The Ransom—Christendom’s Lost Doctrine
THE ransom, the belief that Jesus died in exchange for sinful mankind, is fundamental to true Christianity. Yet, the doctrine has long been subject to criticism and ridicule by Christendom’s theologians.
Why is that so? Did not Jesus himself say at Mark 10:45: “The Son of man came, not to be ministered to, but to minister and to give his soul a ransom in exchange for many”?
Some have claimed that Jesus never uttered those words, that after his death these were fabricated under the influence of the apostle Paul. Others argue that “ransom” here is a figure of speech or that the doctrine comes from Greek mythology! So the ransom has virtually disappeared from church teachings.
You might well wonder, though, how early Christians understood the death of Jesus. Paul tells us at 2 Corinthians 5:14, 15: “The love the Christ has compels us, because this is what we have judged, that one man died for all . . . that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died for them and was raised up.” How eloquently simple this doctrine was—utterly free of the complicated alterations it would later undergo at the hands of church theologians.
Is it possible that Paul invented this doctrine? No, for he explains at 1 Corinthians 15:3: “I handed on to you, among the first things, that which I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” Clearly, long before Paul wrote his epistles, Christians already understood Jesus’ death to be sacrificial, a real price paid to redeem sinful mankind, a ransom. Furthermore, as Paul indicates, they understood Christ’s death to fulfill “the Scriptures,” that is, prophesies such as Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 in the Hebrew Scriptures, or “Old Testament.”
If you choose to investigate the facts for yourself, you will find that apostate teachings infiltrated Christianity back near the apostles’ time. (Acts 20:29, 30; 2 Timothy 4:3, 4) Yet, belief in the ransom sacrifice of Christ persisted, as the writings of early Church Fathers show. However, when some later theologians delved into the ransom doctrine, they came up with some difficult questions, such as, To whom was the ransom paid? And why was such payment necessary?
In the fourth century C.E., Gregory of Nyssa and others expounded the view that the ransom had been paid to Satan the Devil! Satan, they argued, had a hold on man, and a ransom was paid to him to free mankind. However, a contemporary named Gregory of Nazianzus saw a gaping hole in this theory. It implied that God was beholden to the Devil—absurd indeed! The idea of a ransom paid to the Devil caught on nonetheless and lingered for centuries.
Could the ransom have been paid to God himself? Gregory of Nazianzus felt that he saw problems with this idea too. Since ‘we were not in bondage to [God],’ why would a ransom need to be paid him? Furthermore, ‘could the Father delight in the death of his Son’ by demanding a ransom? Seemingly difficult questions that appeared to cast doubt upon the ransom itself.
Death of the Ransom
Your investigation of this matter might then take you up to the early 12th century. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, attempted to answer these questions in his book Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man). The book taught that Christ’s death served as the means of satisfying divine justice, though not as a ransom. Anselm held that to forgive sin by a ransom without satisfying justice would amount to leaving sin uncorrected. “But God cannot properly leave anything uncorrected in His Kingdom,” said Anselm. How, then, did God correct matters?
Arguing that ‘sin dishonors God,’ Anselm said that it would not have been enough “simply to restore what has been taken away” by Adam’s sin. Since God had been insulted, a ransom—even the sacrifice of a perfect man—would not suffice. “In consideration of the insult offered,” the cleric reasoned, “more than what was taken away must be rendered back.” (Italics ours.) Anselm argued that this required the death of one who was “both God and man”!
Whatever your reaction to Anselm’s teachings might be, they won over his contemporaries and continue to wield influence in our day. Why, in one stroke, Anselm had both reinforced the Trinity doctrine and dealt a death blow to the ransom, at least in Christendom! “Satisfaction” became the byword of theologians, the term “ransom” gradually fading into obscurity. Nevertheless, Anselm’s theories were based almost entirely on specious logic, not on the Bible. And as time passed, scholars such as Thomas Aquinas began chipping away at Anselm’s theory of “satisfaction” with clever logic of their own. Speculation became rife. Redemption theories multiplied, and the debate moved further from Scripture and deeper into human reasoning, philosophy, and mysticism.
The Reformation and the Ransom
Let us, though, move a little closer to our time. When the storm of the Protestant Reformation erupted in the 16th century, a radical group called the Socinians was born.* They denied that Jesus’ death in any way “merited salvation for us,” calling such belief “fallacious, erroneous, and very pernicious . . . , repugnant both to Scripture and reason.” (The Racovian Catechisme) Since God forgives freely, no satisfaction of justice was necessary. Christ’s death, they claimed, redeemed in that it moved men to imitate his perfect example.
