(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, I’ve decided to do another series where we take some time to engage their objections.1 Enjoy, and feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments section below!)
Hey Rocky! While reading through your series on the atonement I came across several problems that I see with your view. The most blatant problems that I see with Christus Victor theology is that it renders God powerless and man unaccountable for his sin. If the story of our salvation plays out more like a comic novel, as Christus Victor does, it undermines the unique difference Christianity has to any other religion. Moreover, on the video introducing Christus Victor, I came across what I consider to be a number of fallacies, both explicit and implicit. If you can refute any of this with scripture, please do so.
Regarding Lucifer, the video says, “Yahweh gave to Lucifer the task of governing the physical world, of maintaining order and ensuring rules were kept” – the only explicit Biblical knowledge we have on Satan (Ezekiel 28:11-19) is that he was an anointed Cherub who covers (v. 14), he was perfect until iniquity was found (v.15), he was vain and conceited (v. 17). We have much of what Satan has done after his fall, but very little on what he was like BEFORE the fall. Satan is only first (chronologically) mentioned in Job; all previous accounts of Lucifer are records of his actions, not his identity. Other verses referring to after or during his fall are Matthew 25:41, 2 Peter 2:4, Daniel 8:10, Isaiah 14:12, 2 Corinthians 11:14, and Revelation 12:9. The video also says, “He became arrogant, he saw Yahweh’s love as weakness.” Speculation unless you can ground this in explicit scripture. This video and theology seems to borrow from Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Divine Comedy far more than from the Bible.
First of all, I want to say thank you for reading my blog and thoughtfully engaging the material. It is really affirming to know that people are actually thinking through these things, and getting to be a part of that process is a huge blessing for me.
Secondly, I should state upfront that the video is not meant to be representative of all understandings of Christus Victor. This isn’t exactly how all adherents of Christus Victor atonement would understand the theory. Rather, it is simply one artistic expression of the Christus Victor story. So, try not to be too scrutinizing of it.
Admittedly, Satan’s role in creation prior to his fall is largely unknown. The idea in the video that God positioned him to govern the physical world is just one view. Some people think that he might have been a general is God’s army, others that he was something like a choir director for the heavenly chorus. And still others believe that his role was essentially the same before his fall as it seems to be after, namely that of an accuser in the heavenly courts (cf. 1 Chron 21:1; Job 1:6; Ps 109:6; Zech 3:1). This view seems to have the most Scriptural evidence supporting it, and so it’s the one that I chose to go with for the video.
I would like to make a few points about a couple of the Scripture references you pointed out, however. First and foremost, while it is true that Ezekiel 28:11-19 is often referenced when speaking about Satan and his fall, it is not true that this passage is actually about Satan. We know from verse 12 that this prophecy is actually a “lament over the king of Tyre.” You see, Ezekiel is writing this indictment against an historical person who lived at a specific time in history, not against Satan. Similarly, Isaiah 14:12-15 is another passage that is often used when discussing Satan. It reads…
How you have fallen from heaven,
O star of the morning, son of the dawn!
You have been cut down to the earth,
You who have weakened the nations!
But you said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to heaven;
I will raise my throne above the stars of God,
And I will sit on the mount of assembly
In the recesses of the north.
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.’
Nevertheless you will be thrust down to Sheol,
To the recesses of the pit.”
In fact, the Latinized version of helel (“star of the morning”) in verse 2 is actually where we get the name Lucifer. However, once again, this passage is not really about Satan. Read in its context we see that it is actually a “taunt against the king of Babylon” (v 4). So why is it that Ezekiel 28:11-19 and Isaiah 14:12-15 have been traditionally linked to Satan throughout church history? It is because they draw on earlier traditions. The Jewish understanding of Satan was one that developed over several centuries and drew from neighboring ancient Near Eastern religions. It is believed by many scholars that these poems are retellings of a tale that existed among the Canaanites of a personified morning star that grew arrogant and then fell to earth. If this is true (which I think it most likely is), then we can look to these passages to get a general poetic sense of this ancient story; however, we have to bear in mind that Ezekiel and Isaiah are only using this ancient narrative which would have been familiar to their audiences as a way of criticizing the pagan kings.
Last of all, I can see why you would think that the video borrows from Milton and Dante. After all, it uses a lot of Gustave Doré’s illustrations of Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy. But to be honest, I’ve never even read more than a few brief excerpts from those works.2 Even still, it isn’t as though Milton and Dante just made all of those things up off the top of their heads. Just like Ezekiel and Isaiah, they too were drawing on Judeo-Christian traditions that had been around centuries before they ever put their own pen to paper. This really gets to the heart of your claim that Christus Victor atonement undermines Christianity’s uniqueness among other religions. As strange as it may seem to so many of us post-Reformation evangelicals, the truth is that Christus Victor was the dominant view for the first thousand years of church history. If what you said is true, then it took an awfully long time for Christianity to become unique. But I don’t think that is the case. In fact, I think that Penal Substitutionary atonement actually undermines the exceptionality of our faith, whereas Christus Victor gives us something truly rare. You see, Penal Substitution really works within the same framework that almost every other religion in the world does, especially pagan and polytheistic religions – the divine is easily angered and needs sacrifices in order to be appeased. Conversely, Christus Victor provides us with the idea that the divine is entirely merciful and has decisively defeated evil, which is something that no other religion in the world claims!3
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: For the sake of clarity, I have edited and reworded my friend’s objections, so if something doesn’t make sense it’s probably my fault.
2: Although I really hope to read them in whole some day!
3: With the arguable exception of Islam… maaaybe.