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Analyzing the Atonement: Ransom Theory

The title sounds like an intro to a bad movie doesn't it? Surprising to some, the Ransom Theory was the atonement theory until the time of Anselm (c. 1033-1109). Put simply, the view postulates that God through Jesus Christ ransomed the world from the Devil. This works on the basis that the Devil was the "rightful owner" but was tricked, to use coarse language, into accepting the death of Christ for the rest of creation. On a comparative level, if the Recapitulation Theory was focused on restoration then the Ransom theory first put forth by Origen was focused on redemption.

There are many individual texts that can be used as a type of "proof text" for this view. On the whole, I think these amount to a rather weak argument. But what is most captivating about this view is the manner in which it fulfills the greatest "salvation" moment in the history of Israel. One could say that the Ransom Theory is a strongly typological view that finds New Testament support through a few important passages.

The Exodus

Early in the history of the church, there was a great concentration on why God has shifted His favor towards the church and away from the Jews. There were many apologetics written by Christian theologians. But while this was going on, there was also a very conscious mindset that if this thesis were true, then the history of Israel was only now being truly fulfilled in the church. The greatest of these events was the exodus from Egypt.

What exactly was the tipping point in the exodus story? The death of the firstborn of Egypt (Exo 12:29-32). There is a very real sense in which Egypt is a ransom within this story (Isa 43:3). Israel was never truly out of this "firstborn debt" (Exo 13:14-15; Num 3:13; 8:17).

This story of course has reoccurred for the church. Christ is the firstborn of creation (Col 1:15) and the dead (Col 1:18; Rev 1:5). These two concepts are noticeably different. One is for the whole of the creation order. The other is for the promised resurrection unto eternal life (1 Cor 15:23).

In other places though the imagery breaks down. Who is Pharaoh? Is it truly Satan? How does Christ than correlate to being the "firstborn" of Egypt? I think it can be shown that if the Ransom Theory is to be retained and used, then any idea of Satan being paid must be neglected in favor of a general ransom to death and sin.

Slaves to Sin

There are two important passages that bring the exodus story and Jewish slavery to the New Testament. The first comes straight from the mouth of Jesus (John 8:31-40). Jesus' statement is actually loaded with many undertones. On the surface is the silly denial of the Jews that they had not been slaves. Jesus skipping over that foolishness drives home that more importantly they are slaves to sin.

What is important with respect to the covenant, is that these slaves to sin do not remain in the house of their "father". This is because, though they have received the sign as they were suppose to (Gen 17:12-13), they were not truly the offspring of the Father. How livid the Jews were at this. But covenant perspective aside, Christ carries forward the idea of slavery and freedom into the New Testament.

Paul, like Jesus, points to our previously slavery to sin (Rom 6:16-17, 20). It is worth noting that Paul is saying this within the scope of our union with Christ. True union results in no more bondage to sin. True union results in a true redemption.

The Ransom

As a brief aside, it is worth noting how David spoke on the idea of a ransom (Ps 49:7-8; 15). This task truly is beyond the scope of man. But it is not beyond the scope of God. This is partly because this ransom removes from death. This is significant as it ties to other "defeats of death" (Hos 13:14; Heb 2:14-15).

Jesus Christ speaks definitively about Himself as a ransom (Matt 20:28; Mark 10:45). No one will argue that point. The New Testament church is clearly addressed as the ransomed group (1 Tim 2:6; 1 Pet 1:18; Rev 5:9). What are we to make of this language?

Given our slavery to sin and death, I think it is suitable to speak of Christ's ransom paying those. Any further extension to Christ's ransom being to Satan are based on two loose passages. The first is Christ's temptation (Matt 4:9) and the author of Hebrew's allusion to "the one who has the power of death" (Heb 2:14). Neither of these provides enough support to mirror the Pharaoh of the Exodus story as Satan.

The Church

Including the verse mentioned above, the church is often spoken of as having been "bought" (1 Cor 6:20; 7:23; 2 Pet 2:1). Of use is the final reference given its context is to delinquent Christian leaders. In what way were these men "bought"? Are they truly free from sin as Jesus Christ promised (John 8:31)? I think it is right to return to Christ's words and notice the phrase "indeed" as referenced to disciples who abide (John 8:31) and freedom (John 8:36).

Is there than a sense in which Christ bought people who are not truly free? Peter claims these bought but false leaders had escaped corruption (2 Pet 2:20). I think it is fair to say that both Jesus, Paul, and Peter recognized the church as a purchased covenant community that would remain in sin. Put another way, they would desire to return to Egypt and their sin (Exo 14:11-12, etc.; 2 Pet 2:22).

Some might protest that the ransom of Christ certainly is more effectual than the ransom of Israel from Egypt. And in a real sense, I don't disagree. But we must speak how the Bible speaks of Jesus' work. And the Bible speaks about Jesus ransoming a people for Himself out of Egypt (Jude 5). And yet these were destroyed for lack of faith.

It should be clear that Christ actively died as the ransom for the created order. It should also be clear that Christ died as the ransom for a covenant community. But this ransom is not the same as "free indeed" (John 8:31). There are many who have belonged to the church who can truly say that Christ died as a ransom for them. They will for a time escape the corruption of sin but they will return to their sin and remain in death. Hence many lacking faith will not experience true freedom. The author of Hebrews so sufficiently describes it as not experience His rest (Heb 4:1-11).

Editor's Note: This blog post was written in 2013 and would receive significant revision in both personal understanding and representation. Any e-mails should be directed to TorreyGazette@gmail.com.

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