Victim and Victor: Two Stories about Easter


who was here two weeks ago?
We talked about the big picture story of creation in the Bible
in particular, we talked about the resurrection of Christ in the past, and the resurrection of all creation still to come.
You may recall the punch line quotation from Tom Wright:
“one day, God will do for the whole cosmos, what he did for Jesus at Easter.”
today, we’ve come to Easter[i]
and we are picking up some of these themes.
It’s Easter Sunday – resurrection!
And we’ll look at two stories we can tell about Easter
two stories that answer the question,
what’s Easter all about?
Why did Jesus have to die?
What does it all mean?
Many Christians observe the season of Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter.
It starts with Ash Wednesday
A few years ago I went to a Catholic Ash Wednesday service
At the end, a man made a cross of ashes on my forehead, and said
“remember you are dust, and to dust, you will return.”
sobering words, and that really is the spirit of Lent.
in the Bible, sackcloth and ashes is a sign of mourning and repentance for sin .
in Lent, many Christians fast,
or maybe give something up like chocolate – the Vicar of Dibley 2 nights ago!
think about their sin, how much it cost Jesus, look towards the cross.
things lighten up a bit on Palm Sunday,[ii]
when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey,
and all the people cried for joy,
“hosanna, blessed is the King of Israel” (John 12:13)
And Holy Week begins
the next few days, Jesus went to the temple.
the religious leaders tried to trip him up in debate
tried to turn the crowds against him, so they could kill him.
Jesus fought back and challenged them
And then we come to Maundy Thursday, the Last Supper.[iii]
After the meal, Jesus and his disciples went out into the night
last year, I went to an evening service at a Fijian Indian Anglican Church.
At the end, in silence, all the hangings, carvings, statues in the church were covered or carried away
Slowly the church was stripped naked.
one by one, the candles were extinguished.
The lights went out
I found it quite moving
What a symbol of darkness descending on Gethsemane.
some stayed several hours to watch and pray as Christ asked his disciples to do that night
in Fiji, they watch and pray all night.
The next morning, of course, is Good Friday.
For Christians who follow the traditional church year,
it’s like time slows down and gets more sorrowful, more intense.
First, the seven weeks of Lent – starting to reflect.
In holy week – many Christians go to church every day
Or read the gospel passage of what Jesus did that did.
then the slow motion last hours of Friday morning.
In Catholic or some Anglican churches those last hours are shown through the Stations of the Cross.
a series of 14 carvings or paintings around the walls, or outdoors in a garden
Jesus’ trial before Pilate
carrying the cross
falling once, twice, thrice
farewelling Mary and the woman of Jerusalem.
Being stripped naked,
The Via Dolorosa, or way of sorrows,
in Jerusalem this weekend, Christians are acting it out.
Processing through streets in costume – maybe where Christ walked.
finally, Christ is nailed to the cross
Two weeks ago, we saw that Christ is creator.
Through him, for him, all things were made in heaven and earth (Colossians 1)
but now, as we sometimes sing,
“hands that flung stars into space to cruel nails surrendered”
In the words of an older hymn,
He who clothes himself with light as with a garment,
stood naked at the judgement… 
Today, is hanged upon the tree
he who hanged the earth in the midst of the waters…
He is wrapped about with the purple of mockery
Who wraps the heaven in clouds.
Oh what a mystery
meekness and majesty