Assaulted by these and other heresies, the Catholic Church launched a counterattack, convoking the Council of Trent (from 1545 to 1563 C.E.). But while positions were taken on many doctrinal issues, the council proved vague and noncommittal regarding redemption. It spoke of the ‘merit of Jesus Christ’ and used the term “satisfaction” but scrupulously avoided the term “ransom.” Consequently, the church stopped far short of committing itself to any clear-cut Scriptural position. The door of speculation remained wide open.
Why Religious Leaders Have Failed
Since the Council of Trent, theologians—Catholic and Protestant alike—have developed countless redemption theories. (See box on page 7.) Yet, no accord on the meaning of Christ’s death is in sight. Theologians agree only in their disdain of the Scriptural term “ransom,” preferring to ignore it, downplay it, or explain it away. The meaning of Christ’s death is expounded in technical jargon, complex twists of fallacious logic, and high-sounding terms, such as “moral influence” and “representative physical satisfaction.” Rather than building faith in Christ’s death, Christendom’s clergy have made his torture stake a confusing stumbling block.
What is the underlying reason for this abysmal failure? Catholic theologian Boniface A. Willems attributes it to the fact that theologians are “educated in a carefully-guarded isolation”—too far removed from the real needs of people.* Are you not inclined to agree with that assessment? However, Jeremiah 8:9 goes further, pointing to the real root of the problem: “Look! They have rejected the very word of Jehovah, and what wisdom do they have?”
Granted, the doctrine of the ransom may give rise to some difficult questions. (2 Peter 3:16) But instead of searching the Scriptures for answers, theologians have used human wisdom and logic. (1 Corinthians 1:19, 20; 2:13) They have presumed to reject whatever portions of the Bible do not suit their fancies—or theories. (2 Timothy 3:16) They have promoted unscriptural teachings, such as the Trinity doctrine. (John 14:28) And their biggest failure is that they have made the salvation of man paramount, ignoring weightier issues involving God’s name and Kingdom.—Matthew 6:9, 10.
An Advocate of the Ransom
Now, please move your examination up to the late 1800’s. A God-fearing man named Charles Taze Russell separated himself from mainstream theology and began publishing this very journal—The Watch Tower. “From the first,” recalled Russell, “it has been a special advocate of the Ransom.”
The Watchtower continues to serve as such to this day. For well over a hundred years, it has presented sound Scriptural reasons to believe in the ransom, and it has given reasonable, Scriptural replies to the challenges of critics. We therefore invite you now to take a further look at what the Bible says regarding the death of Jesus and its meaning.
See “The Socinians—Why Did They Reject the Trinity?” in our companion journal Awake! of November 22, 1988.
Note, however, Willems’ own theory in the box above.
[Box on page 7]
A SAMPLING OF REDEMPTION THEORIES
□ RECTORAL, OR GOVERNMENTAL, THEORY: Dutch Theologian Hugo Grotius developed this in the 17th century to refute the theories of the Socinians. Grotius viewed Christ’s death “as a kind of legal transaction, God filling the role of Rector or Governor, and man that of culprit.”—Hastings’ Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics.
□ VITAL ATONEMENT THEORY: This was proposed in 1946 by Protestant theologian Clarence H. Hewitt. He viewed Christ’s work, not as paying some legal penalty, but as ‘freeing us from the domination of the law of sin and death and inducing repentance and godly sorrow, thereby bringing us into a forgivable state before God.’
□ REDEMPTION BY CHRISTIAN FELLOWSHIP: Roman Catholic theologian Boniface A. Willems (1970) equates “redemption” with “turning away from our egoism and throwing our hearts open to one another.” He adds: “The Christian notion of substitution or vicarious suffering is that one knows oneself to be linked in solidarity with the sin-ravaged human race. . . . The Church is then the fellowship of those who are ready to live in special service for the sake of others.”
□ SCAPEGOAT THEORY: Catholic theologian Raymund Schwager proposed this in 1978. He rejected the idea that God would “demand an eye for an eye.” He views Christ’s sacrifice as some sort of catharsis (purification) that allows human society to vent—and hence rid itself—of its innate violent tendencies.
□ SOCIO-POLITICAL REDEMPTION: Baptist theologian Thorwald Lorenzen wrote in 1985: “God does not merely seek religious forgiveness for the sinner but also political liberation for the poor and oppressed. . . . The death of Jesus, therefore, reveals a God who is concerned with the healing of all dimensions of human life.”
[Picture on page 5]
Protestant and Catholic theologians have developed numerous theories about redemption and the ransom, but what does the Bible teach?