On Christus Victor OR Is the Devil Real?

Chapter 2 of Richard Beck’s book The Slavery of Death wraps up Part One of the book in which he lays the theological foundation for his thesis that death, not sin, lies at the heart of humanity’s predicament. If chapter one makes clear that the Bible sees death as the problem, then chapter 2 attempts to outline what the solution might be. In short, chapter 2 is Beck’s summary of what has been termed Christus Victor–Christ the Victor–which is usually brought up in discussions about the various views of the atonement. For Beck, however, Christus Victor is more than just a theory of atonement. The word “atonement” itself tends to cause us to think of salvation in terms of deliverance from sin whereas, for Beck, salvation is a more holistic reality that includes, primarily, a freedom from the fear of death. To be clear, freedom from sin is included in Beck’s view of salvation. It’s just that, rather than being the root of the problem, sin is understood as a symptom caused by a larger ailment, namely, the fear of death itself.

So what does Christus Victor say about salvation?

In short, a Christus Victor telling of salvation emphasizes the power of Christ to emacipate, liberate, or rescue humanity from the power of death and the devil. Telling the gospel story through the lens of Christus Victor will highlight Jesus’ clashes with the devil throughout his ministry, clashes that eventually culminated in Jesus’ own death on the cross. Beck quotes New Testament scholar N.T. Wright’s book Simply Jesus:

Wherever we look, it appears that Jesus was aware of a great battle in which he was already involved and that would, before too long, reach some kind of climax. This was not, it seems, the battle that his contemporaries, including his own followers, expected him to fight. It wasn’t even the same sort of battle–though Jesus used the language of battle to describe it. Indeed, as the Sermon on the Mount seems to indicate, fighting itself, in the normal physical sense, was precisely what he was not going to do. There was a different kind of battle in the offing, a battle that had already begun. In this battle, it was by no means as clear as those around Jesus would have liked as to who was on which side, or indeed whether “sides” was the right way to look at things. The battle in question was a different sort of thing, because it had a different sort of enemy…. The battle Jesus was fighting was against the satan. (18)

I’ll be the first to admit that when talking about salvation I often hesitate to do so using the themes of Christus Victor. My hesitation mostly arises from my uneasiness surrounding any sort of talk about “the devil” in the context of our modern scientific age. I spend enough time trying to figure out what I mean by the term “God” that I usually find myself without the desire or the energy to entertain thoughts of a supernatural entity that is responsible for the world’s evil. Thus, I was thankful for Beck’s careful analysis of the devil and what he means to communicate by invoking the term. Beck has two responses to those who want to push back against this sort of language:

  1. His book is focused primarily on the role of death in human psychology. In other words, Beck’s argument in The Slavery of Death can be followed and understood even if one has no desire to use the language of the devil/satan.
  2. Using theological language like “the devil” can be helpful when describing actual realities that we are all familiar with but may lack the terminology to describe.

I found Beck’s latter response to be most intriguing. In essence, even if Satan is not a real person, many of us can bear witness to what it’s like to feel the moral pull of forces that we experience as greater than ourselves. Beck quotes N.T. Wright at length here:

Many modern writers, understandably, have tried to marginalize this theme [of Christ’s conflict and victory over the satan], but we can’t expect to push aside such a central part of the tradition and make serious progress. It is, of course, difficult for most people in the modern Western world to know what to make of it all; that’s one of the points on which the strong wind of modern skepticism has done its work well, and the shrill retort from “traditionalists,” insisting on seeing everything in terms of “supernatural” issues, hardly helps either. As C.S. Lewis points out in the introduction to his famous Screwtape Letters, the modern world divides into those who are obsessed with demonic powers and those who mock them as outdated rubbish. Neither approach, Lewis insists, does justice to reality. I’m with Lewis on this. Despite the caricatures, the obsession, and the sheer muddle that people often get themselves into on this subject, there is such a thing as a dark force that seems to take over people, movements, and sometimes whole countries, a force or (as it sometimes seems) a set of forces that can make people do things they would never normally do. (20-21)

The forms that these “suprahuman” forces take in our lives is fleshed out more by Beck in chapter four on the principalities and powers. For now, let it be enough to say that I appreciate both Wright’s and Beck’s more nuanced view of the devil/satan because it relates to a real-life thing that is experienced by you and me rather than a supernatural reality experienced only by cooky Pentecostal types or an outdated and ancient “mythology” easily dismissed by highly evolved moderns.

With this excursus on the devil out of the way, Beck turns to a discussion of how salvation is evidenced in the life of one who claims to have been set free from the power of death. Once again, he makes use of the Eastern Orthodox’s perspective on the matter. According to the Eastern tradition, “To be set free from the slavery to the fear of death is to be liberated from self-interest in the act of genuine love. Thus the sign of Christ’s victory in our lives over sin, death, and the devil is the experience and expression of love. This is resurrection and life.” (24)


Up Next: The Denial of Death