Thanks to NewWord and Jonathan for their responses to the blog on cruciform apologetics. I remember how positively I responded when I first read Gustav Aulen’s Christus Victor and his defense of what had been known as “the ransom theory” of the atonement which Aulen dubbed “the classic theory.” I believe there are real strengths in this theory and that there is New Testament grounding for the assertion of ransom, victory and liberation being results of the cross.
However, to see the ransom theory as the key to understanding the cross leaves several questions/issues unanswered. First, Anselm’s question “Why the God-Man” in my opinion is not adequately answered. The original iteration of the ransom theory perhaps answers this better than later modifications. Adam’s sin gave Satan ownership of the human race. Out of love Christ appeared as a man and was offered to the Devil as a ransom. However, the Devil did not realize that this was the eternal Son who would overcome death. So, the ransom was paid by Christ dying, but the victory was won as Christ rose from the dead. Those who have read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe immediately recognize this scenario. In this form we can see that it took the God-Man to win the victory. Only he could be perfect and it is his perfection that allows him to rise from the dead.
But, the idea of “tricking” the Devil has not found a lot of acceptance in the past few hundred years. And if the deception is eliminated the encompassing power of the ransom motif is weakened, for why would the Devil accept a payment that would have such catastrophic results for his nefarious kingdom?
If “paying the Devil” is left behind, then the second question is simply this. What is it about the cross that brings about victory or liberation? It is simply not enough to say that liberation happened, there has to be some kind of grounding in cause and effect. If a ransom was not paid to the Devil, and if the wrath of God was not satisfied (as in substitutionary atonement), then what happened? What, precisely was it that occurred at the cross that set us free?
The third question builds on the previous two. What are we set free from? Does the cross set us free from sin? From guilt? From feeling crummy about ourselves? From capitalism? From … what? Can this question be answered without a really solid answer to the first two questions?
This brings us back to substitutionary atonement. I agree with Jonathan, that each theory of the atonement provides a window through which the atonement may be viewed. Thus, the New Testament does speak of the defeat of the Devil and the destruction of his works. Very powerfully we are told that we are ransomed and set free. And this kind of affirmation can be said of all the other theories. However, the work of theology is to find the central truths which bring all else together in haromony. This harmony of the other viewpoints of the atonement is the truth captured in the Greek word uper – “for, on behalf of." The concept of substitution rests on this word. So Paul simply states in Romans 5:8 "Christ died for us."
Finally, I would like to comment on the thought that talking about the cross creates the impression that Christ is absent to the unchurched. To me this is not true at all. It is the cross alone that enables me to understand that God is neither silent nor absent. How can we talk of a God who is “present” but who is not present in the horrors of the twentieth century and of the opening decade of this century? Of what relevance is a God who is not present to the private pain that each individual feels?
This is the good news of the cross. Christ is the Man of Sorrows. In Christ God has come and taken all our suffering on himself at Calvary and overcome it at the empty grave. How much more present to the people of the world could he possibly be? This is why Paul said: "For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” 1 Corinthians 2:2. Truly there is nothing else to know or proclaim.