Atonement Theories

by: Mormon Heretic

February 13, 2012

Dramatization of ancient Jewish priests with blood on their clothes preparing another sacrifice at the ancient temple in Jerusalem.

National Geographic has put together a 3-DVD set about the life of Jesus in a series called Science of the Bible.  Each DVD contains a different aspect of his life.  In a documentary called “The Arrest”, they document the ancient Jewish practices at the temple and events leading to his arrest.  The producers of the documentary strive for an incredible detail of historical accuracy.  They try to show the people were dressed at the time, exactly how the temple looked, the sacrifices that were offered.

Priest throwing "burnt offering" into fire. Notice the blood soaked wall in the foreground. Priests used to throw blood on the wall as part of the ritual.

While I know that ancient Jews offered animal sacrifices to atone for sin, actually viewing the sacrifices brought a bit of realism (and a bit of revulsion) to me.  The animal sacrifices were quite bloody, and seemed quite foreign to modern Christians.  It made me wonder about concepts of the atonement, and whether God really would require blood sacrifice.

I first wondered about the Jewish concept of Atonement.  I don’t claim to be an atonement expert, so I decided to check Wikipedia for a definition.  Simply put,

Atonement in Judaism is the process of causing a transgression to be forgiven or pardoned.

In Rabbinic Judaism, atonement is achieved through some combination of

  • repentance
  • Temple service (e.g. bringing a sacrifice, now not possible)
  • confession
  • restitution
  • the occurrence of Yom Kippur (the day itself, as distinct from the Temple service performed on it)
  • tribulations (unpleasant life experiences)
  • the carrying out of a sentence of corporal or capital punishment imposed by an ordained court (not now in existence)
  • the experience of dying.

Which of these are required varies according to several factors.

I can get behind the idea of repentance, and making amends for sin.  But did God really require the spilling of blood to atone for sin?  As we know, Jews in Jesus’ day often sacrificed animals as part of the repentance process, but I find such concepts foreign and strange.  I mean really, why does killing an animal satisfy God for a sin?  We talk about a the concept of a scapegoat, which comes from ancient Israel.  During the Day of Atonement, sins were symbolically transferred to a goat.  The goat is then sent into the desert and the community is symbolically cleansed from sin.

Such a concept of God seems very primitive to me.  In fact, many of the biblical practices of sacrifice seem quite primitive. I understand the purpose of sacrifice–as a way to show God that you will give your best, but these ancient practices seem really primitive.

Ancient peoples often sacrificed their children to their gods, as a way to appease them.

William Dever, Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology, University of Arizona, “Child sacrifice was fairly common throughout the ancient near east. And in fact at Carthage in North Africa, a Jewish cemetery has been found with small urns containing the burned bones of infants and the inscriptions accompanying these burials make it clear that parents had sacrificed a child to one or another of the gods to bring them good fortune.”

Dr. Mark Brettler, Associate Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Brandies University, “As horrific as this might be to us, we can really see this as a very significant religious notion, where a person is coming and is saying to God, ‘God you have given me that which is most valuable, namely a child. I am going to return it to you.’”

Would God require a human sacrifice, such as Christ?  The Bible claims that God told Abraham to kill his son Isaac (or Ishmael, if you’re Muslim.)  I’ve previously expressed my concern with the story of Abraham and Isaac.  I just don’t believe that God asked for Isaac’s life, and I am much more comfortable with some alternate versions of the story that I quoted in the link:

  • Rabbi Yosef Ibn Caspi (Spain, early 14th century) wrote that Abraham’s “imagination” led him astray, making him believe that he had been commanded to sacrifice his son. Ibn Caspi writes “How could God command such a revolting thing?”
  • According to Rabbi J. H. Hertz (Chief Rabbi of the British Empire), child sacrifice was actually “rife among the Semitic peoples,” and suggests that “in that age, it was astounding that Abraham’s God should have interposed to prevent the sacrifice, not that He should have asked for it.” Hertz interprets the Akedah as demonstrating to the Jews that human sacrifice is abhorrent. “Unlike the cruel heathen deities, it was the spiritual surrender alone that God required.”

As I turned to Wikipedia, there are some different view of the atonement in Christianity.   I’m trying to give brief definitions here, which is probably a bad idea, but I don’t want to go on and on.  Check out Wikipedia if you want more info on these theories.  Here are the main theories:

  1. Moral Influence
  2. Ransom
  3. Satisfaction
  4. Penal Substitution
  5. Governmental

Let’s review each of these theories briefly.

