The Bible speaks of Christ giving himself as a ransom for many (1 Tim.2:6) What is the ransom to Jehovah’s Witnesses? Who demands a ransom and to whom is the ransom paid? Is it to be taken literally, or is this figurative language?
The Ransom doctrine is integral to Watchtower teaching on salvation, central to the Mystery Doctrine of the Watchtower. Referencing 1 Tim.2:5-6, Russell taught, ‘A careful study of the word Ransom with the aid of an unabridged concordance brought to light the fact that the Greek word thus rendered—antilutron—means a price that corresponds.’
The price paid by Christ, he insists, is in exact correspondence to the sin and fall of Adam, a one to one correspondence between sin and sacrifice. The implications of this teaching are far reaching, as we will see.
The Ransom in Scripture
It isn’t difficult to see where the idea of a ‘corresponding’ ransom comes from. Romans 5 tells us ‘Just as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men’ (Ro.5:18-19, ESV) Again, Paul writes, ‘For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.’ (1 Cor.15:22, ESV)
In light of this idea they even add the word ‘corresponding’ to 1 Tim.2:6, ‘corresponding ransom,’ in their Kingdom Interlinear, although they don’t tell anyone that they added to the text.
The Bible, however, doesn’t say ‘corresponding ransom,’ as any reliable translation of 1 Timothy 2:5-6, their go to text for this, will show:
‘For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time.’ NIV
‘For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.’ ESV
‘For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus,who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.’ NASB
‘For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus,who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.’ NKJV
To arrive at this misinterpretation they reference Parkhurst’s Greek and English Lexicon to the New Testament (see Insight on the Scriptures, p.736)
‘Antilutron, ou, to, from anti, in return, or correspondency, and lutron a ransom. — A ransom, price of redemption, or rather a correspondent ransom. “It properly signifies a price by which captives are redeemed from the enemy; and that kind of exchange in which the life of one is redeemed by the life of another.” So Aristotle uses the verb antilutroō for redeeming life by life. See Scapula. occ. 2 Tim. ii.6 comp. Mat. xx.28. Gal. Iii.13.’ (Parkhurst’s Greek and English Lexicon of the New Testament)
They have gone back in time to a man who lived 1728-1797. Parkhurst uses the term ‘correspondent ransom,’ which does not convey the idea of a direct equivalence. In the preface of the 1829 edition, to which I provide a link, we read:
‘Although the warmest acknowledgments are due from the English public to the venerable and learned author of this useful work, it is not to be denied that it labours under very considerable defects. The peculiar opinions of the school of Hutchinson, of which Mr. Parkhurst was at least an admirer, induced him to attribute great importance to etymological researches; and his own (in which he indulged so largely in this Lexicon) are unfortunately in the highest degree fanciful and uncertain. ‘The cosmological theories of Hutchinson and Bate are dwelt on with a frequency and an extent little adapted to the plan of the Lexicon; and their other tenets occasionally give a tinge to the author’s interpretations and comments which deprives them of the authority which his sound learning and exceeding love of truth would otherwise bestow on them. I presume not to pronounce an opinion on the merits of the Hutchinsonian philo-sophy. I reverence the piety and the learning of many of its followers: but a book for general use and general readers was not the place for introducing tenets so much doubted and opposed.’(Parkhurst’s Greek and English Lexicon of the New Testament, Preface, emphasis added)
In other words, this lexicography, while useful, should be approached with caution. This is not the authority it should have been because of its lexicogriphal speculations. In the centuries since Parkhurst no one has produced a lexicon that translates antilutron as ‘correspondent ransom.’ There is no justification in his using the word ‘correspondent’ and it has puzzled scholars since as to why he should have produced what amounts to a gloss on antilutron and its meaning.
This does highlight the dangers of placing too much emphasis on etymology, a novice error, and a folly typical of the unqualified Watchtower Society ‘translators.’
