Ransom theory of atonement

Ransom theory of atonement

The ransom theory of atonement is one of the main doctrines in western Christian theology relating to the meaning and effect of the death of Jesus Christ. The first major theory of the atonement, the ransom theory of atonement originated in the early Church, particularly in the work of Origen. The theory teaches that the death of Christ was a ransom sacrifice, usually said to have been paid to Satan or to death itself, in some views paid to God the Father, in satisfaction for the bondage and debt on the souls of humanity as a result of inherited sin.


  • Theological views of Christ as ransom 1
  • Eastern Orthodoxy 2
  • Roman Catholicism 3
  • Adventism 4
  • References 5
    • Notes 5.1
    • Primary sources 5.2
    • Secondary sources 5.3

Theological views of Christ as ransom

The ransom view can be summarized as follows:

"Redeeming" in this case literally means "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 and 1 Timothy 2:5-6, where Jesus and Paul mentioned the word "ransom" in the context of atonement. The ransom theory was the main view of atonement through the first thousand years of Christian history (although the same has been said of two other theories, namely the recapitulation and moral influence views), though it was never made a required belief.[1] There were some who held different positions, however. The commentary on Romans attributed to Pelagius (who was declared a heretic, though for his view of grace, not his view of atonement) gives a description of the atonement which states that a person's sins have "sold them to death," and not to the devil, and that these sins alienate them from God, until Jesus, dying, ransomed people from death.[2]

Writing in the 4th century, St. Athanasius of Alexandria proposed a theory of the atonement which similarly states that sin bears the consequence of death, that God warned Adam about this, and so, to remain consistent with Himself must have Jesus die as Man's perfect prototype, or let humankind die mired in sin. This has some similarity to the satisfaction view, although Athanasius emphasized the fact that this death is effective because of our unity with Christ, rather than emphasizing a legal substitution or transfer of merits and that when Jesus descended into hades (variously, the underworld or hell, the abode of the dead) he eliminated death with his own death, since the power of death cannot hold God, Who is Life, captive.[3]

Anselm, an 11th-century scholastic theologian and second Archbishop of Canterbury after the Norman conquest, argued against the then-current version of ransom view, saying that Satan, being himself a rebel and outlaw, could never have a just claim against human beings.[1] The Catholic Encyclopedia calls the idea that God must pay the Devil a ransom "certainly startling, if not revolting."[4] 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 receives payment), but rather as the emancipation 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 re-evaluated Ransom Theory as a superior alternative to Satisfaction Theory.

Anselm himself went on to explicate the satisfaction view of atonement, now espoused by the Roman Catholic Church.

Presently the "ransom-to-Satan" view of atonement, literally interpreted, is not widely accepted in the West, except by some Anabaptist peace churches and a few figures in the Word of Faith movement, such as Kenneth Copeland.

Eastern Orthodoxy

The Orthodox Church holds a position which is in some ways congenial to that of the Anabaptists. While Origen of Alexandria, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine of Hippo taught views in line with the standard Ransom theory and the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great (celebrated ten times annually in the Byzantine Rite) speaks of Christ as a ransom unto death, other Church Fathers such as St. Gregory the Theologian vigorously denied that Christ was a ransom paid to the devil or any evil power.[5] Seven centuries before the scholastic theologian Anselm of Canterbury developed and popularized the satisfaction theory of the atonement, St. Cyril of Jerusalem in his Catechetical Lectures taught that Christ was ransomed to "put away" the wrath of God.

Roman Catholicism

The Roman Catholic Church in its official catechism describes the ransom paid by Christ at Calvary as a "mystery of universal redemption".[6]


In Adventism, all of humankind is considered to have inherited sin and death as a result of Adam's sin in the Garden of Eden. In this view, God's divine law requires that only the sacrificial death of a perfect human can atone for Adamic sin. Faith in the ransom of Jesus Christ—the Last Adam—is regarded as the only way to atone for sin and escape death. Jehovah's Witnesses[7] and the Seventh-day Adventist Church[8] are among the denominations that hold to this view.



  1. ^ a b c Collins 1995
  2. ^ Pelagius 1993
  3. ^ Athanasius 2011, Sections 4-6
  4. ^ Kent 1907
  5. ^ Romanides 2002
  6. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church
  7. ^ What Does the Bible Really Teach?. Watch Tower Society. pp. 47–56. 
  8. ^ Seventh-day Adventists Believe... pp. 112–113. 

Primary sources


Secondary sources

  • Kent, William (1907), "Doctrine of the Atonement", The Catholic Encyclopedia 2, New York: Robert Appleton Company, retrieved 2013-09-08