Home » Church & Theology » No Christus Victor Here – Atonement According to the Apostolic Fathers

No Christus Victor Here – Atonement According to the Apostolic Fathers

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Polycarp, disciple of John the apostle and a smart theologian who was burned alive for the sake of the Gospel

Polycarp, disciple of John the apostle and a smart theologian who was burned alive for the sake of the Gospel

As promised in my last blog post about atonement theology, I want to share what I’ve found when researching the early church fathers’ view on the death of Christ. My countryman Gustaf Aulén wrote a book 83 years ago called Christus Victor when he argued that the church fathers didn’t believe in penal substitution but in a “classical” atonement framework which he calls Christus Victor, the victorious Christ.

The difference between the two views is essentially that while penal substitution emphasises that Jesus took the punishment for our sins on the cross, Christus Victor emphasises that Jesus defeated the devil and his wicked forces when he died on the cross. A form of Christus Victor which according to Aulén was popular during the age of the church fathers was the ransom theory, the idea that God sent Jesus as a “bait”, and when satan killed him he got hooked by the power of God like a sloppy wet fish.

Now, I don’t have any problems at all with the Christus Victor perspective. As a third wave charismatic, I think it suits well with the Kingdom message of the Gospels – Jesus is indeed at war with satan, which is evident in His healings, exorcism and finally His death and resurrection. The Bible clearly speaks about how Christ defeated the powers of darkness on the cross. So I do believe in Christus Victor. What I don’t believe is that this perspective by any means replaces the fact that Jesus took the punishment for our sins on the cross, which is also what the Bible teaches. As William Evans brilliantly argues, Christus Victor and Penal Substitution are not mutually exclusive and should be viewed as equally true perspectives rather than conflicting paradigms.

I also have a problem with that this blog and that blog and even Wikipedia as well as several books uncritically says that the majority of the church fathers believed in Christus Victor and that it was dominant for a thousand years before Anselm of Canterbury messed it up, and therefore we should not believe in penal substitution. Firstly, even if they emphasised Christus Victor we cannot conclude that they didn’t believe in penal substitution unless they say so, and as I wrote in my last blog post I think it’s really hard to deny penal substitution without ignoring large parts of the Bible.

Secondly, when I’ve been looking at the earliest Christian litterature outside the New Testament – the apostolic fathers – I cannot find that the Christus Victor or ransom theory are by any means dominant in how they describe the atonement. Even if later church fathers may have had this perspective, it was a later development and not necessarily something they inherited from ther predecessors. Let’s have a look:

Clement of Rome wrote that the blood of Christ was “shed for our salvation” (Cor. 7), and that we should “reverence the Lord Jesus Christ, whose blood was given for us” (Cor. 21) because “on account of the love he bore us, Jesus Christ our Lord, gave his life by the will of God; his flesh for our flesh, his soul for our souls.” (Cor. 49).

Ignatius of Antioch writes that Jesus “suffered for our sins” (Smy. 7), that He “died for us, that believing on His death [we] might escape death” (Trall. 2:1). Again, after describing how Jesus was tortured and executed under Pilate, Ignatius writes that he was crucified “for us” and suffered “for our sake” (Smy. 1-2).

Polycarp, the disciple of John the apostle, quotes Peter when he says “Let us then persevere unceasingly in our hope, and in the pledge of our righteousness, that is in Christ Jesus, ‘who bare our sins in his own body on the tree, who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth,’ but for our sakes, that we might live in him, he endured all things.” (Phil. 8). In the very next chapter he emphasies that Jesus “died on our behalf, and was raised by God for our sakes.” (Phil. 9).

The Epistle of Barnabas says that Christ “gave unto us to be a people of inheritance, having suffered for our sake” (14:4) and says that His death was a sacrifice: “Since he also was about to offer the vessel that contained his spirit as a sacrifice, in order that the type might be fulfilled which was given by the offering of Isaac at the altar” (7:3). He says that the Son of God came to “finish the sin” of the people (5:11) and that it therefore was  “necessary that he should suffer upon the cross” (5:13).

Finally, the letter to Diognetus is the last apostolic father that talks about the death of Christ, and it contains a very famous passage which I will quote in its totallity:

And when our iniquity had been fully
accomplished, and it had been made perfectly manifest
that punishment and death were expected as its
recompense, and the season came which God had
ordained, when henceforth He should manifest His
goodness and power (O the exceeding great kindness and
love of God), He hated us not, neither rejected us,
nor bore us malice, but was long-suffering and
patient, and in pity for us took upon Himself our
sins, and Himself parted with His own Son as a ransom
for us, the holy for the lawless, the guileless for
the evil, the just for the unjust, the incorruptible
for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal.
For what else but His righteousness would have
covered our sins?
In whom was it possible for us lawless and
ungodly men to have been justified, save only in the
Son of God?
O the sweet exchange, O the inscrutable
creation, O the unexpected benefits; that the iniquity
of many should be concealed in One Righteous Man, and
the righteousness of One should justify many that are
iniquitous! (Diogn. 5:2-5)

(The translations I used are from For more depth concerning atonement theology among the church fathers I can recommend The Atonement of the Death of Christ: In Faith, Revelation and History by H.D. McDonald.)

