Metaphors of the Atonement

As Latter-day Saints, we know that every sin, every heartache, and all suffering can be redeemed through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. We also know that the Savior is the only way to find redemption from and through these things. But how does the atonement do this? And why is it the only way? Honestly, I don’t think we fully know. There are a number of LDS authors who have provided insights, but I don’t think any of their theories are definitive.

I would just like to talk for a moment about the penal-substitution and the debtor theories of the atonement, and why I don’t like them very much. I think they are certainly useful metaphors, but neither describe the way I experience the atonement in my life. Let me explain: the penal-substitution theory of the atonement is, as C.S. Lewis states it, “the one about our being let off because Christ has volunteered to bear a punishment instead of us.” Every sin as a certain amount of suffering attached to it as punishment. Either we can suffer it ourselves, or Christ can suffer it on our behalf.

It’s basically the theory that operates in the short film “He Took My Licking.” In the story, a class of students are invited by the teacher to create a set of rules for the class. One of the rules stated that there would be no stealing, and the class agreed that the punishment for stealing would be to be “licked” 10 times with a stick. One day, a student reported that his lunch was stolen. The culprit was discovered to be a student so poor that he couldn’t afford his own lunch. It was also discovered that he couldn’t even afford to wear a shirt underneath his coat. The other students were moved with compassion, and begged the teacher not to enact the required punishment. But, “the rules are the rules,” and punishment must be inflicted. In the end, if my memory is correct, the person who’s lunch was stolen eventually volunteered to be licked instead, so that justice could be met while maintaining this poor student’s dignity.

The debtor theory of the atonement operates on a financial metaphor. It is best described in Boyd K. Packer’s talk, “The Mediator.” The basic story is that a young man incurred a debt, and instead of working to pay off the debt, he squandered his time. When the creditor asked for the debt to be collected, the young man couldn’t repay, and was about to be imprisoned as a result. However, a third party (the mediator) offered to pay the debtor’s debt, and then arranges new, more merciful terms on the debtor’s behalf.

Why don’t I like these theories? Well, for a number of reasons. First, it doesn’t particularly make sense. As C.S. Lewis says, “If God was prepared to let us off, why on earth did He not do so? And what possible point could there be in punishing an innocent person instead?” We as human beings have the capacity to forgive others freely. Eugene England, a Latter-day Saint scholar, says is best: “It is a very disquieting notion that God should be bound to an unfortunate situation and in a way that men clearly are not. In human experience, we continually are able as men to forgive each other without satisfaction and yet with redemptive effect.” He concludes: “There is no reason to imagine God being unable to forgive.”

The Savior Himself recognized the genuine human capacity to forgive debts without recompense, as illustrated in His parable that depicts a king who, “moved with compassion,” forgave his servant a debt too large for his servant to pay (Matt. 18:27). He demanded no prior recompense, and did not feel beholden to some abstract sense of “justice” that would forbid him from forgiving the debt. Merciful forgiveness without recompense is commendable. It is a virtue. And yet, God Himself is unable to do it? Richard Williams often expresses it this way: “I just don’t like the idea of a God who is a nice enough guy, but his hands are tied.” The Lord declares his unabridged capacity to forgive to Joseph Smith: “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men” (D&C 64:10).

We find in the parable of the prodigal son another example of unqualified forgiveness. A man who had squandered his inheritance experienced a change of heart which brought him to return to his father’s house, and “when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). The father did not demand payment, compensation, or suffering from anyone before inviting his lost son into his home. If this is, as I believe, partly a metaphor of our return to our heavenly home, this certainly does not square with the image of a Father who demands recompense as a prerequisite to forgiveness.

The Book of Mormon itself, if you read it carefully, seems to reject this interpretation. Amulek explained to the Zoramites, “Now, if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother? I say unto you, Nay. But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered” (Alma 34:11–12). As Amulek pointed out, the Nephite legal code (and he makes a point of saying that it is a righteous set of laws) did not allow for vicarious punishment. It doesn’t make sense, nor does it seem right, to think that justice has somehow been satisfied when someone other than the perpetrator has suffered. I think Alma’s comment indicates that he was offering an alternative to the penal-substitution theory of the atonement in Alma 34 (even though we most often read it as if it were talking about the penal-substitution theory).

So, in conclusion, the penal-substitution theory is problematic because vicarious punishment doesn’t really make sense, and both the penal-substitution theory and the debtor theory are problematic because it doesn’t really make sense to claim that God, who is simply an exalted person like ourselves, is unable to forgive others the same way we are.

One Alternative (among many) 

While neither we nor God are prevented from forgiving others of their wrongdoing, there are 2 things that keep us from returning home to God. (1) First, we can’t change our own hearts. Once we have been mired in sin, our view of the world, our desires, and our hopes become tainted. And we can’t fix that alone. (2) Second, once our minds and our hearts are enlightened by the Spirit, we can’t feel good about the bad things we’ve done. This guilt also keeps us from turning to God.

