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THE CHRISTIAN CONCEPT OF ATONEMENT

The Ransom Theory
(a.k.a. Classical Theory)

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The Ransom Theory -- God deceitfully bribes and tricks Satan:

This was the dominant belief in the early Christian church. It has also been called the "Classic" theory of the atonement. It was accepted by church leaders for about a millennium, from the second to the twelfth century CE. There are very few theologians outside of the Eastern Orthodox churches and the Protestant Word-faith Movement who believe in it today. 1 However, one might argue that this concept may be the most accurate theory of all, because it was accepted by Christian leaders within two centuries after Yeshua's (a.k.a. Jesus Christ) and Paul's death. This happened when memories of their teachings were still relatively fresh.

The early church father Origen (185-254 CE) was a leader of the Alexandrian School in Egypt. He suggested that, as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve, Satan had acquired a formal dominion over, and ownership of, all of humanity and the rest of the world. In order to free people from the grip of Satan, God agreed to arrange the death of Yeshua, his son, as a ransom price to be paid to the devil. This would formally compensate for Adam and Eve's sin, and would release humanity from Satan's grip. Origen wrote: "The payment could not be [made] to God [be]cause God was not holding sinners in captivity for a ransom, so the payment had to be to the devil." 2 Origen believed that Satan accepted the offer because he assumed that he would end up with ownership of Yeshua. The devil didn't realize that Yeshua would escape his clutches. God deceitfully pulled a "bait and switch" operation by resurrecting Yeshua a day and a half after his death on the cross. This left Satan without any reward. Yeshua had escaped Satan's grasp and was reunited with God. Origen concluded that humans can then be reconciled with God if they trust Yeshua as Lord and Savior3,4

The Ransom Theory was based, in part, on Mark 10:45 and 1 Timothy 2:6, where Origin interpreted the word "ransom" literally: 5

bulletMark 10:45: "For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many."
bullet1 Timothy 2:5-6: "For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time."

(Emphasis ours)

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Subsequent variations of the Ransom Theory:

Gregory of Nyssa altered Origen's theory. He taught that God was not acting deceitfully. He was only repaying Satan for his own deceptions. 6 Other theologians taught that "the devil lost his dominion over mankind by unjustly trying to extend" his control to a sinless Christ in addition to humanity. 7 In later, more highly developed versions of the Ransom Theory, God is not seen as deceiving Satan. The devil is tricked by his own "inordinate pride." 4 This adaptation at least avoids having God playing an dishonorable role in the transaction.

Gary E. Gilley, of Biblical Discernment Ministries writes that Morris Cerullo, Kenneth Copeland, Kenneth Hagin, Benny Hinn, Robert Tilton, and others in the Word-faith Movement teach a modern-day variation of the Ransom Theory. Their concept is that when Yeshua descended into Hell after his death, he was tormented by Satan and all his demons. The suffering that he experienced during this torture was the ransom that God paid to Satan.

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Positive support for this theory:

bullet"Van," once a Baptist seminarian who converted to Orthodox Christianity considers the Ransom Theory as more highly supported by biblical passages than are the other theories. He converted to the Orthodox faith mainly because of its theory of atonement. He wrote that the Ransom/Classic Theory was "...the view of the New Testament Christians. The New Testament makes few references to guilt, justice, satisfaction, and other distinguishing marks of the satisfaction theory, but is overwhelming in references to the distinguishing marks of the classic idea." Some citations are:
bulletPassages like 1 Corinthians 15:21-26, 1 Corinthians 15:55, Hebrews 2:14-15, 2 Timothy 1:10, and Matthew 27:52-53 which refer to death as an enemy, and describe Jesus' death and resurrection as being victorious over death and destroying death for believers.
bulletPassages like Romans 6:18, Romans 8:21, Galatians 5:1, Romans 6:7, and Revelation 1:5 emphasize setting the captives free, a strong theme in the ransom theory.
bulletRevelation 5 and 19 describe Jesus as a victorious conquering king who has conquered death. 8

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Criticisms of this theory:

