The ransom view of the atonement, sometimes called the classical view of atonement,[1] is one of several doctrines in Christian theology related to the meaning and effect of the death of Jesus Christ. The first major theory of the atonement, it originated in the early Church, particularly in the work of Origen. The theory teaches that the death of Christ was a ransom, usually said to have been paid to Satan, in satisfaction of his just claim on the souls of humanity as a result of sin. Christian philosopher Robin Collins 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.[2]

"Redeeming" meaning, literally, "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 ("For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many") and 1 Timothy 2:5-6 ("For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time"). The ransom theory was the main view of atonement through the first thousand years of Christian history, though it was never made a required belief.[2]

St. Anselm, the 11th century Archbishop of Canterbury argued against the ransom view, saying that Satan, being himself a rebel and outlaw, could never have a just claim against humans.[2] The Catholic Encyclopedia calls the idea that God must pay the Devil a ransom "certainly startling, if not revolting."[3] 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 reevaluated 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. However, it remains the official position of the Eastern Orthodox Church.[1]

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