First, the scriptures are clear that it is Christ and His atonement, communicated via the Spirit, that transforms us into new creatures. Let’s use the story of the prodigal son as an example (with ourselves being the son and Heavenly Father being the father). We often think of the atonement in these terms: the father wants to embrace the son, but he must first check that recompense has been made, and once he assures that the proper suffering has occurred (either on the son’s part or Christ’s), and only then embraces the son with open arms.

In contrast, let’s rewind, and imagine the son mired in bad habits, squandering his fortune. That is where the atonement works. The atonement of Christ, mediated through the Spirit, is what changes the son’s heart, helps him abandon his habits, and return to his father. I’m sure that being broke, miserable, and homeless probably acted as a catalyst that prompted him to ask God for help. But he couldn’t change his heart by himself. Alma explains that Christ’s sacrifice “bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance.” It’s the change that occurred in the son between the moment he’s broken and alone and the moment he’s in his father’s arms. That is the miracle of the atonement. It changes our hearts, and makes us into the kind of people who will walk into Father’s arms.

This is how I experience the atonement in my own life. When I think of what Christ has done for me, I don’t think, “Thank you, Christ, for appeasing the demands of justices so God can now accept me.” Although I can conceptually imagine that legalistic process occurring, I don’t experience it that way. Rather, I think, “Thank you, Christ, for making me a new person.” Personal transformation is what I experienced.

So what about all this talk about justice and mercy, etc.? Well, that leads us to the second thing that we can’t do for ourselves. Once enlightened by the Spirit, we can’t feel good about wrongs we’ve committed. Moroni illustrates this principle clearly:

Do ye suppose that ye shall dwell with him under a consciousness of your guilt? Do ye suppose that ye could be happy to dwell with that holy Being, when your souls are racked with a consciousness of guilt that ye have ever abused his laws? Behold, I say unto you that ye would be more miserable to dwell with a holy and just God, under a consciousness of your filthiness before him, than ye would to dwell with the damned souls in hell. (Moro. 9:3–4)

I think we’ve all experienced this kind of guilt. It keeps us from repenting, from changing, because we don’t even feel worthy of God’s forgiving grace and mercy. I think that the atonement of Christ is a response to this. Eugene England explains:

[The Atonement] is not necessary because of some eternal structure of justice in the universe outside man which demands payment from man for his sins, nor of some similar structure within the nature of God. The Atonement is absolutely necessary because of the nature of man himself… The problem is not that God’s justice must be satisfied (or the universe’s) but that man’s own sense of justice demands satisfaction. When it creates a barrier to repentance that barrier must be broken through… [I]t can only be broken though by the powerful persuasion of a kind of love which transcends men’s sense of justice without denying it—the kind of love that Christ was uniquely able to manifest in the Atonement. …

We do not repent in order that God will forgive us and atone for our sins, but rather God atones for our sins and begins the process of forgiveness … in order that we might repent and thus bring to conclusion the process of forgiveness. And the center of the experience somehow is Christ’s ability to break through the barrier of justice, in those men who can somehow freely respond, with the shock of eternal love expressed in Gethsemane.

In other words, Christ’s sacrifice is necessary in order for us to forgive ourselves and feel comfortable in God’s presence. Why? I don’t fully know. But I like this better than the penal-substitution theory, because this places the emphasis on the experience of personal transformation and forgiveness, rather than a speculative, legalistic framework of abstract ideas. Rather than spending time fleshing out the details of the legal code of heaven, we can simply describe our own experience with Christ (which usually doesn’t entail any of that).

Why it Doesn’t Matter

In conclusion, I don’t really like the penal-substitution theory of the atonement, or the debtor theory of the atonement. They are both too legalistic and speculative for my tastes. Besides, I don’t experience the atonement that way, I experience it in terms of personal transformation and forgiveness. However, I don’t believe I know for sure either way. And I don’t think access to the atonement requires that we have the right ideas about it. I agree with C.S. Lewis, who said:

The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter. … Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works. Christians would not all agree as to how important those theories are. … But I think they will all agree that the thing itself is infinitely more important than any explanations theologians have produced. I think they would probably admit that no explanation will ever be quite adequate to the reality. …

We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ’s death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to left alone if they do not help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself.1

In other words, it doesn’t matter what we believe about how the atonement works nearly as much as it matters that we kneel, pray, and ask God for forgiveness. Trying to figure out the legal code of heaven (if it even exists) isn’t necessary for salvation. I don’t think it’s wrong to wonder about these things, though, because I think that the metaphors and theories we use to describe the atonement can affect our interpretation of our own experiences.


