Christus Victor and Progressive Christianity

While at Streaming last week during one of the panel discussions I was asked about my use of Christus Victor atonement in my book The Slavery of Death. During that conversation I made an observation about a problem I'm noticing in how many progressive Christians (by progressive I mean post-evangelicals) have been increasingly attracted to Christus Victor atonement.

Specifically, given their disillusionment with penal substitutionary atonement many progressive Christians have been attracted to Christus Victor atonement because it presents us with a non-violent vision of the atonement. In Christus Victor atonement Christ dies to liberate and free us from dark enslaving powers. In this vision God's actions in allowing or sending Jesus to the cross are wholly benevolent and non-violent.

There is no wrathful God being appeased by blood sacrifice in Christus Victor atonement. And because of this progressive Christians--in their commendable search for a non-violent atonement theory--have been increasingly making appeals to Christus Victor theology.

But here's the problem I noted at Streaming.

For Christus Victor theology to make any sense you have to have a robust theology of those dark enslaving powers, a robust theology regarding our spiritual bondage to the powers of death, Satan and sin. And yet, because of their pervasive struggles with doubt and disenchantment, along with their post-evangelical reluctance to talk about our enslavement to sin, progressive Christians lack an important aspect of Christus Victor atonement: a vision of enslavement to dark spiritual powers.

Basically, what are you being rescued from if you aren't enslaved to anything in the first place?

Progressive Christians like the idea of Jesus spiritually rescuing us but they do a damned poor job of describing how all of us, without Christ, are in spiritual bondage. But without a robust vision of spiritual slavery and bondage in the hands of progressive Christians Christus Victor theology is a non sequitur, it just doesn't make any logical or theological sense.

Personally, I've noted this problem and have been trying to work on it. The Slavery of Death is an attempt to articulate what slavery to death might look like and why that slavery can be described as the power of the devil. In a similar way I've also tried to rehabilitate the notion of "spiritual warfare" for progressive Christians (see the "On Weakness and Warfare" series on the sidebar). I'm doing all this work because I'm attracted to Christus Victor atonement and, thus, note the necessity to articulate a vision regarding the power of sin, death and the devil, a vision a spiritual bondage to these powers. Otherwise, if I can't articulate that vision, I should give up appealing to Christus Victor theology.

What I don't see among many other progressive Christians who make appeals to Christus Victor  atonement are similar efforts to articulate a vision of spiritual bondage. Greg Boyd, while he and I have different visions of the spiritual powers, is an exception, which is why I made this remark at Streaming while presenting there with him.

And if I'm right in this assessment, that many progressive Christians lack a theology of spiritual bondage, then I wonder if progressive Christians should drop their discussions of Christus Victor atonement.

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26 thoughts on “Christus Victor and Progressive Christianity”

  1. I think that a part of the problem is the misidentification of "sin" by the evangelical world that leads to a complete focus on "personal" sin and an absence of concern for the more expansive matters of peace and justice. It is in these areas, I think, that there is the greatest "death fear" in both the literal and neurotic sense. Until the wider issues of cultural and social sin are included in the post evangelical scheme, the dramatic power of Christus Victor cannot be realized by either the individual or the world. For me, that's a reason that all you shared in "The Slavery of Death" cannot be condensed further without sacrificing other critical elements. Thank you for that book!

  2. Are you familiar with Brad Jersak and "the gospel in chairs" illustration?

    I am teaching through Hebrews and I'm thankful of the work you've done in Hebrews 2. Its opened the book in a whole new way to me.

  3. I can't speak for any other progressive Christians and am not sure I even feel comfortable with that label, but I am very attracted to Christus Victor atonement. This is not because I have see penal substituionary atonement (PSA) as "violent" per se, but that PSA doesn't seem to reflect a full understanding of God's story and it offered me almost nothing that gave comfort. It says, "you screwed up, so Christ had to die and suffer because YOU put him up there." Talk about a big pile of extra guilt on top of all the other sin and garbage that each of us fight..

