We talked last time about three atonement theories that I believe are woefully misguided and miss the point of Jesus’ death completely: The Ransom Theory, the Satisfaction Theory, and the Substitutionary Atonement Theory (Penal Substitution). All three are inadequate to explain what happened at Jesus’ death, and they all lead to deep misunderstandings about God and his relationship to us.
But, if all these theories are mistaken, how can we better understand what happened at Jesus’ death and how it impacts us? Increasing numbers of believers now embrace a better explanation—Christus Victor.Jesus the Victor (Christus Victor)
The Christus Victor Theory departs from the other three theories of atonement. Some might see some similarity with the Ransom Theory in that Jesus becomes a victor, but he is not a victor over Satan’s claim over us as sinners against God. He is victor in another way; he is victor over sin, evil, and death!
His death is not a ransom either to Satan or to God. I doubt Satan even exists, he is just a personification of evil in our lives, but the victory of Jesus includes victory over all that he personifies—including victory over the worldly powers as represented by Rome in Jesus’ day. Jesus’ death was not an appeasement to God but victory over sin, evil, and death in a sacrifice of love.
Jesus came to offer us eternal life. The most famous passage in the Bible says: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
But many people read other stuff into it. John 3:16 doesn’t say, as many assume, that God sent his son to die on the cross to pay for our sins (no place in the New Testament says Jesus paid for our sins). There is no mention in John 3:16 of being saved from hell or God’s wrath. Jesus came that we might have eternal life instead of permanent death. Death is not the end of our story.
However, Jesus’ death is not what confirms our eternal life. Jesus was human and humans die; it was his resurrection that accomplished victory over death and guaranteed our resurrection and eternal life.
The Resurrection Factor
The pivotal incident in Jesus’ death is not the crucifixion but the resurrection, though he did have to die in order for there to be a resurrection so his death was very important. But his resurrection demonstrated his ability to give us eternal life.
In his resurrection, Jesus:
- Broke the power of death
- Broke the power of sin in our lives
- Broke the power of the world system that dominated the world and killed Jesus
I believe the resurrection is the point of primary importance in what Jesus does for us. But, in addition to breaking the power of death, sin, and the world system, the resurrection also:
- Validates Jesus’ uniqueness; he is not just another wise teacher
- Makes us pay attention to what he teaches about the loving Father
- Gives us confidence of our own eventual resurrection and eternal life
The resurrection required Jesus’ death, but why did it have to be a cruel, public death on the cross?
His resurrection was a victory over the world system that attempted to defeat him. But had his death had not been a very public one, his resurrection would not have been publicly noticed. Otherwise, when told of the resurrection of Jesus people could say, ‘Jesus is resurrected? Who is Jesus?’ or ‘What? I didn’t even know he was dead.’ The public execution led to public awareness of his resurrection; it was visible and memorable.
But this is Not All that was Going On
Jesus could have lived and taught his followers for decades, but instead he submitted to an unjust death he could have avoided had he wanted to. In fact, by cooperation, he could have built his movement throughout the religious and political systems of the world, but he allowed them to kill him instead.
He purposefully provoked the powers of the day while there was an enormous crowd in Jerusalem for Passover and a strong Roman presence to respond to any disturbance during the feast. According to the Synoptics the provocation was the cleansing of the Temple, while John says it was the shocking, and threatening, raising of Lazarus that created great excitement among the people.
Jesus caught the attention of the powers when he didn’t have to. And then he didn’t resist his arrest, or his trial, or try to do anything to avoid execution. Jesus offered no political resistance but he did impact political thinking among his followers. His submission to death demonstrated:
- The seriousness of his teaching and commitment against using power to achieve the kingdom
- Willingness to die for the kingdom if necessary, and
- That the proper response to violence is forgiveness
It was (and is) a potent lesson for his followers. It illustrates the rejection of political approaches to bringing in God’s new order. His mission was not to build a power force; the kingdom of God is not to be advanced by violence, power, or politics.
More on the Cross
In addition to his message against political violence, Jesus’ death demonstrates the level of alienation of humanity from God. God sent his son and they killed him. The cross represents both sinfulness and forgiveness; we demonstrated the sinfulness of humanity by killing an innocent one, and Jesus demonstrated forgiveness. One thing we can say with great confidence that what Jesus did on the cross was to forgive: ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’
What a lesson for us! Jesus responded to his murderers by forgiving them all, which should really catch our attention and strengthen our desire to love others—even to the point of loving our own enemies. This act of forgiveness underscores the love of God Jesus shared with us all along.
Forgiveness is the thing; we accept that forgiveness and forgive others in the same way.
Articles in this series: Sin and Forgiveness
The Story of Sin and Salvation—Common Baggage Version (CBV)
What is Sin but Pain and Alienation?
Addressing Sin in the Old Testament
The Prophets Begin to Talk about Sin in a New Way
What Does Jesus Say about Sin? Not Much!
The Misguided Concept of ‘Loving the Sinner and Hating the Sin’
What does Jesus’ Death on the Cross Do for Us?
How Substitutionary Atonement Fails
Why Did Jesus Die on the Cross?
Does Jesus Tell Us to Judge People in Matthew 18?
Are Sins Primarily Sins against God?
“If There’s No Hell then I Will Sin All I Want!”
Problems with the Sinner’s Prayer
What does the Story of Eden Tell Us? Is it about Sin?
We Do Not Inherit Original Sin from Adam
Original Sin or Original Self-Centeredness?
Who Does God Refuse to Forgive?