30 thoughts on “Metaphors of the Atonement

  1. Jeff T, I agree with all of your conclusions, especially the importance of personal change that the atonement brings and the point that in the end it doesn’t matter in a cosmic sense why the atonement is necessary. Having said that, for my own personal enlightenment I feel most persuaded by the idea that there are universal forces (intelligences) that needed to see that justice was supreme. When I think of the atonement, and the awful pain that Christ went through on our behalf, I personally see a process where the intelligences are convinced that our debt was paid and justice was satisfied. This brings order and predictability to the universe. Again, this is just my own personal mental process — if I were to learn it happens in a completely different way it would not affect my faith in any way.

  2. Geoff, that idea is well articulated by Cleon Skousen, and it has been one of the many theories of the atonement over the past centuries. I disagree with it for 3 reasons:

    First, I agree with Eugene England on it:

    “An immediate objection to this view is that it seems on the face of things to be a legalistic formula clearly influenced by the feudal times in which it grew up. it implies that God is in a position much like a feudal lord. if he allows his justice to go unanswered, if he allows people to get off easy, his position will be questioned in the minds of his subjects, which will lead to disrespect and rebellion.”

    It almost implies creation only follows moral law for fear of punishment, and letting anyone off without punishment (either personal or vicarious) would lead to social chaos. I’m not sure God’s laws are enforced that way. I think intelligences follow God because He has earned their love, not their fear.

    Second, I don’t think that God is beholden to the opinions of the masses. Skousen’s theory implies that heaven is a democracy, and that God can only let people into heaven if the masses of intelligences consent, and so God had to earn their consent.

    Third, it implies that the atonement isn’t really about me and my relationship with God. It’s all about God and His relationship with a bunch of third parties. He needs to keep their respect. In addition, there’s no real scriptural support for it (Skousen does some scripture wresting, but it’s pretty weak).

  3. I think that your explanation of the Atonement is spot-on. I have directly and clearly experienced this in my life. I was in a position where I had been deeply wronged and was also a complete failure. Although I was able to forgive and forget, the offenses were . . . are . . . often repeated and the fear and anger would come back. And, as a result, I would feel the full weight of my failure again.

    There was one night when I had an experience which changed me. While I don’t feel it appropriate to go into detail here in an online forum, I will say that I came to understand that the recompense I was owed, what I needed, was between me and the Savior. That His Atonement made all “debts” in His hands. Not to mean, as in the typical debtor analogy, that I would be repaid, nor that the offender would have to pay in full, but that I could let go of all such concern of what was or was not just. Because the Savior is who He is, I could not hold the anger or hurt in my heart.

    I wish I could explain it better, but I’m not finding the right words.

  4. I like the Exemplary theory of atonement. It suggests that Christ set an example for us and that we are to suffer with him to draw others to him and thus create a real at-one-ment. This fits in to LDS theology in so many ways, too many to enumerate here. Plenty of scriptural support as well.

  5. In the last decade or two (and increasingly over time), the brethren have thrown a monkey wrench into all of our theories of the atonement by expanding its scope beyond forgiveness for our sins. Consider the following from Scott Grow in the April 2011 conference:

    Through His Atonement, He heals not only the transgressor, but He also heals the innocent who suffer because of those transgressions. As the innocent exercise faith in the Savior and in His Atonement and forgive the transgressor, they too can be healed.

    With that in mind, I prefer a “restitution substitution” model that covers both sinner and victim. I like to illustrate it using the Mediator story with a twist. The twist is that the money lender to whom a debt is owed is not the Father, but rather the victim. (The Father remains in the story as an unseen judge to whom the money lender would appeal for justice if not repaid.) By intervening as he did, the mediator simultaneously relieves the debtor of his debt and makes the victim whole.

    Now consider the situation in Alma 34 in which it acknowledged that having one man (the equivalent of the mediator in the other story) die in the place of another is unjust. What if, instead of dying in the murderer’s place, the mediator offered to make the victim whole–that is restore him to life–if the murderer’s life could be spared? That should satisfy all parties. Well, guess what? The real mediator has promised to restore the life of every innocent murder victim, and I suspect the other many injustices will be rectified in the resurrection.

    So if repentance is the key to a sinner’s access to the atonement, what is the key to a victim’s access? Elder Grow provides an answer.

    As the innocent exercise faith in the Savior and in His Atonement and forgive the transgressor, they too can be healed.

    Faith (in, for one thing, the reality of the resurrection) and forgiveness are the keys. To illustrate the forgiveness angle, say the money lender in the mediator story refused the deal offered by the mediator, saying to the mediator: “I don’t want your money. I want his money. I want him to suffer for what he has done.” Well, the money lender could take his case to the judge, who would (if my theory is correct) declare that in the eyes of the law, the debt has been settled and the money lender can either accept the payment or not, but the debtor is free to go either way. (This is not a far-fetched scenario. Victims behave like this all the time.) To me, it all fits.

  6. The July 10 Devotional at BYU with speaker Brad Wilcox is very interesting. The title is “His Grace is Sufficient”. It should be available at BYUtv.

