Today, the second Sunday of Lent, is a stormy and cold day in Tulsa, Oklahoma. NPR even gave a nod to our state’s thunderstorms on Morning Edition while predicting a blast of wintery weather for the mid-Atlantic states. Dreary weather be damned, spring is coming—the correspondent was insistent on this fact. There will be 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness on Thursday, and there’s nothing that a few (more) inches of snow can do about that. Aslan is on the move.
Even though I rail against Daylight Saving Time, it too contributes to that building excitement that winter will die and we will all eventually thaw out. I may feel like a zombie at the pre-dawn 6:00 AM alarm clock, but I can go for a run after school with sunlight aplenty for my hungry, winter-whitened skin. Little buds are popping up on the branches of trees. There is a scent of something other than freezer burn on the air. And so the pagan, sun-worshipping homunculus inside of me gets extraordinarily hungry for vitamin D that is obtained by means other than oral ingestion at the bedside table every morning.
And this is where I think that Christianity (or at least, her calendar) must have the slightest bias in favor of the global north, because up here the theological celebration of resurrection and new life coincides with the deliverance that spring offers from winter’s clutches. My doctrinally orthodox head sings in harmony with my primal, sun-starved heart, and the resultant chorus enthrones Easter as the queen of all holidays in my affections.
And as I wait expectantly for the celebration of the Resurrection, my soteriology undergoes a temporary scramble of priorities. Although I, as a Theologically Circumspect and Proper Reformed Evangelical Protestant, hold to penal substitutionary atonement (in brief: Jesus becomes a juridical sacrifice and receives the sentence and punishment we deserve so that we criminals can be declared not guilty in God’s heavenly courtroom) as my primary understanding of Christ’s work on the cross, Easter the past few years has pushed other theories of the atonement to the forefront of my thinking. Around Easter, my soul is quickened by thoughts of Christus Victor and Jesus my Ransom.
The ransom theory of the atonement is probably most familiar to English-speaking Evangelicals through the allegory of the Stone Table in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In that story, young Edmund has, through his own folly, become the legal captive of the White Witch, and his release is only secured by Aslan offering himself as a ransom in the boy’s place. Ransom theory imagines us, not as the accused criminals of God’s courtroom so much as the enslaved property of sin/death/Satan—the only ransom that will be accepted for us hostages is the even greater prize of Jesus himself. In Mark 10 and Matthew 20, Jesus lays the foundation for this idea, saying that the Son of Man came to serve and “to give his life as a ransom for many.” In 1 Timothy, Paul reiterates that Jesus gave his life “as a ransom for all.”
Christus Victor, as an understanding of the atonement, is a little different, but it pairs well with ransom theory. The Latin phrase communicates the idea as Jesus the warrior with the two-edged sword coming out of his mouth, the triumphant King who slays our sin, destroys death, and annihilates the devil and his armies. This is Aslan whose roar scatters the forces of the White Witch after cracking the Stone Table and returning to life. Christus Victor is he whose might “breaks the pow’r of cancelled sin” and “sets the prisoner free.”
The one hymn that I think every member of my family most associates with Easter is “Up From The Grave He Arose”; during homeschool mid-morning Bible class, we would crouch down and murmur the somber verses in a hushed sotto voce only to spring up and bellow “UP FROM THE GRAVE HE AROSE” each time the chorus came around. The lines that follow that one are very much Christus Victor:
Up from the grave he arose,
With a mighty triumph o’er his foes!
He arose the victor of the dark domain,
And he lives forever with his saints to reign!
Hallelujah, Christ arose!
The other major influence on my Easter atonement sentiments comes from my affinity for the maybe-but-probably-not-Biblical idea of the “Harrowing of Hell,” the notion that in between his crucifixion and his resurrection, Jesus descended into hell, kicked some —-, and took some names. “Therefore it says, ‘When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and gave gifts to men.’ In saying, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?" (Ephesians 4:8-9). I was so taken with this idea at fourteen that I wrote a poem about it, and if the doodles that I draw in my Field Notes during sermons are any indication, the way that I still imagine (stick-figure) Jesus is wearing a crown and wielding a sword, maybe kicking down the door of a dungeon where, “Long my imprison’d spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night.”
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall speak peace to the nations;
his rule shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
As for you also, because of he blood of my covenant with you,
I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.
Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
today I declare that I will restore to you double.
Aslan is on the move.
The King is coming.