Story One: Penal Substitution

Which brings us to the big question.
Behind the scenes, what’s really going on?
All around the world, Christians believe that this death brings us life
it fundamentally puts right what is wrong in the world
this death is good news
the big question, is how?
How do we understand what happened on the cross.
Why did Jesus die?
how would you answer, in just a few sentences?
Many of us here might tell a story like this.
God is holy, he dwells in dazzling, unapproachable light.
and his law is holy
we, however, are not.
All of us have fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
All of us, just like Adam and Eve, have turned away and broken his commands.
Now a barrier of sin stands between us and God.
In the law court of heaven, we are defendants in the dock.
God is a holy judge who upholds justice.
This is no kangaroo court.
The books are opened, witnesses are called.
Then a hush falls, and all eyes turn to the judge.
The hammer comes down, the verdict is passed:
Guilty – Condemned to death.
That’s the bad news.
The good news, is that God is not merely holy and just.
he is also loving and merciful.
And he is wise.
So he had a plan, that we could never have dreamt of,
The good news of Easter, is that God sent his son Jesus Christ to pay the penalty in our place.
To die our death
On the cross, we see Christ condemned as if he were guilty.
The judge judged in our place.
God’s justice is satisfied, yet his mercy triumphs.
we guilty sinners can be forgiven and set free.
the barrier of guilt between us and God is destroyed,
torn in two like the curtain in the temple at Christ’s death
many of our songs reflect this story.
A few years ago, we sang “Come and See” by Graham Kendrick on Easter Friday
We worship at your feet
Where wrath and mercy meet
And a guilty world is washed by love’s pure stream
For us he was made sin
Oh, help me take it in
Deep wounds of love cry out “Father, forgive”
I worship, I worship the lamb that was slain
Come and weep, come and mourn
For your sin that pierced him here…
the Lord has laid the punishment on him.
Theologians often call this story “penal substitution”.
Substitution – Christ died as a substitute, in our place
and penal – his death was the legal punishment for sin.
the spirit of Lent – mourning.
for a lot of Christians, Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ brought this home in a very real way.
Now this story draws on some big strands of Scripture.
For a start, the lamb that was slain.
remember the people of Israel had been slaves in Egypt
through Moses, God sent a series of plagues,
what was the last one?
the death of every firstborn son.
The Israelites were told to take a lamb – a pure, spotless, unblemished lamb,
slaughter it, and sprinkle its blood on their doorposts.
When the angel of death came, he would “pass over” the homes protected by the blood.
(Exodus 12:13)
The gospel of John in particular, portrayed Jesus as the Passover lamb.
Right at the start, John the Baptist declared
“behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29)
Jesus lived a pure and sinless life – unlike any of us, he kept every iota of God’s law.
and at the end of John’s gospel, the timing shows
that Jesus died on the cross, pretty much as the Passover lambs in the temple were being slain.
You were redeemed …with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect
1 Peter 1:18-19
His innocent suffering brings us salvation,
like the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53.
He was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
  the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
Isaiah 53:5-6
St Paul picked up the lamb image too:
Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.
1 Corinthians 5:7
But Paul is better known for the scenario of the law court.
by Christ’s death, he said, we are justified, declared just, made right with God.
When the last judgement arrives
When the final hammer comes down.
Paul said those in Christ will be declared: not guilty.
“There is therefore no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.”  (Romans 8:1)
justified by faith, peace with God (Romans 5:1)
So this story combined Old Testament concepts like the Passover lamb,
wider temple sacrifice – we haven’t had time to look at it (Hebrews),
and Paul’s language of legal justification.
But the New Testament has an even wider range of images.
The first Christians were overwhelmed by this amazing huge salvation they experienced in Christ.
They struggled to get a handle on it,
they looked to the Hebrew Scriptures, they looked to the world around them,
to find ways to try and explain,
as well as the law court, and temple sacrifice
they used relational language like peacemaking and reconciliation between enemies
in Christ, we’re adopted into a new family.
they saw Jesus as a pioneer, or 2nd Adam
they looked to the marketplace
imagine being a helpless slave, and then, wonderfully, someone releases you
or being a captured prisoner of war, and someone pays the ransom to set you free.
Hey – that’s what this new salvation in Christ feels like!
Or a great victory on the battlefield
Christ our hero, like a knight in shining armour, has vanquished our oppressors.
there’s no one single explanation for Christ’s work in the New Testament.
It’s like a collage, a kaleidoscope of different themes.
It’s been called a “symphony of salvation”
A choir of different voices,
like a diamond with many facets, each one sparkling with different colors as you turn it.
in the early church, even more images emerged.
who knew Christ is like a pelican?
In those days, people believed a mother pelican would tear open her own breast with her beak
so the blood would pour out to feed her dying children.[iv]
a bit like that Roman spear in Christ’s side, and out flowed the blood that brings us life
A wonderful variety.
The danger is when we take one single image and expand it into the definitive explanation,
forgetting other strands of Scripture.
One of the most rewarding things about studying theology for me has been
discovering some of the different stories we can tell about Easter.
Here’s one of the best

