There is a French film from 1958 with the evocative title L’ancenseur pour l’echaffaud, which translates to “Elevator to the Gallows.” You feel the irony bite the more you think about the title. On your way to your own hanging? At least you will not have that tiring climb up the stairs! In fact, this elevator will get you to your destination quickly and conveniently.
There is the same acid irony in the Seven Last Words crucifixion scene painted for us by the evangelist Luke. What are we witnessing? His destination was not a scaffold but a cross—Golgotha, or the “Place of the Skull.” Legend has it that Adam was buried here. Representations of the crucifixion often show a skull at the foot of the cross to indicate that the new Adam was dying for the old Adam. It was both a substitution and a ransom, as Jesus Himself said the Son of Man came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20:28). To whom was the bill paid?
Scholars in the Christian church have been perplexed over the payment of our spiritual ransom. There was no confusion about for whom it was offered, or by whom it was given; this was obvious. But the difficulty arose in determining to whom it was paid. The apostle John says that Jesus “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). The same problem arose over Christ’s sacrifice. Whom did He propitiate? In what way was the offering of His blood, His life, said to be an atoning sacrifice?
OPTION ONE: THE DEVIL
In the fourth and fifth centuries of the Christian era, when many distorted views were disseminated, some taught that the sacrifice of Christ was paid to the devil. Through sin, the human family had sold themselves to Satan, making themselves his slaves. Thus Christ’s death had delivered them from hell and had ransomed them from the power of the evil one. Far from being a sacrifice for Satan, Scripture teaches that Christ’s death sealed the devil’s doom (see Heb 2:14; 1 John 3:8).
OPTION TWO: THE FATHER
An eighth-century monk, John of Damascus, refuted the theory of the ransom being paid to the devil when he wrote: “He who assumed death for us, died and offered Himself to the Father; for we had committed wrong towards Him, and it was necessary for Him to receive our ransom, and we thus be delivered from condemnation. For God forbid that the blood of the Lord should be offered to the tyrant.”1
This writer refuted one error, only to fall into another. The heathen offered their sacrifices either to appease the anger, or to ensure the favor of their pagan deities; but why should God be conciliated or placated by any such means. God did not inflict retributive justice upon His Son! Neither was it to propitiate the Father that the Son laid down His life. One author has mistakenly versified this view:
“Jehovah lifted up His rod, O Christ it fell on Thee, Thou wast sore stricken of Thy God, There’s not one stroke for me?”
This may appear to be a noble sentiment, but it is an attempt to exalt Christ’s sacrifice to the disparagement of the Father. What an ignoble estimate of the Father’s character! Was God the demanding judge requiring inexorable justice for sin? God never struck His Son! The prophet Isaiah clearly relates that our sins were the real cause of His death (see Isa 53:4–5). It was not God’s stroke, but “for the transgression of my people he was punished” (v. 8). How incongruous then to suggest that God was propitiated in the death of His Son, when He Himself provided the propitiation (see 1 John 4:10). Let it be noted that the Savior’s sacrifice was entirely a voluntary offering (see John 10:17). Thus the ransom was not in payment to the Father for a crime; neither was it paid to the devil for release. Jesus came not to appease, but to cancel guilt and cleanse sinners. This was not the bribery of God or to meet some personal demand; it was done at God’s initiative (see Rom 3:25–26).
OPTION THREE: THE SON
Then if not God or the devil, to whom was the ransom paid? Jesus resolved that He Himself should provide the remedy. He proclaimed, “I will deliver this people from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death” (Hos 13:14). He decided to make the consequences of our sins His own. He submitted to the law of righteousness, which demanded the death of the transgressor. In His innocence, Jesus’ death was the ransom price for sin. His life was the homage He paid to the moral forces of the universe, to preserve the inviolate authority of His unchanging law (see Rom 3:25; Heb 9:5). Now all may come in contrition and confession of sin and find cleansing and forgiveness, amnesty and peace. The ransom has been paid. The law has been vindicated. The transgressor has been pardoned. The guilty may go free and claim the Savior’s promise, “All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37).
“There is a place where Jesus sheds The oil of gladness on our heads— A place than all besides more sweet; It is the blood-bought mercy-seat.”
The sacrifice of the cross was an expression of love to His creatures that was stronger than death. In the words of one author, “Christ was treated as we deserve, that we might be treated as He deserves. He was condemned for our sins, in which He had no share. He suffered the death that was ours, that we might receive the life that was His. ‘With His stripes we are healed.’”2 It was over the broken law that the ransom was paid.
Aeschylus had been condemned to death by the Athenians, and was about to be led to the place of execution. His brother Amyntas had distinguished himself in the service of his country: on the day of an illustrious victory obtained through his bravery and skill, he lost his hand. He came into court just as his brother was condemned, and, without saying a word, held up the stump of his arm in the sight of all. The historian says that when the judges saw the mark of his sufferings and sacrifice, they remembered what he had done, and for his sake pardoned the guilty brother whose life was about to be forfeited. There is one who in infinite love and pity holds up His mutilated hands as the ransom price He paid to pardon you, and if you will let Him write His laws upon your heart, He will remember your sins no more (see Heb 10:16–17).
1 Shedd’s History of Christian Doctrine, 2:252.
2 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages. 25.
Rex D. Edwards is a former vice president for religious studies at Griggs University