Atonement Series: Ransom / Christus Victor

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 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



Filed under atonement theories

7 responses to “Atonement Series: Ransom / Christus Victor

  1. Jim

    This is a wonderful series.

  2. I agree. You are very good at explaining these concepts so they are understandable.On this theory, I think some of the patristic fathers took the ransom analogy and 1)took it too far, and 2) applied it to the wrong being.

  3. I would say that it was not God who deceived Satan, but rather he deceived himself. Now to try working that theory out without discarding free will…

  4. Thanks for stopping by. You are right, there is a sense in which Satan deceived himself.

  5. Kevin,Thanks for posting what Dr. Roger Olson had to say about the Ransom view. Alot of people don't know about it. There were a few other scriptures that the early christians quoted when talking about this issue as well.Hosea 13:14"I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death: O death, I will be thy plagues; O grave, I will be thy destruction: repentance shall be hid from mine eyes."Hebrews 2:14-17"14Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; 15And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. 16For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham. 17Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people." Matthew 12:28-30"But if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you. 29Or else how can one enter into a strong man's house, and spoil his goods, except he first bind the strong man? and then he will spoil his house. 30He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad."andEph 4:8-10"8This is why it[a] says: "When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men."[b] 9(What does "he ascended" mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions[c]? 10He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)"Take Care!ICXC NIKA

  6. Hi Jnorm, thanks for the scripture references. The Heb 2 one is excellent especially for the ransom view.

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