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  • Writer's pictureRev. Morgan Byars

Jesus as Our Ransom (Lenten Series Part 2)

So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; instead, whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.” – Mark 10:42-45

Welcome back to our Lenten series! Last week I went over the three atonement theories that we would talk about, and today we have a chance to look over the first of those three: ransom theory. I’ll briefly go over the theory itself and then explain the pros and cons of the theory.[1] This theory is little discussed nowadays in churches, but it was a prominent component of the early Church’s theology of atonement. Specifically, this theory was prominent throughout the first 1000 years of the Church’s history. Early Church theologians like Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, and others viewed Jesus’ death on the cross as a ransom paid to free us from our bondage, looking to passages like the one quoted above. In this view, the problem facing humanity is that our sin has placed us into bondage; that is, we are trapped in our current circumstances and enslaved to them. Sometimes this is emphasized as bondage to Satan, as the theologian Origen said, or abstracted more generally to the forces of sin and death. God offers Jesus as a payment to free us, so we are exchanged for Jesus’ life. But the early Church’s theologians identified a clever twist. Jesus is sinless and unconquerable. He not only should not be enslaved to forces he has not succumbed to, but he cannot be conquered by the forces of sin and death. Therefore, Jesus breaks out of this imprisonment. The end result, according to this theory, is that we are freed from our captivity to sin and death and are enabled to be in relationship with Jesus who has overcome our captors.

This theory does a great job of recognizing the state of captivity in which we find ourselves. Such captivity is an all-encompassing term, for all around the world we see unjust systems, oppression, inequality, and inequity. This country’s history of slavery and racial inequality are an especially prominent example, but it extends to every social structure. Racism, sexism, classism, ageism, heterosexism, and many other “isms” have been fixtures in human history. Wherever there is a group of people, there is mistreatment. Even in our individual selves we may feel entrapped. We may feel enslaved to our vices and addictions or feel incapable of healing past the spiritual wounds we have suffered at the hands of others. Taken together, all of these things are utterly overwhelming, especially if we try to take it all on ourselves. The fact of the matter is that we need help. We need release, healing, and redemption. The ransom theory of atonement testifies to this reality and reminds us of the good news that Jesus has indeed come to free us with his own life.

So if ransom theory reminds us of this crucial reality, why are there other images of the atonement? Well as with any image or metaphor, things are emphasized to the exclusion of others. In this theory we are cast as rather passive victims of injustice and sin. But what does Jesus do to save us from our own participation in sin? What does Jesus do in order to right our relationships with each other? Such questions might be answered in ransom theory if we extrapolate, but they tend to rest on the periphery. Such questions are not the primary focus of this metaphor. Therefore, it is necessary to look to other atonement models to find how such issues are addressed in the salvific work of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. When keeping many images and theories in mind we may arrive at a fuller understanding of salvation. In pursuit of that goal we will look to St. Anselm’s attempt to highlight another facet of the atonement next week.

[1] When weighing the pros and cons of atonement theories, it’s important to remember that this is not an all-or-nothing kind of analysis. We can both promote the benefits of an atonement theory and recognize the need for other images of the atonement to give us a fuller understanding of what salvation entails.

*Cover photo: Ecce Homo, Behold the Man, Antonio Ciseri, 1871

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