The Royal Largesse Theory of the Atonement

There are many theories about the Atonement. All are at best analogies. What Christ did matters much more than our explanations about it do. Especially on Good Friday, we should probably spend more time at the foot of the cross instead of critiquing concepts and philosophies.

Nonetheless, we have a drive to understand, so Atonement theories abound. They range from the Catholic-Protestant substitutionary sacrifice and ransom theories (I’m not real clear on what the difference is) to the Catholic-Orthodox mystical theory that in the Atonement Christ mystically merged with human suffering and lowliness and made it partake of his divinity, to the modern liberal Royal Exemplar theory where the Atonement itself doesn’t accomplish much of anything but it is extremely moving. I’ve even offered my own meaningful choice theory of the Atonement, which I’m happy with as far as it goes.

The basis for a unique Mormon understanding of the Atonement include whatever can be drawn from Mormon scripture, including 2 Nephi 2 (my theory seems to be a restatement of 2 Nephi 2), Mosiah 3, Mosiah 15; Mormon teachings that the Atonement was accomplished at both Gethsemane and Golgotha; and unique Mormon insight into the nature of God, Christ, and mankind.

While each of these could be important, my personal belief is that Mormonism’s most remarkable contribution to our understanding of the Atonement is Alma 7:11-12.

And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.

And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.

Christianity has traditionally understood that the Atonement overcame sin. Christianity has usually understood, and Mormonism makes it clear if there were any doubt, that the Atonement overcomes death. Alma 7:11–12 suggests that overcoming pains and sicknesses is also part of the Atonement, that besides taking on him the burdens of death and sin, Christ also took on him the burdens of our afflications and infirmities. This is a marvelous expansion of our understanding of what the Atonement accomplishes.

It also offers some possibilities for understanding how the Atonement works. Empathy theory, for example, which as far as I know is unique to Mormonism.

Now, there are generally two different types of answers that people want from an Atonement theory. A certain type of person–call them liberals, though this term is very inexact–want some explanation of why God would require *anybody* to atone for sins. Why can’t we just feel penitent and God says, that’s OK, you’re good now? These people’s views of the divine are in some sense democratic or egalitarian–that is, they feel themselves to be in a position that they can judge the fairness of God’s actions. These type of people are quick to denounce theories that don’t answer their question as making God into a monster. My meaningful choice theory is meant to answer this person’s type of question.

Another type of person–call them conservative, sort of–are too impressed with the grandeur of God to make demands on him. They also understand very well why God holds their fallen nature against them. Their religious views are monarchical–they feel very much that God is above them. What these people want is some explanation of how the death of a man, even of the Son of God, can excuse their failure. They tend to dismiss theories that don’t answer their question as impossibly sanitized, or else they just despair.

I’ve been thinking lately about Alma 7:11–12 and an Atonement theory that might answer the second type of question. Alma 7:11–12 doesn’t say exactly how it is that Christ bore the burden of our infirmities and afflictions. We sometimes believe that when he bore the burden of our sins, he bore the full burden of each person individually. In other words, we talk as if the burden of our sins was quantifiable and Christ bore the sum of all those burdens. It’s from this perspective that we can say and feel that each time we sin we add to Christ’s agony. If we apply this same line of reasoning to Christ’s atonement for our afflictions and infirmities, then it follows that every time we extend a helping hand to someone, we are relieving Christ’s burden. Remember Matthew 25:40?

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have adone it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

What if that were literal? What if every good deed we did to somebody literally relieved Christ of some of his suffering? That is what the Alma 7:11–12 view of the Atonement implies. We are literally like Simon the Cyrene, bearing the cross for him to relieve his burden.

Christ has put himself in a position where we can do him favors. Is it any wonder that his reward for those favors is munificent and kingly? Forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

So there you have it, my royal largesse theory of the Atonement. It’s less airtight and schematic than my meaningful choice theory, but to me its more satisfying.

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About Adam Greenwood

The Greenwoods--Adam Hartley and Sara Elizabeth--live with their daughters in Portland, Oregon. Adam Hartley Greenwood comes from a line of several Adam Hartley Greenwoods, going back to William Greenwood and his wife Ann Hartley who joined the church in Liverpool during the 1840s. The Greenwood line settled in northeastern Arizona, near the White Mountains. Adam is related to most any Mormon from Nutrioso, Springerville, or Eagar, AZ, or Luna or Ramah, NM. Adam particularly cherishes the memory of Jacob Hamblin, the peacemaker, and Elijah Carter, the half-Choctaw orphan boy who grew up to be Sheriff, dying in the line of duty. Adam is also descended from the Williams of Mesa, AZ, and through them from Abraham Hunsaker. Sara Elizabeth descends on her mother's side from Willard Richards and Lot Smith, and also has ties to northeastern Arizona. On her father's side she comes from several generations of Presbyterian missionaries to China and Japan.

