(Awhile back I got a comment from a very intelligent friend telling me that they had just finished reading through my Rethinking the Atonement series, and they had a number of apparent problems that they found with the Christus Victor view. So this is part 2 of a series where we take some time to engage their objections. Enjoy, and feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments section below!)
Christus Victor cripples our freewill and accountability before God. It makes us victims rather than enemies of the Lord. If we were victims that would mean we were wronged, we were the ones offended and enslaved against our wills. We would not have any need for forgiveness for, indeed, we would not have committed a crime. One would have to refute every passage that explicitly states God’s forgiveness. No wonder you cannot reconcile with a God that damns victims to hell. You have our identity and God’s character confused. We are not victims and God is not unjust for carrying out his wrath (which is mentioned 95 times explicitly in the Bible…I don’t think that was a typo).
Indeed, this is one of the biggest accusations levied against Christus Victor atonement – that it recasts mankind as victims instead of villains. In this view (it is argued), the guilt is taken away from mankind and placed on Satan. As you mentioned, Scripture clearly teaches that in our sin we were “enemies” of God (Rom 5:10). And it is true that if we were simply victims there would be no reason for God to forgive us.
The problem with this line of argumentation is that it is simply based on a misunderstanding of Christus Victor atonement. First of all, Christus Victor atonement does not ignore mankind’s guilt. Just because we were duped into sinning does not mean that we didn’t sin. In fact, I would argue that rather than making sin less serious, Christus Victor actually makes sin more severe than Penal Substitutionary atonement. You see, in the Penal Substitutionary view sin is primarily an offense against God. As grave as this is, it really is equivalent to a temporal and finite insult against an altogether loving and forgiving Being, which would seem like something He could easily forgive.1 Conversely, the Christus Victor view sees sin as not merely an offense against God, but as an act of treason against God in His battle with Satan. Think about it this way – which would be a more serious crime, for a knight of Camelot to cause a personal offense against king Arthur or for that same knight to assist the evil Maleagant in his rebellion against Arthur? I cannot imagine an insult that could possibly match something like letting Maleagant’s forces into the city gates or alerting Maleagant to the location of Arthur’s army. Similarly, when we sin we are not simply offending God; rather, we are assisting His greatest enemy. If we take seriously the strong warfare motif that runs thick throughout Scripture,2 then we can come to an appreciation of how our sin is not simply an insult to God but an act of cosmic warfare against Him.
Secondly, while there are certainly passages that speak of sinners as enemies of God in need of forgiveness, there are also a large number of passages that speak of mankind (and all of creation) as victims in need of saving. One of the keys to good biblical theology is not to say, “Well, I can quote more verses to support my view than you can, so I must be right and you must be wrong.” If all of Scripture teaches truth in one way or another, then we need to embrace a view that makes sense of all the relevant evidence. Bearing this in mind, it simply doesn’t do to dismiss Christus Victor atonement simply because there are passages that one can point to which don’t seem to mesh well with it on face value. You still have to incorporate into your theology passages that talk about Jesus coming to save sinners (Lk 19:10), ones that say Jesus’ purpose in coming to earth was “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn 3:8), ones that talk about how Jesus intended to tie up the “strong man” so that he could plunder his house (Mk 3:26-27; Lk 11:14-26), ones that mention how Jesus came primarily to defeat Satan and the forces of evil (Mk 9:25; Lk 11:14; 13:11-16, 32; Acts 10:38), and even the fact that in the Genesis story it is the serpent3 who initiates the temptation that leads to mankind’s fall (Gen 3:1-5). As strange as it may seem to some believers today, there is actually a robust tradition within both Christianity and Judaism that sees mankind, particularly Adam, predominantly as a victim of Satan’s scheming (see the extra-canonical writings, Wisdom of Solomon 2:23-24; 10:1-2; and Life of Adam and Eve 13:1 – 14:3).
Lastly, in speaking to the nature of God’s wrath and hell, I think you may be confused about where I stand on this issue. While it is true that I have difficulty squaring the traditional view of hell (eternal conscious suffering) with the idea that God is perfectly loving,4 I have little difficulty squaring it with the idea of hell as a place of absolute destruction (Annihilationism). In fact, I hope to one day do a series explaining my thoughts on the various views of hell present throughout church history.5 Yet, even still, when discussing divine punishment we need to take a moment to clarify exactly what we mean by the phrase “wrath of God.” Do we mean God’s emotional fury at being offended or insulted, do we mean a dispassionate and objective doling out of punishment for crimes committed, or do we mean God’s willingness to be coerced to remove Himself (and His protection) from us and allow forces of evil to have their way? Personally, I opt for the third understanding of God’s wrath, and I think this perspective fits rather comfortably with Christus Victor atonement. Sadly, I don’t have the time or space in this post to give a full account of why this is my understanding of God’s wrath, but I am in the process of fleshing this idea out in a blog series on the nature of divine violence in the Bible. So, you can look forward to that happening… some day.
Anyhow, I hope that helps clarify some things. Next time I’ll take a look at some of the other objections. Until then, keep thinking and loving.
1: I personally don’t buy into the notion that sin against an infinite God is an infinite offense worthy of an infinite punishment. The person offended does not determine the severity of a sin. Would we consider it true justice if we punished two men with vastly different degrees of punishment for the exact same crime just because one committed his crime against a senator and the other against a blue-collar worker?
2: Cf. Ps 29:3-4, 10; 74:10-14; 77:16, 19; 89:9-10; 104:2-9; Prov 8:27-29; Job 7:12; 9:8, 13; 26:12-13; 38:6-11; 40-41; Ezek 29:3; 32:2; Jer 51:34; Hab 3:8-15; Nah 1:4
3: which the apostle John identifies as Satan (Rev 12:9; 20:2)
4: not to mention a whole glut of biblical passages
5: Eternal conscious suffering, annihilation, and Christian universalism