Reclaiming the Ransom Theory

“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.” (Heb 2:14-15)

The “Penal Substitutionary Atonement” model may be the most controversial of all the atonement theories. However, there is a lesser known controversy within the “Ransom” model of atonement. The controversy was not about whether or not Christ died as a ransom (Mark 10:45, 1 Tim 2:6), but whether or not the ransom was paid to the devil. The belief that the ransom was paid to Satan was the view held by Origen and St. Gregory of Nyssa, whereas the criticism against such a view came from St. Gregory the Theologian. My purpose for writing this is to defend Origen and St. Gregory of Nyssa by further articulating how they understood the “Ransom Theory.”

I will begin with analyzing the criticism first, then I will try to reveal that the controversy may be a false dichotomy.

Ransomed from Death

“To whom was that blood offered that was shed for us, and why was it shed? I mean the precious and glorious blood of God, the blood of the High Priest and of the Sacrifice. We were in bondage to the devil and sold under sin, having become corrupt through our lust. Now, since a ransom is paid to him who holds us in his power, I ask to whom such a price was offered and why? If to the devil, it is outrageous! The robber receives the ransom, not only from God, but a ransom consisting of God himself. He demands so exorbitant a payment for his tyranny that it would have been right for him to have freed us altogether. But if the price is offered to the Father,* I ask first of all, how? For it was not the Father who held us captive. Why then should be blood of His only begotten Son please the Father, who would not even receive Isaac when he was offered as a whole burnt offering by Abraham, but replaced the human sacrifice with a ram? Is it not evident that the Father accepts the sacrifice not because he demanded it or because He felt any need for it, but on account of economy: because man must be sanctified by the humanity of God, and God Himself must deliver us by overcoming the tyrant through His own power, and drawing us to Himself by the mediation of the Son who effects this all for the honor of God, to whom He was obedient in everything… What remains to be said shall be covered with a reverent silence…” -St. Gregory the Theologian (In sanctum Pascha)

“He gave Himself as a ransom to death by which we were held captive, having been sold into slavery by sin…” -Liturgy of St. Basil the Great (Anaphora Prayers)

Many Orthodox Christians vigorously object to the idea that a ransom was paid to Satan, specifically because of this quote. St. Gregory’s reaction to the idea that God paid a ransom to the devil (along with a superficial reading of the quote) seems to be the only reason why the ransom view became controversial. However, I would argue that this is a simple misunderstanding, and that St. Gregory is speaking against a very specific connotation within a very literal understanding of the ransom framework. This is evident because he even begins by saying that man is in bondage to the “devil,” when he could have simply said “death.” He clarifies that we have become “sold under sin” by becoming corrupt “through our lust.”

In other words, St. Gregory is implying that we are not enslaved to the devil because he overpowered our will and put us in chains, but because we willingly asked the devil to wrap them around our souls after he gave us his persuasive sales pitch. Our “enslavement to the devil” was never understood literally, rather such a concept is understood to be merely personifying the reality of our attachment to sin (which is an indirect attachment to death and the devil) through the chains of our passions.

This shows that St. Gregory did not personally understand this in a literal sense (because he would have contradicted himself), but was probably addressing people who didn’t accurately perceive the metaphorical language (Further evidence of this is found when he immediately follows his objection with another objection; that being in regards to the ransom as paid to the Father).

Gregory’s objection to the idea that a ransom was paid to the devil is solely based on one particular understanding of it: that the devil is essentially able to forcibly take hostages and coerce God into giving him a paycheck. Gregory isn’t actually objecting to the idea that we were ransomed from Satan, he is rather objecting to a particular implication that may come along with saying that. To Gregory, it is outrageous to think that a thief should actually be compensated for his crime, because it would theoretically enable and perpetuate criminal behavior. However, I would argue that Gregory isn’t objecting to understanding it as a Sting Operation that uses a reward to bait the criminal into a trap. Therefore, just because someone says, “God paid a ransom to Satan,” doesn’t necessarily mean those negative connotations are inherent.

