Is Jesus’ death a “corresponding ransom”?
Summary: The Watchtower Society teaches that Jesus’ death was a “corresponding ransom” (an expression found in their translation of 1 Timothy 2:6). The Society infers from this statement that Jesus could not be God incarnate but had to be simply a perfect man. They further argue that Jesus gave up his human life in the ransom and therefore did not receive human life in a material body in his resurrection. However, these theological claims are based on serious misunderstandings of 1 Timothy 2:6 and other biblical texts.
This article is one of a series of articles explaining in detail the doctrines of Jehovah’s Witnesses and showing why those teachings are not in harmony with the facts and teachings of the Bible. For an overview, see our article on what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe.
What the Watchtower Teaches
A fundamental question that all forms of Christianity must answer is how to understand the significance of the death of Jesus Christ in relation to human salvation. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society from the beginning of its history has advanced a distinctive doctrinal theory about Christ’s death.1 The key term around which this theory is constructed is the word ransom used in almost all English versions of the Bible. Christians have described Christ’s death as a ransom throughout church history, but Jehovah’s Witnesses have their own particular theory about the ransom that needs to be examined in the light of Scripture.
The Watchtower makes four distinctive claims about the ransom.
(1) A ransom requires the payment of an exact equivalent, a “corresponding” ransom. The Watchtower Society asserts that “a ransom must be the equivalent of that for which it substitutes, or covers.”2 “In order to ransom, or cover, sin, a price must be paid that fully corresponds to, or fully covers, the damage caused by the sin.”3 Their New World Translation expresses this idea in its translation of 1 Timothy 2:6, where the NWT refers to Christ’s death as a “corresponding ransom.”
(2) The purpose of the ransom was to cancel the debt of Adam’s sin for the sake of his descendants (but not for Adam personally). The Watchtower Society asserts that what Jesus did was to “pay the price for Adam’s sin”:
In a sense, Jesus stepped into Adam’s place in order to save us. By sacrificing, or giving up, his perfect life in flawless obedience to God, Jesus paid the price for Adam’s sin.4
Even though Christ’s death paid the price for Adam’s sin, neither Adam nor Eve are freed from condemnation by that ransom:
Adam and Eve could not have benefited from the ransom. The Mosaic Law stated this principle regarding a willful murderer: “You must take no ransom for the soul of a murderer who is deserving to die.” (Numbers 35:31) Clearly, Adam and Eve deserved to die because they willingly and knowingly disobeyed God. They thereby gave up their prospect of everlasting life.5
(3) The function of the ransom requires that Christ be no more and no less than a perfect man just like Adam was before the Fall. On this basis, the Watchtower concludes that Jesus was a perfect man but was no more than that; he could not have been God incarnate. This may be the most emphasized aspect of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ doctrine of the ransom. The following passage from the Watchtower’s pamphlet criticizing the doctrine of the Trinity is representative of their argument:
Jesus, no more and no less than a perfect human, became a ransom that compensated exactly for what Adam lost—the right to perfect human life on earth…. The perfect human life of Jesus was the “corresponding ransom” required by divine justice—no more, no less. A basic principle even of human justice is that the price paid should fit the wrong committed. If Jesus, however, were part of a Godhead, the ransom price would have been infinitely higher than what God’s own Law required…. Thus, when God sent Jesus to earth as the ransom, he made Jesus to be what would satisfy justice, not an incarnation, not a god-man, but a perfect man, “lower than angels.”6
(4) In dying to provide the ransom, Christ forfeited his right to be resurrected with his human, corporeal life. The risen Jesus is therefore not a man but is a glorious spirit creature. According to the Watchtower Society, Jesus gave up his human life (John 6:51) as a “corresponding ransom” (1 Tim. 2:6), so he could not get it back without negating human salvation. They argue that Jesus had permission, or the right, to take back his human life, but they claim that he gave up that right to save us (John 10:17-18):
If a man pays a debt for a friend but then promptly takes back the payment, obviously the debt continues. Likewise, if, when he was resurrected, Jesus had taken back his human body of flesh and blood, which had been given in sacrifice to pay the ransom price, what effect would that have had on the provision he was making to relieve faithful persons of the debt of sin?7
