The Ransom Theory revisited #2

I ended my last post with the conclusion of the writer to the Hebrews’ exposition of Psalm 8, which introduces Satan into the picture of man’s temporary subordination to the angels, and his glorification by the work of Christ. The mention suggests that Satan has particular relevance to the relationship between mankind, angels and divine glory:

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.

I also mentioned an old book that influenced the academy a lot, but not grassroots Christianity, Christus Victor by Gustav Aulén. Very briefly, he re-examined the main theories of atonement, casting the earliest explanations of Christ’s work in a positive light, and reinstating the importance of seeing the cross as a victory over the powers of evil enslaving mankind. Starting with the old “Ransom Theory” he removed some elements he found objectionable, and arrived at what is known as the “Christus Victor” theory of atonement. This victory over evil is actually a prominent New Testament theme, especially in Paul, which often gets strangely sidelined in our thinking.

In the form I’ve mainly seen it in recent years, I’ve not been much attracted to the Christus Victor theme, because it’s been a popular choice of people rewriting theology in the light of evolution, who hold a bias against the existence of personal forces of evil. The tendency is, in these schemes, to paint them in terms of the kenotic incarnation and death of Christ winning over our created evolutionary heritage of selfishness, somehow teaching the world that self-giving is everything.

This actually renders the evil to be defeated God’s own work of creation. And since it does not really mesh with other themes found in Scripture and theology, notably substitutionary punishment and propitiatory sacrifice, these are simply jettisoned. It has to be said that Aulén himself also treated his “Classical Approach” as an either/or choice intended to displace other aspects of atonement.

But in the New Testament’s authentic Christus Victor theology, the victory is essentially, and specifically, over the wiles of the devil and his angelic followers (“powers and authorities in the heavenly realms”) in causing sin, in order to destroy humanity. It needs Satan to embody the evil that Christ conquers by death and resurrection. Also, it is wrong to emphasise it over against other aspects of the atonement, for it depends on them, which I will attempt to show.

It may help, at this stage, to see what is said in Scripture about Satan’s primary motivations. Starting with the deutero-canonical Wisdom, from (it is thought) just before the New Testament period, we read:

…for God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it. Wisdom 2.23-24

The question then is, of whom did the Jews consider Satan to be envious? Jesus says:

“He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” Jn 8:44

“In the beginning” usually seems to carry the implication of “as Scripture describes the beginning”, so that Jesus is here alluding to the garden, in the first place confirming that the serpent is indeed to be identified as Satan, and secondly that his deception had as its motive murder. Putting that together with the Book of Wisdom’s “envy”, we get a divine being consumed with envy of Adam, and using lies and deception with murderous intent. The “murder” would, of course, be achieved by the knowledge that God had ordained death as the penalty for eating from the tree of knowledge: it is comparable to how hatred might cause someone frame a man of a capital offence, so that the judicial system itself becomes the murder weapon.

This seems to endorse the common “demonological” interpretation of Ezekiel’s lament over the king of Tyre (Ezek. 28:11ff), that the prophet is using an expansion of the Eden narrative as a metaphor for an earthly king’s sin, suggesting that (a) the serpent was actually a guardian cherub, ie one of the elohim, and so had a legitimate reason for being in the garden as a member of the divine council, and (b) that his sin only arose within the garden in relation to Adam, of whom he was jealous.

The exposition Hebrews 2 gives of Psalm 8, covered in the last post, gives a good motivation for this envy: a proud and glorious divine being, foremost amongst God’s creation, realises that lowly man is also to be granted access to wisdom and eternal life. Satan already has the former (Ezek. 28:12, Gen 3:5, taking elohim as generic), and assumes he has the latter by inalienable right – but see Psalm 82. Now, a mere creature of dust is to be “promoted over his head”.

In a former post I mentioned the story in Esther of Mordecai and Haman regarding Satan’s jealousy of man. But one might also compare the story of Daniel and Darius in Daniel 6, in which courtiers jealous of the “upstart Jew” Daniel induce the king to make a law that they know will entrap Daniel, through his religious observance. The edict Darius makes (in this case by cunning inducement) gives Daniel’s enemies a legal right over his death, because of the immutability of “the law of the Medes and the Persians”.

