Q&A: Substitutionary Atonement and Christ's Victory

Substitutionary Atonement and Christ's Victory

Can the doctrine of substitutionary atonement be held alongside Christus Victor theology?

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The death of Jesus, and Jesus himself, is interpreted in the New Testament in different ways. We are sometimes tempted, perhaps especially in the U.S., to boil down everything to a simple slogan. Preferably, it has to be so brief that it fits on a mug, at least on a T-shirt. And that can cause problems when we discuss the Bible where, like when we look at Jesus, for example, and how Jesus is interpreted, different areas of life, different metaphors are used. Different biblical traditions are used to understand what happened when Jesus died on the cross, what happened when Jesus came to this earth, lived his life, died on the cross and then rose from the dead. And so, one interpretation interprets Jesus' death as a sacrifice. In the Old Testament, animals were sacrificed. Animals had to die so that the human sinner did not have to die, because for sins, especially serious sins in the Old Testament, there is death. And, as we learn in Genesis 3, for every sin there needs to be death. And so, animals were sacrificed where the animal took the place of the sinner. This would be called "substitutionary atonement." The animal is the substitute of the sinner. Another thought that is actually linked with this idea is "representation," that the animal represents the sinner as the animal dies and is presented to God. And so, Jesus' death is interpreted in many passages in the New Testament as a sacrifice. And when we have sacrificial language in a church context, then we have the context of substitution.

Forgiveness, in the New Testament, is not amnesty, that God simply decides not to punish. When, in the U.S., there are too many people in prison, more prisons are being built. In Italy, if there are too many people in prisons, they issue an amnesty, and so people are released who have to do only one or two years. So, they are just forgiven in the sense that they don't have to spend the time in prison; they don't have to suffer the entire punishment that they were condemned to. But this is not what God is doing. Sin has to be punished because sin is serious. Sin is an attack against the character of God. But in the Old Testament, God made it possible for sins to be forgiven by sin being placed on animals, and so animals took the place of the sinner. And this is used to interpret the death of Jesus. There were no human sacrifices in the Old Testament, so this is completely unique. It was unexpected; there was no Old Testament passage that clearly indicated that this is what would happen. There is Isaiah 53 where the servant of the Lord suffers and dies, but if one reads Isaiah 53 as a Jew, one could wonder whether this suffering servant is Israel, the people of Israel, or whether it is the prophet. It became, then, clear when Jesus died and was raised from the dead that his death was not a death as the result of his own sin, because he did not sin. So, it was, therefore, possible that God put the sin of the world on Jesus, and so, he died instead of us. This is called substitutionary atonement.

At the same time, Jesus then rose from the dead, which means that his death was not a defeat, but it was a victory, a victory over sin and a victory over death. And so, we need to hold both interpretations. We shouldn't neglect one for the benefit of the other. To talk about the Christus Victor theme, which means "Christ the warrior," "Christ who is victorious," that is somewhat more popular. It's easier to talk about that. Who doesn't like to talk about victories, especially in a culture that is saturated with sports metaphors and sports ideas and sports aficionados? To talk about substitution, that someone else dies instead of me, there seems to be even an ethical problem. How could that happen? If I do something wrong, then I need to deal with the consequences. But that is exactly the grace of God, that he allowed Jesus, that he made it possible that Jesus would die for sinners. So, we need to talk about both themes and many others besides.

Answer by Dr. Eckhard Schnabel

Dr. Schnabel is Professor of New Testament Studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston MA