8 thoughts on “The Royal Largesse Theory of the Atonement

  1. Interesting post. I would ask whether Christ continues to suffer with us, or if all of his suffering is past tense. If the latter, then I don’t think your royal largesse theory works (for me, anyway). If the former—Christ still suffers for us and with us—then I think your theory offers a unique insight into the atonement whereby Christ, the sinner, and us (when we’re not the sinner) can came together as One.

    (Although I still don’t understand why you call it the “royal largesse” theory.)

  2. Regardless of whether it is true, your theory creates the very nice feeling that we are doing something *for* Christ when we perform service, and this is certainly a good and doctrinely sound thing. King Benjamin would approve.

  3. ultimately, God’s work and glory is to bring about our immortality and eternal life, which is defined as the type of life God leads. The scriptures teach us that is a life of indwelling unity (with the Godhood) and unwavering love. God has set his hole system up around this and made this the very center of his existence. We are that vitally important to him. So if we turn away, it causes him to suffer. If we turn toward, it causes him Joy. As we love one another, we are turning toward him. So this post is correct.

  4. Adam, thank you for your insights. I do often think that we use such casual metaphors(such as the little child and the bike metaphor) for the greatest and most infinite act of mankind. I have heard a lot about Jesus taking on infirmities such as dementia, illness, and any affliction. I wasn’t sure if this was mainly an LDS Doctring although I don’t recall it from my Catholic upbringing. I want to read your thoughts more closely from time to time as they are worth review.

  5. Adam: That was quite thought provoking. I am not sure it helps a lot to try and find the explanation of how it works. I have no idea what makes my TV or microwave oven work, but I still value them and use them.

    It seems to me that if the Atonement is infinite and Christ’s suffering is infinite then our petty finite problems add but a drop to the pool of suffering of either Gethsemane or Golgotha. That is not to say our own trials are not the most important thing to us they are. But they are still finite. I would suggest that experiencing what mortals experience helped him learn what it means just as we are capable of learning compassion by our own sufferings.

    I think Matt makes an excellent point.

  6. What if that were literal? What if every good deed we did to somebody literally relieved Christ of some of his suffering?…We are literally like Simon the Cyrene, bearing the cross for him to relieve his burden.

    I believe that is the case, that Christianity is a call to efficacious suffering on behalf of others, and that the doctrine that we must take upon ourselves the name of Christ is fully indicative of that principle.

    As is, in my opinion, the doctrine of the body of Christ as laid out in 1 Cor 12:12–27. See also Rom 12:1, Heb 2:11, John 20:31.

  7. Great post. I, for the first time, delved into this theory of “repaying” Christ while reexamining Jeffrey R. Holland’s General Conference talk “Because of your faith”.

    http://lds.org/scriptures/bofm/3-ne/17.20-21?lang=eng#19

    Originally, I had understood the subject of the talk to be gratitude. But in the beginning he gives a hint as to it’s true meaning; “we also know that the Church draws incomparable strength, a truly unique vitality, from the faith and devotion of every member of this Church.”

    He’s setting the table for his overall point that each and every one of us, through our deeds, no matter how small or large, add up to something huge, both collectively and individually.

    He finishes the talk not only a killer finale, but also, perhaps, the only other scripture besides the Matthew 25:40 that you quoted above, that touches on this subject of repaying Christ.

    It is 3 Nephi 17:20, when Christ explains to the Nephites that because of their faith, His joy is full.

    Maybe it is true, that every good deed we do, is also like doing it to Christ. Jeffrey R. Holland’s talk is empowering. I can make His joy full!

  8. Thanks to all for their kind comments.

    BrianJ,
    that’s an extremely interesting question. I don’t know the answer, but I would refer you to the scriptures that, curiously, call Christ ‘the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world’. http://lds.org/scriptures/search?lang=eng&query=lamb+slain+from+the+foundation+of+the+world Maybe our idea of time is wrong the Atonement is ever present.

    Matt W., Mark D.,
    I agree with what y’all are preaching, but its not what I am claiming.

    Ellis,
    you are perfectly correct that this theory only works if each individual act of suffering adds to the total of Christ’s suffering in some sense (i.e., additive). The scriptures say that Christ’s atonement was infinite. If this also means that the amount of suffering he took on was infinite, than it is strongly implied that our individual suffering is not additive.

    Chad,
    wonderful.

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