Darius could not simply punish the accusers for their malice, since Daniel was legally guilty. And he could not, without impugning his own justice, simply let Daniel off. Consequently Daniel paid the judicial penalty of exposure in the lions’ den, but was spared from the lions by God, and Darius was then free to punish the accusers for their own wrongs in like manner.

Analogously, Satan had the power over human death described in Hebrews 2 only because God had decreed death to Adam for sin. His power lay only in his ability to accuse before God (“satan”, of course, means “accuser”), though of course he also remained a tempter of those already held under the sway of inherent sin.

Satan could not be justly and finally punished for his malice whilst mankind was not justly and finally punished for disobedience. God was in “moral debt”, as it were, to punish man, not because Satan was owed anything whatsoever, but because the devil and the other “powers” were witnesses to God’s just sentence on Adam’s seed.

So when Christ, effectively representing the human race, died, Satan no longer had an accusation against the race that they had sinned but not been justly punished, and his own defence – the non-punishment of mankind – fell, so that his own fate is sealed.

Loosely, this might be seen as paying the ransom of a slave – and “ransom” is certainly one of the words used of the atonement in Scripture. Satan gets what he has long desired – but discovers through the resurrection (in experience, if he had not already had some sense of foreboding!) that the Cross condemns him, and not sinful mankind. That sounds awfully like the ransom theory, and moreover appears the perfect narrative denouement of the Fall story in Genesis.

However, to pay such a ransom and defeat Satan, everything hinges on God’s finding a way for his own justice to be seen to be served. that would defeat Satan’s malevolence towards man. Unlike Darius’s foolish law, God’s command and warning to Adam were just and righteous, and the devil could only be defeated if God’s just sentence was actually, and publically, fulfilled in the death of Christ. So Christus Victor, in the form of the Ransom Theory, is incomplete without an account in terms of God’s retributive justice, lest God himself be undermining the divine moral order underlying Creation.

And this condition is met through the other key theme of atonement – substitionary punishment. The death of Christ prevents death coming to us. God’s judicial sentence in the garden is death for Adam’s race: Christ in the gospels “tastes death for everyone” – that’s penal substitution, or propitiatory sacrifice.

In other words there are two separate but related problems to be solved by the atonement – the meeting of God’s justice, and the defeat of evil spiritual powers. Three problems, if we also include how these can bring forgiveness and reconciliation to you and me.

The last is solved only by a true spiritual union of the sinner with Christ, through faith, achievinging solidarity both with his death, and with his glorified life. What is his becomes ours, and ours his – we are in Christ, as we were formerly in Adam. And that, of course, is the other key Pauline theme that has been so seldom understood, even by the New Testament scholars, if N T Wright is to be believed: that our salvation depends primarily on being “in Christ”.

So God’s own justice must be served because God is just, and because he set the penalty in the garden. Satan’s hold over man is only God’s own justice, and so that must be satisfied not only for God’s own righteousness’s sake, but to demonstrate his justice to the powers and principalities, as Paul writes, so disarming them. Christ’s death is therefore substitutionary (because in our place), penal (because fulfilling God’s righteous edict) and a ransom (because it looses Satan’s hold over us, and liberates God’s justice over Satan and the powers).

One might even wave a flag for the Moral Influence theory, in that the self-sacrifice of Jesus is the model on which redeemed man should live, and on which the power structures in the New Creation are founded. It does not, however, redeem – that is something far more direct and potent.

I hope you’ll see how thinking along these lines makes the whole of “salvation history”, from Genesis 3 to the Gospel, one interwoven tapestry. And it also makes that salvation history part of the even bigger narrative that the Bible gives us about the Creation. Contra Galileo, the Bible does not simply tell us how to go to heaven – it tells us how Creation was achieved by, through and for Christ, on behalf of that ambiguously beastly and angelic creation – our own race.

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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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8 Responses to The Ransom Theory revisited #2

  1. Bilbo says:

    The problem with penal substitution is that Jesus’s death was unjust and therefore could not fulfill justice.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      …except that God Paul appears to justapose the death of Jesus with unpunished human sin, specifically in order to show his justice:

      God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood – to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished – he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

      How that works is another matter – but I’m prepared to take the Lord’s word that it’s the hisasterion (propitiation) by which justice is restored or vindicated for unpunished sin. But I think the key lies in that much-neglected spiritual union – there is a covenantal exchange in which my sin is exchanged for his righteousness:

      God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.