What conclusions can we draw from this? Well, while none of these quotes contradict the Christus Victor paradigm – and again, I like the Christus Victor perspective – it is strikingly obvious that Jesus’ victory over satan is not the dominating perspective the apostolic fathers use when talking about the death of Christ, instead they emphasize how Jesus’ died for our sins, on our behalf, for our sake. And this should be of no surprise since this also is how the New Testament speaks about the death of Christ.

Now, Christus Victor supporters would quickly point out that this does not equal penal substitution theory, since that has a very juridical framework, emphasises how God’s justice needs to be satisfied, etc. That may be true, but my point is that independently of what perspective we have on the atonement, it would be incorrect to claim that Jesus did not take our punishment on Himself in our place when He died on the cross. Likewise, it would be incorrect to claim that Christus Victor was the dominant perspective among the earliest church fathers. Of course, we would need to look at later church fathers as well but that comes in a future blog post 🙂


  1. Joshua Brockway says:

    Interesting summary, and challenge. Just a couple of quick- off the cuff- thoughts.

    First, Aulen’s work was barely historical. In fact it reads more like an apologetic work for the theology of Luther. In other words, the theology of atonement Aulen reads in the early church conveniently looks like Luther’s own some century and a half later.

    Second, for many of these authors you have helpfully cited, it isn’t just the cross but the whole incarnation. Even Anselm centuries later is asking why God became man, Athanasius helpfully summarized a lot of early theology (and admittedly adapted to the Nicean questions) in his work On the Incarnation. In fact, the death of Jesus only occupies only a small number of chapters.

    It seems to me that the focus on atonement is a Western inheritance from the church of the middle ages. Sure the early church held penal and Christus Victor theologies together, but Aulen and others are anachronistic in their reading back these very categories onto the early writers. As a Patristics scholar, I often think trying to read these fathers in light of the Reformation appeals to the cross ignores the greater context of the Incarnation present in these writers.


  2. linda says:


    it is important to remember that we all come to the text of scripture with an interpretive lens (viewpoint, bias) and we need to be aware that we have those lenses. for us as post-reformation protestants it is easy to read particular words used by the early church fathers and think they are using the words in the same way we do, but in fact they may not be. their context was quite different so when they speak of jesus’ work on the cross they may be using the same words but it may not mean quite the same thing that we, 2000+ years later, mean. there are a number of things that affect how we read scripture and shape our interpretive lenses. the main things are life experience, religious tradition, language/culture and previous biblical knowledge. you can read more about this here:

    stanley grenz, a well-respected evangelical theology professor, writes in his book Created for Community,

    “Irenaeus’ ransom theory was the reigning conception of the atonement for the first several centuries of church history. Although it remains important among the Eastern Orthodox Church, contemporary Western Christians have been more deeply influenced by a theologian who lived nearly a millennium later. The foundation for this understanding lies in a little book, Why God became Man written by Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury (103-1109).”

    • Hi Linda!

      I agree with you that we should be aware of our contextual glasses and try to read old texts as they were intended by the authors. However, as Joshua points out, this is true for Christus Victor theologians like Gustaf Aulén and Stanley Grenz as well. Their main thought is that there is a conflict between Christus Victor and penal substitution, and try to argue that the former was dominant for a thousand years and that the latter more or less was invented by Anselm. And so they read the church fathers in light of this hypothesis. I disagree with them though and in my blog posts I try to show why I think they are wrong:

      Firstly Christus Victor and penal substitution are equally true and just perspectives on the same atonement. Every Christian I have talked with that haven’t read much academic theology, just the Bible, don’t get me when I try to explain to them about these two “different” atonement theories – they see no contradiction and they use both languages interchangably. Secondly, I’m now studying what the church fathers really said about the atonement. I will look at Irenaeus and Justin today but based on my research on the apostolic fathers that I present above, we can conclude that the claim that the church believed in Christus Victor for a thousand years and then replaced it with penal substitution when Anselm showed up is ridiculously simplistic and untrue. Christus Victor was not dominant among the apostolic fathers, and this needs to be taken into considoration.

      God bless you!

