Christianity doesn’t just promise salvation from sin, death, and the devil, but victory over these things.
In the Book of Revelation, the believer who has persevered to the end is repeatedly described as the ‘victor.’ The victor will be ‘dressed in white,’ become a ‘pillar in the temple,’ and be enthroned with Christ (see Revelation 3:5, 12, 21).
A similar vision of victory is presented to us at the end of 1 Corinthians 15:54-57,
“Death is swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
But wait, if death has been defeated, why do we still die?
This is a strange kind of victory indeed.
Yet this seems to be the common characteristic of all Christian victory. Consider sin. All of us were born spiritually dead ‘in our trespasses,’ in need of baptism in order to be ‘born again’ (see Ephesians 2:1 and Colossians 2:13). And many of those that have received baptism return to a state of spiritual death once or more in their lives, requiring the sacramental grace of confession to be revived.
In a way, this is the story of humanity. Remember, the loss of Adam and Eve was total. After the fall into sin, Adam and Eve were sentenced to lives of pain and expelled from the Garden of Eden. In the beginning, they had enjoyed a special communion with God. At the end of their lives, they died outside paradise and went to hell, so Christian tradition holds.
It is also the story of Israel in the Old Testament. In 722, the Northern Kingdom of Israel is destroyed. In 538 BC, the Kingdom of Judah falls, the Israelites are exiled, the temple is decimated, and the ark of the covenant is lost.
The ultimate example of this is Christ Himself. Remember, our savior’s earthly ministry was, by all normal standards, an abject failure. And the savior Himself was executed by the state authorities. Moreover, upon the end of His earthly life He did not simply just go back to heaven. He experienced the fullness of a human death, which means the separation of body and soul and the descent of the latter into hell.
Of course, it is precisely at this moment that victory is revealed. Christian tradition holds that the descent to hell was an instance of the victorious Christ marching into hell, brandishing the cross as a trophy of his triumph, breaking down the gates of hell, and releasing its denizens—including Adam and Eve—into paradise.
The distinctive nature of Christian victory is that it comes after the enemy has seemingly prevailed. If the cross has lost its strangeness for us, we are reminded of it by the fact that we still die a physical death and are born spiritually dead, even after the event—the crucifixion—that made our salvation possible.
In fact, not only do we as individual men and women die, but we are told that the whole world will pass away (see Matthew 24:35, 1 John 2:17, and 1 Corinthians 7:31).
But this sets the stage for the advent of a new heaven and a new earth in Revelation 21.
Apparent defeat is what makes the later victory of the defeated so decisive. If your enemy has given you all he had, to the point that he appears to triumph over you, your later conquest over Him is that much more certain. What else can the enemy do to you? He’s already expended all His energy. He’s already thrown everything he had at you. He’s already defeated you, or so he thought.
This universal principle might be best illustrated by an example from twentieth century history. Compare the outcomes of the first and second world wars. The first ended in effectively a stalemate. Although the armistice agreement to which Germany agreed was later viewed as some kind of capitulation, the country was not really defeated in World War I.
It most certainly was in World War II, as the Western forces and Soviets marched all the way into Berlin. Hitler committed suicide, the German forces surrendered unconditionally, and the country was split in two.
But this all came after what was nearly a total defeat of the Allies. France fell in WWII,. The entire Allied army was forced to withdraw at Dunkirk. And Hitler nearly starved and bombed Britain into submission.
By submitting to death and then rising from it, Christ robbed death of all of its power. We too face death, both physical and spiritual, in order that we may taste of the same overwhelmingly decisive victory that Christ won for us. As St. Paul writes in Romans 8:37, we are ‘more than conquerors’ through Christ.