Deeper Magic, with Daniel Clendenin

From Daniel Clendenin:

The earliest believers interpreted the life and death of Jesus in different ways — as substitute and sacrifice, ransom and reconciliation, adoption and example. But pride of place goes to what’s called “Christus Victor,” another ancient view that was reinvigorated by the modern Swedish theologian Gustav Aulén (d. 1977) — that in his life, death and resurrection Jesus conquered the powers of sin, death, and evil that enslave us.

The apostle Paul says as much. Jesus “destroyed death” (2 Timothy 1:10), our “last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26). He “disarmed the powers and authorities, and made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15). Jesus “tasted death for every one,” and “through death he rendered powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:9,14). And so the paradox, that by death Jesus conquered death.

C.S. Lewis called this the “deeper magic before the dawn of time.” This deeper magic, says Mark Heim, “comes into this [Narnia] story as an unexpected development, something about which the evil powers knew nothing. And when Aslan rises, the ancient stone altar on which the sacrifice was offered cracks and crumbles in pieces, never to be used again. The gospel, then, is not ultimately about the exchange of victims, but about ending the bloodshed.”…

And so every Sunday, and especially Easter Sunday, we confess the Apostles’ Creed: “Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, he was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead.” The harrowing of hell on Holy Saturday, after Friday’s crucifixion and before Sunday’s resurrection, is the most important day in salvation history that we rarely mention.

This isn’t Plato’s immortality of an immaterial soul; it’s the resurrection of your body.

Nor is this some private benefit. Isaiah 65 imagines a new heaven and new earth. Paul says that God in Christ will “reconcile to himself all things, having made peace through the blood of his cross, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Colossians 1:20). He will “sum up” or “bring together” “all things in heaven and on earth” (Ephesians 1:10).

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Mark Edward

    Hm. Is the posting of this article at the same time that Greg Boyd posted a video* on the exact same topic a total coincidence, or are you all conspiring behind the internet?


  • Brent White

    Clendenin had me until he got to Holy Saturday. I know that this is a strong emphasis in Eastern Orthodoxy, but it’s not clear to me from scripture that Christ’s victory over sin, evil, and death take place through the “harrowing of hell,” rather than the cross itself. Doesn’t scripture locate this victory on the cross? Also, while I love Christus Victor, there’s no need to pit one atonement theory against others. All the motifs—substitute, sacrifice, ransom, victory over Satan—are in the Bible. We’re mostly Protestants, right? “Pride of place,” if that’s even a fair assessment, is irrelevant.

  • Phil Miller

    The harrowing of hell has more than just a strong emphasis in Eastern Orthodoxy. One could almost say it’s the focal point of the whole Pascha liturgy (something I think every Christian should attend at some point in their life, btw). The whole liturgy focuses on the declaration “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life!”

    The one thing I do really appreciate about the Christus Victor view is that Christ is an active agent in our redemption. He’s not simply passive taking part in some sort of cosmic drama. Rather, He’s actively laying down His life for us so that He may defeat Satan and the powers and rescue us. It kind of puts action into the whole concept of God being with and for us.

  • Brent White


    If it’s the focal point of Orthodox liturgy, I believe that while it’s perhaps not missing the point, it’s somewhat beside it. My apologies to St. John Chrysostam (or whomever). The strong biblical emphasis is on the cross and resurrection, not what happens in between. About that, we know little. That passage in 1 Peter 3 is incredibly obscure.

  • Phil Miller

    To be clear, I was referring only to the Pascha (Easter) liturgy.

    I would also that I think there’s another way to look at the whole “harrowing of hell” thing. The word that the creed uses for hell could also be translated “grave”. It’s the same concept as “sheol” or “Hades” in Scripture. It’s the realm of the dead. So by descending into death, Jesus conquered death. The mechanisms of how that exactly happened don’t have to be understood for one to proclaim it. At least, I don’t think so.