People who advance the ransom theories observe that Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins. This seems to imply that some sort of transaction took place, so they try to figure the mechanics of that transaction. The word “ransom” occurs in the text, so they take that as their jumping-off place—and that is why it’s called the ransom theory. The whole thing plays out against the background of St. Augustin’s theory of Original Sin. The scenario is that Adam committed a sin in the Garden of Eden that was so great that we, as his descendants, have inherited the guilt. As a result, we begin our lives alienated from God, owing Him a debt that we can never pay it off on our own.
I have a thought: what if God simply forgave Adam? Then Adam’s guilt would be wiped out, there would be no guilt for us to inherit, we’d have no debt, and we’d all be free—but with all that atonement talk in the Bible, that somehow doesn’t work. That pesky word “ransom” is still there, and it implies a hostage situation in which we’ve been taken captive and are helpless to free ourselves. Jesus pays the ransom by being crucified and we go free.
The purpose of the ransom theory is to figure out how the crucifixion pays the ransom, and there are three variations of that. They all agree that Jesus paid the ransom by being crucified. They differ mainly in explaining who received the payment.
What’s a Ransom?
The word “ransom” appears five times in the NRSV, translating three similar Greek words: λύτρον in Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45, ἀντίλυτρον in 1 Timothy 2:6, and λυτρόω in 1 Peter 1:18. There is no significant difference in the meaning of λύτρον and ἀντίλυτρον. 1 Peter contains the verb that corresponds to λύτρον.
All these theories have the same problems in common:
God cannot be obliged.
No one is greater than God, therefore no one can place God under an obligation. God doesn’t have to do anything He does not want to do.
God is not a vending machine.
You go to a vending machine, put in your money, push a button, and there’s your stuff. Usually. The fast track to salvation is similar, but it always works. Allegedly. You listen to a brief presentation, agree with a few ideas, then pray a short prayer. Congratulations! I don’t think that’s how it works. God never has to stand by helplessly, watching a person go to hell who didn’t meet the requirements, and He’s never forced to allow an unworthy person into heaven because they touched all the bases. The ransom theories are too mechanical. They’d work even if there were no God.
God doesn’t need a mechanism to do things.
Jesus doesn’t need to use techniques, procedures, expertise, or tools; He doesn’t need to flip any levers, push any buttons, or write any checks. He uses His authority. He is the boss. Reality must obey Him. If He says, “you are healed,” we are healed. If He says, “you are forgiven,” we are forgiven. If He says, “people have eleven toes,” then we all suddenly discover that we have had eleven toes all along. Fortunately, He has never done that last one and our shoes still fit.
Whatever God wants, God gets. He doesn’t need tools, raw materials, or methods. He is not limited by Satan, sin, or anything else. If something could impede Him, it would be more powerful than He is, and we know that’s not possible. If He wants to save someone, that person is saved.
Matthew 20:28, in which the ransom is Jesus’ life
Mark 10:45, in which the ransom is Jesus’ life
1 Timothy 2:5-6, in which the ranson is Jesus Himself
All of these theories of atonement refer to passages in the Bible, but the theories aren’t compatible with each other, so they can’t all be true. They also don’t fit the rest of the Bible. What is the problem? In my opinion, it comes from interpreting a metaphor as a mechanism. Someone might say, “my dog is so energetic, it is like training a lion.” That’s a metaphor that expresses how difficult and exhausting it is to train that particular dog. It doesn’t mean that anyone is using [the mechanism] of an actual whip and chair to housebreak their dog!
C.S. Lewis said that all talk about intangible things is metaphorical, and he’s right. We might “soak up” the charm of a European village, or “immerse” ourselves in the Bible, even though neither charm nor the Bible are liquids. We might chew on an idea before making a decision, even though few ideas are actually chewy. The atonement is something that is intangible; we cannot see it and we cannot touch it, so the Bible talks about it in metaphorical language, and so must we. If we remember that, we can see why the theories of the atonement are all based on Scripture but incompatible with each other. And are even wrong.