      • linda says:

        i didn’t realize there is such an argument over what the church fathers believed. honestly, i don’t see it making that much difference. if you read some of the church fathers’ statements on women and gnosticism they got plenty of things wrong. i think the more important question is whether or not what they believed is true.

        i really don’t have a horse in this race because i haven’t studied it. i do know a guy from a forum i used to be on who has written about christus victor (he’s mentioned on that wiki page you linked to on p.s.) and started reading one of his articles on it vs. penal substitution. it is quite interesting and i’m not sure it would be accurate to say both can be equally true. he says some interesting things about Empire and authority and how each view relates to that differently. he also has info on what the church fathers say if that is something you are interested in.

  3. Ryan Robinson says:

    I know this came up in the MennoNerds Facebook after your last post, but I think you’re misrepresenting Christus Victor and/or PSA, although I am glad for your last paragraph that does try to clarify it a bit. Most CV people and most anti-PSA people are not disputing whether Jesus died for our sins, on our behalf. They’re debating who was the object of Jesus dying for our sins. In Anselm’s theory, Jesus died to satisfy God’s honour. In Calvin’s, what we now call PSA, Jesus died to be a release for God’s wrath against sin. In Christus Victor, we still say that Jesus died for our sins, but it was to defeat Satan rather than to appease an angry (or dishonored) God. None of these quotes support CV, no, but they also don’t support PSA. They only support that Jesus died for our sins, however that worked out, which proponents of both theories agree on anyway.

  4. peterc says:

    surely from the beginning God demanded a blood sacrifice for sin showing its seriousness thus already pointing to Jesus. But he also dealt satan a death blow by the cross. Some people have too much time on their hands lol.

  5. paulwalker87 says:

    I am quite surprised that you have not given a single reference in favour of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, that is, God punishing the Son in order to appease His Wrath in order to forgive humanity. The sources you have provided, I believe, go a long way in making the case against PSA. Absent is any discussion of satisfaction, wrath, appeasement or God inflicting punishment on the Son. What I do see (especially in Diognetus) is Jesus ‘dying our death’ but this could hardly be called PSA (as presented by Calvin) as Christ enters into our condition just as much in the Incarnation as in the Cross. Darrin W. Snyder Belousek suggests that we view Christ ‘dying our death’ this way:

    “This is not penal substitution, therefore, but representative-redemptive solidarity. By suffering and dying, as “one of us” and “for us,” Jesus has “tasted death on behalf of all” and has thus become “the pioneer of [our] salvation” (Heb 2:9-10). As “pioneer” (archegos), Jesus is not a substitute that takes our place in the salvation event, but the one who “goes first,” who goes ahead of us in death and resurrection as the originator and founder of the way of our salvation.” – Atonement, Justice and Peace, pg. 310

    An example of your sources countering PSA is the lengthy quote from the letter to Diognetus. I will point out five brief examples one could take from Diognetus.

    1. “He hated us not, neither rejected us, nor bore us malice.” – This is exact opposite of what the Reformers and the bearers of their tradition are saying. As RC Sproul says in his presentation of PSA, “Jesus is our asbestos suit against the white hot wrath of God against sinners.”

    2. “[God] parted with His own Son as a ransom” – Ransom theory… and the direction of the atonement action. God in this letter to Diogentus is the giver of Christ not the one who demands satisfaction as PSA suggests.

    3. “For what else but His righteousness would have covered our sins?” The righteousness of Christ, which is akin to the obedience of Christ is what is emphasized here. Not a bloodlust that is satisfied. Also note the word ‘covered’, suggesting an expiation and removal of sin as opposed to an appeasement of wrath of sin.

    4. “O the sweet exchange” – You could cite Morna Hooker’s Interchange theory of the Atonement here. The thought is not one of legal imputation of guilt to Christ but of Christ’s costly solidarity with humanity in its shameful and culpable situation.

    5. Diognetus earlier in the same letter you are citing infamously wrote, “Violence has no place in the character of God.” The bearers of Calvin’s tradition of PSA would have to disagree here. God is said to have violently emptied his ‘cup of wrath’ on the Son.

    I think our problem at hand, as others have pointed out, is that you mean something radically different than what Calvin, Edwards, Packer, Nicole and Hodge are teaching about Penal Substitutionary Atonement.

    Indeed, I cannot see God punishing Jesus at the cross, as if God stands apart from and acts over against Jesus; for “God was in Christ” on the cross suffering for our salvation (2 Cor 5:19). That God sent Jesus to establish his Kingdom, even knowing that he would be rejected and killed, and knowing that the Kingdom depended on Jesus’ willingness to face death- a step both necessary and intentional- is light years from saying “God satisfied his wrath by punishing the Son”.

    Take care brother!

    • Hi Paul!

      There are several different definitions and criticisms of PSA, and CV as well. Some of my friends here in Sweden that support CV have no problem with saying that Jesus took humanity’s punishment on Himself when he died, their criticism of PSA is not as much its idea as its emphasis. In The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, Greg Boyd says that in his opinion, the different atonement theories are perspectives rather than conflicting doctrines.

