The Significance of Christus Victor
Updated: Apr 29
"Because I could not stop for death," Dickinson writes, "he kindly stop for me." Death is such a gentlemen, you know. "The carriage held but just ourselves — / And immortality." Emily Dickinson was not the only 19th-century American who Romanticized death; there were plenty others who personified his deferential nature as an obliging friend who would visit regularly to "chat about such matters as the weather, or recipes for oyster pie, or recent advances in dental technology." But perhaps the apogee of sentimentality came in the verse of William Cullen Bryant, who at the wise age of sixteen claimed to have a novel "sight" of death, which he shared in his poem "Thanatopsis."
These benevolent portrayals of death, in lyric or reflection, seem to come in the form of some tractable gentleman who is civil, knows no haste, and is courteous as an English butler. But they are anything but new. Long ago, Marcus Aurelius reminds himself (and us) repeatedly that death "is not only a work of nature, but also conducing to nature." (Cue the "Circle of Life" anthem as Simba the Lion King is hoisted in the air.) Death, then, is merely the working out of natural causes. The Stoic Roman Emperor writes, "As generations [genesis], so also death, a secret of nature's wisdom, a mixture of elements, resolved into the same elements again" (Meditations IV.5). Because death is a norm, he adds, it is "a thing surely which no man ought to be ashamed of." This is why he can argue, "Thou must not in matter of death carry thyself scornfully, but as one that is well pleased with it, as being one of those things that nature hath appointed" (IX.3).
We should not be surprised when we hear echoes of this in Bryant's sophomoric verse a century and a half later, where he boasts an new "optics" of death that curbs our fears and brings consolation:
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.
Whence comes this confidence to assuage our fears of death? The young classically and educated Bryant is merely regurgitating what pagan man, without the aid of divine revelation, reasoned about death.
Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim
Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,
This is what Solomon calls looking hard at life "under the sun." The height of human wisdom rises to a point, and pagan man can, as Paul acknowledges in Romans, glimpse the Creator in contemplating the creation, seeing dimly Godhead in the forms and garb of Nature. And when confronted with death, the ultimately incongruity, pagan man with reason and imagination can even resolve it and all the pain of life into a narrative and a system. Death is merely part of life. But such was the irony of the Enlightenment. To those who discovered the good and human things about pagan literature, perhaps it was a further sign of enlightenment to an enlightened age to rediscover a pagan vision of death as well.
Easter, however, defies this. Easter is that scandalous slap in the Apollonian face of neatly balances forms and cycles (life and death, death and rebirth). Easter is that reminder that the Christian vision of the world is quite unique and that it can not be fitted into the typology of even the best and most human of pagan religions. From antiquity on Christianity was unique in that it viewed death as something wrong with nature.
This is why Paul shouts his taunt against the old enemy who held sway and whom the devils had neatly arranged their system of worldly religion. This is why Paul cries, "Where, O death, is thy sting?" (1 Cor. 15:55).
Here is the agenda for today.