Thursday, April 07, 2011

The Problem with Christus Victor

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).

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