      This is something I can agree with. What I don’t agree with is when CV Christian say that God doesn’t punish sin, or even that the church fathers didn’t believe this. It’s very clear in the Scriptures that God does punish sin. Thus, it is for me not a strange idea at all that when Jesus died for our sins and took our punishment on Himself, God took His own punishment.

      This was the argument I made in my last post about atonement. In this one, I’m testing the claim by Boyd and others that CV was the dominant perspective among the church fathers, and I conclude that it cannot be said when it comes to the apostolic fathers. Instead they emphasized substitutionary atonement. Yes, they did not use the same language as Anselm or Calvin, but I think it’s significant that their main language was not spiritual warfare but substitution, so that’s what I wanted to point out. Plus I get mote views when I write stuff that provoke you guys 😉 (just kidding)


      • gaberenfro says:

        “It’s very clear in the Scriptures that God does punish sin. Thus, it is for me not a strange idea at all that when Jesus died for our sins and took our punishment on Himself, God took His own punishment.”

        I am a Christus Victor advocate and I do not object to the clear Biblical depiction of God as a God of wrath. I understand, for many reasons, why sinners ought to be punished. But I still think Penal Substitution is wrong and harmful, because punishment loses its purposes when it is aimed at an innocent person, or any substitute, rather than the guilty sinners. Even if we entertain the idea that our guilty status was imputed to Jesus, I do not see any point in pouring out wrath on a guilty legal status rather than a guilty person.

        (A) “Satisfaction of wrath” as described in Penalty Substitution is not a requirement of Biblical justice

        If I gouge out your eye, I do not burden you with the obligation to gouge out someone’s eye. The Biblical principle of Retribution requires that I, the guilty party, lose an eye, but it does not require you, the offended party, to gouge one out. It would be unjust and pointless for you to gouge out the eye of anyone except for me. Justice is not a balance of offenses. Similarly, when Bob murders someone, he does not burden the Justice system with the obligation to kill someone; Bob burdens the Justice system with the obligation to kill Bob, the murderer. It would be unjust and pointless for Bob’s innocent brother, Mike, to go to the electric chair in place of Bob so that Bob could go free. According to common sense and according to the Bible, justice does not require that offended parties commit a commensurate offense to that which they have received. Yet the logic of Penalty Substitution is organized around satisfying this exact obligation, an obligation that does not exist. On Penal Substitution, we have offended God’s infinite worth, and so God must answer this offense by pouring out an infinite degree of wrath. And so, a being of infinite worth, Jesus, absorbs this wrath in Humanity’s place. But the problem with this model is that God is not satisfying any requirement of Justice. Therefore, Jesus’ substitutionary sacrifice is unjust and pointless. Furthermore, it is useless for PS advocates to argue that Jesus’ punishment from God was just because our guilty status was imputed to him, or that Jesus is our covenant representative and can therefore justly suffer the curse of the covenant in our place. Even if it was just for God to pour out His wrath on a substitute rather than a guilty party, it would still be pointless, because God’s obligation to pour out wrath in this way does not exist in the first place, since offended parties are not burdened with the obligation to commit commensurate offenses to that which they have received. Justice does not require God to pour out wrath; justice requires guilty persons to suffer it. Therefore, Biblical justice does not have any requirements that substitutionary punishment can satisfy.

        (B) God’s honor/glory is not damaged by Human sin, so He need not attempt to repair it by punishing sin.

        Many Penalty Substitution advocates would argue that Humanity’s sin has damaged God’s honor, or glory, and God’s outpouring of wrath repairs this damaged glory. Here is the problem with this line of argument: sin does not damage the glory of God. Sin damages sinners. Consider the definition of sin that God gives us in Jeremiah 2:13, where He says: “For my people have committed two evils: (1) They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, (2) And hewn cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that hold no water.” When someone refuses to drink of the fountain and dies of thirst, neither the fountain nor the glory of the fountain is damaged. The glory of a fountain is to satisfy and sustain desert dwellers. When someone refuses to drink and ends up dissatisfied and dead, the glory of the fountain is not damaged, but demonstrated. Similarly, the glory of a brick wall is its strength. The glory of the brick wall will be demonstrated whether or not someone leans against the brick wall for support, or punches the brick wall and breaks his arm. Finally, when sinners reject God’s goodness, love, and beauty, and thereby destroy themselves in evil and ugliness, the glory of God is not damaged, but demonstrated. And so, it is not God or His glory that are damaged by sin, but sinners that are damaged by sin. In the case of sin against God, the offense is purely to the destruction of the offender. It is not a high view of God that claims He is damaged by our sin.

        (C) God does not need to exercise punishment on account of human sin.

