I ended my last post with the conclusion of the writer to the Hebrews’ exposition of Psalm 8, which introduces Satan into the picture of man’s temporary subordination to the angels, and his glorification by the work of Christ. The mention suggests that Satan has particular relevance to the relationship between mankind, angels and divine glory:
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
I also mentioned an old book that influenced the academy a lot, but not grassroots Christianity, Christus Victor by Gustav Aulén. Very briefly, he re-examined the main theories of atonement, casting the earliest explanations of Christ’s work in a positive light, and reinstating the importance of seeing the cross as a victory over the powers of evil enslaving mankind. Starting with the old “Ransom Theory” he removed some elements he found objectionable, and arrived at what is known as the “Christus Victor” theory of atonement. This victory over evil is actually a prominent New Testament theme, especially in Paul, which often gets strangely sidelined in our thinking.
In the form I’ve mainly seen it in recent years, I’ve not been much attracted to the Christus Victor theme, because it’s been a popular choice of people rewriting theology in the light of evolution, who hold a bias against the existence of personal forces of evil. The tendency is, in these schemes, to paint them in terms of the kenotic incarnation and death of Christ winning over our created evolutionary heritage of selfishness, somehow teaching the world that self-giving is everything.
This actually renders the evil to be defeated God’s own work of creation. And since it does not really mesh with other themes found in Scripture and theology, notably substitutionary punishment and propitiatory sacrifice, these are simply jettisoned. It has to be said that Aulén himself also treated his “Classical Approach” as an either/or choice intended to displace other aspects of atonement.
But in the New Testament’s authentic Christus Victor theology, the victory is essentially, and specifically, over the wiles of the devil and his angelic followers (“powers and authorities in the heavenly realms”) in causing sin, in order to destroy humanity. It needs Satan to embody the evil that Christ conquers by death and resurrection. Also, it is wrong to emphasise it over against other aspects of the atonement, for it depends on them, which I will attempt to show.
It may help, at this stage, to see what is said in Scripture about Satan’s primary motivations. Starting with the deutero-canonical Wisdom, from (it is thought) just before the New Testament period, we read:
…for God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it. Wisdom 2.23-24
The question then is, of whom did the Jews consider Satan to be envious? Jesus says:
“He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” Jn 8:44
“In the beginning” usually seems to carry the implication of “as Scripture describes the beginning”, so that Jesus is here alluding to the garden, in the first place confirming that the serpent is indeed to be identified as Satan, and secondly that his deception had as its motive murder. Putting that together with the Book of Wisdom’s “envy”, we get a divine being consumed with envy of Adam, and using lies and deception with murderous intent. The “murder” would, of course, be achieved by the knowledge that God had ordained death as the penalty for eating from the tree of knowledge: it is comparable to how hatred might cause someone frame a man of a capital offence, so that the judicial system itself becomes the murder weapon.
This seems to endorse the common “demonological” interpretation of Ezekiel’s lament over the king of Tyre (Ezek. 28:11ff), that the prophet is using an expansion of the Eden narrative as a metaphor for an earthly king’s sin, suggesting that (a) the serpent was actually a guardian cherub, ie one of the elohim, and so had a legitimate reason for being in the garden as a member of the divine council, and (b) that his sin only arose within the garden in relation to Adam, of whom he was jealous.
The exposition Hebrews 2 gives of Psalm 8, covered in the last post, gives a good motivation for this envy: a proud and glorious divine being, foremost amongst God’s creation, realises that lowly man is also to be granted access to wisdom and eternal life. Satan already has the former (Ezek. 28:12, Gen 3:5, taking elohim as generic), and assumes he has the latter by inalienable right – but see Psalm 82. Now, a mere creature of dust is to be “promoted over his head”.
In a former post I mentioned the story in Esther of Mordecai and Haman regarding Satan’s jealousy of man. But one might also compare the story of Daniel and Darius in Daniel 6, in which courtiers jealous of the “upstart Jew” Daniel induce the king to make a law that they know will entrap Daniel, through his religious observance. The edict Darius makes (in this case by cunning inducement) gives Daniel’s enemies a legal right over his death, because of the immutability of “the law of the Medes and the Persians”.
