In many mainline congregations this Holy Week, the dominant motif with which scripture describes the meaning of the death of Jesus, substitution, will be judiciously avoided. Substitutionary atonement, it’s often said with no small amount of enlightened self-congratulation, is a medieval caricature, depicting an angry, wrath-filled God who kills Jesus- in our place- to vindicate and avenge his sin-besmirched honor.
To the extent this critique of scripture’s substitution motif is valid, it is valid only because we have narrowed the cast of characters in scripture’s salvation drama.
With the antagonist removed from the stage, humanity becomes the object of God’s wrath and, truth be told as unintelligible as it is, God the Father becomes the antagonist from whom God the Son saves us.
Such is what happens when we excise the Devil from the story.
Like Fred and Vilma, the Enlightenment tempts us to want to pull away the monster mask from the Jesus story in order to understand what’s really going on, when, in fact, it’s no longer possible to understand what Jesus thought was going on if you pull away the demons and devils from the story.
Call it what you will:
Sin and Death, as Paul does in Romans
The Principalities and Powers, as Ephesians does
Satan, as Jesus says in the Gospels
Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, or the Adversary, as Jesus does elsewhere
Call it what you will, the sheer array of names proves the point: the Devil is the narrative glue that holds the New Testament together. The language of Satan so thoroughly saturates the New Testament you can’t speak proper Christian without believing in him. Even the ancient Christmas carols most commonly describe the incarnation as the invasion by God of Satan’s territory.
The Apostle John spells it out for us, spells out the reason for Jesus’ coming not in terms of our sin but in terms of Satan. John says: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the Devil’s work.”
And when Peter explains who Jesus is to a curious Roman named Cornelius in Acts 10, Peter says: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power…to save all who were under the power of the Devil.”
When his disciples ask him how to pray, Jesus teaches them to pray “…Deliver us from the Evil One…”
You can count up the verses.
More so than he was a teacher or a wonder worker. More so than a prophet, a preacher, or a revolutionary, Jesus was an exorcist and nowhere more so than upon the cross.
Not only is Sin, as in the Power of Sin- Satan, the New Testament’s narrative glue, it is the necessary antagonist to any coherent understanding of substitutionary atonement.
If there’s no Devil, there’s no Gospel.
Because, according to the Gospel, our salvation is not a 2-person drama.
It’s not a 2-person cast of God-in-Christ and us.
It’s not a simple exchange brokered over our sin and his cross. According to the Gospels, the Gospel is not just that Jesus died for your sin. The Gospel is that Jesus defeated Sin with a capital S. Defeated, that is, Satan.
The Gospel is not just that Jesus suffered in your place.
The Gospel is that Jesus overcame the One who holds you in your place.
God’s wrath isn’t directed at us or character flaw within us called ‘sin.’ God’s wrath, out of love for us, is directed at that which holds us in bondage, the Power of Sin.
It isn’t just that Jesus died your death. It’s that Jesus has delivered you from the Power of Death with a capital D, the one whom Paul calls the Enemy with a capital E.
According to scripture, there is a 3rd character in this story. There’s a third cast member to the salvation drama. We’re not only sinners before God. We’re captives to Another. We’re unwitting accomplices and slaves and victims of Another.
And even now, says scripture, the New Creation being brought into reality by Christ is constantly at war with, always contending against, the Old Creation ruled by Satan, and the battlefield runs through every human heart.
Without this third character in the salvation story, the Gospel is no longer Gospel. It’s no longer Good News.