Atonement, part 2: Ransom Theory

“I’ve kidnapped your son/daughter. Give me $5 million and you’ll get her back. Leave the bills in an unmarked suitcase under the bridge. And come alone. No cops.”

No, this is not a personal message to you, the reader. This is an example of a ransom. We’ve all seen enough Denzel Washington films to understand the concept. A bad guy, sometimes a drug lord – sometimes an opportunistic low-life – snatches a child or wife from a wealthy business-man or from a cop with a reputation for playing by his own rules (I never said they were smart). A phone call is made, a ransom demanded, and the police get involved (and sometimes the cops are in on the kidnapping). A plan is made, the drop goes bad, and then the hero becomes a one man army in attempt to retrieve the kidnapped victim (side note: if the victim is a beautiful woman, no matter how happy she may have been with her husband/boyfriend/partner, she will fall in love with the rescuer. And the boyfriend/husband/partner always understands. I mean, come on, it’s Denzel). In the end, the ransom is actually rarely paid, but at least we all understand the concept.

Interestingly, the first theory of atonement to develop in major theological schools also revolves around the idea of ransom. The Catechetical School at Alexandria, with Origen in charge, began to explore the theme of ransom found in Mark 10:45 and 1 Timothy 2:5-6.

For Origen, atonement has its meaning in the idea of redemption, a literal “buying back.” The idea is that somehow, humanity has come under the thrall of a certain thing. For Origen, sin legally sold the human race to the Devil, but other theologians argue that sin made us captive to death, etc. Regardless, in the Ransom view, humanity is the rightful property of something bad and that something needs to be paid if someone else wants the human race.

According to Origen, that something was the life of Christ. In his understanding of Ransom atonement, Jesus was the only ransom the Devil would accept for the human race. So Jesus dies, and the Devil is placated, not knowing that Jesus cannot be contained by the power of death and will rise three days later. God comes out on top, having not only redeemed humanity, but getting Jesus back in the process.

Here’s a summary from Robin Collins that may help:

“Essentially, this theory claimed that Adam and Eve sold humanity over to the Devil at the time of the Fall; hence, justice required that grace pay the Devil a ransom to free us from the Devil’s clutches. God, however, tricked the Devil into accepting Christ’s death as a ransom, for the Devil did not realize that Christ could not be held in the bonds of death. Once the Devil accepted Christ’s death as a ransom, this theory concluded, justice was satisfied and God was able to free us from Satan’s grip.”[1]

It’s a good first try, don’t you think? Origen, I mean, not Dr. Collins. For a first systematic understanding of atonement, it’s not a terrible one. There’s the idea of liberation, which is clearly a theme Christ advocates in the gospel. Christ certainly sets us free from whatever it is that holds dominion over us. In a very simplistic way, it makes sense. Satan owns me, God wants to own me, he pays the ransom, we become his. Not a bad system.

And yet something about the Ransom theory doesn’t sit right with me. First off, how does the human race come to belong to Satan? I’m not willing to make the theological venture that sin somehow makes me the actual  property of the Rebel Angel. Indeed, how can someone like Satan even come to possess anything that once belonged to God, regardless of the quality of said property? Moreover, why does God have to play by Satan’s rules? Couldn’t he just pull a Denzel, bust up in Satan’s headquarters and rip the stolen property from him in an all-out display of sheer bad-assery? Still, he does pull a pretty awesome switcheroo on the Devil with that whole Jesus thing. Wait, God has to trick the Devil into accepting Jesus as a valid ransom, knowing full well that Jesus won’t stay dead? Cold. Stone Cold.

Then there’s the question of effectiveness. If Jesus’ death paid the ransom for all of humanity, then why do we still talk of people going to hell? Unlike kidnappers in movies, the Devil shouldn’t be able to double-cross Jesus because he’s, well, God. If we are bought and paid for, then why are we not all going to heaven? If the kidnapper accepts the ransom, then they let the victim go. The victim doesn’t choose whether or not they want to be free (except in rare Stockholm syndrome cases) they simply know that the ransom has been paid and walk out the door. Moreover, how does Jesus pay a ransom for those not yet born? How can Satan or death own something that doesn’t yet exist? How can a ransom be valid for things not yet taken? Does Christ need to die again for those who have newly come to be Satan’s personal property?

Besides that, I don’t particularly like being treated like someone’s property. I have no role, no part to play in this grand theme of atonement. Instead, I passively allow Jesus to pay my ransom, and then somehow I’m free. How does that work? Here, I think, is the fundamental problem with Ransom theory: it’s simply a deal between two property owners. There’s nothing personal, nothing passionate in this scenario. Once I belonged to Satan, now I belong to Jesus. There’s no reconciliation between me and God, only a deal, a transaction. I imagine such a model of atonement must be incredibly offensive to those who have been bought and sold like property, or for those whose ancestors were.

And more than being impersonal, it doesn’t deal with sin. Sure, it releases me from whatever master I used to belong to, but Origen doesn’t talk about an inner change, only a change in status. The sin that sold me into slavery in the first place is never mentioned in this theory. Jesus dies to pay my ransom, but I remain no different ontologically. I am still the same sinner I was before, only with a different slave collar around my neck. Can I continue sinning safe in the assurance that I now belong to Jesus? I surely hope not!

Wow. I sound like a Debby Downer (Wah-wah…). It gets better, I promise. This was the Church’s first attempt at really figuring out what the cross means to the believer in their time and place, far removed from 1st century Palestine. First attempts are often shaky and unsure. I don’t envy the fact that Origen had to develop a new system instead of tweaking an inherited one. But all the same, we move forward. We recognize the problems with old system, give Origen his credit for struggling through it, and then move forward, seeking to always be able to better describe what it means to be redeemed. Again, not a bad first try, but I think we can do better, don’t you?

Next Week: Satisfaction Theory

[1] Collins, Robin. “Understanding Atonement: A New and Orthodox Theory.” Available from

  1. Your description of Ransom Theory made me think of “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” by CS Lewis. Aslan ransoms Edmund and only he knows the deeper magic that the White Witch is unaware of. And Edmund sells himself for Turkish Delight. At least he gets something out of it. Excellent series – thanks…

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