Story 2: Christus Victor

First a quick footnote, in case you didn’t know, there are three big branches of Christians.
there is Roman Catholics, and Protestants, which includes Baptists like us.
The third big group, really the first, is the Orthodox Church,
geographically in the Bible lands, Egypt, Turkey, Greece and up to Russia
it still often has the strongest connection to the early church.
The Orthodox are known for being less into rationalistic explanations
trying to pin everything down exactly like lawyers
they’re much more into mystery and wonder and worship, poetry, paradox.[v]
So their story about Easter is more imaginative, like a great myth
It picks up those last images I mentioned:
freeing slaves and victory in battle
it was likely the dominant Christian story for the first thousand years
Their ancient tale, with a little modern spicing, goes something like this:
The cosmos was created good by a good God.
But much of it is now in a state of rebellion.
The universe is a battleground between God and dark spiritual powers.
The Old Testament often symbolised these by the hostile waters of chaos
and sea monsters that want to destroy God’s good world (Chaoskonflikt)
human sin is not just breaking God’s laws.
It’s siding with the enemy
as a result, we are not only alienated from God,
but enslaved to those powers ourselves.
Powers of evil, sin and hell.
The devil and his demons
And ultimately death
here’s the good news
the incarnation of Jesus Christ was like an SAS operation.
God parachuted into the heart of enemy territory in human form
First Jesus knocked out minor agents of the powers – casting out demons
he rolled back the rebellion in nature, healing the sick, stilling the storm
finally at Easter, he moved on the source of the powers’ strength,
the root of their authority
the prison where they hold their captives:
Fortress Death itself.[vi]
On the cross, Christ entered the grave.
Story one, penal substitution, is pretty much over now – the penalty is paid.
But in Good Friday services, there’s no blessing at the end, because the story is incomplete.
Story two is just warming up.
The crescendo begins.
The early Christian creeds say Christ “descended into hell.”
this is suggested by a few verses that we don’t often read
(1 Peter 3:19-20, 4:6; Ephesians 4:8-10; Acts 2:25, 31)
but the Orthodox do.[vii]
on Saturday, Christ invaded the devil’s dungeon itself
the harrowing of hell.
Western paintings of the resurrection often show Jesus in shining white, stepping peacefully out into the garden.
Orthodox Easter icons are very different.
Look at this typical one:[viii]
Christ stands triumphant over the shattered gates of hell.
Below are fragments of broken locks and keys and chains, torture implements.
the jailer himself, death or the devil, now lies bound
from their coffins, Christ hauls out Adam and Eve
and note: he holds them by their wrists.
This is no self-help seminar – a corpse cannot help itself.
This rescue is totally grace.
On Saturday, Christ dynamited the dungeons of hell.
On Sunday, he exploded out of the grave
in the first story,
Christ is the passive victim who pays the penalty.
but this is Christus Victor
Christ is the active victor who conquers the powers
this story also has deep roots in Scripture.
the Bible indeed says:
“everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin”,
“The whole world lies under the power of the evil one” (John 8:34, 1 John 5:19)[ix]
And it’s like Israel’s slavery in Egypt,
God defeated the powers that held his people captive.
“I will strike down every firstborn – the Passover – story one
… and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt.” – story two (Exodus 12:12)
just before his death, Jesus said much the same:
“Now is the time for judgment on this world;
now the prince of this world will be driven out.”  (John 12:31)
at Easter, Paul wrote,
Christ “disarmed the powers and authorities,
he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15) [x]
At the end of the Bible, we see this in Revelation
apocalyptic visions, supernatural battles:
again Christ is the lamb, but now a conquering lamb who slays the dragon.
what a stirring yarn:
Christ overpowers the powers!
Now let’s see how the Orthodox embody this story in their worship today:
A few years ago, I went on Easter Saturday night to a Greek Orthodox service
at the front of Orthodox churches is a wall covered in icons,
behind it is a room where the priest prepares the communion bread and wine, and does special prayers.
at midnight, all the lights were turned off
and from that front room the priest came out with a single candle, like Christ from the grave.
From it, everyone’s candle was lit.[xi]
The lights spread through the room – the reverse of that Indian Friday service I mentioned before
the priest cried three times:
Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down Death by death,
And to those in the grave
Bestowing Life[xii]
Over and over in the coming weeks, this is the Orthodox song
Jesus “shared our 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.”  (Hebrews 2:14-15)
I hope one day I’ll see Easter in Greece
it sounds amazing
at midnight on Saturday, every church bell rings continuously.
Ships in port sound their fog horns
floodlights go on the buildings
fireworks explode.
It’s what all the mourning and fasting of Lent has been waiting for:
Like a volcano, the joy of the resurrection erupts into the night.
On Friday, it seemed like death had conquered life,
Jesus had been a bright seed of light.
But the black hole of evil had sucked it in and swallowed it
On Sunday, he burst out like a supernova.
like a white hole, that swallows up darkness.
the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it.  (John 1:5)
Killing Jesus was like trying to destroy a dandelion seed-head by blowing on it.
It was like shattering a sun into a million fragments of light.
(Walter Wink)
As old hymns say,
It is the Passover of gladness…
Our Sun’s eclipse is over
“Thine be the glory
Risen, conquering son
Endless is the victory
Thou o’er death has won”
for many Christians, the Easter season comes to an end today.
But for the Orthodox, the seven weeks of repentance in Lent before Easter
are followed by seven weeks of celebration.[xiii]
in Lent we remember that we are mortal and finite and sinful – ashes to ashes, dust to dust
now we rejoice that in Christ, we will live forever!
last week was solemn Holy Week.
this next week is joyous Bright Week.
Last week, we fasted
this week, we feast
the doors of the sanctuary in the Orthodox church are open, the only week in the year.
Because Christ’s tomb is open.
And by his resurrection he has reopened the doors of paradise
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
  “Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”
(1 Corinthians 15:24-26, 54-57)
Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down Death by death,
And to those in the grave
Bestowing Life[xiv]

