Christus Victor

On Good Friday we invited folks at Central Baptist to come and hammer in a nail to a cross one of our family had made. It’s a powerful thing to be in the silence of the sanctuary, only to have it interrupted by the pounding of a hammer. There’s a violence to the sound which is jarring.

I’ve seen such practices done before by churches, but it typically comes with the statement, “We do this to remember it was our sin which put Jesus on the cross.” I suppose there is value to this notion, and it springs from a theory of the Atonement many Protestants, including the vast majority of Evangelicals, believe to be the only theory of the atonement — penal substitutionary atonement.

I felt compelled to walk a different path.

I rarely mention the satisfaction theory 1 or the penal substitution theory of the atonement 2. Why don’t I mention these other theories much? Probably because the Church’s theology of worship and redemption got along just fine without them for the better part of a thousand years.

So how do I speak about the Atonement? Well, anyone who listens to my preaching will inevitably hear mentioned how Jesus’ work in his life, death, and resurrection “conquered the powers of sin and death.” This is called “Christus Victor,” and is probably the oldest theory of the atonement. According to Christus Victor, the cross wasn’t a payment, it was Christ’s victory over the powers of bondage — the spiritual forces which hold humanity down and abuses God’s image-bearers in order to keep us from seeking our Lord. This idea seems to be what’s in mind in Colossians 2:15,

And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

The Cross, then, is primarily a tool of triumph — the powers are broken, their strength spent, and their assumed authority dismantled. At the moment they thought they’d won, Christ utterly defeated them. And when Christ rose from the dead, there wasn’t any power left to hold him down.

Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting? 3

A theology professor of mine once likened Jesus’ death and resurrection to the D-Day invasion. Once the beachhead was established the defeat of Germany was almost inevitable, but that didn’t keep the Nazi’s from fighting and mauling and murdering. Similarly, once Jesus died and rose again the defeat of the powers of sin and death was accomplished 4. These powers are not be able to stand up against the invasion of freedom, reconciliation, and eternal life — but that doesn’t keep them from trying. We see this in our bloody history as a species — our inclination to figure out more and better ways to destroy one another, and our inability to see the “other” as human 5.

But despite all the evil we see in the world, Christus Victor declares the powers of sin and death defeated. The cross always stands before the remnants of the powers and as the image of their utter defeat, and the empty tomb as a shout they do not rule any more. That authority has been taken by the Lamb of God — who gave us his life because he loves us so much he defeated the powers we never could.

And that’s the idea upon which I had people focus when they hammered the nails into the cross. Jesus allowed these instruments of humiliation and torture, tools wielded by the human agents of the powers of sin and death, because he loved us so deeply he couldn’t do anything else. He wanted those powers broken, powerless, and defeated — and he was the only one who was able to do it. And so he gave up his spirit, broke the chains, and kicked open the doors of death.

Hallelujah, Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed, Hallelujah!

  1. This theory posits God’s honor had to be satisfied by Jesus’ death, it was developed in the Medieval period. 
  2. This states Jesus paid the penalty which God should have rightfully inflicted on us. This theory is similar to the much older “Ransom Theory,” but changes the focus regarding the one from whom we need to be saved. Penal substitution posits Jesus’ death saves us from God, whereas Ransom theory posits his death paid the ransom to Satan, who held humanity in bondage because of sin. People confuse the two all the time, which leads many people to incorrectly reference The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe as an example of penal substitutionary atonement. 
  3. 1 Cor. 15:55, quoting Hosea 13:14. 
  4. And it was a lot more certain than the outcome of WWII. But all analogies fail at some point. 
  5. And, therefore, as God’s image.