The term Christus Victor, Latin for “Christ is the conqueror,” originated with a 1931 book by Gustaf Aulén, which presents a theory of Christ’s work of atonement.
Aulén argued that the Christus Victor model of atonement was espoused by the early church fathers and is therefore closer to the truth than Anselm’s satisfaction (or commercial) theory, formulated in the eleventh century; and the Reformers’ penal substitution theory, which was a modification of Anselm’s view. Christus Victor asserts that “the work of Christ is first and foremost a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death, and the devil.” In contrast, the satisfaction model says that Christ had to die in order to restore God’s honor that had been offended by mankind’s sin; the penal substitution model says that Christ was punished for the sake of justice—that God’s just punishment of sin was satisfied by Christ so that the punishment would not fall on humanity.
Perceived Problems with the Satisfaction and Substitution Theories
Adherents to the Christus Victor model of atonement usually object to the penal substitution model because the substitution model is “violent” and supposedly places God in a disagreeable light. The idea that God is a Judge who was willing to kill His own Son to atone for the sins of humanity is repugnant to opponents of substitutionary theory. Those like Aulén dislike the idea that God cares so much about the satisfaction of His justice that He would choose to punish Jesus. Aulén also claimed that the satisfaction and substitution models pit God and Jesus against one another, while Christus Victor places them on the same side, fighting evil together.
Problems with Christus Victor
Christus Victor has two main flaws. First, it is based primarily on Aulén’s rejection of the idea of the atonement as a legal exercise, rather than on arguments from Scripture. The Bible clearly presents the suffering of Christ as a propitiation, or satisfaction (1 John 2:2). The question then is, what was satisfied? Anselm said Christ’s death satisfied God’s honor. The Reformers said Christ’s death satisfied God’s wrath and His demand for justice. As for it being God’s desire that Christ die, the prophet says, “It was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, / and . . . the LORD makes his life an offering for sin” (Isaiah 53:10).
Second, because Christus Victor asserts that Christ’s sacrifice was not offered to satisfy God’s justice, then the Law—instead of being upheld as righteous—is placed under the heading of “evil things defeated by Christ’s sacrifice.” If God and Jesus are fighting alongside one another against the powers of darkness, they would be fighting Satan, man’s sin, and, ironically, the Law that made sin a problem in the first place.
God is fully aware that the Law puts us into a bind, legally speaking. Paul, who was himself an expert in the Law, explains that the Law exists to show us that we are sinful (Romans 7:1–12; 3:20). He calls the Law holy, righteous, and good (Romans 7:12). God upholds justice because He is perfect (1 John 5:5). He also knows that we cannot attain perfection and that we will violate justice, because it is in our nature to do so (Romans 3:9–20). But if we admit our sins and throw ourselves upon God’s mercy, rather than attempting to appease Him according to a Law we will inevitably disobey, we will be forgiven and covered by Christ’s blood, shed on our behalf (1 John 1:7; John 3:17–18).
Christus Victor sees the penal substitution theory of the atonement as violent and unpleasant. However, the doctrine of propitiation is biblical, and the Bible does say that Christ took our punishment upon Himself. He became a curse for us (Galatians 3:13), and He was made sin on our behalf (2 Corinthians 5:21).