Christus Victor, the atonement motif centered upon Christ’s triumph over the forces of hell, is naturally a topic for Easter-tide reflection. Indeed, Christus Victor enjoys a 1,000 year-long history as the early dominant view of the atonement –and is still dominant in the theology of eastern Christianity. However, when paired to the events of Christ’s passion, it is interesting that typically the victory itself is placed at the resurrection, or earlier than that when according to some later church tradition Christ triumphantly storms the gates of hell just after his death and announces victory to the dead.
I say it’s interesting, because the New Testament appears to push the point of victory much earlier, like to the cross—like to Good Friday.
Good Friday and victory? Cruel, unjust death and victory? Not our usual associations for that day. In fact, if most Good Friday services are any judge, Christus Victor is the idea furthest from our mind. Years ago Tony Campolo captured the sentiment exactly with his famous sermon—and it’s a keeper for sure—“It’s Friday, but Sunday’s A-comin.’”
Yes, Friday is a dark day. A day where we lose round one, and Satan triumphs as the Lamb of God is slaughtered. But wait! (you know how it goes)…Friday’s not the end. No Sir!… Sunday’s glory is still around the corner. Resurrection power will have the last say, not death’s blighted cry. Yes, now that preaches! And at some level it’s even true.
But at another deeper level, there is a real reason why we call Good Friday, Good. And it’s more than getting our debt paid on Calvary’s cross. Paul, John and other writers of the New Testament indeed affirm that Jesus is truly Christus Victor on Friday. Our enemies are defeated Friday. Work is completed Friday. Glory is Friday. And we win Friday. Friday is Good!
How so? Well, first briefly the evidence. In Colossians 2:13-15, Paul mentions a divine disarming of our enemies--unholy angelic rulers and authorities, but he makes it clear this disarming and triumphing over them came Friday--when a decree against us was nailed to the cross. So Friday, not Sunday, is when our enemies are disarmed.
John’s Gospel and Epistles joins in here with the “It is finished” utterance of Jesus on Friday. What was finished? His life? No, we’re probably wise to see in John’s thought the connection of Jesus finishing what he came to do. And later in his epistle John makes it clear that Jesus came to take out his enemy the Devil. Take a look at 1 John 3:8 on this. Seems Jesus accomplished this move against Satan also on Friday, not Sunday.
Other Gospel writers claim this ground as well with the “binding the Strong Man” motif (Matthew 12:29). The Strong Man is clearly our enemy from the background text to this in Isaiah 49:24-25. But when is he bound? And what happens after that in Matthew’s words?
The answer to these questions John also gives in how Jesus speaks of his “hour,” an hour of glory in John 12:23 and following. Check it out. When was that hour his Father would be glorified; when is he glorified? Was it resurrection Sunday? No, here the hour of Jesus’ “glory” appears in a matrix with other notions like “driving out the ruler of this world” and his own being “lifted up” (12:31-32). So we’re probably wise to agree with most Johannine scholars that these are all references to the crucifixion. Again, Christus Victor shows up Friday, not Sunday.
There’s yet another way we can find victory on Friday. This thought is more theologically derived than what we’ve been talking about so far, but its point is the same as we’ve just seen in these texts of the New Testament. Philosopher Diogenes Allen explores this in greater depth in his good little book, Temptation, where the real last temptation of Christ—pace Hollywood— unpacks victory even in Jesus’ death.
How’s that work? I mean usually in a fight, the last one standing is the winner… you know, the winner’s the one with his foot on the other guy’s chest. Well, as Allen shows, Jesus is Christus Victor also in the way he died that Friday afternoon. Think of it for a moment. What was he experiencing those hours on the cross? Horrible physical violence? Yes. Psychological violence—abandoned, humiliated? Yes. And the kicker—he’s also suffering spiritual violence. Like no other he’s suffering spiritual violence in the withdrawal of the fellowship of his Father.
So here’s Jesus on the cross… He’s taking everything Satan his adversary had wrought. Absolutely everything. Yet, how does he die? Does he take the last temptation Job’s wife gave him—“Curse God and die!”? What do we see? In the midst of this horrible scene does Jesus ever turn his countenance from his Father, even when his Father has withdrawn? “My God, my God… why have you forsaken me?” No, he doesn’t, and here is victory, too—the victory of living faith. Satan for all his schemes, and sin with all its brokenness, could never crush this and claim final victory. It’s a victory that the worst of situations could not deny him. It’s also a victory that’s a bona fide model for us in our trials and troubles--by the way (see 1 Peter 2).
Still, have we dissed the resurrection with our Christus Victor on Friday? Is Sunday’s event left hollow, benighted and bereft? No, we can’t do that—Paul would protest too much! (1 Corinthians 15) But the key is to see how the two occasions—cross and resurrection—come together as event and interpretation. It’s like in the Olympic Games and the finals of the men’s 100-meters race. This summer in London on the day of the finals, there lined up on the starting line will be the world’s fastest human beings. And in less than 10 seconds after the gun goes off, one of them will break the tape first. All others are defeated; one alone stands as the victor at that moment.
But the event is not over. Some time after that victory moment comes the recognition when the victor mounts to tallest pedestal, his country’s anthem is played, and the significance of what happened earlier is on display for all to see. Event and interpretation. That’s what’s going on with the cross and the resurrection. One without the other is impossible; they are symbiotically related. No resurrection? —then no proof of Friday’s victory. No cross? —then obviously no resurrection, nothing to proclaim. Paul says as much in Romans 1:4: the resurrection declares Jesus to be the Son of God in power.
So Jesus was Christus Victor on Good Friday, but the proof of the victory comes Sunday as he rises glorious from the grave. Good Friday is not a funeral dirge, but a moment of victory for all of God’s people—one they themselves can live every day.
Christ is risen! He’s risen indeed.