Several years ago on the Saturday before Easter, I heard Paul Harvey share a story on his radio program. It was a sweet story, but it represented a fairly common misunderstanding of Jesus’ atoning work on the cross. My aim is not to criticize Paul Harvey; I’ve always loved to listen to his show. However, I think the anecdote does reflect an unwitting error that Christians are prone to make–namely, that Jesus’ death was a payment to Satan. You can read the story here: “The Bird Cage.”
In spite of its shortcomings, we should acknowledge that the story does illustrate a couple important truths. First of all, it illustrates God’s love for sinners through Jesus’ sacrificial work (e.g. John 15:12; Rom 5:8). It also rightfully proclaims that Jesus’ death on the cross releases sinners from the ruling power of sin, which includes satanic bondage (Acts 26:18; 2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:13; 2 Tim 2:26).
However, the story completely misunderstands the Bible’s teaching about the payment that Christ made in behalf of sinners. In the story, Christ’s sacrificial death is pictured as a payment to Satan. Satan has humanity caged up, and unless he’s properly paid off all humanity will be damned. So Jesus steps in and pays the ransom to Satan in order to release sinners who are held captive by him.
Harvey’s story represents a view of Christ’s atonement that the church by and large rejected centuries ago. It was rejected because the “ransom to Satan” view of Christ’s death misunderstands what the Bible teaches to be the central meaning of the cross. The scriptures are clear that Jesus Christ’s death on the cross constituted a payment to God, not the devil.
Why is this point significant? It’s important because the Bible everywhere affirms that sin is an offense against God (e.g. 2 Samuel 12:9-10; Romans 3:23). All of us are sinners and have thus offended God. The offense of sin has created a rift between God and humanity (Isaiah 59:2). Sin has incited God’s angry and terrible wrath, and all of us therefore owe God a debt of eternal punishment because of our sin. This debt is paid in hell, and when one goes there one never finishes paying the debt. It lasts for eternity.
It’s important to note here that hell is not a place where Satan doles out punishment upon sinners. No, hell is much scarier than that. Hell is the place where God metes out His just punishment upon sinners. We must not think of hell as a place where Satan rules. On the contrary, hell is the place of Satan’s punishment (2 Peter 2:4; Rev 20:10). So if hell isn’t the realm of Satan’s wrath, then who’s wrath is it that is poured out in hell? It’s the wrath of God. When we let ourselves reflect on this truth, the thought is almost too difficult to bear. The same God who is the treasure of heaven is also the One who is the terror of hell. This is why Jesus warned people, “And do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28). Whereas heaven is the realm of God’s mercy, hell is the place of God’s wrath. Hell is scary not because Satan is there but because, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).
All of this further illumines the point that we as sinners owe a debt of eternal punishment to God, not to Satan. Therefore, when Jesus died, he was making a payment to God, not to Satan. When Jesus died, he was being punished by God, not by Satan. On the cross, Jesus Christ was receiving the punishment from God that we deserved. Someone may object to this last statement by asking, “But does the Bible really teach that God is the one who punished Jesus? After all, it looks like the Romans and the Jews are the ones who punished him.” Numerous texts could be cited in response to this objection. Let’s look at a couple.
The prophet Isaiah describes Jesus’ death as follows, “But the Lord was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief” (Isaiah 53:10, emphasis mine). In Isaiah’s words, “the Lord” is the One who crushed Jesus. In Matthew’s gospel, God says “I will strike down the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered” (Matt 26:31). In this text, God is clearly the agent of Jesus’ death. Also, let us not forget 2 Corinthians 5:21, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” God made Jesus to bear the guilt and punishment for our sin! This couldn’t be any clearer in scripture.
So the payment that would have taken us an eternity in hell to endure, Jesus endured in the moment of the cross. Jesus’ physical sufferings were horrific. But who can imagine the terror of the spiritual anguish of bearing God’s wrath against sin? All the frightful rage of the infinite creator and judge of the universe was poured out in full on Jesus at the cross. As C. H. Spurgeon once put it, “it seemed as if Hell were put into His cup; He seized it, and, ‘At one tremendous draught of love, He drank damnation dry.’ So that there was nothing left of all the pangs and miseries of Hell for His people ever to endure.” This is the true meaning of Christ’s death. Jesus took the wrath of God upon himself as a substitute in the place of sinners. In this, Jesus rendered payment to God, not Satan.
The amazing paradox is that the measure of God’s wrath is also the measure of his love because “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). God’s love is demonstrated in Jesus’ death. How can this be? The measure of Jesus’ anguish on the cross demonstrates the extent of his love. He suffered to the uttermost for those he came to save. So when we view God’s wrath poured out on Jesus at the cross, we are at once viewing the measure of his love for us. Isn’t this the reason that we sing, “Amazing love, how can it be that Thou my God wouldst die for me?”
We give away precious gospel truth if we say that Jesus’ death was a ransom to Satan. If we say that Jesus’ death is a ransom to the devil, we don’t see the true measure of God’s love because we don’t see the true measure of His wrath poured out on sin. But we see the gospel in all of its glory when we realize that Jesus’ death was a payment to an offended God who loves us. God offers Jesus as a substitute penalty-bearer to anyone who will place their faith and trust in him. Whoever turns from their sin, whoever forsakes all attempts to reconcile himself/herself to God through human effort and good works, whoever will trust in Jesus alone will find salvation from the eternal debt of punishment owed to God. That is the heart of the Gospel.