It sometimes seems as though they look up Strong’s, Nave’s, Young’s etc. and simply pick an interpretation not used in other Bibles, just to be different. Which may explain why their New World Translation is so very ugly. In this instance they, typically, have gone back centuries, passing without a glance the mountain of scholarship that has been produced between then and now, ignoring the weight and authority of it all.
The word translated ‘ransom,’ antilutron, appears just once in the Bible, in 1 Timothy 2:6, and does not mean a price that corresponds as Russell suggests. It echoes Jesus’ words in Mark 10:45, ‘For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (lutron anti pollōn)
The primary meaning of anti in the New Testament is substitution and exchange. Lutron indicates and identifies a price paid; a ransom, or price paid, in exchange for many. It is important to realise there is nothing here to indicate the amount paid, only that a price is paid.
There is an interesting parallel in Josephus (Antiquities, 14:1-5-108) in which ‘a priest named Eleazar, responsible for the curtains in the Temple at Jerusalem, sought to bribe the Roman general Crassus and deter him from stripping its gold implements and ornamentation. He gave him a gold bar concealed in a wooden bar “as a ransom for all the rest (lutron anti pantōn)” of the temple’s gold.’
A single gold bar was offered as a ransom for all the rest of the gold in the temple. In effect, Cassius was tempted to enrich himself with a little gold in exchange for the rest of the temple gold. This is a legitimate use of lutron but doesn’t give us ‘a price that corresponds’ as Russell would have it. Indeed, the Bible describes Christ’s gift of grace as abundantly more than the trespass:
‘Now the law came to increase the trespass; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ (Ro.5:20-21)
A Superlative Ransom
Paul uses superlative language to describe the worth of the price given in exchange for mankind. There is not an equivalence but a super abundance in the gift of grace. Paul, in Romans 5:16-17, uses the Greek perisseuō meaning to abound, abundance, exceed, surpass, or overflow. In verse 20 Paul goes further, using hyperperisseuō meaning to abound beyond measure, abound exceedingly, to overflow.
A literal translation of the above verses gives us, ‘where but abounded the sin, superabounded the favour.’ (Emphatic Diaglot, Wilson) ‘Where but became more the sin, overabounded the undeserved kindness.’ (Kingdom Interlinear) Surely, this use in their own Kingdom Interlinear directly contradicts Russell’s interpretation of 1 Tim.2:6? There is surpassing excellence in the sacrifice of Christ that sees grace and life exceedingly more than equal the reach of sin and death.
Then, of course, there is Paul’s use of a fortiori (how much more) language. In Ro.5:15 Paul explicitly states, ‘for the gift is not like the trespass,’ and goes on to explain what he means:
‘And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgement following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Christ Jesus.’ (Ro.5:16-17, ESV)
The NIV has, ‘how much more,’ as does the 2013 New World Translation:
‘Also, it is not the same with the free gift as with the way things worked through the one man who sinned. For the judgment after one trespass was condemnation, but the gift after many trespasses was a declaration of righteousness. For if by the trespass of the one man death ruled as king through that one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of the undeserved kindness and of the free gift of righteousness rule as kings in life through the one person, Jesus Christ!’ (NWT)
As John Stott observes in his Bible Speaks Today commentary on Romans, ‘God is superior to man, grace to sin, and life (God’s free gift) to death (sin’s wage).’ The work of Christ doesn’t simply equal and cancel the work of Adam, it far exceeds it, in its execution as well as in its super abundant outcome for those who believe.
A Life for a Life?
The Watchtower idea of ransom as direct equivalence means Jesus paid a price that is the direct equivalent to the damage caused by sin:
‘None of us could ever pay the ransom for the perfect life that Adam lost. Why not? Because all of us are imperfect. (Psalm 49:7,8) The ransom that had to be paid was another perfect human life. That is why it is called “a corresponding ransom.” 1 Timothy 2:6 The ransom had to have the same value as the life that Adam lost.’
