The Atonement: Ransom Theory

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Over the course of church history ideas about the atonement have ranged widely. An orthodox consensus never really developed and varied views of atonement have been tolerated within Christendom. A doctrine of the atonement attempts to answer the question, “How does Christ accomplish the salvation of fallen humanity?” The Bible makes it clear that the salvation of the lost was a primary purpose for the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ, but the exact mechanics employed to accomplish that goal have not been as obvious to believers over the centuries. Among evangelicals, the penal substitution view of atonement has dominated since the reformation, but that does not mean that alternate views have no worth. In fact, a fully orbed doctrine of atonement should incorporate parts from many of the various views that have been propagated over the years. Over the next several weeks we will take a more detailed look at the most notable teaching on the atonement from a theological, historical, and practical perspective.  The Sunday School class I teach at Grace crossing will be discussing this topic right along with these blog posts, so I hope to have some good interaction.


During the earliest years of the church, known as the patristic era, virtually all of the church fathers spoke of the death of Christ as a ransom made for sinners. The language, of course, is very Biblical.

Mat. 20:28  even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Gal 3:13  Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—

1Ti 2:5-6  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.


Irenaeus (AD c. 175 – 202)

A ransom is a payment made to pay for the release of one held prisoner. Less than a hundred years after the death of Christ we see the ransom theme in the writings of Ignatius, a disciple of the apostle John.


“Do ye therefore, clothing yourselves with meekness, become the imitators of His sufferings, and of His love, wherewith He loved us when He gave Himself a ransom for us, that He might cleanse us by His blood from our old ungodliness, and bestow life on us when we were almost on the point of perishing through the depravity that was in us.”[1]


Like the apostles, Ignatius was content to speak of the ransom of Christ’s blood without giving much explanation for the mechanics of that transaction. The next church father to write substantively on the atonement was Irenaeus, writing in the late second century. His focus is on the victory of Christ over sin, death, and Satan and on the recapitulation of Christ as the Second Adam. These are themes we will visit later in this series. Irenaeus also begins to develop the idea of man’s captivity. It is not entirely clear by whom Irenaeus believes man has been captivated.  In Against Heresy Book V, Irenaeus writes:

“…redeeming us by His own blood in a manner consonant to reason, gave Himself as a redemption for those who had been led into captivity. And since the apostasy tyrannized over us unjustly, and, though we were by nature the property of the omnipotent God, alienated us contrary to nature, rendering us its own…”[2]

We see in this passage that man, held captive by apostasy, is redeemed by Christ. This apostasy is described as the “tyrant” that made man “its own disciples”.   It may that Irenaeus was simply personifying death or man’s sinful nature, but it is also possible that he is referencing Satan as well. He goes on to say:

“…the Word of God, powerful in all things, and not defective with regard to His own justice, did righteously turn against that apostasy, and redeem from it His own property, not by violent means, as the [apostasy] had obtained dominion over us at the beginning, when it insatiably snatched away what was not its own, but by means of persuasion, as became a God of counsel, who does not use violent means to obtain what He desires; so that neither should justice be infringed upon, nor the ancient handiwork of God go to destruction.”[3]

Here this apostasy, or perhaps Satan, is “snatching” what belonged to God (i.e. humanity). Exactly what Irenaeus might mean by saying that God used “persuasion” is less clear, but that’s a debate irrelevant to our current topic.  It was from this apostasy that humanity was redeemed. Theologians that followed Irenaeus advanced the idea that Satan took man into captivity and ran with it in a direction most modern Christians are uncomfortable with adopting. At any rate, Irenaeus avoids the detailed illustrations and analysis of the ransom motif that future church fathers construct.


Origen (AD c. 185 – 254)

Origen took the Biblical language very literally and reasoned that the ransom of Christ’s blood had to have been offered to someone in payment for human freedom. In his view man had, in the fall, surrendered himself to Satan and no salvation was possible without the consent of man’s captor. In order to secure this permission, God tricked Satan into accepting the death of Christ as ransom for fallen humanity. [4] Satan accepted the ransom of Christ, but was deluded and did not realize that he lacked the ability to keep control of Christ. Thus, Satan lost his hold on both humanity and the Christ.[5]

 Gregory of Nyssa (AD c. 330 – 395)

Like Origen, Gregory of Nyssa believed that Satan had obtained legal rights over man due to the fall and that any salvation must first free man from Satan’s dominion. Gregory is most famous for his analogy of Satan being tricked by God like a fish taking the bait. According to Gregory, the humanity of Christ was the bait that deceived Satan into accepting Christ as a ransom. The divinity of Christ was the hook, once gulped down by Satan, which defeated him. Through his divine power Christ was able to wrestle the great dragon to the shore and defeat him.[6]

 Augustine of Hippo (AD c. 354 – 430)

Augustine had a lot to say about atonement, and suggesting that he only spoke of Christ’s saving work in terms of a ransom would be both false and misleading. Augustine writes about the atonement of Christ in terms of a sacrifice for sin, reconciliation with God, moral influence, and the victory of Christ. Augustine has a very robust teaching on Atonement that could be mined for years.  Many of his ideas contributed to later thinking about the atonement as substitutionary. However, ransom language is common in his work and is certainly a substantial part of his atonement doctrine.