  7. Interesting perspective, Last Lemming. I agree it’s better than the penal-substitution theory.

    Alas, all metaphors are limited. If someone has robbed me, I believe it is a virtue to forgive without recompense. I don’t need that money back in order to be healed. In other words, although Anglo-American law would require restitution before the victim can walk away whole, I don’t think heavenly law requires that. I think the healing involved in the victim and the victim’s forgiveness of the transgressor are somewhat synonymous. I like Terry Warner’s address, “Why We Forgive,” because he explores how resentment (the refusal to forgive) is a form of violence against the Other. A victim who refuses to forgive is committing a moral wrong against the abuser/transgressor, and therefore has need to repent himself. In that way, demanding restitution as a prerequisite of forgiveness (either by the abuser/transgressor or by Christ) isn’t a moral approach.

    Christ’s sacrifice will, however, reach into our resentful hearts and invite us to let go of our resentment, in the same way that his sacrifice reaches into any sinful heart and invites it to let of its sin. So in that way, Christ rescues us from resentment and allows us to forgive, but not because restitution has been made, but because we see that returning violence for violence (even if that violence is just in our resentment towards the abuser/transgressor) is a form of sin itself.

  8. Maybe I just resist legalistic formulations of the Atonement, and prefer relational ones. LL’s formulation maintains that the Atonement is still designed to meet the requirements of some kind of heavenly legal code, except that unlike the debtor theory, the plaintiffs and the defendants are both human beings. I agree it’s better, but not my style. =)

  9. ldsphilospher – I’m happy with taking each of the various explanations on the atonement and fitting them into the puzzle. I realize they may seem contradictory, but I’m thinking the same is often true in quantum mechanics and we just await the religious equivalent of the “God particle” to help make sense of the explanations and contradictions.

    In any case, the debtor theory of the atonement can have some degree of merit because we have a scripture that describes the inverse stating that there is a law irrevocably decreed before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicted, and when we receive any blessing from heaven it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.

    There is a spiritual consequence for sin, and there is a spiritual blessing for faithful obedience. It may very well be that both sides of this coin are actually the atonement. The blessing for our obedience comes from the atonement, and the overcoming of the spiritual consequences of sin come from the atonement. Whether or not the former is true, it’s clear the atonement is what makes overcoming that broken law possible.

    If laws were decreed irrevocably before the foundations of this world, they can’t just be undecreed because now God feels sorry for us, otherwise irrevocably has no meaning. The laws before the foundation of this world were set in place for one reason – to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. Either that, or they are eternal laws of the universe. In either case, I do not believe its an instance of God saying, “I will bind myself by these laws just because.” But rather, the only way to become what we are to become is through these laws.

    Ultimately, our Heavenly Father desires us to become like him. No unclean thing can dwell in his presence. Even more so, now is the time to prepare to meet God. I’ve always liked that scripture with the ancient English definition of meet – “To come up to; to be even with; to equal; to match;” So now is the time to come up to, to be even with God, to receive of his fulness.

    The atonement is the way that is possible. It’s a purifying and strengthening process. Yes, it’s “paying for” sin, but that’s just part of the metaphor, not 100% of the reality. Those irrevocable laws have been broken by each of us, and in order to receive the ultimate blessing being on the path to receive of the Father’s fulness from grace to grace. We need the atonement – see grace being defined as the enabling power of the atonement in the Bible Dictionary. Thus we grow to receive the Father’s fulness by relying on the atonement in experience after experience.

    I get that none of this explains “why” Christ suffered so. I just think that there obviously a connection between the physical and the spiritual. Christ suffered immensely as he bore all our spiritual burdens. When we have a spiritual burden, I believe it affects our body since all spirit is fine, indiscernible matter. So for Christ to take all the spiritual sins of the world upon himself would necessarily cause a tremendously heavy burden to be placed upon his physical body. And it was something only he could bear.

    Well, that’s my 8-cents 🙂

  10. I’ll just add… in thinking about all of this, we just couldn’t be the ones to have the “price” paid (in consequence of disobedience to those irrevocable laws which put us on the path to immortality and eternal life) for ourselves individually. Amulek goes into this a bit in Alma 34. What is so wonderful about this awesome chapter is he transitions from explaining the atonement, praying for the atonement, and then doing our own “mini version” of the atonement (poor choice of words) by literally bearing the burdens of the poor, sick, and naked through imparting of our physical substance, money, food, etc. Read the chapter again, it’s awesome. The Lord expects us to follow in his footsteps as much as possible. We can’t bear the consequences of their sins and lift those off anyone (we can point them to the Lord though), but he does expect us to bear those things we can bear — and that’s all the physical burdens of this world. Beautiful stuff and adds in a little bit why the Lord would be so harsh to all those goats who would be hoping for full access to the atonement in the last day.

  11. Jeff—the problem with likening the Atonement to theft and robbery, and then saying that recompense need not be made, is that the money you envision having been stolen is not necessary. Oftentimes, the damage to an innocent party from sin shreds the soul, steals what is necessary to live eternally. Imagine, instead, that the thief stole the money that a widow needed to feed her child. She can’t simply walk away. Even if she forgives in her heart, the damage is still there, she and her child are still starving.