Two Complementary Stories

today we’ve heard two stories about the meaning of Easter.
Story one, Penal Substitution, peaks on Good Friday.
The spotless lamb is slain for us
on the cross, Christ pays our debt, so we are free
the barrier of guilt between us and God is gone.
Story two, Christus Victor, soars highest on Sunday.[xv]
The mighty lamb has conquered
the gates of hell are shattered
death has been destroyed
Both stories draw on biblical images to highlight aspects of Christ’s work
The first rightly shows that sin is firstly against God
– we are guilty and need his forgiveness to restore relationship
The second sees that sin is like addiction, slavery
– we are helpless and need rescuing
at Easter, Christ opened both heaven and the grave.
He ripped open the temple curtain and rolled away the stone.[xvi]
He brake the age-bound chains of hell.
The bars from heaven’s high portals fell.
We don’t have to choose between these stories.
They’re overlapping, not mutually exclusive.
No one picture, remember, captures all of Christ’s work – it’s too big for that.
Different stories will be helpful for different people.
For example, missionaries have often found tribal peoples
can’t understand the legal language of penal substitution.
“what the heck are you white guys talking about?”
But the spiritual world and evil forces are real to them,
so when they hear about Christus Victor, the lights go on:
“we’ve lived in fear of dark powers – and Christ has conquered them? – that’s good news!”
Most of us here will be more familiar with the first story.
To learn more about other biblical images of Christ’s work, including a more Christus Victor angle,
check out these websites[xvii]
Finally, here’s two totally different things I find exciting about Christus Victor.

