Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. (Hebrews 2:14-15)
In the previous post, we saw how Moses fashioned a bronze serpent and raised it on a pole; how those who had been bitten by live serpents were healed when they looked at that bronze serpent and lived; and how Christ compared His coming crucifixion to that healing, life-giving event.
But a serpent, of all things, to typify Christ? Why? Isn’t that more of an anti-type? Hasn’t the serpent always, since Eden, typified the devil?
Yes, and that is exactly why God told Moses to fashion that particular symbol: on purpose to foreshadow the fact that Christ, in dying, crucified sin. Or as St. Paul puts it, “[God] made Him to be sin for us, Who knew no sin.” (Corinthians 5:21. See my earlier post on the interpretation of this verse.)
This does not mean any such simplistic thing as that God the Father was blaming the Blameless One for everybody else’s sin! Even if we do sometimes say so metaphorically, at the literal level we would never consider that any form of justice, much less Divine Justice.
Instead, “[God] made Him to be sin for us, Who knew no sin” means that when Christ dies, so does sin. In His death, sin is crucified. How does His dying destroy sin? By destroying death. Think of death as a scorpion, whose tail, lashing out, stings us. The stings it inflicts are sins. (cf. I Cor. 15:56)
Yes, it works both ways. Originally, sin (not God) made us mortal. Now mortality, death, residing in our very genes, erupts in us as sin, making a disastrous downward spiral. The more we sin, the more we die (move further and further from God-our-Life) and the more we die, the more we sin. The sicker we become, the more symptoms we show; and the more symptoms appear, the sicker we feel. To be free from the symptom (sin) we must be free of the disease (death). If we are not to keep on being stung by sin, the scorpion, death, must be killed.
How does death cause us to sin? It does it in two ways, for death means two things.
First, death is the separation of body and soul from God, a condition we inherit, in which we are born. (It is not a reciprocal separation, for if He were to abandon us, we could not live a moment! But it is separation in that we have abandoned Him.) In this separation, we are largely blind to God and to all the things concerning Him. We are more oriented toward ourselves than to our Creator, meaning we are warped. From this blindness come sins. From this self-serving come more sins.
Secondly, we are all aware that one day, inescapably, our bodies, too, shall die. This awareness spurs more sins. Pause for a while (preferably a long while!) to reflect how differently we would live if there were no fear of death; how different would be our behavior if we knew nothing could ever harm us, nothing could ever end our lives, if we weren’t always thinking, “Life is short,” as in, “too short to put up with you,” or, “too short not to enjoy as fully as possible, even at the expense of others.” There would be no point in so much of our sinning if it just weren’t true that “tomorrow we die.” As it is, though, death is the devil’s whip, keeping us slavishly, even feverishly, pursuing his agenda. Quick, amass your fortune now, he whispers, so you can live high in whatever time remains. Be ruthless if necessary. Or, You’re getting older now; you are going to have to get tough if you are to become famous enough for your name to live on after you. Or, Since you will die unless you ____ (fill in the blank with steal, kill, lie, or any other sin), do it.
The more we ponder it, the more we realize how free we would be, free as Adam and Eve were, free from compulsion to sin, free to choose goodness, but for the death we carry around inside us.
Fr. John Romanides explains in detail how the fear of death causes us to sin.
In the first place, the deprivation of divine grace impairs the mental powers of the newborn infant; thus, the mind of man has a tendency toward evil from the beginning. This tendency grows strong when the ruling force of corruption becomes perceptible in the body. Through the power of death and the devil, sin that reigns in man gives rise to fear and anxiety and to the general instinct of self-preservation or survival. Thus, Satan manipulates man’s fear and his desire for self-satisfaction, raising up sin in him, in other words, transgression against the divine will regarding unselfish love, and provoking man to stray from his original destiny. Since weakness is caused in the flesh by death, satan moves man to countless passions and leads him to devious thoughts, actions, and selfish relations with God as well as with his fellow man. ..
Because of death, man must first attend to the necessities of life in order to stay alive. In this struggle, self-interests are unavoidable. Thus, man is unable to live in accordance with his original destiny of unselfish love. This state of subjection under the reign of death is the root of man’s weaknesses in which he becomes entangled in sin at the urging of the demons and by his own consent. Resting in the hands of the devil, the power of the fear of death is the root from which self-aggrandizement, egotism, hatred, envy, and other similar passions spring up. In addition to the fact that man “subjects himself to anything in order to avoid dying,” he constantly fears that his life is without meaning. Thus, he strives to demonstrate to himself and to others that it has worth. He loves flatterers and hates his detractors. He seeks his own and envies the success of others. He loves those who love him and hates those who hate him. He seeks security and happiness in wealth, glory, bodily pleasures… (The Ancestral Sin, pp. 162-163)
So the very condition of death and corruptibility (being liable to harm), itself, plus the fear of death, together keep us in subjection to sin.
But Jesus, dying, transforms death. Exactly how He does this is a mystery beyond human comprehension, which is why we have so many models of what goes on in the atonement. But we sometimes compare it with what happens when a strong light is turned on in a dark place: the light “wins” out and ends the darkness - because darkness is nothing but lack of light particles. Similarly, when death and Life Himself meet, His inifinite Life more than cancels out death - because death is nothing but the absence of life. Jesus destroys death the way you destroy ignorance when you give someone knowledge: by bringing to it what was lacking, by filling up the void. Jesus dies as Man, and as God fills up death with His own, immortal, infinite, eternal Life. And in destroying death as The End, in making of it a portal to new Life instead, Jesus destroys our slavery to sin. That’s why we say that in dying on the Cross, Jesus crucified sin. Hence, the bronze serpent fashioned by Prophet Moses. It was to signify this beforehand.
It is not a case of God the Father judging the whole world guilty and then transferring that guilt to the only innocent Man who ever lived. Besides being the grossest injustice imaginable, such a notion ignores the revealed fact that God the Father is not our Judge; only Christ Himself is. (John 5:22) Moreover, the judging of the world is reserved for when Christ comes again; it did not happen on the Cross, except in the sense that the world there supremely demonstrated its guilt. “And He shall come again,” we say in the Creed, “to judge the living and the dead…” Christ shall judge the world when He returns and shall pass sentence. But not yet, not this time, “For God did not send His Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”
Meanwhile, on the cross, the world indeed gets its day in court, but notice: not yet as the defendant! “Now is the judgment of this world,” says the Lord, “now shall the prince of this world be cast out.” (John 12:31) The “prince of this world” means the devil. The world, here, is in court as the victim who is to be awarded the verdict it seeks against its tyrant. God’s Justice here is freeing His people and reclaiming us from the tyrant, for we are rightfully His own. Now the ancient serpent is about to be defanged, on the Cross. (See Genesis 3:15) Now, by dying, Christ is about to trample down death by death.