Why couldn’t God forgive us without Christ’s Atonement?
Is God so inhuman, His experience so far different from our own, that Jesus was required to learn humanity and experience the weight of our sins in order to inform Him of the need for mercy?
How is it just or merciful to require that one person suffer tremendously in order to save others? And if this was not something God required, but some Eternal, Universal law that had to be fulfilled, like C.S. Lewis’ “Deep Magic” satisfied by Aslan’s sacrifice at the Stone Table, how does that make sense? Does suffering for one’s mistakes have to occur in order to preserve some kind of balance that rules outside God’s power? What happens if that balance is violated, if God decides to have mercy on billions of people without an intermediary to suffer their punishment? Does the universe go up in flames? Does something explode? Does God cease to be God?
I have questions.
But I’m not the first!
This discussion has been going on since before Christianity was even recognized as a religion independent from Judaism. Monks and philosophers spanning hundreds of years have come up with theory after theory as to exactly why an Atonement was required and how it works.
A second-century Greek bishop named Irenaeus1 came up with the idea that Jesus was the new Adam, arrived to put humanity back on the course of its proper evolution. Where Adam failed by sinning, Jesus succeeded, thereby reuniting us with our proper trajectory towards both morality and immortality. This is known as the Recapitulation Theory of Atonement;2 not popular or well known, but interesting.
Also lesser known, but fun, is the Moral Influence Theory.3 It’s as simple as it sounds: Christ helped humankind change for the better through the example and inspiration of his life, teachings, death, and resurrection. It’s problematic for many Christians, though, because it doesn’t acknowledge the need for an Atonement in order for God to forgive us. It contradicts a good deal of scripture, and “denies that a loving God can respond actively to human rebellion with righteous judgments (wrath). To maintain their definition of a loving Father, moral influence scholars must sacrifice the holiness of God (His relentless antagonism to evil in all its forms) as inconsistent with His unconditional love.”4 But I like it anyway. I don’t believe it, but I find it far more appealing than some of the other options.
Take Satisfaction Theory, for example. In this one, we’re all a bunch of serfs who have impugned the honor of our liege lord by sinning. Like any good overlord, He now demands satisfaction, or restitution of His honor, and Jesus stands in for us so that we can escape the horrible punishment that would otherwise be required to fulfil God’s strict sense of justice.5 In other words, as long as someone gets punished–even if that someone is perfectly blameless–God will be satisfied.
Personally, this is not the God I have experienced. This explanation definitely hearkens back to Europe’s feudalistic social structure during the time it was first conceived by Anselm of Canterbury, a ninth century monk.6
Similar, but easier for me to stomach, is Penal Substitution Theory. In this scenario, Jesus chooses to offer himself to pay the penalty incurred by humankind’s sinful state. His death satisfies the demands of justice so that God can justly forgive our sins.7 It’s like Satisfaction Theory, but the demands for blood and suffering are made by justice, not God Himself, so frankly it doesn’t make God look like a big jerk. This may be the theory that fits best in the Mormon religion, with its latent assumption of a God whose powers are limited by natural forces beyond His control. It leaves room for a loving and merciful God who is bound to enact justice by the laws of the universe, which is an idea that a lot of Mormons ascribe to.
Then there’s Ransom Theory. According to this theory, Jesus’ death paid a ransom to Satan (though some have argued it was owed to God. For my opinions there, see Satisfaction Theory), freeing us from bondage otherwise owed because of sin.8 This is like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where Edmund’s life is owed directly to the White Witch because of his treacherous actions, but Aslan steps in and gives his own life to her instead. This explanation gives Satan far more power than Mormon theology allows for.
There are more theories. But I don’t really like any of them. Like them because they are interesting to study or think about, yes. In that case, they’re great. But I’ve never found an explanation that lets the Atonement, why it was needed, how it worked, make sense to me. And as I’ve thought about it more and more, that has been my conclusion: it does not make sense. Every explanation either defies logic or defies my perception of God or some other party involved.
But that does not mean it did not happen.
I am of two minds. That can be a scary place to be in when we’re talking about the Son of God who is purported to have suffered infinitely because we can’t avoid screwing up. One part of me says this is not logical. It is a story that grew out of the martyring, man or god, of someone who was very good, very devoted, and very beloved of those who followed him. After all, his death and resurrection could still have been required for us, and if we have a God who is able to forgive us without the terrible suffering of His son, so much the better for Christ, right? Yes, this defies all sorts of scripture and modern revelation. But for me to purposefully rule out some explanations without even considering them just for the sake of orthodoxy would not serve to strengthen my belief in the long run. The questions would still lie buried under mental layers of concrete and rubble desperately spread to cover over something that threatened the truths I held dearest through some of the most trying moments in my life. I would never have to look at my questions directly, but I would know they were there, moving slowly inside their concrete prison, and they would terrify me. And so I acknowledge that yes, this thing is an option. And given my mortal ignorance I will never know for sure until after I’ve left this life.
So says part of my mind. This part is sometimes larger, sometimes so small I barely notice it. But I think it will always be there, until I die and either dissolve into oblivion, or see my Savior in the flesh, or I don’t know what. I won’t claim knowledge of something I can’t truly know.
