Thursday, April 28, 2016

Christus Victor Part VI

(This is part of a series discussing Christ's crucifixion and the Atonement theories that seek to understand the cross. Earlier posts may be found here, here, herehere, and here.)

Beginning in the Middle Ages, a new understanding of the Atonement emerged that at first challenged, and later, almost entirely replaced the “Christus Victor” approach.

The Patristics certainly discussed the Atonement, but never in a systematic, thorough fashion, in part because they were so focused on Christological issues (such as reconciling the divinity and humanity of Christ) as well as developing a doctrine of the Trinity. 

 Therefore, a detailed Atonement theory did not appear until Saint Anselm of Canterbury.[1] Anselm (1033-1109) spoke against the earlier classical view, averring that Redemption is not primarily about the rights of the devil, but the wrong done to God on the part of humanity. 

Anselm’s historical context had a profound impact upon him as he developed his new theory of the Atonement. In the Middle Ages, feudalism governed European society with a series of hierarchical classes of people existing in a give-and-take relationship. For example, a lord would provide his vassal with material goods and defense whereas, in exchange, the vassal owed his lord loyalty and tribute. It was a society based on honoring and serving landowners. Justice, in this system, was fixed on satisfaction, not punishment like current law in the United States. As Anselm developed his theory, he was profoundly impacted by his view of God as a great feudal lord.[2]

Anselm’s Atonement theory (referred to as the satisfaction theory or Latin theory) is advanced in his work Cur Deus Homo? In this book, Anselm represses the classical notion of the cross as a victory over the devil. In its place, he maintains that the cross is predominantly deliverance from the guilt of sin. Through the cross, humankind is reconciled to the Father through the satisfaction made by the Son to the Father’s justice.[3] 

To elaborate, Anselm begins by explaining that man is created for happiness. Happiness, however, necessitates a life without sin, something no human could claim. Thus, in order to be happy, humankind needed remission of sin.[4]

The quandary is that all creatures, as vassals, owe a basic debt to God, the great lord. This debt subsists in being subject to God’s Will. If someone pays this debt, he or she is not in sin. If unpaid, that individual lives in sin. Anselm writes, “He who does not render this honor which is due to God, robs God of His own and dishonors Him; and this is sin.”[5] 

Since man has clearly sinned, he is mandated to restore what is due to God or else will remain in sin. In his feudalistic frame of mind, Anselm included another point: it is not enough to merely restore what one took from God. In addition, individuals are mandated to provide extra compensation for having even offended God in the first place. “…Every one who sins ought to pay back the honor of which he has robbed God; and this is the satisfaction which every sinner owes to God.”[6]

At first, the solution seems clear: God in an act of sheer mercy should simply forgive the sins of fallen humanity. Anselm, however, declares that God cannot straightforwardly wipe away the sins as if they had never occurred. To remove sin in such a way would eradicate any punishment. If there is no punishment, it is as if the sin had not transpired and this is not just since both the guilty and non-guilty would be treated equally. 

Thus, without satisfaction, God cannot allow sin to go unpunished. So there are dual dynamics present: the sinner cannot achieve the happiness he or she is destined to have because of sin and there exists a need for satisfaction to the wrong done to God.[7]

Then there is the final clinch in this series of dismal acknowledgements: the satisfaction must be in proportion to the guilt incurred. Yet, no matter how much one gives back to the Lord, whether it be prayer, abstinence, or contribution, humans already owe God all of this! Boso, the individual with whom Anselm dialogues in Cur Deus Homo? speaks the obvious predicament, “If in justice I owe God myself and all my powers, even when I do not sin, I have nothing left to render Him for my sin.”[8] Anselm states in reply, “Even God cannot raise to happiness any being bound at all by the debt of sin, because He ought not to.”[9]

The circumstances of humankind is one of which there is colossal satisfaction to be made. Anselm explains that the first man and woman had been placed in paradise, situated between God and the devil. They were meant to defeat the devil by remaining loyal to God. Instead, on his own accord, man sinned and permitted himself to fall under the will of the devil. In freely succumbing to the devil, humanity incurred the penalty of death. 

Anselm enumerates, “…so in his weakness and mortality, which he had brought upon himself, he should conquer the devil by the pain of death, while wholly avoiding sin. But this cannot be done, so long as from the deadly effect of the first transgression, man is conceived and born in sin.”[10]

Satisfaction must be greater than all else but God Himself, something that only God is capable of doing. Simultaneously, only a man can make the satisfaction because man is the one who owes the satisfaction to God. To this predicament there can be only one solution: a God-man.[11]

Anselm explains that the key to the Atonement is God becoming human. If there were no Incarnation, there could be no Redemption. Only Jesus, fully human and fully divine, could fulfill both sides of the justice issue.[12] Anselm writes, “For, as it is right for man to make atonement for the sin of man, it is also necessary that he who makes the atonement should be the very being who has sinned, or else one of the same race.”[13] 

When the issue is raised why God could not have created an angel or another human to accomplish Redemption, Anselm responds that God Himself had to do it because if God created a sinless man to redeem mankind, men and women would be indebted to this individual as opposed to God.[14]

There remained another question with Anselm’s view. If God freed humans from sins, hell, and the power of Satan, could He not have done this by His Word alone? If not, then God must not truly be an omnipotent God. If, however, God could have accomplished salvation in this means, yet insisted upon Jesus suffering on the cross, what kind of God must this be? 

Anselm counters that the Father did not force Jesus to die; He did not kill the innocent for the guilty. According to His own free will Jesus died for humankind’s salvation. While the Father clearly approved of the Son’s desire to die for this reason, He neither caused the desire nor the suffering.[15] Finally, God could not have brought about salvation by His Word alone, for reparation must be from a human since it was the human race that committed the transgressions and owed God the satisfaction.[16]

[1] Aulén, 1.
[2] Carroll and Green, 261.
[3] Aulén, 2.
[4] Saint Anselm, Proslogium; Monologium; An Appendix in Behalf of the Fool by Gaunilon; and Cur Deus Homo, trans. Sidney Norton Deane (Illinois: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1948), 201.
[5] Saint Anselm, 202.
[6] Saint Anselm, 202.
[7] Saint Anselm, 203.
[8] Saint Anselm, 224-225, 227.
[9] Saint Anselm, 230.
[10] Saint Anselm, 230-231.
[11] Saint Anselm, 244-245.
[12] Carroll and Green, 258.
[13] Saint Anselm, 247.
[14] Saint Anselm, 178-179, 184.
[15] Saint Anselm, 185, 191, 198.
[16] Carroll and Green, 258.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Lessons from In The Wilderness

His life had now become like a journey in a trackless wilderness; he saw neither path nor trail, and he had to find his way alone.

Sigrid Undset's third book in her Master of Hestviken tetralogy is aptly titled: In the Wilderness.  For me, it differed greatly from the previous two books.

Ingunn, Olav's childhood companion and wife, has died, leaving him a widower.  Ingunn's death is deeply felt; there seems to be even a hole in the narrative.  Olav has lived so much of his life by her side that he feels lost without her presence.

