10 Things You Should Know about the Christus Victor Theory of the Atonement1
If the language of Christus Victor is foreign to you, it simply means Christ the Victor. The focus of this theory of the atonement suggests that the primary aim of Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection from the dead was the defeat of Satan and the powers of evil. In its earliest expression it took the form of the somewhat crude ransom to Satan theory. And it is there that we begin.
(1) Origen (a.d. 185-254) is somewhat enigmatic in his comments on Christ’s death. According to Mozley, Origen “sees its [Christ’s death] effects in so many different ways that it is never possible to be certain that any one passage, however strongly worded, represents his dominating idea” (The Doctrine of the Atonement, 102). His concept of Christ’s death as a ransom to Satan, however, seem clear enough:
“If then we were ‘bought with a price,’ as also Paul asserts, we were doubtless bought from one whose servants we were, who also named what price he would for releasing those whom he held from his power. Now it was the devil that held us, to whose side we had been drawn away by our sins. He asked, therefore, as our price the blood of Christ” (In Rom. II, 13; cf. In Exod., VI, 9).
(2) If one were to ask Origen, “To whom did Jesus give his life ‘a ransom for many’?” the answer would be: It cannot have been to God. Origen explains: “Was it not then to the evil one? For he held us until the ransom for us, even the soul of Jesus was paid to him” (In Matt., XVI, 8).
(3) Some contend that Christ paid a direct ransom to Satan, the latter being deceived as to the true nature of the transaction. This is based on the principle of the rights of war in which the conquered becomes the slave of the victor (hence, we to Satan through the fall). When Satan accepted Christ as the ransom for our deliverance he was unable to hold him because of his sinlessness. How was Satan deceived? He was duped into thinking that Christ was but a higher form of angel. Satan is the fish, the humanity of Christ is the bait, and the invisible hook is Christ’s deity. Augustine actually spoke of the cross as a mouse-trap and his blood the bait!
(4) Some reject the idea of God deceiving Satan as unjust. Thus they retained the idea of the ransom but asserted that it was perfectly righteous. Satan is simply a fool in having overextended himself by demanding the person of Christ as a ransom, one over whom he had no power.
(5) A view emerged that is similar to the above two but omits the idea of ransom. Here Satan is said to have the power over man due to the latter’s sin. Christ, being sinless, conquered sin, thus breaking Satan’s hold and effecting the release of mankind.
(6) Some argued that the conquest of Satan was entirely ethical. He was defeated in that he was unable to seduce Christ through temptation to sin. Thus he lost his power and forfeited his right to mankind.
(7) Gustaf Aulen (b. 1879) who served as a theologian at the University of Lund in Sweden, is the most well-known modern advocate of the so-called “classic” theory. He explains:
“Its central theme is the idea of the Atonement as a Divine conflict and victory; Christ – Christus Victor – fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world, the ‘tyrants’ under which mankind is in bondage and suffering, and in Him God reconciles the world to Himself” (4; special appeal is made to 1 John 3:8).
(8) In effect, Aulen resurrects the patristic theory of the atonement, but modifies it by eliminating the crude imagery of Christ’s blood as a ransom to Satan. He focuses on the victorious conflict of Christ against the powers of evil.
(9) Aulen’s view is thus dualistic, but in this sense:
“It is used in the sense in which the idea constantly occurs in Scripture, of the opposition between God and that which in His own created world resists His will; between the Divine love and the rebellion of created wills against Him. This Dualism is an altogether radical opposition, but it is not an absolute Dualism; for in the scriptural view evil has not an eternal existence” (5).
(10) For all the deficiencies in the Christus Victor and Ransom to Satan theories of the atonement, there is an important element of biblical truth. In his death and resurrection Jesus did, in point of fact, defeat and overthrow the dominion of Satan and sever his grip on the souls of men. Here are some important texts that reinforce this point:
“The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8b).
[God forgave us all our trespasses] “by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col. 2:14-15).
“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:14-15).
See also 1 Peter 3:21-22 and Revelation 12.
Of course, the way in which Christ defeated Satan and the demonic powers was by offering himself as a penal substitutionary sacrifice for sinners. The grip that Satan exerted on the souls of men was their unforgiven sin and guilt. By making propitiation for sins, and satisfying the wrath of God against sinners, Christ broke the legal claim of Satan and liberated from his power those for whom Christ died.