Ransomed for Life
“For the Son of Man came not to be served but rather to serve and to give his life a ransom for the sake of many” (Mark 10:45, my translation). I think the whole course of Christian soteriology in the Western Church has been derailed by a systematic misreading of this text. This misreading is amplified by the additions made in Matthew’s parallel. Matthew adds the emphasis on the forgiveness of sins – an emphasis not found in the Markan composition – at least not in the Markan account of the cross.
The derailment comes from the development and application of Anselm’s theory of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). It is certainly the case that vicarious atonement is a significant part of soteriology in the Christian Scriptures. But those perspectives don’t require the Divine bookkeeping and intra-Trinitarian violence that come part and parcel with Anselm’s system.
That being said, PSA has undergirded the Roman Catholic penitential system since the Middle Ages in Europe. Martin Luther and John Calvin both accepted it in broad and rhetorical outline. Luther pushed back on the theory, however, with an emphasis on the victory of Christ as opposed to the victimhood of Christ. Gustaf Aulen’s classic work, Christus Victor, remains required reading in that regard.
PSA is altered in so-called “five-point” Calvinism to limit the effect of Christ’s death only to the elect. This perspective notes that Jesus says the Son of Man gives his life for “many” rather than for “all.” PSA is also a required element of most accounts of Christian doctrine in the “Evangelical” world of theology these days. If you’re interested in that connection, Scott McKnight’s article is a good summary and discussion.
Does the Markan composition say that Jesus pays a debt of honor to God by dying on the cross? No, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Yet, the issue is not simple.
It would be nice if the grammar helped us out here, but it does not. The word the NRSV translates as “for” (“anti”) really should be translated as “for the sake of” (at least if Daniel Wallace knows his stuff, and I think he does). Wallace argues that this must be more than “on behalf of” another. The preposition cannot be used, Wallace asserts, in “the mere sense of representation” (page 365). The Greek word used in that case would be “huper.” But it’s not the word here.
“In summary,” Wallace writes, “the evidence appears to be overwhelmingly in favor of viewing anti in Matt 20:20/Mark 10:45 as meaning in the place of and very possibly with the secondary meaning in exchange for, while the evidence for it meaning simply the vague idea of on behalf of is suspect at best.”
This doesn’t require, however (in Wallace’s view), that PSA is THE biblical image of atonement. “However,” Wallace continues,” it is important to note that the theory of substitutionary atonement is usually based on passages involving huper.” The Markan composition studiously avoids that preposition. “Consequently,” Wallace concludes, “the issue of whether the NT writers perceived Christ’s death as substitutionary must be fought on huper’s turf as well” (page 367).
Mark uses a word that means “for the sake of,” as in “in the place of.” So, let’s think about what that can mean. Does “in the place of” require some sort of debt of honor and repayment through violence model of the Atonement? No, I don’t think so.
For example, N. T. Wright has sometimes used this analogy. A child is trapped in a burning building and will die if not rescued. A firefighter enters the building and rescues the child. In the process of the rescue, the firefighter dies, but the child survives. In a real sense, the firefighter has died “for the sake of” the child.
It’s not the case that the child had sinned and was being punished by the fire. It’s also not the case that the child owed some debt of honor to the landlord which had to be satisfied by the sacrifice of a life. And it’s not the case that the firefighter went into the building with the intention of dying as an end in itself. The risk and reality of death were certainly real possibilities as part of the rescue. But that death became a means in the process of rescue. It was never an end or a goal in and of itself.
Any and every analogy is terribly limited and falls apart at the slightest touch. That is certainly the case with this one as well. But I hope you see the point. PSA is a theological construction rooted in a certain period of time and model of social relationships. Besides that, it’s not a very good construction for what we might hope to describe as the Atonement.
I appreciate Scott McKnight’s perspective which says the Atonement is a given, and we are left to assemble images that help us make sense of it. We have a variety of images in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures for how God reconciles us to God in the midst of our alienation. It is a theological and interpretive error to make one of those images the controlling image, not only for the Atonement but for all of Christian theology.
We should find it instructive that the Eastern Church does not find a need for PSA anywhere in that theological perspective. The early Church Mothers and Fathers found themselves much closer to the Christus Victor theory of the Atonement than to PSA. Of course, they were quite capable of using PSA-like language, since that can be found in the Scriptures. But it was not the controlling metaphor or even the preferred one in descriptions of the Atonement.