As far back as he could remember, he had been used to think of her as much as of himself, whatever he were doing or thinking.  When two trees have sprung up together from their roots, their leaves will make one crown.  And if one falls, the other, left standing alone, will seem overgrown.  Olav felt thus, exposed and grown aslant, now that she was gone. 

In an effort to get away and clear his mind, Olav sets sail for England with some trading companions. While there, he becomes lost in the countryside during night.  It is a symbol for the wilderness in his soul.  Olav is lost--literally and figuratively.

El Toro Wilderness in Puerto Rico

Though he had determined to reconcile with God and seek forgiveness for the sins of his past, Olav recoils from actually accomplishing the act.  

He lacks the courage to strip his soul bare and acknowledge a humiliating fact: his own lust and childish desire was what propelled his fate forward to his current state.  He has been living a lie, telling people he had taken Ingunn for his own because he learned her family would not honor their childhood betrothal.  

It is a lie he has almost come to believe as truth.  Olav prefers this false version of the story: in it, he appears resourceful and strong-willed.  In reality, he acted as a child, grasping for what is shiny and attractive without ever considering the consequences.

Now he saw that he might have gone astray from weakness, from childish thoughtlessness and blind desire--that he had sought to deny at any cost: even if he should take upon himself the guilt of far worse deeds, charge himself with a burden of sorrow so heavy that it broke him down, then rather that. If only it might look as if he had acted with premeditation and accepted his sorrows knowingly and of his own free will. 

Unwilling to combat the pride that masks his sin, Olav is not only divided from his wife, but from his God.  He makes his way alone, not at all certain where he is going.  

For that reason, In the Wilderness is more of an introspective, slower-paced novel.  Much of the action is within Olav's head and heart as he grapples with the uncertain path before him.  

In this haze, Olav seems incapable of self-giving love.  He has two children: Eirik, Ingunn's illegitimate son whom they have falsely presented as their own, and Cecilia.  Olav also becomes a foster-father to a young girl named Bothild.  Though they are innocent and desire the love of a father, Olav's sentiment toward them is more often than not cold, distant, and reserved.  

This is especially heart-wrenching in Eirik's case, who adores his father.  Eirik is like a hungry beggar, eager to claim any scraps of affection Olav happens to send his way.  Undset describes a terrible, stormy day when Olav takes Eirik down to a shed by the water where they must do some work.  Eirik could not be happier being alone with his father, working side by side.

In a similarly poignant passage, Undset writes:

But it only needed a friendly word from Olav, and Eirik forgot all his bitterness.  Afterwards he remembered it and was angry at his own weakness.  But no sooner did the man show him the least indulgence, no sooner did Eirik see but a shadow of the pale, frozen smile on his father's lips as he spoke to him, than the son became insensible to all but his abject adoration of his father.

And while Olav does care about Ingunn's son, he is more prone to anger than to forgiveness and love.  When Olav finds Eirik indecently flirting with a young girl, he severely chastises and embarrasses him.  Eirik accuses Olav in return, reminding him how Olav committed adultery with a serving woman at Hestviken.  Beside himself with rage, Olav beats Eirik until the snow is bloody and the boy unconscious.

Later that evening, Eirik stonily approaches Olav and aptly observes:

"It is almost as though you had taken a hatred to me, Father." 

It is because Olav is in the wilderness.  He is in the dark, removed and separated from God.  His soul mired down with sin, how can he love in a pure, selfless, and sacrificial way?  One could wonder how Olav can treat his children so coldly, and yet we read in the newspapers of parents killing their children.  

It is the terrible darkness that is the wilderness of sin, driving people from God and making even the most natural human relationship--that between parent and child--one of hatred. 

Because when you are intentionally separated from Him who is Love, how can you hope to love at all?

Monday, April 11, 2016

Christus Victor Part V

(This is part of a series discussing Christ's crucifixion and the Atonement theories that seek to understand the cross.  Earlier posts may be found here, here, here, and here.)


While Scripture affirms the classical view of the Atonement, Church Tradition also lends its voice in support. The Church Fathers offered fresh explanations, analogies, and insights on how Christ defeated Satan through the cross. While none of the Church Fathers developed a systematic view of redemption, each included many related themes scattered throughout his writings. Yet, when viewed as a whole, there does emerge what can be termed a patristic soteriology.[1]

To begin this soteriology, the early Fathers described the Son as the Logos, or Word, who existed as the universal mediator of the Father since the very beginning. The Father, being invisible, could only be manifested by His Son who revealed Him. Jesus accomplished this through the created world, but even more so through salvation history. 

Jesus was not a mediator in the way of being less than God and simultaneously more than human (a heresy known as Arianism). Rather, Jesus’ humanity is the pathway to His divinity. Saint Gregory the Great commented, “The Word Himself helped man by becoming man. Man left to his own resources could not return to God. Only the God-man could open up the road to return…He shared death with man…by uniting our lowliness with His highness, the road for returning to God was opened for us.”[2]

As the Patristics discussed the Incarnation of the Son, they inevitably confronted His opposition, which is Satan. Gustaf Aulén writes regarding their presentation of the devil, “No other aspect of the teaching of the Fathers on the subject of Redemption has provoked such criticism as their treatment of the dealings of Christ with the devil; primarily on this ground, their teaching has been commonly regarded as unworthy of serious consideration.”[3] 

Yet, just as some incorrectly dismiss the concept of Satan, so, too, is it an error to reject this essential and fundamental portion of the Patristics. In order to have a full understanding of the classical view of the Atonement, exploring the pages of the great Fathers of the Church is vital.

Reflective of the classical view’s characteristic of lacking one set description of what transpired between Satan and Jesus, so is a uniform presentation of the Atonement absent from the Patristics. However, all agree on the basic components of the classical view: men and women were created by God and belong to Him, the devil’s rule over humans is not the way things are meant to be, and the Creator is one with the Redeemer. 

How these concepts interact and relate to one another slightly varies between the Fathers. The greatest difference lies in discerning the devil’s rights over humankind and how Jesus specifically dealt with Satan. 

Most concur that the devil gained definite rights over sinful humanity after the Fall and, therefore, the devil requires some sort of settlement to release humanity from his grasp. According to this understanding, the devil serves a legitimate role of executing God’s judgment on man. Aulén explains, “…for he [Satan] stands, as it were, to execute God’s own judgment on sinful and guilty man.”[4] Humanity transgressed God’s laws and, therefore, deserves just punishment, which the devil dispenses. 

This concept is at times intersected with the contrary notion of the devil as a usurper who does not have rights over men. Either way, both views assert that the devil, whether as just executor of God’s justice or usurper, was deceived through the cross.

The dynamic of God contracting a deal with the devil was criticized by some, but was nevertheless strongly asserted in the early Church. Part of the misunderstanding may be due to the fact that the early Fathers employed legal terms in a different manner from later theories of the Atonement. As opposed to something concretely legal, they meant lawful in the sense of demonstrating God acting justly and fairly with the devil. 

