The Ransom Theory revisited #3

I thought I’d tidy up a few loose ends left by the last two posts. One thing that has never seemed quite credible to me, in the Patristic expressions of the Ransom theory, is simply the suggestion that Satan was outwitted and blindsided by the death of Christ. Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine all spoke of God deceiving Satan (justly, as the arch-deceiver), the latter even using the analogy of Jesus as bait in an animal trap (an image to which Gregory the Theologian objected).

But Satan was a bright guy: did he really have no inkling, up to the Passion, of what was going on? After all, the devil knows his Bible better than any of us, and in hindsight, at least, we may see how much OT prophecy relates to the effectual, and salvific, suffering of Messiah.

Well, I’m not sure I can completely answer that… or rather, I’m sure that I cannot, but I do think it may have been partly a case of the powers of evil seeing what was going on to subvert their purposes, and yet being powerless to stop it. To re-use an analogy from the first post in the series, remember Haman’s slow realisation that his plans to kill Mordecai were unravelling, to his own cost. And I also think that the particular form of Satan’s wickedness indeed made him blind to the greatest realities – and that is a great part of the power of the Cross’s instruction to the whole creation.

First, let’s consider again what were the purposes of Satan and his angelic allies. Popular preaching often pictures Satan as envious of God, and desirous of displacing him. But I’m not sure that’s at all realistic. Some humans may see themselves as, literally, challenging God’s rule – but that is only a result of delusional ignorance of who, and what, God is. Ten seconds in the ring with Muhammad Ali would rapidly have remedied any of our delusions that we were boxers – and the Bible suggests that Satan was part of the divine council that sees God face to face. He would know from the start that God is God, and that even angels are not. “Even the demons believe that God is One – and shudder!”

No, as I suggested last time, the object of Satan’s envy and malice was mankind, destined by God to be raised in status and power even above the angels. The prevention of that “indignity”, I think, motivated Satan’s actions in the garden and everything afterwards. This was, indeed, a rebellion against God’s will, but in the same way that Joab’s murder of Abner, against David’s orders, was a rebellion not to usurp the kingdom, but to serve the king under his own crooked terms.

The direct activity of the devil against Jesus in the NT mostly fits that pattern of seeking to derail his mission, rather than destroy his (divine) life. The temptations in the wilderness centred on getting him to follow the easy path to earthly power, rather than the chosen way of suffering. Jesus’s rebuke of Peter as “Satan” was the result of Peter’s attempt to turn him away from the Cross. And, if we accept a role for Satan as tempter in Gethsemane (which isn’t stated, but which may be implied by the garden setting), that temptation was to avoid the cup of suffering.

At the same time, of course, Satan entered Judas to betray Jesus. If it were a purely human story one would suspect that Satan lacked a coherent plan by this stage. Perhaps, as I’ve seen suggested, his failure to avoid the death of Jesus was replaced by an idea to make it as disgraceful, and so ineffective, as possible.

If there was a surprise for him, apart from the Resurrection (though the general resurrection of the righteous was a near-universal Jewish hope), it was the left-field matter of the Incarnation itself, as a plan that Scripture suggests to be a mystery hidden within the trinitarian Godhead itself since the creation, to which even the angels were not privy.

And maybe that is the point at which Satan’s own character made him blind. His vendetta against mankind was based on the unacceptability to him of the disruption of proper hierarchy by mankind’s “promotion”. From the role of God in relation to the divine council and its operations (whatever they are in the universe), he knew about status, power and responsibility – and must have known, as I have said, the infinity power and majesty of God at first hand.

Incidentally, that seems to cast doubt on those systems that form their entire theology of God from the Cross, even creation being God’s diminishing himself to make way for created things, and following that pattern in all his dealings with creatures by allowing them freedom at his expense – a God for whom suffering is a way of being. The majesty and reign of God clearly did not appear that way in the working experience of the angelic beings, of whom Satan was one of the foremost. And glory still surrounds God’s throne (see the visions of Revelation), and the risen Jesus (Phil 2:9-11).

