Ransom theory of atonement

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This article is about the doctrine that Jesus Christ's sacrifice was a ransom. For the general concept of atonement in Christianity, see Atonement in Christianity.

The ransom theory of atonement is one of the main doctrines in western Christian theology relating to the meaning and effect of the death of Jesus Christ. The first major theory of the atonement, the ransom theory of atonement originated in the early Church, particularly in the work of Origen. The theory teaches that the death of Christ was a ransom sacrifice, usually said to have been paid to Satan, in some views paid to God the Father, in satisfaction for the bondage and debt on the souls of humanity as a result of inherited sin.

Theological views of the Ransom[edit]

The Ransom View can be summarized it as follows:

Essentially, this theory claimed that Adam and Eve sold humanity over to the Devil at the time of the Fall; hence, justice required that God 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.

— Robin Collins, Understanding Atonement: A New and Orthodox Theory[1]

"Redeeming" in this case literally means "buying back," and the ransoming of war captives from slavery was a common practice in the era. The theory was also based in part on Mark 10:45 and 1 Timothy 2:5-6. The ransom theory was the main view of atonement through the first thousand years of Christian history (although exactly the same thing has been said about 2 other theories), though it was never made a required belief.[1] There were some who held different positions, however. The commentary on Romans attributed to Pelagius (who was declared a heretic, though for his view of grace, not his view of atonement) gives a description of the atonement which states that a person's sins have "sold them to death," and not to the devil, and that these sins alienate them from God, until Jesus, dying, ransomed people from death.[2]

Athanasius of Alexandria proposed a theory of the atonement which similarly states that sin bears the consequence of death, and that God warned Adam about this, and so, to remain consistent with Himself must have Jesus die for sins, or have humankind die. This has some similarity to the Satisfaction view, although Athanasius emphasized the fact that this death is effective because of our unity with Christ, rather than emphasizing a legal substitution and that when Jesus descended into Hades (variously, the underworld or Hell) he eliminated death with His own death (since no power can hold Jesus's soul in Hades).[3]

St. Anselm, the 11th century Archbishop of Canterbury, argued against the then-current version of ransom view, saying that Satan, being himself a rebel and outlaw, could never have a just claim against humans.[1] The Catholic Encyclopedia calls the idea that God must pay the Devil a ransom "certainly startling, if not revolting."[4] Philosopher and theologian Keith Ward, among others, pointed out that, under the ransom view, not only was God a debtor but a deceiver as well, since God only pretended to pay the debt.

Others, such as Gustaf Aulén, have suggested that the meaning of the Ransom theory should not be taken in terms of a business transaction (who gets paid), but rather understood as a liberation of human beings from the bondage of sin and death. Aulén's book, Christus Victor, maintained that the Early Church view had been mischaracterized, and proposed a re-evaluated Ransom Theory as a superior alternative to Satisfaction Theory.

Anselm himself went on to explicate the satisfaction view of atonement.

Today, the ransom view of atonement is not widely accepted in the West, except by some Anabaptist peace churches and a few theologians in the Word of Faith movement.[citation needed]

Eastern Orthodoxy[edit]

The Eastern Orthodox Church holds a position which is in some ways similar to that of the Anabaptists. However, while St. Gregory of Nyssa taught a view similar to the Ransom position, others, such as St. Gregory the Theologian, vigorously denied that Christ was a ransom to the devil.[5]

One author described it in the following way:

In Orthodox theology generally it can be said that the language of “payment” and “ransom” is rather understood as a metaphorical and symbolical way of saying that Christ has done all things necessary to save and redeem mankind enslaved to the devil, sin and death, and under the wrath of God. He “paid the price,” not in some legalistic or juridical or economic meaning. He “paid the price” not to the devil whose rights over man were won by deceit and tyranny. He “paid the price” not to God the Father in the sense that God delights in His sufferings and received “satisfaction” from His creatures in Him. He “paid the price” rather, we might say, to Reality Itself. He “paid the price” to create the conditions in and through which man might receive the forgiveness of sins and eternal life by dying and rising again in Him to newness of life. (See Romans 5-8; Galatians 2-4)


By dying on the cross and rising from the dead, Jesus Christ cleansed the world from evil and sin. He defeated the devil “in his own territory” and on “his own terms.” The “wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23) So the Son of God became man and took upon Himself the sins of the world and died a voluntary death. By His sinless and innocent death accomplished entirely by His free will — and not by physical, moral, or juridical necessity - He made death to die and to become itself the source and the way into life eternal.

— Fr. Thomas Hopko, The Orthodox Faith - Volume 1: Doctrine[6]

Roman Catholicism[edit]

The Roman Catholic Church, while holding to a ransom payment by Christ, also denies that Christ's death was a ransom to the devil.

One author described it in the following way:

Origen (+ 254) changed the Pauline teaching of man's ransom from the dominion of the devil to an unbiblical ransom-theory. He held that the devil by Adam's sin, had acquired a formal dominion over mankind. In order to liberate mankind from this tyranny Christ gave his life to the devil as ransom price. But the devil was deceived, as he was not able to maintain for long his dominion of death over Christ. Others explained that the devil lost his dominion over mankind by unjustly trying to extend this right to Christ also. Despite the fact that this error was widespread, Patristic teaching held firmly to the biblical teaching of man's reconciliation with God through Christ's death on the Cross. The notion of a dominion of the devil over fallen mankind was energetically refuted by St. Anselm of Canterbury . . .

Holy Writ contains the teaching of the vicarious atonement, not indeed explicitly but by implication [cites Is 53:4 ff., Mt 20:28, Jn 10:15, 2 Cor 5:21, Gal 3:13, Rom 3:25 ff., 1 Pet 2:24, 3:18] . . .

From the very beginning the Fathers were familiar with the idea of Christ's vicarious atonement. The Apostles' disciple, St. Clement of Rome, comments: 'For the sake of the love which He had for us Our Lord Jesus Christ, according to the will of the Father has given His blood for us, His flesh for our flesh, and His soul for our souls' (Cor 49:6). Cf. Letter to Diognetus, 9:2.

While the Fathers, in the explanation of Christ's work of sanctification, proceed more from the contemplation of the consequences of the Redemption, and therefore stress the negative side of the Redemption, namely, the ransoming from the slavery of sin and of the devil, St. Anselm proceeds from the contemplation of the guilt of sin. This, as an insult offered to God, is infinite, and therefore demands an infinite expiation.

— Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, tr. Patrick Lynch, Rockford, IL: TAN Books, 1977 (orig. 1952 in German), pp. 186-187


The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

601 The Scriptures had foretold this divine plan of salvation through the putting to death of "the righteous one, my Servant" as a mystery of universal redemption, that is, as the ransom that would free men from the slavery of sin.397 Citing a confession of faith that he himself had "received", St. Paul professes that "Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures."398 In particular Jesus' redemptive death fulfills Isaiah's prophecy of the suffering Servant.399 Indeed Jesus himself explained the meaning of his life and death in the light of God's suffering Servant.400 After his Resurrection he gave this interpretation of the Scriptures to the disciples at Emmaus, and then to the apostles.

— Catechism of the Catholic Church, [7]

Catechism of the Catholic Church.|

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