(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 5, the last part, 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!)
Lastly, but far from least, the video on Christus Victor said, “It isn’t God that points out our sins and shortcomings. It isn’t God that demanded blood sacrifice.” You might as well throw out the entire Old Testament and half the New Testament with Christus Victor if that is part of your theology. “…it was Satan.” Satan that demanded blood sacrifice and pointed out our sins? No way. Satan is the one that silences conviction, that silences God’s voice in our hearts. He would have us believing we are not sinners, that there is no hell and that God has the pearly gates wide open for us all. He mocks a congregation that takes their salvation for granted and sits comfortably week to week as so-called Christians sit unconvicted with no spiritual growth on a straight path to hell. The Law points to how damned we are without God’s grace. To the ancient Israelite, there was no greater grace than in the giving of the Law (remember Moses, Mt. Sinai, Ten Commandments, etc.?). Blood sacrifice was the method/demonstration/symbol for covering the sins of an individual and a nation. Explain to me why God would have instructed that His Holiest of Holies only be entered when a bull was sacrificed once a year on… wait for it… the day of atonement? It would make no sense!
Admittedly, this is probably one of the most difficult aspects of Christus Victor for contemporary Christians to accept. The notion that God is fundamentally concerned with legalistic rule keeping is so deeply engrained in our Evangelical theology that to suggest otherwise almost immediately comes off as heresy. But let’s take a moment to really consider the character portraits that you’ve presented in your objection.
First, in your estimation Satan does not demand blood sacrifices or point out our sin. On the contrary, you believe, he tries to get us to believe that we are not sinners, and so we are in no danger of consequences for sin. And while I would agree with you that Satan’s influence is present anywhere we find people ignorantly or willfully walking into their own destruction, I want to raise the honest question – is that the only way that Scripture portrays Satan? Certainly, the apostle Paul warns his fellow believers not to be ignorant of Satan’s schemes (2 Cor 2:11) and that the Devil tries to blind unbelievers (2 Cor 4:4), and discourage Christians and tempt them to sin (Acts 5:3; 1 Cor 7:5; 2 Cor 11:3; 1 Thess 3:5; 2 Thess 3:3-5; 1 Tim 3:7). However, as much as the evil one is the primary force behind human wickedness, we cannot neglect another role that the Bible attributes to him – namely that of accuser. This is why the book of Job depicts the satan1 as roaming about the world, apparently with the intent of making people lose favor in God’s eyes (Job 1:6-7). This is why he accuses Job of only being righteous because of the reward he gets for it rather than being righteous for righteousness sake (vv 8-11). This is also why Zechariah envisions Satan standing at the right hand of God accusing the high priest Joshua of being unclean (Zech 3:1-5). In response, God rebukes Satan for pointing out Joshua’s uncleanliness. Notice it isn’t that Satan was incorrect (Joshua was indeed unclean), but that Satan considered legalistic morality to be more important than God’s grace. In fact, David uses the word satan (translated “accuser”) to describe those who speak against him (Ps 109:2-4, 20) and those who judge others to be guilty (vv 6-7). He goes on to juxtapose the accusing and judging role of these satans against the loving and blessing character of God who actually saves people from those who judge (vv 26-31)! This idea of Satan as an accuser carries over rather heavily into New Testament writings as well (cf. Lk 22:31; Rev 12:10).
Not only do the canonical writers assign an indicting role to the Devil, but other early Jewish writings also present Satan as something of a prosecuting attorney (see the Apocalypse of Elijah 4:4, 9; 10:19f; Book of Jubilees 1:19-20; Apocalypse of Zephaniah 1:13). In the Midrash on Exodus, “When the Israelites had made the calf, Satan rose up and accused them” (Shemot rabba 43, cf. 5, 18, 31). According to Aggadic Midrash, Satan goes looking for demerits to place on the justice scale while God takes some of them off (Pesikta Rabbati 46). Finally, in the Book of Jubilees (48:15, 18), Satan is bound precisely so “that he might not accuse” Israel. Consistently throughout Jewish writings, Satan seeks to disrupt God’s relationship with mankind in three ways – temptation to sin, accusation before God, and trying to thwart the plan of salvation. All three of these are present in Christus Victor atonement.
Second, according to your understanding it is God, not Satan, who demands blood sacrifice and adherence to the Law. Unfortunately for our purposes here, the field of theology (the study of God) is drastically more vast and nuanced than satanology or demonology, and so there is simply no way for me to present an adequate and thorough response to your view of God’s character. Therefore, rather than trying to argue against each and every passage that might be used in support of God as condemner, I would simply invite you to read this post that I did on how the Old Testament sacrificial system should not be used as the rubric by which we understand Christ’s atoning work. Also, check out this article and this sermon for a Christus Victor understanding of why it is that God even required animal sacrifices. In light of these and other important insights, your statement that we “might as well throw out the entire Old Testament and half the New Testament” if God doesn’t demand blood sacrifices seems to me wholly unnecessary.
But even more important than this, we have to always begin with our understanding of God by first looking at Jesus. It may surprise many Evangelicals today, but reinterpreting Old Testament texts and customs in light of Jesus is not only consistent with Christian tradition, it’s actually biblical (Rom 4; 11:26-27; 2 Cor 6:2; Gal 3:11, 16, 29; cf. 2 Cor 3:15-18)!2 Does Jesus seem overly concerned with blood sacrifices? Does balancing scales and settling scores seem at all like the sort of thing that Jesus did? It isn’t that Jesus shows us a God who is altogether unconcerned with justice. On the contrary! However, the sort of justice that Jesus taught and exemplified is not a tit-for-tat, pay the piper kind of justice. Rather, it is the sort of justice that first and foremost forgives without payment (cf. Mt 18:21-27) and embraces transgressors without seeking retribution (cf. Lk 15:11-32). The fact that we don’t tend to think of this as justice3 is indicative of how terribly impoverished our sense of justice is!
I hope that this all helps clarify exactly why it is that Christus Victor proclaims some of the things that it does. Clearly this is a much bigger discussion than could be fully fleshed out here on a blog. Still, I understand that Christus Victor atonement is foreign to many modern believers, and it is because of this that I want to welcome objections like yours. I have found in this view of the atonement a much more beautiful picture of God and a much more captivating narrative than that presented by Penal Substitutionary atonement. And through critical reflection and diligent study I want others to discover that as well.
1: Early on, the term “satan” was a title or role and not a proper name.
2: For a discussion of these passages and how the apostle Paul creatively interpreted his Bible, see Peter Enns' excellent book, The Evolution of Adam (Brazos Press, 2012), 103-117.
3: In fact, people often call this enabling, poor stewardship, apathy, or “cheap grace.”