And yet the selflessness of God is indeed the key to his nature – and that, without controversy, was exhibited by the generosity of the very act of creation from the highest guardian cherubim to the lowliest earthly creature. God did not have to give us being, but delighted to do so for our own sakes. Yet, for whatever reason, Satan remained strangely unaware of that, seeing in God’s desire to elevate Adam’s race not an opportunity for his own generous service of God, but rather a threat to his dignity and power.

With a blind spot like that, it is not hard to imagine that for God himself, as the Son, to step down not only into the lowly physical creation, but to dishonour and disgrace (Phil 2:5-11), would be seen by Satan as anything but what it was – the subversion of his own concept of power by the Author of Power himself. Perhaps Satan truly fails to realise that “loss of face” may demonstrate true power, not weakness. It’s rare even amongst humans, too, apart from those who have learned it from Christ.

And so there is a wonderfully apt response to the Genesis Eden narrative in the work of Christ, as the destruction not only of Satan’s malicious work against mankind, but the discrediting of all his supposed dignity and power by the demonstration to all creation, in Christ, of just what true dignity and power are.

“Handsome is as handsome does.”

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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11 Responses to The Ransom Theory revisited #3

  1. Jay313 says:

    Hi, Jon. Interesting series on the Ransom Theory. Scot McKnight has been doing some posts on the atonement lately at his Jesus Creed blog. Worth a look if you have time.

    My own random thoughts on the subject:

    I agree that Satan was overpowered, not outwitted or tricked, and that his activity was confined to attempting to derail the Son of God’s mission. The temptation in the wilderness was the first attempt, but if you look closely at that pericope, the form is this: **”If you are the Son of God …”** In Luke’s version, he ends with the devil departing “until a more opportune time.” When did that more opportune time come? Not in Gethsemane, but at Calvary. Observe the taunts thrown at Jesus by his critics, which take the same form as the devil’s temptations:

    “You who can destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! **If you are God’s Son,** come down from the cross!” “He saved others, but he cannot save himself! He is the king of Israel! If he comes down now from the cross, we will believe in him! He trusts in God—let God, if he wants to, deliver him now **because he said, ‘I am God’s Son’!”** “He saved others. Let him save himself **if he is the Christ of God,** his chosen one!” “**If you are the king of the Jews,** save yourself!” “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”

    I’m also not so sure about your conception of Satan’s being motivated by envy of mankind. The way that you are presenting it, Satan’s own “fall” was precipitated by the creation of Adam, which means that it was practically concurrent with Eden. This just strikes me as odd. In any case, the Scripture tells us virtually nothing of Satan’s fall. We can try to read between the lines of a few passages, but I’m not sure there’s enough there to make it a solid foundation for a theory of atonement.

    • Jay313 says:

      Well, dang it, I tried to add bold type with all those asterisks, but it seems I didn’t do anything but make it harder to read. Sorry!

      • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

        Jay, if I type the right tags it’ll just disappear, I guess. For bold, put “” before the text, and the same with “/strong” afterwards. Italics – use “i” in the same way.

        Presumably the temptation of Satan re “Son of God” was targeted at the human nature of Jesus? I don’t think there can have been doubt in Satan’s mind about his Sonship… or else there was no point in tempting him.

        I think the idea of Satan sinning first in the garden is only odd because it’s unfamiliar – I blame Milton! Apart from the King of Tyre passage in Ezekiel – which I think says more than many suppose about the matter – there seems no reason why, were Satan a sinner from long ages, God would not simply have judged and disposed of him. Likewise, it’s hard to account for the presence of personal, conscious and potent evil in a creation just pronounced to be “very good”.

        But God’s mercy and purpose towards man provides a reason why Satan must, for a time, be left free, until Jesus, remedying man’s sin, in the same act destroys Satan.

