Imagine that one quiet afternoon you happen to glance out your window to see two people approaching your door carrying literature in their hands. A few moments later you discover that they are Jehovah’s Witnesses. At this point your mind may begin to race: “I know they don’t believe as we do, but what is it that they do believe? What am I going to say to them? What shall I do?”
In this article, I hope briefly to outline the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ false view of the atonement. My goal is to help equip God’s people to defend the biblical faith over against this sect at one of the most critical points of religion. The atonement is concerned with answering the question, “How can fallen man be reconciled with God?” My contention in this article is that the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ “ransom” theory of the atonement is inadequate and heretical because it underestimates two significant parts of the question just asked. First, this theory underestimates what was lost by Adam and so it misses the true need for the atonement. Second, it underestimates what was gained by Christ and so confuses the true result of the atonement.
Jehovah’s Witnesses focus much attention on the teaching and philanthropic work of Jesus. They emphasize that “Jesus Christ was a Great Teacher who lived in Palestine…2,000 years ago.” In addition to teaching, “Jesus…also extended practical help.” Yet they do believe that Jesus did a greater work than this. “Miraculous healing of the sick…was not the main thrust of Jesus’ ministry.” They also write that Jesus “willingly gave his perfect human life so that imperfect mankind would have a hope for the future.” When asked how Jesus’ death provides such a hope, the Jehovah’s Witnesses answer by outlining a ransom theory of the atonement.
In so doing, Jehovah’s Witnesses at least begin with a biblical word. The word “ransom” occurs thirteen times in the Old and New Testaments (NKJV). The three New Testament references (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45; I Timothy 2:6) clearly refer to the work of Christ in salvation. Indeed, the ransom motif has, historically, been one way of understanding the atonement. However, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ ransom theory and the traditional ransom theories must be clearly distinguished. Louis Berkhof points out that at least some of the second, third, and fourth century fathers “teach that Christ gave himself as a ransom to Satan for the deliverance of man, and then Himself escaped from the clutches of the devil by the power of his divinity.” Of course, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not ascribe divinity to Christ, at least not in terms that the orthodox fathers would have used. Here we begin to see the first major problem in their view of the atonement.
A Confused Need for Atonement
According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christ could not have been a divine ransom. Instead, they suppose that if men are to be saved from death there must be an even exchange. A frequently appealed to text is Exodus 21:23. From this text we are told that “God’s Law to the ancient nation of Israel required ‘soul for soul [or, life for life].’According to this legal principle, the death covering mankind’s transgressions would have to be of a value equal to what Adam had lost.” Please note that this verse is helpful insofar as it outlines God’s principle for punitive justice between men. But it is hardly an appropriate text upon which to build a doctrine of atonement. This text teaches how the human perpetrator should be punished. But our question relating to the atonement is, “how may the perpetrator be acquitted; how might he be restored?” Any theory of atonement must explain how a loss is recovered, something this verse does not do.
Yet if the primary reason for appealing to this text is simply to highlight God’s will regarding legal retaliation, then we must point out how far the Jehovah’s Witnesses underestimate the crime for which an equal punishment must be meted. The violated party in Exodus 21:23 is a finite man. The text, therefore, provides a standard to which a man must appeal when his fellow man has harmed him. He was to mete out an equivalent punishment. But regarding the need for man’s atonement the violated party is the infinite Jehovah God (Psalm 51:4).
As one digs deeper into the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ literature, it becomes clear that their emphasis in the atonement is really not on a penal satisfaction at all. Their real emphasis is on the perpetrator and particularly what he has lost. Framing the discussion in this way the Jehovah’s Witnesses demand that the ransom must be a man.
“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. So Jesus could rightly be called “the last Adam” by the apostle Paul, who said in the same context: “Just as in Adam all are dying, so also in the Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22, 45). 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 (Exodus 21:23-25; Leviticus 24:1921). It was only a perfect human, Adam, who sinned in Eden, not God. So the ransom, to be truly in line with God’s justice, had to be strictly an equivalent—a perfect human, “the last Adam.” 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.”
This is a strictly man-centered view of atonement. It focuses on what man has lost (perfection) and how it may be regained. It focuses on the sinner but doesn’t emphasize the nature of his sin. It is thus understandable why the principle of equality seems reasonable in this system. But the Bible teaches that the atonement is at least as concerned with the satisfaction of Jehovah’s justified anger toward sinners.
Louis Berkhof explains that the atonement is necessary not only to recover what fallen man has lost but also, indeed primarily, to deal with the guilt of man’s sin. Berkhof rightly says that one’s “conception of sin will have a determining influence on his view of the redemptive work of God in Christ.” The Bible presents sin as not only “an imperfection in human life, but a positive transgression of the law of God which renders man liable to punishment.” The atonement, then, must make provisions not only to restore what man had lost but also to appease the eternal anger of God.
This latter element is strikingly absent from the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ view of salvation.
Their view is outlined in a tract entitled “How Jesus Can Change your Life.” This tract tells us that, “As a result of this…first human sin, the offspring of Adam and Eve inherited the unwelcome legacy of death. (Romans 5:12) In order to give mankind real life, sin and death must be done away with.” How does this resolution come about? Jehovah’s Witnesses maintain that God traded human life for human life. Notice their further explanation:
…the Creator of mankind has the means to bring obedient humans to perfection so that they can live forever. In the Bible this provision is called the ransom. The first human couple sold themselves and their offspring into slavery to sin and death. They traded life as perfect humans obedient to God for life independent of God, making their own decisions as to what is right and what is wrong. To buy back perfect human life, a price had to be paid that was equivalent to the perfect human life that our first parents forfeited. Having inherited imperfection, humans were not qualified to provide that price (Psalm 49:7).
