If there is one thing to understand about Jesus it is that he was a man, a real human being. Jesus did not float above the ground as he moved form place to place. He walked like anyone else and his feet got dirty. He did not have a halo hovering over his head but looked like everyone else around him. He got dirty, tired, hungry and thirsty. Sometimes in our efforts to emphasize Christ’s divinity we gloss over one of his most important attributes—his humanity. I believe that to understand the Atonement it is crucial to understand that Jesus was a real human person just like us.
The Book of Mormon says: “And he [Jesus] 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. Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance; and now behold, this is the testimony which is in me.” (Alma 7:11-13) I believe this passage from the Book of Mormon is the most complete and descriptive explanation of the Atonement anywhere. Jesus, the man, learned in the experiences of mortality how to succor his people.
Earlier, I reviewed some of the historical theories of Atonement. They can all work very well as analogies. But with the exception of Ostler’s Compassion Theory they all seem to be using the Atonement as an answer in search of a problem. My main critique here is of the Penal Substitution Theory because I think it is the most common and because it is the understanding of Atonement I grew up with. The critical question is this: why can’t God just forgive sins? Why are death, blood and suffering required? Many of the theories construct elaborate conceptual scaffolding around the issue to make the suffering of Christ seem more necessary. But these explanations are generally extra-scriptural; making the issue more complicated then it needs to be.
Here I’d like to invoke the insights of William Ockham (1288-1348). The famous principle of Ockham’s razor states: “Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate” meaning “Plurality must never be posited without necessity”. The basic idea is that you generally should not add additional layers of complexity to explain something; rather a simple explanation is more likely correct. Ockham was one of the earliest nominalists, maintaining that universals like “Justice” do not exist as actual entities but rather are descriptions of common traits held by particulars like a just man or a just God.
Something held in common with the Satisfaction Theory, the Governmental Theory, and the Penal Substitution Theory is the use of some universal like Honor, Law, or Justice. Justice is almost personified as an entity more powerful than God himself. Since this ethereal entity of Justice is so unbending even to God, he must sacrifice his Son to meet its demands. This relates strongly to the Problem of Universals. When Justice is understood as an actual entity it’s as though the conservation of mass and energy apply: all this sin and guilt have to go somewhere, so Christ absorbs it for us.
The way I learned the Penal Substitution Theory was something like this. We are sinners and have offended God and deserve his punishment. God cannot deny justice or he would cease to be God (Alma 42:13). So God sent Jesus to suffer for our sins to fulfill the demands of justice. Therefore, Jesus suffers the penalty for our sins so we don’t have to. This allows God to satisfy both Justice and Mercy. Justice is satisfied because Christ has paid the penalty. Mercy is satisfied because we are not punished for our sins.
This theory seems to work pretty well with scripture. But it also begs certain questions. The first question, again, is why does God have to punish somebody at all? Why can’t he just forgive? This gets into the question of what justice actually is. Another question is this—how is it just to punish someone for a crime they didn’t commit? Isn’t that the very epitome of injustice? Then again there is the Problem of Universals. Is Justice actually something that exists in itself, independent of the particulars it describes? Does it actually have power over God? My own experience is that I can simply forgive someone who has offended me. I don’t have to require punishment. I would never even think of punishing a person for someone else’s crime. And I don’t believe that Justice, as a universal, as an entity, actually exists. Rather, justice is a word used to describe just things and just people.
Of course, all understanding of the Atonement is going to employ analogy and metaphor to some extent. This is why I don’t want to disparage the classical theories of Atonement, because they have good insights that we can learn from. The idea of Christ taking the punishment for us is very emotionally compelling. But I think there are other ways to understand the Atonement that work better with scripture and with our most basic moral sensibilities.
In the Book of Mormon, Amulek explicitly contradicts idea of Penal Substitution: “Now there is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of another. Now, if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother? I say unto, Nay. But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered; therefore there can be nothing which is short of an infinite atonement which will suffice for the sins of the world” (Alma 34:11-12). I believe this verse, if taken at face value, rejects the Theory of Penal Substitution.
Now, one could object that Christ wasn’t really a man, so this condition doesn’t apply. The divine and human nature of Christ, the hypostatic union, has been a hot topic in Christian history. However, I believe there is a wealth of scripture to support the real, actual humanity of Christ.
Another objection could be that punishing one man for the sins of another is normally not allowed, but since the Atonement of Christ is infinite, it is an exception. In other words, an infinite atonement is super special and will directly contradict the other imperative in this verse—that no person can be punished for the sins of another. But first, this doesn’t sit well with me simply because of the direct contradiction. More importantly, there is no evidence in scripture that this is what “infinite” means. The word “infinite” is never used to mean something capable of making the impossible possible. Rather, in this verse, the word “infinite” is used in the same way it is always used. It means without limitation, duration, or bounds. The Atonement is infinite in its scope—it is “infinite for all mankind” (2 Nephi 25:16). The Atonement is infinite in love, mercy, and compassion. It reaches all who have ever lived and all who ever will live.
So what of the man who murdereth? If the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered and will not allow another to take his place, how can this man be spared? The answer is forgiveness and mercy. I come back to the critical question: why can’t God just forgive sins? Actually, I believe that is precisely what he does. And that is what the Atonement is. Atonement is reconciliation, an at-one-ment with God. Christ came to live on earth as a man to bring us back to God. The suffering of Christ is not a substitute for our punishment, because God can’t forgive us. Rather, Christ suffers precisely because he forgives us. Entering into a close intimate relationship with broken, sinful beings like us causes him tremendous pain. All the pain and suffering of the world affect Christ just like they do everyone else. And it is through this shared experience that Christ is able to succor his people and transform them.
