The first three theories I surveyed (ransom, Christus Victor, satisfaction) are the most ancient systematic attempts to explain the point of Jesus’ death. As I said, the satisfaction theory arose in Europe in the 1100’s, and the other two predate that.
Of the three, the one that seems to me to hold the most pastoral promise today is Christus Victor; witness those who seek to use it today as an alternative to penal substitutionary atonement (e.g., Brian Zahnd and Greg Boyd). Zahnd may or may not be an evangelical; I haven’t paid that much attention to what he says about scripture. But whatever else Boyd is, his view of scripture is still evangelical.
(The satisfaction theory, as I indicated, might also have something to offer today. But honestly, I think the governmental theory–which I will survey later this week–has all the strengths of the satisfaction theory and more.)
What do I mean when I say that a theory has “pastoral promise”? I mean this: this theory addresses the way that a group of people in a particular culture and community understand the existential problem that they face.
- If the great threat is that your guilt and the debt of your sin separates you from God, then some kind of substitutionary atonement will be necessary.
But remember: the idea that what stands between you and God is personal guilt, a personal debt of sin on the balance sheet, is a Western idea. People in other parts of the world (beyond America, the UK, and Northern/Western Europe) do not conceive of guilt this way. The Bible writers also did not think of it this way, at least not to the extent nor with the exclusivity of a Martin Luther and all of us who have followed his path.
Consider an alternative:
- If the great existential threat is that you have lost honor and are so covered in shame that an honorable God cannot accept you, then most substitutionary atonement won’t touch your problem as you understand it. A biblical approach that talks about restored honor will be more on point.
This seems to be the way much of the world understands the existential threat. Atonement needs to be preached to them in a way that, while biblical, addresses the existential threat as they see it.
What of Christus victor? Here’s how it works pastorally.
For many people in the world, the great existential threat is that dark forces, demonic and personal, control the world. These people are not in control of their lives. Appeasing the dark forces costs them their souls, their happiness, their peace, but it seems to be the only way to survive.
Jesus’ victory in the events of his crucifixion and resurrection defeats those dark forces. It breaks their power. And we, by becoming part of him, can experience that victory as well. Sin’s power over us can be broken, and the Holy Spirit living within us can give us new lives of obedience and freedom.
Tomorrow: substitutionary atonement and its variation, penal substitution.