3. The Christus Victor Theory (or Ransom Theory)

By James M. Rochford

Who taught it?

Origen (AD 185-254) was a theologian from Alexandria, who was the first to enunciate this view. Later, Gregory of Nyssa (AD 335-395) held this view as well. Erickson notes that this theory was the “standard view in the early history of the church.”[1] While this view has lost a major following in recent years, Gustaf Aulen has been a notable, modern proponent.

What does it teach?

Christus Victor is also called as the ransom theory of the atonement. There are actually minor distinctions between the two theories, but for simplicity, we will combine these two, because they are so similar.[2]

While penal substitutionary atonement focuses on the death of Christ and the moral influence model focuses on the life of Christ, Christus Victor focuses on Jesus’ resurrection. Advocates of this view argue that too little is said about the resurrection of Christ. For instance, Thomas Finger states, “Neither model ascribes distinct atoning significance to Jesus’ resurrection.”[3]

This view teaches that Satan owned the world and all of the people in it (2 Cor. 4:4). God offered his Son for the entire human race (Jn. 3:16). Satan accepted the offer, but after he took Christ into his possession in death, Jesus broke free and rose from the dead (Heb. 2:14-15). Under this view, the ransom was paid to Satan for our bondage. We see this view beautifully portrayed in C.S. Lewis’ Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where Aslan the lion gives his life for Edmund—a selfish, unrepentant boy. He does this because the white witch demands a life for a life. After the witch slays Aslan, he unexpectantly rises from the dead. In the same way, as Christ rose from the dead, he rescued humanity, being a “victor” in the battle with Satan. Gregory of Nyssa compares Satan killing Jesus to a fish biting a hook and being duped into being caught.[4]

Which passages support it?

In addition to the passages mentioned, advocates of this view argue that the Bible mentions that Jesus gave his life as a “ransom” (Mk. 10:45; Mt. 20:28). Under the ransom version of Christus Victor, “the devil held the souls of humankind captive.”[5] Since the entire world lies in the power of the evil one (1 Jn. 5:19) who is the god of this world (2 Cor. 4:4), God must have paid Satan for the human race by offering his Son. They also argue that many passages speak of Jesus’ victory over Satan (Col. 2:15, Heb. 2:14, 1 Jn. 3:8). J. Denny Weaver defends this view, arguing that this was the “predominant image of the early church.”[6]

Origen focused heavily on 1 Corinthians 6:20 to support his view (“You have been bought with a price”).

Criticism of this view?

We believe that there are several problems with this view:

First, the ransom was not paid to Satan—but to God. We feel that this view neglects the key passages on propitiation (Heb. 2:17; 1 Jn. 2:2; 4:10). It was God’s wrath that was dealt with at the Cross—not Satan’s. While humans deserve judgment, Satan has no right to dole out this judgment.

Second, Christus Victor pictures humans as victims, who need rescuing. This is true. However, substitutionary atonement pictures humans as sinful and in need of repentance. This cuts to the heart of our core condition as human beings.

Third, while the Bible does have short passages which teach Christ’s victory over Satan, sin, and death, there are extended discussions on substitution. For example, the books of Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews all have extended discussion on substitution. However, there is no extended discussion on Christus Victor in the entire NT. We do affirm that Jesus triumphed over Satan at the Cross, but this was because he defeated Satan’s claim that God isn’t trustworthy or worth loving.

[1] Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology: Second Edition. Grand Rapids, MI. Baker Books. 1998. 810.

[2] To be specific, Christus Victor focuses on Christ’s victory of Satan, sin, and death, while the ransom theory focuses more on how we were held bondage by Satan, sin, and death. The two are distinct, yet intricately connected.

[3] Sanders, John. Atonement and Violence: A Theological Conversation. Nashville: Abingdon, 2006. 95.

[4] Gregory of Nyssa writes, “In order to secure that the ransom in our behalf might be easily accepted by him who required it, the Deity was hidden under the veil of our nature, that so, as with ravenous fish, the hook of the Deity might be gulped down along with the bait of flesh, and thus, life being introduced into the house of death, and light shining in darkness, that which is diametrically opposed to light and life might vanish; for it is not in the nature of darkness to remain when light is present, or of death to exist when life is active.” Gregory of Nyssa, The Great Catechism, 5:494. Cited in Sanders, John. Atonement and Violence: A Theological Conversation. Nashville: Abingdon, 2006. 52.

[5] Sanders, John. Atonement and Violence: A Theological Conversation. Nashville: Abingdon, 2006. 2.

[6] Sanders, John. Atonement and Violence: A Theological Conversation. Nashville: Abingdon, 2006. 2.