  12. 8 cents worth having. Thanks for your comment! I don’t really interpret that scripture to say that God has to punish us for sin… the scripture says that there is a law (singular) upon wich all blessings (plural) are predicated… and I think that law is obedience/submission/reliance on Christ. Receiving blessings is not like a science, in which we’ve just got to figure out the particular law it’s based on and obey it. Rather, it simply says that any blessing we obtain from God is because of our reliance on and obedience to Christ. I don’t think that this law necessarily says anything about requiring/exacting punishment for sin, or that it forces God to exact punishment from someone (either us or Christ). I think that no unclean thing can dwell with God for precisely the reason Moroni explains: no unclean being will want to dwell with God.

  13. SilverRain, agreed. But that’s another reason why I don’t like these metaphors. They have intractable limitations and narrow our focus on what is “owed” the victim. Healing is not “restitution,” it’s often learning to abandon our need for restitution. And it’s learning to be made whole even when things aren’t yet made right. Our lost loved ones, our lost time, our lost trust may still be lost, but we can still be made whole nonetheless.

  14. I also agree. Over the years, I’ve found the legalistic method that led many General Authorities to state that the atonement only gives resurrection as a free gift, but then we must earn our way into heaven, as unsupported by scripture or the way I experience the atonement.

    I believe the Church is moving in the right direction in these things, as concepts such as grace are now discussed much more frequently, and without reservations.

    Personally I like theories similar to Blake Ostler’s Compassion Theory of the Atonement. There are a few related ones, as well.

    What we do know from the scriptures is that we are fallen from God’s presence. To regain his presence requires the atonement. Through Christ we resurrect and _ALL_ are brought back into the presence of God (Alma 11-12, Moroni 9, etc). At that point, how the atonement affects our final destiny is determined by whether we have become clean or not, and to what level. D&C88 tells us that if we have even a portion of the celestial inside of us, we will gain a fullness of that kingdom, as well as for the other lesser kingdoms.

    In Alma 36, the rebellious young man suffered in hell until he repented, and then was released. He saw Lehi standing by God in his throne! Alma had not the opportunity to anything beyond a death bed repentance at this point, but was cleansed in Christ’s atonement. That goes very different from some teachings and views of the 1960s and 1970s in the Church. Alma was rescued from hell and Outer Darkness through faith and repentance alone. I have no doubt that his final level of glory depended upon how faithful he was through life. Still, he was saved. At the moment he repented, Christ wrapped Alma in his arms, filling Alma with his redeeming love and taking upon himself the pains of Alma experienced.

    In this instance, it is a theory of healing, not of a debtor or penal-substitution. Jesus heals us by taking upon himself our pains, while we take upon us his healing love.

    For me, that is definitely how the atonement works. And it makes sense. God wishes to save us, which means he takes us as we are, healing us our pains and sins by absorbing them into a Oneness with him.

    And in such a relationship, I can understand forever thanking him for such an embrace.

  15. Hmmmm… ldsphilosopher – I didn’t say anything about punishment 🙂 I’m trying to explain one perspective that says on this path to exaltation, we receive blessings when we obey certain laws, and we forfit certain blessings when we don’t obey. (un)Fortunately, those blessings are what put us on the path to returning to God’s presence, to meet Him, so to speak if you insert my understanding of the word meet. So when we don’t obey, we don’t receive those blessings that will enable us to become what we need to become. Someone needs to bear the consequence of failing to do so. We are an unworthy vessel to bear the consequences, demonstrated by our own actions, but also (apparently) because we aren’t of a divine physical birth.

    Regarding your differing reading of laws/law in D&C 130:20-21 I think it can easily be read both ways, but the way it’s always presented is law is substitute for just about any individual specific law, and the blessings are those multiple blessings that come from obeying that specific law. That scripture is quoted for everything from tithing to church attendance to home teaching, caring for the poor, etc. Now, ultimately, I would agree that when you are doing these things faithfully, ultimately you are obeying the law of following Christ. But even interpreting it narrowly to only mean that, if you obey Christ, you receive the blessings, if you don’t, you don’t and in order to receive those blessings you need Christ to bear the consequences of your disobedience in order to receive the ultimate blessings. Changing the law to Christ, doesn’t change much in that regard, especially when we’re talking about the atonement he performed.

