The victory of God is not a schizophrenic victory over himself; it is a victory over death and its author, the devil. It is a great reconciliation; the warm embrace of the prodigal son.
During both Great Lent and Holy Week, Orthodox Christians hear some of the most deeply profound words ever uttered. And through these hymns, readings, canons, and psalms, we discover more fully the breadth of our redemption in Jesus Christ. The liturgical life of the Church is catechetical, and this experience is deifying, as well—for those who would cooperate with him.
It is in this time of year that we discover the true meaning behind why Jesus died on the Cross. Since we venerate even the Cross itself in multiple services during this season, its importance in our salvation story cannot be ignored. It is on the Cross and in Christ’s triumph over death that our redemption is accomplished.
But how? And what is the nature of Christ’s victory?
In other religions, gods are in no way kind, merciful, or long-suffering. Zeus was incestuous and committed acts of rape (e.g. Europa), while demanding animal sacrifice to appease his wrath. The pagan cults encountered by the ancient Hebrews—as recorded in the Old Testament—show both adult and infant sacrifice, ecstatic displays, and other forms of sacrificial offerings, all for the sake of satisfying the anger of their various deities.
And while some Christians since the Reformation have come to characterize the Father in similar ways, it is without warrant. Propitiation, in the pagan sense of the word, is a thoroughly pagan concept; it is not the story we find in God through his Son.
What we see in the old covenant, for example, is a purification of God’s people—not a satisfaction of God’s ‘wrath’ or ‘justice’—through both sacrifice and prayer. The community of Israel was purified by these sacrifices, and their sins were both cleansed and removed from among them (Heb. 9:13). This is why, in English, ‘expiation’ is now more commonly used for not only the sacrifice of the Jewish temple, but also now the sacrifice, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—the true temple of Israel.
Jesus becomes the ‘mercy seat’ (hilasterion) of God’s people, since the blood of animals accomplishes nothing (Heb. 10:4). Through Christ, we are made pure; through Christ, we are both sanctified and deified; through Christ, we are made to be true and complete human beings; through Christ, we experience the true Passover, a walk through the depths of hades itself, emerging unscathed on the other side of death (this is why we walk below the kouvouklion on the evening of Great and Holy Friday).
The purpose of Christ’s atonement has been the subject of much speculation and debate over the centuries. Over time, several different viewpoints have been offered.
While much of Protestantism has recently adopted a broadly ‘legal’ theory of the atonement (through the initial work of trained lawyers), this has never been dominant among the Eastern fathers, nor within the hymns and canons of the Orthodox Church. This is not to say that a legal dimension is to be completely ignored—it is not—but that it has never been central.
Another is what’s called the ‘Ransom theory,’ where the purpose of Christ’s death is to appease the demons and Satan. In this, a ‘propitiatory’ act is not for the sake of God the Father, but for the devil. This perspective can certainly be found within the Orthodox tradition.
For example, the eirmos of the sixth Canon on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the first Sunday of Great Lent:
The Church which is purified from the blood offered to demons
By the blood which flowed in mercy from Your side
Cries aloud to you, O Lord:
I will offer you a sacrifice of praise.
Even here, the sacrifice is the purification of God’s people, a far cry from ‘propitiation’ in both paganism and certain forms of heterodox Christianity. This ransom theory is also found in the narrative of C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, with the self-sacrifice of Aslan.
A third theory, common among Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and even many Lutherans today, is what’s now called Christus Victor. As far back as the second century, Christian chalices, churches—and eventually even the shields and banners of the Roman Empire—were branded with a simple Greek insignia:
This is an abbreviated way of saying, ‘Jesus Christ, the Conqueror,’ or ‘Jesus Christ is Victorious.’ For the Church, this approach to Christ’s death on the Cross and his third-day resurrection has always been paramount. Jesus came to bind the strong-man, Satan (Matt. 12:29; Mark 3:27), and to put an end to his reign of terror (John 12:31; 14:30). He came to destroy the “god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4) and all his works, and to crush the very gates of death itself.
Through Christ first (Acts 10:38), and then his apostles and their successors, the forces of darkness were rendered naught. In our mysteries are innumerable victories over the kingdom of Satan—which is no doubt one of the reasons why, in Baptism, the catechumen (or an infant’s sponsors) spit upon Satan himself, as one confesses the true faith.
On Holy Saturday, the Church makes it plain in Her hymns that Christ descends to hades in order to make war against the forces of evil, defeating death by his own death.
And thus, the Paschal hymn:
Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death-by-death;
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life.
There was a real ‘zombie apocalypse’ on the night Jesus was crucified, as the graves opened wide and the fallen saints of old were walking the earth. Christ had won their victory in his death, since death cannot conquer Life itself. The Gospel hope moved with power even to the deepest recesses of the earth.
In his letter to the Hebrews, the apostle Paul eloquently summarizes the purpose of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection:
For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin . . . Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage . . . Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.
Christ became man, so that man could become as God. He condescended and walked this earth so that we might become by Grace what he is by nature. He suffered not so that we wouldn’t have to, but so that we can handle suffering along with him (Rom. 8:17; 2 Cor. 1:6; 1 Tim. 4:10; 1 Thess. 3:4).
We glorify Christ’s incarnation, death, descent into hades, and third-day resurrection, not because he appeased the wrath of himself, but because he willingly laid down his life for his friends (John 15:13)—and all this, because God is love (1 John 4:8,16). While we were yet sinners, he died for us (Rom. 5:8). The Great Physician came not to save the righteous, but the lost, the sinful, and the suffering (Matt. 9:13; Mark 2:17), calling us to true repentance (Luke 5:32).
There is not a schizophrenic dilemma in the holy Trinity with the Divine will at war against himself—one desiring the destruction of humanity, and the other wishing for our release. No, our loving and long-suffering God came to save all, and desires that this take place (2 Peter 3:9). In his death and resurrection is an open and universal invitation for all who might lay hold (John 3:16–17).
But since he cannot violate our own free will—since if we have no free will, then Christ would have none either, being fully and truly man—we are left with a choice: to follow Christ in his sufferings and glorification on the Last Day, or to live for ourselves, and be left to our own devices—to be left to “the wrath of God” (Rom. 1:24–32).
The victory of God is a great wedding feast at the end of the age (Rev. 19:9). The arrangements are set, but we must bring our wedding garments (Matt. 22:1–14).
The victory of God is a victory over death and its power. And any applicable or even proper ‘theories’ of the atonement must be held in servitude to this core belief—otherwise, they are not Christian at all.