    No, the reason i'm attracted to Christus Victor is because I do feel the struggle with spiritual powers. I've fought battles with alcohol, lust, and anger. I've had severe marriage issues that (I can honestly say) did not stem from my own personal limitations and felt my life spiraling out of control on a number of occasions. There was a vortex of sin, guilt, and fighting/praying/begging God to shine some bit of light into things so I had hope. It didn't feel like this was just another battle with a guy in a red suit and horns and where "sin" was limited to a white lie or maybe saying a snarky comment to a neighbor. No, sin was a battle for your sanity. Sin was the temptation to just let go and fully self-destruct. Sin was pain, tears, sleepless nights, and the crushing weight of anxiety about whether it was possible to pull yourself out of a situation. Christus Victor offered a theology that said Christ was confident, strong, and was willing to die so that, in spite of ALL my crap, there was hope of defeating the spiritual powers and I could be free. It was personal. It dealt with MY life. I'm still not there fully and Christ needs to work on my a lot. But getting there didn't require an appeal to broader justice or world peace - it meant struggles with my own garbage. I do value logic, reason, and post-evangelical thinking, but I do have a deep "respect" for the dark powers because I've experienced it first-hand.

  4. Hi Richard,

    I agree that for Christus Victor to be meaningful we do need to understand that we are enslaved, oppressed held captive by forces that Jesus rescues us from. Despite the disenchantment of the age, I think there is a willingness among many people to recognize that there are systemic forces that grind humanity up, and compete for our allegiance. I think it is fairly easy to make the case that on some level worship and enslavement to mars, venus and mammon are the real waters in which we swim. I think this is true and will appeal not only to progressive Christians, but many who take a clear-eyed look at the world. I think the hope is as you have argued persuasively in Slavery to Death that we can be set-free from that bondage. Others like David Foster Wallace have made a similar diagnosis to yours, but diagnosis is not the cure.

  5. The reticence many of those in my community have experienced in fully assimilating Christus Victor in all its dimensions is also due to what Charles Taylor termed the "buffered self." I love the idea of being rescued from "powers and principalities" with which I am surely familiar, but also embrace a "scientific orientation" to life that assumes the self is not porous, not potentially besieged by many forces, but rather a simple mechanical organism that makes its way among a bunch of other such organisms. "No enchantment necessary!" All of this seems to invite, therefore, a deeper ecological spirituality that "sees" or senses how Sin can infect all and lives "between."

  6. "We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity" - C.S. Lewis

    The older I've gotten, and the more philosophy & theology I've read, thought about, and discussed, the more weary I've grown of doctrines, theologies, and systems.

    Why do we _need_ a theory of atonement? Why not simply accept that atonement is the case, as in the Lewis quote above. What is gained by having a theory of _how_ atonement works?

    Serious question, and I've been mulling it over for a year or so. People must see some value in formulating theories and doctrines - justification, atonement, sanctification, etc. - otherwise they wouldn't have spent so much time throughout history on the task. I must be missing whatever value others see in the effort. :(

  7. This is precisely what Michael Gorman argues in his new book on atonement and covenant (the latter notion yet another that would be interesting to articulate in the context of the Powers). He argues that the NT writings may employ a variety of atonement motifs but they are not meant to work out the exact mechanics of "how" it works, but what it effects in terms of covenant renewal. I need to ponder how Christus Victor fits into this approach. I appreciate the comments here.

  8. Hello Richard,

    Iv'e been pondering some of the Pauline epistles after avoiding them for some time, thinking i'd only find penal visions of atonement. Interestingly, vision I am getting from Paul seems to Christus Victor but with a strong participatory slant. Especially with the formulation in 2 Corinthians 5. "We know that one has died for all; therefore all died" and "He made him to be sin who knew no sin so that we might become the righteousness of God." My thinking is that Christ took on our sin-enslaved flesh(which gives as its wage death and destruction), and destroyed it on the cross. Just as God was faithful to raise Christ to new, immortal life, he is faithful to the believer that dies with and in Christ. This is the story Paul asks us to enter into as symbolized by baptism.

    In Philippians 3:10-11, Paul says he experiences sufferings and weaknesses as participation with Christ in his death in order that he can know the power of the resurrection. So perhaps we lack both a full understanding of our enslavement and of the participation with Christ that frees us.

