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Models of Atonement in History: Christus Victor and Others

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Chalke and Mann ask ‘How’ have we come to believe that at the cross this God of love suddenly decides to vent his anger and wrath on his own son? This highlights a point of interest, how we arrive at doctrinal conclusions about atonement. The development of atonement models is of great importance, thus Chalke and Mann introduce an interesting point. How have people understood atonement throughout history?

An early understanding was ‘Christus Victor’ which focussed on ‘victory over evil’. Christ is characterized as a warrior gaining ‘victory over Satan and the evil powers’. Aulen re-popularised this model during the ‘twentieth century’, however, it was dominant among ‘early church fathers’. Horton affirms this ‘military analogy’ as Jesus ‘disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to shame’. (Col 2:15) Tidball bolsters this as New Testament authors view the cross in ‘terms of victory’. Perhaps this is why ‘the West has enjoyed a renewed appreciation’ for Christus Victor. Warfare has dominated recent history which may explain why people enjoy the image of a powerful conqueror.

Christus Victor was refined by the medieval belief that Jesus ‘descended to hell’. Durer`s painting ‘The Harrowing of Hell’ displays Christ infiltrating hell to rescue Adam and Eve, displaying the theory`s objective nature as the whole of humanity is impacted. Christus Victor recognizes the cosmic dimension as there is an acknowledgment that ‘the entire creation is also restored’. This may be popular with those concerned about environmental issues as there is hope for creation.

Still, this model is vulnerable to criticism. Christus Victor does not explain how sin is dealt with, spotlighting the ‘result of atonement’ rather than how it was realized. Equally, this model undermines Christ`s humanity by highlighting victory over suffering. Scripture makes clear that Jesus was human, ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’. (Jn 1:14). Carson notes that God was revealed ‘finally and ultimately, in a real, historical man’. This displays that Jesus was divine and human, something that Christus Victor neglects.

Ransom was a model proposed by ‘Origen (AD 185- 254)’ and determines that Jesus functioned as a ransom paid to Satan for the ownership of humanity. Irenaeus claimed that Satan was ‘the governing power of the world’ and had claimed over humans. Origen found evidence for this model in Paul`s statements about humanity being bought with a price. (1 Cor 6:20). He contended that the devil held us and was due payment. Equally, scripture refers to Christ`s sacrifice as a ransom which indicates a price that had to be paid.

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However, this perspective views Satan as having much more power than he actually does. Horton bolsters this as there is no evidence that Satan was the rightful owner of human beings. Additionally, ransom received historical criticism from Gregory of Nazianzus in the Early Church and in the Middle Ages from both Anselm and Abelard. Nonetheless, Boyd highlights Satan`s power as scripture depicts him as the god of this world. (2 Cor 4:4). Though, he recognizes that God is not threatened by Satan which undermines the concept that Satan held authority over God.

Anselm`s view, known as satisfaction, argued that substitutionary sacrifice was necessary as sin dishonored God`s moral dignity. Anselm utilized 11th-century images of honor and debt to present the disharmony between God and humanity. Humans owed God compensation but they were stuck as only God can pay. Therefore, the sacrifice should be human but must be God, thus why Jesus was the perfect offering. Nonetheless, there are disagreements over this model. Anselm appeared deeply influenced by feudalism, effectively depicting God as lord of the manor. Though, it was not uncommon for scholars to utilize well-known images that were relevant in their era. However, critics also take issue with the commercial transaction that takes place within satisfaction.

Peter Abelard (1079-1142) thought demanding the blood of an innocent was grotesque. He determined that atonement involved God exhibiting how much he loved human beings. Proponents of moral influence believed that the power of the cross was found in its subjective inspiration. There is little consideration for sin-bearing or legal efficacy. Fundamentally, Christ`s loving offering is intended to bring us to contrition and repentance.

Morris argued that moral influence was not fully established until the nineteenth century. However, the Socinian movement accepted this theory earlier and used it to deny the divinity of Christ`s person. This introduces a significant critique as Abelard values Jesus' humanity over his divinity. Furthermore, scripture depicts Jesus as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 Jn 4:10). Stott determines that Jesus died for sinners. The sacrifice of 1 John is translated from hilasmos which refers to the removal of sin through sacrifice. Atonement is both loving and just as God`s graciousness and justice are simultaneously revealed. This indicates a substitutionary element to atonement.

A widely held theory is penal substitution which was popularised in the sixteenth century by Calvin and Luther. The core concept is that Jesus bore the punishment humanity deserved. Christ`s death was penal in the sense that he bore a penalty when he died. Furthermore, Jesus was a substitute for us when he died. As explained earlier, the servant of Isaiah foreshadows Christ. Interestingly, Isaiah 53 presents penal substitution as the mechanism for atonement. The servant is wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities. (Isa 53:5). Boyd and Eddy suggest that Isaiah was clearly articulating that Jesus would die on behalf of others to make them acceptable to God.

This introduces the idea of propitiation which is a sacrificial act by which someone becomes favorable. More specifically, this sacrifice bears God`s wrath. There is also expiation as sin is canceled. Still, atonement first had an effect on God and his relation to the sinners he planned to redeem. Then, there is the transformation of our subjective consciousness. Penal substitution is both objective and subjective in nature which presents a broader picture than other models.

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Models of Atonement in History: Christus Victor and Others. (2023, April 21). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 24, 2024, from
“Models of Atonement in History: Christus Victor and Others.” Edubirdie, 21 Apr. 2023,
Models of Atonement in History: Christus Victor and Others. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 24 Feb. 2024].
Models of Atonement in History: Christus Victor and Others [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Apr 21 [cited 2024 Feb 24]. Available from:
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