Christus Victor – A Celtic Look at the Death of Christ

Most of the Western Christians – Catholics, mainline Protestants and evangelicals, look at the cross of Christ through the lens of a legal metaphor. According to it, God created humans and gave them his commands. At the devil’s temptation, they disobeyed God, whose honour, as head of the universe, was utterly offended. Because of human rebellion, called sin, God cursed the entire creation. And thus, death entered our world. At the peak of history, God sent his son into the world, to die for us, so that the guilt for Adam’s fall and our sinfulness could be atoned for. Through Christ’s terrible death, justice was done for the breaking of God’s law, and God’s wrath was appeased. The penalty for our sins was paid (let us not ask ‘to whom exactly’, as this may lead us into all sorts of strange theories). If humans believed that Christ died for their sins (what is usually called the ‘penal substitution theory’) they would be saved, and when Christ comes back, at the end of history, he will take them with him to heaven, while this world will perish in flames. As to those who did not believe, God, in his wrath, has prepared for them the eternal fire of hell.

I imagine many of my readers would be familiar with this perspective, maybe it is also their own, even if they might be disturbed here and there by the way I phrased things. This is the perspective behind Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of Christ, and of many of the western depictions – cinematic, literary or theological, of the events we rememorate at this time in the church calendar. For some, this is the only correct way of understanding the story of Christ. For them, this is the Gospel.

Yet, this is by no means the only way to look at it, and, dare I say, not the best way of accounting for Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension. The Eastern Church and the Celtic Church viewed the cross through a radically different lens, which we may call generically, the Christus victor motif. In what follows, I will talk more of the Celtic version of the story.

During this period of Lent, the first I ever spent in Scotland, I did two things which gave me a somewhat different perspective on Easter. First, I followed the daily readings from David Cole’s book Celtic Lent: 40 Days of Devotions to Easter. Second, I am watching at this time the Vikings series, which begins with the first incursion of the Norsemen on the Monastery of Lindisfarne on the Holy Island, the famous Celtic religious centre in Northumbria, which I had the privilege of visiting a number of times.

Cole talks often in this book about the Christus victor metaphor that informed the Celts’ understanding of Christ’s sacrifice, not as a ransom to appease God’s wrath, but as the culmination of a hero saga, in which the Dryhtnes (the Celtic word for Lord, which was originally the designation of a warlord in charge of a band of warriors) becomes victorious in his battle against the invisible forces of evil, in spite of his terrible death, precisely because death is followed by resurrection. And that not because God’s wrath has been appeased, but because death was the entry door for the hero to be received in triumph at his return in the angelic world (the Christian version of Valhalla, if you want).

Watching in the Vikings the painful and courageous death of Ragnar Lothbrok, helped me understand much better how this metaphor worked in the minds of Celtic Christians. To be fair, being a moderate pacifist, I am more attracted to the peaceful metaphors of the Gospel in the biblical text (grain of wheat, mustard seed, light, yeast, etc.) and I have an instinctive negative reaction to the aggressive metaphors favoured for instance by the American obsession with ‘cultural wars’. Though, this may have not been so much of a problem for the Celts, who were (and their hers still are) short tempered, very passionate people, constantly engaged in war between themselves and with others.

However, the Christian version of the Celtic cult of the hero has nothing to do  with physical fighting or waging ‘holy wars’, supposedly for the spreading the Gospel, which dominated so much of Medieval Christendom, booth in the East and the West, but it is about spiritual warfare against the demonic forces of evil, of which Paul the apostle speaks in Ephesians 6.

This reminds me of a very insightful observation made by Michael Green in his book Evangelism in the Early Church. He argues there that when Peter the apostle preached to the Jews, the recipients of the law of Moses, he spoke of sin as breach of God’s law and of salvation in terms of propitiation for their lawlessness. However, when Paul spoke to the Greeks, who had no law of God revealed to them (besides the testimony of God in nature and their own conscience, as Paul shows in the book of Romans), the apostle spoke of evil in terms of people being enslaved by fear of the primordial forces of evil, and he presented salvation in terms of liberation from under the oppression of these forces and the adoption of these Gentiles as daughters and sons of the God of love, who sacrificed his own son in order to liberate them and give them life in all its fulness, the resurrection of Christ being the guarantee of this promise, which was to be accepted by faith.

Because of their cultural resemblance, I find the Celtic view of Easter much closer to the way in which Paul preached to the Greeks. Same was true, I guess, about Viking culture. As a result, the Norsemen may have been victorious against the Scots and the Anglo-Saxons, but, in the end, they themselves were conquered spiritually by the Christus victor, the Dryhtnes, the hero, whose glorious victory we remember and celebrate these days.

So, I invite you to look at the cross with new eyes and to get enriched with this new perspective, which will give new meaning to your song ‘Christ is risen’.

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s