Another dominant view of the atonement from the early Church is Christus Victor. This view focuses on the victory Christ won on the cross over the powers that hold mankind in bondage – sin, death, and Satan. Adam and Eve by their disobedience placed humanity under this bondage. Unlike the ransom view of atonement which looks more like a “transaction” that takes place, the Christus Victor understanding highlights a war, the battleground, and the victory. The Incarnation, God becoming man, is seen as God invading enemy territory to wage war against the captors and to free His people. The cross is the place where this apocalyptic battle between Christ and sin take place, where Satan brings all of his power to the attack, and where he is defeated by Christ. The temptation in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11), the expelling of demons, and the healing of the sick are preludes to this confrontation between the two that will climax in Christ’s passion. The cross is the place the wages of sin (death) are accepted by Christ on behalf of the whole human race and by his death and resurrection are turned upside down and transformed. The crucifixion and resurrection of Christ is seen first and foremost as a victory over these powers that hold us in bondage. He sets us free from their rule.
We see this in St. Paul’s writings. He often seems to view sin not as simply acts of wrongdoing, but rather our cosmic enemy that has enslaved humanity, and over which we have no control (Romans 3:9, Romans 6:6, Romans 6:17). Sin has the power of deception and its wages are death (Romans 6:23, Romans 7:11). It is bent on the undoing of God’s creation and purpose. He speaks of sin, death, and Satan as the “rulers and authorities” that Christ puts to shame and triumphs against (Colossians 2:15). He says that we “are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12). The book of Hebrews also conveys this central message, that Christ “partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.” (Hebrews 2:14-15)
In simple terms, Christ enters our human condition to stand between us and Satan and do battle on our behalf, and he wins. The battle is won from within humanity itself, on behalf of humanity, by our God. The situation of Christ on Good Friday is identical to our situation ruled by sin. Jesus was rendered powerless, had all semblance of human dignity removed, and was condemned to the death of a slave. He was mocked by those who were under the dominion of the powers he was fighting on their behalf. This is exactly what sin does to us. 2 Corinthians 5:21 – “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
From Satan’s perspective on Good Friday, it looked like Satan had won the victory in the battle Christ launched against him, sin and death. On Easter Sunday, Christ claims the victory, for having being obedient unto death (Philippians 2:8), God vindicates Christ and breaks the chains of sin and death for all mankind. The Christus Victor understanding of Christ’s atonement is a central part of the Catholic view. From the Catechism:
CCC2853 Victory over the “prince of this world” was won once for all at the Hour when Jesus freely gave himself up to death to give us his life. This is the judgment of this world, and the prince of this world is “cast out.”
CCC2864 In the last petition, “but deliver us from evil,” Christians pray to God with the Church to show forth the victory, already won by Christ, over the “ruler of this world,” Satan, the angel personally opposed to God and to his plan of salvation.
CCC539 Jesus’ victory over the tempter in the desert anticipates victory at the Passion, the supreme act of obedience of his filial love for the Father.
CCC1505 Moved by so much suffering Christ not only allows himself to be touched by the sick, but he makes their miseries his own: “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.” But he did not heal all the sick. His healings were signs of the coming of the Kingdom of God. They announced a more radical healing: the victory over sin and death through his Passover. On the cross Christ took upon himself the whole weight of evil and took away the “sin of the world,” of which illness is only a consequence. By his passion and death on the cross Christ has given a new meaning to suffering: it can henceforth configure us to him and unite us with his redemptive Passion.
It is important to note that while Christ has won the ultimate victory, the battle skirmishes are not over. We are called to participate in this battle. Ephesians 6:10-12 gives us our battle cry “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.” While Christ has won the ultimate victory and overcome the world (John 16:33), as with all things Christ does for us, He also does with us. Christ does not need our participation but He wills it, and as with all things this has nothing to do with meeting some need God has but rather some need we have.
“But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:57)