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#550 Christus Victor Theory of the Atonement

October 27, 2017

Mr. Craig,

Thank you very much for your ministry. It has helped me very much in deepening my understanding why we, as Christians, believe what we believe. I am an Orthodox Christian and although in our tradition, reason is secondary to the experience of the Divine through good works of unconditional love, I have benefited immensely from your work when talking to anyone who may not necessarily be open to claims of experience. I was wondering what your views on the Christus Victor theory of Atonement are. I have discovered that it's a good summary of what I have heard throughout my life within the Church. What stroke me most, however, is the clear contrast of "legal continuity, Divine discontinuity" of PST and "legal discontinuity, Divine continuity" of Christus Victor. What's your view on that? Thank you.


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Dr. craig’s response


I’ve been surprised by the number of times this question has come up of late. Although the Swedish theologian Gustav Aulèn argued in the mid-twentieth century that the Church Fathers and Luther were devoted to a so-called Christus Victor theory,[1] Aulèn’s claims have succumbed to criticism. The truth of the matter is that the Church Fathers reflected the wide diversity of motifs found in the New Testament with respect to Christ’s atonement: ransom, sacrifice, substitutionary suffering, moral example, and so on.[2] Consider, for example, this statement by Eusebius:

the Lamb of God . . .was chastised on our behalf, and suffered a penalty He did not owe, but which we owed because of the multitude of our sins; and so He became the cause of the forgiveness of our sins, because He received death for us, and transferred to Himself the scourging, the insults, and the dishonour, which were due to us, and drew down on Himself the apportioned curse, being made a curse for us. And what is that but the price of our souls? And so the oracle says in our person: ‘By his stripes we were healed,’ and ‘The Lord delivered him for our sins’. . . (Demonstration of the Gospel 10.1).

Here we have a combination of sacrifice, ransom, and penal substitution. Similar sentiments were expressed by Origen, Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, and others.

One also finds among the Fathers an emphasis on Christ’s great victory. The Christus Victor theory of the atonement emphasizes Christ’s triumphing over Satan and liberating us from bondage to sin and corruption. The question is exactly how this was accomplished. Some Church Fathers such as Origen and Gregory of Nyssa espoused a ransom theory, according to which Christ’s life was a ransom paid to Satan to let us go free. Other Church Fathers like Augustine thought that Satan was tricked into attacking Christ, over whom he had no rights, so that he lost his rights over those who belong to Christ. Still other Church Fathers like Irenaeus and Athanasius emphasized the incarnation, Christ’s taking on our humanity, as the means by which death and corruption were overcome.

In short, the Christus Victor approach doesn’t really tell us how atonement was achieved. Indeed, one can readily sympathize with Albrecht Ritschl’s complaint that it is not really a theory of the atonement at all, since it tells us nothing about how Christ’s death served to expiate sin and reconcile us God.[3] Proponents of such an approach tended to focus on the consequences of sin, principally death, and overcoming Satan rather than on sin itself and its expiation.

So the shortcoming of the Christus Victor approach to the atonement is not that it is wrong so much as it is incomplete: it falls short of doing justice to all the biblical data pertinent to the death of Christ and its atoning effect. One should not reject the motif of Christ’s victory over Satan, death, and hell, so much as incorporate it into well-rounded theory that will include not only the motifs of victory and redemption, but also sacrifice, expiation of sin, propitiation of God’s wrath, vicarious punishment, satisfaction of divine justice, and so on. The way in which Christ overcomes sin and death is precisely by giving himself as a sacrificial offering to God and like the Servant of Isaiah 53 bearing the punishment for sin that we deserved. As Augustine put it, he is both Victor and Victim, indeed, Victor because Victim (Confessions 10).

I’m not sure what you as an Orthodox Christian were taught about the atoning death of Christ, but like Irenaeus and Athanasius Orthodoxy tends to shift the emphasis away from the death of Christ to his incarnation as the principal means of overcoming the corruption of our nature and death. Christ’s death becomes merely the climax of his life. On this view it is primarily the divine person’s assuming a human nature that brought healing and immortality to our nature. The centrality of the cross in the New Testament proclamation of the Gospel is thus lost.


[1] Gustaf Aulèn, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement [1931], trans. A. G. Hebert (New York: Macmillan, 1969).

[2] Joseph F. Mitros, “Patristic Views of Christ’s Salvific Work,” Thought 42/3 (1967): 415-47.

[3] Albrecht Ritschl, A Critical History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation, trans. John S. Black(Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1872), p. 11.

- William Lane Craig