St. Augustine


To illustrate the unity and, at times, disunity among the Fathers regarding the classical view, it is helpful to highlight some of their specific thoughts on the Atonement. Perhaps the most influential and central Church Father is Saint Irenaeus. 

Irenaeus, writing only about one hundred years following the writings of the New Testament, was the first Father to study the Atonement in depth. Unlike the later Patristics who studied the Atonement only in part, Irenaeus presented a lucid, comprehensive study. The Atonement frequently appears in his work and, as the first Father to undertake an examination of this topic, he laid a path for later Fathers to follow.[6]

In the mind of Irenaeus, the Atonement and Incarnation were two interrelated, inseparable occurrences, a concept that became significant to the classical understanding. In fact, the very purpose of Jesus’ becoming man was so “that He might destroy sin, overcome death, and give life to man.”[7] 

Like Saint Paul, Irenaeus attributes Jesus’ action to His overflowing love for humankind; Jesus humbled Himself to become one like us in order that we may in turn become like Him.[8] In this way, the Incarnation was an essential prelude to the Atonement because only God alone was able to free man. “The Word of God was made flesh in order that He might destroy death and bring man to life,” Irenaeus writes.[9] 

Irenaeus expands on this thought in his work Proof of the Apostolic Preaching. Due to the fact that death ruled in the human body, it had to be through the same agency--a human body--that death was overcome. Jesus joined the battle on earth so that, “sin, destroyed by means of that same flesh through which it had gained the mastery and taken hold and lorded it, should no longer be in us…”[10] 

Again, the Word of God became flesh to “undo death and work life in man; for we were in the bonds of sin…”[11]

For Irenaeus, just as the Incarnation and Atonement are connected, so, too, do sin and death belong together. Death is not specifically an end to life, but disobedience to God. Individuals who freely rebel against God separate themselves from Him, an act that is ultimately death. 

When Irenaeus speaks of sin and death, behind these concepts lurks the figure of Satan. Wherever these are present, there also is the devil, who Irenaeus describes as the lord of sin and death. Satan is the deceiver of man and if humans follow him, they will fall under his power: “Those who do not believe in God, and do not do His will, are called sons, or angels, of the devil, since they do the works of the devil.”[12] 

Irenaeus explains that this happened to Adam and Eve. The latter were led astray by Satan, who was envious of the gifts that God had bestowed upon man.[13] Now all people, in the footsteps of Adam and Eve, have fallen from the Father’s light and cannot escape from the bondage of sin on their own. 

Due to sin, man is at enmity with God. Yet, through Jesus’ death on the cross, “This enmity the Lord recapitulated in Himself, being made man, born of a woman, and bruising the serpent’s head.”[14] Whereas the one tree in Eden brought sin and the knowledge of evil in disobeying God, the other tree in Golgotha brought the knowledge of good, which is obedience to God.[15]

In his writing, Irenaeus speaks of God’s justice in two ways. He is among the Patristics who believe that the devil cannot possess rights over humankind. On the contrary, the devil is a robber and a ruthless hegemon who seizes what is not his; from the beginning, the Creator brought forth humans to freely love and serve Him, not to suffer as slaves to Satan. 
Accordingly, it is only just that the devil should meet defeat. 

Second, Irenaeus believes that God is righteous in His redemptive work because He does not employ brute force. Humankind is guilty because by their own free will, men and women have sold themselves to the devil. In this sense, humankind does deserve punishment.[16] 

In order for the Atonement to be just, it was necessary that a man should die. Irenaeus explains, “…Had not man conquered man’s adversary, the enemy would not have been conquered justly. Again, had it not been God who bestowed salvation we would not possess it securely.”[17] 

Through His Incarnation and death on the cross, Jesus, both God and man, justly defeated the devil and restored life to humankind. 


These ideas first introduced by Irenaeus were further developed by Origen, another prominent Church Father popular throughout the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries. Though popularly regarded, Origen faced controversy at the Second Council of Constantinople as some of his teachings were questioned. Due to this, his work was officially condemned. It was not until the 20th century that his work was once again recognized as significant. 

Among his writings, Origen lacks a work specifically on the Redemption. Yet, his main interest in Scripture belies an Atonement undercurrent. Primarily an exegete, Origen desired to unlock the meaning of Scripture, believing that underneath the surface, literal words of Scripture lies deep truth. 

Origen transferred this concept to the cross. The literal cross as a means of capital punishment confuses and bewilders; as Saint Paul said, it becomes a “stumbling block” (1 Corinthians 1:23) to some. However, beneath its initial level of meaning is a profound spiritual revelation about God and His love for humankind. For example, those present at the crucifixion only saw the physical dimension: a man crucified. Yet, for those filled with the Spirit, they witnessed the Word of God on the cross, a sign of divine love. [18] From a secular view, the cross was the defeat of Jesus. From an eternal view, it was the defeat of Satan.[19]

Whereas the first Christians would have viewed the cross with revulsion as inhumane murder, Origen, reminiscent of Paul, saw it as an ultimate act of goodness and perfect virtue. It is this goodness of the crucifixion, says Origen, which gives the Christian Gospel validity and strength. 

When discussing the role of Satan in Christ’s death, Origen explains that the Father grant permission to the devil to provoke the scandal that led to the cross. He supports this proposition by citing Jesus’ statement to Pilate that the Roman governor would have no authority over Him if it had not been given from above (John 19:11). 

Accordingly, the devil only had authority to initiate the process of the cross because the Father gave him that ability. Origen further contends that this bestowal of power from the Father to Satan was necessary for Jesus to overcome the devil. Ironically, therefore, the Father gave authority to Satan to crucify Jesus in order to bring about Satan’s demise![20]

In addition to this train of thought, Origen asserts a very tangible point to his theology of the Atonement. He argues that the cross is also necessary because it presents Jesus’ followers with a model for suffering and death. “Now let it be seen whether we have taken up our own crosses and followed Jesus,” he challenges Christians.[21]

Origen’s point highlights that, while Jesus defeated Satan on the cross, Christians must not remain apathetic or stagnate, but instead valiantly carry their crosses, resisting the path of disobedience and sin and sacrificing themselves out of love for Christ present in their fellow brothers and sisters. The classical view of the Atonement should spur one to enter the fray of battle alongside Christ, armed with faith and love, certain of victory through Him.

Indeed, this idea of the cross as paradigmatic for Jesus’ followers is critical for Origen’s grasp of the Atonement. The Father permitted the suffering of Christ because a degree of affliction is important for souls to advance in virtue; the ultimate purpose of suffering is to prepare and purify a soul for heaven. Jesus set a necessary precedent through the cross. 

