THE CHRISTIAN CONCEPT OF ATONEMENT
The Ransom Theory
(a.k.a. Classical Theory)
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
Yeshua as Lord and Savior. 3,4
The Ransom Theory was based, in part, on Mark 10:45
and 1 Timothy 2:6, where Origin interpreted the word "ransom"
||Mark 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."
||1 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."
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,
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.
Positive support for this theory:
||"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:|
||Passages 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.
||Passages 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.
||Revelation 5 and 19 describe Jesus as a victorious conquering king
who has conquered death. 8
Criticisms of this theory:
||The Ransom theory, as well as other violence-based atonement
explanations, suffer from an inconsistency in Christian teaching:|
||The 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.
||The 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.
||Most 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.|
||Some 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.|
||Phil 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."
||Several passages in the Bible imply that Christ's death was a ritual sacrifice to
God, and thereby not to Satan:|
||Isaiah 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.
||Ephesians 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.
||Origen'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.|
||Many 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.|
||The 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
||The 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
||Since 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.|
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."
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:
||There is no obvious mechanism whereby a person can achieve salvation and
atonement with God by simply expressing faith and/or trust in Yeshua.
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.
||The 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.
Gary E. Gilley, "The Word-Faith Movement," Biblical Discernment
Ministries, (2000), at:
Craig Tanner, "Major views of the
atonement," (2004) at:
Paul Laughlin, "Remedial Christianity: What every believer should know
about the faith, but probably doesn't," Polebridge Press, (2000),
Page 173 to 183.
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Michael Martin, "The Case Against Christianity," Temple University
Press, (1991), Pages 252 to 263.
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Phil Johnson, "The Nature of the Atonement," Grace to You, at:
David Williams, "The various theories as to the meaning of the
atonement," (1997), at:
Dave Armstrong, "The 'Ransom Theory' of Atonement in the Fathers,"
(1998), at: http://ic.net/
theory of atonement," at:
Phil Johnson, "The Nature of the Atonement," (2003), at:
Copyright © 2004 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2004-APR-11
Latest update: 2007-OCT-16.
Author: B.A. Robinson