Victory in Death
Today Christians around the world are celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is something that we do every Sunday, not just on Easter. Yet sometimes we overlook the significance of what it means for someone to succumb to death and return to life. There is something about the concept, or theme, of resurrection that even the secular world often recognizes (and even celebrates). My goal today is to highlight just a few examples.
In J. R. R. Tolkien’s story The Lord of the Rings, the theme of resurrection is seen in the character of Gandalf the Grey. In leading the fellowship of the ring through Moria, Gandalf faces against the Balrog, a demon comprised both of shadow and flame. Gandalf sacrifices himself to save his companions, falling into the abyss along with the Balrog. Down in the highest peak of the deepest dungeon, Gandalf finally defeats the demon but as a result succumbs to death.
Later on in the story, Gandalf returns as Gandalf the White and comes to the aid of the fellowship and the free peoples of Middle Earth. Yet he is not the same as he was before. He commands greater respect and wields more power after his return to life, having achieved a sort of victory-through-death. One scene that depicts this well is his confrontation with Saruman after the battle of Helm’s Deep. Saruman the White, who is head of the order of wizards and one of the leaders of the council, is trapped in the Tower of Orthanc. When the victors of the battle, including Aragorn and King Theoden, arrive at the tower, Saruman attempts to use his powers of speech and persuasion to confuse and deceive them.
When the heroes resist Saruman’s efforts, Gandalf offers mercy and freedom to him, so long as he hands over his staff and the Key of Orthanc (with the possibility that they will be returned to him at a later time). Saruman shows his true nature in his response:
“Later! Yes, when you also have the Keys of Barad-dur itself, I suppose; and the crowns of seven kings, and the rods of the Five Wizards, and have purchased yourself a pair of boots many sizes larger than those that you wear now. A modest plan. Hardly one in which my help is needed! I have other things to do. Do not be a fool. If you wish to treat with me, while you have a chance, go away, and come back when you are sober! And leave behind these cut-throats and small rag-tag that dangle at your tail! Good day!”
At this point in the scene, Saruman turns to walk away from Gandalf dismissively. This would normally have been something that he could freely do when Gandalf was Gandalf the Grey. Yet this time things turn out differently:
“‘Come back, Saruman!’ said Gandalf in a commanding voice. To the amazement of the others, Saruman turned again, and as if dragged against his will, he came slowly back to the iron rail, leaning on it, breathing hard. His face was lined and shrunken. His hand clutched his heavy black staff like a claw.”
We see here that Gandalf commands authority that he had not had before — such a level of authority that Saruman himself has no choice but to obey. And although Saruman tries to resist, he has no power to stand against the risen Gandalf, a point that Gandalf makes clear:
“‘I did not give you leave to go,’ said Gandalf sternly. ‘I have not finished. You have become a fool, Saruman, and yet pitiable. You might still have turned away from folly and evil, and have been of service. But you choose to stay and gnaw the ends of your old plots. Stay then! But I warn you, you will not easily come out again. Not unless the dark hands of the East stretch out to take you, Saruman!’ he cried, and his voice grew in power and authority. ‘Behold, I am not Gandalf the Grey, whom you betrayed. I am Gandalf the White, who has returned from death. You have no color now, and I cast you from the order and from the Council.’ He raised his hand, and spoke slowly in a clear cold voice. ‘Saruman, your staff is broken.’ There was a crack, and the staff split asunder in Saruman’s hand, and the head of it fell down at Gandalf’s feet. ‘Go!’ said Gandalf. With a cry Saruman fell back and crawled away.”
We see here that whereas previously Saruman had power to command and dismiss Gandalf, now Gandalf has the power to command and dismiss Saruman. It is a beautiful picture of how, through his sacrificial death and miraculous resurrection, Gandalf achieved victory and authority over his enemies.
Jumping to a more modern example, we see the concept of death and resurrection in the film The Dark Knight Rises. There, the middle-aged Batman loses his first fight against Bane, who is portrayed as the ultimate and most-dangerous villain in the trilogy.
Defeated, Bruce Wayne is cast down into The Pit, a prison used by Bane to torture and isolate his enemies. Bane describes how the prison is particularly hellish because of the despair it brings:
“There’s a reason why this prison is the worst hell on earth… Hope. Every man who has rotted here over the centuries has looked up to the light and imagined climbing to freedom. So easy… So simple… And like shipwrecked men turning to sea water from uncontrollable thirst, many have died trying. I learned here that there can be no true despair without hope.”
Eventually, against insurmountable odds, Bruce Wayne escapes The Pit and gains his freedom. Yet in doing so he also gains power and a sense of purpose. This enables him to defeat Bane during their second, and final, battle.
Interestingly, the motivation behind Batman’s initial sacrifice and his eventual resurrection and victory was to rescue his city from certain destruction. In other words, he died and rose again to save his people.
The two examples I gave of the theme of death and resurrection are purely fictional, yet they are incredibly powerful. Why? Why do we celebrate the hero who faces certain death, and perhaps actually dies, but yet comes back to achieve victory?
Before I answer that question I want to bring up an example from the real world.
I recently read the book Extreme Ownership, written by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. Being two former Navy Seals, these men make the argument that true leadership requires extreme ownership, where the leader takes full responsibility for everything that happens within his or her domain:
“The leader must own everything in his or her world. There is no one else to blame. The leader must acknowledge mistakes and admit failures, take ownership of them, and develop a plan to win.”
This principle of leadership, described and defended by Willink and Babin, is critical in understanding the theme of death and resurrection. The reason for this is because both find their intersection in Jesus Christ.
Consider for a moment the fact that Jesus Christ, as the ultimate leader, took complete ownership of this dead and broken world. He saw the problem of sin and death but did not blame others by pointing fingers. And even though he was tempted by Satan to try to take the easy way out, he chose to adhere to the plan that would bring true victory. That plan involved his death on the cross.
Although heroes like Gandalf and Bruce Wayne sacrificed themselves, overcame death, and achieved victory, the victory they gained was only within the earthly realm, against earthly enemies. It was temporary and limited.
Christ’s sacrifice was a once for all sacrifice that disarmed Satan and achieved complete, everlasting victory. Furthermore, Christ’s sacrifice was the ultimate example of extreme ownership. He took our sins upon himself as if they were his own, and he dealt with them. In other words, he took responsibility for things he did not do. It cost him his life, yet he returned from death and defeated his enemies. That is leadership. And that is why we celebrate death and resurrection in our stories. Yet the story of Christ’s sacrifice is not fictional, but real. He really did live and he really did die. He really did rise again and now has real authority in heaven and on earth.
This is exactly what the earliest Christians taught and believed. My hope is that we will teach it and believe it today.
I wish to end this article with a quote from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. As you read through it, pay very close attention to the themes of leadership, sacrifice, and resurrection portrayed within.
Philippians 2:5–11 (ESV)
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.