In the case of Jesus Christ, he gave up his human life as a ransom sacrifice for the benefit of mankind. The 40th Psalm is applied to him by the inspired writer of the book of Hebrews, who represents Jesus as saying, when he came “into the world” as God’s Messiah: “Sacrifice and offering you did not want, but you prepared a body for me.” (Heb 10:5) Jesus himself said: “For a fact, the bread that I shall give is my flesh in behalf of the life of the world.” (Joh 6:51) It follows that Christ could not take his body back again in the resurrection, thereby taking back the sacrifice offered to God for mankind.8
Watchtower Scholarship and the “Corresponding Ransom”
The foundational premise of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ view of Christ’s death is the claim that Paul referred to it as a “corresponding ransom” in 1 Timothy 2:6. The Greek word here, ἀντίλυτρον (antilutron), is translated as “corresponding ransom” in the New World Translation (NWT). The only relevant scholarly reference work that the Watchtower has ever cited on the meaning of this word is a lexicon first published by John Parkhurst in 1769 and later published in revised editions by other scholars in 1829 and 1845. This lexicon’s entry on antilutron has been cited numerous times in Watchtower publications9 and is very likely to have been the basis for the NWT expression “corresponding ransom.” Here is what Parkhurst’s lexicon says about the Greek word:
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.13.10
Parkhurst’s use of the word “correspondent” does not indicate the idea of an exact equivalency or one-to-one correspondence demanded by the Watchtower interpretation. That having been said, interpreting the word antilutron as having the specific meaning “correspondent ransom” on the basis of its etymology is hazardous. As Edmund Gruss commented almost fifty years ago, “It is doubtful that the lexicon by ‘correspondent ransom’ conveyed the same idea that the Witnesses have attributed to these words, and the listed definition is questionable from the standpoint of the meaning of the Greek word antilutron.”11
As it turns out, later editions of Parkhurst’s lexicon contained a caution to users about the problem of over-reading the word on the basis of etymology. Hugh James Rose, the editor of the 1829 edition, in his preface warned readers that Parkhurst’s comments on etymologies were not always reliable:
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.12
Rose’s warning about overreaching on the basis of etymology applies to other dubious interpretations of biblical terms advanced over the years by the Watchtower Society, but perhaps none more significant in the larger scheme of its theological system than its interpretation of the word antilutron. Biblical scholarship for the past half-century has fully come to terms with this issue, but the Watchtower Society has not. Indeed, Parkhurst’s lexicon appears to be the only Greek lexical reference that the Society has ever cited regarding the meaning of antilutron. The reason is simple: None of the standard references in use today supports the Watchtower’s position. All of them define the word as meaning simply “ransom.”13 One lexicon comments that the prefix anti- is “apparently redundant” and simply “makes the idea of exchange” that is already present in the simple noun lutron “explicit.”14
Paul’s statement closely parallels a saying of Jesus found in the Gospels:
“to give his life as a ransom for [lutron anti] many” (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45).
“…who gave himself as a ransom [antilutron] for all” (1 Tim. 2:6 ESV).
In neither statement is the idea that Jesus died as a “corresponding ransom” in the Watchtower sense of an exact equivalent for Adam. The words antilutron and lutron anti simply do not have that meaning. Jesus said that he, the Son of Man, had come to give his life as a ransom for many—not for one (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45); Paul said that Jesus came to give his life as a ransom for all—again, not for one (1 Tim. 2:6). Nowhere in the Bible is Christ’s death described as a ransom for or corresponding to Adam, as the Watchtower argues. Instead, consistently Jesus’ death is described as a ransom for all of those who are saved through it.
Let us review what we have said about the word antilutron. It means “ransom,” perhaps with an emphasis or focus on the idea that the ransom is for someone or something—a substitute, exchange, or price paid for or on behalf of someone or something else. This meaning does not imply that the ransom is somehow equivalent to or exactly like the person, group, or thing being ransomed. It might or might not be in different situations, but this is not what the word means. The Watchtower Society’s writers obviously have access to up-to-date scholarly literature such as recent lexicons and commentaries, but they have not learned anything from them regarding Paul’s use of the word antilutron.
It follows, then, that the New Testament’s statements about Christ serving as our “ransom” do not necessitate or imply that Christ had to be only a perfect human being, “no more and no less.” The Watchtower’s reasoning that Jesus could not be God incarnate and be the ransom simply does not follow from the biblical terminology.
