Theory of Atonement: Ransom

atonement6Throughout this Good Friday we are looking at the various theories of the atonement or explanations of what Jesus accomplished on the cross.  This is the second post today, and in this one we turn to the theory of Ransom.

Throughout Church history Christians have meditated upon Jesus’ cross, and inevitably asked the question, “What did Jesus accomplish on the cross?”  The bible uses a number of metaphors to describe the work of Jesus on the cross, and throughout its history the Church emphasized particular metaphors over others, depending upon the different historical and cultural contexts of the Church.  The Church’s contextual contemplation of Jesus’ suffering led to different explanations as to what Jesus accomplished by his death on the cross.  These different answers became the various theories of the atonement we know, study and often ignore today, and the most prominent theory advanced by the early Church was the theory of Ransom.The Ransom theory of the atonement was another very early metaphor the Church emphasized in explaining the work of Jesus.  This was the dominant theory of the atonement in the Church for nearly 1,000 years, and it remains to this day the primary theory or biblical metaphor deployed by the Eastern Orthodox Church.  While the theory or metaphor of Recapitulation draws from the world of the arts (music and narrative), the theory of Ransom draws from the world of ancient warfare.  It was fairly standard practice in the ancient world during a time of war that the victorious monarch would capture citizens from its enemy, and he would then demand a payment or ransom from the defeated king for safe return of those citizens.  This common practice was the basis for the Ransom metaphor, also know as Christus Victor.

This theory was an early theological development among the scholars in Alexandria, Egypt. In particular, Clement of Alexandria (155 – 220 AD)  suggested that Jesus laid down His life as a ransom on our behalf, conquering the devil.  One significant passage utilizing this metaphor is Mark 10:45 which states, “For even the Son of Man (Jesus) did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

This metaphor in Mark suggests that somehow Jesus’ death was a ransom, a payment by one to another in exchange for a human life.  Inevitably, this metaphor raised questions for the early Church.  For example, what was the method of payment that bought back humanity?  To whom was it paid?  As, Church theologians read scripture and sought to make sense of this biblical metaphor a more robust expression of the Ransom theory was born.

Origen (185 – 254 AD) put forth the earliest and most comprehensive answer to these questions.  He stated,

“But to whom did He give His soul as a ransom for many? Surely not to God. Could it, then, be to the Evil One? For he had us in his power, until the ransom for us should be given to him, even the life (or soul) of Jesus, since he (the Evil One) had been deceived, and led to suppose that he was capable of mastering that soul, and he did not see that to hold Him involved a trial of strength greater than he was equal to. Therefore also death, though he thought he had prevailed against Him, no longer lords over Him, He (Christ) having become free among the dead and stronger than the power of death, and so much stronger than death that all who will amongst those who are mastered by death may also follow Him, death no longer prevailing against them. For every one who is with Jesus is unassailable by death.”

Similar to the Recapitulation theory, the Ransom theory sees the whole life of Jesus as part of his atoning work.  The Incarnation (his birth) inaugurates a massive conflict between good and evil, God and the devil.  However, the cross and resurrection are the pinnacle of this conflict between good and evil.  The cross, while appearing to be a defeat, is in fact the fish hook the devil swallows, sealing his doom.  Origen and others appeal to Colossians 2:15,

“He [Christ] disarmed the principalities and powers

and made a public example of them,

triumphing over them in it [the cross].”

Origen wrote that Jesus delivered up His soul, not to God, but to the devil as part of a bargain for the souls of men.  The devil had claimed humanity as his due because of their sinfulness. The devil accepted the exchange, but he could not hold Jesus, because through the Spirit he was stronger than death.  God cheated the devil, knowing full well that the devil and death could not remain victorious over Jesus.  It is this more mature expression of the Ransom theory that gave rise to the notion of Christus Victor.  Christus Victor is a shorthand reference to the idea that through the cross and resurrection, Jesus defeated sin, death and Satan, freeing humanity from the powers and dominion of evil and bringing us into the divine life.

As Hebrews 2:14-15 states, “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—  and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”  Likewise, Ephesians 6:12 states, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

The strength of this theory, much like the Recapitulation theory, is that it works with an eye toward the whole of scriptural narrative.  This theory provides a narrative continuity between the First and Second Testament, and it establishes a narrative framework within which we find ourselves as players with a purpose.  However, like the Ransom theory, it fails to account for all the biblical data, or it excludes other biblical metaphors, if this theory is held as the primary or exclusive theory.  We will continue our journey through these different biblical metaphors through out our day.

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