        John Stott claims, “The one thing God could not do in the face of human sin was nothing (The Cross of Christ p.152).” On Stott’s view, God needed to do something about human sin. This is false. The fact is that when Adam sinned, God lost nothing that He needed. So God does not need to do anything to reclaim that which was lost. To say that God needs to punish on account of human sin is to say that God in some sense needs humans. But if God does not need humans prior to the fall, how much less should God need humans after the fall? And yet, Penalty Substitution argues that human sin took away something that God needed and so God needs to exercise punishment (on the cross or in hell) in order to reclaim it. Such a formulation of Penal Substitution is a compromise of God’s aseity, and is therefore a very man-centered view. To say, “God needs to punish me” is just as arrogant as to say, “God needs to save me.” The view claims, “God needs to punish me because God needs something from me because God needs me.” The truth is that God does not punish to satisfy a need within Himself. God punishes because He desires to save sinners from sin. God only exercises active wrath in the context of His redemptive purposes for the world. If God did not enact a redemptive plan in the world, I believe He also would not exercise any active punishment. Such active wrath would be pointless, as He could simply leave us to destroy ourselves in sin. It is redundant for God to destroy those who are destroying themselves in sin, unless He is pouring out destruction as part of a redemptive plan. Active wrath is therefore a subset of His gracious interaction in human history to save many. It is part of His marshalling of our sin’s destruction for His ultimately redemptive purposes.

        (D) Penalty Substitution undermines the seriousness of sin.

        On Penalty Substitution, sin is a problem because it warrants active punishment from God. Practically speaking, this view is problematic. For if we relegate the negative consequences of sin to God’s punishment for sin, then we end up entertaining a view that sin is a happy, fun, joyous thing as long as we can escape God’s punishment for it. Such a view is demonic. When Satan tells us that sin can be happy, fun, and joyous, he tells us lies; he does not tell us truths that God dislikes and therefore punishes. It is impossible to commit sin and escape getting caught. The sinner has already been caught, by sin. The thing he is “getting away with” is the very thing he will quickly find that he needs getting away from. There is no such thing as sin with impunity. Sin always becomes its own punishment. It is blasphemy against the goodness of God to say that rebellion against Him could bring anything but misery. A view of sin that does not have a robust emphasis on its self-destructive nature is a view that does not take sin seriously enough. But the self-destructive nature of sin causes a problem for Penalty Substitution. If sin is self-destructive, then what is the purpose of God’s active destruction in response to sin? Why does God not just let sinners destroy themselves in sin? What does God accomplish by destroying sinners that are already destroying themselves in sin? So, again, sin creates no need for God to satisfy by exercising active punishment. When God actively punishes sinners (which He does) it must be somehow redemptive, otherwise it is redundant. Why else punish someone who is already punishing himself by his own sin?

        (E) Penalty Substitution confuses payment and punishment.

        Penal Substitution advocates often say that Jesus paid the penalty for our sin. The problem is that payment and punishment are not the same thing. When I buy a cup of coffee, I am not punished $1.50. Similarly, if a friend pays my debt, they are not “punished” in my place. There is a profound difference between my friend paying my debt of $1,000 and going to the electric chair instead of me. What Jesus does on the cross is equivalent to paying a debt for us, by paying our debt of love and obedience to God. Jesus is not punished in our place.

        Romans 6:23 says that “The wages of sin is death.” John Stott uses this verse to say that Jesus “paid sin’s wage (The Cross of Christ p.270)” on our behalf. Anyone who has ever had a job knows this makes no sense. Wages are not something that we pay; wages are something we earn. Owing and earning are opposite sides of the economic metaphor. Thus, we do not owe death to God. We earn death for our sin. And we all justly receive the death we have earned when we suffer our sin’s consequences in this life and finally when we physically die. Our suffering and physical death is not a payment to God for our sin, and does not atone for our sin. Our atonement is in this: Jesus has voluntarily interceded to receive the wages of our sin along with us by suffering and dying on the cross. But he, being without sin, has received these wages undeservedly and unjustly. Justice therefore demands that these wages be taken back, and that Jesus’ suffering and death be undone, reversed. Hence, Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus imputation of His death and resurrection to us is our atonement.

    • Amanda says:

      Thank you Paul, I couldnt agree more! 🙂

  6. gaberenfro says:

    The Christus Victor view is not simply that “Jesus defeated the devil and his wicked forces when he died on the cross.” Christus Victor explains Jesus victory as a matter of divine justice, that Jesus suffered and died under the unjust judgment of sinners and Satan, so that divine Justice would demand the reversal and restoration of all that he suffered through the power of His resurrection. It works like this: Biblical covenant justice only rewards restitution (reparation) for destruction suffered by innocent (righteous) parties. Humanity has totally and severely destroyed themselves by their own sin, and we need restitution. But humans are not innocent, we are guilty. So God becomes the only innocent human in the person of Jesus Christ and suffers all of sin’s destruction as an injustice on the cross, so that justice would demand the reversal of all sin’s destruction by His resurrection. In contrast to Penal Substitution, which claims that Jesus death was the satisfaction of divine retributive justice, Christus Victor claims that Jesus’ death was an injustice, and the resurrection is the satisfaction of divine restorative justice. The Christus Victor model is better stated as: “Sinners condemn an innocent party, thereby condemning themselves, and the innocent party is restored from condemnation.” If we look for this pattern in the Bible, we find it all over the place (Judah and Tamar, Joseph, Daniel, Esther, Jesus, Paul, to name a few).

