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The martyrdom of Christians throughout history, and particularly in the Middle East today, is a living example of what Gustaf Aulén called Christus victor—an ancient understanding of the atonement which points to the basic model of the work of Christ as a warrior who overcame sin, death, and the demonic. 

While the image of Christ as warrior and victor stems from the exodus tradition of the Hebrew Bible, its development among early Christian writers was in direct relationship to their persecution and martyrdom. Irenaeus did much to develop this model in the first and second centuries. He composed his thoughts shortly after taking over a blood-soaked episcopate in Lyons with its recent memories of the slave-girl Blandina who, though weak physically, economically, and politically, had become a symbol of the conquering Christ. Rome was the enemy and the arena was the locus in which these Christian “athletes” entered into conflict. 

But the physical arena was not the only battleground—also developing at this time was the idea of the body and soul of the saint as the locus of spiritual warfare.  Athanasius’ portrait of St. Antony as the warrior-monk who faced off against the demons that assaulted his mind with temptations of his former life of wealth and opulence underscores the point that the path of deification is one of struggle to overcome the Death Eaters who promise perverse notions of immortality. 

Despite the fact that Walter Rauschenbusch (1869–1918) advocated a version of the Christus victor model around the turn of the twentieth century, it has fallen on hard times among some mainline Protestant and Anabaptist interpreters today. This may be because of its masculine and seemingly violent imagery of Christ as a warrior who overcomes. Rauschenbusch had sought to tame it by suggesting that the forces of evil Jesus entered into conflict against were social, their power coming from institutional expressions. Jesus faced all of these social evils (religious bigotry, political corruption, injustice) on the cross and conquered them. There is an alignment of the demonic with the corruption of political and economic power similar to Irenaeus’ own thought, though Rauschenbusch demythologized it so that the demonic symbolized social evil.

Notably, virtually all Pentecostals and Charismatics embrace some version of Christus victor because it aligns with their fundamental understanding of salvation as deliverance and the spiritual-warfare motif that goes along with it. One cannot understand the development of prosperity as a theological trajectory apart from the idea that there are forces at work in the world that attempt to strip human beings and lay them bare. Healing of the body and healing of the soul form complementary parts of the plan to deliver humans from the ravages of death. This is not to justify the excessive occupation with material prosperity, but it is to place it in a broader frame.

Though it has developed much over time, the Christus victor model continues to reframe notions of conquest around the struggle to be fully alive and to be a faithful witness to a culture of life. It reminds us that the struggle against death is in actuality a battle for life and for the world.  And while the martyrs of the Church have lived—and continue to live—this out in its most extreme form, let us remember that it is, in reality, the call of every Christian. 

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