[*Stray Observation: St. Gregory would oppose the modern notion of a ransom being paid to God the Father, as found in the popular doctrine of “Penal Substitutionary Atonement.” ]


Ransomed from Satan

“To whom did [Christ] give his life a ransom for many? Assuredly not to God; could it then be to the evil one? For he was holding us fast until the ransom should be given him, even the life of Jesus; [Satan] being deceived with the idea that he could have dominion over it, and not seeing that he could not bear the torture in retaining it.” –Origen (Commentary on Matthew 16:8)

“In order to secure that the ransom in our behalf might be easily accepted by [Satan] who required it, Deity was hidden under the veil of our nature, that so, as with ravenous fish, the hook of the Deity might be gulped down along with the bait of flesh, and thus, life being introduced into the house of death, and light shining in darkness, that which is diametrically opposed to light and life might vanish; for it is not in the nature of darkness to remain when light is present, or of death to exist when life is active. -St. Gregory of Nyssa (The Great Catechism, 24)

“The Lord’’s cross was the devil’s mousetrap: the bait which caught him was the death of the Lord.” -St. Augustine of Hippo

Origen, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Augustine of Hippo all see the atonement as “Christus Victor.” The difference is, they provide an insight into one aspect of how Christ conquered death, in that he deceived the deceiver in a battle of wits. Christ led the devil into a trap.

Instead of simply viewing Christ like a generic military general, conquering his enemies by force, Origen and St. Gregory of Nyssa see Christ as more comparable to Sun Tzu, intellectually conquering his enemy and winning the war without lifting a finger. Christ is the one in control, manipulating his enemy into thinking the battle is won, only to essentially “pull out the rug from under him.” Christ is, as Sun Tzu would describe, “appearing to be weak when He is strong.” Christ is “making a sound in the east, but striking from the west.” I would argue that one cannot understand the depths of Christus Victor if one does not understand the intellectual prowess of the strategy behind the victory. Death was Christ’s checkmate, and it took the devil three days to figure out he lost.

Origen says that Christ deceived Satan into thinking he could have power over the divine nature, because Christ purposely showed his human nature to be vulnerable (remember what Sun Tzu said). However, Satan didn’t realize that he got more than he bargained for when the time came. St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Augustine add that Satan (like a mouse) “took the bait,” and was trapped. Satan was deceived into letting Christ (the essence of light) into his house of darkness. Could the sun ever enter a cave and coexist with darkness? Christ hid himself in the body of man, and Satan saw the incarnation the way a fish sees a worm. Satan thought, “I can kill him.” However, just as the fish is ignorant of the hook, so Satan was obliviously hooked by the divine nature.

You can tell immediately that this understanding does not give Satan any power. On the contrary, Christ makes Satan look like a fool by manipulating him the entire time. I don’t think St. Gregory the Theologian would have any issues with the ransom theory as understood in this way, and he probably had the same perspective, being that he was so close with St. Gregory of Nyssa.


The Demonic Sword

“Here he points out the wonder that by what the devil prevailed, by that was he overcome, and the very thing which was his strong weapon against the world, Death, by this Christ smote him. In this he exhibits the greatness of the conqueror’s power. Do you see how great good death has wrought?… He shows too, that not death alone has been put an end to, but that thereby he also who is ever showing that war without truce against us, I mean the devil, has been brought to nought; since he that fears not death is out of reach of the devil’s tyranny…You see that in casting out the tyranny of death, he also overthrew the strength of the devil.” –St. John Chrysostom (Homily 4 on Hebrews)

Scripture says Satan was a murderer from the beginning (Jhn 8:44) and does nothing but seek to steal, kill, and destroy (Jhn 10:10). However, Christ bound “the strong man” and plundered his house of hostages (Mat 12:29). To deny that death has a face would be dishonest to reality. As Hebrews tells us, Christ went to destroy not merely death, but “him who has the power of death” (Heb 2:14).

