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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Why Did Jesus Die? Part 3: V-E Day

Updated: Jun 26, 2023

This is Part 3 in a 6-part Lent/Easter series on Jesus' death. See the Introduction, Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, and Conclusion.

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He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

~Colossians 2:15 NRSVA~

When I first began to struggle with penal substitution (see Introduction and Part 2), I was also beginning to read the Church Fathers, the earliest theologians and leaders of the church in the centuries following the New Testament. Penal substitution was occasionally present in their thought, but it was not their primary theme. They emphasized the biblical theme of Christ's victory on the cross, defeating Satan [1], sin, suffering, and death. This struck me during a season when I was not sure God could love me and, in my ongoing struggles with sin, could not emotionally get past the sense of a penalty for my sin to even see Jesus' substitution. Christus Victor, as this early model is called, clearly showed Jesus doing battle with the things that weighed me down and defeating them so that I could see victory in my own life. This resonated with me for a long time, until I began dating my wife, a nurse, during the COVID-19 pandemic. As she wrestled with the scale of death she witnessed in her day-to-day job, Christus Victor felt trite. Could I say Jesus had the victory over all evil with so much of it still in the world? After witnessing continued racial injustice, fierce political divisions, a large-scale war in Ukraine, and living through the pandemic, Christus Victor is due for an honest look. Can we still say Jesus accomplished victory in the world?

For the early Church, it was important that Jesus' death was not a victory of force and power, but one of justice [2]. For many early Church Fathers, this largely comes about through tricking the devil. The main image they preferred was that of a fish hook. Satan was baited with a human being as a ransom for humanity, but when he latched on to Jesus and claimed Him in death, underneath was the hook of Jesus' divinity that snared the devil. They developed this metaphor from Job 41:1, where God says, "Can you draw out Leviathan with a fish-hook, or press down its tongue with a cord?" (NRSVA). They saw Leviathan as a symbol of Satan and developed an explanation of how Jesus' death showed God catching him with a fish hook. It also drew on Jesus' words in Matthew 12:40. "For just as Jonah was for three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth". Jesus says, "sea monster" rather than "fish", as Jonah 1:17 calls it, possibly hinting at the monster Leviathan. These two verses together furnished the basis for the analogy of Jesus' humanity as bait and His divinity as the hook which snared the devil. Other Church Fathers highlighted that when Jesus' eternal nature touched death, it would cancel death out. They still used the fish hook image but highlighted how it deceived death rather than Satan [3]. Martin Luther later used this same image and added a further biblical basis in Psalm 22:6 that, in its prediction of Jesus' death, portrays Him as a "worm": "But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people" [4].

For contemporary Christians, this idea of divine deception in the atonement is less familiar for a variety of reasons. First, it seems biblically strange to see Satan deceived since, in the Gospels, the demons seem to be the ones who best know who He is, and Satan seems to try to keep Jesus from the cross [5]. One demon testified, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God" [6]. Second, the image the early Church Fathers developed of God "blood-baiting" a "salivating Satan" in a "cosmic sting operation" seems more like a grotesque myth when taken too literally [7]. Third, deception seems out of accord with God's character [8] when Scripture says, "It is impossible that God would prove false" [9]. Fourth, various theologians, including Church Fathers, Medievals, and modern theologians, argue that Satan, as a fellow creature, has no rights over humanity that God needs to ransom [10]. Fifth, the Protestant Reformation emphasized penal substitution and its judicial framework and did not leave much room for Christus Victor in Protestant theology [11]. Sixth, the Enlightenment rejected the unseen world and left no room for a devil who needed to be defeated [12]. Finally, views of God's sovereignty that view God as completely determining everything that happens do not leave room for any real warfare since everything is planned ahead of time [13].

While not a familiar theme to most contemporary Christians, it is not wholly outside our imaginations, thanks to the creativity of C. S. Lewis. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the lion, Aslan, a figure of Jesus, returns to Narnia to restore the land that is rightfully his but is ruled by the White Witch. A boy named Edmund repents of betraying his siblings to the White Witch and returned to Aslan. Yet the White Witch accuses Edmund of treason before Aslan [14], filling the same role as Satan in Zechariah 3. Per the laws of the Deep Magic, she can claim "that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill" [15]. His guilt gives her a right to him, similar to the logic of Colossians 2:13-15 where humanity's IOU for sin gives evil power over humanity. The Deep Magic cannot be ignored for "unless I have blood as the Law says all Narnia will be overturned and perish in fire and water" [16]. Justice must happen for Edmund's betrayal and denying the law of the Deep Magic would leave Narnia guilty of protecting treason, creating consequences for them all. To fulfill the Deep Magic, the White Witch renounces her claim on Edmund [17] because Aslan offered his life to her instead [18], following the logic of penal substitution [19]. Yet the next morning, Aslan is found raised to life again. His explanation is "that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know...When a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor's stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward" [20]. Aslan's victory comes through a form of deception by the Witch's ignorance of the Deeper Magic, rather than ignorance of divinity, as in the early Church Fathers. Despite this difference, it is an image of divine trickery in the atonement within our shared Christian imagination joined with the more familiar logic of penal substitution [21].

