Why did Jesus die? Although a skeptic might argue Jesus was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time when he angered the wrong people, those of us who believe in Jesus’ resurrection cannot let ourselves off the hook so easily. If the resurrection proves that Jesus was God’s anointed one—the Messiah—then, of course, God could have intervened to prevent Jesus’ torturous and bloody demise, but He didn’t. Peter put it this way in the first public statement about Jesus’ death, “This man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men” (Acts 2:23). Thus, Jesus’ crucifixion was God’s plan all along. Why? God must have had some purpose—an immensely important one—to allow His Son to suffer so greatly at the hands of his enemies. One’s answer to this question is their theory of “atonement.”
Throughout the ages, Christians have answered this question in three major ways: he died for our sins; he died to defeat evil; and he died as our example. In what follows, I want to focus on the second of these perspectives and explore how Jesus’ death and resurrection actually conquered the forces of darkness—a view called Christus Victor.1 Before I can do this, however, I need first to convince you that spiritual powers exert authority over our world. To begin, consider Deuteronomy 32:8 where we read that when the Most High divided up the boundaries for the nations, “he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God” (Deut. 32:8 ESV). The book of Job also mentions a day when “...the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD...” (Job 1:6). In fact, Satan himself came with these sons of God to speak to Yahweh. A third example of these spiritual powers comes from Daniel when Gabriel, the angel, excused himself for taking so long to bring Daniel his answer because “The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days” (Daniel 10:13). Normally, a prince refers to a human being—the son of a king—but this prince is so powerful that he delayed an angel for three weeks. Gabriel continues, “but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia.” Gabriel later identifies this Michael as “your prince” (10:21) and “the great prince who has charge of your people” (12:1). Putting this all together we see that God has assigned angelic beings in positions of authority over the nations. Michael has charge over Israel, but the other “sons of God” in some way administrate the other nations.
The New Testament (NT) is much more help in understanding the spiritual powers in control of our age. In fact, the situation is far worse than we may have expected. For throughout the NT, we find Satan described as having authority over all the kingdoms of the world (Luke 4:5-6). The whole world is under the power of the evil one (1 John 5:19). He is the “god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4) and “the ruler of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2). As a result, our world is “the present evil age” (Galaltians 4:4) and all of us naturally walk “according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2). This is not to say our world lacks good, beauty, or virtue, but it does mean that evil dominates more often than not. Reading through the bloody pages of history, we encounter vast empires which dominated huge territories using brutal force. We hear tales of dictators, monarchs, and megalomaniacs eager to conquer, oppress, and enslave. How many incidents of lust, betrayal, and abuse have occurred throughout the history of humanity? Now we may think, “Yeah, but that was a long time ago; we’ve grown and learned about human rights and tolerance since then.” Although advances in democracy, communications, and technology abound, humans have not only continued to kill each other, but the situation has actually grown much worse. The twentieth century began with the Second Boer War, the Philippine Insurrection, and the War of a Thousand Days with a combined estimated death toll of over 150,000. It ended with the Congo Brazzaville Civil War, the Kosovo Crisis, and Ethiopia’s war with Eritrea, totaling nearly 120,000 dead. In between these book ends, we find not ten or fifty or even a hundred bloody conflicts, but well over two hundred totaling more than 76 million battle deaths.2 That’s 2.3 wars a year for the entire twentieth century! Why is there so much killing? What is wrong with people that they keep fighting? May I suggest that these unbelievably high war statistics confirm what the Scriptures teach—that wicked forces under satanic control fill our world with evil.
Now let us turn to Jesus and consider how his death relates to all of this carnage and dysfunction. But before we look at atonement, we should first think about Christ’s ministry. As it turns out, Jesus fought evil relentlessly throughout his entire ministry. He entered into hand-to-hand combat with demons, casting them out left and right from the people he met. Like a mighty warrior, Christ advanced against Satan’s realm and damaged his stranglehold over the people of the land. Furthermore, he healed people constantly. Peter summarized Jesus’ ministry as “...doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38). For example, Jesus once encountered a woman who suffered a debilitating problem that bent and deformed her back for eighteen long years so she could not straighten herself up at all. After healing her Jesus asked, “And this woman, a daughter of Abraham as she is, whom Satan has bound for eighteen long years, should she not have been released from this bond on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 13:16). Still, Jesus did not stop there. Beyond casting out unclean spirits and healing the sick, he also challenged systemic and cultural evil by eating with sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes. He rebuked legalism, hard-heartedness, and hypocrisy among the religious leaders. He confronted greed in the temple courts and taught his disciples how to lead through service rather than domination. Throughout his whole ministry, both in word and in deed, Jesus fought evil wherever it reared its ugly head. Thus, when we come to consider his passion, we can see his work on the cross, not as something new or different, but as a continuation and climax of everything he had done up to that moment.
Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion really bother me because of the rampant and unrestrained unfairness and cruelty. From the Judas’ betrayal kiss in the garden to the kangaroo court at the chief priest’s house, my heart fills with agony. That fateful night, the Jewish elders—men respected for their dignity and leadership—degenerated into madness as they spat on my Jesus, blindfolded him, and beat him. “Prophesy,” they commanded. “Who is the one who hit you?” they said one after the other (Luke 22:64). Such gang violence outrages me. Why did they treat him thus? Were they drunk with the poison of revenge for the times when Jesus outmaneuvered their attempts to disgrace him publicly? I find this behavior baffling and yet believable. Next, the Romans whipped him mercilessly. Rather than eliciting compassion from them, the bloodied and battered man served as the plaything of an entire battalion of soldiers. They found a purple cloak and dressed his body in it; they twisted together some nasty thorns into the shape of a crown and put it on his head. Mocking and laughing, they each took turns kneeling before my Jesus and saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews” (John 19:3). Their insatiable cruelty still unsatisfied, they whacked him in the head with a reed, driving that thorny crown deeper and deeper into his scalp. Even once Jesus finally reached the place of the skull, he was not given any respite from their spiteful viciousness. Once crucified and hanging on the cross, his life ebbing, his blood dripping, his body dying, he was not left alone by the onlookers. The passersby, rather than feeling compassion for this poor man, wagged their heads and said, “...Ha! You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” (Mark 15:29-30). The chief priests, their spiteful rancor still unabated, shouted out, “...He saved others; he cannot save Himself. Let this Christ, the King of Israel, now come down from the cross, so that we may see and believe!..” (Mark 15:31-32). Even the man crucified next to him hurled abuse at him and mockingly asked, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39). Throughout the scene, we observe unmitigated hatred mixed with malicious brutality far beyond what makes sense from a natural perspective. What we have here is not something explicable on the basis of human psychology but the result of ruthless demonic forces pulling the strings not only to kill but also to gloat over Jesus’ slow agonizing defeat.
Again, I ask why did Jesus have to endure such a nightmare? Thankfully, Scripture does not leave us in the dark on this question. We read in Hebrews that through death Jesus rendered powerless him who had the power of death (Hebrews 2:14). Satan’s wild and uncontrolled rage against Christ blinded him from grasping God’s redemptive plan (1 Corinthians 2:7). Jesus voluntarily submitted to God’s will and drank that cup of suffering to the dregs (Matthew 26:39). He did not tip his hand but quietly trusted God’s wisdom. In the end, he neither reviled the mockers nor threatened the torturers but died with forgiveness in his heart (1 Peter 2:23; Luke 23:34). He did not crack; he did not give in; he did not falter. With the torrent and flood of malice and cruelty aimed at him, like a sponge he absorbed it all. Never did he lose control of his mind, his emotions, his pride. He did not check out or disassociate himself from the situation but remained present, observing every crooked gesture, feeling every painful blow, hearing every mocking insult. In the end, his death did something; it changed everything.
Although it may have seemed to everyone present at his crucifixion that Jesus was on display as a spectacle, in fact, his suffering disarmed the rulers and authorities, making a public display of them (Colossians 2:15). What appeared to be a great defeat for God and His anointed one was in fact just the opposite—a great victory. Like a judo throw, God used Satan’s own momentum and forcefulness against him. Christ unmasked Satan’s viciousness and showed the world that such “power” is merely weakness in disguise. As a result of Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, God seated him at His right hand “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Ephesians 1:21). God put all things in subjection under Christ’s feet, including angels and authorities and powers (Ephesians 1:22; 1 Peter 3:22). Through the blood of the cross, it was the Father’s good pleasure to reconcile all things to Himself whether on earth or in heaven (Colossians 1:19-20). More than merely defeating demons of darkness, Christ’s death liberated and empowered those whom the old regime ensnared and subjugated.
We are the beneficiaries of Christ’s cosmic conquest.
And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach. (Colossians 1:21-22)
We are no longer bound in the domain of darkness, but God has “...transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:13-14). No longer do we need to dance to the drumbeat of the devil, as we did formerly. Christ has liberated us not only from death itself but even the fear of death (Hebrews 2:14). By suffering the effects of the serpent’s venom, he defanged the devil and rendered him powerless to bite his followers. He came to “destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8), which means his people are freed not only from direct demonic influence but also from sin, meaninglessness, depression, cruelty, bitterness, lust, pride, apathy, and selfishness of every other kind. He has destroyed the works of the devil! People can now truly live for God, reach their true potential, serve others without reservation, enjoy wholeness, and love others as Christ did. We now take on the same mission that Jesus had of opening people’s eyes so that they can turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God (Acts 26:18). Satan is defeated! Christ is victorious! We are free!