In commenting on that passage, St. John Chrysostom says that Christ essentially kills the devil with his own sword. “Death” is seen as Satan’s weapon, and Jesus uses that same weapon to conquer Satan. Chrysostom even says explicitly that it wasn’t death “alone” that Christ put to an end, but the very personification of death; that is, the devil. The most overlooked prophetic detail in David’s battle with Goliath is the fact that “there was no sword in the hand of David” (1 Sa 17:50). David used his enemy’s own weapon to kill him. The devil should have seen it coming: The One to come who would conquer Death (the devil) by death (the sword).

[*Stray Observation: In keeping with the sword metaphor, one might also say, “him who wields the power of death.”]


The Divine Reforge

The Orthodox Church has grown accustomed to saying the ransom was paid to death, and that is probably the most helpful way of understanding the ransom model, simply because it forces a metaphorical perspective. However, saying “the ransom was paid to the devil” is ultimately saying the same thing, but using personification. Therefore, there is no need for there to be conflict, because both are valid (and complementary) expressions of the Church. I think it’s time to reclaim the Ransom Theory and put the controversy to rest.

In defeating the devil by force and by wit, Christ utilized the lake of fire (that is, the unveiled glory of Christ’s eternal divinity) to reforge “Death” (that demonic sword which absorbed the life within mankind) into a divine plowshare (Rev 20:14, Isa 2:4). Now the seeds (that is, our sleeping bodies) no longer lay planted in that cursed and barren earth which brought no resurrection to man (Gen 3:17), but now our bodies will one day rise again into newness of life (Rom 6:4). The tree is no longer without fruit, and that fact comes with a promise: If one fruit has revealed itself, then the rest are surely coming (1 Cor 15:22-23).

Showing 9 comments
  • Julian

    I’ve been mulling over a variation of the Ransom Theory. Here’s how it goes: The devil has some sort of legal authority over humanity, due to our sins. This authority includes having the power of death over us. Jesus lived a sinless life. Therefore, the devil did not have any legal authority over Jesus, and certainly did not have the legal authority to put Jesus to death. Nevertheless, the devil and his minions crucified the Lord of glory. By doing so, they broke the law that originally gave them their authority over us. Therefore, their authority over us was made null and void. God raised Jesus from the dead, as a sign that death never had any authority or power over the Righteous One. And since the devil’s legal claim over us has been made null and void, we have been bought and paid for by Jesus’ death. He blood cleanses us of sin, as a sign that we no longer belong to the evil one, but to Jesus.

    What do you think?

    • Andrew

      Interesting, except that in order for the devil to have legal authority he himself cannot be a law breaker. The law is God’s law not Satan’s. The Devil has clearly violated God’s law however in his role as accuser he can point out to God our sins and demand that God deal with us justly by appealing to his nature. In the cross the devil’s appeal to God’s justice was satisfied through Christ, who satisfied the law’s righteousness on our behalf. The curse of the law is lifted, the Accuser can accuse me all he wants, but Christ’s righteousness is imputed to me therefore the curse is broken.

  • Andrew

    Thanks I enjoyed reading this. Blessings from a Reformed Baptist here in Canada.

  • Samuel

    I was praying for a very long time to understand the meaning of the atonement. And over time I was given different tidbits about how christ defeated the devil. I did not come to my conclusion from reading Origen but rather on simple study of the scripture. And basically I found out later that it was the ransom theory.

    The big objection to the ransom theory is that Christ would never pay anything to the devil. And I agree. However , Christ did not pay anything to the devil, rather Christ death was an act of violence not some sort of divine suicide. The only thing that this ransom theory truely lacks is the how.

    I believe that I have found those laws. We learn from the old testament scripture is that anyone who falsely accuses a person will be deserving of the same punishment that he sought to do to the other person. We also know that the devil is the accuser of the brethren. In Zachariah three we see a court case that is symbolic of the court case in heaven when Christ dies and in that court case the devil is accusing Christ. We know that that accusation was false.

