Theories of the Atonement – The Ransom Theory

As we continue our study of the atonement, we now look at the first widely held theory of the atonement: the “ransom theory”.  Here are some Biblical texts that point toward this concept:

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45, emph mine)

You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him. (Acts 10:38)

Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. (Hebrews 2:14-15)

When I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man. And He placed His right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades. (Rev. 1:17-18)

This theory argues that sinners go to hell because they belong to Satan.  To “ransom” mankind from the plight of their sin, God had to buy them back from Satan.  He had to pay something or give something to Satan.  He did this by a “swap” :  Jesus for everyone else.  And Satan took the bait, so to speak. But bit off more than he could chew!

Those familiar with their Bibles will quickly see something wrong with this theory.  They will know that there is no Scriptural warrant for a payment being paid by God to Satan. There’s simply no biblical grounds for this.  But in fairness to the earliest Christians who postulated this theory, we need to understand that they didn’t have the New Testament yet.  They had portions of the writings of the Apostles, but not what we have.  This theory emerged in the first couple of centuries of the church, before the authorized books/letters that now make up the New Testament had been collected and confirmed (what we now call the “canon” of Scripture.)

Weirdness came in as men took the metaphor of a ransom being paid too far…to conclusions not warranted by the Scriptures. Some early Christian authorities wrote about Jesus being human bait on a divine hook.  Supposedly, Satan was unaware that Jesus was God and took the “human” bait – only to be caught with the “hook” of His divinity.  When Satan got Jesus down into hell, he soon learned that he was no match for Christ.  And thus Jesus plundered hell.

Apparently, this theory that depicts God as “tricking” (or even deceiving) the devil was not problematic for believers through the early centuries. Such famous church fathers as Iraneaus and Origen held to aspects of this theory.  It was the prevailing theory of the atonement for first 1,000 years of Church history.

Original culture and background

One reason the Ransom Theory had such wide scale acceptance by early Christians was because they lived in a world so full of and captive to superstition, sorcery, necromancy, divination, and idol worship.  Demon possession was common place and acknowledged by all.  It was a world full of evil powers, spirits, gods and goddesses, curses and witchcraft.  Most people were highly superstitious and enslaved by fear of the powers of darkness. They were oppressed and driven here and there by their beliefs.  They longed for PEACE and deliverance from the vengeful and capricious gods of heathen worship.

The proclamation that Jesus Christ was victor over all spiritual powers and had defeated death and the grave was the good news that gave them hope and freedom from spiritual bondage!

But as stated above, though there is much truth within this theory, it is mixed with error.  The main problems with the Ransom (paid to Satan) theory:

  • It gives Satan far more credit and authority than the Bible warrants.
  • In doing so it makes God somehow answerable to Satan, and thus robs God of His true sovereignty. God and mankind alike become victims of spiritual forces.
  • It is unjust…in that what Satan has stolen…he has to be paid back for! Mankind and earth belonged to God…Satan deceived and robbed it. God does NOT have to pay Satan anything to get it back!
  • Suggests that God had to “deceive” Satan to save mankind with a “bait and switch” at the Cross.
  • Doesn’t address true human guilt, God’s righteous anger against sin, or the coming Day of Judgment.

I will continue with more theories of the atonement in the next post.

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