The Death of Death: A Theology of Atonement


What I want to do in this post is argue for the Christus Victor model of atonement. This view is complex and is connected with other atonement models, but simply put, Christus Victor proposes that the reason for which Christ died and rose was to rescue humanity and to defeat sin, Satan and death. Put another way, the primarily threat toward humanity is enslavement to the evil powers and to sin and death, from which we must be freed.

I will argue this in two ways: I will first look at the earliest understanding of sin, death, and atonement from the church fathers. Second, I will look at the earliest apostolic preaching from Acts as proof of the victor model. What I hope will become evident is that the cross and resurrection are God’s great rescue and liberation of mankind from bondage and slavery.

First, the fathers.  What I came to realize from reading the Fathers was that the common Reformed penal substitution model is a relatively new model of atonement in church history. Frederica Mathewes-Green explains:

The earliest understanding [of the atonement] was that [in his death] Christ went into the depths of Hades, following the path of all human life; but once there he destroyed its power and set us free. Sin is a corruption of the soul, an illness that feeds on itself and leads ultimately to death…

Salvation means that we are being healed in soul and restored to God’s image and likeness; for the departed it also means being rescued from the realm of death, just as the children of Israel were freed in the Red Sea.

But a shift of thinking took place later on in Western European Christianity. It was St. Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury (AD 1033-1109) who first clearly formulated a line of thought that had been present in seed form in Western theology for centuries. God cannot simply forgive sin uncorrected; nothing in God’s kingdom could be left uncorrected. Furthermore, it would mean that God treats sinful and sinless people alike. That would be unjust.

St. Anselm reasoned that some restitution had to be made to God in return for the great offense that our sin presents to his honor… Since God’s honor was infintely greater than that of any [person], it would be impossible for humans to render the satisfaction required. By dying on the cross, Christ offered to the Father a gift he did not owe… (Welcome to the Orthodox Church, pp 86-87)

Thus, Anselm came to view Christ’s death as a means to satisfy God’s wounded honor. Mind you, this doesn’t sound like modern satisfaction models. This is because Anselm understood Christ’s death to be a form of ultra-penance to God the Father on behalf of humanity. In modern penal models, however, it isn’t that Christ offered something to the Father; rather, God spent his wrath on the Son and thus satisfied his just wrath.

The point here is that the earliest Christian understanding of Christ’s work, as Mathewes-Green says, “was aimed at death; [Christ] defeats it and sets us free… But now Christ’s work is seen as being aimed… at the Father… he is paying our debt so we could be forgiven” (ibid, p 88). This shift in theology made salvation a legal payment rather than an ontological defeat of sin, corruption, and death. Under this schema, sin is seen primarily as a legal offense toward God.

However, this is in stark contrast to the early church fathers who understood sin in medical terms. Put another way, they understood original sin not so much as legal culpability but as an inherited disease. When Adam and Eve were created, they were filled with the Holy Spirit who energized their nature with God’s eternal life. When they sinned, they forfeited the life of God and thus fell into corruption and death. They were like a branch that broke away from the tree. Individual sins should thus be seen as the fruits of this inherited nature. The incarnation, according to the fathers, was a reverse-invasion of the life of God into our corrupted nature. God entered into our broken nature in order to heal it from the inside out. Mathewes-Green explains:

Sin isn’t a string of bad deeds. It’s an inward-spreading condition, a sickness of the soul. God could not bear to see his beloved, whom he created and destined for glory, sick and in chains. Seeing us afflicted and in pain, in his great compassion, Christ came to deliver us… And he began that process in an elegantly simple way, by stepping into the flow of human life. With his incarnation, his healing power began to stream into the life that we all share (ibid, 143)

The incarnation was thus the beginning of God’s salvation of the fallen human reality!