    Here is a survey of the Christus Victor view throughout church history:

    (1) Augustine, in the early 5th century, states that the cross is where the devil lost his right of death over Humanity because he unjustly killed the Son of God in whom there was no sin:

    “It is not then difficult to see that the devil was conquered, when he who was slain by Him rose again. It is something more, and more profound of comprehension, to see that the devil was conquered when he thought himself to have conquered, that is, when Christ was slain. For then that blood, since it was His who had no sin at all, was poured out for the remission of our sins; that, because the devil deservedly held those whom, as guilty of sin, he bound by the condition of death, he might deservedly loose them through Him, whom, as guilty of no sin, the punishment of death undeservedly affected. The strong man was conquered by this righteousness, and bound with this chain, that his vessels might be spoiled, which with himself and his angels had been vessels of wrath while with him, and might be turned into vessels of mercy.”

    This loss of power by the devil is a Biblical idea, as Hebrews 2:14-15 states:

    Therefore, since the children share in blood and flesh, [Jesus] Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.

    (2) John Chrysostom in the 5th century agrees,

    “It is as if Christ said, ‘Now shall a trial be held, and a judgment be pronounced. How and in what manner? He (the devil) smote the first man (Adam), because he found him guilty of sin; for it was through sin that death entered in. But he did not find any sin in Me; wherefore then did he fall on Me and give Me up to the power of death? . . . How is the world now judged in Me?’ It is as if it were said to the devil at a seat of judgment: ‘Thou didst smite them all, because thou didst find them guilty of sin; wherefore then didst thou smite Christ? Is it not evident that thou didst this wrongfully? Therefore the whole world shall become righteous through Him.’”

    (3) Anselm of Canterbury, in the 11th century, says this aspect is part of the popular view of atonement in his day. It is justice that sets Jesus free from death, not justice that kills Jesus:

    “That God, in order to set mankind free, was obliged to act against the devil by justice rather than mighty power. We reason that thus the devil, having killed Him in whom there was no guilt deserving death and who was God, would justly lose the power which he used to have over sinners.”

    (4) Thomas Aquinas, in the 13th century, affirms this as well.

    “Christ’s Passion delivered us from the devil, inasmuch as in Christ’s Passion [the devil] 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.”

    (5) And even Martin Luther, in the 16th century, applies the loss of rights to the Law rather than the devil:

    “Thou hearest that Christ was caught in the bondage in which we all were held, was set under the Law, was a man full of all grace, righteousness, etc., full of life, yea, He was even the Life itself; now comes the Law and casts itself at Him and would deal with Him as with all other men. Christ sees this, lets the tyrant perform his will upon Him, lets the reproach of all guilt fall against Himself as one accursed, yea, bears the name that He Himself is the curse, and goes to suffer for this cause, dies, and is buried. Now, thinks the Law, He is overpowered; but it knew not that it had so grievously mistaken itself, and that it had condemned and throttled the Son of God; and since it has now judged and condemned Him, who was guiltless and over whom it had no authority, it must in its turn be taken, and see itself made captive and crucified, and lose all its power, and lie under the feet of Him whom it had condemned.”

    (6) When our Lord was roaming around Narnia in the form of a giant, magical, not-safe-yet-good lion, he said,

    “when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.” (it is interesting to think that if we read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe through the lens of Penal Substitution, the White Witch would represent God the Father! I highly doubt this was Lewis’ intention in the allegory)

    (7) And even John Stott, a Penal Substitution advocate, agrees that the Resurrection was God’s reversal of man’s injustice:

    “The resurrection was the divine reversal of the human verdict.”

    The Bible emphasizes that sinners unjustly killed Jesus. The Early Church Fathers emphasized that the devil unjustly killed Jesus. Luther emphasized (at least in this quotation) that the Law unjustly killed Jesus. The common denominator here is that Jesus suffered death unjustly, so that by reversing this injustice through the power of Jesus’ resurrection, God could justly bring restoration to sinners that do deserve death, that God could be both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26).

