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What’s Wrong with Ransom Theories of the Atonement?

Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins, which seems to imply that some sort of transaction took place. Adam’s sin put us in debt to God and the indebtedness so great that we cannot cannot afford to pay it. The crucifixion somehow balances the books and we are forgiven. The various ransom theories attempt to explain exactly how Jesus accomplishes that by being crucified.

What all of these theories have in common is that Jesus paid our debt by being crucified. They differ 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.

When we translate koinē Greek into English, we necessarily add or subtract some of the meaning, or we have to use an English word that is vaguer or more precise than the Greek word, because in any two languages, the words in one do not exactly correspond to the words in the other.

What we mean by “ransom” in English is not exactly what people meant by “λύτρον” in koinē Greek, but it’s as close as you can get. The English word means “the value given for the release of the captives,” but the Greek word “λύτρον” only referss to the release of the captives. A λύτρον doesn’t have to involve anything of value, such as in a situation where the police get a bank robber to release his captives without giving him anything in return.

When we translate “λύτρον” as “ransom,” we add the idea, which is not in the Greek, that the kidnapper got paid.

Problems

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 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 eleven toes. 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.

Scripture

All of these theories of atonement refer to passages in the Bible, but the passages that fit one don’t necessarily fit another, and they can’t all be true. 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 a whip and a chair to housebreak a 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. If we remember that, we can see why the theories of the atonement are all based on Scripture but incompatible with each other. And some are even wrong.