Bear with me. It'll come together.
A long time ago I was in a men's theology group called Beer and Bull. It was just what the name implies: some guys hanging around drinking beer like monks and arguing about the niceties of infant versus adult baptism.
One unit of our Biblical (or was it bibulous?) curriculum involved atonement theories. Atonement is a coined word, literally at-one-ment, or the quality of being "at one" or reconciled with God and therefore okay in God's book. Atonement of human beings with God was accomplished by Christ-- somehow-- through his death and resurrection. Theologians have been arguing about the mechanics of the whole thing for centuries.
Silly me-- at the time I thought there was only one kind of atonement: Jesus died for our sins. He took the punishment that we so richly deserved. This is called the "Substitution" theory and is the only version you'll get from TV preachers.
There is another theory, called the "Ransom" theory, where God buys us back from the devil, at the very precious price of his son's death. Of course, Christ being God, death could never hold him. This is what happens in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe when Aslan bargains with the White Witch to let Edmund go if Aslan gives himself up to her.
And there is another theory, the "Christ the Victor" theory, which is strongly held in the Greek Orthodox Church, and so popular among that Lutherans that they name parishes ("Christus Victor") after it. This theory goes that when Christ died, he went down to hell just like everyone else who'd already died, and spent the three days he was dead preaching to the souls who'd gone before him. Then, because death could not hold him, he ripped down the gates of hell, brought up the dead souls with him, and beat down Satan under his feet. Pecs-a-poppin' Jesus conquered Death for us, and so we get eternal life.
In this theory, the death of Jesus is necessary not to punish sinners but to gain access to the realm of death in order to destroy it.
One of the most beautiful sermons of all time, by St. John Chrysostom, expounds this theory. A very quick excerpt:
Let no one fear death, For the Saviour's death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it.Read the whole thing here.
There is a less mythological version of the theory, of course. I like this highly personal explanation.
Now, to the movie.
Funny thing-- Hercules, the quintessential character from non-Christian, pagan, Greek mythology, gets used by Disney in his movie to retell the story of two out of these three theories.
In Hercules, Hades, the god of the dead, is the bad guy. Satan figure, check. Megara, Meg for short, is the mortal who has sold her soul to the devil (I mean, Hades) for the sake of a boyfriend who ended up leaving her. Human sinner in thrall to the villain, check. Hercules is the god who comes to earth and "becomes" mortal but retains his godlike strength. God-human Jesus figure, check. We are a go, Houston.
Spoilers now deploying.
Towards the end of the story, Meg has died and is swirling in the River of Death with all the other souls. Hercules makes a one-for-one deal with Hades: Meg for Herc, just like the Aslan for Edmund deal: Ransom Theory, check.
Hercules jumps into the river to pull Meg back up to the surface. Hades is overjoyed. Hercules will be dead before he reaches Meg. But just then the Deep Magic kicks in. Hercules lost his divinity in coming to earth, but regains it when he becomes a True Hero-- that is, when he decides to Lay Down His Life For His Friend (see John 15:13 and following for this one).
So death cannot hold Hercules. He rescues Meg, beats down Hades under his feet, and kicks him into the River of Death. Christus Victory Theory, check.
Extremely Christian, no?
The ironic thing is that the Christus Victor theory gets its ancient inspiration from the real Greek story of Heracles. In authentic Greek myth, Heracles really did go down to the Underworld to accomplish a task set by his master, King Eurystheus. He freed the (living, but trapped) hero Theseus from Hades, conquered and toted away Cerberus, the three-headed dog of the Underworld, and punched Hades in the nose, proving once and for all he, Heracles, was deserving of immortality. This is the ancient Greek Heracles Victor story.
Disney has unwittingly (as far as I know) retold the Ransom and Christus Victor story using the original inspiration for the Christus Victor story. And all so they could make a buck. That's the perpetual mythmaking machine for you.
Icon reproduction courtesy of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.