Thus, Origen’s focus is not the Atonement changing God’s sentiment from anger to appeasement due to some sacrifice presented to Him, but rather, Origen emphasizes that the Atonement should change people from vice under the rule of Satan to virtue under the love of God. Peter J. Gorday writes in his essay “Becoming Truly Human: Origen’s Theology of the Cross,” “…the redemptive power of the cross lies in its ability to change human beings in the direction of virtue by freeing them from demonic powers.”[22]

In discussing how the cross freed people from Satan, Origen speaks of the “coincidence of opposites.” This is the paradox of how the humility and obedience of Jesus emerges victorious over the pride of Satan.[23] Origen employs the idea of a “divine trick” when describing Christ’s victory over Satan. He explains that God offered Satan a prize (Jesus) that the devil had no right to, so that when Satan seized the prize, he breached justice and, in the end, lost not only Jesus, but the human race as well. 

When stating this portrayal, Origen insists that God is not unfair in His dealings with the devil, but instead this dynamic is similar to how Pharaoh’s heart had been hardened in the book of Exodus.[24] Satan, like Pharaoh, could not perceive truth or justice. Origen writes, “…he [the devil] had us in his power, until the ransom for us should be given to him, even the life (or soul) of Jesus, since he (the Evil One) had been deceived, and led to suppose that he was capable of mastering that soul, and he did not see that to hold Him involved a trial of strength greater than he was equal to.”[25] Gorday concludes, “For Origen, it is the freely willed obedience of Jesus…that robs the demons of their power—though exactly how this happens remains obscure—and that restores a like capacity to His followers.”[26]


Among the other Patristics is Saint Athanasius. This Church Father concurred with Origen’s concept of the cross serving as a model for humans to mimic. Athanasius further expanded on this idea by explaining that, just as Jesus conquered Satan as a human, so, too, in likeness can His followers do same. He writes, “Therefore now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, for all who believe in Christ trample on it as though it were nothing and choose rather to die than deny their faith in Christ. And that devil that once maliciously exulted in death, now that its pains were loosed, remained the only one truly dead.”[27]

Gregory of Nazianus

Saint Gregory of Nazianus, a contemporary of Athanasius, wrote against the notion of God paying a ransom to the devil, as though Satan possessed rights over humankind. Instead, Gregory of Nazianus concurred with Irenaeus that the devil is a robber, seizing what did not belonged to him. 
In all respects, he deserved to be conquered by Christ. 

John Chrysostom

Saint John Chrysostom supports Gregory of Nazianus by labeling the devil a tyrant who tortures all who fall into his power, including Christ. Chrysostom echoes the familiar transgression of events: Satan unjustly kills Jesus and, thus, becomes a creditor to Christ. When Satan imprisons the innocent Jesus, he forfeits his power.[28]

Gregory of Nyssa

Saint Gregory of Nyssa, another Patristic, focused on the justice of God, similar to Irenaeus. The former explained that the human race is justly under the sway of Satan due to freely committing sin. Satan’s dominion is possible because of the reality that God Himself created.[29] Had God not bestowed His people with free will, this state of affairs would have been avoided. Yet, since God deigned that His creatures should be free, it was mandatory that the victory of Christ not be obtained by violent force, a coupe d’état of sorts. “There was a kind of necessity for Him [God] not to proceed by way of force, but to accomplish our deliverance in a lawful way,” Gregory of Nyssa elaborates.[30]

Like some other Church Fathers, Gregory of Nyssa promoted the theory that the devil was deceived because the Godhead was hidden in the humanity of Jesus. The devil did not recognize who it was that he contended with on the cross. Satan seemingly captured his prey, but in reality, was himself taken captive by God. This happened in order that, “…that which is opposed to Life and Light might be brought to nought. For darkness cannot endure when the Light shines, nor can death remain in being where Light is active.”[31] 

This is not unjust of God, however. Instead, Gregory of Nyssa claimed it is perfectly just for God to deal with Satan in the same manner in which Satan dealt with God’s children. “...For just as he [Satan] at the beginning beguiled men with the bait of fleshy lust, he is now beguiled through God clothing Himself in the veil of humanity.”[32] 

Though the same method is employed by God, the Father’s action is upright and righteous because, from a teleological viewpoint, the outcome, which is salvation for humankind, is upright and righteous. Gregory of Nyssa believed that God’s interaction as such with the devil is positive for the additional reason that it demonstrates God did not use brute force to gain victory and also reveals God as an intimate player in salvation history, not a distant deity unmoved by humanity’s plight.[33]


Instead of focusing on God’s justice or the ransom paid to the devil, Saint Ambrose emphasizes the love God demonstrates in His victory on the cross. When Jesus cries out on the cross, Ambrose says it is not a sign of weakness, but a witness to Christ’s love for the men and women for whom He died. 

Ambrose continues that it is not the pain of the nails driven into His flesh that agonize Christ, but the wounds of sin. “You suffer the pain, O Lord not of Your wounds, but of my wounds, not of Your death, but of my weakness.”[34] Though sinless, Jesus feels even more acutely than sinners the actual immensity of sin. Yet, just as creation shares in Jesus’ Passion through its sin, it also shares in His glorious Resurrection. Ambrose writes, “The world rose in Him, the heavens rose in Him, the earth rose in Him, for there will be a new heaven and the new earth.”[35] 

Ambrose illustrates well the classical view’s point that Christ’s victory contains ramifications for God’s entire creation. Furthermore, Ambrose evidences that the classical view does not espouse a negative message consumed exclusively with sin and Satan. More accurately, the classical view is a message of hopeful, triumphant victory over Satan, accomplished by Christ through the most powerful force of love.


One of the most famous Church Fathers is Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Augustine played a prominent role in understanding the Atonement because he gathered together the diabology of the earlier Fathers and further developed it.[36] 

One starting point for examining Augustine’s treatment of the Atonement is to consider his understanding of Satan. Augustine explains that the devil’s deepest desire and longing is to be worshipped in place of God. In order to seduce believers to do this, Satan appeals to his own immortality, contrasting it with the seeming mortality of Christ, as evidenced in His death upon the cross. Satan wishes people to “scoff at the death of Christ, and to regard him, the devil, as all the more holy and divine for being immune from any such thing.”[37] 

Since humans desire immortality and, therefore admire this feature in the devil, Satan has gained sway over men and women. People succumb to the devil whenever they conform their wills to his due to fear or pride.[38] Augustine echoes his predecessors in explaining that all people are in the power of the devil due to their sin. 