bulletThe Ransom theory, as well as other violence-based atonement explanations, suffer from an inconsistency in Christian teaching:
bulletThe church has traditionally taught that a person is responsible for their own sin, and that a person cannot morally be punished for the sins of others. Of course, they deviated from this teaching, as when they taught as late as the mid-20th century that modern-day Jews were responsible for the execution of Yeshua (a.k.a. Jesus Christ). But in general, people were not held responsible for the sins of others.
bulletThe church has also historically taught that the default destination for all humans currently living, after death, will be Hell because of the Adam and Eve's transgression in the Garden of Eden when they ate the forbidden fruit. All will be tortured in Hell, unless they are saved through sacraments and/or good works and/or faith. The sin of Eve and Adam were imputed to the entire human race. More liberal Christian faith groups have deviated from this belief and teach universalism -- that nobody will spend eternity in Hell.
bulletMost liberal and many mainline Christians believe that Adam and Eve were mythical humans. That is, they didn't exist as actual people. Without that belief, this atonement theory collapses.
bulletSome Christians note that Eve and Adam were created as proto-humans without a sense of sin. After all, they ate the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in order to develop a knowledge of good and evil. Being without a moral sense, they cannot be responsible for eating the fruit any more than an animal might. Again, if the first parents are not responsible for eating the fruit, the atonement theory collapses.
bulletPhil Johnson, Executive Director of Grace to You states that there is no support in the Bible for the concept that Satan has a legitimate claim on sinners. He suggests that the "Biblical word ransom simply means 'redemption-price;' it does not necessarily imply a price paid to Satan." 9
bulletSeveral passages in the Bible imply that Christ's death was a ritual sacrifice to God, and thereby not to Satan:
bulletIsaiah 53:10: "Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand." King James Version.
bulletEphesians 5:2: "And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet smelling savour." KJV. 9 The reference to a sweet smelling savor is seen throughout the Hebrew Scriptures in reference to animal sacrifices in the Temple being cooked at the altar, with the fragrance wafting upwards towards Heaven where God was seated on his throne. The ancient Hebrews believed that Heaven was only a few hundred feet above the earth.
bulletOrigen's version requires that God acts in a deceitful manner. That is does not match the traditional Christian belief about the justice, honesty, and truthfulness of God.
bulletMany versions of the ransom theory assume that Satan is unaware of the magical powers of Yeshua. The later version assumes that Satan is deluded into thinking that he is more powerful than Yeshua. Yet Satan is portrayed in the Bible as a dedicated, intelligent, and evil angel, not a quasi-deity who is so disconnected from reality that he is unaware of Yeshua's capabilities. Satan is not described in the Bible as suffering from delusions of grandeur.
bulletThe entire concept of Satan as a living entity is rejected by many Christians today; they view Satan as a symbol of evil, not as an actual person. If Satan is not an all-evil quasi-deity, Origen's theory collapses.
bulletThe Bible identifies Satan as a created being; a fallen angel who disobeyed God. Similarly, humans are commonly portrayed as created beings who have disobeyed God and fallen. There is no obvious rationale for assuming that Satan had control over all of humanity any more than the reverse might have been true.
bulletSince God is omniscient, omnipotent, omnibeneficient, just, and ethical, it is illogical to assume that he would be willing to allow his son to be tortured to death if there were another way to achieve atonement. God might have, for example, simply forgiven Adam and Eve for their sin. According to the gospels, Yeshua repeatedly taught that extending forgiveness is to take the moral high road.
bulletProfessor of Philosophy Michael Martin writes:

"Since, on the ransom theory, after Jesus' death and resurrection, human beings were out of the devil's clutches, it would seem that the way to salvation would simply be to follow a life free from sin so as not to fall under the devil's control. What has faith in Jesus got to do with this? The ransom theory supplies no answer." 4

There are three additional criticisms of the Ransom Theory which also apply to other atonement theories. They attribute to God the same sort of cruel, hate-filled, punishing behavior seen in the lives of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, etc:

bulletThere is no obvious mechanism whereby a person can achieve salvation and atonement with God by simply expressing faith and/or trust in Yeshua.
bulletIf trusting Yeshua were the only path to atonement and salvation, then those who have followed a non-Christian religion would not achieve salvation and atonement. They would be sent to Hell after death for what is basically the commission of a thought crime -- believing in the wrong God or in no God. Current moral belief systems -- both religious and secular -- consider punishment for thought crimes to be immoral and unjust.
bulletThe ransom theory would also route many non-Christians to Hell after death for the simple reason that they have not had the opportunity to learn of Yeshua, Christianity, or the gospel message. Being ignorant of Yeshua, they could not trust him as Lord and Savior and be saved. The Ransom Theory punishes non-Christians for not having made a decision in favor of someone of whom they are unaware. This appears to many people to be irrational, unjust, and immoral.

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References:

  1. Gary E. Gilley, "The Word-Faith Movement," Biblical Discernment Ministries, (2000), at: http://www.rapidnet.com/
  2. Craig Tanner, "Major views of the atonement," (2004) at: http://www.avoidingevil.com/
  3. Paul Laughlin, "Remedial Christianity: What every believer should know about the faith, but probably doesn't," Polebridge Press, (2000), Page 173 to 183. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  4. Michael Martin, "The Case Against Christianity," Temple University Press, (1991), Pages 252 to 263. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  5. Phil Johnson, "The Nature of the Atonement," Grace to You, at: http://www.biblebb.com/
  6. David Williams, "The various theories as to the meaning of the atonement," (1997), at: http://www.geocities.com/
  7. Dave Armstrong, "The 'Ransom Theory' of Atonement in the Fathers," (1998), at: http://ic.net/
  8. "VanB12345@aol.com" "Orthodox theory of atonement," at: http://listserv.indiana.edu/
  9. Phil Johnson, "The Nature of the Atonement," (2003), at: http://www.biblebb.com/

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Copyright © 2004 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2004-APR-11
Latest update: 2007-OCT-16.
Author: B.A. Robinson

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