But what of Christ’s death? What did it accomplish? The early church understood Christ’s death to be his willing, sacrificial, loving descent into death in order to destroy it from the inside out. God, who is immutable and unable to die, took onto himself a nature able to die, so that through his death he could descend into the reality of death (what the Jews and early church called “Hades”) and destroy it from the inside out. The church called this the “harrowing of hell”, or the “descent into hades” (Apostles’ Creed). What did he do there? He “broke” death and freed all the righteous dead who were held in chains. Death is thus deprived of its power. I am pressed for space here, but I want to give at least one quote from the fathers to exemplify this. I refer you to the book Christ the Conqueror of Hell by Hilarion Alfeyev for a complete history on the historical teaching of Christ’s descent into death; I also refer you to a presentation by Ben Meyers who summarizes the theology quite well.

Here is what Origen says of Christ’s descent:

Christ emptied himself… and took upon himself the form of a servant, suffered the dominance of the tyrant and became obedient unto death. By this death he destroyed him who possessed the power of death, that is the devil, in order to liberate those held by death. For, having been bound by the strong man and having conquered him by the cross, he entered into his house, which is the house of death, or Hades, and spoiled his goods, that is, liberated the souls which death held (Christ the Conqueror of Hell, Hilarion Alfeyev, 51)

Thus the early church fathers understood sin as a corruption that needed to be healed, and death as an ontological reality that needed to be defeated. In love, Christ identified himself with our infirmities in order to heal us and to have victory over death. He “bore our sins in his body” is how Peter puts it (1 Pet 2:24).

Second, the teaching of the apostles. In line with the early church teaching on sin and death, I just want to shortly argue that the early preaching of the apostles was centered o resurrection, and thus on Christ’s defeat of death and corruption. If you pay attention to the early preaching of Acts, there is a common theme running through each sermon: Christ is Israel’s true Messiah; you killed him; but God raised him never to taste death again; therefore repent!

Here is Peter’s Pentecost sermon:

Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. (Acts 2:22–24)

 …Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them,“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (vv. 37-38)

Just in the next chapter, Peter says to the Jews “you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses… Repent therefore” (Acts 3:15, 19). Here is Peter’s presentation of the gospel from Acts 10:

And we are witnesses of all that [Christ] did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. (Acts 10:39-42)

As I said in my last post, Paul’s first sermon in Acts 13 centers on Christ as the resurrected one who overcame corruption:

And though they (the Jews) found in him no guilt worthy of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed. And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead…

For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, but he whom God raised up did not see corruption. Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses (Acts 13:28-30, 36-39)

The pattern becomes clear: Christ was delivered over to death by his enemies, yet God raised him up never to die again. Notice in these sermons that the death of Christ is never attributed to the Father, nor is wrath the concentration. Rather, Christ’s enemies killed him, yet the Father raised him, and therefore he is victorious King of Kings, and to whom we must therefore submit.

I want to clarify here that it is not that I don’t see any legal or covenantal elements to salvation. The point I want to make in this post is that the resurrection is the good news of the apostolic gospel. For a more comprehensive view of the atonement and human salvation, continue reading THIS post on God’s wrath, and then THIS post on man’s final end.


One thought on “The Death of Death: A Theology of Atonement

  1. It’s a new idea to me that our primary accuser is the Devil. I would have thought of the accuser as being my own conscience. Not that God points the finger at me in shame, but that I must measure all my actions according to the standard of justice or righteousness: When God is so good to me, how can I act so shamefully?

    You help to illumine the “harrowing of Hell” for me. I love the idea of descending into hell under the guise of paying a ransom and then blowing it up. This led me to look up the subject in the Summa, where I found this:

    “… Christ’s Passion delivered us from the devil, inasmuch as in Christ’s Passion he exceeded the limit of power assigned him by God, by conspiring to bring about Christ’s death, Who, being sinless, did not deserve to die. Hence Augustine says (De Trin. xiii, cap. xiv): “The devil was vanquished by Christ’s justice: because, while discovering in Him nothing deserving of death, nevertheless he slew Him. And it is certainly just that the debtors whom he held captive should be set at liberty since they believed in Him whom the devil slew, though He was no debtor.”

    It’s a lot to absorb but I really like your explanation of this theory of the atonement. It definitely works for me, and harmonizes with the way I was already looking at it. It’s less puzzling than the “satisfaction of God’s justice” theory, because you’re right, if a debt is paid, then the debt can’t be said to be forgiven.

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