigm, the purpose Jesus’ death and resurrection was to overthrow and destroy the work of the Devil. This is how the Apostles put it:

1 John 5.19 — We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one.

Ephesians 6.12 — For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

1 John 3.8 — The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.

Colossians 2.15 — And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

Hebrews 2.14 — Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil.

This understanding of the purpose of Jesus’ death and resurrection goes all the way back to the beginning in the Genesis narrative:

Genesis 3.14, 15 — So the LORD God said to the serpent, “. . . He will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

This, again is the purpose, in Jesus’ and the Disciples’ view, of Jesus’ ministry:

Luke 13.10-15 — On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God. Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.” The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”

Acts 10.38 — How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.

Again, this, in Jesus’ view, was the purpose of His death and resurrection:

Luke 13.32 — He said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I complete my mission.’”

THIS is the Christus Victor paradigm. Throughout the centuries, those who have held this view have always been united in the notion that this was the purpose of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection. How Jesus was victorious over the enemy has not always met with such a unified understanding by those who hold this view. In my personal understanding, there are two ways in which Jesus destroyed the work of the Devil. On one hand, Jesus’ life and death centered on revealing the character of the Father in opposition to the lies that had been propagated concerning Him by the Enemy (the Accuser). One the other hand, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection also revealed something very significant about you and I that would defeat the accusations of the Enemy and his claims over us as well. With both hands, the accuser was disarmed and made a public spectacle of (Colossians 2:15). Both of these facets of defeating the accuser contain radically life-transforming insights into God’s radical, self-sacrificial, and other-centered love. Both of these leave the human heart in awe, saying, “Behold what manner of love the Father has for me.” Both of these facets awaken in the believer the deeply profound longing to “no longer live for ourselves but for Him who died for us and rose again” (1 John 3.1; 2 Corinthians 5.14).

It is to the first of these two facets that we will turn our attention next week.

Remember this week that YOU are loved far more than you will ever fathom. In the light of God’s radical, indiscriminate, selfless, humble, and other-centered love, love like this.

Keep building the kingdom. I love you guys.

I’ll see you next week.

Herb