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- Atonement Theories: Christus Victor

Why did Jesus die on the cross? What was the purpose of his incarnation to earth, obedient life, death and resurrection? There are 7 main atonement theories. These 7 theories will be briefly explained, and categorized into 2 opposing camps to simplify the issue. There are elements of truth in each theory. But this is an important issue as we will see there are implications based on what we conclude. But first let's look at two theories, one of which is sound toward both models, the other is to be rejected.

The Moral Influence Theory - This theory is less about the atonement, and more about the life of Jesus and the positive example that he set for all mankind. This theory is rather uncontroversial and really can be included with any atonement theory. Indeed, Jesus's life had a positive moral impact on mankind and an excellent example to follow. This was most definitely one aspect of the purpose of his incarnation.

The Scapegoat Theory - This theory is a rather modern and philosophical theory not based in scripture. It is an alternative to the other theories of atonement and stands alone. It is to be rejected outright as pagan and worldly logic. It essentially says that all societies want what others have and this causes all kinds of violence and tension in the world. An innocent victim, called the scapegoat is killed to to release this tension. Jesus is seen as the ultimate scapegoat for society, and not as a sacrifice.

The Satisfaction Model

The Satisfaction Theory - This theory was developed in the 12th century by Anselm. It states that sin is a debt to God. So mankind is indebted to God because of God's justice and requirement to penalize sin. Jesus's death is seen as a sacrifice to satisfy the Father so that his wrath does not come upon us.

The Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory - This theory is very similar to The Satisfaction Theory. It was a slight revision from the time of the Reformation. The key difference is that the penal substitutionary atonement(PSA) theory says that Jesus died as a substitute for us to satisfy God's wrath. So the difference is really semantics. Instead of God simply needing satisfaction of any kind, God allowed Jesus to take the wrath due to us specifically in our place as a substitute. This is the most common and popular view in the church today.

The Governmental Theory - This theory is another slight revision from the PSA theory. The key difference is the extent to which Christ suffered. Instead of suffering our specific due punishment, he simply suffered a punishment to appease God's wrath.

As you can see these 3 theories are all essentially the same and will from this point on be referred to as The Satisfaction Model to represent all 3 together. Their differences aren't terribly important for the distinctions that will be made on down this page. But they all affirm that God is a God of justice and sin must be satisfied by his wrath. Jesus died for our sins as a substitute sacrifice. We will soon dissect this model and see why it falls short and is therefore false. We will also see the implications of this view and how it supports false doctrines. But first, let's look at the alternative model.

Christus Victor Model

The Christus Victor Theory - This theory says that Christ defeated death, sin, Satan, and all the evil principalities by his incarnation, life, death, and resurrection. It comes from a world view that says the earth is a battle ground for a cosmic war that has been going on since the beginning. Jesus declared victory by reconciling the whole world to himself.

The Ransom Theory - This theory is an important aspect of the Christus Victor model. It states that Jesus died to pay a ransom payment in order to redeem mankind. This payment could be seen as either being paid to Satan, or to simply death, but not to the Father. 

The Differences

At first glance it appears that both models affirm each others views, they just emphasis some aspects of the atonement over another as the primary aspect of it. It appears that all atonement theories can share in the complete truth of the atonement. But it is important to understand that these 2 models completely oppose each other in very meaningful ways. Both models affirm that Jesus paid a ransom. But a ransom for what? Both affirm that Jesus was victorious. But victorious over what? Both affirm that the Father was satisfied. But satisfied in what sense? Both affirm that Jesus was a sacrificial substitute in our place. But a substitute for what? What is also very much different, is the world view from which the 2 models come from. It is a huge paradigm shift from one understanding to the other regarding the character of the Father and how one sees the world in which we live. It is also important to understand that the Christus Victor model is the early christian understanding of the atonement. The satisfaction model did not come onto the scene until the 12th century, and has been revised slightly through the Reformation in the 16th century and the years following. 

The Character of the Father - The satisfaction model sees God as a wrathful and angry God. They say his justice and hatred of sin, or holiness are his primary attributes. In this model the Father is actually unable to forgive sin. Sin must be satisfied by his wrath, therefore forgiveness is not something he is able to do. The Father is seen as someone who is so displeased and disgusted with mankind, that all mankind is deserving of eternal conscious torment in a fiery hell. Jesus satisfies the wrath of this angry God and saves us from his wrath. On the flip side, the Christus Victor model shows the Father as a loving God that seeks to save mankind from the oppressive rule of dark forces on earth.