What if the Atonement is a natural necessity in a cosmos where Gods evolved from chaos? My thoughts have been shaped by many sources since I wrote Thermodynamics and Theories of Atonement, but listing them all feels like I’m writing an argument from authority, and the connections are often oblique, so instead I invite you to join me in the ideas. I believe in Atonement. I believe it is necessary for eternal life. Here’s what atonement looks like to me. If it inspires you, too, you’ve found a kindred spirit, and even if it doesn’t, let’s not let it stop us from partaking of the Atonement together.
What Nature Requires
There is a particular class of possible universes I hope we live in. It is not the only possible class, but it is the only class that feels to me both plausible and hopeful. It requires that Gods:
- create worlds
- create children who create worlds
- maximize creative rates
- perpetually learn and explore
- work with diverse communities of beings
- eliminate behaviors that inhibit maximal creation including
- destruction of creative potential
- inefficient use of resources
These traits are very similar to traits that make a biological species successful, but something happens when you begin to extrapolate human potential into the vast reaches of space and time. Things that have small or local consequences begin to have global or universal consequences. Two tribes can fight a war. Two nuclear powers had better not. Two galactic civilizations with automated, self-reproducing weapons of mass destruction?
How do Gods and Goddesses raise children who will meet all these criteria? Children who will create, who will explore, who will develop a diversity of knowledge and skills, who will get along with each other despite the diversity of knowledge, ability, needs and desires, who will not destroy one another or one another’s creation, but will use the resources available to maximize creation?
These Gods and Goddesses will hurt one another. They will require resources that another desires, and have things required of them that they do not desire. There is no other way. They will know good and evil, but learn to choose the good. Not because it is required to exist, but because it is required to be a community of effective creators. It is required to keep mediocrity, selfishness, or cavalier unconcern from overrunning the cosmos. It is required to invite as much unorganized matter as possible into the fulfilling realms of creation, creativity, and love.
What is atonement? Thank you, English, for giving me such an inspiring word for it. It is a condition of being one with another. It is going forward in covenant relationships, whether formal or unspoken, where our actions show us committed to the requirements of belonging to the community of Gods. It is a forward looking process, not a backward looking correction of harm and errors restoring us and the cosmos to some perfect, previous state. There is no perfect state of Godhood. No eternal freedom from pain or sorrow. Godhood is a process, and remember that ours is a God who weeps–who feels the pain of his creatures even while he dwells in peace and glory. Atonement is a state of eternal compromise, continually striving to lift up all of creation, including yourself and the other Gods.
Is there any part of this atonement that requires forgiveness of sins? Certainly, but as much for the forgiver as for the forgiven. It isn’t possible to be an effective creator while you desire to destroy or otherwise limit another who could help with creation. Is there any part of this atonement that is about being freed from Satan? Maybe. While Lucifer’s premortal plan would have made us all one, it would have made us one in sameness, without the diversity needed for effective creation. We must be free of that. We must be free of habits, patterns, and actions that harm or limit us and others. If this is Satan’s realm, then this atonement is about being free from Satan. Is the moral influence of Jesus’s sacrifice part of this atonement? Clearly. He entered a life–and death–long relationship with the poor, the outcast, the sinner, and all who wanted to follow him in ushering in the kingdom of heaven. He resisted oppression and shared new truths. Is this atonement about meeting the demands of justice? Not in some cosmic truth sense, no. But it is about treating one another justly as we move into eternity together. Is it about restoring something past? Perhaps, but that is more the purpose of resurrection and similar processes. While resurrection and restoration are not atonement, they enable greater atonement through allowing us to connect with other Gods through time and space.
And lastly, is this atonement magical? Was Jesus’s suffering for us truly unique and necessary? It almost seems this kind of atonement could happen without the garden and the cross. But no. Jesus had to atone with every being in the cosmos. He had to know their pain so he could lift them up, working together into a future of love and creation. That’s magic. And it’s magic we can do, too. Magic we must do if we would be Gods, just as our Father and Mother did before us.
Image remixed from Human_Evolution_Scheme by Jose-Manuel Benitos CC 3.0-BY-SA
Jonathan, from your many posts it seems crucial to you that the Gospel be upheld without offending science. You keep trying to bring the Gospel into harmony with science, instead of the reverse. You’re one of the most congenial and sensitive of the regulars on this website; save yourself needless worry on this issue.
First, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that gods evolved from chaos. None.
Second, “nature” doesn’t “require” anything of God.
Third, there certainly is a “perfect state of Godhood.” God inhabits it. Sorrow and weeping and empathy with his creatures are not incompatible with this.
The declaration of the scriptures is not that the Atonement is some necessity entailed upon us by “nature” or by some “universe” that God is working with, working around, or at loggerheads with. The scriptures clearly testify that the Atonement is a merciful blessing from God to answer the law of justice that God – not nature and not the universe – has decreed. There is no “cosmic truth sense” higher than God’s truth sense. There is no “natural” Atonement. Nature is the last place to look for salvation.
The conundrum of godly power in a theologically naturalistic setting, wherein God is held to be subject to the scientific and mathematical laws governing the universe, is resolved if we dismiss the naturalistic theology part. It has no doctrinal support. We don’t live in “that sort” of universe. God is not subject to the universe, rather the reverse. A good, succinct statement of this position, with which I am in accord, has been provided by Joseph F. McConkie:
“God is the author of law, not its creation or its servant. All light and law emanate from him (DC 88:13, 41-42). . . True it is that God was once a man obtaining his exalted status by obedience to the laws of his own eternal Father, but upon obtaining his exalted status he became the source of light and law to all that he creates.” (Answers, p. 166-168.)
Thus, thermodynamics, gravity, the electromagnetic, weak and strong nuclear forces do what they do because God decrees them to do so per the laws he establishes. Yes, God has that kind of power.
It seems to me that you seek to expand the circle of science until God can finally be brought within, so that every component of the Gospel can be seen to be subject to the operations of “the universe” and is therefore comprehensible (and intellectually comfortable) to mortals. God himself, slugging it out with the same laws of thermodynamics that we do. This is both wrong-headed and unnecessary.
Science is wonderful and accurate at describing the mortal universe of time and decaying matter (protons, electrons, quarks – the whole kit and kaboodle) that we currently inhabit. It’s of no use in describing the deathless state before the Fall or the Eternities where God lives – the universe(s) of eternally permanent matter that are not bound by space and time in the way we are, and are kept from our direct knowledge by the veil. From the eternities, all things in space and time – past, present and future – are “present” before God’s eyes; his outstretched hand can “hold” them and his eye can “pierce” them; they are “round about” him. As with a flat sheet of paper, upon which every point is in view to us, so too do those in the eternities have access to any point in our three-dimensional mortal world regardless of mortal barriers; Moroni did not need a door or window or a hole in the roof to reach Joseph Smith. (There is an insightful article from 1980 in BYU Studies (20:3) entitled “Some Thoughts on Higher-dimensional Realms.”)
My own view is that the attempt by some LDS writers to reconcile science and religion by trying to fit all of God’s creations into the visible universe is misguided. Of all the planets, stars and galaxies we can see or could see with the most powerful telescope, none are eternal abodes of resurrected beings. The entire universe we see and study, vast as it is, comprises the same kind of decaying matter as here on Earth and is separate from the eternal realms. Kolob, which governs only one class of stars, is not in our visible universe (let alone galaxy) nor is God’s throne (which, as an aside, is said to be “nigh unto” – near – Kolob, not on it. God doesn’t live on Kolob.)
Modern cosmology (a fascinating subject) proposes not that the Big Bang spewed matter into the only universe there is (typically conceived of as the endless, empty space containing everything that can be), but that the Big Bang created the whole of this universe – both the space and the time we now live in. It’s difficult to grasp (though the author Brian Greene does a good job), but from it we can get a glimpse of the extensive majesty and power of God and of Godliness.
Thus, God is the source of law for the entire universe we inhabit. This realization provides one, logically consistent picture of reality – God created this and is in charge of the whole of it. There need be no give-and-take between God and a separate, superseding universe to which God is beholden and is in some kind of dynamic tension with. Obviously, the mysteries of godliness are deep and beyond our current comprehension – but they are all under God’s control, not of something else. Mediocrity, selfishness and cavalier unconcern cannot overrun the cosmos, let alone the Eternities. We are in no danger of having them do so.
