The Death of Jesus: Christus Victor

In the previous article on atonement I told you that the Eastern Orthodox Church never interpreted the death of Jesus in Penal Substitutionary terms. I also wrote that for the first thousand years of the church, the Penal Substitutionary interpretation we are so familiar with today was not the message of the church. In this article I want to focus on the chief way the early church understood the death of Jesus. This way has its roots in the New Testament and was expanded in the 2nd and 3rd centuries by early church fathers. This interpretation remains the primary way the Eastern Orthodox Church views Jesus’ death today. 

But first a word about the Eastern Orthodox Church. By the 2nd century CE the church had spread all over the Mediterranean world. Each major city had church leaders who cared for their flocks and guided them in the faith. As you would suspect, there were differences among these leaders regarding their interpretations of the Christian faith. By the end of the 3rd century these differences became more pronounced when the Roman Empire split into two halves, the Western half centered in Italy and the Eastern half in Constantinople. Later the Eastern Church refused to recognize the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) as having any more power than any of the other bishops. Theological, political, and cultural difference eventually led to what is called ‘the Great Schism” in 1054 CE. The Pope declared the Eastern Church heretical and the Eastern Church declared the Pope and the Western Church heretical. The division between the East and the West continues to this very day.

The Eastern Orthodox Church is still very much alive and well. With 300 million members, it is the second largest denomination in the world (after the Roman Catholic Church). Their worship is characterized by awe-inspiring music, liturgies sung in deep voices by priests and choirs, icons, incense, and much joy.

The primary way the Eastern Orthodox Church views atonement reflects the theory of 2nd and 3rd century theologians. Jesus’ death and resurrection are seen as a victory by God through Jesus over evil, death, Satan, sin, and all that would enslave or afflict this world. They do not understand the death of Jesus apart from his resurrection.

The primary way the Eastern Orthodox Church views atonement reflects the theory of 2nd and 3rd century theologians. Jesus’ death and resurrection are seen as a victory by God through Jesus over evil, death, Satan, sin, and all that would enslave or afflict this world. They do not understand the death of Jesus apart from his resurrection. And neither do they understand the resurrection apart from his death. The victory he brings comes through both his death and his resurrection. And that victory is a victory over sin, death, and Satan as well as a victory over the dark forces of this world which seek to enslave, despise, and destroy. Between Easter and Pentecost, you will hear hundreds of time this refrain: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”

Eastern Orthodox theologian Frederica Mathews-Green presents this image of Jesus’ death and resurrection to communicate the full significance of these events within the Eastern Orthodox Church. As you read her presentation, remember that these churches prefer to use images, stories, and metaphors to communicate and experience the gospel. (Please pause and read her presentation at the end of this article.)

The assumptions behind these words is that humankind has been trapped in the lair of Satan. We humans are hostages of evil, enslaved by sin, and victims of oppression, lies, deceit, and terror. It’s very difficult for us in 21st century America to appreciate the sense of vulnerability and fear people have felt during most of the history of the world. Imagine living in a time when famine and starvation could be only one meal away; when you could be struck down by the swords of countless warring soldiers as they fought to increase the wealth and prestige of their masters; when you and your family could wake up one morning healthy and happy and by sundown every member of your family could be struck down by some plague; when infant and childhood mortality rates as well as the mortality rates of mothers in childbirth were astronomically high; when you had absolutely no freedom or rights and were subject to the whims and cruelty of those with more power, money and status than you possessed; when you lived in a “dog eat dog” world and all you knew was greed and struggling to maintain your own survival; when you were daily threatened by superstition and terror. For many centuries so many people have stared death and monstrous evil in the face day after day and have felt the gloom and oppression of that terrible weight on their bodies, minds, hearts, and souls. It would be no exaggeration to say that this has been, and for many still is, the only world billions of people have ever known. 

That’s why the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection was so powerful. With Jesus’ death and resurrection, he overcame all evil, sin, suffering, hopelessness, indignity, and death.

That’s why the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection was so powerful. With Jesus’ death and resurrection, he overcame all evil, sin, suffering, hopelessness, indignity, and death. And by God’s grace, his victory has become our victory. All that was and is wrong in our world has begun to be swallowed up in the victory of the cross and the empty tomb. With that victory, Jesus has conquered every Caesar who struts across the globe; every villain who would cause others to suffer and be victimized; every threat to one’s health and wholeness; and every heart hardened with sin, arrogance, and disobedience. The early church was giddy with joy and excitement over this victory. For them it truly marked the beginning of a new world, a new heaven and a new earth, a new creation.      

So, how did Jesus achieve this victory through his death and resurrection? Exactly what happened to make this possible? As you would expect, the church fathers suggested different ideas and metaphors to explain this outpouring of grace. Some suggestions sound rather ridiculous to us today. But they are ridiculous only if we take them literally and not figuratively and symbolically. For example, some suggested that with Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the garden, Satan gained possession of all human souls. Since all were sinners they were enslaved to Satan, they were hostages to the Devil. How do you rescue hostages? With a ransom. You pay the kidnappers in order to have the victims released. A couple of images were used to communicate how this happened with Jesus. One suggestion was that we should think of Jesus as bait on a hook and of Satan as a fish who takes the bait and is “caught.” Another is called the “mousetrap theory” whereby Jesus becomes the “cheese” in the mousetrap and Satan becomes the “mouse” so that when Satan comes to claim what he thinks is another human soul, he becomes trapped himself. 