        Additionally, of course, the Scriptural and Apocryphal references I made – from the beginning Satan was a liar and a murderer: not ontologically, certainly, but in relation to some other beings who were susceptible to lies and murder. And Wisdom’s “envy” is referred to Eden.

        • Jay313 says:

          I think the idea of Satan sinning first in the garden is only odd because it’s unfamiliar – I blame Milton!

          Right! I’m thinking mainly in terms of the system you’ve been laying out regarding a “recent Adam.” If you add to that mix a “recent fall” of Satan, then you’re essentially saying that evil and sin could not have existed in the spiritual or human realm until 4000 B.C. or so. I don’t really think that would be tenable.

          Presumably the temptation of Satan re “Son of God” was targeted at the human nature of Jesus? I don’t think there can have been doubt in Satan’s mind about his Sonship… or else there was no point in tempting him.

          Well, since the demons who were cast out knew his identity as both Son of God and Messiah (Mark 1:34 et al.), we can assume that their master knew, as well. The wilderness temptation came after 40 days of fasting, when Jesus’ flesh was weak. The Crucifixion would have been the most opportune moment of all, in regard to weakness of the flesh.

          • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

            “If you add to that mix a “recent fall” of Satan, then you’re essentially saying that evil and sin could not have existed in the spiritual or human realm until 4000 B.C. or so.”

            Sin = rebellion against or disobedience to Yahweh. “Sin is lawlessness” (John). As regards man, “sin came into the world through one man,” on disobedience to a divine command.

            Therefore sin’s origin is dependent on (a) Yahweh’s self-revelation and (b) his giving a command or law.

            Anything about the spiritual realm is not, directly, specified in Scripture – but the creation was “very good” at the creation of its last component, mankind, and the angels (as Paul so often says, eg Rom 8) are part of creation.

        • Jay313 says:

          Forgot to mention this: ‘Likewise, it’s hard to account for the presence of personal, conscious and potent evil in a creation just pronounced to be “very good”.’

          The pronouncement of the creation as “very good” need not be understood as a moral judgment. How did you handle that in “God’s Good Earth”?

          • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

            “The pronouncement of the creation as “very good” need not be understood as a moral judgment.”

            Now that’s true, and interesting, because “moral” has its own range of meaning not necessarily corresponding to “sin” or “evil”. But the Gen 1-11 narrative, and indeed the biblical story, hinges on creation being rendered “not good” by sin (and only by sin), the correction of that being the purpose of the gospel from Genesis through to Revelation.

            Now, in GGE I do indeed treat good as “fit for purpose”, not “morally perfect”, because the God-given “laws” of each kind of creature are not to be judged by “morals”. So lion savagery, or donkey stubbornness, are not “evils”, as the Fathers recognised (and they take up a good chunk of the book saying so!).

            When dealing with “humanity”, though, we have that demarcation issue that Joshua has been so careful to point out in his discussions on Geneaological Adam: Scripture does not define “man”, at least apart from Adam and his dealings with Yahweh, however one relates that to the generic term in Gen 1. If H. erectus or early H. sapiens practised cannibalism or other offences against either Mosaic law or modern human conscience (and our information is pretty limited on such things), it becomes sin only when some light of God’s moral will is revealed to them, so that they “know they are naked”.

          • Jay313 says:

            Now, in GGE I do indeed treat good as “fit for purpose”, not “morally perfect”, because the God-given “laws” of each kind of creature are not to be judged by “morals”.

            I’m not sure you can draw a distinction here. Gen. 1:31 (“God saw all that he had made—and it was very good!”) was pronounced over all of God’s creation, including man. You had it right in GGE. Making the same statement now mean something completely different in the cases of mankind and Satan is special pleading.

            If H. erectus or early H. sapiens practised cannibalism or other offences against either Mosaic law or modern human conscience (and our information is pretty limited on such things), it becomes sin only when some light of God’s moral will is revealed to them, so that they “know they are naked”.

