What if it’s vicarious atonement?
Vicarious atonement is the Holy Grail of Christian Fundamentalism.
It is vicarious atonement, or you are no Fundamentalist. Doubtless some believe that it is vicarious atonement, or you are no Christian. For one very simple reason, that is untenable. Vicarious atonement is about 480 years old. And that is being very generous.
Do some texts support vicarious atonement? Yes. And they zero in on guilt, debt, obligation, obedience, debt transfer, payment and justification. Sound familiar? Those ideas shape Fundamentalism’s Gospel. What’s more, they are legal terms. All of them. This begs a beguiling question:
Is it vicarious atonement that makes fundamentalism, ‘Fundamentalism?’
Might vicarious atonement illumine Fundamentalism’s fixation on law, guilt and obedience? And if so, do alternatives exist with the depth and redemptive import to found and nurture true faith in Jesus Christ? The answer is ‘yes.’ Here is a much older alternative to vicarious atonement.
The Christus Victor view of Atonement
Through Christ, God revealed the definitive truth about himself [Rom 5:8, cf. Jn 14:7-10], reconciled all things [including us] to himself [2 Cor 5:18-19; Col 1:20-22], forgave sins [Ac 13:38; Eph 1:7], healed our sin-diseased nature [1 Pet 2:24], poured his Spirit on us, and empowered us to live before himself [Rom 8:2-16]. He also showed us what it looks like to live in the kingdom [Eph 5:1-2; 1 Pet 2:21]. But above all this, Christ undertook his work to defeat the devil [He 2:14; 1 Jn 3:8].
Christus Victor recognizes that Jesus saw Satan as the functional Lord of this earth at that time [Jo 12:31; 14:30; 16:11]. Everything Jesus did was to contest and take back the world the Satan seized, and restoring it to its rightful guardians [Ge 1:26-28; 2 Ti 2:12; Re 5:10]. Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil [1Jn 3:8] and free those held in slavery [He 2:14-15].
Jesus demonstrated God’s power over the Satan, demons, rebellious principalities and powers, thrones, dominions, rulers. He became incarnate, died and was raised to reconcile to himself all things on earth or in heaven by making peace through his blood on the cross [Co 1:20].
What is Salvation?
Salvation certainly involves forgiveness of sins; but forgiveness is also about release from Satan’s grip. Salvation is primarily concerned about escaping ‘the snare of the devil’ [2Ti 2:26], about being freed from this present evil age [Ga 1:4], and about ending enslavement to the spirits of this world [Ga 4:3, Ro 6:18, 8:2; Ga 5:1; Co 2:20]. It is about our transfer from the power of darkness into the kingdom of God’s Son [Co 1:12-13] and receiving forgiveness of sins and an inheritance in him [Co 1:14].
In the NT, salvation is not primarily about deliverance from God’s wrath and/or hell. Salvation is a cosmic event liberating the whole cosmos from demonic oppression, as well as overcoming our rebellion so that we may live new lives under his loving reign [Ro 8:19-22]. Everything Jesus did — healing, teaching, exorcisms, confrontations — pushed back the kingdom of evil. More, it expressed the victory of the cross in all of life. Result?
By fellowship with tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners, by forsaking tradition to heal and feed on the Sabbath, by crossing racial and social barriers with Samaritans, Gentiles and lepers, by treating women with respect and dignity, by showing mercy to those culture said should be judged, Jesus waged war against religious legalism and oppression. He resisted, exposed and battled the powers of racism and social exclusion, sexism, as well as social and religious cruelty and judgemental-ism.
That is the earthly system Jesus came to destroy. It is what ‘repentance’ calls us to forsake. But it is also too much like the earthly power system Fundamentalism means to keep and enforce. This brings us to …
The Meaning of Jesus’ Death
Ask your typical North American evangelical what Jesus’ death means and you will hear something like this: our lawbreaking alienated us from God and incurred his anger. But Jesus took our sin and guilt on himself. God poured out his anger on Jesus, removing the obstacle to a relationship with the Father, which is now offered to us through faith in Jesus Christ.
For some 11 centuries, the church answered otherwise. Ask what Jesus death meant in generations past and you would hear, ‘Christus Victor.’ Christ the Victor! He engaged the powers in spiritual conflict in life, and by his death and resurrection, defeated them. When he ascended to glory, he led out a host of captives in his victory train [Ep 4:8]. That’s us.
Other theories of atonement do exist. All have strengths and weaknesses. Vicarious atonement fleshes out the legal issues but does little else. Given what Christ’s death is to Christian faith, it’s bound to shape us deeply. But if that leads to Fundamentalism’s legalistic bent and disinterest in broader issues of justice, peace and goodness, there is good news. Christus Victor embraces more of Christ’s life and ministry than vicarious atonement. It also shifts the discussion back to the Gospel narratives. And that’s good.
Why? There is more to Christian faith than penal substitution theory. Fundamentalists [and others] need to embrace ALL that Jesus does.
This material was shamelessly copied without permission from Greg Boyd, whose fine work I hope I’ve enticed to read. Please click the graphic.