  9. I think this is what Peter Hiett is getting at in this sermon.

  10. Richard, could you relate how your own work coheres (or doesn't) with Walter Wink's concepts of the "powers"?

  11. What about the world itself being freed from corruption in the atonement? There's plenty to work with to develop the idea of a corrupted planet we all inhabit, and from Gen 3 to Rom 8 to Rev 21 there's a discussion about the earth itself being enslaved/cursed then freed/recreated.

  12. Richard,
    Take a look at J. Denny Weaver's _Nonviolent Atonement_, Eerdmans, 2001

  13. Perhaps I'm being overly simplistic in my uneducated layperson's understanding of theology, but has anyone of any academic import considered that the "dark enslaving powers" are our self-concerning, self-protective ego (selfishness), and they are overcome by Divine compassion. This is the narrow way. Jesus embodies Divine selfless compassion. The example, personalized, transforms us and in our metanoia we walk in a new direction. The path of selflessness.

  14. I've come to think along these lines as well. Jesus said, to take up your cross and follow me. He also told the disciples they too would suffer as He did. I've come to see that as that in following Him, accepting the call of the Spirit of wholeness, we too will bear our cross up the hill of Golgotha (skull/mind, psyche) upon which our externally directed Ego and the identity (our 'flesh' self, our World identity) we've embraced connected to it, is laid out upon the cross and crucified. That must die to allow the Spiritual ressurection, the 'new birth' through which we are transformed into a new creation, a new identity, a new inwardly sourced Ego/Identity is born. Transformation of the catapillar into the butterfly.
    This process parallels to Jungian depth psychology process of "individuation." An excellent book that presents that process in a very understandable way is "Ego and Archetype" by Edinger. There are some good works by Joseph Campbell that explore this process, as well.

  15. I have to agree here, mainly on the basis that the Gospel was presented as salvation clearly being accessable to even the most lowly, the uneducated, the simple minded, and for that to be so, it cannot demand understanding of complicated, 'high minded' intellectual concepts or theories of theology.
    To require understanding of such theories as to the how and why of the atonement, or of some theologies composed by men, also rather throws out that we are saved by Grace, negates salvation attained through acceptance, by faith, for it would require some work of our own, in some understanding of theologies, that would be beyond the grasp of many without higher intellectual and academic pursuits.

  16. Dismiss me if you must, but I want to take the discussion in a wholly new direction with regards to sin and redemption. I want us to consider the thought that sin is not so much about defiance, or rebellion but about self-destruction, and our tendency as people to that end. Considering God is omnipotent and ominscient it is impossible to rebell against such a being. In fact He is not threatened by anything any of His creatures can do. If we examine the Genesis story through this lens it sheds a whole new light on the origin of the problem, and the eventual solution. If we cannot effectively rebel against an omnipotent God how could we undermine His plans? We do have one power open to us that would hurt Him, and His plan. We could self destruct; in other words destroy the creatures He loves by destroying ourselves. Consider this, if I told you that if you ate that bottle of pills on the counter it would kill you, and then you were 'fooled' into emptying it and eating by another creature you would be committing suicide. This is in fact what the Genesis story describes. Our early father and mother as archetypes, commited suicide with the proverbial fruit. I don't know what the alternate existence for humanity would have been, but their free-will and ours continues to lead us in this direction. The human story is one of self-destruction in small ways and large. The largest examples of this are actual suicide and of course, warfare. However, we can all see smaller examples of this in our daily lives as we do things that scuttle relationships, get us fired from jobs, and cause is to fail in many ventures. This is our story.
    Along comes Christ. God incarnate. Well what's one thing God cannot do that we can? He cannot commit suicide as He is not created. Ahh, but if He became a man what then? The scriptures teach us that He became a man to fully identify with us in all respects. From his birth in obscurity and poverty, to His need for food and rest to yes, His suicidal death. Did not Christ say "No one takes my life, but I have authority to lay it down, and to take it up agian."? As we know Christ walked directly to His death. The events in the Garden prove that He could have "called 10,000 angels." but He didn't. He could have stayed away from Jerusalem forever, but He walked right in. He knew of Judas' betrayal before Judas did, and He could have escaped, but again He didn't. The difference between Christ's suicide and ours is that His was ordained. It was a righteous suicide, ordered by His own love and the Father's will. He wanted to identify with us to the last dregs. This changes the theology of the cross. Christ was not satisfying the wrath of God. ( A wholly human construct, based on fear.) He was showing us how selflessly God loves us through a totally unnecessary (for God) death and identification with us. He also demonstrated in a hyperbolic form, what will give us true life; that being selfless living. Our redemption is not from Satan, or hell, but from ourselves. We create our own hells, and as a species our own living hell. Christ's death is a shining example of love and selflessness that will eventually inspire everyone to serve the King of Kings.