Yet, he also reiterates the point of Saint Ambrose, emphasizing the love of God. Augustine states that the occurrence of the Incarnation alone is proof of God’s love.[39] Yet, even more so, the agape love of Christ as evidenced upon the cross displays God’s tremendous compassion, hospitality, and humility.[40]

Augustine concurs with the other Patristics that Jesus freely chose to die and suffer in a human body. Augustine’s predominant explanation for Jesus’ motivation is that humankind needed such a proof to become convinced of God’s love. Also, the cross was a startling recognition of the status of human beings as true sinners, a critical realization needed to provoke feelings of humility, which directly invert the pride Satan seeks to foster among God’s children. Augustine declares, “The only thing to cleanse the wicked and the proud is the blood of the just man and the humility of God; to contemplate God, which by nature we are not, we would have to be cleansed by Him who became what by nature we are and what by sin we are not.”[41]

To explain what occurred between Satan and Jesus on the cross, Saint Augustine employs visual images. One of his most famous portrayals is that of a mousetrap: Satan was exultant when Christ died and like a mouse gleefully noticing a piece of cheese, seized his prize. This delight became his downfall; “The mousetrap for the devil was the cross of the Lord; the bait he would be caught by, the death of the Lord.”[42] 

In describing this deception, Augustine avers that the devil was consumed with such greed that he blindly overlooked Jesus’ sinlessness. Jesus had entered so fully into the human condition that the devil mistook His compassion for humanity as guilt. Herein lay Satan’s downfall. Augustine defends God’s justice in acting this way by explaining that God knew Satan’s heart was so full of fury at God’s love for humanity that he would seize the chance to salvage Christ. Satan’s hatred, not God’s love, led to the devil’s demise. 

While the devil justly puts to death those with original sin who emulate Adam in disobeying God, Jesus did no wrong and so unjustly died. Thus, through the cross, the devil’s ploys and seductions are made clear. In “‘The Tree of Silly Fruit’: Images of the Cross in Saint Augustine,” John Cavadini writes, “In an odd way, the compassion of Christ would not have been disclosed apart from the devil’s lust for killing, but once disclosed, the moving, persuasive force of the compassion of God renders the devils’ blandishments impotent to persuade anyone who believes.”[43]

Augustine also addresses the relationship between the Father and Son during the crucifixion. In contrast to later theories of the Atonement, Augustine rejects the idea that the death of Jesus satisfied the Father. This incorrectly presumes a difference and perhaps even rancor between the Father and Son, which, according to the theology of the Trinity, is not possible.[44] 

The Father is not bloodthirsty, purposely pursuing the death of His Son. Instead, only a death freely given could aptly substantiate God’s love. Augustine writes, “It was indeed the worst of deaths, but it was chosen by the Lord. For He was to have that very cross as His sign; that very cross a trophy, as it were, over the vanquished devil…”[45] 

The cross is God’s initiative “to become our friend in the companionship of death.”[46] Though humans still fear death, Augustine reassures his readers that through the crucifixion, one realizes that God’s love is far greater. Cavadini remarks, “…the greatness of God’s love shines out in the death he [Satan] so greedily caused.”[47]

[1] Kereszty, 199.
[2] Saint Gregory the Great, Moralia, quoted in Kereszty, 203.
[3] Aulén, 47.
[4] Aulén, 47-48, 54.
[5] Aulén, 50, 54-55.
[6] Aulén, 16-17.
[7] Saint Irenaeus, Against Heresies, quoted in Aulén, 19.
[8] Kereszty, 204.
[9] Saint Irenaeus, Against Heresies, quoted in Aulén, 20.
[10] Saint Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, ed. Johannes Quasten and Joseph C. Plumpe, trans. Joseph P. Smith (Maryland: The Newman Press, 1952), 67.
[11] Saint Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, 71.
[12] Aulén, 25, 20, 26.
[13] Saint Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, 57.
[14] Aulén, 22-24.
[15] Saint Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, 69.
[16] Aulén, 27-28.
[17] Saint Irenaeus, Against Heresies, quoted in Kereszty, 209.
[18] Peter J. Gorday, “Becoming Truly Human: Origen’s Theology of the Cross,” in The Cross in Christian Tradition: From Paul to Bonaventure, ed. Elizabeth A. Dreyer (New York: Paulist Press, 2000), 93-95, 104.
[19] Russell, 80.
[20] Gorday, “Becoming Truly Human: Origen’s Theology of the Cross,” 99, 107.
[21] Gorday, “Becoming Truly Human: Origen’s Theology of the Cross,” 13.
[22] Gorday, “Becoming Truly Human: Origen’s Theology of the Cross,” 108.
[23] Dreyer, “Introduction: The Cross in the Tradition,” 15.
[24] Russell, 80.
[25] Origen, In Matthaeum, quoted in Aulén, 49.
[26] Gorday, “Becoming Truly Human: Origen’s Theology of the Cross,” 112.
[27] Saint Athanasius, On the Incarnation, quoted in Kereszty, 211.
[28] Aulén, 49, 57.
[29] Kereszty, 210.
[30] Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Great Catechism, quoted in Aulén, 48-49.
[31] Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Great Catechism, quoted in Aulén, 52.
[32] Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Great Catechism, quoted in Aulén, 53.
[33] Aulén, 53.
[34] Saint Ambrose, Commentary on Luke, quoted in Kereszty, 207.
[35] Saint Ambrose, quoted in Kereszty, 219.
[36] Matera, 93.
[37] Saint Augustine, On the Trinity, quoted in John Cavadini, “Jesus’ Death is Real: An Augustinian Spirituality of the Cross,” in The Cross in Christian Tradition: From Paul to Bonaventure, ed. Elizabeth A. Dreyer (New York: Paulist Press, 2000), 178.
[38] Cavadini, “Jesus’ Death is Real: An Augustinian Spirituality of the Cross,” 178.
[39] Aulén, 45.
[40] Dreyer, “Introduction: The Cross in the Tradition,” 14.
[41] Saint Augustine, On the Trinity, quoted in Cavadini, “Jesus’ Death is Real: An Augustinian Spirituality of the Cross,” 175.
[42] Saint Augustine, Sermon 263.2, quoted in John Cavadini, “‘The Tree of Silly Fruit’: Images of the Cross in St. Augustine,” in The Cross in Christian Tradition: From Paul to Bonaventure, ed. Elizabeth A. Dreyer (New York: Paulist Press, 2000), 154.
[43] Cavadini, “‘The Tree of Silly Fruit’: Images of the Cross in St. Augustine,” 154-155.
[44] Aulén, 58.
[45] Saint Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John, quoted in Cavadini, “‘The Tree of Silly Fruit’: Images of the Cross in St. Augustine,” 151.
[46] Saint Augustine, On the Trinity, quoted in Cavadini, “Jesus’ Death is Real: An Augustinian Spirituality of the Cross,” 176.
[47] Cavadini, “Jesus’ Death is Real: An Augustinian Spirituality of the Cross,” 179.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Lessons from The Snake Pit

He was living in sin, there was no doubt of that, so long as he made no offer to atone for that unhappy deed, but God must know that he could not; he could not jeopardize the welfare and honour of his wife and child.  In all else he had endeavored to walk as a Christian man.  And God must know even better than himself how unspeakably he longed to live at peace with Him, to be allowed to love Him with his whole heart, to bend the knee in prayer, without grieving at his own disobedience. 

When Olav Audunsson finally can claim his ancestral home of Hestivken, he recognizes a wooden carving on one of the doorposts leading into the bedroom.  It has been many years since Olav has last been at Hestivken, but the image is immediately familiar.

It is the depiction of a man, surrounded by writhing snakes, coiling all about his limbs and body.  One snake sinks its venomous fangs into his heart.