But the Book of Mormon does say “the work of justice could not be destroyed; if so, God would cease to be God” (Alma 42:13). But what exactly is the work of justice? One interpretation is that every sin that has ever been committed must be punished, even if the offender repents. At the end of our lives, even if we have repented we will have collected so much sin and guilt that we will be damned unless Christ takes the punishment for us. But this begs the question—why does this guilt from our past sins follow us around even after repentance? Are sins like ghosts hovering over us even after we have forsaken them? I don’t think this is correct. Alma explained the concept of justice, that for every sin there was a punishment (Alma 42:18-20). But then he says: “But there is a law given, and a punishment affixed, and a repentance granted; which repentance, mercy claimeth; otherwise, justice claimeth the creature and executeth the law, and the law inflicteth the punishment; if not so, the works of justice would be destroyed, and God would cease to be God” (Alma 42:22, italics added).
It is important to understand what Alma is actually saying. There are three operatives: law, punishment, and repentance. The problem with the Penal Substitution Theory is that it leaves out repentance. God is just to punish sinners but it would not be just at all to punish people who have repented. In fact, for the penitent, justice demands that they not be punished. It is implied that if God were to punish people after they repented he would cease to be God. Alma says “mercy claimeth the penitent” and all men are brought back to the presence of God “to be judged according to their works, according to the law of justice” (Alma 42:23). God still acts justly towards the repentant, but now justice works in their favor. “For behold, justice exercises all his demands, and also mercy claimeth all which is her own; and thus, none but the truly penitent are saved” (Alma 42:24). God is both just and merciful. He is justified to punish the sinners, but if they repent and reform he is merciful to them, and justly so. Again, I understand the personal pronouns here to be figurative descriptions of God’s attributes rather than separate entities of Justice and Mercy. However, I do like the subtle use of the masculine for Justice and the feminine for Mercy. A nice little tidbit.
Blake Ostler, in The Problems of Theism and the Love of God, writes: “God could justly punish us now for our sins, but he is merciful in placing us on probation instead and giving us time to repent before judging us. Because we will be judged at the end of this probationary period, God is both just and merciful. The entire discourse of atonement focuses on the central truth that the purpose of life is to give us a space in which we can choose to freely enter into relationship with him or reject him. The atonement is construed as God’s every mode of being in relationship with us in every moment, with Gethsemane and Calvary as the preeminent instances of a supremely loving being sharing our mortality with us. Such a view avoids the problems of the penal substitutionary view of the atonement, which I believe is a morally reprehensible way of explaining God’s love and reconciliation through atonement” (p. ix-x)
So why does Christ have to suffer? The short answer is that he suffers because we suffer. The Atonement is not about substitution; it’s about union. Christ doesn’t step out in front of our burdens and deflect them, he shares them as an intimate companion. Jesus said, “take my yoke upon you” (Matthew 11:29). The yoke is a symbol of union, being joined in our labor and finding rest in his strength. Jesus called himself the bridegroom (Matthew 25:1-13). It is helpful to think of union with Christ like a marriage. Husband and wife share in each other’s burdens and sorrows as well as their happiness and joy. Christ, as God incarnate, weeps with us, sorrows with us, and if we allow it, rejoices with us.
To be in Christ is to be in it for the good times and the bad. Paul said, “we are children of God; And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together” (Romans 8:16-17). To be in Christ means that we suffer with him and that he suffers with us, but we will be glorified to together. This union, Atonement in Christ, is symbolized in baptism as we symbolically die and are buried in his death but then rise in the likeness of his resurrection. “Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him” (Romans 6:8). This union is completely transforming: “Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). By the Atonement, we are actually transformed into the likeness of Christ. We are conformed to his image (Romans 8:29) and receive his image in our countenances (Alma 5:14).
To see how the Atonement of Christ is significant it is important to understand the other part of Jesus’ nature—his Godhood. The Atonement doesn’t work unless Jesus is everything that we are and feels everything that we feel. But in Christ we also see God as a man, descending to earth to live among us and to see what it is like to be one of us. Jesus showed us what God is truly like (John 1:18). God is not off in an ivory tower looking down from on high. God is down here with us. He doesn’t just send us down to live in the gutter and then wish us good luck. He is here, in it with us for the long haul. And God is on our side. “What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).
It is important to state here that the Atonement is absolutely necessary for us. The Atonement is essentially the union and reconciliation between God and man. If the Atonement does not happen there is no union or reconciliation and we are cut off from God forever. Furthermore, it was necessary for Christ to be born, live, and die in the world. The Atonement is Christ reaching for us and sharing his life with us. Not only is it essential for us; it is also essential for him. “For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham. Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people. For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted” (Hebrew 2:18).
My understanding of the Atonement is very similar to the Compassion Theory of Blake Ostler. This theory takes advantage of additional scripture of the Book of Mormon, which I really like (we should take advantage of it). I think it is also consistent with the Bible. I totally recommend checking it out. You can read more about it in his book, The Problems of Theism and the Love of God, or in a shorter paper I have linked at the bottom. Any theological doctrine is going to be an approximation and will need further development. But that shouldn’t prevent anyone from keeping away from the discussion. The most important thing about Atonement theory is its ability to help us appreciate the Atonement in a way that is meaningful to us. Ultimately, I don’t know exactly how it happens. It defies comprehension. But I am grateful that it does happen.
Atonement in Mormon Thought by Blake Ostler