Theological rumination about the Atonement has ensued since the genesis of the Christian church. It is of no surprise, then, that with all the diverse portraits of the Atonement in the New Testament, numerous theories would be created to explain the mysterious event of God reconciling humanity through Christ. While asking which theory of the Atonement (if any) grasps what Christ fundamentally accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection is worthwhile, such a question is irrelevant to the purposes of this paper. Instead, in this paper I assume the ransom theory is the correct view of the Atonement and, respond to two common arguments against it—namely, what I dub as the divine deception argument ( referenced later as, DDO) and the divine constraint argument ( referenced later as, DCA).
Before investigating the plausibility of the ransom theory, some rudimentary remarks are needed. The ransom theory is one of the earliest theory of the Atonement, and went unchallenged during the Patristic period.1 It was most notably advocated by Irenaeus, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and, arguably, Augustine of Hippo. The basic idea of the theory is that humanity was in bondage to the Devil through the Fall, and Christ is offered as a ransom to the Devil for our freedom.
While in antiquity the ransom theory was held in high regard, after Anselm’s formulation of the satisfaction theory (later transformed into the substitutionary theory) along with his critiques of the ransom theory, the Patristic model of the Atonement fell out of popularity in the West. As the philosopher Robin Collins states concerning the ransom theory, “it is generally agreed to this day that Anselm’s critique dispatches this theory”2. Another important remark is that there is no one ransom theory of the atonement. Indeed, even the early church Fathers themselves disagreed on some of the precise details and implications of the theory. This will become important as we examine the aforementioned objections below.
For example, on Irenaeus’ account of the ransom theory, God did not use trickery to win us from the Devil. As the late theologian Gustaf Aulén writes, “Irenaeus shrinks from the assertion which some of the later Fathers are prepared to make, that the devil has gained, in the last resort, certain actual rights over man”3. Origen, on the other hand, denies Irenaeus’ account in that he takes the verses which indicate Christ as a ransom literally. Origen then asks himself: “But to whom did He give His soul as a ransom for the many? Surely not to God. Could it, then, be to the Evil One?4” Origen goes on to affirm that the ransom must be to the Devil who rightfully has dominion over this world through our perpetuation of sin. This distinction between Satan rightfully and unrightfully having dominion over humanity will become significant as we sort through the aforementioned objections. Nonetheless, for the purpose of this paper we will conceive of the ransom theory in a broad way, namely: The ransom theory maintains that humanity, by virtue of partaking in sin, became enslaved by Satan. Thus, Christ’s life and death was offered as a ransom for our freedom from Satan’s grip over us.
The Divine Deceiver Objection
A common argument against the ransom theory will be called the divine deceiver objection5. This objection states that, within the ransom theory, God deceives Satan to attain victory over the Devil, sin, and death; however, this is problematic because it is morally impermissible for God to engage in deception. This argument may be construed with greater precision as follows:
- If the ransom theory is true, then God deceived Satan.
- If God deceived Satan, then God triumphs through deceit and is a deceiver.
- If God triumphs through deceit and is a deceiver, then God is morally imperfect.
- If God is morally imperfect, then God is not the greatest conceivable being.
- The ransom theory is true. Assump.
- God deceived Satan. (1,4 MP)
- God triumphs through deceit and is a deceiver. (2,5 MP)
- God is morally imperfect. (3,7 MP)
- Thus, if the ransom theory is true, then God is not the greatest conceivable being. (4-8, CP)
This argument is offered as a reductio ad absurdum. The proponent of this argument maintains that if the ransom theory is true, then God, by necessity, would commit the morally impermissible act of deception. However, God would never do such an immoral thing. This is because God, by definition, is the greatest conceivable being. And, as the greatest conceivable being, God would have the property of moral perfection. Thus, the ransom theory implies the absurd conclusion that God acted in a way contrary to his nature.
What might be said of this argument? To begin, its advocates offer little justification for the crucial premise (3). That is, seldom do the detractors of the ransom theory offer cogent explanations for why divine deception is morally impermissible. While in colloquial conversation, stating someone is deceptive implies that said person is immoral, it still is a matter of debate if this is a valid inference in all circumstances. In this sense, advocates of DDO implicitly deny the complexity of deception by adherence to the following moral principle:
(a) Deception is morally impermissible in all circumstances.
Whether or not (a) is true is debatable. Indeed, one can counter principle (a) in a manner of ways. For one, some cases of deception are morally neutral. Think for a moment of the adept football or chess player. Both, if they are skilled, often deceive their opponent to win the game. In the case of the football player, this may involve faking one way (i.e., propagating the false belief that one is moving in a particular direction, when one actually is not) to avoid getting tackled. Similarly, the skilled chess player might offer a rook as bait, in full knowledge that if his opponent took the bait he could capture his opponent’s queen the next move. However, we would hesitate to state that said cases of deception are immoral. This then leads us to formulate a more nuanced moral principle about the nature of deception, namely:
(a’): Deception is morally impermissible unless it is of the morally neutral kind.