    It is also known that the devil is known as a murder and he is acting out of his own character. We know that Christ died and we know that the devil entered into Judas Iscariot to bring Christ to his murderers. We also know that Jesus said that the Pharisees and Sadducees were children of their father the devil. Now in a legal court and employee can be liable for illegal action but the ultimate responsibility lies on the owner of the company. There is absolutely no doubt that the kingdom of hell and Satan murdered Christ. The punishment for murder is life for life.

    And now we are at the final leg of my argument. The life of Christ is not equal in value to the life of the devil. Because through Christ everything was created and we know that Christ life is more valuable than the sum of his creation. Christ lives outside of time and is eternal. Therefore the punishment will be eternal and the sum of all creation is not adequate to pay for the cost of Christ life. And the Kingdom of hell and Satan have found themselves liable, accidentally, for two counts of the life of Christ. Each of those sentences could not be paid for by the entire some of creation. Therefor, all of the devil’s assets are liquidated and the devil is thrown into hell for all eternity to pay his debt. We were slaves to the devil and in the liquidation we are set free. This understanding shows how Christ can come in great wrath, because it was great wrath to send The entire kingdom of satan to hell for all eternity. This is how Christ can be both a blessing to some and a curse to others.

  • AO

    Can you point me to any published journal article(s) or book(s) articulating this view? I find it to be very sound and I want to be able to make reference to something that has been peer-reviewed.

  • Caroline Downing

    D. Scott-Macnab, St. Augustine and the Devil’s “mousetrap.” Vigiliae Christianae 68, 409-415.

  • Justina

    you can think of it this way: suppose you offend the king and he sends you to Siberia. there you are with bad people and demons who terrorize you. then someone pays the fine and with the imperial order goes to the frontier and demands your return. the ransom or fine is paid to the emperor, but you are ransomed in the sense of rescued from exile in the bad land.

    some writer pointed out, that in the Old Testament on which the New Testament is based, “redeem” can be by paying for someone, or by simply seizing the captive from the captor violently. a rather fluid concept.

  • Mark

    One of the ways the ransom payment to Satan could be reconciled is that the ransom is paid not as a requirement but as an evidentiary demonstration of love which serves to communicate to mankind through the cross. Ransom should not confine us to focus on the one to whom payment is made, but rather a revelation of the heart and desperation of the one making the payment. What kept God from descending from heaven and harrowing hell authoritatively? Nothing. Yet in his manifold wisdom he chose to respond to the kidnapping of humanity by divesting himself and pouring out all His own value to purchase us from death. Thereby it is not death that was satisfied, but death that was defeated by the love that exalted man to a higher place than ever before in the offering of Gods own life. Thus the priceless redemption not only liberated man, but demonstrated to man how precious he was to God, much to Satans eternal chagrin.

  • Considerations

    Isn’t our debt to sin itself? “Whoever commits sin is a slave to sin.” As Adam and Eve willingly transgressed, they then were bound to the sin by virtue of God’s commandment, because transgression is to God’s commandment, not anyone else’s. Satan, being a tester, works to test not by His own commandments, but God’s commandment. Is that not the way Satan has bound mankind? He quotes God’s words deceitfully in an attempt to cause them to stray. Even being bound to Him is by our debt to sin itself.

    Let’s say the church fathers often focused on victory over death and Satan. Sure that is a prominent aspect of the atonement. But how are we bound to them? Surely it is sin itself. Even in saying a debt was paid to Satan is interesting, because by what means is Satan holding us bound and condemning us? By violation of God’s commandment is how. So what Satan is holding over our head as what we owe, is God’s commandment!! So in saying Satan was paid off, it’s really the debt to sin in relation to the commandment that was paid off. It all comes back to us and God. And Satan does get condemned in the process.

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