Darius could not simply punish the accusers for their malice, since Daniel was legally guilty. And he could not, without impugning his own justice, simply let Daniel off. Consequently Daniel paid the judicial penalty of exposure in the lions’ den, but was spared from the lions by God, and Darius was then free to punish the accusers for their own wrongs in like manner.
Analogously, Satan had the power over human death described in Hebrews 2 only because God had decreed death to Adam for sin. His power lay only in his ability to accuse before God (“satan”, of course, means “accuser”), though of course he also remained a tempter of those already held under the sway of inherent sin.
Satan could not be justly and finally punished for his malice whilst mankind was not justly and finally punished for disobedience. God was in “moral debt”, as it were, to punish man, not because Satan was owed anything whatsoever, but because the devil and the other “powers” were witnesses to God’s just sentence on Adam’s seed.
So when Christ, effectively representing the human race, died, Satan no longer had an accusation against the race that they had sinned but not been justly punished, and his own defence – the non-punishment of mankind – fell, so that his own fate is sealed.
Loosely, this might be seen as paying the ransom of a slave – and “ransom” is certainly one of the words used of the atonement in Scripture. Satan gets what he has long desired – but discovers through the resurrection (in experience, if he had not already had some sense of foreboding!) that the Cross condemns him, and not sinful mankind. That sounds awfully like the ransom theory, and moreover appears the perfect narrative denouement of the Fall story in Genesis.
However, to pay such a ransom and defeat Satan, everything hinges on God’s finding a way for his own justice to be seen to be served. that would defeat Satan’s malevolence towards man. Unlike Darius’s foolish law, God’s command and warning to Adam were just and righteous, and the devil could only be defeated if God’s just sentence was actually, and publically, fulfilled in the death of Christ. So Christus Victor, in the form of the Ransom Theory, is incomplete without an account in terms of God’s retributive justice, lest God himself be undermining the divine moral order underlying Creation.
And this condition is met through the other key theme of atonement – substitionary punishment. The death of Christ prevents death coming to us. God’s judicial sentence in the garden is death for Adam’s race: Christ in the gospels “tastes death for everyone” – that’s penal substitution, or propitiatory sacrifice.
In other words there are two separate but related problems to be solved by the atonement – the meeting of God’s justice, and the defeat of evil spiritual powers. Three problems, if we also include how these can bring forgiveness and reconciliation to you and me.
The last is solved only by a true spiritual union of the sinner with Christ, through faith, achievinging solidarity both with his death, and with his glorified life. What is his becomes ours, and ours his – we are in Christ, as we were formerly in Adam. And that, of course, is the other key Pauline theme that has been so seldom understood, even by the New Testament scholars, if N T Wright is to be believed: that our salvation depends primarily on being “in Christ”.
So God’s own justice must be served because God is just, and because he set the penalty in the garden. Satan’s hold over man is only God’s own justice, and so that must be satisfied not only for God’s own righteousness’s sake, but to demonstrate his justice to the powers and principalities, as Paul writes, so disarming them. Christ’s death is therefore substitutionary (because in our place), penal (because fulfilling God’s righteous edict) and a ransom (because it looses Satan’s hold over us, and liberates God’s justice over Satan and the powers).
One might even wave a flag for the Moral Influence theory, in that the self-sacrifice of Jesus is the model on which redeemed man should live, and on which the power structures in the New Creation are founded. It does not, however, redeem – that is something far more direct and potent.
I hope you’ll see how thinking along these lines makes the whole of “salvation history”, from Genesis 3 to the Gospel, one interwoven tapestry. And it also makes that salvation history part of the even bigger narrative that the Bible gives us about the Creation. Contra Galileo, the Bible does not simply tell us how to go to heaven – it tells us how Creation was achieved by, through and for Christ, on behalf of that ambiguously beastly and angelic creation – our own race.