    I definitely agree with your phrase that Christ’s sacrifice was necessary for us to feel like we could dwell in God’s presence. I think that is definitely one aspect of no unclean can (want to) dwell in God’s presence. But I think there must also be more to it. I don’t think there is much preventing God from coming down and having other things in his presence. But “dwell” is the key word, which brings to mind a permanent residence according to the meaning of the word (of course I think meanings can be applied both loosely and narrowly and both are appropriate depending on the context — isn’t language great). So while no unclean person would want to be in his presence for even a little while, no one could also come into the place of God’s residence and receive all that he has unless they’ve receive hid fulness and become like him. I suppose, I definitely take the very traditional LDS notions of exaltation here, and I think these things are a mystery to so many in the world, which is why they aren’t talked about in detail (not to mention, we can’t really conceive of the details either unless the veil is parted and we have the heavens open to us, so why talk about the details together when it’s something only we can “talk” about with God). But I also don’t deny the other aspects of the atonement as most Christians view it because it’s equally valid.

  16. Funny, I just submitted a guest post here about blessings and law which I have been thinking over all weekend. Although maybe I shouldn’t say that, since it may not meet the standards and be posted. Now I’ve set myself up for embarrassment. 😉

  17. I didn’t say anything about punishment … Someone needs to bear the consequence of failing to do so.

    That last sentence feels like a euphemism for “punishment.”

    But even interpreting it narrowly to only mean that, if you obey Christ, you receive the blessings, if you don’t, you don’t and in order to receive those blessings you need Christ to bear the consequences of your disobedience in order to receive the ultimate blessings.

    So, I fail to rely on Christ, and I forgo the blessings of grace, transformation, and salvation that his suffering and love make available to me. I’m sure this entails quite of bit of suffering on my part—if nothing else, in opportunity costs. But then, later on, I submit to Christ, and then qualify for the grace, transformation, and salvation that his suffering and love provide for me. Why must there be a punitive component to the story?

    but the way it’s always presented is law is substitute for just about any individual specific law, and the blessings are those multiple blessings that come from obeying that specific law. That scripture is quoted for everything from tithing to church attendance to home teaching, caring for the poor, etc.

    We often talk about it this way, but I disagree with this application of the scripture. Life doesn’t work out that way. Those who are chaste sometimes never marry. Some who pay tithing still experience financial troubles. When we talk this way, it leads people to believe that God is like a vending machine, where if we push the right button (law), we get the results we want. All the martyrs in Christian history can witness against that idea. And it gets the logical structure of the scripture backwards: IF we receive a blessing, it is because of obedience to the law (submission/reliance on Christ). It doesn’t entail that if obey, we will always and inevitably receive the blessings we seek. It’s not a cause and effect. It simply says that obedience to law is a necessary condition for the blessing, not a sufficient condition.

  18. There have been a few GA talks recently that focus on what we _Become_. I find that significant and very different than just check-marking that one has kept the word of wisdom or done their home teaching (with cookies each time, even). We do not receive/lose blessings on doing, but on being. Doing must be an outward sign of our inner being. Christ’s parable on the clean/unclean inner/outer cup shows this.

    As it is, the Book of Mormon, as I mentioned above, states that ALL will be brought back into the presence of God. I agree with Chris that this is not in order to dwell, but to determine what kingdom they will receive. This is determined by what we have _become_ according to D&C 88. Whether we remain in His presence is essentially up to us and what we’ve become. If we have a portion of the celestial within us, we will be comfortable with a fullness of the celestial around us. Otherwise, we will choose a glory more akin to what we are. For sons of perdition, they will choose a kingdom without glory, for they would receive none other (D&C 76).

    For me, the punishment is self-inflicted wounds. The pain and suffering remain until we choose to repent and allow Christ to heal us (see Alma 36). Until we become humble enough for that to happen, we remain in our own personal hell – even if it takes a thousand years for us to repent. Sons of perdition will always refuse Christ’s atonement, and so dwell forever in the misery they concoct for themselves. IOW, God does not actually impose a punishment. We impose our own by choosing to remain outside His presence.

  19. But blessings and law don’t really apply to the Atonement in the way we are treating it. The Atonement is not a law, it is an event. We receive immortality by doing nothing more than what we have already done. We receive eternal life not because of what we have done, but because what we have done changes what we are (like Rameumptom says in #19.)

    Perhaps by trying to understand the Atonement as if it is a law, we are missing the point. Which is probably part of what Jeff’s been saying all along.

  20. I suppose it could fit into that definition of “Hell” some people don’t like. Failing to receive a blessing is punishment I suppose, but it’s entirely different from the concept of God saying, “Because you did not pay tithing, you will be cursed.” Of course, I think God can and does actually say that kind of thing as well (I’m a contradiction I know), but I think that latter punishment is more indicative of sinning against a law we have testimony of, but disregard almost malevolently. Generally, the vast majority of the time, I think the “punishments” if you want to use that phrase is simply not receiving what we could have received if we were obedient. And in this fallen state, not receiving blessings keeps us fallen and means we suffer often physically in addition to spiritually. And I’m not saying we get a pox every time we disobey, but perhaps if we forgo some physical blessings our bodies can become even more affected by this fallen world. But I hope no one jumps on any of these qualifiers and inflates it to be 100% of my belief, I’m just touching on various subjects as I stumble across them.

