Jesus Tricks Death and the Devil
1 Corinthians 15:51-18, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, April 1, 2018, Easter
April Fool’s is a day when people play tricks on their friends. Some are of the simple “made you look!” kind or giving someone “fake news”—although that seems to be an everyday business model now. You might make a prank phone call, telling someone they’ve won a bunch of cash, or scaring them by pretending to be the IRS. One trick I remember from seminary was taking a guy’s bed from his dorm room and leaving it above the stalls in the men’s room. “Dude, where’s my bed?”
You probably don’t think of the resurrection of Jesus as a trick on anybody. But if you went back to the fourth or fifth century, you’d find that many of the best theologians and preachers described the Easter event just that way. They started with themes that are emphasized in the New Testament: that in the cross and resurrection Christ won a great victory over the devil, that by dying and rising Christ set us free from the control of the devil and from the power of death. Just how did that work? What exactly did the cross have to do with the devil?
The assumption was that ever since the fall of Adam humans had been under the dominion of the devil, that old serpent from the garden, who had us trapped in lives of sin and destined for death. God had to come up with a plan to set us free. Basically the plan was this: God would offer Jesus to the devil as a ransom. “I’ll give you Jesus’ life if you’ll set all the other hostages free.” But what the devil didn’t know was that Jesus was not just the most innocent man who ever lived; he was divine. It turns out that the devil doesn’t have the power to hold onto Jesus, and Jesus with his superpowers kind of blows up the whole prison of sin and death.
The theory of how the cross saved us that most of us learned—that Jesus paid a debt we owed to God and paid the penalty for our sin—wasn’t really developed until the Middle Ages. The theory of the ransom and tricking the devil was common in the early church, so much so that scholars call it the “classical theory” of atonement, also known as “Christus Victor. Jesus put a whoopin’ on Old Scratch and won our freedom.
The story of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a myth that retells the classical theory of atonement. The lion Aslan offers his life to the White Witch, the evil ruler of Narnia, as a ransom for the life of Edmund, the human boy who has betrayed his brother and sister. The witch, who is a stand-in for the devil, is gleeful, and all the horrible creatures of her domain celebrate. Aslan does suffer a horrible death at her hands and is laid out on a stone table. But suddenly the table cracks—just as the stone rolled away—and Aslan is alive. The little girls who have been keeping watch are frightened, then ecstatic, and romp around with the lion. Aslan explains that what the witch did not know:
though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that 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.”
What a wonderful way of describing what the resurrection has accomplished: death itself has started working backward. What was once dead is coming back to life.
C. S. Lewis’ story is only slightly older than I am, but if you go back about 1600 years earlier you’ll find a different kind of symbolism. Several of the church fathers described the cross as a fish-hook. Here is a teacher named Rufinus:
[The purpose of the incarnation] was that the divine virtue of the Son of God might be like a kind of hook hidden beneath the form of human flesh…to lure on the prince of this world to a contest; that the Son might offer him his human flesh as a bait and that the divinity which lay underneath might catch him and hold him fast with its hook.
His contemporary Gregory of Nyssa said that the devil, “like a greedy fish, …swallow[ed] the Godhead like a fish-hook along with the flesh which was the bait.” Jesus’ body is the bait, but inside him is the divine nature which is the hook. Once the devil swallows God, he is in real trouble. He cannot digest or defeat God’s eternal life.
Augustine supported the fish-hook theory, but in a famous sermon he changed the metaphor to a mousetrap. I never thought about people in the fifth century having mousetraps. I wonder how they worked back then; surely they didn’t a spring and the bar that snaps the mousie’s neck. Apparently the Latin word can mean a snare for any kind of animal. Listen to Augustine:
The devil jumped for joy when Christ died; and by the very death of Christ the devil was overcome: he took, as it were, the bait in the mousetrap…The Lord’s cross was the devil’s mousetrap: the bait which caught him was the death of the Lord.
The point is that it was the devil’s hubris, his pride and arrogance, that did him in. He thought that if he could kill Jesus, he would have won the battle. But death is not the end of the story—not for Jesus, and not for those who believe in him.
It reminds me of a sci fi movie in which the pure-hearted Starfighter flies his craft right into the heart of the death star. The evil empire rejoices because they have now caught him, but he heads for the power center of the death star and blows it up, and the screen is full of this massive explosion, which gives the rebel forces the victory. Jesus blows up death.
A Catholic teacher named Bernard Ezaki recently wrote a children’s story as an allegory of the classical doctrine of atonement [January 20, 2017, Father Bernard J. Ezaki’s Class Notes]. Just sit back and listen to the story:
Seven-year-old Daryl was never able to explain just how the weird black balloon found its way into the nursery, but there it was. At first it was hardly noticeable—no bigger than a marble–rolling innocently around on the floor among the toys. As time went on, however, it grew in size, and Daryl soon noticed something even more strange. With each passing day, as the balloon grew larger and larger, the stuffed toys began, one by one, to disappear. First the tiny velveteen rabbit was nowhere to be seen, and the black balloon was just a little bigger. The next day, the stuffed elephant vanished into thin air, and the sinister sphere had become that much larger. Then the plush gingerbread man went missing. The dark intruder had grown in proportion. Soon all the stuffed animals in the nursery—all, that is, except one–met a similar fate. By this time, Daryl’s eyes were swollen from crying, and the black balloon was hideously swollen in size.
The one toy that had so far escaped the dark balloon’s insatiable appetite was none other than Daryl’s beloved Teddy bear. This was no doubt because the boy was never parted from it. Unlike the other toys, it occupied a privileged place in the nursery and in Daryl’s heart. It was the only toy Daryl permitted to share his bed, and it never so much as even touched the nursery floor.
Yet Daryl loved all his toys and thus conceived a plan whereby he might possibly rescue those that had been devoured. There would, however, be a price to pay.
Rummaging around in his father’s toolbox, he found three sharp nails of prodigious length. These he carefully and tearfully drove into the heart of his favorite toy. That evening, he placed the Teddy bear on the nursery floor alongside the spherical monstrosity. The instant he did so, the balloon began to quiver—as if in anticipation. As for Daryl, he quietly climbed into bed, but for many hours he lay awake wondering what would befall his treasured Teddy bear. At last he drifted off to troubled sleep.
In the wee hours of the morning, just as the sun began to rise, the silence of the nursery was shattered by what could only be described as a tremendous explosion. Daryl woke with a start. To his great relief, he found his Teddy bear next to him on the bed, but the mattress was also piled high with all the other missing toys—the velveteen rabbit, the stuffed elephant, the plush gingerbread man, and all the rest, apparently no worse for their ordeal. There on the floor were the three nails and tattered remains of the black balloon. The thing was no more.
In the words of John Donne,
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me….
And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.
Since I went through a brain bleed and a stroke and passed through a short period when I could have died if I hadn’t gotten surgery, the whole issue of a victory over death has become more meaningful to me. In America and the West, it’s common to talk about the cross as if the great human problem is guilt. How can we get rid of the guilt for our sin which alienates us from God? But in many places and in many times, the great human problem has been death. Honestly, it still is. We just don’t talk about it. The powerful message of Easter is not just that our consciences have been washed clean, but that Christ has defeated death. The forces of life and love will be victorious over the forces of death and despair.
Paul certainly understood this to be at the heart of his message. For him baptism symbolized not only that we were buried with Christ, but also that we will be resurrected with Christ to a new life in new bodies. Our belief in the resurrection of Jesus is tied to our belief that we ourselves shall be raised, and that the eternal life we share with Jesus cannot be extinguished by death or the devil.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?
But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.