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.