All these rather crude metaphors are trying to say that Satan was fooled by God into thinking that Jesus was just another sinful man whom Satan could claim as his own or that Satan knew Jesus was the Son of God, but assumed God was handing Jesus over to ransom humankind. But in the end, Satan was defeated through the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus was not like any other human being because he was the sinless Son of God who was resurrected by his Father. Therefore, humankind (and indeed the whole creation which had been marred by sin) was rescued from the snares of Satan. The Devil had been tricked!

Now, if you will excuse the pun, all this sounds kind of “fishy” to us, and if we take it literally it doesn’t make much sense. But behind all this muddled thinking (according to our logic) is a profound truth. Satan was known in the Scriptures as the Author of the Big Lie. (The Book of Revelation repeatedly makes this point.) He is the great deceiver. All he and evil do and say are based on lies. Truth is always the enemy of the Devil. According to the early church fathers, it starts that way from the very beginning with the snake in the Garden of Eden. Satan is always trying to convince humans that God’s way is suspect; that there is a better, more convenient way; that it’s best to look out for number one; that fear is a greater motivator than love; that might makes right; that money talks; that ends justify means (provided you even remember what the ends are). The Gospel lectionary text for the first Sunday in Lent is always the story of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness by Satan. Jesus was struggling to reject these very lies and to be faithful to the will and ways of the God he knew as Abba. 

The early church fathers understood that all evil and sin is based on a lie. All evil and sin is the opposite and negation of goodness and love. Only goodness and love are eternal, true, and redemptive. But most of us don’t want to or can’t believe that. We are tricked by evil to assume otherwise. But in reality, it is evil which is ultimately tricked because the only eternal, abiding, and creative power in this world is God. And as Jesus came to show us, God is love; God is truth; God is goodness; God is compassion; God is Abba who can be trusted. We can’t trust Satan, evil, or those who have sold their souls as they embrace the big lie. 

And so, in the end, the Deceiver is himself deceived. Evil is tricked. All the forces of sin and destruction which have had their day in this world find out when the final word is spoken that their way is but a temporary interruption to the final victory of God. And in Jesus’ death and resurrection we see a glimpse of that final victory.

I hope you see where I am going with these profound insights of the early church. All the evil forces and evil people of this world assume that they are right because they have the power, the resources, the guns and bombs, and the propaganda to support and back up their claims. They boast of the results they have achieved as they count the dead bodies of those they have sacrificed to achieve their ends; as they add up their wealth from their exploits; as they calculate how much they own and control. And they get much of what they want by deceiving others that their way is best. Like the Devil, they are supremely adept at deceiving others for their own benefit. The way of Jesus—compassion, truth, love, mercy, forgiveness, justice, peace, joy, doing unto others as you would like others to do unto you, turning the other cheek, loving those who would do you harm—all this is weak, foolish prattle to the powers and principalities of this world.

The resurrection reminds the world that God has the last word, and that word is love and God can be trusted. The deceivers have been deceived. They have been trapped in their own lies, and in those lies they will in time self-destruct. 

The cross seemed to prove how foolish Jesus’ message was. He ended up nailed to two pieces of wood and dies an agonizing and disgraceful death while Caesar, Pilate, the Chief Priests of Jerusalem, Herod Antipas and all the other allies of evil went on plotting their schemes, assured that they were done with this troublesome Jew. But the resurrection said “NO” to them and “Yes” to Jesus—“No” to hatred and “Yes” to love—“No” to lies and “Yes” to truth—“No” to violence and “Yes” to peace—“No” to torture and “Yes” to compassion—“No” to injustice and “Yes” to liberation. The resurrection reminds the world that God has the last word, and that word is love and God can be trusted. The deceivers have been deceived. They have been trapped in their own lies, and in those lies they will in time self-destruct. 

Now, all this should raise two questions.  First, if Jesus achieved a great victory over sin and death through the cross and resurrection, why didn’t he appear before the Chief Priests who turned him over to Pilate after mocking, beating, and slandering him? Why didn’t the victorious Jesus appear to Caiaphas the High Priest and say something like, “See, you hypocritical snake in the grass—you lying, greedy, immoral puppet of Rome who claims to be so holy, righteous, and knowledgeable of God, my Father. Guess what? God has raised me from the dead. Yes, Yahweh, the One you claim to serve and speak for has negated your verdict and has vindicated me. Now, it’s your time to face the wrath of God.” 

