We continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).
We are in Chapter 9, ‘The Apocalyptic War: Christus Victor’ and in this post we are looking at the Christian life lived in light of the victory of God in Christ.
The question Rutledge turns to is how does apocalyptic battle imagery ‘work’ as a guide to Christian living? Several points can be distilled from the conversation – and these are my headings.
There is a profound paradox at the heart of Christianity. God’s decisive victory is won through the suffering and self-giving of his Son at the cross.
So, while an apocalyptic battle is being waged, the ‘method’ of warfare is non-violence (of God).
The most fully apocalyptic book in the New Testament is of course Revelation. As apocalyptic literature it is packed full of violent, bloody and graphic images of battle. Yet. At the heart of the story is “the lamb who was slain”.
Rutledge quotes Volf again from Exclusion and Embrace,
At the very heart of the “one who sits on the throne” is the cross. The world to come is ruled by the one who on the cross took violence upon himself in order to conquer and embrace the enemy. The Lamb’s rule is legitimized not by the “sword” but by its “wounds” (Volf 300-01, quoted 383)
What I call this “powerful powerlessness” is so deeply woven into the ‘essence’ of Christianity that I struggle to understand how Christians manage to evade both the biblical witness and the testimony of the early Church – to follow Jesus is to be non-violent.
You don’t have to use physical weapons to be in a battle.
The language of struggle and combat is not incompatible with a commitment to nonviolence. The nonviolent combatants are sustained by their trust in God, who has promised that “vengeance is mine, I will repay.” (384)
Rutledge returns to stories of the Civil Rights movement and the path of nonviolent resistance being uniquely inspiring and powerful, as well as a path of suffering.
No-where else will you find this story – no religion, no philosophy …
In the unique event that is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, it is revealed that God is acting. In the divine invasion of this world, the Powers that have been allowed to rule in “the present evil age” are disarmed by the Powers of the world to come, that is by the weapons of the Spirit. Christ the Lord is Victor even in the midst of the suffering of his followers. (386)
Rutledge wisely observes that, despite the fact that we are more aware than ever today of the broken state of our world, we are awash with sentimentality. Christmas is a good example:
Despite the terror and suffering all around us, we demand soft-focus peace-and-joy images for our Christmas cards. By contrast, the apocalyptic gospel dramatizes a cosmic struggle between good and evil, light and darkness, day and night in a symbolic world that grants evil its due and girds itself ahead of time for the irruption of such events as terrorist attacks. (388)
An apocalyptic perspective, Rutledge argues, will be fiercely realistic
Reality is about evil, and suffering, and ultimately victory over suffering. (389)
My comments: Christians should be aware, more than anyone, that life is a battlefield. Therapeutic soft-pedalling of the gospel as that which brings me happiness and fulfilment just do not cut it in the real world. It trivialises the gospel and sends Christian ‘soldiers’ out to battle utterly ill-equipped for the conflict ahead. Its false promises lead to immaturity, disillusionment and cynicism.
If the gospel is a message of deliverance from the forces of evil, it is therefore a message of hope.
The cross is God’s initiative from start to finish, it also ensures that God’s victory won there will, one future day, come to completion. The Powers continue to exist, Christians remain in a cosmic battle in the in-between times of cross and final victory. This is a hope
“beyond any human hope (Rom. 4:18) because it is grounded in the promise of the future of Jesus Christ.” (390)
Christians are therefore not prisoners of the Powers but are ‘prisoners of hope’.
Final Comments on Christus Victor
One thing so likeable about Rutledge is her integrity – there is no sleight of hand or subtle twisting of truth to make it ‘fit’ her own preferences. At the close of this chapter she acknowledges weighty criticisms of an apocalyptic perspective.
- It seems to locate the battle at a cosmic remove, detached from humanity. (Rutledge argues this need not be the case if understood rightly – believers participate in the battle).
- It seems to locate blame on evil Powers and attributing too much goodness and innocence to us.
- Linked to this, it can “give Christians a pass” from responsibility for our own actions.
These criticisms have weight, which is why Rutledge welcomes the necessity of Christus Victor to interact with other New Testament motifs. While the overarching apocalyptic framework of the New Testament provides the overall context to understand the cosmic scope of God’s victory at the cross, this is never divorced from atonement for sin and rectification (justification) of sinners.
We need all the motifs to begin to appreciate the cross in all its complex glory.
Next we begin chapter 10 dedicated to a surprising theme for a book on the cross – ‘The Descent into Hell’.