“Christ died and rose again for this very purpose—to be Lord both of the living and of the dead.”
—Romans 14:9 NLT (cf. Rom 1:4, Matt 28:18, Acts 17:31, Rev 1:18)
More and more in my scripture reading I have been noticing support for the Christus Victor ** model of the atonement, particularly in the New Testament texts that explicitly tell us the purpose of Jesus death and resurrection. Texts like the above, as well as, for example, 1 John 3:8, “the Son of God came to destroy the works of the devil” (NLT), and Hebrews 2:14, “Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death.” (NLT). The “ransom” texts also fit well with this theory (“ransom”, of course, being the price paid to free/”redeem” a slave).
It’s interesting, however, that for most evangelicals, when asked “Why did Jesus die?”, we turn to Isaiah 53—an Old Testament prophecy and the single passage that (when taken in isolation) most clearly points to a penal view. We rarely, if ever, think of these very clear New Testament texts. (I wonder if part of the reason for this is our Western enlightenment view that discounts the existence of the spiritual realm and spiritual warfare…)
The death of Jesus as victory
In his book Sin and Salvation, Lesslie Newbigin discusses this aspect of the atonement under the heading, “The death of Jesus as victory”. He writes:
“There are several passages, especially in the Fourth Gospel, which show that Jesus looked upon His death as the climax of a great struggle with the powers of evil. Early in His ministry He spoke of His own ministry in these terms. When challenged on His healing miracles he said: ‘If I by the finger of God cast out (demons) then is the kingdom of God upon you’, and likened Himself to a successful robber who is strong enough to overpower the lord of this world and rob him of his goods.’ [Luke 11.20-22]. In the Fourth Gospel he speaks of His death as the casting out of the prince of this world [John 12.31]. In St Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians the cross is depicted as a mighty victory in which Christ has openly triumphed over the powers of evil, and put them to open defeat, [Col. 2.15] and in the first Epistle of John it is said that the purpose of Christ’s coming is to ‘destroy the works of the devil’, words which mind us of His own words, ‘I beheld Satan falling as lightning from heaven.’ [1 John 3.8; Luke 10.18]. When we remember that the beginning of His ministry was marked by the tremendous struggle in the wilderness, when for forty days He wrestled with temptation, we can understand how this language of battle and victory came to have such a place in His own words and in those of His disciples.
If we take the temptations in the wilderness as our clue, we shall best understand the victory of the cross. In those temptations we see how He was tempted to use other methods than God’s methods in order to serve God’s kingdom. He was tempted to build success on men’s hunger, on their love of marvel, or on their need for political order. When He rejected all these, He went out to face the world completely unarmed as far as all ordinary earthly armament is concerned, armed only with the love of God. That decision took Him to the cross. It meant that He had to let all the hate and envy and fear of men come home on to his own heart. We know that He was tempted to forsake that way. When Peter in a friendly way tried to tell Him that He would escape the cross, He recognized the voice of the Tempter and turned and said: ‘Get thee behind me, Satan’ [Mark 8.33]. When He ‘steadfastly set his face to go up to Jerusalem’, [Luke 9.51] we can be sure that He was facing a fierce inward conflict. This conflict came to its climax in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is quite impossible for us to understand fully what He endured during those hours of prayer in the Garden. It was a conflict so terrible that even the Author and Finisher of our Faith was brought to His knees in an agony of bloody sweat. All the powers of hell were let loose upon Him to shake Him from His purpose. All the wickedness and hatred and treachery that the devil and his angels have let loose in the world gathered together around His head. But nothing was able to shake Him from His simple determination to do His Father’s will, even if it meant apparently total defeat, the scattering of His beloved disciples and His own shameful death – the death that every Jew counted accursed. When He had endured the agony of dereliction on the cross, when He had endured not only agony and shame, but even the sense that God Himself had deserted Him, at the end He could cry ‘It is finished’. Then, knowing that the victory was won He gave back His Spirit to His Father. When we were speaking about corporate guilt and temptation we were reminded of the fact that behind all human evil there is a superhuman organization of evil, a strategy of wickedness beyond any human contriving. There is the usurped power of Satan. On account of sin man has fallen under the power of Satan and is unable to free himself. But by His obedience unto death Christ has decisively broken that evil dominion. Satan’s power on that day received a defeat from which it can never recover. Henceforth even though the remnants of that power may seem very impressive, those who are in Christ know that it is broken. The Name of Jesus on the lips and in the heart of a believer is enough to banish the power of Satan. We cannot understand fully how that victory was won, but it is in the power of that victory that the Church lives. When Jesus had risen from the dead and reunited His scattered disciples, He told them: ‘All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth’. That is the basis of the Christian mission to the world. It is in the power of His completed victory that His people have gone out into all the world to beat down the kingdom of Satan and proclaim the kingdom of God.” (pages 88-90)
The whole book is available online here; I’d also recommend his chapter, “Principalities, Powers, and People”, in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p 198-210, as well as the other resources I link at the end of this post.
**If you are not familiar with the different atonement theories, here are two summaries of the Christus Victor view from Dr Greg Boyd (notice, 1. that holding one view does not necessarily mean rejection of other views, rather, the debate is about which is primary; and 2. that holding Christus victor is not a reject of substitution):
“The main reason Jesus died on the cross … was to defeat Satan and set us free from his oppressive rule. Everything else that Jesus accomplished, including paying for our sins, was to be understood as an aspect and consequence of this victory.” (“Why Did Jesus Die on the Cross?”).
“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.” (“Atonement: What is the Christus Victor View?”)
- Dr Greg Boyd, “The “Christus Victor” View of the Atonement“
- ReKnew articles on Christus Victor
- ReKnew articles on problems with the penal view of the atonement
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