Patristic theologians, those theologians in the Church’s first generations, understood the work of atonement primarily in battle imagery.
For them, the Son’s work is a dramatic struggle Jesus wages with Sin and Death. Death in this perspective is a malevolent power, synonymous with Sin, which looms over God’s creation and frustrates God’s intentions for us. Paul, in Colossians 2.15, speaks of the Cross in this way and the effects Jesus’ cross have over the natural world in the Gospels suggest it too: the earthquake, the graves exploding open, the sky darkening, the temple veil torn in two. Jesus in Mark 10.45 speaks of his life being a ransom.
The Palm Sunday allusions to a military parade echo such a battle metaphor too. Jesus rides into Jerusalem just like Pilate, the crowds wave palm leaves, a messianic symbol, and Jesus is tried for claiming to be a rival king and he dies a revolutionary’s death.
For the early Church, Easter- much more so than the Cross- is the day that changes everything and the significance of the Cross is that it’s empty.
In the Gospel narrative, Pilate and the chief priests represent the power of Death and Sin in the world. They represent us, who enamored of ‘power’ such that we cannot recognize or accept that Jesus’ self-giving form of love is the true power that moves the universe.
Jesus saves us by breaking Death’s power, by defeating the lure that Sin has over us and by making possible a life lived in anticipation of God’s New Creation. This metaphor sees atonement has happening primarily through Easter’s Empty Tomb.
The strengths of the Victor theory include its recognition of the reality and power of Sin in the world; Jesus comes to defeat Sin on a cosmic level not simply forgive my personal sin and Jesus does this objectively and decisively.
According to this way of thinking, Sin really was defeated by Jesus once and for all. As Paul says in Ephesians, he has brought down the principalities and powers. All that’s left in our world, all the sin and evil we see in our world, is just the last gasp of an enemy that’s already been defeated.
Think of the Ring of Power in the Lord of the Rings and how it exercises power and evil long after Sauron had been defeated. It was, in fact, this model of the atonement that informed Tolkien.
Another attribute of the theory is how it understands that God works liberation and reconciliation not through violence but by letting Sin do its worst to him and thus demonstrating its ultimate finitude and weakness.
The Cross, then, shows God exhausting Sin’s power.
There’s literally nothing else Sin can do to him and its still not enough to destroy God’s condescending love.
The Victor metaphor also pays due attention to Jesus’ life. The content of Jesus’ life, his teaching, is the same power that defeats Sin at the end of the story. His teaching isn’t extraneous or optional for us. It’s Jesus training us to do battle in the world today.
Christians committed to the efficacy of Jesus’ teaching aren’t being naive or idealistic, as critics often charge; in fact, they are being more realistic than anyone else.
Sin has been defeated by Jesus.
We shouldn’t act as though Christians must resort to non-Christians means to do battle. Sin should be taken seriously but the only way to defeat it is through Christ’s way of life.
It may even kill us as it killed him but ultimately Easter shows it to be the only winning strategy.