On the cross, Jesus was victorious over sin, death, and the devil. Some Christians struggle with how Jesus was victorious over death, since we look around us and see death everywhere. We even have a saying that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. So since death is a certainty, how is it that Jesus defeated death?
To understand how, it is helpful to see how death has controlled and enslaved humanity. When we talk about Jesus defeating death, we most often think of the death that comes at the end of our life, and how after our own physical death, we will be resurrected to a new life with God in eternity. And while that is part of what the Bible has in mind when it talks about the victory of Jesus over death, I do not think that is the only aspect of how Jesus defeated death.
Instead, the victory of Jesus over death was also a victory over how and why we kill others. It was a victory over the death of “the other.” Since the very beginning of human history, we are enthralled and enslaved to the death of the other as a means to save ourselves. The death of the other has been our deliverer. For most of human history, the death of the other has been the savior of the self. We kill others so that we ourselves might live. We look to death to solve all our problems and defeat our enemies and get us what we want. We rationalize death by saying it was “us or them.” This is the cycle of murder which is behind every murder as well.
Most murderers do not think of themselves as murderers, but as vigilantes of justice. Their murder of another person was justified. They were righting a wrong, killing a criminal, or invoking vengeance upon some injustice done to them or their family. Every murderer is able to justify his own murder. All violence is “justifiable.” But this justifiable violence leads only to more violence, and as violence escalates out of control, we create scapegoats to bear the accumulated violence into death. We kill others to rescue ourselves from death. While it is true that the wages of sin is death and since all have sinned all will die (Rom 3:23; 6:23), the death which Scripture is most concerned with is not our own death, but the death of others by our own hand.
In human history, we have been able to justify the death of the other by blaming them for everything that has gone wrong (scapegoating), and by justifying the death of one as necessary for the good of all (sacrificing). We justify these scapegoating sacrifices by making the scapegoat into a monster. We convince ourselves that the other person must die because they are the evil sinner, the bringer of pain, sickness, and injustice, the creator of division and strife. In this way we are able to hide the injustice of our own violence by claiming that our violence is just.
But when Jesus died on the cross, it was evident to all that He was innocent of any wrongdoing. Though we tried to make Him a scapegoat by charging Him with blasphemy, the accusations brought against Him would not stick. When God raised Jesus from the dead, this was the divine vindication of Jesus, proving that all accusations brought against Jesus had been patently false.
So through His willing death as a truly innocent victim, Jesus unveiled the human reliance upon the death of the other as a means to achieve temporary peace. Though we can often rationally justify our violence against others, there is no way to rationally justify the murder of Jesus. But Jesus died willingly to reveal to us that just as we unjustly killed Him, so also, we have unjustly killed every victim in human history and that such violence in God’s name must stop.
In this way, Jesus defeated the power of death—not only our own future death, but also the power we give to the death of someone else. Jesus allowed us to put Him to death so that we might see that we often call for the death of others even though their death is not deserved or required. We use the death of others as a means to gain life for ourselves, and on the cross, Jesus exposed this form of death as having nothing whatsoever to do with God. Rather than call for the death of others, Jesus invites us to die for others. Life is found, not in killing others, but in being willing to lay down our lives for others.