If this strikes you as a bad omen at the start of Sigrid Undset's second book in her tetralogy, you would be correct.

The Snake Pit continues the story of Olav and Ingunn.  After all their heartache and extended time of separation during the first book of the series, they are at long last joined as husband and wife at Hestviken.  

The problem, of course, is that they are joined by a third: the demons that are their sins.  

It came over him that now he understood one thing: a conflict had been waged in the whole of creation since the dawn of the ages between God and His enemy, and all that had life, soul, or spirit took part in the fight in one host or the other, whether they knew it or not--angels and spirits, men here on earth and on the farther side of death...But now Olav himself had to choose whether he would serve in one army or in the other.

Olav bears the secret burden of the murder of Teit, the man with whom Ingunn bore an illegitimate child.  Under the laws of the time, Olav's act would have been justified considering Teit seized upon another man's betrothed.  However, Olav had remained silent following the murder, secretly burning Teit's body in a small wayside shelter, hoping people would assume the building had accidentally caught on fire.  

Now the unconfessed sin burns within him and the poison of that evil deed seeps into Olav and Ingunn's life together.  

Ingunn and Olav are expecting their first child, but Ingunn can only think that this is not her first child.  Eirik, the son she conceived with Teit, is being raised by an unknown foster mother far away in the north.  Ingunn remembers with a guilty pain the hours after Eirik's birth, when the only thing that could assuage his shrill cries was the comfort of her breast--his mother.  Now where was he?  Was he still crying out for her?

Ingunn's pregnancy ends with a still birth.  She conceives again and again, each time facing a miscarriage.  The failed pregnancies leave her physically ravaged, unwell, and despondent.  

She must be marked in some mysterious way, with something as terrible as leprosy, so that she infected her unborn infants with death.  Her blood and marrow were spent, her youth and charm wasted long ago by these uncanny guests who lived their hidden life beneath her heart for a while and then went out.  Till she felt the first warning grip as of a claw in her back, and had to let herself be led by strange women to the little house on the east of the courtyard, give herself into their hands without daring to show a sign of the mortal dread that filled her heart.  And when she had fought through it, she lay back, empty of blood and empty of everything--the child was as it were swallowed up by the night, taken back into a gloom where she had not even a name or a memory to look for. 

Olav magnanimously retrieves Ingunn's young son, Eirik, and brings him to Hestviken.  They tell their neighbors that Eirik is their firstborn, hidden away until that time because Olav had been an outlaw when the child was conceived.  Ingunn is ecstatic to hold her child again, but Olav is haunted by the realization he has falsely given his entire birthright to a boy who--in the eyes of the law--is entitled to absolutely nothing at all. 

Olav and Ingunn manage to have a child of their own, a little girl named Cecilia, but shortly thereafter Ingunn's health fails worse than ever before.  She has lost any strength in her limbs and lies in bed, her back covered in oozing bedsores.

Olav kisses her wounds, recalling to mind how holy men would kiss the sores of lepers, hoping to bring about healing.  He reflects that here, however, the positions are reversed.  Ingunn, quietly and uncomplainingly bearing her suffering, has atoned for her misdeeds.  Olav is the leper, the one in need of the greatest healing.

He feels himself powerless, however.  For his actions, Olav would need to confess to the bishop.  His penance would most likely be public, a formal declaration to everyone of his actions.  He may be required to go on a long, dangerous pilgrimage to atone for his evil deed.  All of this would yet again bring a wave of guilt and shame upon Ingunn.  Not to mention that everyone would know Eirik's true identity.  To confess his sin would bring pain to his wife and child.

"I cannot condemn her to be left alone, poor and joyless and broken in health, the widow of a secret murderer and caitiff...Too much is at stake for those whom it is my duty to protect.  Then all that I have done to save her honour might as well have been undone.  Think you I did not know that had I proclaimed the slaying there and then, it would have been naught but a small matter?--the man was of no account, alive or dead, and had you then backed me and witnessed she was mine, the woman he had seduced--But Ingunn would not have been equal to it--she could face so little always--and then is every mother's son in these parts to hear this of her now that she is worn out--?" 

Then one evening Olav is away for business and word is brought to him that Ingunn is on her deathbed.  Olav and an acquaintance who offers to loan him his horse make their way through the church on their way out.  Olav is struck by the crucifix hanging in the empty, dark church.  

He knows that Ingunn is laying on her deathbed, but what is directly before his eyes is the suffering of Christ.  

Every sin he had committed, every wound he had inflicted on himself or others, was one of the stripes his hand had laid upon his God.  As he stood there, feeling that his own heart's blood must run black and sluggish in his veins with sorrow, he knew that his own life, full of sin and sorrow, had been one more drop in the cup God drained in Gethsemane.  And another sentence he had learned in his childhood came back to him: he had believed it was a command, but now it sounded like a prayer from the lips of a sorrowing friend: Vade, et amplisu jam noli peccare--[Go and sin no more].

Olav has spent the majority of his adulthood concerned with the well-being of his wife, certainly a noble intention.  Yet, what he has neglected was the higher duty owed to God.  The greatest suffering is not Ingunn's, as great as it is.  The greatest suffering is that of Christ on the cross due to our sins--including Olav's act of unconfessed murder.

In that moment, Olav reflects on the words of Lamentations: "Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?  Look around and see.  Is any suffering like my suffering that was inflicted on me..."  Is any suffering like Christ's suffering?  And what are we doing to relieve it? 

Olav sacrifices much for Ingunn and Eirik.  Yet all his efforts have, in many ways, been futile.  Ingunn's life has been one of immense suffering and loss--perhaps, one may speculate, because Olav did not right the wrong he did, but instead allowed it to fester and breed further sins.

By failing to confess his mortal sin, Olav was by extension choosing to serve in the army of God's Enemy.  His heart was bitten by the ancient serpent and, no matter how much he struggled to help his family, he was poisoned with his sin.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Christus Victor Part IV

(This is part of a series discussing Christ's crucifixion and the Atonement theories that seek to understand the cross.  Earlier posts may be found here, here, and here.)


The classical view of the Atonement, which Gustaf Aulén calls “Christus Victor,” is based on the premise that, ever since the Fall of Man, God and His Kingdom had been battling the evil powers at work within people.[1] The “Christus Victor” belief, simply put, is that through the cross, Jesus conquered evil.[2] The cross represents both a struggle and victory over Satan. By the cross, the devil loses his power over fallen humanity. 

God is revealed as the main agent in salvation, resulting in reconciliation between God and the world.[3] Since the world was under the reign of sin and Satan’s power, Jesus came to free men and women and to establish a relationship between God and man. 

