The sacrificial work of Jesus for sinners is what we call the Atonement of Christ. What did Christ’s death on the cross accomplish? People have wrestled with this game-changing question since the earliest days of the Church.
This is the beginning of a series of posts where we’ll look at different theories trying to explain what Christ’s death on the cross accomplished.
Perhaps you’re not a believer and you’ve always wondered “What’s the big deal?” or maybe you are a Christian looking for some greater understanding of the magnificent work God has done in your life. Either way, as we approach Easter, I hope you’ll be blessed by this look at what Christ’s death on the cross means to the world we inhabit.
The first theory we’re going to look at is the Ransom Theory.
“…even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many…” Matthew 20:28, ESV
The first and oldest prominent theory regarding the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross is the Ransom Theory. Origen (185-264 A.D.), an early Christian theologian who was considered the expert textual critic of his time, helped develop the Ransom Theory.
“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Mark 10:45, ESV
Based on the interpretation of Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45 that Christ came to give his life as the ransom for many, the Ransom Theory proposes that Christ’s death was the demand paid to free humanity from the bondages of sin.
In his explanation of the Ransom Theory, Origen advocated that Satan, like a victor in war, held humanity captive. Origen proposed that Satan had gained dominion and ownership over all of humanity as a result of the Fall. To free us from captivity, a ransom had to be paid. In order to free the world from the grip of Satan, God arranges the death of his son, Jesus, as a price paid to the devil, compensating him for Adam and Eve’s sin and thereby releasing the world from the devil’s grip.
Initially, on the surface, this seems to make sense. However, upon further examination, we realize that the problem with the Ransom Theory centers on whom Jesus paid the ransom to.
“For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.”
1 Timothy 2:5-6, ESV
The problem with arguing that the ransom was to be paid to Satan is that it elevates the devil’s role in redemption and makes him the benefactor of Christ’s atoning work on the cross. It implies that God somehow owes Satan something. This is not supported Biblically. God doesn’t owe anyone anything, least of all Satan.
Another school of the Ransom Theory holds that the ransom is paid to God for our offending His holiness. This view is much more in line with the picture of the crucifixion that Scripture paints.
The Ransom Theory was a view later held to by Augustine of Hippo, another early Christian theologian, as well as many followers of Christ in the Early Church, until the 11th Century when Anselm of Canterbury argued against it.
In his book, Cur Deus Homo (Why the God Man?), Anselm of Canterbury argued that through our sins we rob God of the glory and honor He is due and that humanity alone was unable to satisfy the penalty incurred by our offenses against God’s holiness. Therefore, Christ, fully-God, fully-man, unblemished by sin, had to shed his blood at Calvary.
The Ransom Theory raises questions like to whom was the ransom paid? It also begs us to ask why the ransom had to be paid. Was it paid in exchange for our freedom from the bondages of sin or for the satisfaction of divine justice? Is it both/and?
We can conclude, from reading Scripture, that Jesus Christ, through shedding his blood for our sin paid a price to redeem us. Redemption came at a preciouse cost. However, the Ransom Theory falls short of fully explaining the work of salvation that God authored for those whom He called to be His children.
What do you think? What did Christ’s death on the cross accomplish?
Join me next time when we take a closer look at Anselm’s “Satisfaction Theory of Atonement”.