If you grew up in America, particularly in the South, and attended a Protestant evangelical or fundamentalist church, this is the version of the Gospel that you were probably taught:
God is perfect in every way. And because God is perfect in every way and we are made in God's image, God's will is that man should also be perfect in every way. Because man cannot know His mind, God has given us His Law, which outlines the things that man must do in order to be perfect. But by virtue of The Fall, man's fundamental nature is sinful, so he cannot possibly obey all of God's laws. All men have sinned; there is not one of us who hasn't broken one of God's laws at one time. Because God's perfection demands justice, all men deserve to be punished by God.
Since God is perfect, he is also the perfect judge of righteousness. God finds sin abhorrent, and he will not dwell anywhere where sin exists. Therefore, our sin must be completely purged in order for God to dwell with us. God's law requires a blood sacrifice for the atonement of sin. But because God loves us so much, and because He knows that we cannot possibly keep his Law, He sent his only begotten son, Jesus, to earth to serve as the ultimate blood sacrifice for our sins. God planned for Jesus to be killed so that He could use Jesus' blood as a substitute for own blood, as an atonement for our sins.
Therefore, all we have to do is to accept Jesus Christ as our personal savior, and his blood will purge us of our sins. We will be declared blameless before God, our name will be added to the Book of Life, and God will dwell in our hearts. If we allow God to keep our hearts pure by quickly confessing and asking forgiveness for any sin we may commit, then we will go to Heaven when we die and we will dwell in the presence of God forever.
On the other hand, any man who fails to confess his sins and ask Jesus Christ to become his personal savior is guilty of being a sinner. Anyone who enters into God's presence with sin on his heart is an abomination to God and is not worthy to dwell in Heaven. There is no second chance at redemption, and all whose names are not recorded in the Book of Life upon their mortal death will be cast into Hell, to burn in unquenchable fire forever.
This version of the Gospel is based on a Reformed understanding of redemption and atonement known as "penal substitution." In simple terms, the penal substitution theory states that God expects a penalty to be paid for sin, and Christ's death on the cross served to pay that penalty. The history of penal substitution is a long and complex one, originating in Anselm of Canterbury's Satisfaction Doctrine, which treated Christ's death on the cross as a debt of honor. Satisfaction doctrine was further refined by Thomas Aquinas, who developed the understanding of Christ's death as "satisfactory punishment" for our sins, and John Calvin, who explained the reason for Christ's death using the metaphor of crime and punishment.
The Christian Church has always understood that mankind was atoned (that is, made "at one" with God) through Christ's death on the cross. The Church has also been historically in agreement that Christ's death on the cross was substitutionary; in other words, Christ suffered and died in our place. The early Church Fathers, including Justin Martyr, Athanasius and Augustine, "taught that through Christ's suffering in humanity's place, He overcame and liberated us from death and the devil."
Yet, although the early Church Fathers agreed on the outcome of Christ's death and resurrection, early church theologians still continued to wrestle with an understanding of why Christ was required to suffer and die. Nearly all of the refinements made by theologians to atonement theory were made in an attempt to answer this question. Eventually, most Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians came to accept the penal substitution theory of atonement, or some slight variation of it.
The Americanized version of penal substitution doctrine can be found in the "turn or burn" or "hellfire and brimstone" style of preaching associated with the evangelical movement of the early 20th century. This doctrine forms the basis for American Protestant fundamentalism and is still actively taught in many fundamentalist churches both in America and around the world, as a result of American fundamentalist missionaries. Avoidance of eternal damnation is presented as the central reason for salvation, and temperance and personal piety are expected of those who have been saved.
But many contemporary theologians and Christian leaders are now questioning the validity of the penal substitution doctrine. Their reasons are varied, but they usually involve two major points. First, "turn or burn" fear-based evangelism has become an ineffective method for reaching college educated, culturally literate Generation X and younger audiences. Second, the Emergent Church movement has centered its Gospel around an understanding of God that is based on peace and restoration, rather than on redemptive violence and retribution.
The understanding of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection adopted by the early church (and incidentally, still held by the Greek Orthodox church) has been given the name "Christus Victor" (Christ Victorious). The term "Christus Victor" did not originate with the Church Fathers; rather, it was coined by Gustaf Aulen in his groundbreaking book of the same name. In Aulen's words, "The work of Christ is first and foremost a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death, and the devil"
Modifying one's understanding of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection from the penal substitution view to the Christus Victor view requires formulating new approaches to a number of traditional ways that Reformed Protestants and Protestant fundamentalists understand the Bible.
