“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.” (Heb 2:14-15)
I think it is fair to say that the “Penal Substitutionary Atonement” model is the most controversial of all the so-called "atonement theories." However, there is a lesser known controversy within the “ransom model" of atonement. The controversy was not about whether or not Christ died as a ransom (this much is clear from Mark 10:45 & 1 Tim 2:6), but whether or not the ransom was paid to the devil. The proposition that the ransom was paid to Satan was one asserted by Origen and St. Gregory of Nyssa. However, the criticism against the idea that God paid ransom to the devil and the Father came from St. Gregory the Theologian. My purpose for writing this is to defend Origen and St. Gregory of Nyssa by attempting to explain exactly what they meant by this.
I will begin with analyzing the criticism first.
Ransomed from Death
“To whom was that blood offered that was shed for us, and why was it shed? I mean the precious and glorious blood of God, the blood of the High Priest and of the Sacrifice. We were in bondage to the devil and sold under sin, having become corrupt through our lust. Now, since a ransom is paid to him who holds us in his power, I ask to whom such a price was offered and why? If to the devil, it is outrageous! The robber receives the ransom, not only from God, but a ransom consisting of God himself. He demands so exorbitant a payment for his tyranny that it would have been right for him to have freed us altogether. But if the price is offered to the Father,* I ask first of all, how? For it was not the Father who held us captive. Why then should be blood of His only begotten Son please the Father, who would not even receive Isaac when he was offered as a whole burnt offering by Abraham, but replaced the human sacrifice with a ram? Is it not evident that the Father accepts the sacrifice not because he demanded it or because He felt any need for it, but on account of economy: because man must be sanctified by the humanity of God, and God Himself must deliver us by overcoming the tyrant through His own power, and drawing us to Himself by the mediation of the Son who effects this all for the honor of God, to whom He was obedient in everything… What remains to be said shall be covered with a reverent silence…” -St. Gregory the Theologian (Oration 45.22.)
“He gave Himself as a ransom to death by which we were held captive, having been sold into slavery by sin…” -Liturgy of St. Basil the Great (Anaphora Prayers)
Many Orthodox Christians object to the idea that a ransom was paid to the devil, many times specifically because of this quote. St. Gregory’s reaction to this idea (along with a superficial reading of the quote) seems to be the only reason why the ransom view became controversial. However, I would argue that this is a simple misunderstanding, and that St. Gregory is speaking against a potential misinterpretation of the analogy that gives more power to the devil than to Christ. Though, I will argue below why potential misinterpretation is not a valid reason to ignore what Origen and Nyssen had in mind.
However, he begins by admitting that man is in bondage to the “devil,” when he could have simply said “death.” He clarifies that we have become “sold under sin” by becoming corrupt “through our lust.” In other words, St. Gregory is implying that we are not enslaved to the devil because he overpowered our will and put us in chains, but because we willingly asked the devil to wrap them around our souls after he gave us his persuasive sales pitch. Thus, even for Gregory, our “enslavement to the devil” and need for ransom is not understood literally, the way one might imagine a kidnapper holding people against their will, rather such a concept is understood to be merely personifying spiritually the reality of our attachment to sin (which is in truth an attachment to death and the devil) through the chains of our passions.
Gregory’s objection to the idea that a ransom was paid to the devil is solely based on one particular understanding of it: that, in essence, the devil is able to forcibly take unwilling hostages and coerce God into giving him a paycheck. Gregory isn’t actually objecting to the idea that we were ransomed from Satan, he is rather objecting to a particular implication that may come along with saying that (he goes on to say he prefers the Old Testament imagery of a snake nailed to a pole, because it shows that the devil was killed and not compensated). To Gregory, it is outrageous to think that a thief should actually be compensated for his crime, because it would theoretically enable and perpetuate criminal behavior.
However, I would argue that Gregory's criticism isn’t objecting to Origen, Nyssen's, and even Augustine's understanding it as an ingenious sting operation that uses a reward to bait the criminal into his own trap.
The Meaning of "Ransomed from Satan"
To whom did [Christ] 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; [Satan] 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. –Origen (Commentary on Matthew 16:8)
In order to secure that the ransom in our behalf might be easily accepted by [Satan] who required it, Deity 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. -St. Gregory of Nyssa (The Great Catechism, 24)
The Lord’s cross was the devil's mousetrap: the bait which caught him was the death of the Lord. -St. Augustine of Hippo
Origen, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Augustine of Hippo all see a ransom atonement that is consistent with the general notion of “Christus Victor.” The difference is, they provide an insight into one aspect of how Christ conquered death, in that he deceived the deceiver in a battle of wits. Part of what it means for Christ to conquer Death by death is to conquer the Deceiver by deception. Christ led the devil into falling into the very grave that he himself dug for Christ.