One can have a marvelous soteriology without the bookkeeping and violence of PSA.
The other word in this bit of text, of course, is translated as “ransom.” It is the Greek word, “lutron.” As McKnight notes, along with many other scholars, this word has nothing to do with sacrifice as such. The metaphor here is that we humans (and by extension, all of Creation) are being held captive until a ransom is paid for our release. But the trick is that the “ransom” never gets paid.
Perhaps you’ve watched re-enactments on television or in films of a hostage negotiation. One of the tactics we often see is the offer for the negotiator or some other public safety officer to take the place of those being held captive. I don’t know if that’s a real thing in these situations, but the imagery can help us with our text.
The substitution tactic has at least two functions in a hostage crisis. First, it takes the captives out of harm’s way. That’s the primary goal of the whole negotiation. People take hostages in order to get something or to achieve a goal. If the purpose of the hostage-taking was simply to keep those particular people, it would be called kidnapping.
The something to be acquired is a ransom – a payment or concession of some kind desired by the hostage-taker. If that’s the case, then one captive is as good as another. So, the exchange takes place, and the first hostages are rescued through the substitution. But the hostage-taker still wants the ransom.
The second function of the substitution tactic is to get someone “behind enemy lines.” Perhaps, by means of face-to-face conversation, the negotiator can talk the hostage-taker into surrendering. I hope that happens as often in real life as it does in fiction. Or it may be the case that the negotiator can overpower the hostage-taker, deceive the hostage-taker, or create an opening for public safety forces to enter the situation.
I think this is the sense we have in our text. Satan has been persuaded to accept Jesus “in the place of” a Creation held hostage. It would appear that the Substitute has died during captivity. That seems to suit Satan just fine. But then, Easter! Not only does the Hostage-taker get nothing for the Victim, but the supposed Victim is actually the Victor!
This is one of the reasons in the Eastern Church that the day after Easter is observed as the day of Risus Paschalis, the Great Easter Joke. God hands Satan a bag that supposedly contains the ransom. Satan opens the bag to find it…empty (like a tomb, I think)! The joke is on Satan. So, people spend that glorious Monday telling each other jokes to celebrate and remember what really happened. Some of us have recovered that tradition in our own churches in the form of Holy Humor Sunday.
Why does this matter, except for getting something right on a theology exam? For one thing, the Markan composition does not allow us to valorize Victimhood. We’ll probably discuss this more next time, but an initial comment is in order here.
Verses 43 and 44 have been used to underwrite all sorts of oppression, injustice, and abuse. The point is not really that becoming “a slave of all” should be a life goal. It’s not. Instead, read those verses in light of verse 45. What the world takes to be servitude and enslavement – places at the bottom of the human hierarchy – may well be places of greatness in the Kin(g)dom of God. Just as Satan gets it wrong with the Cross and Resurrection, the world gets it wrong when it comes to leading and serving.
For another thing, PSA leads toward myths of redemptive violence. This topic, as well, may get a much longer treatment before we’re done. For now, however, let’s be clear. The Cross is not a goal or end in itself. It is part of the path toward Resurrection. To deny the Cross is to embrace what Luther calls the “theology of glory.” To stop at the Cross is to risk making violent vengeance not only an end in itself but a positive good.
“You understand,” Jesus says, “that the reputed ‘rulers’ of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their ‘great ones’ exercise power over them. But,” he concludes, “it is not this way among you…” (Mark 10:42-43a, my translation). Victimization of and violence toward others are not part of the Way.
References and Resources
Dewey, Joanna. The Oral Ethos of the Early Church: Speaking, Writing, and the Gospel of Mark. Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Dowd, S., & Malbon, E. S. (2006). The Significance of Jesus’ Death in Mark: Narrative Context and Authorial Audience. Journal of Biblical Literature, 125(2), 271–297. https://doi.org/10.2307/27638361.
McKnight, Scott. “The Center of Atonement.” https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/the-center-of-atonement/.
Seal, David (by way of Google Scholar). https://www.google.com/books/edition/Journal_of_Biblical_and_Pneumatological/wiJNAwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=new+testament+greek+long+vowel+patterns+performance&pg=PA43&printsec=frontcover.
Shiner, Whitney. Proclaiming the Gospel: First-Century Performance of Mark. Harrisburg, PA.: Trinity Press International, 2003.
Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1996.