When I discovered John Donne’s sonnet in my college literature anthology, it preoccupied me for months. I even turned it into a song for my Music 1 course. My TA thought the tune was a little strange, but I still sing it in my head.
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
— John Donne (1572-1631), Holy Sonnet XIV (pub. 1633)
I still sing this poem because I often need to. Like Donne, from the first days of my faith I doubted the primacy of my mind when it came to my relationship with God — reason is about as good as the reasoner. I was more concerned with the irrational thinking (and the habits associated with it) that felt like a prison. So I loved Donne’s image of God battering on the big oak doors of my heart like always happened in movies about knights and sieges. And I secretly loved the erotic imagery of a passion so insistent I could use it as a touchstone memory of ecstasy.
Donne’s sonnet helps me put the proper passion into the work of Jesus. God comes to free me from my prison: sin, unbelief, death and, ultimately, sadness, physical pain and mental illness. He’s not doing the paperwork, he’s risking his life for a lover.
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. – Hebrews 2:14-15
God shares our flesh and blood. The other day at Chuck E. Cheese, my son was recounting his astonishment when he opened his birthday-present-subscription to The New Yorker and read about the condition of gold miners in South Africa. I’m not sure we needed more evidence of the evil in the world than driving up Roosevelt Boulevard offers every day, but there it was, brazenly at work among the poor in South Africa. And there it is in the fact Russia has stolen children from Ukrainian parents! And there it is in the mirror most of the time. It appears we are all betrothed to God’s enemy whether we choose it or not. John says, “the whole world is in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19).
But God is with us. So the apostle, Paul, writes to his protégé and instructs him to act
with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will. — 2 Tim 2:25-6
The preacher last Sunday deftly sidestepped the skepticism people have about the devil. He didn’t exactly say there wasn’t one, he just implied it didn’t make much difference if I said there wasn’t. I did not mind that much (John might mind, however). I think he was working with what was in front of him. Powerful and power-grabbing people from the U.S. Empire think there is no legitimate opposition to their authority, which is why we will likely be ruled by AI and overrun by nanotechnology before long, if Antarctica does not melt first. Who needs a devil?
I’m fine with the origin of evil being mysterious. The effects of it are ever-present. We’re surrounded and often manacled. I think any spiritually aware person is amazed at how free they can be and still feel pushed around by sin, death, and suspicious spirits. If Jesus does not ransom and rescue us, we’re in trouble.
Paul basically assumes his readers in Corinth know God ransomed them from the prison of sin and death by the work of Jesus in his crucifixion and resurrection. He writes, “You were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:20). Then he assumes it again in the next chapter: “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of humans” (7:23).
Origen (c. 185–c. 253), the famous scholar from the early church in Alexandria, is often accused of popularizing a “ransom view” of the atonement. I think post-1900s theologians are more likely the culprits. They needed a neat way to explain church history according to Enlightenment theories. I think they put the word “atonement” at the top of their chart like it was a genus and went looking for species; the “ransom theory” became one of many. Origen describes his idea of ransom but I doubt he was being too specific, since even in First Principles he assumes most concepts can be considered in a literal, moral, and spiritual/allegorical way. Origen was primarily an ascetic, so he was probably enjoying the feeling of being ransomed and feeling the desperate need for it, just like John Donne.
But he did say:
To whom gave he his life “a ransom for many?” It cannot have been to God. Was it not then to the evil one? For he held us until the ransom for us, even the soul of Jesus, was paid to him, being deceived into thinking that he could be its lord, and not seeing that he could not bear the torment of holding it. (apparently in his Commentary on Romans, but I did not find the source online for you).
Whether we need to credit Origen or not, for the next 1000 years this understanding of the atonement is probably the most popular. Many people think “ransom” is a better metaphor than a doctrine, but most people just take it for how it is taught by the big names, like Augustine, who in the 400’s says,
“The Redeemer came and the deceiver was overcome. What did our Redeemer do to our Captor? In payment for us He set the trap, His Cross, with His blood for bait. He [Satan] could indeed shed that blood; but he deserved not to drink it. By shedding the blood of One who was not his debtor, he was forced to release his debtors” (Serm. cxxx, part 2).
People have always had some problems with this explanation of the Lord’s work for the basic reason it is a theory of how the atonement works, not a story. Rather than being a drama or a revelation of mystery, the work of Christ becomes a mechanism to be explained when the philosophers get a hold of it.
What’s more, there is nothing in the New Testament that specifically says Satan was the one to whom ransom was paid. But that is a bit like saying there is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that grants women political rights. Origen and Augustine were offering an amendment to the Bible and the church folded it in.
The ransomed ransom
I welcome being ransomed, me and John Donne. I don’t need a theory to approve my eligibility for rescue. I need to be rescued. Every day in psychotherapy I become better acquainted in the many variations of our captivity. We can’t rescue ourselves or each other effectively. We need Jesus, our ransom and rescuer. I am less interested in how, exactly, the ransoming occurs. I am more interested in the passion I feel being enacted on my behalf. It is good to know Jesus is tirelessly beating on the castle door.
I think Lent is a good time to get out of prison and help set others free. Jesus taught:
Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”—Mark 10:42-45
A lot of people looking for a theory have an “Aha” moment when they hear Jesus giving his life as a ransom, “So THAT’s how it works!” But it seems clear that Jesus thinks his disciples won’t get how things work until they enact a passion like his. Be loved and love. Be ransomed and be a ransom. Be suffered for and suffer. In my experience, I feel more ransomed when I ransom. Like the abused often become abusers, the ransomed become ransom.
So for Lent, how about being ransomed? If you just made up your own tune for John Donne’s sonnet, it might lead to feeling rescued.