  7. linda says:


    as i’m reading this 54 page article from the link i mentioned earlier contrasting CV to PS the author derek flood is saying some interesting things. here are some quotes from the article:

    Satisfaction-Doctrine, also known as “Penal Substitution” or “Substitutionary Atonement,”
    “I have made an effort to refer to this teaching as Satisfaction-Doctrine rather then the more popular term “Vicarious Atonement” because Vicarious Atonement is a legitimate biblical concept where a parallel is drawn from the temple sacrifices to Christ’s death for us on the cross. Satisfaction Doctrine in contrast is a systematic theory of the cross based in legal framework and centering in the idea that God must be appeased or satisfied before he can forgive. Satisfaction-Doctrine focuses on legal terms like God’s law, punishment, justice, payment, and debt. Back in the Middle Ages rationalistic theories and judicial systems were considered the highest way of thinking, whereas relational issues like love, passion, and sacrifice were considered “weak” because they were connected with what were considered feminine qualities. Thus the early church’s understanding of the cross as illustrating the drama of God’s passionate love struggling to liberate us from the power of sin and death was considered too “emotive” and thus “inferior” and was replaced with their legal model.”

    “We as Christians know first-hand that the Father heart of God is a heart of compassion. The classic verse John 3:16 says “for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.” The motivation was not bloodlust, or even a need for punishment, but love. Jesus said the reason he was going to die was to show us his love: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13).”

    i think this last paragraph i quoted is really key because we see from john 3:16 that God the Father’s motivation for giving us jesus’s entire life, not just his death, is love. the verse is not: for God was so angry at the world that he gave his only Son… also, that jesus laying down his life was done out of his love for us rather than that God was mad at us. he mentions how a judge is someone who is neutral and rational but God is our Father and has the heart of a lover. the Father is not a neutral judge nor would it make sense to say a judge is wrathful. no judge would keep his job if he made decisions out of anger. his point that he repeats throughout this article is that this is a relational issue not a legal one.

    “the cross is not a parallel to the earthly temple system where according to Satisfaction- Doctrine we must bring a sacrifice to appease God, but just the opposite. Instead of us bringing a sacrifice to God to appease him, through the cross God brings a sacrifice to us to reconcile us. Jesus led the way for us vicariously in the ultimate sacrifice, taking on the life of a servant, aligning himself with Love, and enduring suffering for the sake of the poor and the captive. Here we have a very different concept of what “offering” means in relation to Jesus—it is not about him offering his life to appease an angry God, but about his entire life being a fragrant offering of selfless servant-love as he cared for the least and the poor. The offering that God gave in Jesus was not just about his dying. The offering God gave the world in Jesus consisted of his entire life , of his example showing us God’s way of love, revealing for us God’s heart of compassion towards us. The life of Jesus is God’s gift to us in order to draw us close to himself. Jesus’ entire life was a sacrifice as he took on the life of a servant caring for the poor and the forgotten.”

    “When Paul speaks of “atonement,” he simply means our reconciliation seen in relational terms, not legal ones. Similarly, Paul does not see sin in a legal framework as a “transgression,” but in relational terms as “separation” (Eph 4:18), and “alienation” (Col 1:21). Sin means being estranged from a relationship with God, and salvation entails being restored into that relationship.”

    “There is certainly here the concept of vicarious atonement, meaning that through the sacrifice we are reconciled to God, but not understood in the legal context of a requirement or an appeasement but as an act of communion…I want to also make it clear that when I am criticizing Satisfaction-Doctrine I am doing so solely on the aspect of it portraying the sacrifice as a legal appeasement, and not on it being a vicarious atonement. As we have seen both in the scriptural motifs of sacrifice in the Old Testament and the sacrament of communion in the New, there is definitely an aspect of vicarious atonement found in scripture. That is, we are reconciled to God (at.-one-ment) vicariously through Christ’s blood. That means that the cross was costly—our salvation didn’t come cheap. And it was messy—the cross is not tidy and neat. It is a shocking image covered in blood dirt and sweat, but what it shows us is love. Sacrifice in the New Testament speaks of the Divine Romance. “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” Taken in a relational sense instead of a legal one, the image of sacrifice can be something beautiful and moving. Like the passion of a parent who is willing to sacrifice anything to get their child to safety. Or to take a recent example, like the firefighters who sacrificed their lives in the World Trade Center. Self-Sacrificing love is not about “fulfilling the requirements” but is infinitely bigger than that. This model of sacrificial love is what inspired the nonviolent movements of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The model of this kind of devotion, this kind of sacrifice, is God himself.”

  8. Mike Rogers says:

    These are not the only two theories of Christ’s redemption. There are several others as well, which I won’t go into but can be found listed here:

    Yet one thing that is too often, if not totally, overlooked is that the early church fathers were Greeks and Latins reading into Jewish culture with just as many biases as we have. Why not look at Jesus’ death on the cross from a Jewish perspective and understand it as God’s offering to the world an opportunity to partake of the most powerful agreement between two parties in that culture; namely, a blood covenant, which Jesus himself described as at the first first Eucharist? Every Jew understood this aspect of entering or cutting the covenant when things were ready to get real.

