March 11, 2007

Jack Chick and the Atonement

My last blog post was a pop quiz: Read this tract. What does it teach about the person and work of Christ? Do you agree? Why or why not?

It wasn't long before the Highland Host chimed in (followed up by Rebecca and others) with a well-nigh comprehensive list of bad theology:

In my judgement the tract teaches a woefully inadequate view. First of all it seems to put the initiative on man's part, not just in the application of salvation, but in its accomplishment. Psalm 14.2 is taken out of context and misapplied, suggesting that it was because some persons mourned over their sin (or would mourn) that the Father sent the Son. In fact the Psalm speaks in condemnation. There WERE none that did understand and seek God! No, 'They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one.' But Chick suggests Psalm 14.3 is wrong!

Then the old and long-exploded 'ransom to Satan' theory of the atonement seems to be raised from the tomb of ages, Mark 10.45 being misapplied. In fact the ransom is paid to the Father as the Judge of all the earth.

The Gospel call is shown as being given by Jesus (not merely by His servants) equally to all, leaving the response therefore up to the sinner's 'free will'. There is no mention of sinners being drawn by the Father to Christ.

"Woefully inadequate" doesn't seem to adequately cover it. It's actually surprising how many ways you can go wrong in a 20-odd-panel, nearly wordless comic book!

But the Highland Host quickly hit upon the one thing that stuck out like a sore thumb when I first read the tract (as it did for others on the FFF. That is the view of the Atonement that this panel suggests:

[Jesus negotiating with Satan for souls]

This theory of the Atonement is known as the Ransom to Satan theory1, and was held by the majority of the early Church fathers (Gregory of Nazianzus and Athanasius being the notable exceptions).2 Its most prominent developers were Origen and Gregory of Nyssa. The gist of it is this: Satan has established himself as the ruler of this world, and as such he has legitimate rights over the souls of humanity. However, he agreed to release mankind from captivity if he was given the soul of Jesus as a ransom. (Ransom theorists lean heavily on Mark 10:45, which Chick quotes in this panel, and parallel passages in the other Gospels.) However, having gained the soul of Jesus, he discovered that he could not keep him. (In Gregory of Nyssa's version, Jesus' divinity was concealed from Satan, hidden in his human nature. In essence, God deceived Satan into accepting Jesus' human sacrifice before overpowering him with his divinity.)3

The Ransom theory has its problems: it seems to presuppose that Satan has a legitimate claim over the earth or its inhabitants, or that God actually owes him something. It involves God in trickery, which Gregory tries to mitigate by arguing that the deception had a noble purpose. Nonetheless, the theory held sway in the Church until the eleventh century, when Anselm of Canterbury argued against it, proposing instead the Satisfaction theory,4 which says that human sin offended God's honour, requiring satisfaction, which was then paid by Christ on the cross. The Satisfaction theory was further developed after the Reformation into the Penal Substitution theory, in which Christ's death satisfies the requirements of God's justice instead of his honour. Today the Penal Substitution theory is basically the dominant form in all major branches of Christendom, and only a few on the fringe (such as some Word of Faith types, and obviously Jack Chick) still believe in the Ransom to Satan theory.

Meanwhile, this frame:

[Satan and Jesus make their case]

appears to illustrate the hoary old chestnut about Jesus and Satan casting their vote and it being up to you to break the tie.

Jack Chick's material is rife with sloppy theology, false teaching, and goofy conspiracy theories, and that's bad enough. But can't the man get a basic "Jesus Saves" tract right without resorting to suborthodoxy?

Postscript: While I was writing this, another comment came in from Jane. She writes, concerning these two frames:

[Chained parents have a baby]

[Satan puts a noose on a toddler]

I noticed that Satan didn't have the rope on the child immediately. Hints of "age of accountability"?

I thought of something more serious, myself: a denial of original sin. Where there's smoke, there's fire. I'm willing to accept the possibility that I'm wrong.

Footnotes

1 All in the Footnote: No relation.

2 Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 812.

3 The Footnotes of Narnia: This, incidentally, is the view of the Atonement that C. S. Lewis uses in the fictional setting of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where the White Witch claims that Edmund, as a traitor, is hers by right; Aslan surrenders himself to her in Edmund's place and is sacrificed on the Stone Table, but then hoodwinks her by rising from the dead. To be fair to Lewis, this is fiction; in Mere Christianity, on the other hand, he espouses something more akin to the "vicarious repentance" theory. Lewis' theology is a little mushy-headed in places.

4 See Anselm's Cur Deus Homo ("Why did God Become Man?").