You can read the introductory notes here.
In this version of the ransom theory of the atonement, Satan entices Adam and Eve to sin, thus gaining a sort of ownership over them and all their descendants. Jesus pays a ransom to Satan, who gives the people back to Jesus. In other words, this theory of the atonement uses kidnapping as its metaphor.
This is a very popular theory. You’ll hear it in Sunday school and even sermons, but there are so many things wrong with it that it’s hard to know where to start.
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 ransom is Jesus Himself
Imagine that someone has kidnapped your daughter. (If you don’t have a daughter, imagine that you do.) First, you call the police. The police try to figure out who he is and where he’s hiding your daughter. They pretend to prepare the ransom, but they never actually pay it. If they pay the ransom, the kidnapper is more likely to kill your daughter than to release her, because she could give evidence that would lead to his arrest. The police hunt down the kidnapper, arrest him, and rescue your daughter. They never pay the ransom.
The metaphor doesn’t match the theory. It describes the atonement, but does not explain it.
Problems with the Theory
In the ransom-to-the-devil theory of the atonement, Satan kidnaps the human race from Jesus, but this is like kidnapping the police chief’s daughter, because Jesus is in charge of the universe. Jesus already knows that Satan is the kidnapper, where he is, and where the captives are. Jesus pays the ransom, and Satan hands over the human race.
Why did Jesus need to pay a ransom in the first place?
Jesus knows where the captives are and who kidnapped them, so He could simply overpower Satan and take the human race back right away without paying a ransom. That’s what the police do. Paying a ransom makes no sense, because Jesus is not dumber than the police, who are only human.
Why was Jesus crucified and not Satan?
Let’s imagine that Jesus and Satan made a bet about who would end up in possession of the human race. Satan steals the human race and Jesus tries to get them back. It seems to me that the loser would go to the cross, not the winner; however, according to this theory of the atonement, the winner suffers the penalty. That doesn’t make sense because it’s backwards.
How did Satan get to be as powerful as Jesus?
I’m sure no one intends it to come out this way, but this theory of the atonement works best if Jesus and Satan are two junior gods with equal power. Satan fearlessly demands a ransom and actually receives it, and Jesus willingly pays the ransom without arresting Satan or throwing him in prison. That makes no sense, because for that to work, Satan would have to be just as powerful as Jesus, but Jesus is God incarnate and Satan is just a rebellious angel.
Why would Jesus trust a liar to keep up his side of the bargain?
Satan is the father of all lies. He is all talk with nothing to back it up. All hat and no cattle, all meringue and no pie, just a bunch of hot air. Paying a ransom to a known pathological liar makes no sense.
What does Satan gain from this?
In the real world, a kidnapper demands a ransom because he wants the money. If he receives the ransom, he benefits from the money, at least until he’s caught. Assuming that Jesus’ suffering on the cross was the ransom, Satan received nothing of value, except perhaps sadistic entertainment. How is this ransom valuable enough that he’d hand over the human race to get it?
Suppose I give you money. When I’m done, I have a lower checkbook balance and you have a higher one. In this case, after Jesus pays the ransom, He would have a lower checkbook balance and Satan would have a higher one. This cannot be, because all things are the Lord’s and nothing belongs to Satan. How could God become less and Satan become greater? If you gives something to another person, you relinquishes control over it. How can God have fewer possessions and less power than before? This makes no sense, because God is still all powerful and all things are still His.
How did Satan get to be an honest gentleman?
In order for this theory to work, Satan has to be impeccably honest and keep up his part of the bargain. He demands a ransom and when he receives it, so he keeps his word and returns the captives. Is there anyone who does not see the absurdity here?
In this theory, Jesus and Satan are peers, lower than God. This is a major departure from mainstream historic Christology. In Christianity, Jesus and the Father are peers, and Satan is a subordinate created creature.
Problems with the Ransom
Look at the Scriptures I cited above. The ransom is not in some kind of celestial currency, but Jesus Himself, or Jesus’ life, which comes down to the same thing. In this theory, Jesus submits to Satan. The result? After the crucifixion, Jesus would be Satan’s servant. Do I actually have to quote Scripture here, or is this enough to blow the whole thing out of the water?
The Sad Results
We have to discard this theory not just as unscriptural, but also as nonsensical. We began in Scripture, but we ran off the theological road into a heretical ditch because this theory only works if Jesus and Satan are equals, both less than God. In Scripture, Jesus is one of the persons in the Trinity and Satan is an insubordinate creature. In this theory, Satan is an ethical kidnapper who keeps his end of the bargain like a perfect gentleman. In Scripture, Satan never keeps his promises, because he owns nothing and cannot deliver what he does not own.
In order for Jesus to pay a ransom to Satan, He has to lose something of value and Satan receives it. The ransom makes Jesus less and Satan greater. That’s nonsense. Since there is no celestial currency, and Jesus Himself is the ransom, it would make Jesus the servant of Satan, beginning at the crucifixion.
If we are going to use a kidnapping metaphor, the roles are reversed. In exorcisms, Jesus is the kidnapper, He kidnaps Satan’s demons out in the open, neither demanding nor accepting any ransom, and He never gives them back. It’s just a metaphor, actually, because Jesus created the demons and they are His property. They went bad, so Jesus tosses them into the Lake of Fire, like a person who puts good food into the refrigerator, then throws away whatever has spoiled.
If Jesus can take demons away from Satan without so much as a how-do-you-do, can’t He take humans the same way?
This theory is wrong. Jesus did not atone for our sins by paying a ransom to the devil. Scripture is using a ransom situation as a metaphor. It is better if we don’t take it as an explanation of the mechanics of the atonement. This theory does not explain anything.
How the atonement “works”
We stopped reading when we got to the cross, but the resurrection is the main event. The crucifixion is only the set-up. In order to demonstrate His ability to repay our obedience, He resurrects Himself; however, you can’t be resurrected without dying first, and it wouldn’t have any effect on us at all if we could just rub our eyes and convince ourselves that we were mistaken about His death.
God doesn’t need the crucifixion, we do. After a spectacular, government-certified death, and a stint in an inescapable grave long enough for a body to begin to decay, the disciples couldn’t deny the reality of the resurrection. The shock of the revelation of Jesus’ identity and power is enough to propel them to the ends of the world with the gospel and to suffer martyrdom cheerfully, because they know from the resurrection that Jesus can save them even from death.
For our sake, to overcome our incredulousness, we needed to see Him die on the cross and rise from the tomb. How did we receive forgiveness? How did Jesus atone for our sins? He said “you are forgiven.” That’s all it takes.