‘when Jesus returned to his Father in heaven, he presented the value of his perfect human life to Jehovah as the ransom.’ (What Can The Bible Teach Us?, emphasis mine)
‘The real ransom sacrifice, a human actually capable of removing sins, must therefore also be perfect, free from blemish. He would have to correspond to the perfect Adam and possess human perfection, if he were to pay the price of redemption that would release Adam’s offspring from the debt, disability, and enslavement into which their first father Adam had sold them.’ (Insight on the Scriptures, vol.2, p.736, emphasis mine)
This means, to a Jehovah’s Witness, a perfect human life would need to be sacrificed, the perfect life of Jesus for the perfect life of Adam.:
‘Jesus as a perfect man, “the last Adam” (1Co 15:45), was the only human capable of providing the redemption price for Adam’s unborn offspring. He willingly offered himself to die innocently as a perfect human sacrifice, in harmony with Jehovah’s will.‘ (Insight on the Scriptures, vol.2, p.736,emphasis mine)
You will know that Jehovah’s Witnesses use Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:44-45 to claim Jesus did not rise with a physical body, but rose ‘a life-giving spirit.’ They argue that it was Jesus’ perfect human life that was sacrificed in ransom and if he were physically resurrected he would be effectively taking back the ransom. It was impossible, then, for him to be physically resurrected:
‘Jehovah God the Father, who has lifegiving power in himself, raised his Son from the dead on the third day to immortal life in heaven, in the spirit realm. When Jesus ascended to heaven forty days after his resurrection from the dead, he did not take the sacrificed human body to heaven with him—an impossibility!—but took with him the value of his sacrificed perfect human life, in order to present this to the heavenly Father in behalf of mankind. God the Father accepted this sacrificial presentation and he made Jesus Christ his High Priest in behalf of man.’ (Watchtower, 1964 12/1 p. 718-719)
The problem Jehovah’s Witnesses have always had with this overemphasis on the ransom is the question of who is holding humanity to ransom? Further, to whom is the ransom paid? When the ransom is paid, who releases us? The Watchtower Society is silent on these questions, and for a very good reason; so is the Bible.
The language used in Scripture to describe Christ’s act of sacrifice and atonement as ransom, redemption, is figurative. But the problems just keep coming. Jesus said in Both the gospel of Matthew and of Mark:
The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, to give his life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45)
The Greek word here translated ‘life’ is ψυχή (psuchē) ‘soul’ (G5590) life, soul; heart, mind; a person; the immaterial (and eternal) part of inner person, often meaning the animate self, which can be translated by pronouns: “my soul” = “I, myself” (STEP Bible, see also Strong’s Concordance) Christ was not sacrificing his human body, but the essence of who he was, his psyche, inner person, his soul.
Christ also clearly stated:
For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father (John 10:17-18).
It is important to understand the English ‘may’ in this statement does not mean Jesus had the permission to take it up, as in ‘you may if you choose.’ A better understanding would be, ‘I lay down my life in order to take it up again.’ The same word, labō, Is used earlier in John’s gospel:
“The thief comes only so that he may steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10)
The thief doesn’t come because he has permission to steal, kill, and destroy. The thief comes with the deliberate intent to do those things. The word translated ‘may,’ expresses purpose not permission. Whatever Christ laid down, however you understand it, his intent was ‘to take it up again.’ If taking up his body again was impossible without reversing the ransom then Jesus’ declared intent to take it up proves hollow and we have a failed Saviour.
Paul insists in I Corinthians 15, ‘If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.’ (v14) He laid down his life in order to take it up again, and that is where our own hope lies. Paul further writes of Jesus, ‘in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.’ (v.20)
Those who have fallen asleep are the dead, whose resurrection, we are assured, is physical. It is this resurrection of which Jesus is the firstfruits. This is why, in John 11, Jesus confidently declared before a dead man’s tomb:
‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.’ (John 11:25-26)
This is the central tenet of our common faith. Without it we all believe in vain. The question we face is the same question Jesus put to Martha:
‘Do you believe this?’