I’ve been reading N.T. Wright’s book Evil and the Justice of God. In it he addresses the atonement, which in a real sense is the central issue of the book. That is, how will (did?) God deal with evil in the world? Wright takes the position of Christus Victor as the dominant theme, with others (penal substitution included) figuring significantly in the multi-layered meaning of the cross.
Here are a couple of paragraphs from chapter 3, in which he states his position on the atonement, I think, rather clearly.
The first thing to say is that theories of the atonement are all, in themselves, abstractions from the real events. These events – the flesh-and-blood, time-and-space happenings – are the reality which the theories are trying to understand but cannot replace. In fact, the stories are closer to the events than the theories, since it is through the narratives that we are brought in touch with the events, which are the real thing, the thing that matters. And it is through other events in the present time that we are brought still closer: both the Eucharist, which repeats the meal Jesus gave as his own interpretation of his death, and the actions of healing, love and forgiveness through which Jesus’ death becomes a fresh reality within the still broken world.
Having said that, I find myself compelled toward one of the well-known theories of the atonement, of how God deals with evil through the death of Jesus, not as a replacement for the events or the stories as a single theory to trump all others, but as a theme which carries me further than the others toward the heart of it all. I refer to the Christus Victor theme, the believe that on the cross Jesus has won the victory over the powers of evil. Once that is in place, the other theories come in to play their respective parts. For Paul, Jesus’ death clearly involves (for example in Romans 8:3) a judicial or penal element, being God’s proper No to sin expressed on Jesus as Messiah, as Israel’s and therefore the world’s representative. This is the point at which the recognition that the line between good and evil runs right through the middle of me, and of every one of us, is met by the gospel proclamation that the death of Jesus is “for me,” in my place and on my behalf. Because as Messiah he is Israel’s and the world’s representative, he can stand in for all: for our sake, writes Paul, God made him who knew no sin to be sin, to be an offering for sin, on our behalf (2 Corinthians 5:21). Throughout the New Testament, this death is therefore seen as an act of love, both the love of Jesus himself (Galatians 2:20) and the love of God who sent him and whose bodily self-expression he was (John 3:16; 13:1; Romans 5:6-11; 8:31-29; 1 John 4:9-10). Within these, not as the foundation but as the outworking, we see that Jesus’ suffering and death are an example of how we are summoned to love one another in turn.”
He goes on to explain that this must be understood within the realm of eschatology, of God working his purposes through history.
I am going to assemble a list of links on the issue for those interested in trying to understand it more clearly. In the meantime, I will say that the current book, Evil and the Justice of God is quite good and helpful.
R.C. Sproul reviewed the book for Reformation 21. You can read his review here.