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.

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