Reason One: fairytales

I think the Christus Victor narrative can resonate with us deeply,
because it’s a fundamental legend we’ve all heard many times before.
Maybe why, in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis has a
Christus Victor type story of Aslan’s death and resurrection –”deep magic from the dawn of time”.
You’ll find echoes in The Lord of the Rings.
Literary scholar Christopher Booker wrote a book “The Seven Basic Plots: why we tell stories” (2004)
he analyses all sorts of stories, from ancient epics to James Bond movies,
and finds the same recurring patterns.
Listen for the echoes of our Easter stories!
And I haven’t theologized – these are Booker’s own words.
His first paradigm story is “Overcoming the Monster.”
Here’s the outline:
the world suffers under a superhuman evil.
Then the hero is called.
He or she has initial success,
then he journeys to the monster’s lair.
The hero confronts the evil power, he is captured
It’s a nightmare, he’s going to die!
But then, miraculously, comes “the thrilling escape from death.”
The hero breaks free, and slays the monster.
Society is saved.
Do you hear some reverberations of our second Easter story?
Booker’s final seventh plot is kind of the mirror image.
He calls it “Rebirth”
An innocent young person comes under the sway of a dark power.
The poison gradually spreads,
until they are left in total darkness, isolated in a prison of living death.
After the long nightmare, comes redemption:
woken from sleep, and freed by love.
One of his main examples is Sleeping Beauty.
In Walt Disney’s version, Princess Aurora pricks her finger on the spinning wheel
she falls under the curse of the witch Maleficent – Latin for “evil-doer”.
Not to mention her pet raven “Diablo”- Greek for devil
Aurora falls permanently asleep – a metaphor for death,
in a castle, surrounded by thorns – that Genesis 3 image of the curse
but her Prince Philip arrives, cuts through the forest of thorns.
Maleficent transforms into a dragon
She breathes out fire.
The prince is overwhelmed, he loses his shield, it’s all over,
but then, it’s a miracle,
pierced by his sword, Maleficent dies
warmed by his kiss, Aurora awakes.
Does that sound like that Orthodox Easter icon to you?
Our true love Christ fights his way through the thorns of sin, penetrates into hell,
Slays the dragon, seizes the sleepers, hoists them out of the grave.[xviii]
Breathes into them again his Spirit of life. (John 20:22)

Reason Two: social transformation

Yes it stirs the imagination, but
Christus Victor also has direct real-life on-the-ground impact.
In several places, the New Testament talks about ambiguous “powers”
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, the authorities, the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
(Ephesians 6:11-12).
In the last decades, many have realised that by these “powers”,
Paul did not only mean supernatural evil, like demons
but also the social structures and evil ideologies through which they spread and operate.
Like corruption, racism, materialism, dehumanising systems
that drive us to war and enslave millions in poverty.
God rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son (Colossians 1:13)
salvation means a transfer of allegiance from the upstart rebel leader to the true King
this means participating in God’s struggle against all forces
– spiritual or social or the sin in our own hearts – that oppose his good reign.[xix]
Christian leaders like Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu saw this.
They fought physical force – the powers – with soul force – self sacrificial suffering love
like Christ, they overcame evil with good (Romans 12:21).
Martin Luther King wrote that loving nonviolent resistance is:
“a powerful and just weapon… which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who uses it”
Here is Christus Victor in practice.[xx]
In our own small ways, we are all called to do the same
proclaim and work out Christ’s victory in our world.
So exploring different stories about Easter isn’t just interesting speculation –
it helps us understand how God wants to live our daily lives.


