The Atonement as Ransom

In my last post I referred to a common saying that “Jesus paid a debt he did not owe, because I owed a debt I could not pay.”  Sacred Scripture does support the idea that Christ is paying a “debt” with his sacrifice as we read in Colossians 2:13-14“And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” 

But a more frequent word we discover in Sacred Scripture regarding Christ’s work on the cross is the word “ransom.”  When we hear this word, we are more inclined to view a payment to someone who has unlawfully taken something of ours, and we are willing to pay a price for its return.  There are multiple Scripture passages that refer to Christ giving his life as a “ransom” for us.

Mark 10:45  “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

1 Timothy 2:5-6  For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, the testimony to which was borne at the proper time.”

1 Peter 1:18-19  “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.”

Revelation 5:9-10 “Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.”

For this reason one of the earliest and most dominant theories in the early Church for understanding the atoning work of Christ on the cross is known as the “ransom” theory.  Here is a brief summary of how that is viewed:

“Essentially, this theory claimed that Adam and Eve sold humanity over to the Devil at the time of the Fall; hence, justice required that God pay the Devil a ransom to free us from the Devil’s clutches.  God, however, tricked the Devil into accepting Christ’s death as a ransom, for the Devil did not realize that Christ could not be held in the bonds of death.  Once the Devil accepted Christ’s death as a ransom, this theory concluded, justice was satisfied and God was able to free us from Satan’s grip.”    (Robin Collins, Understanding Atonement: A New and Orthodox Theory)

So in this understanding of the atonement, the “debt” that is owed is ransom, and the person it is owed to is Satan.  “Redeeming” in this case literally means to “buy back.”  The idea aligns with the common practice of the time to ransom people who had been captured during warfare – they were “ransomed” for a price, then bought back to return to their rightful home.

If you are familiar with the CS Lewis children’s story “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” this is the theology he uses in that book to explain Christ’s atoning work to children.  The one child, Edmund, falls into the trap of the witch, who represents Satan in the story.  Aslan (the Lion who represents Christ) offers himself as ransom for Edmund so he will be released, knowing that the witch will demand his death.  But the witch doesn’t realize that Aslan will rise from the dead.  In this story written for a child, CS Lewis explains what happened this way:

“It means, said Aslan, that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know.  Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time.  But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation.  She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”

St. Augustine referred to this view as a “mouse trap” and St. Gregory of Nyssa used a “fish hook” analogy to highlight the understanding that Christ was used as “bait” to set a trap for Satan.

While there may be some merit in this view of the atonement, in general we also recognize some problems if seen too literally.  First, it assumes that Satan has some “right” over the creation he corrupted and God was required to pay him a price to get it back.  Ransom in this sense is very contrary to any sense of true justice.  Another issue is the idea that God “tricked” even Satan by a form of deception.  This would seem to be contrary to God’s nature.  As the centuries go by, other understandings of the atonement begin to take shape that address these concerns.  More on those to come.

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