First, Christus Victor differs from penal substitution in that it is usually explained using narratives to describe the triumph of good over evil. This is in direct contrast to penal substitution theory, which is a systematic theory that is logically derived from a set of assumptions based on the Reformed understanding of the Bible. As Westerners, we are predisposed to assume that an explanation systematically derived from first principles is intrinsically superior to a narrative or metaphor. But the Bible itself originates from a culture that almost exclusively used narratives and myths to understand the world around them. Therefore, it should be safe to assume that we do not always need a logical explanation in order to understand or convey fundamental knowledge about spiritual matters. In other words, we do not need to take Big Ben apart in order to appreciate both its aesthetic beauty and its practical function.
Second, Christus Victor requires a reorientation of our understanding of sin from an individual responsibility to a corporate responsibility. Most of us who grew up in Reformed or fundamentalist churches were taught that sin is an individual responsibility, and that our primary accountability to God involved confessing our own sinfulness and asking for God's forgiveness. We were taught that it was sinful to cause someone else to stumble (1 Cor. 10), and we were taught that if too many individuals' sins became integrated together within a society, then God would consider that society to be "sinful," and a society that became too sinful would be subjected to God's divine wrath. But in terms of accountability, individuals would only be called to answer for their own sins.
The Reformed/fundamentalist view of God's judgment is drawn from Revelation 20, which says, "they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds." (NASB) But other Biblical texts that deal with God's judgment in general (that is, not directed toward a specific entity by name) present a very different description of God's judgment. Matthew 25:32 reads, "All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats..." (NASB, emphasis added) All of the highlighted terms are plural, referring to groups, not individuals. God is not talking about separating individuals one from another, but nations. Likewise, the Old Testament prophets repeatedly speak of God's judgment against the nation of Israel or the nation of Judah or Pharaoh, who represented the entire kingdom of Egypt. Thus we can conclude that all of us share corporately in the sins of our nation. We are all responsible for the actions of "the powers." We are, in fact, our brother's keeper.
Third, Christus Victor requires us to understand that all of the
earthly systems developed by man -- diplomatic, military, financial and
legal systems -- operate contrary to the will of God. Specifically,
the redemptive violence and domination used to impose "law and order"
on society are not methods sanctioned by God. Christus Victor requires
us to accept that God abhors all violence, and that in His ultimate
revelation of Himself to us -- Jesus Christ -- we find a complete
rejection of violence and domination through the use of force. Thus the life of Jesus, specifically his repeated confrontations with the powers (but his refusal to use violence during those confrontations) becomes an ethic that we must follow.
Theologians such as Walter Wink, Walter Bruggemann, and John Howard Yoder have laid down a rigorous framework for understanding how we have, over thousands of years, developed a domination system that uses redemptive violence (the killing of a few for the good of the many) and force to oppress the weak and empower the strong. God's first major act involving the liberation of people from the earthly powers is told in the book of Exodus, which details the deliverance of the nation of Israel from the bondage of Egypt. It was no accident that God had to destroy the entire imperial system of Egypt in order to secure the freedom of the Israelites.
After the nation of Israel was liberated, God established an "alternative community" among the Israelites that required them first and foremost to care for the poor, and to refrain from mistreating foreigners and aliens. Unfortunately, the people of Israel soon disregarded God's Law and created for themselves a kingdom that used earthly domination and force to assert itself as a regional power. God watched as the kingdom of Israel disregarded His prophets and, sharing the fate of all empires built upon evil, slowly disintegrated. As a judgment against their sinfulness, God stood by and allowed His people to be conquered and exiled by the Babylonians.
The sinfulness of earthly systems and the corporate nature of sin are very difficult concepts for Americans to accept, specifically because American fundamentalist Christianity teaches that our nation was founded by godly men who were obedient to His divine will, and for this reason God has sanctioned the use of redemptive violence in the defense of America. Any idea that challenges the fundamental holiness of the "American way" is considered to be unpatriotic and, at worst, sacrilegious. It is often hard for us to see capitalism or American foreign policy as "sinful," because America stands for "freedom" and "prosperity." Yet our nation has no problem killing in order to squelch anything that is seen as a threat to our way of life. Likewise, the Gospels tell us that even the Pharisees, the most religious, lawful people in Jerusalem, had no problem resorting to violence after they began to see Jesus as a threat to their way of life.
Finally, Christus Victor requires us to understand that God's ultimate plan for mankind culminates in redemption rather than retribution. In other words, God seeks to restore the one-to-one communion of God and man that existed before The Fall. This does not mean that God disregards or ignores sin; on the contrary, God hears the cries of those in bondage to sin and wants to deliver them from their bondage. What this idea really means is that God is not first and foremost interested in making the guilty pay. The Old Testament narratives consistently portray a God who acts first and foremost as a deliverer. In order to deliver the oppressed from bondage, God does not enlighten the oppressors; rather, he empowers the oppressed. In all but a handful of notable exceptions (e.g. Sodom and Gomorrah) God rescues the righteous, then deliberately stands aside and allows evildoers and oppressors to destroy themselves with the same kind of violence that they inflicted on the helpless. God does not seek or cause their destruction, he simply allows the downward spiral of violence and hate to continue unabated until evil destroys itself.