One of the Church Fathers, Clement of Alexandria (150-210) explained that, until the Incarnation, the devil ruled in the world without any discipline. Yet, through the cross, Christ loosed the chains of sin that had held humans captive.[4] 

The classical view of Atonement has several facets to it. The essential component of this view is that the Atonement is accomplished by God: God began it and God carried it out. Another critical feature is the close, even inseparable, relationship between the Incarnation and Atonement. Finally is the idea that God’s agape love is the force that removes the punishment due to man because of his sin, as well as the force that recreates the relationship between God and creation. In the classical view, God is both the Reconciler and the Reconciled.[5]

This classical idea of the Atonement dominated early Church and Greek patristic thought from Irenaeus to John of Damascus and signifies the basic ideology ever since in the Greek Orthodox Church.[6] 

The Church Fathers describe the Incarnation and Redemption as the way to both reverse the effects of sin and to draw humankind into the relational love of the Trinity. The classical view asserts that it was necessary for God to accomplish the Atonement via the Incarnation and death of the Lord. John of Damascus explains that if God redeemed humankind by force, “The tyrant [Satan] would have had cause of complaint, if after he had gained dominion over men, he had been compelled by force to give them up. Therefore God, who sympathizes with men and loves them, and desires to proclaim the vanquished as victors, becomes man…”[7]

With regard to the dynamic between Satan and God, the classical view does not settle on one specific concept. Instead, the early Church Fathers combined many ideas of the devil. 

For example, some espoused a “judicial” view that God paid a ransom price to Satan in allowing Jesus to die on the cross. Others held a “political” view that the devil lost his earthly kingdom because he abused his rights over Christ, whom he had no authority over. This political view involves the idea that the devil was deceived.[8] Those holding this view declare that the devil was enticed by Christ’s humanity on the cross. Like a fish seizing its bait along with the deadly hook, the devil consumed Jesus whole, including His humanity. Thus, the life of divinity dwelled in death and this light shone through the darkness, with the end result that life overcame death. 

God did not engage in chicanery, but this dynamic transpired because of the order of reality He had created. Satan had freely chosen to revolt against God and, in doing so, lost God’s light. Thus, he could not perceive God in the human person of Jesus. In the end, the devil deceived himself.[9]

Regardless of which analogies are employed or the specific details of how this transpired, all of these are different expressions of the same idea: through the cross, Jesus conquered Satan.

In the classical view, the cross has cosmic effects. Saint Maximus Confessor had said that humans were created last by God because they were destined to connect the two opposite poles of creation and God. He explained that there were five entities that humans were meant to unite. These consisted of: male and female, paradise and earth, earthly beings and heavenly beings, sensible and intellectual realities, and finally creation and God. 

Though God meant humans to unite these dichotomies and move closer to their Creator, they abused the power God bestowed upon them, severing the unity of creation. God became man to restore the fissure created; Jesus united these five entities in His Incarnation and Passion.[10] Saint John Damascus accordingly comments, “His gracious will has joined together all things in His only-begotten Son.”[11]

Thus, the classical view envisions the cross as reconciliation, not just between God and humanity, but between God and His creation in its entirety.

The classical view is broad and grander in another sense: it sets Jesus’ life on earth within the greater context of a battle with Satan. In this understanding, the antagonism that Jesus faced, such as the hard-heartedness and animosity of the Jewish and Roman rulers, was actually the efforts of Satan attempting to derail Christ’s mission. Fridrichsen concurs, “It would seem to be incontrovertible that behind this hostility Jesus saw the great Adversary, and that this conviction shaped His thoughts of His coming death. It took the form of the realization both His death was inevitable and that it would mean deliverance and victory; Satan’s triumphs would be his undoing.”[12] 

While the classical view focuses on Christ’s victory over Satan, it details that this victory does not mean death and sin are completely eradicated, though it does signify that Jesus definitively defeated the devil and that His triumph is universal.[13] Accordingly, the cross is not the finale, but the start of the process of redemption.[14] All evil will be thoroughly eradicated at Jesus’ Second Coming.[15]

One of the many strengths of the classical view is that it has strong Scriptural support. The struggle between God and evil is a central theme in the Scriptures. In fact, the New Testament presents its readers with one choice: follow God or follow Satan. Jeffrey Burton Russell writes in The Prince of Darkness: Radical Evil and the Power of Good in History, “The devil in the New Testament is not tangential to the fundamental message, not a mere symbol. The saving mission of Christ can be fully understood only in terms of opposition to the Devil. That is the whole point of the New Testament…”[16] 

While the Gospels do not describe what evil is or why there is evil, they do aptly demonstrate an event when God confronts evil head-on, namely, the cross.[17] The New Testament contains a wide range of interpretation on the devil, but does concur on a basic sense of Satan. The devil was created by God, but became a fallen angel and, as such, opposes God and His Kingdom in this world. Satan opposes Christ, who came for the distinct purposes of destroying the devil and establishing the Kingdom of God. 

Critiques of the classical view may raise issue with the dualistic nuances of this view. Though there are components of dualism present, even in the Gospels, it is key to recall the main belief that God alone created the world and, even though the world is corrupted by sin, by nature the world is truly good. Satan, though the prince of this world, is himself a creature of God.[18]

The Gospels serve as a powerful explanation of the Atonement. They encourage a theology of the cross that acknowledges evil in all its forms (social, political, moral, personal, etc.) had reached a zenith. Simultaneously, God’s plan to redeem and save His people reached its climatic realization in Christ. 

As the Gospel story unfolds, it is evident that good and evil are not divided between Jesus and His disciples on the one hand and everyone else on the other. Rather, Satan is active and present among even those closest to Jesus. Judas betrays Christ; Jesus calls Peter, “Satan”; Thomas doubts; James and John vie for primary place; all beside John and the women desert Jesus after He is arrested.[19] 

Satan, as a parasite of the human race, employs all means to seduce Jesus from obediently carrying out the Father’s Will. This is the very reason why Jesus calls Peter “Satan” after the disciple rebukes Jesus, insisting that the Lord need not die (Mark 8:32-33).[20]

In whatever manner Satan manifested himself, from the beginning to the end of Christ’s mission, Scripture attests that the Lord confronts the devil. One of the most illuminating passages portraying this clash of kingdoms occurs in the opening verses of Mark when Jesus is driven by the Spirit into the desert, where He remains for forty days and is tempted by Satan (1:12-13). Jesus’ initial victory in the desert readies Him for proclaiming the Kingdom of God and foreshadows His total victory over Satan in the cross.[21]

This pericope is valuable as well because it fashions a powerful allusion to the Genesis story. Whereas Adam and Eve were tested and failed, Jesus is tested and remains faithful. The conflict in the desert is escalated in the Gospel of Matthew as Satan boasts to Jesus that he has power over all kingdoms (4:9). However, after His death and Resurrection, Jesus proclaims, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (28:18).[22] 

Also in Matthew’s version, Satan offensively challenges Jesus’ identity and vocation as God’s Son. In two of three temptations, Satan queries, “If you are the Son of God…” (4:3,6), directly calling into question the Father’s proclamation during Jesus’ baptism, “This is my beloved Son” (3:17).[23] Jesus identifies Himself as the obedient Son of God when He responds, “It is written: ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and Him alone shall you serve’” (4:10).

