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  • Writer's pictureDon Walker

To Whom Was the Ransom Paid?

"For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many." Mark 10:45

The Bible teaches us that Man the sinner is in captivity to sin (Rom. 6:17, 23; 7:14). This is foundational to the teaching of Paul relating to justification. The sinner is a slave doomed to die, Jesus effects the ransom of His people by the payment of a price, His life for the life of His people. The term "ransom" used by Jesus in Mark 10:45 is the Greek word – lutron. The Hebrew equivalent of this word is kofer, meaning to wipe off or to expiate. It has reference to a redemption fee paid to rescue a man from the law, or from his captor.

This concept of "ransom" is one that has been a source of theological discussion down through the ages. The question has been "to whom was the ransom paid?" Some of the early church fathers viewed the atonement as a victory over Satan procured through the ransom of Christ. The view held by Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, as well as, Augustine, was that the ransom was paid to Satan, since he held humanity captive till Christ came. Historically, this view has not been limited to a select group of the early church fathers. It has re-emerged at numerous times throughout the history of the Church. For example, Gregory the Great (540-604), and Peter Lombard (1100-1164) espoused this position. In our day, I have found this view expressed in some charismatic writings.

Though the "ransom to Satan" view was not universally held among the early church fathers, Anselm (1033-1109) was the first to raise strong opposition to it. Anselm stressed that the atonement was satisfaction paid by Christ to God the Father. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) agreed with Anselm, and spoke of Christ’s death as a work of sacrifice "due God in order to appease Him." Aquinas saw the atoning work of Christ relating to God’s justice and mercy. Aquinas stated: "That man should be delivered by Christ’s passion was in keeping with both His mercy and His justice." This was essentially the view of the Reformers.

The "ransom to Satan" view does contain some important strands of truth. Christ did come "to destroy the works of the devil" (I John 3:8). He certainly did win the victory over the forces of darkness (Col. 2:15; Heb. 2:14). In addition, because we as sinners are in bondage to sin and to Satan, we need someone to provide redemption and "redeem" us out of our bondage. We were redeemed from bondage to Satan because "the whole world is in the power of the evil one" (I John 5:19). When Christ came He died to "deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage" (Heb. 2:15). But does the Bible teach that the ransom was paid to Satan?

Let me begin to answer that by pointing out the original meaning of ransom. In our day the word has come to have a lawless meaning. It is associated with kidnappers and terrorists. But the original meaning of ransom had to do with law, not lawlessness. In Scripture, it has reference to the price paid for a forfeited life, or for the delivery from capital punishment (Exodus 21:30). It is the price paid for the pardon of sins and the redemption of the sinner from death (Job 33:24). Only certain offenses were subject to ransom. Jesus is using the term in Mark 10:45 to speak of the redemption from the bondage of sin and the penalty for sin to which sinners are subject by God’s law. Scripture speaks of Christ’s death as a propitiation offered to God the Father for our sins (Rom. 3:25; I John 2:2, 4:10).

Scripture does not teach that there was a "deal" worked out between God and the devil, whereby Jesus was turned over by the Father to Satan in exchange for all the souls held captive by him. In the proposed scenario of Christ being the ransom paid to Satan, Satan thought that He had won His prize at last, that Christ was worth more to him than all of humanity. But here the deceiver finds himself deceived. Jesus was but the "bait" to lure him into a trap (Augustine used this "mousetrap" analogy). Satan could not hold Jesus, and with His victorious Resurrection, the devil lost not only Jesus but also the souls of lost humanity.

As J. Rodman Williams points out: "It is hard to imagine God tricking the devil into thinking that he would gain possession of Christ. Trickery is Satan’s own game, not the Lord’s! Most importantly, however, relating the death of Christ exclusively to Satan hardly touches on the more basic theme of reconciliation. Men may be set free from Satan’s power, but are they thereby reconciled to God?" (Renewal Theology, Vol. 1, page 371).

Wayne Grudem calls our attention to this aspect of the "ransom to Satan" view: "It falsely thinks of Satan rather than God as the one who required that a payment be made for sin and thus completely neglects the demands of God’s justice with respect to sin. It views Satan as having much more power than he actually does, namely, power to demand whatever he wants from God, rather than the one who has been cast down from heaven and has no right to demand anything of God. Nowhere does the Scripture say that we as sinners owe anything to Satan, but it repeatedly says that God requires of us a payment for our sins." (Systematic Theology, page 581).

The climax of the crucifixion account occurs when Jesus cries out from the cross His declaration of victory, "It is finished." (The Greek here is more emphatic. The Greek word being tetelestai. A word that was used in the marketplace when the final payment had been made. It in essence means "paid in full.") Christ had satisfied the demands of divine justice and the price was paid for our redemption.

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