      • Bilbo says:

        First, the 2 Cor. 5 passage can be translated as “to be a sin offering,” which I think is better.

        Second, the Romans 3 passage should be understood differently. Hisasterion was the Greek word used to refer to the mercy seat over the ark of the covenant. It is a reference to what took place on the day of atonement.

        This is where the other goat – the one for the LORD – comes into play. The holy place, the tent of meeting, and the altar had been made unclean by the sins of the people. They needed to be cleansed by the blood of the goat. Why was the blood of the goat able to cleanse them? Leviticus 17:11 tells us that the life of the animal is in its blood, therefore it can be used to make Atonement. Its blood is innocent and can be used to clean away the contamination of sin. So the animal sacrifice was meant to foreshadow the righteous blood of Jesus, which cleanses us of sin. By having faith in and being baptized into Jesus, we are united with him in his life, as symbolized by the blood. Therefore, as he died to sin, we die to sin. As he rose from the dead, we rise in his new life of righteousness. God sees us as righteous, because we are in Jesus.

  2. Bilbo says:

    Oops, forgot to close the tag.

  3. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Given my aim of connecting up the Genesis 3 account with the work of Christ, I don’t want to argue about the exact nature of his being a sin offering, since (unlike some of the scholars) we agree he was one.

    The sin offering was offered to God (not Satan, of course!) to cover sin and so turn away the penalty he had set for it, and it consisted in the shed life of the innocent animal. (And lest anyone quibble, in and of itself it could not be effective [Heb 10:4], Christ being the effective reality behind the law). Life was substituted for life, in actuality.

    If death was the penalty set by God before Adam, in which Adam’s progeny were all enslaved, then apart from anything else he achieved, Christ was similarly an innocent life offered to God to cover the sin responsible for it, removing the penalty, which is expressed in terms of divine wrath in Rom. 1.

    My point is that this aspect has no immediate relevance to Satan, except indirectly insofar as Satan’s entrapment of the race into sin was also an entrapment into God’s penalty of death, that being Satan’s original purpose. By providing an effective sin-offering, Jesus freed us from Satan’s power over death through sin, defeating his malice and opening the way to God’s judgement on Satan himself.

  4. Bilbo says:

    Okay, it could be that Hebrews 2:14 only means that the devil has the power to accuse us of sin and remind us of its penalty – death.

    I think there are places in the New Testament that suggest it means more than that, such as:

    Luke 4:

    5 The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. 7 If you worship me, it will all be yours.”

    Jesus did not challenge the truth of the devil’s claim, so I think it is true. I suspect that we are the ones who handed our authority over to the devil. And that might include having the literal power of death over us. Thus, when Jesus said in Matthew 16:

    18 “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it,”

    I suspect it was an indirect reference to the devil’s power of death. I think this is echoed in Revelation 1:

    18 “I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”

    I suspect that at one time the devil held the keys of death and Hades. Likewise in Romans 14:

    19 “For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.”

    At one time Christ was not Lord of the dead. I suspect the devil was.

    So maybe your interpretation is correct. But maybe when Paul said in Acts 20:

    28 “Watch out for yourselves and for all the flock in which the Holy Spirit · has placed you overseers, to shepherd the church of God, which he purchased with the blood of his own Son,”

    Paul meant that God had purchased us from the devil.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Bilbo –

      Yup, I agree there’s more to Satan’s involvement, which partly seems to relate to the fact that the powers that rebelled are also those endued with God’s authority in the political realm (cf both Daniel and the interesting interplay in Paul, especially, between the heavenly powers and the earthly authorities, and (more intriguingly) between the oppressive nature of both and the respect he demands for their God-given authority.

      My best angle on that is that if the spiritual authorities appointed to assist man in the spiritual realm go bad, AND their human counterparts lose touch with their own source of authority, it’s like a weak and corrupt leader with no ability or desire to control corrupt generals with nuclear weapons.

      As for the power of Satan over the dead, and the use of “purchase” in relation to that, I think my approach works if, as in all the other atonement models, one employs a degree of metaphor: to use my analogy with Daniel and the lions, God’s salvation purchased Daniel’s release from the power of his enemies, although that power was exerted through the king and his law.

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