settings icon
share icon

What is the classic, dramatic, or ransom theory of the atonement?

ransom theory of the atonement

Throughout Christian history, scholars have tried to precisely define the work that provides salvation that Jesus performed on the cross. Their ideas are called theories of atonement. For the first 1,000 years, the predominant view was a theory known in turn as “classic,” “dramatic,” or “ransom.” The ransom theory of atonement is closely related to Jesus’ victory over humanity’s enemy.

The idea is simple enough: because of Adam and Eve’s sin, humanity is held hostage. The ransom theory of atonement is based on Mark 10:45 where Jesus says, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The ransom theory says that God offered Jesus’ life (Acts 2:23)—and Jesus voluntarily laid down His life (John 10:18)—to humanity’s enemy to break its hold.

The idea of Christus Victor, or “Christ the victor,” is an integral part of many interpretations of the ransom theory. It says that, when Jesus submitted Himself to death, His humanity veiled the fact that He is God. As God, the power that held humanity captive could not hold Him, so He escaped, winning victory over the enemy.

Who it is that holds humanity captive and to whom the ransom is paid differs. Irenaeus (d. 200) based his interpretation on Matthew 12:29 where Jesus said, “Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.” This interpretation says that, by submitting to death, Jesus tied up the “strong man,” identified as Satan, sin, and death, and carried off the “plunder”—God’s chosen.

Origen (d. 254) was more direct. He believed that Satan holds all people and demanded that God the Father give him God the Son. Satan released humanity, and then found Jesus was too powerful to keep imprisoned. On the third day, Jesus rose again, becoming victor over Satan.

Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394) agrees with Origen but uses the analogy that Jesus’ humanity was the bait that hid the fishhook of His deity. John of Damascus (d. 749) adapted Gregory’s metaphor but insisted Jesus could never be under Satan’s power. It was to death itself that Jesus paid the debt, never Satan.

Gustaf Aulén’s (d. 1977) dramatic theory focuses more strongly on Jesus as victor. He emphasized that Jesus triumphed over the law, sin, death, and Satan in a great cosmic war. Because Jesus triumphed over the foul powers that held humanity captive, He brings reconciliation between God and humanity. As evidence, Aulén presented the many times Jesus expelled demons as well as passages that say Jesus “disarmed the powers and authorities, . . . triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15), that by His death He broke “the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14), and that “the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (1 John 3:8).

Like most views of the atonement, the ransom/classic/dramatic theory of atonement and the Christus Victor motif have some truths but do not encompass the heart of the work Jesus performed on the cross. Humanity’s problem is not primarily that we are lost to death. That’s a result of our problem: we are guilty of sinning against God, and we need His forgiveness. Jesus took our rightful punishment so that we could be reconciled with God.

That being said, Christus Victor can be a powerful witness for cultures that understand the spiritual war around them and seek to placate or earn the favor of spirits to aid them in their daily lives. This includes the animism of Africa and the Caribbean, the ancestor worship of Asia, and the witchcraft favored by some on social media. Christus Victor reminds us that Jesus is more powerful than any spirit. He has triumphed over Satan and all other evil forces. It is foolish to seek the favor or protection of spirits when they are already defeated. Christ, indeed, is victor!

Return to:

Questions about Salvation

What is the classic, dramatic, or ransom theory of the atonement?
Subscribe to the

Question of the Week

Get our Question of the Week delivered right to your inbox!

Follow Us: Facebook icon Twitter icon YouTube icon Pinterest icon Instagram icon
© Copyright 2002-2024 Got Questions Ministries. All rights reserved. Privacy Policy
This page last updated: April 25, 2024