Ransom to Satan theory views Christ’s atoning work as a payment to Satan to ransom those whom God the Father gave Christ. Wayne Grudem clarified this view as “the ransom Christ paid to redeem us was paid to Satan, in whose kingdom all people were by virtue of sin.”(Grudem 1994: 581)
Supplementing Grudem, R. C. Sproul expounded that “Satan was the kidnapper who had snatched us away from our Father’s house, and Christ came and paid a ransom to the Devil to set us free.”(Sproul 2007: 54)
A brilliant Christian theologian Origen of Alexandria (185-254 A.D.) was the main champion of the ransom to Satan theory. He contended that, “it was the devil who held us, to whom we had been sold by our sins. He demanded therefore as our price, the blood of Jesus.” (Origen 1985: 142) He articulated,
“To whom did he [Christ Jesus] give his life a ransom for many? Assuredly not to God; could it then be to the evil one? For he was holding us fast until the ransom should be given him, even the life of Jesus; being deceived with the idea that he could have dominion over it, and not seeing that he could not bear the torture in retaining it.”(ibid)
Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 335- ca. 395) added his own twist, as he viewed God deceiving Satan when Christ’s deity hide under Christ’s flesh and offered himself as a ransom and as a result, Satan lost both his victims and Christ. He argued,
“in order to secure that the ransom in our behalf might be easily accepted by him[Satan] who required it, the Deity[of Christ] was hidden under the veil of our nature, that so, as with ravenous fish, the hook of the Deity might be gulped down along with the bait of flesh, and thus, life being introduced into the house of death, and light shining in darkness, that which is diametrically opposed to light and life might vanish; for it is not in the nature of darkness to remain when light is present, or of death to exist when life is active.(Gregory 1893: 494)
Why did many early Church fathers fell for this theory, which gives the Satan much more power than he actually have? How could they accept a view that finds no support in the Scripture, even though the New Testament does indeed speaks of man fallen into the bondage of sin? It could be “because Satan is the enemy of God and the tempter, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that Satan held us in bondage and demanded a ransom from God.”(Sproul 2007: 55) but we cannot know for sure why.
“If Christ paid a ransom to Satan to deliver us from Satan’s clutches, who is the victor?”(ibid 57) asked Sproul, as he questioned the validity of this view. If random was paid to the Satan, then Jesus is not Christus Victor, but Satan, hence Satanus Victor.
Grudem contended that those who held ransom to Satan theory “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.”(Grudem 1994: 581) He point out that the idea of sinners owing anything to Satan is nowhere to be found in the Old or New Testament. It is God, not Satan, who requires of us a payment for our sins.
Question: Are there modern theologians supporting ransom to Satan theory today?
Gregory of Nyssa. (1893). The Great Catechism W. Moore, Trans.). In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, Volume V: Gregory of Nyssa: Dogmatic Treatises, etc. (P. Schaff & H. Wace, Ed.) New York: Christian Literature Company.
Grudem, W. A. (1994). Systematic theology : An introduction to biblical doctrine. Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.
Sproul, R. C. (2007). The Truth of the Cross (53). Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing.
Origen (1985), Commentary on Matthew 16:8, cited in H. D. McDonald, The Atonement of the Death of Christ in Faith, Revelation, and History. Grand Rapids: Baker.