The other part fully acknowledges that the idea of the Atonement does not make sense and possibly never will. It accepts this, and believes anyway. It accepts the beauty of a Savior who suffered everything so that he could understand us, comfort us, stand up and say, “Hey God, I know that what this lady over here did looks really terrible, but I UNDERSTAND WHERE SHE WAS COMING FROM, and she is in need of Your mercy.” This Jesus knows me; knows my mind and my need to question, and sees my need for logic and evidence not as a weakness, but as a part of the soul his Parents call Daughter; for good, for bad, for keeping Them up late at night wondering whether if it’s actually possible to learn so much that you can’t learn any more. This part of my mind believes in an Atonement strong enough to free those who can’t believe because they require more understanding than can currently be provided them. This part of my mind understands what it feels like to soar and to kneel at the same time. It stares into Eternity, filled with the suns of endless worlds, and mouths, “Hosanna.”
I am young. I do not know which mind may come to dominate, or if there will always be a battle between the two. But the part of me that believes thinks my Parents will accept me as I am, and that my best will be good enough, even though my best will inevitably fall short of perfection. Because that is what the Atonement was for, and Christ surely did a good enough job to cover a few questions on my part.
Thank you so much. You have taken theories with which theologians have struggled for years and gave them a soul. I have been wanting to write a blog-post on the different atonement theories for quite some time; you have done a much better job than I would have ever done.
I have had a thought for about two years now regarding God’s mercy and justice and the possibility of Him ceasing to be God as expressed by you and in Alma chapter 42:
It seems to me (this is contrary to popular LDS thought) that God is the locus of good, mercy, love, justice, etc. Mercy and justice don’t exist outside of him but are necessary attributes of God. By necessary, I mean God could not be God if he did not possess these necessary attributes; cats have certain attributes that make them cats and they would not be cats if they did not posses certain necessary attributes that make them a cat. The thing is, justice and mercy are two contradictory attributes. How could they both exist in the same being? If he had one but not the other, he would cease to be God according to the Book of Alma.
It is the atonement that allows for these two contradictory but necessary attributes to exist in the God we worship.
What a wonderful thing to write about (and for the rest of us to read about) especially at Easter. My sister and I were talking about some of the themes touched on in your essay — suffering, savior, atonement. At one point she said, “Mel, it was a bad plan. A bad, bad plan. This world is horrible. What was God thinking?” We each found different answers to that question via our conversation. I think, like you do, that heavenly parents are pleased-as-punch that we ponder, query and throw occasional fits along our mortal way.
Thank you for sharing. You express yourself clearly and beautifully. Happy Easter.
P.S. I love Jesus. And I believe.
This is just an initial reaction; I’d have to think on this much more to answer my own questions. But, I wonder which of these theories (if any of them) embrace the all encompassing nature of the Atonement. Because the LDS doctrine (and much of Christian doctrine in general) teaches that the Atonement isn’t just a sin buster. But that it is also meant to heal our wounds. All wounds, not just those cause by sin. It can address every heart ache and every moment of sadness. These qualities of the Atonement don’t seem to have anything to do with justice (for an example, justice doesn’t demand that my heart be healed after a miscarriage, because there was no law broken. Ah, but I did feel the affects of the Atonement when emotionally recovering from my miscarriages), although much to do with mercy. To me it seems like beyond making sense of the balance of justice and mercy, to really understand the Atonement we have to see it has something else as well. But, I’ve no idea how to define what that is, or how it would help the Atonement or Plan of Salvation make more sense.
Love your posts as always, Heidi! I’ve been thinking about the Atonement a lot myself lately, which is natural with Easter on the horizon. I haven’t come to any definite conclusions either…except perhaps the all-inclusive: Hopefully someday I’ll get to ask God “What was that all about?”
So here’s one of my thoughts. Before Christ, the law was basically, sin –> punishment. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. You murder someone, you die, etc etc. This I think was necessary in the long run for firmly establishing “good” versus “evil” in our collective racial mind.
Then it was time to move on. Christ came with the example of mercy, of kindness, of not judging others for their sins. However, he couldn’t completely erase the previously established ideas of good and evil and punishment, because that would leave the ideal world in a sort of religious anarchy; where sin was totally acceptable because everyone would love you anyway.
So he gave us sort of a bridge…WE should love people despite their mistakes, because HE took on their punishment. This keeps the idea of consequences intact, but also allows us to get over it and strive for more exalted feelings.
Not sure that makes as much sense in writing as it did in my head, but that’s the short version. 😉
I recently read the truly brilliant essay by Eugene England titled “That They Might Not Suffer: The Gift of the Atonement”. I would highly recommend reading that essay as a great use of your time, it speaks to many of the points that Heidi has raised in this blog post.
Rachael, if I had to summarize the thesis of that paper it would be something like what you are addressing: the LOVE demonstrated by the act of the Atonement allows us to get past our own weakness and to look past the shortcomings of others in order to forgive (ourselves & others) which enable us to continue to progress & improve and get closer to God.
It is 12 pages long, but I love it! The thoughts expressed in this essay taste good to me.