“From the first transgression of the first man, the whole human race, being born in the shackles of sin, was the property of the devil who had conquered it. After all, if we hadn’t been held in captivity, we wouldn’t have needed a redeemer…. So he came to the captives not having been captured himself. He came to redeem the captives, having in himself not a trace of the captivity, that is to say, of iniquity, but bringing the price for us in his moral flesh.[7]

We see from the above quote that Augustine agrees with earlier writers who believe that Satan has taken humanity captive and thereby has a right over him.  Augustine is bringing in the idea of ransom by tying the freeing of humanity to the “price” of Christ’s mortal flesh. Augustine uses a mousetrap analogy reminiscent of Gregory of Nyssa’s fish hook illustration.[8] Augustine compares the humanity of Christ to the cheese in the trap that draws in Satan. Having failed to temp Christ, and fearing His influence and miraculous power, Satan takes the life of Christ. The cheese has been taken and the trap slams shut! However, Satan has exceeded his authority in tasking the divine, innocent life and as penalty for that overstep Satan loses both Christ and humanity.

It should be understood that, while virtually all the early fathers use some ransom language, not all of them agree with Origen and Gregory of Nyssa’s version. Gregory of Nazianzus and Athenasius are two notable writers that take differing views. Gregory of Nazianzus in particular, a close friend of Gregory of Nyssa, refutes the suggestion that God would pay any ransom to a robber (Satan).[9] He ultimately argues that the ransom was not required at all and was accepted by the Father, “because in the economy of redemption it was fitting that sanctification should be restored to human nature through the humanity which God had assumed. As for the Devil, he was vanquished by force.”[10] Both Gregory of Nazianzus and Athenasius focus on the sacrificial nature of Christ’s death.

As we enter the middle ages the ransom view of atonement begins to wane. Anslem, the medieval scholar, rockets to the forefront by introducing the satisfaction view of atonement in his amazing book “Cur Deus Homo?”  The most notable appearance of the ransom theory in more modern times is see in C.S. Lewis’s “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.”

daily-ransomIn the book, Edmund falls under the control of the White Witch (Satan) and needs to be freed. He is freed from her control only after she (Satan) and Aslan (Christ) strike a deal in which Aslan gives himself up to her in exchange for Edmund’s freedom. In the end, the Witch is surprised when Aslan reappears and defeats her. It is a very nice illustration of the ransom motif.


The ransom motif is very power and has the grand advantage of being rooted in the words of Scripture. No discussion of the atonement can be complete without understanding that by His death Christ purchased us. We who were in bondage to sin now belong to God. Our chains have been broken! This is a powerful image and resounding truth. The words of Paul in Romans chapter six shed excellent light on the theological truth behind the ransom language of the bible.


Rom 6:15-18  What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!  (16)  Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?  (17)  But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed,  (18)  and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.

We are held captive, not by Satan, but by the power of sin and death. It is from this captivity that we are set free by the blood of Christ. When we push the analogy to far, as Origen did, we fall into error.  However, the Bible uses the picture of a ransom being paid as only one way to shed light on one aspect of atonement. Origen pressed the picture too far. This is not surprising considering Origen’s general inclination of finding analogy and symbolism under every rock.  For example, in interpreting the parable of the Good Samaritan, Origen let his imagination run wild. He saw the man on his way to Jericho as representing Adam on his way to paradise (Jerusalem) and leaving the world (Jericho). The robbers represent hostile forces and the passing Levite is the law. The Samaritan is, of course, Jesus.  Origen even sees symbolism in the man’s wounds. His wounds are supposed to be disobedience, vice, and sin.[11] Space does not allow us to detail the inventiveness of Origen’s interpretation. When it comes to the ransom theory it may be that his creativity ran away with him a bit. To claim Satan has a “right” over humanity is very tenuous Biblically and the suggestion that God “deceived” Satan just doesn’t ring true. Without intending to, Origen, and those after him, have elevated the standing and power of Satan to an unacceptable degree. However, we must not, as a professor I once had often said, throw out the baby with the bath water. We have been set free from sin and death. We are bought with a price! We will revisit these images when we consider the Christus Victor view of atonement.

[1] Schaff, Philip. “Ante-Nicene Fathers: Fathers of the Early Church (Complete).” Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians. Library of Alexandria. iBooks.

[2] Schaff, Philip. “Ante-Nicene Fathers: Fathers of the Early Church (Complete).”Against Heresy, Book V, Chapter 1. Library of Alexandria .iBooks

[3] Ibid.

[4] Wiley, H. Orton. “Christian Theology, Volume 2.” Part III – XXIII. Beacon Hill Press, 2011-01-01. iBooks.

[5] Berkhof, L. 1975. The History of Christian Doctrines, Baker Book House, Michigan. Page 166.

[6] Stott, J.R.W. 1989. The Cross of Christ, 2nd ed., Intervaristy Press. Page113.

[7] Charles E. Hill;Frank A. James III. The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Theological & Practical Perspectives (Kindle Location 2533). Kindle Edition.

[8] Fitzgerald, Allen ed. 1999. Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Page 704.

[9] Gregory Of Nazianzus (2013-03-13). The Orations (Kindle Location 6869). Fig. Kindle Edition.Or. 45.

[10] Kelly,J.N.D. (1960). Early Christian Doctrine. Page 383-384. Quoted on “The Problem of Atonement”.

[11] Plummer, Robert L. 2010. 40Questions about Interpreting the Bible. Kregel Publications,.Grand Rapids, MI.