We will now move beyond the issue of the meaning of the word antilutron and respond to the Watchtower’s use of specific biblical texts to support its doctrine regarding the ransom. Our focus here will be on the Jehovah’s Witness doctrine that Christ had to forfeit human life permanently in order to be the ransom, and therefore he must have been raised as an angelic spirit rather than in his human body.
Texts that Speak about Christ as a Ransom
As we have already pointed out, the Bible never says that Christ died as a ransom for Adam or that he was a ransom corresponding to Adam. Here again are the biblical statements on the subject that actually use Greek words translated “ransom”:
The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45).
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 (1 Tim. 2:5-6).
Both Christ and Paul state that Christ gave his life as a ransom for “many” or “all.” Adam is not mentioned in any of these passages.
A closer examination of these statements raises additional fatal problems for the Watchtower’s claim that Jesus could not have been resurrected as a man, with a human body, and still serve as the ransom. The Watchtower’s doctrine is that Christ specifically gave up or forfeited his human life and therefore could only be resurrected as a spirit. Their reasoning is that a ransom must be permanently forfeited in order to function as a ransom; you cannot give something up as a ransom and then take it back without canceling or negating the ransom. However, this argument is inconsistent especially with what Paul actually said.
In the Gospel saying, Christ stated that he had come to give his “life” (or “soul”) as a ransom. One can argue over what Jesus meant by his “life” or “soul” in this statement. However, whatever Jesus’ “soul” was, he did not give it up forever. In the first Christian sermon, the apostle Peter quoted Psalm 16:8-11 and applied it to the resurrection of Jesus. David, speaking prophetically for the future Messiah, wrote, “For you will not abandon my soul [psuchē] to Hades” (Acts 2:27, quoting Psalm 16:10). According to Peter, the very “soul” or “life” of Christ that died was not allowed to remain dead (in “Hades”). The soul that went down into the realm of the dead (however one interprets what this means) is the soul that came out and is alive. After quoting Psalm 16, Peter even says that David prophesied about the Christ that “he was not abandoned to Hades” (Acts 2:21). Christ gave himself in death for our salvation, but the Father did not abandon Christ to death but raised him up to immortal life.
As for 1 Timothy 2:6, Paul’s statement simply cannot be reconciled with the Watchtower’s reasoning: he says that Christ gave “himself” (heauton) as the ransom. If Jesus gave “himself” as the ransom, and if he could not get back in the resurrection what he “forfeited” as the ransom, then he could not get “himself” back at all! The same problem arises in another passage in Paul’s writings when he says that Christ “gave himself for us that he might redeem us from every lawless deed” (Tit. 2:14). Here Paul uses the verb for “to ransom” or “to redeem” and says again that Christ gave “himself” as the price of that ransom or redemption.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ argument that if Christ paid a “ransom” for our salvation then he could not “take it back” without negating the ransom assumes that the language is being used literally. No one is literally holding humanity hostage for ransom and demanding to be paid a ransom and then given safe passage somewhere he can spend it before he will agree to release us. The Bible uses the language of ransom and redemption figuratively, metaphorically, to express in one way what Christ’s death on the cross accomplished for us. Pressing the terminology literally to mean that the ransom is literally forfeited forever (presumably to whoever is responsible for holding us captive) leads to the theological difficulty that has always plagued overly literal ransom theories of the atonement: Did Christ pay the ransom to God or to the devil? The question cannot be answered because it proceeds from a false premise. In a sense, the devil does hold sinners captive (2 Tim. 2:26; Heb. 2:14-15), but Christ did not give his human life to the devil. God the Father does not hold us captive, so the ransom is not literally paid to him (and if it were, it would mean that God the Father now has the human life that Christ had!). This theological quagmire can be avoided easily by simply understanding that the language of ransom and redemption is not to be taken in this woodenly literal manner.
Paul says something else in 1 Timothy 2 that conflicts with the Watchtower’s interpretation. In the very same sentence, Paul describes Christ as presently a human being: “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). I have followed the ESV translation here with the use of “men” and “man,” as this translation reflects the fact that Paul uses two different forms (plural and singular) of the same noun (anthrōpos). We could more precisely translate it as follows: “one mediator between God and humans—a human, Christ Jesus.” That is, the person who is presently the “one mediator between God and humans” is himself a human. According to Paul, then, Christ Jesus after his resurrection was a human being (as Paul said elsewhere, Acts 17:30-31; 1 Cor. 15:47), not an angelic spirit creature.
