Sunday, December 21, 2014

A5. In his death, Jesus defeated the power of death.

This is the fifth post in a section on atonement in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first set had to do with God and Creation, and I have also finished a section on Christology.
A5. In his death, Jesus defeated the power of death.

One of the approaches to atonement is the idea that, in his death, Jesus defeated the powers of death and the Devil. It is sometimes called the "Christus Victor" approach, "Christ the victor." [1]

Probably the most explicit form of this idea is found in Hebrews: "Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil" (2:14, NRSV). Similarly, 1 Corinthians 15:55: "Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?"

According to Aulén, this was the oldest approach, the one that dominated until the time of Anselm, when the idea of Jesus satisfying God's wrath and justice became dominant. Prior to that point, he argued, the idea of Jesus paying a ransom through his death dominated.

We do find ransom language in the New Testament. Mark 10:45 says, "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (NRSV). Of course this is a metaphor. Those church fathers who thought of Jesus "paying off" the Devil's ransom were taking the metaphor too far and going way beyond the biblical texts.

It is hard to know exactly what passages like Hebrews 2:14 and 1 Corinthians 15:55 might mean literally other than the fact that God in his authority chose to stop allowing Satan's power to exert itself rampantly through the world by virtue of Christ's death. By virtue of Christ's death, God has chosen to put to an end this situation where death is the final answer.

Of course this end has only begun. In God's will, death continues and Satan continues to wreak havoc on the earth. But his death was the turning point, the beginning of the end. His resurrection is the victory. His reign is now and not yet. It has commenced and will reach its full form upon his return to the earth from heaven. Then there will be no more death, and Satan will disappear forever.

In his death, Jesus defeated the power of death and inaugurated the beginning of the end for Satan's power on the earth. His defeat of death means the resurrection of all, some to everlasting life and some to everlasting contempt (Dan. 12:2).

Next week: S1. God was reaching out to us far before we knew it.

[1] The expression, "Christus Victor" comes from Gustav Aulén, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, trans. by A. G. Herber (London: SPCK, 1931.

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