Satan’s main aim in his conflict with Jesus is to prevent the spread and growth of God’s Kingdom. One of his key tactics of obstruction is possession. In response, Jesus declares war on Satan’s kingdom through His exorcisms; “If I drive out demons by the power of God it is because the kingdom of God is come among you,” He declares in Matthew 12:28. Russell comments, “Each act of exorcism represented one installment of the destruction of the old age, one step closer to the time when Satan will no longer control the world.”[24]

Indeed, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus clearly announces the Kingdom of God specifically by His healings, exorcisms, and mighty deeds. The Kingdom of God begins to overthrow the rule of Satan.[25]

Matthew’s Gospel in particular illustrates the conflict between Satan and Jesus. Though most explicit is the struggle between Jesus and Israel’s leadership, underlying this is the more critical battle between God and Satan. In his book New Testament Christology, Frank J. Matera presents the plot statement of Matthew’s gospel as, “God sends Jesus to save His people from their sins by inaugurating the kingdom of heaven…Aware that the kingdom of heaven will destroy his rule, Satan tries to prevent Jesus from accomplishing this mission.”[26] 

In Matthew’s Gospel, people belong to Christ or Satan; they are “children of the kingdom’ or “children of the evil one” (13:38) depending on how they react to Jesus. For example, the religious leaders actually cooperate with Satan when they accuse Jesus of rebuking demons by Beelzebul in 12:24. 

Jesus further reveals the contrast between His kingdom and Satan’s kingdom in this pericope when He responds that if He is collaborating with Satan, then Satan is ultimately wrecking his own kingdom. Matera remarks, “The messianic Son of God is laying waste Satan’s powers by inaugurating God’s rule.”[27] 

The opposing kingdoms in Matthew also relate to the parable of the weeds among wheat (13:24-30). The one who sows good seed is Christ while the devil sows bad seed. Accordingly, the wheat represents the children of the Kingdom of God and the weeds are the children of the enemy. Currently, the kingdoms exist simultaneously, but at the end, Jesus proclaims He will come to separate the two.[28]

This conflict between Jesus and Satan that has marked His ministry comes to its head at the crucifixion. N. T. Wright describes this moment as, “The point where the evil of the world does all it can and where the Creator of the world does all that He can.”[29] 

Before the Last Supper, Luke markedly details, “Then Satan entered into Judas...” (22:3) and, during the supper, Jesus forewarns, “…Behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat…” (22:31). The devil’s influence pervades the next scene: while in the garden of Gethsemane Jesus speaks of the “power of darkness” (Luke 22:53) immediately preceding His arrest. These references indicate “an awareness that on that night in particular evil was being given a scope, a free reign, to do its worst in ways for which the soldiers, the betrayer, the muddled disciples and the corrupt court were merely long-range outworkings.”[30] 

Judas leaving the Last Supper

The next day, the bystanders observing Jesus suffering on the cross chastise Him, echoing verbatim the words Satan had spoken in the desert as he tempted Jesus, “If you are the Son of God…” (Matthew 27:40). All throughout the Passion, as the violence escalates, evil becomes more and more potent. 

On the surface level, it is the political evil and power games of the world that crucify Jesus. Yet, lurking behind political schemes and conniving is the darker force of Satan. While the Sanhedrin, Pontius Pilate, and Caiaphas accuse Jesus, evil accuses creation as a whole. In this light, as the classical view asserts, the crucifixion of Christ means redemption for all of creation, a victory God had deigned since the time of Abraham.[31]

The Gospels, all throughout this assault of evil against creation, portray Jesus as unwaveringly obedient to His Father. Jesus’ reaction is even more astounding when compared to other Biblical witnesses. Jesus did not rebel or threaten the evil that opposed Him, but forgave. This is a dramatic reversal of traditional Old Testament stories of Jewish martyrs such as those depicted in 2 Maccabees 7 where the protagonists call vengeance upon the wrongdoers who have harmed them.[32] Matera comments, “Jesus’ passion is the final testing of the Son of God. As Satan tested the obedience of God’s Son in the wilderness, the Passion tests the determination of the Son to fulfill His messianic destiny.”[33] In this final epic showdown, Jesus is tested and emerges victorious.

While the Gospels affirm the classical view of the Atonement as Christ’s victory over Satan, the book of Revelation also lends support. The underlying story of Revelation, like the Gospels, is one of conflict between God and Satan with Christ playing the pivotal role through His death. Revelation demonstrates through its powerful symbolism that while Satan is still an active accuser in the world today, his power was destroyed at the crucifixion and, at the end of time when Christ returns, the victory won in the cross will be fully experienced. 

Revelation demonstrates the efficacy of Christ’s death when it attributes the reason why Saint Michael the Archangel and the other angels were able to expel Satan from heaven (12:7-9) to the cross. The heavenly voices rejoice, “…The accuser of our brothers is cast out, who accuses them before our God day and night. They conquered him by the blood of the Lamb…” (12:10-11). When the slaughtered Lamb returns, He will bring an eschatological victory. Matera states, “The victory of God has already been won, even though it has not been fully worked out in history.”[34]

Thus, as affirmed in the Gospels and in the book of Revelation, throughout His whole ministry Jesus confronted Satan and, on the cross, met the enemy head-on, experiencing evil in its full force. Yet, through His Resurrection, Jesus has triumphed over Satan and death no longer reigns. 

To those who are skeptical and wary about a view that gives Satan such a predominate role in the train of events, Wright states, “The story the Gospels are trying to tell is a story in which evil and its deadly power are taken utterly seriously, over and against the tendency in many quarters today to cling on to an older liberal idea that there wasn’t really very much wrong with the world or with human beings in the first place.”

Scripture supports the classical view of the Atonement.  Next time, I will focus on the many Patristics who also supported this understanding of the cross.

[1] Aulén, ix.
[2] Wright, 95.
[3] Carroll and Green, 258.
[4] Russell, 44, 75-76.
[5] Aulén, 34-35.
[6] Aulén, 37.
[7] Quoted in Aulén, 45.
[8] Aulén, 36.
[9] Kereszty, 210.
[10] Kereszty, 217.
[11] Saint John Damascus, “Homily on Transfiguration,” quoted in Kereszty, 218.
[12] Fridrichsen, “The Conflict of Jesus with the Unclean Spirits,” quoted in Aulén, 76.
[13] Aulén, 59.
[14] Wright, 98-99.
[15] Aulén, 76.
[16] Russell, 44, 51.
[17] Wright, 93.
[18] Russell, 49.
[19] Wright, 79, 82.
[20] Russell, 47.
[21] Frank J. Matera, New Testament Christology (Kentukcy: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 9.
[22] Wright, 109, 111.
[23] Matera, 31.
[24] Russell, 45, 47.
[25] Matera, 11.
[26] Matera, 27.
[27] Matera, 27, 31, 36.
[28] Matera, 37.
[29] Wright, 92.
[30] Wright, 81.
[31] Wright, 83.
[32] Wright, 82-83, 88-89.
[33] Matera, 42.
[34] Matera, 204, 211-212.