  17. I've some to see the "powers and principalities" Paul referenced not as some dark mysterious supernatural forces, but the cultural, social, economic, political systems under which we live, and by which we are influenced, conditioned, in ways that do often blind us to error common to our particular place in the world. To me, to be in the World, but not of the World, is to negotiate life under the influence and requirements of these World systems, in ways that recognize and avoid the errors, sins, and maintain our integrity, our seeking a right path. All of such as you name, Jez, individualism, materialism, and so forth, yes, those are the errors, traps, so easy to fall into and lose our way, in our present society and culture.

    This is not to neccessarily discard some belief in there being "dark forces" at work in our World, and at odds with the Light, that work to bring us down, but that are discerned only through observing and recognizing the true underlying nature, the "fruits" of any and all things, our world systems, as Jesus demonstrated in so many parables and analogies. As He said of the Spirit being as the wind, something that cannot be observed directly, but only in it's passing, as the wind moves through the willow trees.

  18. Fred Clark has some comments at

    "And if that’s what you’re looking for — “a robust vision of spiritual slavery and bondage” to help make sense of the world — then progressive Christianity is a fruitful place to start. After all, where do you think “Liberation theologies” got their name? Or look to Walter Wink on the powers and principalities. Or to Reinhold Niebuhr on the pervasive corruption of pride and the way sin gets institutionalized, precluding sinless possibilities. Or to the recent wave of “empire” theory and criticism.

    More importantly, should we imagine it’s possible to have anything like an accurate appreciation for the meaning of “enslavement to dark spiritual powers” without understanding the role of powers and principalities like racism, patriarchy, class, privilege, violence, nationalism, colonialism, etc.? Does anyone really believe that conservative white, male, American evangelical theology offers an adequate understanding of any of those things?

    No, if you want to truly understand “our spiritual bondage to the powers of death, Satan and sin,” then you’re going to have to read theologians of color, feminist and womanist theologies, queer theologies, liberation theologies and other theologies of the poor. Those voices are, shamefully, often marginalized even within nominally “progressive” Christianity, but if we’re speaking in broad, general terms about “progressive” and “conservative” camps, then that progressive camp is where you’re going to find them.

    Let me go further than that. It is not progressive Christianity, but mainstream white evangelicalism that is “reluctant to talk about our enslavement to sin.” It is reluctant to do so because it is unable to do so. And it is unable to do so because it has, itself, become one of The Powers That Be — or, at least, it has become their faithful servant."

  19. the spirit is a friend & constant companion to me; present to resource me in dire need. in all my needs.

  20. Hi Richard,

    Great post. I'm wondering if you have by chance read James Alison's The Joy of Being Wrong. In it, Alison describes our enslavement to original sin in a way that utterly needs liberating without also developing a doctrine of spiritual warfare that might scare away some post-evangelicals. If you haven't read the book, Alison's discussion of Paul's treatment of the wrath of God within Romans is easily worth the price of the book (as an aside, I attempted to read Alison's argument in Revelation and found the same use of the wrath of God within the book of Revelation).

  21. I'm new to the ideas of "progressive Christianity" and this articulates well, in my novice opinion, a different theory. May I ask where you got this idea, or is it yours?

  22. god is still speaking to us. he/she/it is not limited in any way and can use anyone i think. what must be gotten around is petrified perfectionism of the gatekeepers both living and dead. what is left of an intelectual construct (the church) is religion addiction I think. If so it is a progressive disease and, like substance addiction, treatable individually and corporately.

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