            Actually, there is a recent article about Neanderthal cannibalism here — https://www.nature.com/articles/srep29005

            But let’s leave off talking about early humans and talk about human culture 14-20,000 years ago, before the invention of agriculture or writing or urbanization. We have clear evidence of idolatry in the archaeological record at this point in time — animism, shamanism, “Venus” fertility figurines, magic. Was this not “sin”? Did mankind fall into idolatry before Adam sinned, before even Satan himself fell from grace?

            I suppose we’ll just have to continue to disagree on the nature of sin. The idea that it exists only when there is awareness of God’s law is another case of special pleading. Look up “Sin” in any good Bible or theological dictionary, and you won’t find anything that says sin only exists when God’s moral law is known.

            This is also contradicted by Ezekiel 45:20, “You are to do the same on the seventh day of the month for anyone who sins unintentionally or through ignorance; so you are to make atonement for the temple.” Now, if sin was only possible in light of God’s revealed will, it would be impossible to sin “through ignorance.” If the person who sinned was aware of the Law, then that sin would have been intentional, not unintentional or through ignorance.

            So, according to Ezekiel, one can sin in ignorance of God’s revealed will or law, and we know it is still sinful because it requires atonement. I think it is an oversimplification of the concept of sin to say that it only exists in light of God’s revealed will. This would mean that those who “never heard” cannot be guilty of sin, and therefore do not need redemption. Romans 2 is pretty clear about this.

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Making the same statement now mean something completely different in the cases of mankind and Satan is special pleading.

    I’m not differentiating between man and Satan in this at all: I say that before Eden, both mankind and divine beings followed their created natures, and were therefore sinless. The difference is only that angels were created with very different parameters and direct access to God, which is the whole point of Genesis 2, really: man is introduced to the ways of Yahweh: as Westermann said, only through the command did true relationship become possible.

    On the contrary, it seems to me the special pleading is in your assertion that Satan, evil and rebellious before the Fall, could be described as part of the goodness of creation.

    But the definition of sin is indeed the key issue – and “sin entered the world through one man.” Even if that man were a population of people coming to self awareness through language, then before them the world had no sin.

    Ezekiel 45:20 has no bearing on the matter – it was written to God’s covenant people who had torah as its very foundation, and for whom ignorance of torah was in itself culpable. And even apart from that, it was written in the time after Adam when sin had long before corrupted the whole race: “…in this way death came to all men, for all sinned.”

    • Jay313 says:

      I’m not differentiating between man and Satan in this at all.

      No, you’re differentiating between man/Satan on one side, where “very good” is God’s moral judgment of the situation as perfect/sinless, and the rest of creation on the other side, where “very good” has no moral connotation, but is simply God’s judgement that the creation is “fit for its purpose.” You’re making the same statement in the same textual context take on two entirely opposite meanings.

      I say that before Eden, both mankind and divine beings followed their created natures, and were therefore sinless.

      Sinless in the sense moral sense that you gave above? Your conclusion may be theologically attractive, but it flies in the face of the evidence. The archaeological record is filled with examples of idolatry prior to 10,000 B.C. If you want to place Eden and the Fall of man/Satan after the invention of agriculture, then you somehow have to reconcile that with the prior evidence of idolatry. I don’t think you’ve done that yet.

      That’s one issue. The second has to do with your definition of sin and how that relates to those who have never heard of YHWH or his commands. This is exactly the situation that Paul addresses in Romans 1, and he extends that thought in Romans 2-3 to show that the whole world is guilty and accountable to God — the Jew on the basis of the commandment, and the Gentile on the basis of conscience. Note, as well, the connection between idolatry and sin in Romans 1. Paul charges the Gentiles with ignoring their knowledge of God and turning to idols, after which God gave them over to sin. The sin of those who “never heard” was exchanging the glory of God for idols. Thus, idolatry is sinful, whether one has heard YHWH’s command or not.

