Universalism is not the only topic in Rob Bell's Love Wins that deserves comment, though given the buzz, you'd think that's all he discusses. Among other things, the book also attacks "toxic" forms of substitutionary atonement, and advocates the use of a plurality of atonement theories. In this, Mr. Bell is repeating decades-old arguments in our movement, arguments that seem to be winning the day. One atonement theory in particular has exploded in popularity, in fact. Hardly an atonement discussion goes by that I don't hear an evangelical say they doubt the usefulness of substitutionary atonement and now favor Christus Victor.
The Christus Victor model has much to commend it. The idea is this: Christ is victor. Christ in his death and resurrection overcame over the hostile powers that hold humanity in subjection, those powers variously understood as the devil, sin, the law, and death. While the model assumes humanity's guilt for getting ourselves into this predicament—beginning with the original sin of Adam and Eve—the theory's anthropology (view of humanity) emphasizes not our guilt but our victimhood, at least the way it is often discussed today. The main human problem is that we are trapped and we need to be rescued: "Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery" (Heb. 2:14-15) .
Indeed, we are enslaved to powers beyond our control, both personally and corporately. This model also highlights big picture atonement: Christ's death isn't merely about me and my salvation. It's about the redemption of the cosmos: "He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him" (Col. 2:15).
On the other hand, "neurotic substitutionary atonement" needs to be abandoned. The picture of a wrathful Father having his anger appeased by the death of his Son is wrong on many fronts. Here's one: It separates the work of the Father from the Son, as if they have competing concerns—the Father with righteousness, the son with compassion. It sounds like the Son saves us from the Father! This is manifestly unbiblical, for Paul clearly says that "in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself" (2 Cor. 5:19). While we were sinners, God took action. God would not have come to us in Christ had he not already determined to reconcile with us. This is not the behavior of a God who stands aloof in a huff, waiting for propitiation before he'll have anything to do with us.
With these clarifications, biblical substitutionary atonement in all its nuances (the Bible frames it in subtly different ways: as sacrifice, propitiation, and payment) remains the dominant metaphor for atonement in Scripture. When he wanted to demonstrate his love for us, God substituted himself for us on the cross. It is an especially fitting move, given who God is—both just and merciful: "[We] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Rom. 3:24-26).
Many interesting comparisons can be made between the two theories. Both actually include dimensions of personal guilt and victimhood, but as I listen to the discussion today, it seems that Christus Victor highlights our state as victims. Substitutionary atonement focuses on our guilt. In Christus Victor, we are liberated from hostile powers out there. In substitution, we are forgiven, and liberation is from ourselves and our addiction to our sin. Naturally, both models speak to truths of the human condition! And both have nuances worth exploring. But I'm concerned at the rising popularity of Christus Victor when it comes at the expense of substitution.
First, note how Scripture, even when it momentarily uses Christus Victor language, grounds it in substitution. For example, in the classic Christus Victor passage quoted above—"He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him"—note how Paul sets the context of that victory with substitution: "And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross" (vv. 13-14).
Or note again what is said immediately after that passage quoted above —" … through death [Christ] might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery." A verse later we read: "Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people" (Heb. 2:14-17).
Add to this the extensive discussion of substitutionary atonement in Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews—and no extensive discussions of Christus Victor anywhere in the New Testament—and one begins to wonder how much stock we should put in Christus Victor. In short, should we be so quick to marginalize substitutionary atonement?
One other area worth noting: the social setting in which this discussion takes place. It is no coincidence in a society where we imagine ourselves mostly as victims of social or biological forces, in a culture increasingly illiterate in the language of guilt, sin, and personal responsibility, that Christus Victor is winning the day in the Christian world. To be clear: I am not suggesting that champions of Christus Victor are avoiding personal guilt and the need for forgiveness. That's a question of the heart about which one cannot judge. My point is this: Is this model capable of addressing our culture with the truth of the gospel at one of its most troubling points?
I have noticed—and do tell me if you see otherwise—that in general those who publically champion Christus Victor don't pepper their talks and prayers with personal guilt for sin or the need for divine forgiveness. By way of contrast, note the oldest advocates of Christus Victor, the Eastern Orthodox. Personal sin and guilt, and the consequent wrath of God, regularly weave themselves into their prayers. Note this prayer recommended for each morning:
Arising from sleep I thank you, O holy Trinity, because of the abundance of your goodness and long-suffering, you were not angry with me, slothful and sinful as I am. Neither have you destroyed me in my transgressions, but in your compassion raised me up as I lay in despair, that at dawn I might sing the glories of your Majesty.
But for some reason, when the Christus Victor theory is extolled by Protestants today, personal sin and guilt take a back seat. Way back sometimes.
There is much to be said in favor of substitutionary atonement besides its biblical predominance. And to be sure, those who favor substitutionary atonement have some questions to ask themselves: Do I favor this theory because I am neurotically obsessed with guilt? Am I avoiding the cosmic dimensions of salvation to avoid getting involved in the political and social sphere? But those are subjects of other columns.
Here, I'm simply suggesting that Christus Victor may not be a theory that Protestants, and evangelicals in particular, should tie their wagons to. While it brings to the fore some crucial and forgotten biblical truths, it's clearly a secondary atonement theme in the New Testament. And at least for today's Protestants, it has an uncanny tendency to downplay a sense of personal responsibility, which in the end, sabotages grace. In my view, more than ever in our day, we need Christus Vicarious.
Something to think about, anyway, especially during Lent, when many of us ponder the great mysteries of sin and atonement.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is author of Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God (Baker).
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Previous SoulWork columns include:
Learning to Count to One | New math for those addicted to getting higher and higher in their churches. (February 17, 2011)
Super Bowl Evangelism | Why Jesus did not say, "Market your neighbor as yourself." (February 3, 2011)
One Wedding and Six Funerals | What it can mean to participate in the life of God. (January 20, 2011)