Beyond The Chronicles of Narnia, real-world history inspired a return of the Christus Victor model. The two world wars of the 20th century shocked the modern world with the sheer scale of evil and shattered the naive optimism of the Enlightenment. In the face of such evil, Christus Victor returned to show Christ's victory over evil that the Western world had forgotten it needed [22]. Also, starting in 1906, the Charismatic Movement reminded the Western church of the reality of demonic and spiritual warfare and proclaimed its own form of Christus Victor [23].

If we integrate the model of Christus Victor, we need to grapple with the challenge of divine deception. Can a God of truth be said to deceive the devil? This isn't merely a modern question but was a challenge for the Church Fathers who developed it. One such thinker, Gregory of Nyssa, argued that in God's justice, it is fitting to deceive the Deceiver. It is just for the devil to taste his own medicine. On that note, he also argued the ends justified the means, like when someone hides medicine in food to bring healing. The deception of Jesus accomplished our healing [24]. His first argument came into play in the years since the Holocaust when ethicists argued it was righteous for individuals to deceive the Nazis to protect vulnerable Jews during one of the worst evils humanity has perpetrated [25]. The Bible, in several challenging passages such as 1 Kings 22:22; Ezekiel 14:9, presents God as involved in deceiving false prophets. So while divine deception is uncomfortable in light of how Scripture presents God, divine deception is present in Scripture [26].

1 Corinthians 2:8 adds another dimension: "None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory" (NRSVA). Evil itself is blind and unable to understand God's loving action, a reality that aided God's plan of salvation [27]. So while demons may recognize who Jesus is in passages such as Mark 1:24, already quoted, they don’t know why Jesus has come [28]. Scripture presents the wisdom of the cross as veiled, "But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory" [29]. As such, it is easy for evil to deceive itself, not understanding the way God works [30].

As for Satan himself, we already mentioned instances that seem to show Satan seeking to keep Jesus from the cross, suggesting that, contrary to divine deception, Satan did know what Jesus was there to accomplish. This is only a partial picture. John 13:27 shows Satan actively involved in driving the events behind the crucifixion. Throughout the Gospel narratives, Satan behaves in contradictory ways, sometimes trying to thwart Jesus from the cross, at others actively driving Him to it [31]. A simple explanation for this is that evil is not an equal opposing force to good, but is nothingness [32]. Think of an analogy. Light is made up of waves and particles called photons. It is a thing that can be studied and measured. Darkness, on the other hand, is not a different kind of wave or photon. It is an absence of light waves and light photons. Darkness is not a thing the way light is. It is the nothingness left when light is not present. We measure darkness by how few photons of light are left or how quickly photons are absorbed and eliminated. Darkness does exist. We do experience it. But it is not a thing the way light is. Evil is similar. It is the nothingness left when goodness is not present. Even so, we can name particular things as evil based on how little goodness we see in actions, systems, decisions, and even people. Theologians think of evil "as a chaotic paradox, a powerful but ultimately irrational force that moves to sweep all things-perhaps itself included!-into a state of dissolution" [33]. Evil’s irrationality can explain Satan’s contradictory behavior and fits the patristic portrayal of his inability to resist a chance for a kill [34]. So we can see evil as irrational, unable to contain itself, and unable to understand the logic of God's love, a weakness God can use to His advantage against it. It serves as a just punishment for evil when the destruction it has unleashed on the world turns back onto itself.

In the models of the atonement, Christus Victor presents the telos or goal of the cross. It shows us who God is in His love, power, glory, and victory over all. The aim of the cross is not simply humanity's benefit but God's ultimate triumph in which He achieves the restoration of His creation project [35]. The Scriptures say,

It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. I will sanctify my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them; and the nations shall know that I am the Lord, says the Lord God, when through you I display my holiness before their eyes [36].

