How is Jesus a ransom for many? What is ransom theory?
Jesus is recorded in Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45 referring to Himself as "a ransom for many," and Paul uses nearly identical verbiage in 1 Timothy 2:6, except that he uses a universal "ransom for all." The Greek words translated "ransom" in these texts indicate a price paid for redeeming or ransoming a slave or prisoner – a common practice in the time of the New Testament – or the price for a life, closer to what we might think of today in the context of kidnapping and holding a person "for ransom."
Closely related to these verses are passages that say Jesus "bought" us. One of these, Acts 20:28 (NIV), helps us understand how Jesus "paid" this ransom, for it says that the church was "bought with his own blood." First Corinthians 6:20 and 7:23 both remind the reader that they "were bought with a price," and 2 Peter 2:1 also uses "buying" terminology.
These passages led church father Origen (c. 185-c. 245 AD) to develop a theory of the atonement called "ransom theory." In this understanding, Adam and Eve became captives to Satan and sin at the fall, followed by all of their offspring – the entire world. In order to bring salvation to the human race, Jesus died to give Satan his due price of blood, buying back humanity. However, Jesus did not remain dead, in the clutches of Satan, but rose back to life, defeating Satan and the death he brings to the world. Ransom theory was widespread until the eleventh century, when Anselm argued against it strongly.
Today, neither the Roman Catholic nor most Protestants accept ransom theory in its original form. The concept of God being a debtor to Satan, or even Satan having a just claim for "owning" humanity is dubitable at best. However, it is interesting to note that C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe presents, allegorically, Aslan's slaying and resurrection as atoning for sin and breaking the power of evil in a manner very similar to the original representation of ransom theory. An altered version of ransom theory claims that it was God the Father who required payment for sin, which is far more coherent with biblical representations. This altered version continues to be acknowledged as a part or picture of Jesus' atoning work, though it is not believed, in Protestant and Roman Catholic circles, to be the primary source of or reason for our salvation. Most Protestants accept substitutionary atonement as the most complete understanding of Christ's work on the cross available to us.
It may be concluded that in the sense that Jesus paid a ransom to redeem us, it was paid with His blood to God the Father for sin. However, it should be remembered that this is not the totality of how our salvation comes about, nor are we likely to fully understand the incredible work of Christ that brought us salvation and into full relationship with God.
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