it would also be neat to be in Bermuda at Easter
on Good Friday, they fly these special kites to remember Christ’s ascension.
Maybe that’s where you are right now.
full of Easter joy and resurrection freedom
soaring in the wind of the spirit.
but maybe at the moment, you feel more like a slave,
Trapped in the depths of the earth.
We’ll finish with an early Orthodox sermon on Easter Saturday.[xxi]
Christ speaks to Adam in hell.
If you feel you’re chained in darkness, in the deathly dungeon right now,
imagine Christ is speaking these words to you:
“Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”
I now command all who are held in bondage to come forth,
all who are in darkness to be enlightened,
all who are sleeping to arise.
I order you, O sleeper, to awake.
I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell.
Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.
Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image.
For your sake I, the Lord, took the form of a slave;
I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth.
See on my face the spittle I received
in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you.
On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured
to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back.
Rise, let us leave this place
Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down Death by death,
And to those in the grave
Bestowing Life


[i] the Gospels have been called “passion narratives with extended introductions.”
[ii] For the Orthodox church, the day before Palm Sunday is Lazarus Saturday, remembering Christ’s raising of Lazarus and declaration “I am the resurrection and the life.” (John 11). Garden tomb, stone rolled back, grave clothes, a dead man rises: looking forward to the next weekend.
[iii] The same year, after going to Ash Wednesday, I went to the Maundy Thursday service.  The Bishop of Auckland took off his outer robes, tied a towel around his waist, and knelt down to wash the feet of 12 representative parishioners.  A powerful re-enactment of Christ’s humility.  And then we celebrated communion. What a day for it – the anniversary of the very first/last supper!
[iv] See
[v] The Orthodox especially love the gospel of John.  It shows the cross as not just Christ’s humiliation, but his glorification.  And it’s a gospel of dramatic imaginative contrasts: falsehood and truth, darkness and light, death and life.
[vi] In some versions, this is a full on frontal attack.  in others, it’s more an incognito infiltration.
[vii] as did Martin Luther: in a sermon delivered in Torgau in 1533, he stated that Christ descended into Hell.  The Formula of Concord (a Lutheran confession) states, “we believe simply that the entire person, God and human being, descended to Hell after his burial, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of Hell, and took from the devil all his power.” (Solid Declaration, Art. IX)
[viii] See for a description.  For a gallery of similar Orthodox icons, see
[ix] “the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin… in slavery under the basic principles of the world”  (Galatians 3:22, 4:3)
[x] “the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (1 John 3:8)
[xi] The priest takes light from the vigil light and gives it to the faithful, who are holding candles. The priest sings: “Come ye and receive light from the unwaning light, and glorify Christ, who arose from the dead”.
[xii] to hear Orthodox monks and nuns singing this, go to
[xiii] leading up to Pentecost, when the risen Christ poured out the spirit.  Sermons at Pentecost and the rest of acts frequently major on the resurrection.  Psalm 110:1 (Acts 2:32) is one of the most cited Old Testament passages in the New Testament: The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” – our victory over the powers motif again.
[xiv] According to the early orthodox theologian St. Maximus the Confessor, Christ transformed death from being the punishment or wages of sin, to the means of salvation and new life:
“Christ converted the meaning of death for us… the baptized acquires the use of death to condemn sin, which in turn mystically leads that person to divine and unending life… For if sin maintains death as a weapon to destroy human nature in those who, with Adam, keep sin active, how much more will human nature boast death as a weapon to destroy sin in those who realize righteousness through faith in Christ!”
[xv] In Russia, a country dominated by the Orthodox church, the word for Sunday literally means “resurrection”.
[xvi] It has been said that the cross sets us free from the past.  The resurrection sets us free for the future.
For a classic exposition of our first story, see “What did the Cross achieve – The Logic of Penal Substitution” by By J. I. Packer at
[xviii] An old hymn says:
The Lord is risen indeed.
Now is his work performed
Now is the mighty Captive freed.
And Death’s strong Castle stormed.
The grave has lost his prey.
[xix] between “the D-Day of the cross and the V-day” of Christ’s return.
[xx] non-violent resistance “unchains the spirit” leading to creation of the beloved community (King).  “Jesus’ teaching is a kind of moral jujitsu, a martial art for using the momentum of evil to overthrow it.”  (Walter Wink)
[xxi] From