    When Paul writes that this covenant affected all of creation and that even it is groaning he put it in cosmic proportions, which indicates to me that we will never know the full purpose and impact of Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension until that day when he comes and manifest the fullness of his kingdom.

    Both the CV and PSA, all other existing theories, and any new theories yet to be discovered, are bound up perfectly in the understanding of the Jewish blood covenant. Any one theory is too small to capture the fullness and relevance of all that God has done in Christ by means of his blood covenant for his creation through Jesus.

  9. Matt says:

    My thoughts exactly. I’m so tired of trying to be pulled into each camp and excluding the other. I see both of these theories fully manifested in scripture, and I choose to see them coincide in harmony. I think a lot of confusion is derived from definitions, and where some interpretations are taken to extremes or twisted.

    • Richard UK says:

      Sadly it is not so easy. Either we worship a God who vented his anger, in punishment, on his son. Or we worship a different God

      We may think we can find texts to support each view, thus justifying a some conceptual synthesis. That might work in our minds but not within the reality of the Godhead

      Incidentally the main texts for PSA are Is 53.10 and Roms 3.25, both of which have been regularly massaged, massacred and mistranslated

  10. Maged says:

    I agree. I think you might enjoy reading my article on the same topic.

  11. […] Substitution a Sixteenth-Century Innovation?” posted at, 05.11.12 “No Christus Victor Here – Atonement According to the Apostolic Fathers” posted at, 04.07.14 “A Common (But Bad) Reason for Rejecting Penal […]

  12. Marty says:

    The quotes you shared from the early church father’s by no means supports penal substitution. We all bring bias to this type of discussion. The PSA bias blinds many to interpreting them in a manner that allows for PSA. The retribution you see credited to God in scripture (mostly OT) is the retribution of man falsely ascribed to God. Many, many examples throughout scripture demonstrate this transferring of our understandings onto God. Ex: *Job’s friends, *Jephthah belief that God would be pleased for Him to sacrifice His daughter, *One voice in Joshua representing God that says God is on Israel’s side and another voice representing God that said He is on neither side. The Apostles were just as bent toward not getting the fullness of God in human flesh (Jesus) – both during after after Jesus time with them. This is b/c humans bring bias and expectations of God (and ourselves) to the table when we write and debate about who is God. PSA supports God as retributive, which allows for many other false understandings/perspectives of God’s nature. Part of the problem is idol worship of scripture, which is very common and devalues the sacred and inspired nature of scripture. God is Fahter, Son, Spirit – NOT Father, Son, Scripture. Jesus is the Word of God. Scripture is the word about The Word, written by men who were invited by God to co-author what they saw and heard, and what they understood about God (that often included false perspectives of God’s nature).

  13. Marty says:

    God’s wrath is an expression of God’s Love. God’s fire is God’s Love and is the fire of hell. The fire if hell is refining and redemptive, not retributive even though it feels that way. Every father and mother can identify with Love’s passion against any lie or perception that would harm their child. In the parable we refer to as the “prodigal son,” do you see any sign of retribution from the Father?

    The Father was never separated from the Son, Psalms 22:24. In Psalm 22:1 you see Jesus feeling alone, yet Father and Spirit with Him. God is ONE, Never separated. God has and will never separate from us. Although, we may choose to remain separate from His presence as long as we choose to reject Him. Why? Why do each of us reject God on a regular basis – even those who have walked with Him for many, many years? You are One in Jesus from before the foundations of the world. When will we let Him heal of our blindness to His presence? Isn’t that the question for all of us?

  14. Marty says:

    God (F,S,S) desires no sacrifice… found throughout scripture. Why did God give Israel a sacrificial system? To bring them out of sacrifice b/c that’s what they knew = Jesus. Why didn’t God just tell Abraham never to sacrifice humans? Why not give Abraham the Mosaic law/teachings? Isn’t it because God meets us all wherever we are at. He joins us in our sin (Jesus on the cross). This is why God is Holy (set apart, special). God is not Holy because he has high/perfect standards and requires us to meet them before we can be in His presence. We are God’s temple, God’s desired Home. One with God. God in Us. One with & in Jesus. You can’t get any closer. You can’t be anymore in someone’s presence than that. He is set apart (Holy) b/c God was/is willing to do something for us that we cannot do for ourselves. We are created to be One with God in the relationship of Father, Son, Spirit – Yet, we do not know how to LOVE. He came to be LOVE for us! Sin is not who we are. Jesus is our identity.

  15. […] Läs också Micaels artikel om hur de tidiga kristna såg på försoningen. […]

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The author

Micael Grenholm, a Swedish charismactivist, apologist and author.

Micael Grenholm, a Swedish charismactivist, apologist and author.

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A Living Alternative

God vs Inequality


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