You can read the introductory notes here.
In this version of the ransom theory of the atonement, the Father is very angry about Adam’s sin but the human race cannot possibly do enough to avert his wrath, let alone obtain His forgiveness. In other words, the Father set a price for our forgiveness that is too high for us to pay. Unlike the Father, Jesus loves the human race and sees a lot of potential in us. He pays for our sins because we cannot. He does this by suffering the penalty on our behalf, satisfying God’s demand for righteousness, so that we can go free. The Father is satisfied and permits our salvation.
This is an improvement over the ransom-to-the-devil idea, but there are still so many things wrong with that theory 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 ranson is Jesus Himself
Imagine that your family owns a theater. Your father is angry with a certain group of people and does not want them to set foot in his theater. He sets the price of admission so high that they can’t afford it. You disagree with your father about those people. You think very highly of them and you want to let them in. Since they can’t afford the tickets, you buy them with your own money. Your father comes into the theater and sees that it is full with the people he was trying to keep out. Your father was not angry with them because they couldn’t pay the price, he raised the price because he was angry with them. He’s upset that they got into the theater, because that is what he was trying to prevent. Your father would throw the people out and then punish you for what you did.
This is a flawed metaphor because it describes the opposite of what would happen. It also doesn’t explain how the atonement works.
Problems with the Theory
This theory divides the Trinity, because it pits the Father against the Son. They have different attitudes about us. The Father is seething with anger, but Jesus is loving and forgiving. However, this is scripturally impossible. Jesus said, “I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30)
The theory requires the Father to have two opinions of us at the same time. He is seething with anger for our sinfulness, but He also loves us so much that He sends Jesus to save us.
This theory is also salvation by child abuse. How can a Father allow the Son to go through so much torture just to reimburse him for a third party’s debt? Wouldn’t a loving Father say, “Obviously, these people mean something to you. Let’s just forget the debt.”
The final puzzle is how the Father benefits from Jesus suffering on the cross. Payment always consists in transferring something of value. If I pay you $5.00, for example, then you are $5.00 richer than before. Since everything that belongs to the Father also belongs to Jesus (John 16:15), it is as if Jesus and His Father had all their celestial money in a joint checking account in a heavenly bank. Jesus would be paying the Father back by taking money out of the bank and putting it back into the same account. That doesn’t accomplish anything. Jesus can’t give the Father anything that He doesn’t already have.
Why did Jesus need to pay a ransom?
“Forgive” is also a banking term. If the bank forgives your loan, it means they tear up the note and they don’t require you to make any more payments. It’s as if the loan had never existed or were paid in full.
Both the Father and the Son love the human race. Both have the ability and the proclivity to forgive. Why can’t they just tell us to forget about the sin and work on avoiding it in the future?
Why did the crucifixion happen at all?
Jesus doesn’t have to operate some sort of machine or make a payment to balance the books to forgive us. All He has to do is say, “Your sins are forgiven.” (Mark 2:2-12, Luke 23:34). So far as forgiveness is concerned, the crucifixion isn’t necessary.
The crucifixion by itself is a tragedy, but it is necessary to make the resurrection possible and believable. In the crucifixion, Jesus plays the part of a helpless victim, but He emerges from the tomb showing us who He really is: the Lord of Life who can repay us in the world to come for obeying His commandments.
The problem is that we ended our theology as we walked home from the cross. That wasn’t the end of the story.
Why would the Father allow the Son to Suffer on the Cross?
Here we go with “salvation by child abuse” again. If the Father loves the Son, how is it possible for Him to allow the Son to suffer on a cross without stepping in and just tearing up the debt?
How can God be bound by a law?
Some say that Jesus is doing something that is required by a law, or by the Father’s wrath, or by His Father’s demand for justice. In order for that to work, those things would have to be so powerful that God is bound by them. Did God become the second-most powerful force in the universe as soon as He gave the Law? The same legislature that passes a law can repeal it. Certainly, God is greater than a human legislature! In Matthew 17:24-27, Jesus said that the son of the King is exempt from the king’s law, so if the crucifixion meets a legal requirement, it is unnecessary. So why did it happen?
How can God overlook a detail?
Let us assume that God promulgated a law that is so strong that not even He can change it or make exceptions to it, and let us assume that this is a special case that is not covered by Matthew 17:24-27. How could an omniscient God not know that humans were going to sin? How could He forget to make a provision in the law for it?
How does the Father benefit from Jesus suffering on the Cross?
If I give you a present, it wouldn’t go over very well if I broke into your house, stole something of value, wrapped it up in paper, and presented it to you as a gift; yet that is exactly what would be going on here. Jesus is paying the Father for the sins of the human race by giving Him something He already owns.
Problems with the Ransom
Look at the Scriptures I cited above. The ransom is not in some kind of celestial currency, the ransom is not the human race, but Jesus Himself—or Jesus’ life, which comes down to the same thing. Therefore in this theory, God not only gives Jesus to Satan, He is compelled to do so by His own lack of foresight! 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 we diminished God and exalted Satan. This only works if Satan is ethical, keeping his part of the bargain like an honest gentleman, which he is not.
This theory only works if the Father and the Son have different opinions about us, if the loving Father approves of and benefits from His beloved Son’s torture, and if Jesus to gives the Father something that He does not already own. It also requires Jesus to be bound by a law or principle when Jesus Himself said he wasn’t.
This theory is wrong. Jesus did not pay a ransom to the Father. We can use this theory as a flawed metaphor to describe the atonement, but it does not work as an explanation.
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.