Similary, Christus Victor teaches that the ultimate reason for God's Incarnation was to deliver mankind from the grip of sin and the oppression of the powers. As Jesus Christ, God directly confronted the legalism, class structures, and power politics that dominated the poor who lived in first century Palestine. Jesus ministered to the poor. He healed them. He ate with them and taught them in the Temple. He deliberately broke the sacrificial law when it prevented the dispensation of grace. And he urged the poor to challenge injustice whenever they encountered it. For these things, Jesus was branded a rebel and a troublemaker. He challenged the status quo. He challenged the authority of the government and threatened to undermine the Roman and Jewish power structures. For these reasons, the Romans and the Jews decided that it was better to kill Jesus than to risk an insurrection. He was mocked, beaten, scourged, and finally crucified. The powers did their worst to Jesus in the only way they knew how, through force and violence.
The Apostle John describes the work of Christ in his Revelation. In John's apocalyptic vision, Babylon (the apex of earthly powers) rises up against the Lamb (Christ). Though Babylon declares war on the Lamb and fights with everything it can muster, inflicting plagues upon the land and leaving slaughter and misery in its wake, the Lamb triumphs. After the war ends, the angel of the Lord declares Babylon's fate, "To the degree that she glorified herself and lived sensuously, to the same degree give her torment and mourning..."
In John's Revelation, the Lamb first appears "as if slain" (ch. 5) but after the battle, the Lamb lives, triumphant. What John's vision tells us is that Christ's true victory does not come from his death on the cross, but from his Resurrection. Jesus was not simply resuscitated or revived; rather, he was resurrected -- recreated, reborn in the flesh. The powers did their worst, but through God's love and according to His divine plan, Jesus Christ overcame the powers. He lived. So, too, will all those who follow the way of the Lamb:
And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead and on their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. (Rev. 20:4, NASB)
The Revelation concludes with the Lamb receiving its Bride, the church, those redeemed by His blood. Evil is vanquished forever, and a New Heaven and a New Earth emerge. There is no temple, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple, and God himself will dwell there.
When we pray The Lord's Prayer, we pray, "Thy will be done, Thy Kingdom come, on Earth as it is in Heaven." This is not just sentimental poetry. It is a plea for God to restore mankind and to establish His Kingdom on earth, in the here and now. Suddenly we realize that God's plan for us involves more than temperance and personal piety. Although it is vitally important for the Christian to "keep oneself unstained by the world," we are called to a much larger global task -- to "Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow." In other words, we are called to challenge the powers. We are called to expose injustice and to be advocates for the powerless. We are called to deliver the oppressed from the grip of their oppressors, just as Christ delivered us. And we are called to bear our own cross, as the powers will surely fight back against us, just as they fought the work of Christ.
Granted, that's a tall order to fill. In spite of the criticisms of those who dismiss Christus Victor because it does not place Hell and God's divine wrath at its center, Christus Victor actually creates a lifestyle that is far more challenging to live than even the strictest penal fundamentalism, because Christus Victor demands that we confront evil -- now -- rather than simply begging for forgiveness and living by a legalistic code, waiting for a reward sometime in the future. Christus Victor demands that we touch the least among us, just as Christ touched them. Christus Victor demands that we act as agents of change in the world, rather than simply waiting to be spirited away before the "last days" arrive.
Through Christ's death and resurrection, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are given the power to accomplish those things. By emptying out ourselves and dying to our own evil desires, addictions, fears, and prejudices, we begin the process of releasing ourselves from the grip of the powers. As we become more free from the powers, we are able to embody God's grace more thoroughly, and to impart that grace to others more perfectly. Through the power of His Holy Spirit, we begin to truly live, and to no longer fear death. Thus, we become liberated. Through our liberation, Christ is the victor.
I realize that this brief exposition does not answer most of the great multitude of questions that can arise from a comparison of penal substitution and Christus Victor. Why does penal substitution teach that God requires a blood sacrifice? What about hell? Doesn't a moral lifestyle matter? Wasn't it right to use force to end the Holocaust? How can we be held responsible for the suffering of others? This doesn't agree with some of the things you've written in other posts, Mike ... Etc.
I hope however that this post will serve as a catalyst for discussion, study, prayer, and the desire to seek the will of God. That is what I am trying to do right now.
The passages on Revelation were inspired by John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus. Walter Bruggemann's The Prophetic Imagination contains a detailed discussion of the Exodus and the alternative community of Moses. And Walter Wink's Powers trilogy is the definitive treatise on the Powers and how to overcome them through non-violence and obedience to the Holy Spirit.
ADDED 3-29: I made a few more small revisions to the introductory paragraphs, which I hope will make them more clear.