The struggles of mortality are not replicated in the Eternities. This mortal creation is in a space, separated from the Eternities, wherein our testing is held and experience gained, wherein sin is permitted to flourish, and where our common enemy Satan is “allowed” to try us. We are rescued from this (and Satan destroyed) by the Savior. Having exercised their agency, the children of God are then consigned to Outer Darkness or qualify for a place in a kingdom of glory, at which point all see “eye to eye” in agreeing on who God is and who Christ is; there are no more rebellions against their authority and no other religions worshipping something else; Christ cannot be voted out of office. His judgment cannot be overturned by appeal to some other quarter. This earth itself will be removed from its current position (and condition) and enter the eternities, where perfect Godhood indeed exists. We will not be looking beyond God for some cosmic bestowal our God cannot give us.
Stop projecting this earth and its operations and limitations into the Eternities, Jonathan. I’m afraid it will not bring much of a return on the investment. I suppose we will have to agree to disagree on this line of argument.
Thank you, Tim, for offering this consolation. You are correct in perceiving my insistence that God be within Nature. You are also correct in recognizing my rejection of McConkie’s view of God. Something like his view dates back to Orson Pratt (and perhaps Parley) attempting to reconcile the best science of their day with Mormonism. They adopted a God very much like Aristotle’s Prime Mover with a few Mormon twists.
Doctrinal support for my views are found more in certain contradictory views found in scripture and in statements by Brigham Young and Joseph Smith. I could have couched my argument in those theological terms, but I consciously decided to focus on the rationalistic, naturalistic philosophical terms. I didn’t want to enter the realm of theological debate that has already been taken up by such able thinkers as Eugene England, Blake Ostler, and others. My conclusions do contradict several authoritative statements, but to my mind these statements are contradicted by more important theological concepts like eternal progression, God having a father, and his father having a father, back into time immemorial, Brigham’s (explicitly) and Joseph’s (less explicitly) injunctions that we usher in the Millennium by making the Earth a terrestrial kingdom, and the Pearl of Great Price’s teachings that we made our own earth to live on and watched it until it obeyed. But to start from those theological arguments tends to create a closed system of thought that must rely on authoritative statements to determine truth and makes it harder to invite exploration. It limits us to past revelation and only allows our current prophet to make any changes in our understanding.
It is possible that I have made improper or indistinct explanations of what I mean by Gods within Nature. There is clearly room in this conception for Gods to rule over and determine physical laws. The limits of Nature that constrain them are not necessarily gravity and the speed of light, but are limits imposed by the possibilities of logic and mathematics. For example, God can’t create his father. Those limits allow for much more than our physical universe, or even universes like it, but I can’t accept a God unbound by logic. Where my logic may be flawed, I can accept a God who is able to understand my errors and occupy a reality I couldn’t conceive, but not a reality without at least the laws of logic and mathematical relationships. Those Gods are the Trinitarian God that Joseph denounced–incomprehensible and without body parts or passions. So I guess I will continue to live with the struggle of reconciling science and theology. It’s where I’m most comfortable.
I had better state that I am no enemy of science. It augments my faith but cannot be the ground for it. It is instructive and cautionary to note how destructive to religious faith science often is; its “truths” have been and continue to be cited by scientists and non-scientists as grounds for their skepticism if not outright rejection of religious claims. So what’s up with science confirming “truth”? Not a slam dunk at all.
My caution for members is against the extrapolating of whatever science and the “laws” of logic and mathematics are operative (or are said to be operative) in this mortal sphere into the Eternities in an attempt to get the Eternities to look like what we have here, or to understand God as essentially a really, really smart person trying to dodge the Universe/Nature. But dialog is good and it will all come out in the wash. And I think everyone should stay on the Old Ship Zion during the voyage.
Loved this post, Jonathan. While your ending counters my argument elsewhere that there is no magic wand, I’ll take it with your rejoinder that it’s magic we can do to.
I will add that while I disagree with Tim’s overall point, it is still a usual caution of the need for tentative conclusions. We must needs work with the science we have, but science is always moving forward and we must keep that same flexibility in our understanding of a “Mormon cosmology”.
Have you read “Science, Religion, and Mormon Cosmology”? Great book.