The Ransom Theory revisited #1

This piece arises from the line of thought I laid out here, which in turn lies within the view I’ve been developing of the significance of Eden in the meta-narrative of the Pentateuch and the whole Bible. See here, here, here, here and here.

I believe the view I suggested of Satan’s motivation for securing Adam’s Fall in the first of the above links may be supported by Psalm 8, as interpreted by Hebrews 2:5-14. A superficial reading of Hebrews may give the impression that he is really saying, “Psalm 8 only makes sense when you see ‘man’ as meaning Christ.” But in fact his argument is far more than that.

The psalmist is certainly being prophetic in the eschatological sense, but is talking about God’s intentions for mankind as a whole (as one would assume from a simple reading) and, I suggest, may even be referring back to Eden. Here, then, is a naked ape, mere dust, who by rights ought to be beneath the regard of God compared to the starry heavens where he reigns with his divine council. And yet in God’s view man’s humble state below the “angels” (in Hebrews’ Greek – “elohim” or “gods” in the original Hebrew) was temporary: many commentators and translators prefer “for a little while lower than the angels” to “a little lower than the angels”, if only because it’s hard to see us, as perishable and limited beings, being by nature anything but hugely lower than the angels.

But God’s intention was always that mankind, as his very image (or, as I’ve discussed before, the image of the Son, the “exact image” of Heb. 1:3), should reign together with him, and the beginning of that elevation in the calling of Adam, though stymied by the Fall and expulsion, was never abandoned by God, being the ultimate aim of the covenant with Abraham, and hence both Israel’s call and the gospel. Hebrews assumes that the psalmist was aware of that, and clarifies the meaning in v8:

In putting everything under him [ie man], God left nothing that is not subject to him.

So God’s ultimate purpose for man is more than simply to be top-dog (or better, perhaps, chief-steward) on earth, subduing and ruling creatures here. As Heb. 1:14 says,

Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?

Even, then, the mighty spiritual elohim of the divine council one reads about in Job or Revelation were created as servants to mankind. Hence the psalmist’s wonder at comparing and contrasting man with the heavens: even the moon and the stars are part of what God subjects to mankind. And it’s also worth noticing Paul’s statement, in Rom 4:13, that God’s promise to Abraham and his seed was to inherit the kosmos, when he could have used ge (earth as opposed to heaven). So have this psalm in mind as you go out and lie under a clear winter sky and your mind will be as boggled as the psalmist’s. Don’t get hypothermia, though!

But of course, there is a rather big glitch in this glowing assessment, to which Hebrews draws attention at the end of v8: and that is that the psalmist didn’t actually see anything like that going on around around him, but only people in sin, weakness and subjection to death. And that, says Hebrews, is exactly the same a thousand years on in his own time, as of course it is two thousand years after Hebrews was written. We don’t see any of that stuff in the world. But, he goes on:

We see Jesus, who was made for a little while lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

The point is not simply that Psalm 8 is only true if you apply it prophetically to Jesus rather than “man” simpliciter, but that Jesus is the means by which the psalm’s words about mankind become true: Jesus recapitulates the Adam story by stepping down from divine glory to become a mere man, suffers death “for everyone”, ie on behalf of everyone, and as man is crowned with glory and honour at God’s right hand, as would have been the case for mankind after Eden had Adam learned obediently from the Lord rather than sinning.

The passage goes on to plumb the mystery of the achievement of Christ’s suffering, but also to say how our spiritual union with him, by faith, makes his own glorification to be also ours – and in this way the psalmist’s words are fulfilled in us, and our sense of humility and wonder should match, or exceed, his, because we see the hope in fulfilment and not merely in promise.

At the end of the portion of Hebrews I flagged, Hebrews mentions how the devil gets into the picture, and I want to deal with that next time in the context of the Eden story, and in the light of the oldest popular theory of the atonement – the Ransom Theory – which although now probably virtually extinct in the Western Church, actually has some traction in explaining the several New Testament passages in which Christ’s defeat of the “spiritual powers and authorities” is at the forefront.

This was rediscovered also by Gustav AulĂ©n, whose influential 1931 book Christus Victor greatly affected the thinking of C S Lewis, but often appears today mainly in a changed form in which the defeat of Satan is replaced with a de-mythologised defeat of “evil”, of which more in the next post. In my view the victory of Christ hinges on the personal nature of the “powers and authorities”, because it arises from the Eden narrative in which the serpent’s personal temptation and deception is central..

By way of provoking your thought, ponder the meaning of what Hebrews 2:14 says:

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.

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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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4 Responses to The Ransom Theory revisited #1

  1. Bilbo says:

    After my own study of Scripture, I came to the conclusion that the Ransom Theory captures a very important part of the meaning of the Atonement. I think that in order to understand the Atonement we should start with reading Leviticus 16, which is about the Day of the Atonement. Two goats are offered: One to Azazel and one to the LORD. I think the goat to Azazel is about the Ransom.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Bilbo

      Good to hear from you. The objections that “ousted” the ransom theory were to do with God paying a debt to an evil being, but it seems to me that pushes the metaphor beyond what Scripture says (and some of the Fathers got too close to that).

      I won’t explain how I think that resolves now, as it’s in the next thrilling instalment in a day or two!

  2. Bilbo says:

    Yes, I understand the objection. I think the answer is that God did not owe the debt to the evil one. We did.

  3. Bilbo says:

    I would make a distinction between Ransom Theories and Christus Victor Theories. I see the first as suggesting some sort of legal exchange. I see the second as Christ merely overpowering the forces of evil.

    At the moment I tend to favor a Ransom Theory. It goes like this: By listening to the evil one and disobeying God, we came under the legal dominion of the evil one. We now belonged to him. He had legal authority over us, including the power of death (Heb.2:14). Jesus never listened to the evil or disobeyed God. Nevertheless, the evil one put him to death(through his human agents). This was an illegal act. As a consequence of this illegal act, the evil one’s authority over us was made null and void. Had he realized the consequences of this act, the evil one never would have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Cor. 2:8). We have, in effect, been bought and paid for by the blood of Jesus. We belong to him, now. The evil one no longer has any legal claim on us. I think this would account for one part of what the Atonement is about.

    The other view that I have considered would be a Christus Victor Theory. Jesus died. Because he is stronger than death, he rose from the dead. When we are baptized into Jesus, we are united with him. Therefore, just as he died, so do we. And just as he rose from the dead, so do we. There is no legal exchange. No real ransom. Jesus rescues us by his superior strength over the evil one. And again, I think this would account for one part of what Atonement means.

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