So Jehovah God stepped in to help. He transferred the perfect life of his only-begotten Son to the womb of a virgin, who gave birth to Jesus…With the existence of a perfect human life, the price to redeem mankind from sin and death became available.
In this entire plan no reference is made to the nature of this sin as being committed against an infinite God or to the infinite anger against mankind that resulted. The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ emphasis on the equality of the ransom is incapable of dealing with the Bible’s plain teaching on the nature of sin. In theory, a perfect man might be able to take the place of another, but he cannot deal with the infinite sin. The life of (a strictly human) Jesus could only pay the ransom for one person, for Adam himself. Full atonement for all of the elect can only be made by an infinite being.
Confused Result of Atonement
This ransom theory demonstrates its bankruptcy not only through its misunderstanding of what was lost in Adam—peace with God; but also of what was gained in Christ—full and eternal salvation. As we have seen, this theory supposes that to gain back what Adam lost would require an identical second Adam. But the Bible reveals the shallowness of this supposition. The second Adam did not merely gain back what Adam lost. Paul says so twice in Romans 5: “But the free gift is not like the offense” (vs. 15) and “the gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned” (vs. 16). Verse seventeen likewise says, “For if by the one man’s offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ” (emphasis added). John Calvin, commenting on this text, states what ought to be obvious: “There is a greater measure of grace procured by Christ, than of condemnation introduced by the first man.” Calvin goes on to say that “Christ is much more powerful to save than Adam was to destroy.”
On this note, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are left in a quandary. On the one hand, if they agree with Calvin and with Paul, they must admit that Jesus accomplishes more than he should be able to given their view of who he is. Remember, they insist that he is of equal personage to the first Adam: “…The Bible calls Jesus ‘the last Adam’—a perfect man who could serve as a corresponding ransom.” Jesus’ life corresponded to that of “the first man Adam,” whom God created as a perfect human (1 Corinthians 15:45; 1 Timothy 2:5, 6).
Yet, by their own (occasional) admission, his atonement (ransom) does indeed put men and women in a more privileged position than the first Adam (which it surely does). According to Watchtower:
Adam’s death had no value; he deserved to die for his sin. Jesus’ death, however, had great value because he died in a sinless state. Jehovah God could accept the value of Jesus’ perfect life as a ransom for obedient descendants of sinful Adam. And the value of Jesus’ sacrifice does not stop at paying for our past sins. If it did, we would have no future. Being conceived in sin, we are bound to err again. (Psalm 51:5) How grateful we can be that Jesus’ death makes provision for us to gain the perfection that Jehovah originally intended for the offspring of Adam and Eve!
Adam can be likened to a father who died and left us in such deep financial debt (sin) that there is no possible way for us to get out of debt. On the other hand, Jesus is like a good father who died and left us a rich inheritance that not only frees us from the enormous debt that Adam burdened us with but also provides enough for us to live on eternally. Jesus’ death is not simply a cancellation of past sins; it is also a wonderful provision for our future.
Surely they prove too much here! If Jesus’ death not only pays for past sins but also provides for a future eternal life, then he has put us in a more privileged position than perfect Adam could have. But, of course, someone equal to Adam cannot accomplish more than Adam.
On the other hand, if all Jesus’ death does is put fallen humanity back in the same position as pre-fall Adam, then he has not saved. He has merely given humanity the opportunity obediently to earn their own salvation; a conclusion contrary not only to Romans 5, but to all of Scripture.
In the final analysis this is really all Jesus can do according to this sect. In fact, this is what the Watchtower actually teaches. Jehovah’s Witnesses’ teach that Christ was offered as a ransom for those who “love God and have faith in him.” “Christ died for the obedient,” they say. But in the words of their own Bible we learn: “But God recommends his own love to us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8; NWT). We are told to believe that Christ traded his human life forever for the human lives of those who were obedient to Jehovah. This is not the biblical atonement.
In the end, we ought not be surprised by the false view of the atonement suggested by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The lower one’s view of Christ is, the lower one’s view of man’s sin will be. Whenever Christ is diminished, man is exalted. As a result, man’s need for Christ will also be diminished. This is evident in the response to Jesus to which we are called. We are told we must have “accurate knowledge about him,” or to “[get] to know him,” or “become better acquainted with Jesus Christ.”
This feeble call to faith in Christ will be dramatically altered when the true need for an atonement and the true result of the atonement in Christ are understood. The atonement indeed involves a transaction. But the transaction did not involve a mere perfect man. The Psalmist says, “God himself will redeem my soul from the hand of Sheol” (NWT). God did not do this by trading in one “creature” for another. Rather, as Paul says, God purchased his church “with his own blood” (Acts 20:28) This reality cannot be explained by a mistranslation (see the NWT) but by the mystery of God in flesh.
Imagine the surprise your visitors would experience if next time you greeted them this way. “Hi, I’m glad you came today. With God’s help I would like to help you understand how your view of the atonement is biblically unacceptable. First of all, you miss the eternal character of each of our sins. Only the eternal Christ can atone for sins against an eternal God. Second, you miss the perfect and eternal nature of the satisfaction of Christ’s death. Christ did not die to give us all a second chance but to purchase eternal life for his elect. Only an eternal Christ can purchase eternal salvation for sinners. This is the picture of the biblical atonement in Christ. Will you repent of your sins and submit yourself to this perfect God and perfect man Jesus Christ?” God willing, maybe next time they will be the ones asking, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37).
Mr. Bill Boekestein is a graduate of the Puritan Reformed Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is a candidate for the Ministry in the United Reformed Churches in North America.