The devil. Codex Gigas, c. 1220. By Herman the Recluse of the Benedictine monastery of Podlažice, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

This is the second in a series of four posts on the question ‘Did Jesus die for our sins?’ The first, introductory one, is here .

The Christian tradition has produced three main theories about this, and this post looks at the theory that says we won. Jesus, by dying, paid a ransom, and in that way achieved a victory. Mark 10:45:

the Son of Man came not to served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

So what you do if you’re a biblical scholar is, you look up the Greek word for ransom, and see where else that word occurs in Jewish literature. It gets used for freeing a slave, buying back prisoners of war, giving compensation for damages, buying back ancestral land and propitiating God when God is angry.

So Mark seems to be thinking of some kind of buying back. Elsewhere Mark describes Jesus as the agent of the Kingdom of God, plundering the Kingdom of Satan. Jesus is the strong man, stronger than Satan.

Mark used the word ransom once, and when Matthew copied chunks of Mark into his gospel, this text was included. Nowhere else in the New Testament does the word ‘ransom’ appear, and at first the image wasn’t used much.

This changed when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. You may have noticed that emperors and commanders of armies do like to win. They need enemies. So the idea that Christ won a victory over the powers of evil, incorporating some kind of ransom, became popular.

Gregory of Nyssa, a major theologian in the fourth century, explained. Christ’s sacrifice was a debt owed to the devil. Where did this debt come from? The Fall. When Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden ate the forbidden fruit, this put them in the power of the devil. This meant the entire human race was due to be damned for eternity. In order to liberate us, God came up with a trick. He offered the devil a swap. He offered to give Jesus to the devil as a ransom in exchange for humanity. The devil knew Jesus was born of a virgin and renowned as a miracle-worker, so he agreed.

The trick worked. What the devil did not realize was that Jesus, behind his human appearance, was also divine. This meant the devil couldn’t hold onto Jesus. Jesus could escape. As Gregory puts it, the devil was outwitted and caught ‘like a fish by the bait’.

Needless to say, other theologians were unhappy with the idea that the devil had any rights at all. In any case, isn’t God acting unjustly? No, replied Gregory. The devil was only getting his deserts, and in any case the devil would benefit in the long run, because at the final restoration of all things even the devil will be saved.

People differed over the details but this idea of ransom and victory remained popular for 700 years, until Anselm’s theory of substitution supplanted it. I’ll describe that next time.

The victory theory was revived in the twentieth century and today its most popular exponent is Tom Wright. Wright is unusual in that he combines it with substitutionary theory. I’m not really qualified to analyse his position but I think this text illustrates his position well:

It is not enough to analyze the causes of oppression and suffering in the world and to encourage people to stand up to them. Darker powers, unseen forces, are involved in these struggles… and only the belief that the principalities and powers have in fact been led as a bedraggled and defeated rabble in Christ’s triumphant procession will provide the right foundation for a true Christian political activity. (N T Wright and Marcus Borg, The Meaning of Jesus, London: SPCK, 1999, p. 106.)

Criticisms

1) History. Mark thought Jesus was defeating the supernatural forces of evil once and for all, and bringing in a new age when life on earth would be completely different: no more illness, no more death. Maybe he exaggerated, but if there was a victory Jesus should have actually made a real difference to the conditions of life, compared with what it was like before. Tom Wright thinks Jesus did make a difference, somehow, but he tells us he doesn’t know how. (Ibid., p. 106.)

2) The gods. Traditionally Christians have believed there is only one God, and God is not limited by any other spiritual forces. The idea of victory implies that there used to be evil forces opposing God, but they have been defeated now. So where did they come from? Why were they doing evil? Why did God wait so long before defeating them?

The problem is all the greater when we notice that the people who believe in the victory theme, like Tom Wright, treat these evil forces as very much alive and kicking today; otherwise, why do we still need to stand up to oppression? Cynics might say that the idea of Christ’s victory has the same appeal as those television cartoons where the baddie is defeated every time but reappears, as strong and confident as ever, at the beginning of the next episode. It’s as though we like to feel we won, but we also like to carry on fighting.

This series of posts is echoing talks and discussions at St Brides Liverpool. After the talk the congregation divides up into small groups and are given questions as discussion starters. Here you are:

    1. Do you think there are evil heavenly powers?

    2. Does the idea of Jesus winning a victory against evil heavenly powers make sense to you?

 3. Do you in your life feel threatened by invisible forces?