The Ransom theory and the Christus Victor theory are often listed separately from one another when atonement theories are discussed but they are closely related. Christus Victor was first articulated by Gustaf Aulen in 1931. He started with the Ransom theory (which can be traced back to certain Church Fathers) and modified it slightly to come up with the theory he called Christus Victor, Latin for Christ is Victorious.
The Ransom theory taught that because of Adam and Eve’s sin all mankind was given into the possession of Satan. We were in bondage to sin, death, and the ruling spirits of this present age. God set out to make a deal with Satan to free man and to take them to be His own possession. The price that was settled on was Jesus’ life in exchange for the lives of all mankind. Jesus’ death, then, was the ransom that was paid to Satan to set his prisoners free, like ransom money paid to a kidnapper.
So, Jesus took the form of a man, and willingly laid down His life to pay this ransom. Satan released all those he held in bondage and gloated over his new prisoner. However, he wasn’t able to gloat long, because not even the grave could hold the Son of God. Under His own power, Jesus broke free from the bondage to which He had subjected Himself and rose from the grave, victoriously triumphing over sin, death, and Satan.
Now, some of you may be thinking, “That doesn’t sound quite like what I remember reading in my Bible”, and you would have good reason to think so. While the Bible does speak of Christ’s death as a ransom (Mark 10:45, 1 Tim. 2:6, Rev. 5:9), it says nothing about a deal being made with Satan or that Satan has any rightful authority to be able to demand a ransom be paid to him. Gustaf Aulen also thought that this was a problematic element in the Ransom theory, so he removed it to create the Christus Victor theory.
Christus Victor emphasizes two major elements of the Ransom Theory. First, that we are in bondage to sin, death, and the Devil. We are prisoners and can’t set ourselves free. Second, that Jesus “pays the price” by His death to set us free from every evil power that holds us captive and wins us back to Himself. There is no mention of to whom the ransom price is paid but it is denied that it is paid to Satan. Satan is a defeated foe, not a bargaining partner.
This model does a very good job of focusing our attention on the spiritual battle that is taking place around us and in us. The “cosmic powers over this present darkness” Eph. 6:12 have spread their forces to every corner of this universe. They are an invading army that have lead an insurrection against the rightful King and Sovereign of all creation. We are the spoils of war. We are prisoners, lead in chains by the “spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places”.
While it seemed as if all would be lost and creation forever subjected to futility, yet there was still hope. Messages were sent from the True King of a rescue mission, a Messiah, who was to come and set the captives free. Then, after years of waiting and yearning for this Champion to come, He finally did. Like a commando, He clothed Himself in camouflage, being born in the likeness of men, and when the right time came He turned the Enemy’s own weapons against him. Through death, Jesus defeated death. He crushed the head of the serpent. With sin and death and the Devil defeated, Jesus rose from the grave victorious and lead to freedom all the captives.
Now, we rejoice in a risen Lord who will have all “His enemies placed as a footstool under His feet”. We rejoice in a Messiah, King of all, who “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame”. We rejoice in a Lamb who was “slain and by His blood ransomed people for God”. Our King is alive! Our King has won the victory! For this, we rejoice.