A Better Atonement: Ransom Captive

Every Wednesday during Lent, I’m going to explore an alternatives to the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement, the dominant theory of the atonement in my part of the (theological and geographical) world. You can read all of the posts, and my past posts on this topic, here. I’ve got an ebook on the subject as well.

This ebook is available now

Remember the climax of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis? Young and mischevious Edmund has eaten some Turkish Delight or otherwise eternally indebted himself to the White Witch. According to the “deep magic from the dawn of time,” she has the right to execute Edmund since he has betrayed his siblings. Aslan, the messianic lion, makes a deal with the White Witch: she lets Edmund go and slaughters Aslan on the Stone Table. But she was tricked! Aslan comes back to life the next morning, more powerful than before.


This, in sum, is the Ransom Captive theory of the atonement, widely held in the first millennium of the church and the target of Anselm in Cur Deus Homo. According to the Ransom Captive Theory, Adam and Eve bargained away the freedom of the human race to Satan in exchange for the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. For thousands of years, Satan held sway over humanity, as recorded in the sins and failings of the Old Testament characters.

But God offered his own son as a ransom for the captive human race—in Jesus’ own words, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Satan accepted the offer, and Jesus was crucified. But Satan was tricked! Jesus rose on the third day—God got to have his cake (the freedom of the human race) and eat it too (the resurrection of his son).

Origen, an early church father, wrote about that quote from Jesus,

But to whom did He give His soul as a ransom for many? Surely not to God. Could it, then, be to the Evil One? For he had us in his power, until the ransom for us should be given to him, even the life (or soul) of Jesus, since he (the Evil One) had been deceived, and led to suppose that he was capable of mastering that soul, and he did not see that to hold Him involved a trial of strength greater than he was equal to.[i]

Well, there are about as many holes in this theory as there are in the Narnia books, so it’s easy to see how Anselm took aim at them. For one, Anselm argued, Satan is an outlaw with no bargaining power; God didn’t need to cut a deal with Satan to get the human race back. In fact, God had never allowed us to be truly governed by Satan.

For another, what “deep magic from the dawn of time” binds God to act in a certain way? It seems that if God is the creator of all that is, then God can act any way that God deems appropriate. And it seems rather unlikely that God would set up the cosmos in such a way that Satan could gain the upper hand and force God to negotiate a deal.

But whatever the problems with Ransom Captive from our 21st century perspective, it was a powerful and compelling explanation of the crucifixion for a thousand years. And it does have the upper hand over PSA in one regard: in the Ransom Captive understanding of the atonement, Christ’s resurrection is central.

The one thing that Satan doesn’t understand is that death cannot vanquish God. That lack of understanding leads to Satan’s downfall, and to the ultimate liberation of humanity from Satan’s clutches.

[i] Origen, Commentary on Matthew, XVI, 8.


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  • Tom

    I just got the kindle version for free! as an amazon prime member! That made my day!

  • I might actually read this Tony. You are exploring some good stuff. For my money, I thought the Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe proved the unbelievability of the “ransom” theory I largely grew up in.

    On another note: Let’s see if Frank stops by and somehow figures a way to make this post about homosexuality. I got $10 says he could do it. 😉

  • Luke Allison

    Read it in one sitting last night. You are an excellent writer.

    I have so many follow-up questions that I fear may never be answered now.
    I want to commend you on your courageous defense of a historical resurrection, and the gracious tone of the whole book (without losing your edge). I haven’t read any of your stuff before, but I think I’ll get it all now. You’re not so scary after all!

  • Hmmm. I would think a quote from St. Gregory the Theologian would be a vastly superior choice. As a starting point, I like the one I’ll include below.

    Mostly your comments seem directed at something other than the dominant Christus Victor train of thought. And there’s much more than the quote below, of course. I’ve read a bunch and feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. The central theme, though, was that death ruled mankind. And the powers used our mortality and fear of death to enslave us. Richard Beck has an interesting and long-running series on the topic that delves more deeply into it and relates it to a number of different things, including our modern understanding of psychology. Worth checking out if you haven’t.

    “The question is: to whom was offered the blood that was shed for us, and why was it offered, this precious and glorious blood of our God, our high priest, our sacrifice? We were held captive by the evil one, for we had been ‘sold into the bondage of sin’ (Romans 7:14), and our wickedness was the price we paid for our pleasure. Now, a ransom is normally paid only to the captor, and so the question is: To whom was the ransom offered, and why? To the evil one? What an outrage! If it is supposed not merely that the thief received a ransom from God, but that the ransom is God himself – a payment for his act of arbitrary power so excessive that it certainly justified releasing us! If it was paid to the Father, I ask first, why? We were not held captive by him. Secondly, what reason can be given why the blood of the Only-begotten should be pleasing to the Father? For He did not accept even Isaac when he was offered by his father, but He gave a substitute for the sacrifice, a lamb to take the place of the human victim. Is it not clear that the Father accepts the sacrifice, not because He demanded or needed it, but because this was the part of the divine plan, since man had to be sanctified by the humanity of God; so that he might rescue us by overcoming the tyrant by force, and bring us back to Himself through the mediation of the Son, who carried out this divine plan to the honor of the Father, to whom he clearly delivers up all things. We have said just so much about Christ. There are many more things which must be passed over in silence…”

  • Troy

    Thanks Tony! I’ve been enjoying the atonement series, it has been refreshing and helpful. And Steve I bet 15$ lol

  • The reason there is so little commenting is that so few are experts in Church history eras.

  • “Satan accepted the offer” This is wrong. This is like a misrepresentation. You set yourself up as someone who knows, but you don’t.

    According to what you wrote, then the whole sacrificial system of the OT temples was to accommodate Satan.

    This is why you had to use the CS Lewis book for your explanation.

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