God does not exist to serve us. He is complete in Himself and created us out of the overflowing love that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit eternally share within the Godhead. He saves us as His creation. Nor does God need us, but we need Him. It is His glorious victory that reveals who He is and frees us. “In the Scriptures, God is the reward, the pleasure, and the treasure that one enjoys through a life of worship”, a life we can have because of God's self-vindication in Jesus' death [37].

We see the Godward focus of Jesus' victory all over Scripture. The night before His death, Jesus' prayer in John 17:1 was, "Glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you". Hebrews 12:2 highlights that the cross was on Jesus' path to glory. "Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God". Jesus, seated at God's right hand, is worshiped in Revelation 5:12 for His saving death: "Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!"

And now we return to the question I asked at the beginning of this blog that I still wrestle with. If Jesus' death was God's victory over evil, sin, suffering, Satan, and death, where is it? Scripture shows two stages to Christ's victory. Christus Victor marks the stage accomplished on the cross, but the final victory is not yet here. It will come at Jesus’ return [38]. "But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, ‘he sat down at the right hand of God’, and since then has been waiting ‘until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet'" [39]. Jesus' death (and resurrection) do not sum up His victory. The power of sin, evil, and death have been broken. Satan has no title to accuse God's people. And Jesus' victory is transforming us now (see Part 4, coming soon), but the eradication of sin, suffering, and death from His creation will be seen in His return, final judgment, and restoration of all things. So why does He wait? "The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance" [40]. God is patient with us, patient with those who know Him but whose discipleship is slow and comes about in fits and start, but also those who have not yet turned to Him. The long period between the two stages of Christ's victory is a sign of God's patience with us and during which we can look for His victory in our lives (see Part 4, coming soon) [41].

When we think about Christus Victor alongside the other models of atonement, remember that we can share Jesus' victory because He represents us, the logic of recapitulation (see Part 1). He accomplished His victory because He endured our penalty in our place, removing any accusatory right Satan had over us (see Part 2). We see His triumph in our lives through the cross' moral influence on us. Between the cross and the final judgment, Jesus' victory is specifically seen in us and in the transformation He brings to our lives (see Part 4, coming soon) [42].

To sum up, evil cannot understand the logic of God's self-giving love. God used this blindness and tricked Satan into biting at Jesus to defeat Him. But in so doing, all the injustice present in the event of Jesus' crucifixion brought about God's saving act of self-giving love that defeated all evil, a victory we presently enjoy in part and, one day, will fully experience. The result is God's victory over all evil. The only appropriate response is to worship.

In the comments, how does Jesus' victory over evil comfort you? What do you find challenging about it? How does it deepen your understanding of Jesus' death and Jesus' love for you?


[1] For the purpose of this blog, I cannot get into the question of Satan's existence. Throughout, I will assume the presence of a created figure referred to as Satan or the devil who plays a role in God's creation as the Accuser who also actively sows disorder and chaos in rebellion against God. For a more detailed discussion, see McNall, Joshua M. The Mosaic of Atonement: An Integrated Approach to Christ’s Work. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019), pp. 211-228.

[2] Ibid. p. 195.

[3] This whole paragraph draws on McNall, pp. 197-198. Also see McNall, pp. 114-119.

[4] Ibid. pp. 198-199.

[5] Ibid. p. 199, for example, Matthew 2:16-18; 4:1-11; 16:23.

[6] Mark 1:24 NRSVA.

[7] McNall, p. 199.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Hebrews 6:18 NRSVA.

[10] McNall, p. 200.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. pp. 200-201.

[13] Ibid. p. 201.

[14] Lewis, C. S. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. (New York: HarperCollins, 1950), p. 141.

[15] Ibid. p. 142.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid. p. 144.

[18] Ibid. p. 155.

[19] McNall, pp. 202-203.

[20] Lewis, p. 163.

[21] McNall, p. 203.

[22] Ibid. pp. 201-202.

[23] Ibid. p. 202.

[24] Ibid. pp. 199-200.

[25] Ibid. p. 208.

[26] Ibid. pp. 208-209.

[27] Ibid. p. 209.

[28] Ibid. p. 204.

[29] 1 Cor. 2:7 NRSVA.

[30] McNall, p. 209.

[31] Ibid. p. 205.

[32] Ibid. p. 207.

[33] Ibid. p. 208.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid. p. 233.

[36] Ezekiel 36:22-23 NRSVA.

[37] McNall, p. 237.

[38] Ibid. p. 245.

[39] Hebrews 10:12-13 NRSVA.

[40] 2 Peter 3:9 NRSVA.

[41] McNall, pp. 245-247.

[42] Ibid. p. 247.

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