On a surface reading, Jesus’ statement in John 6:51 might seem to imply that Jesus gave up his physical life forever in order to save us:
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51)
Jehovah’s Witnesses infer from John 6:51 that when Jesus “gave” his “flesh” for “the life of the world,” he was giving up his fleshly, physical life forever. But Jesus doesn’t say he was giving it up forever.
What was “given” for our salvation? We have already seen that Paul says Christ gave himself as the ransom for our salvation. The Gospel of John says the same thing in different words when it says, “God…gave his only Son” (John 3:16). God didn’t give up his Son forever, and likewise Christ didn’t give up his human life or physical body forever. Indeed, Christ died with the intention of coming back to life in the resurrection, as he said later in the same Gospel. We will look at that statement next.
A text that often comes up in regards to the Watchtower doctrine of the ransom is John 10:17-18. Jehovah’s Witnesses interpret the passage as meaning that Christ had the right to be resurrected as a man but chose to forego that right in order to provide the ransom.15 Here is the passage:
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).
In order to make their interpretation of this text work, Jehovah’s Witnesses must construe the words “that I may take it up again” as expressing permission or right. That is, they must understand the word “may” here in the English text to be the “may” of permission. Jesus may, if he chooses, take back physical, human life in the resurrection, but he may also choose not to do so. According to Watchtower theology, had he chosen to take back his human life he would have negated the ransom and thereby doomed all of humanity.
The Watchtower’s reading of the passage turns out to be grammatically incorrect. The words “that I may take” (hina labō) use a particular grammatical construction in which the conjunction hina (so that, in order that) is followed by a verb in the subjunctive mood (in this instance, labō). Daniel Wallace notes that this construction most commonly expresses purpose (intention), result, or both; he discusses four other possible uses, none of which express permission or opportunity.16 One can see the construction expressing purpose or result several times elsewhere in the immediate context:
- “The thief comes only so that he may steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10a)
- “I came so that they may have life” (John 10:10b)
- “The Jews picked up stones again so that they might stone him” (John 10:31).
- “Believe the works, so that you may know and understand” (John 10:38).
In contemporary English, it might be clearer to translate these statements a bit differently to express purpose or intention more clearly: “in order to steal,” “so that they will have life,” “in order to stone him,” “in order to know,” and so on. Likewise, what Jesus says in John 10:17 is that he was going to lay down his life in order to take it up again.
Jesus’ purpose or intention in laying down his life—in dying—was that he would rise from the dead with immortal human life. He died, in order to rise. He died for us in order to rise from the dead and by doing so bring us immortal life in the resurrection. As Jesus says in the next chapter of the same Gospel, he is “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).
1. See “Why Evil Was Permitted. A Dialogue,” Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence 1/2 (Aug. 1879): 7-8 [Reprints, 1:16].
2. “A Corresponding Ransom for All,” Watchtower (Feb. 15, 1991): 12.
3. Draw Close to Jehovah (Watchtower, 2014), 141.
4. What Does the Bible Really Teach? 2nd ed. (Watchtower, 2014), 51.
5. Draw Close to Jehovah, 147.
6. Should You Believe in the Trinity? (Watchtower, 1989), 15.
7. Reasoning from the Scriptures (Watchtower, 1989), 217.
8. “Resurrection,” in Insight on the Scriptures (Watchtower, 1988), 2:786.
9. E.g., “The Ransom,” Watchtower (May 15, 1939): 149; “To Whose Benefit Does the Ransom Result?” Watchtower (May 15, 1948): 158; “Things in Which It Is Impossible for God to Lie” (Watchtower, 1965), 232; “Appreciating the Salvation of Our God,” Watchtower (Aug. 1, 1973): 465; “Ransom,” in Insight on the Scriptures, 2:736.
10. John Parkhurst, A Greek and English Lexicon to the New Testament, with additions by Hugh James Rose, rev. and ed. J. R. Major (London: Longman & Co., 1845), 47.
11. Edmond C. Gruss, Apostles of Denial (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1970), 144 n. 93.
12. Ibid., v.
13. E.g., Frederick W. Danker, ed., Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. based on Walter Bauer’s Griechisch-deutsches Wörterbuch, 6th ed., edited by William F. Arndt and F. W. Gingrich (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), #728.
14. Frederick William Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, with Kathryn Krug (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), #600.
15. “Questions from Readers,” Watchtower (June 1, 1973): 351.
16. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 471-77.