And why didn’t Jesus appear before Pilate and the Roman soldiers who crucified him and say something like this: “Okay, you evil, cruel little bureaucrat. You asked me during my trial, ‘What is truth?’ Well, here is the truth standing before you—the way, the truth, and the life. I am not only the King of the Jews. I am the Son of God. And it’s time for you and your henchmen to receive the kind of “justice” you have imposed on me and countless others” 

And why didn’t Jesus appear before the Emperor Tiberius Caesar who was cavorting on the island of Capri, torturing slaves and prisoners while sexually abusing little boys and girls and say something like this: “So, you claim to be the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords; you claim to be the Son of God. But you are nothing more than a perverted, evil, sad excuse for a human being—a vile, decaying monster whose empire is over. With my resurrection I have millions of angelic hosts who can wipe out your legions in the blink of an eye. Then you and the world will see who is King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” 

At the very least, why didn’t Jesus appear to those confused Jews who were tricked by their religious and political leaders and say, “You see, I was right. I am your Messiah and the world’s Savior. Now that you know the truth, you can follow me.” 

But Jesus did none of this. He appeared to some women followers and other disciples but not to the people responsible for his death. He did not appear to them because that was not his way and because that was not the way of his God. It would have been the way of Satan, Caesar, Pilate, Caiaphas, and countless others (perhaps even our way). God’s Upside-Down Kingdom will come through love and compassion, justice and peace, mercy and love, sacrificial service and humility. If the ultimate goal of God is a community made up of individuals who have freely chosen love, freedom, responsibility, joy, and compassion, then that kind community can only come about through what we see in Jesus. Jesus after his resurrection will be no different in character than Jesus before his resurrection. With Jesus as with God, means and ends are all the same. Achieving that kind of new creation will take longer and will require sacrifices of us. After all, did not Jesus say, “Take up your cross daily and follow me”? It appears that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is in the loving business for the long haul and will not be satisfied until all is made whole. 

If Jesus’ death and resurrection have swallowed death, evil, and sin, then why is our world still plagued with death, evil, and sin?

And that leads to the second question. If Jesus’ death and resurrection have swallowed death, evil, and sin, then why is our world still plagued with death, evil, and sin? Paul is helpful here as the early church fathers acknowledged. Paul said that Jesus’ death and resurrection are the FIRST FRUITS of the new creation. What we see with Jesus’ resurrection is a glimpse of what the final victory of God will be. It’s as though the future has invaded the present. (Some theologians use the word “proleptic” to describe the Christ event and especially his resurrection.) The death and resurrection of Jesus marks the beginning of the new creation, not the completion. And by God’s grace, that new creation continues through us, provided we are willing to follow Jesus. Every time truth is spoken, every time compassion is offered, every time peace becomes a reality, every time forgiveness allows life to begin again, every time justice is pursued with relentless determination, every time patient and all-embracing love is shown the Kingdom of God is among us and the new creation continues to grow. The world cannot see it. It’s like seed growing in the ground or leaven doing its quiet work within dough. But those with eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to feel know deep down that Jesus’ victory continues in our world. And if that final victory is slow in coming, it’s only because God is gracious and willing to wait for all creation to come home. 

The world cannot see it. It’s like seed growing in the ground or leaven doing its quiet work within dough. But those with eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to feel know deep down that Jesus’ victory continues in our world.

For us I guess it all depends on how much we are willing to trust Jesus and to believe that with his life, death and resurrection, God’s new creation has already begun and will be finished in wonderful and glorious ways that none of us could ever imagine. The early church embraced this faith with joyful abandon. And it’s because of that faith and trust that our sisters and brothers in the Eastern Orthodox Church shout in their worship with so much gratitude and joy, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!” Amen!

[Swedish Bishop and Lutheran theologian Gustaf Aulen revived the Christus Victor theory of atonement with the publication of his famous book entitled Christus Victor in 1930.] 

EASTERN ORTHODOX THEOLOGIAN FREDERICA MATHEWS-GREEN

Jesus is standing on the broken doors of hell. The massive portals lie crossed under his feet, a reminder of the cross that won his triumph. He stands braced and striding, like a superhero, using his mighty outstretched arms to lift a great weight. That weight is Adam and Eve themselves, our father and mother in the fallen flesh. Jesus grasps Adam’s wrist with his right hand and Eve’s with his left as he pulls them forcibly up, out of carved marble boxes that are their graves. Eve is shocked and appears almost to recoil in shame, long gray hair streaming. Adam gazes at Christ with a look of stunned awe, face lined with weary age, his long, tangled beard awry. 

Behind Christ stand King David, King Solomon, the prophet Isaiah, and the prophet Jeremiah, all in gorgeous robes, clustered tightly like a standing-room-only crowd to see this marvelous event. Among them is an air of joy, even conviviality. John the Baptist is in the throng, still clothed in camel skin, now in full repossession of his head. Behind them are ranks and ranks of the righteous dead, who are dead no more, for Christ has set them free.

Beneath Christ’s feet is a black receding pit with floating silver shards of metal, chains, locks, and ominous instruments of pain. These instruments are broken and shattered, and the locks unhinged, except for one set, still intact and in use. These locks bind the body of that vicious old Satan, who grimaces in his captivity, bound hand and foot and cast into his own darkness.

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