Thursday, May 01, 2014

Atonement Series Two: Ransom Captive and Christus Victor

A Better Atonement: Ransom Captive & Christus Victor
Preached at UKIRK Nashville, March 18, 2014
1 Timothy 2:5-6, 1 Peter 1:17-21, 1 Corinthians 15:17-26

Tonight we begin our look at various Atonement Theories, and as we begin, I’d like to share some words from Rob Bell’s book Love Wins that I also shared in this week’s devotional:

What happened on the cross is like…
·     A defendant going free,
·     A relationship being reconciled,
·     A battle being won,
·     A redeeming of something/a people that was lost,
·     A final sacrifice being offered, so that no one ever has to offer another one again,
·     An enemy being loved.

I’d also like for us to keep the words Shirley Guthrie wrote in his wonderful book Christian Doctrine:

[the early followers of Jesus] used various images or analogies already at their disposal from everyday life.  If we are to understand their significance, we need to remember two things about them.

First, the images do not describe a “theory of atonement” or “plan of salvation” that explains what God must do and what must happen to Jesus if God wants to save the world.  The first Christians had been forced to give up all their theories and plans, because God did not act according to their calculations and expectations.  They used these images not to explain what God must do in order to save us but to interpret what God actually did do.

Second, it is no accident that in the New Testament several images are used to interpret the meaning of Jesus’ death.

So, knowing that we need a variety of images to get anywhere close to understanding what God was up to in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and even in the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, let’s dive in.

Tonight we’ll look at two theories of the atonement that dominated the first millennium of Christianity.  The first is centered on a financial image and is called Ransom Captive.  To give you a visual representation for this, we’ll watch a scene from the movie The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe.  Right before the scene we’re about to watch, the White Witch, who currently rules the magical land of Narnia, has pronounced the Edmund Pevensie must die for his “sin” of betraying his siblings.  She and Aslan have a secret meeting in a tent, and Aslan walks out of the tent to pronounce that the sentence of death for Edmund has been commuted.  That’s where we pick up.

We viewed the scene from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe in which Aslan is sacrificed on the table.

Effectively, this scene is a perfect display of the Ransom Captive theory.  In this theory, Adam and Eve, with their disobedience in the garden, gave away all hope for freedom for the human race to Satan, and thus, Satan has had power and dominion over humanity and the entire world, and this explains all the brokenness of human history.  But, in a moment of true sacrifice, God makes a deal with Satan and offers God’s only son, Jesus, as a ransom for the captive human race.  When Jesus dies on the cross, the ransom is paid, and humanity is now free.

Clearly, we might take some issue with this theory for a variety of reasons.
·     To whom is the ransom paid?
o  If to Satan, this surely elevates Satan to a level of power and authority he might no previously had
o  If it is to God, what does it say about God?  Is God our enemy in need of appeasement?
o  What do we do with incarnational theology of God being present to humanity in Jesus Christ?
·     What’s the point of the resurrection?  If everything’s been paid in full with the crucifixion, why bother with a resurrection?

To return to our definition of sin as brokenness in four areas, Ransom Captive might mend the brokenness between us and God, maybe, and it might achieve a change in our status as captives, but it doesn’t really address our broken relationships with our fellow human beings, or with the world around us.

To be sure, this theory has its proponents, and it does speak to the reality of human beings being trapped in cycles of sin and brokenness, and it points to Jesus as one willing to sacrifice himself on our behalf to free us from those cycles, but we have to be careful about pushing this analogy too far.

The second theory we’ll explore tonight is centered around a Military Image, and again, we’ll look to Narnia for a visual representation.


The stone table is cracked, the witch has been fooled, Aslan is alive and roaring!  The scene in between the two we’re watching depicts the armies of good and evil facing off and eventually engaging one another in a great battle, and this is the context for Christus Victor.

In this model, there is a war going on between the forces of good and evil, and at some point, it seems as if evil has the upper hand.  Jesus is sent to do battle with the forces of evil and is eventually destroyed on the cross, granting the ultimate victory to evil…only evil has been fooled…On Easter morning, Jesus is resurrected, having conquered death from the inside out.  Good triumphs over evil, all the victims and captives of this cosmic battle have been freed, Jesus is the ultimate Victor in the ultimate battle between good and evil.

This strain of theology finds its way into much of our language about Jesus being “Lord of Heaven and Earth” or into hymns like “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”

In today’s world, this is a tough image to wrap our heads around.  Very few, if any of us, really believe in a battle between God and the devil, and if we do, we sure aren’t willing to grant that the devil is able to get the upper hand.

We also might wonder why God had to play the trickster to conquer death.  And, was the presence of Immanuel just a strategic battle ploy?

And, what are these ancient rules that God has to play by?  Deep magic from the beginning of time?  That seems to limit God’s freedom in concerning ways.

To give Christus Victor its due, it does take the resurrection seriously.  It highlights the reality of evil in the world and offers a vision in which God conquers evil through Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. 

I think the main issue with these two theories, or images of atonement is that they are basically transactional and impersonal.  God either pays a ransom, or fights a battle on our behalf (even if that battle leads to an experience of death within God’s self), but in the end, human beings are simply prizes to be won in a great battle between satan/the devil/evil.

In viewing the cross through this transactional lens, there are really not repercussions for humanity other than our change in status.  Neither image calls us to a different life as a result of God’s actions.  If anything, it might be possible to get caught up what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “Cheap Grace” whereby we say something like, “Well, my sins have been taken care of, so I can live however I want.” 

I think these images are also troublesome in a world that is already full of warfare and violence.  Is war imagery really what we need to be lifting up in our communities of faith?  Do we really want to make faith about waging war?  It doesn’t take too long to get to a place of triumphalism, or of perpetrating various levels of emotional, spiritual, and maybe even physical violence on those whom we label as “evil.”

While these transactional images might emphasize the freedom from evil that God has won for us, they offer no guidance as to what we are freed for.  Or, to return to our definition of sin as “fearful avoidance of human potential” how do these images pull us toward a more complete, faithful, humanity where our relationships with God, others, the earth, and self are restored?  That will be the key question, I think, for all of these theories/images that we explore.

For this week, we I propose we thank that first Millenium of Christianity for giving us Ransom Captive and Christus Victor for these reasons:
·     They take seriously our inability to work ourselves out of brokenness
·     They offer images of a God who is willing to quite literally get skin in the game
·     They proclaim that death does not, in the end, have the final word.
·     In tandem with that, they proclaim that God brings about new life, even when it seems that all is lost.

So, may you hold onto hope, even in dark times.

May you truly believe that death does not have the final say in God’s creation.

May you experience the grace, mercy, transforming love, and holistic Shalom Peace that God enters the world to offer to all of humanity.