To put it another way, instead of simply viewing Christ like a generic military general, conquering his enemies by brute force, Origen and St. Gregory of Nyssa instead see Christ's military strategy as more comparable to Sun Tzu, intellectually conquering his enemy and winning the war without lifting a finger. Christ is the one in control, manipulating His enemy into thinking He lost the war because He lost the battle, only to essentially pull out the rug from under his expectations. Christ is, as Sun Tzu put it, “appearing to be weak when He is strong.” Christ is “making a sound in the east, but striking from the west.” These are all actual military strategies, and we would do well to notice them. I would argue that one cannot understand the depths of Christ's victory if one does not understand the intellectual prowess of the strategy behind the victory. Losing the battle by death was Christ’s checkmate, and it took the devil three days to figure out he not only lost the war, but he lost the war because he won that battle. The ransom is quite literally what kills the perpetrator.
Origen says that Christ deceived Satan into thinking he could have power over the divine nature, because Christ purposely showed his human nature to be vulnerable (keep in mind what Sun Tzu said). However, Satan didn’t realize that he got more than he bargained for when the time came. St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Augustine add that Satan (like a mouse) “took the bait,” and was trapped. These are all different ways of conveying the same thing. Satan was deceived into letting Christ (the essence of light) into his house of darkness. Could the sun ever enter a cave and coexist with darkness? Christ hid himself in the dark/concealed nature of man, and Satan saw the incarnation the way a fish sees a worm. Satan thought, “I can kill him.” However, just as the fish is ignorant of the hook, so Satan was oblivious to his own destruction as he was hooked by the divine nature.
You can tell immediately that this understanding of "ransom" does not give Satan any power. On the contrary, Christ makes Satan look like a fool by manipulating him the entire time. Clearly this is not what St. Gregory the Theologian had in mind when giving his criticism. He certainly would not have any issues with the ransom theory as understood in this way, and he probably had the same perspective.
Demonic Sword; Divine Reforge
“Here he points out the wonder that by what the devil prevailed, by that was he overcome, and the very thing which was his strong weapon against the world, Death, by this Christ smote him. In this he exhibits the greatness of the conqueror’s power. Do you see how great good death has wrought?… He shows too, that not death alone has been put an end to, but that thereby he also who is ever showing that war without truce against us, I mean the devil, has been brought to nought; since he that fears not death is out of reach of the devil’s tyranny…You see that in casting out the tyranny of death, he also overthrew the strength of the devil.” –St. John Chrysostom (Homily 4 on Hebrews)
Scripture says Satan was a murderer from the beginning (Jhn 8:44) and does nothing but seek to steal, kill, and destroy (Jhn 10:10). However, Christ bound “the strong man” and plundered his house of hostages (Mat 12:29). To deny that death has a face would be dishonest to reality. As Hebrews tells us, Christ went to destroy not merely death, but “him who has the power of death” (Heb 2:14).
In commenting on that passage, St. John Chrysostom says that Christ essentially kills the devil with his own sword. “Death” is seen as Satan’s weapon, and Jesus uses that same weapon to conquer Satan. Chrysostom even says explicitly that it wasn’t death “alone” that Christ put to an end, but the very personification of death; that is, the devil.
Listen to the Scriptures, revealing a most overlooked prophetic detail in David’s battle with Goliath. Listen to how it says to us: “there was no sword in the hand of David” (1 Sa 17:50). We must inquire as to why the Spirit put this detail in the text. The meaning is this: David, that is, Christ, used his enemy’s own weapon to kill him precisely because He gave the devil exactly what he wanted. The devil should have seen it coming: The One to come who would conquer Death (personified by that "strong man" Goliath, who is himself an image of the devil) by death (that is, the devil's Goliath sword).
The Orthodox Church has grown accustomed to saying the ransom was paid to death, and that is probably the most helpful way of understanding the ransom model, simply because it forces a metaphorical perspective. However, saying “the ransom was paid to the devil” is ultimately saying the same thing, but using personification to weave an edifying mystical narrative. Therefore, there is no need for there to be conflict, because both are valid (and complementary) expressions of the Church. Thus, I think it’s time to reclaim the Ransom Theory and put the controversy to rest.
To summarize: in defeating the devil not merely by force but by wit, Christ utilized the lake of fire (that is, the unveiled glory of Christ’s eternal divinity) to reforge “death” (that demonic sword which absorbed the life within mankind) into a divine plowshare (Rev 20:14, Isa 2:4). Now the sleeping seeds of our nature (that is, our bodies) no longer lay planted in the cursed and barren earth which brought no resurrection to man (cf. Gen 3:17), but now our bodies will one day rise again into newness of life (Rom 6:4).
The tree is no longer without fruit, and that fact comes with a promise: If one fruit on the branch has revealed itself, then the rest are surely coming (cf. 1 Cor 15:22-23).