The ever-changing face of atonement: Christus Victor

As Lent shifts from the 40 days of wandering with Jesus in the wilderness into the trek into Jerusalem and Holy Week, I am reviewing my understanding of five key insights about Christ's atoning work on the Cross.  As noted earlier, each new generation require new metaphors to explore this mystery - none are complete - but all offer clues.  Today I want to outline what many have called the Church's earliest articulation of what happened through the Cross: the Christus Victor model. Here the grand metaphor comes from the military campaign - not unusual for a culture dominated by the Roman Empire - and symbolically suggests that God intended to defeat sin and evil through the Cross to reclaim humanity for God's love.

+ Sin was born within creation when Adam and Eve chose to rebel against God's love in the Garden of Eden.  Their disobedience was always a possibility - part of God's truth implicit in our humanity - for we were created in the image of God.  We could always freely choose to embrace the way of faith, hope and love, or, in an act of free will, choose to abandon them, too.

+ When humankind decided to abandon the will of God, we became enslaved to the will and way of Satan. As sin matured within and among us, the kingdom of evil toppled the kingdom of God's created grace. To be sure, sin was never completely victorious - for the very purpose of sin is to lead us back into God's love and return us to the realm of obedience and faith - but sin continued to expand and then dominate the world.

+ To conquer sin - and renew the reign of grace of creation - God became flesh in Jesus. (NOTE:  here is one important insight in this theology. The incarnation - God becoming flesh to live and dwell among us - is at the heart of the atonement.) The humanity of God in the incarnation not only showed the world how God is present with us in our suffering and sin - not distant or aloof - but also served to confuse Satan.  For when God died on the Cross in Jesus, it appeared as if God's grace had been conquered forever.

+ And God allowed this confusion to continue - for as the Apostles Creed teaches, during his death Jesus not only bewildered Satan, but also went to Hell to redeem those who were suffering under Satan's power - only to be raised on the third day by God's love into a new and eternal life: I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth: And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, dead, and buried: He descended into hell; The third day he rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost; The holy Catholic Church; The Communion of Saints; The Forgiveness of sins; The Resurrection of the body, And the Life everlasting. Amen.

In this, God outmaneuvered Satan's power, broke his control over creation and redeemed humanity with sacrificial love. Christ was the Victor in this cosmic understanding of the atonement that touches heaven, hell and earth. Here we are given a vision of the battle between sin and grace in broad strokes that concludes with two insights:

+ The first is that Christ's life, death and resurrection were a part of God's campaign to reclaim creation from the power and authority of sin. Born of love, this campaign is not about offering Christ as a sacrifice to satisfy justice; rather Christ comes to subvert the status quo and bring us back into God's love forever. 

+ And second, we learn that God became flesh in Christ so that we could take on God's nature by faith. Some put it like this:  Jesus became what we are so that we could become what he is.  This continues to be normative in the Orthodox tradition that speaks of our deification in Christ Jesus -  becoming more and more Christ-like through Christ's presence and victory over sin - as God's kingdom within and among us ripens.

As a symbolic exploration of the Cross, I resonate with God's love that will not take defeat as the end of the story. Like Rob Bell notes - and the parables of Jesus in Luke 15 celebrate (the lost coin, the lost sheep and the lost child) - God's love will go into the bowels of Hell to bring us back into grace. God's love is greater than sin, evil and every status quo.  In fact, God's love is victorious in a humble and tender way.  I do not connect with the symbols of the story - a cosmic battle between God and Satan - but value their archetypal integrity.

What's more, I am very persuaded by this perspective's insistence that the purpose of Christ Jesus becoming flesh - the incarnation - is rooted in God's grace. Not only is sin subverted by this love, but love is renewed and reformed within each believer to become more and more Christ-like by faith.  (So here's a tune from the waaaay-back machine by Amy Grant from her young, earnest praise-the-Lord days that I still cherish.)


Luke said…
excellent synopsis of this confusing doctrine of atonement. my theology prof likened it to the battle of gettysburg: the war is over, the decisive battle has been fought and won and it's all down hill for the bad guys from here on out. i will repost this for easter for my congregation to check out!

happy holy week brother!

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