    As far as your understanding and my understanding of the D&C130:20-21, it is not the devil, but God who is in the details (of the blessing). I never suggested obeying the law of chastity brings the blessing of marriage. I’ve thought a lot about this scripture and I think some blessings resulting from universal laws are indeed universal and some are specific. If we have an individual atonement, I would suppose we have blessings suited for our individual needs. So while it is very clear that some people may absolutely be blessed financially for obeying the law of tithing — and you will never persuade me otherwise as a result of personal experience of the windows of heaven opening up and an immediate revelatory experience confirming the connection. It’s also clear this is not the case for everyone. That’s not really crazy to understand is it? I can see one person paying their tithing and receiving a blessing of testimony. I can see one person paying their tithing and receiving the blessing of transportation from a passing stranger who had their heart touched or a blessing of having their business fail so they could be guided to a more important work. We could keep going. I do not limit the blessings of God to only follow a single “if you do this, then precisely this happens.” We are all individuals after all, not only with different spirits, but born into different circumstances. The only “precisely” we can be sure of is you’ll be blessed. How or when that blessing comes is up to God.

    Now, I’m not saying every blessing we don’t receive condemns us to Hell or anything. But I am just using that scripture as a guide in principle. It’s not like I’m in suggesting some sort of balancing scales of the atonement where we add up the blessings we received from obedience and subtract the ones we failed to receive and that’s why we need the atonement. I don’t suggest that. Ultimately, even when we are blessed we are in some respects unworthy of it. I’ve suggested that my use of this scripture in principle is just to add enlightenment to one perspective. I never suggested it was the only one, and believe I said clearly at the outset there are other valid pieces of the puzzle including yours. I suppose I’m taking a bring all you have on the atonement, and let’s add it together approach. Those concepts which seem contradictory can either be tossed out or we can await further light and knowledge of. If there is a such thing as further light and knowledge, it would not only imply that we don’t have it all (and your theory is insufficient as well) but also suggest we can’t have it all at any given instant in time otherwise the statement can’t be true.

  21. FWIW, ldsphilosopher, I’ve applied that same interpretation to D&C 130:20–21 for a few years now (ever since the first time that I gave that passage some serious reflection and study). I think the use of the singular/plural is significant. It’s interesting, though, to see someone else take the same view. I thought it was just my own idiosyncracy.

  22. Just want to add to my own comment regarding the oft used example of the law of tithing when I said, “It’s also clear this is not the case for everyone.” I also mean, it’s also not always the case for even those who have been blessed. But just one of the ways we are blessed and it seems to vary from time to time and circumstance to circumstance.

    Some of the blessing in obeying certain laws are universal, some are specific. But we will receive blessings (plural) for following any individual law (singular). The time and content of those blessings often varies for our individual need and circumstance in both a temporal and eternal sense and maybe isn’t always the same for us (as we are always changing in need and circumstance).

    One blessing I think that seems to be universal is if we faithfully offer up our obedience to whatever principle (money/time/talents/life/white shirt/earings/alcohol/etc) I’ve found we are blessed with a testimony that we know we are doing the Lord’s will. I thing that is probably the only universal way I’d say we are blessed, but the big qualifier is doing it faithfully and only God is the judge of that.

    Another universal blessing as a result of obedience seems to be the resurrection. Obedience to keeping our first estate as the saying goes in the plan of salvation lessons. Another universal one seems to be forgiveness of sin, if we are obedient to the repentance process. So while I think we can identify some very significant universal blessing/obedience examples, and perhaps these are the most significant and weighty, there appear to be limitless “other” types of blessings which vary.

    ldsphilosopher – is that so far off from you understanding of the verse? I accept your suggestion that the verse means “one thing” but I add to it and say it also means “infinite things”.

  23. 1. Your restrained approach, acknowledging that atonement metaphors are just metaphors, and our personal disagreements with metaphors are just personal disagreements, hits exactly the right note. Kudos.

    You may find the following interesting:

    2. I disagree with the contrast you draw between ‘legalistic’ and ‘abstract’ views of the atonement, and the ‘real’ view of the atonement that you prefer. I disagree that the penal-substitution theory is abstract, for one. My personal experience of guilt is not at all abstract, as is my experience that justice demands a penalty. Not everyone has a live sense of justice that arises from their very wellsprings, but lots and lots of people do. Its not something they have to be reasoned in to. Further, while I agree that its legalistic, I disagree that legalism is illusory or can just be waived away. The idea that there is a real authentic life to which much of what we do can be contrasted is a modern temptation.

    3. I disagree that the penal-substitution theory doesn’t make sense. I’m not that fond of it myself, but it is coherent. The key can be found in 2 Nephi 2. At least, after I came up with a rationale for the penal substitution theory, I realized that 2 Nephi 2 already seemed to be saying the same thing.

