The Ransom Theory
The ransom theory is the oldest atonement theory. It is sometimes called the classical theory or the bargain theory. It was developed and articulated by early church fathers such as Irenaeus, Origen, and Augustine. The ransom theory holds that when Adam and Eve sinned, they placed themselves under the dominion of Satan. To free humanity, Jesus gave himself as payment to Satan. Satan agreed to the deal, and put Jesus to death in place of humanity. Yet since Jesus was without sin, Satan overstepped his bounds. Jesus rose from the dead, liberated humanity, and conquered Satan and his kingdom.
In explaining the Ransom Theory, Pope Gregory the Great wrote:
matching deceit with deceit, Christ frees man by tricking the devil into overstepping his authority. Christ becomes a “fishhook”: his humanity is the bait, his divinity the hook, and Leviathan [Satan] is snared. Because the devil is proud, he cannot understand Christ’s humility and so believes he tempts and kills a mere man. But in inflicting a sinless man with death, the devil loses his rights over man from his “excess of presumption,” Christ conquers the devil’s kingdom of sin, liberating captives from the devil’s tyranny. Order is reinstated when man returns to serve God, his true master.” (1)
Christus Victor (Christ the Victor)
The Christus victor theory is closely tied to the ransom theory. It was articulated by Swedish theologian Gustaf Aulen. Aulen argued that payment to Satan is not the focus of the classical theory. Rather, the focus is on Jesus liberating humanity from the power of death and sin.
The Eastern Orthodox church holds to the ransom view. Many in the Western church find it helpful, but most do not accept it as a stand alone view.
Criticisms of the Ransom Theory:
- Not enough focus on God
- makes God a debtor to Satan.
- Tricking Satan seems to imply deceit on God’s part.
Verses Used to Advocate the Ransom Theory:
- 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, which is the testimony given at the proper time. 1 Timothy 2:56
- You were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body. 1 Corinthians 6:20
- For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many –Mark 10:45
- For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. -Colossians 1:13-14
Examples in music and literature:
- The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe (C.S. Lewis). Aslan tricks the White Witch into giving up her claim on Edmund by offering his life as a ransom in place of Edmund’s.
- The Champion (Carmen) – Jesus defeats Satan in a cosmic battle represented by a boxing match.
(1) Quoted from The Story of Christian Theology, by Roger Olson, page 323