      Ezekiel certainly has bearing on the matter. The “sin” that must be atoned is not ignorance of torah. Atonement must be made for actual sins (acts of sin) committed; atonement was not commanded because of the people’s ignorance alone. The passage makes that clear.

      If Westermann said, “only through the command did true relationship become possible,” that’s the most foolish thing that ever came out of his mouth. It’s theologizing run amok. That idea doesn’t even work for human relationships, let alone relationship with God. Did “true relationship” with your wife only become possible through a command? Is that how Christ established “true relationship” with people, via command? Did the prostitute wash the Lord’s feet with her tears and dry them with her hair because of the command? Westermann is so concerned to prop up literal Adam violating a literal command that he seems to have forgotten the foundations of true relationship.

      Oh, well. Enough about that. Last word to the blogger!

  3. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    “Westermann is so concerned to prop up literal Adam violating a literal command that he seems to have forgotten the foundations of true relationship.”

    I’ll just respond to this, by pointing out that Westermann is at pains to deny that Genesis 2 relates to history at all. He is not a literalist. But his insight on this is good, and in accord with the gospel and (as a key torah scholar) with the Pentateuch.

    Again, I think (on my own behalf, not his) that in relativizing Adam you miss the crucial role the Bible writers give him as the fountainhead of mankind, whatever Paul means by “mankind” in the absence of a knowledge of prehistory; and both of mankind’s death and sin subsequent to that. To Paul, as to Ezekiel, a gentile is not someone who has no experience of God because no exposure to Israel’s covenant, but someone who has experience of God because he is in Adam.

    Sin is, in Paul, closely related to the preceding knowledge of God, and his wrath to substituting a lie for it (Rom 1) . We know that this applies to man in Adam firstly because Rom 1:18ff acts as the preface to his critique of both Gentile and Jew, not just pagans, and because sin and human death are dealt with as a consequence of Adam’s sin in ch5 (and also 1 Cor 15, esp 21-22 and 47-49. It is inconceivable that Paul in Rom 1 is thinking of some kind of aboriginals somehow not affected by the Eden narrative.

    Incidentally, there are two relevant issues regarding the archaaological record being “filled with idolatry” before 10,000BC. The first is whether we can confidently say that an accountable knowledge of God, as described in Genesis 2-3, existed then – that is, were they “in Adam” or not? Religious practice does not clinch that. Had death come to them through sin, or were they actually in a pre-Edenic state of nature in which death was merely the natural result of biology? In other words, does the spiritually revolutionary experience of Adam in Genesis count only as a metaphor for the kind of “natural-theology” awareness of God most people have nowadays, only without any assistance from the long history of revealed religion in the modern world?

    Secondly, how does one infallibly, or even plausibly, recognise idolatry from – actually – rather sparse and indirect knowledge of their beliefs? The earliest known shrine is Göbekli Tepe, which predates that 11th millennium by a little, but whose iconography consists of (presumed) anthropomorphic stones and carved creatures. But if that shows idolatry, then so do the cherubim and other nature motifs prescribed for the Hebrew tabernacle by God, and indeed in most cathedrals. The discoverer of Göbekli Tepe, Klaus Schmidyt, believe that one can only see “a fully articulated belief in gods only developing later in Mesopotamia, associated with extensive temples and palaces.”

    And likewise for earlier apparently (but actually conjecturally) shamanistic figures. Shamanism has been the recent “fashionable” explanation for palaeolithic art – but shamanism is not idolatry, and other quite possible explanations include art-for-art’s-sake, boundary markers, hunting magic, and “structuralist” gender assignation to natural phenomena, none of which constitute idolatry but exploration of the natural environment and its principles. The Andaman islanders, for example, were animists and produced art representing spirits – but were monotheists worshipping Paluga.

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