    Here’s my rationale:

    In brief, the idea is that there needs to be a framework of right and wrong with consequences for our choices, if our choices are to be meaningful. But if the consequences of a choice can be mercifully wiped away by fiat, without ultimate consequence to anybody, then the choice was no longer meaningful. Christ takes the consequences on Himself, thereby reconciling our need for meaningful choice (justice) with our need to get out from under the consequences of all the bad choices we’ve made (mercy).

    4. The ransom theory of the atonement occupies most of the same space the substitutionary theory does. But it isn’t susceptible to your particular objection.

  24. Pingback: Who Can Tally the Mind of God? | Junior Ganymede

  25. Without for an instant wanting to pooh-pooh any view of the Atonement that anyone has found helpful or meaningful, let me just point out why at least some people will find your account of the atonement inadequate.

    At least the way I read it, in your account of the atonement, Christ’s suffering doesn’t do anything in itself. Its purpose is to move me deeply so that my heart is changed. Its effect is to have an effect on me. Which sounds kinda circular, but never mind that for now. My real objection is I don’t see how the Atonement is supposed to move me as much if I get that it was done just to impress me. If I put myself in deadly danger to pull you out of the line of fire, for example, that’s pretty impressive. But if I tell you that I’m going to run out on the freeway unless you stop smoking or something, I am taking exactly the same kind of risk with exactly the same purpose, but its much less impressive. Even somewhat disturbing.

    Maybe one way to salvage your model would be to say that Christ is in effect submitting himself to us–in other words, what he does in his Atonement is just fully participate in each human life, in all its sin and folly and suffering (as Alma 7:11-12 implies, and D&C 122), which moves us to do better. In the freeway example, Christ is telling us that he will go with us wherever we go, and if we run out on the freeway, he will run out with us. Which, if you accept that his desire to be with us is worthy, which I think you have to, being born from love, makes the Atonement more in the nature of a natural consequence and less a form of manipulation. I think its a coherent account of the Atonement anyway. It still doesn’t explain all the scriptural data, imho, and I’m not fond of it all that much, but it makes sense as far as it goes. This post is related:

  26. I don’t think that way of thinking about the Atonement necessarily translates the way you explain, Adam. At least, not the way I understand it.

    It’s not that the purpose of the Atonement is to incite feelings in us. Obviously, the Atonement was also to give the Savior an infinite personal compassion. Sometimes I wonder if the pain He felt, though physical certainly, was because of the suffering we go through.

    When the Plan was presented in the beginning, it was clear that not all would return to Heavenly Father. But rather than being an uncaring, or even merely sympathetic, God, the Son’s offer to be the one who atoned for us bridged the gap between mortal and immortal. It allowed us to be imperfect and yet still reconciled. And it bonded us to divinity “without money and without price.” Whether we choose to accept that bond or not, each and every mortal on this earth is bound to God by the Atonement.

    But that does not have to take the form of the debtor’s or the penal-substitution analogies.

    My feelings on this is that both of those analogies can help us understand the Atonement in a different way. Truly, the Atonement is beyond our understanding, layered with meaning and purpose. And every time we look at it a new way, we gain a deeper understanding. So I suspect that the Atonement is all of these things, and any way we try to explain it will be incomplete.

    And even in the legalistic analogies, the Atonement was not truly found in the actions of the Savior, but in the relationship built between the Savior and the atoned.

  27. Just another add-on.

    The Atonement brings people back into the presence of the Holy Ghost in the Telestial Kingdom, and back into the presence of Christ in the Terrestrial Kingdom. (In Section 76, it says that the TlK is ministered to by the Holy Ghost, and the TrK is ministered to by Christ.)

    If the “Kingdom of God (The Father)” is the Celestial, then the “Kingdom of God (The Son)” is the Terrestrial, and the “Kingdom of God (The Holy Ghost)” is the Telestial. At least that’s one of my takes on Section 76.

  28. But rather than being an uncaring, or even merely sympathetic, God, the Son’s offer to be the one who atoned for us bridged the gap between mortal and immortal. It allowed us to be imperfect and yet still reconciled. And it bonded us to divinity “without money and without price.” Whether we choose to accept that bond or not, each and every mortal on this earth is bound to God by the Atonement.

    The typical objection to the penal substitution theory is ‘why did Christ have to suffer for God to forgive us?’ A similar objection to this theory would be “why did Christ have to suffer to bridge the gap between mortal and immortal?” In other words, if God wants to reach out across the chasm and administer grace to me, why does Christ have to suffer for my sins before He can do it? The obvious answers end up making it look like the atonement was for God’s benefit, not my own, which doesn’t fit with scripture or experience. That said, I find your restatement poetic and appealing.

    I would not say “even in the legalistic analogies, the Atonement was not truly found in the actions of the Savior, but in the relationship built between the Savior and the atoned.”

    You are probably right that I’m not translating LDSPhil’s theory very well. I felt like I was having a hard time getting a grasp on it myself. I’ve noticed that there tends to be an inverse relationship between how definite an atonement theory is and how attractive it is.

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