Surely, this principle would accommodate the former counterexamples. However, there are moral scenarios in which, prima facie, deception is permissible. Suppose a murderer, Bill, comes up to Smith’s house looking for his philosophy professor, Meister. Fortunately, Smith’s professor told him beforehand that Bill was coming to kill him, thus Meister is already safely hidden behind Smith’s clandestine library door. Smith repeatedly tells the murderer that Meister is not present, even taking him on a stroll through the house to intentionally give him evidence to foster the false belief that Meister is not present. Prima facie, Smith’s actions were morally justified. That is, because the principle to protect life is of greater value than truth-telling, this former principle was overridden. Therefore, principle (a’) is false. In its place, though, a more plausible moral principle of deception can be formulated:
(a”): Deception is morally permissible, if and only if, the agent deceiving the person(s) has morally justifiable reasons for doing so.
So how might (a”) influence our thought of the ransom theory? Similar to the previous hypothetical scenario, God’s deception of Satan might be morally permissible (or, even laudable) if God has morally sufficient reasons for doing so. The obvious question, then, is does God in fact have morally sufficient reasons for committing deception within the ransom theory? If Satan really did hold human souls captive and if by bargaining with Satan through Christ, God would triumph over Satan, death, and sin, then this would seem to serve as a morally justifiable reason for committing deception. This is not a knockdown argument since it could be asked, “When, precisely, are there sufficient reasons for deceiving someone?” This is a significant question, however, at the least this discussion so far should give us pause as to whether or not a God who engages in deception is necessarily a sign of moral imperfection.
Aside from (3), (1) is subject to criticism as well. I have yet to see any detractors who maintain the divine deception argument engage in conceptual analysis about the nature of deception. This is troubling since the task of inquiry into the necessary and sufficient conditions that an agent must perform in order for said agent to be engaging in deception is central to this argument. This is not to say that one must need an airtight definition of deception—or any concept for that matter—in order to recognize certain cases of it. Rather, it is strange to base a crucial premise of your argument on an undefined concept. It might be that, upon further conceptual analysis of deception, premise (1) is false on the accord that even on the ransom theory God did not even deceive Satan.
My final objection is that the consequent of (1) is not entailed if the antecedent is true according to some versions of the ransom theory. According to Gregory of Nazianzus’ conception of Christ’s ransom, Satan did not rightfully have ownership over humankind. In this sense, Satan is a robber. Robbers, however, do not have any rights over their stolen possessions, since, obviously, they were not theirs in the first place.
The Divine Constraint Objection
Another aspect of the ransom theory that is attacked is the notion that, according to the rules of the game, Satan has rights over human beings such that God had to honor this. What some find problematic about this is that God seems to have certain moral obligations toward other persons, especially Satan6. Again, like in the divine deceiver objection, it is not altogether clear what is wrong with God having moral obligations toward others. Presumably, if you are to accept the former argument—namely, that it is morally impermissible for God to deceive other persons—then God obviously does moral obligations to persons. Thus, if we accept the former argument then it seems like you cannot maintain this one.
Furthermore, what about God and promise-making?7 Suppose God promises someone that he would bless all the nations through this person’s offspring. Would it not be wrong of God, if he, in the end, did not fulfill the promise? On face value, it seems obvious. Also, what if God has created persons in his image such that they are endowed with intrinsic worth and value? This would, by necessity, create certain moral obligations for God. Moreover, as in the DDO, certain interpretations of the ransom theory can accommodate this critique in such a way, that God does not have moral obligations to Satan (e.g., Gregory of Nazianzus’ version of the ransom theory).
Even within ransom theories which imply that God does have moral obligations to Satan, one can make still make some sense out of it. Suppose, if in the universe God actualizes, it is such that Satan has dominion over sinners. It would follow, then, that God, by necessity, must work within this framework to redeem human persons. And, in working within this framework, Satan would rightfully have human persons under his hold unless God were to release this grip in a way which was in line with God upholding certain moral obligations to Satan. In offering Christ as a bargain for the souls of people, maintains the ransom theory advocate, God did precisely this thing.
Although the ransom theory of the Atonement is often dismissed on the aforementioned arguments alone—namely, the DDA and the DCO— it seems that, unless these arguments are supplemented they are not sufficiently forceful to warrant this theory’s dismissal. This does not mean that ransom theory succeeds, but it does show that the common philosophical objections do not render it implausible.
1As other philosophers and theologians have noted, the church Fathers could have merely taken the idea of Christ as a ransom for our sins as a metaphor. Although, with at least some church Fathers, the amount of emphasis this theory was given suggests that some might have held it as a legitimate theory concerning God’s reconciliation with humankind.
2Robin Collins, Understanding Atonement: A New and Orthodox Theory, http://home.messiah.edu/~rcollins/Philosophical%20Theology/Atonement/AT7.HTM, 1995
3Gustaf Aulén, Christus Victor: A Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the idea of Atonement, trans. by A.G. Herbert (United States of America: The Macmillian Company, 1969), 28.
4Gustaf Aulén, Christus Victor: A Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the idea of Atonement, trans. by A.G. Herbert (United States of America: The Macmillian Company, 1969), 49.
5This objection was found in Murray, Michael and Rea, Michael, “Philosophy and Christian Theology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2012/entries/christiantheology-philosophy/>.
6Objection also found in former article by Murray and Rea.
7This mention of divine promises was brought up to me in discussion with PhD philosopher, Mark Linville.