Moral Influence

In this view the core of Christianity is positive moral change, and the purpose of everything Jesus did was to lead humans toward that moral change. He is understood to have accomplished this variously through his teachings, example, founding of the Church, and the inspiring power of his martyrdom and resurrection. This view was universally taught by the Church Fathers in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.[7][8][9]

the Eastern Orthodox view, which the proponents of that view maintain was also held in the early Church, states that Christ died not to fulfill God’s requirements or to meet His needs or demands, but to cleanse humanity, restore the Image of God in humankind, and defeat the power of death over humans from within.[1]

Ransom

…the “ransom” or “Christus Victor” theory. “Christus victor” and “ransom” are slightly different from each other: in the ransom metaphor Jesus liberates mankind from slavery to Satan and thus death by giving his own life as a ransom. Victory over Satan consists of swapping the life of the perfect (Jesus), for the lives of the imperfect (mankind). The “Christus Victor” theory sees Jesus not used as a ransom but rather defeating Satan in a spiritual battle and thus freeing enslaved mankind by defeating the captor.

Essentially, this theory claimed that Adam and Eve sold humanity over to the Devil at the time of the Fall; hence, justice required that grace pay the Devil a ransom to free us from the Devil’s clutches. God, however, tricked the Devil into accepting Christ’s death as a ransom, for the Devil did not realize that Christ could not be held in the bonds of death. Once the Devil accepted Christ’s death as a ransom, this theory concluded, justice was satisfied and God was able to free us from Satan’s grip.[2]

Satisfaction

In this picture mankind owes a debt not to Satan, but to sovereign God himself. A sovereign may well be able to forgive an insult or an injury in his private capacity, but because he is a sovereign he cannot if the state has been dishonoured. Anselm argued that the insult given to God is so great that only a perfect sacrifice could satisfy and Jesus, being both God and man, was this perfect sacrifice.

Penal Substitution

The next explanation, which was a development by the Reformers[12][13][14][15] of Anselm’s satisfaction theory,[16] is the commonly held Protestant “penal substitution theory,” which, instead of considering sin as an affront to God’s honour, sees sin as the breaking of God’s moral law. Placing a particular emphasis on Romans 6:23 (the wages of sin is death), penal substitution sees sinful man as being subject to God’s wrath with the essence of Jesus’ saving work being his substitution in the sinner’s place, bearing the curse in the place of man (Galatians 3:13).[17] A variation that also falls within this metaphor is Hugo Grotius’ “governmental theory“, which sees Jesus receiving a punishment as a public example of the lengths to which God will go to uphold the moral order.

Governmental

The governmental theory teaches that Christ suffered for humanity so that Godcould forgive humans apart from punishment while still maintaining divine justice….

The satisfaction and punishment theories argue that Jesus received the full and actual punishment due to men and women while the Christus Victor view emphasizes the liberation of humanity from the bondage of sin, death, and the Devil.

By contrast, governmental theory holds that Christ’s suffering was a real and meaningful substitute for the punishment humans deserve, but it did not consist of Christ receiving the exact punishment due to sinful people. Instead, God publicly demonstrated his displeasure with sin through the suffering of his own sinless and obedient Son as a propitiation. Christ’s suffering and death served as a substitute for the punishment humans might have received. On this basis, God is able to extend forgiveness while maintaining divine order, having demonstrated the seriousness of sin and thus allowing his wrath to “pass over.” This view is very similar to the satisfaction view and the penal substitution view, in that all three views see Christ as satisfying God’s requirement for the punishment of sin. However, the government view disagrees with the other two in that it does not affirm that Christ endured the precise punishment that sin deserves or its equivalent; instead, Christ’s suffering is seen as being simply an alternative to that punishment. In contrast, penal substitution holds that Christ endured the exact punishment, or the exact “worth” of punishment, that sin deserved; the satisfaction theory states that Christ paid back at least as much honor to God as sin took from Him). It is important to note, however, that these three views all acknowledge that God cannot freely forgive sins without any sort of punishment or satisfaction being exacted.

How do the LDS fit within these concepts of atonement?  Wikipedia says the LDS

doctrine of the atonement [is] complementary to the substitutionary atonement concept.

It goes on to explain that LDS believe the Atonement began in the Garden of Gethsemane, and that “Christ’s infinite atonement was required to satisfy the demands of justice based on eternal law, rendering Him Mediator, Redeemer, and Advocate with the Father.”

Do you think Wikipedia is correct concerning LDS beliefs?

Which theory of Atonement do you support most?

  • Moral Influence (38%, 8 Votes)
  • Ransom (33%, 7 Votes)
  • Governmental (19%, 4 Votes)
  • Penal Substitution (10%, 2 Votes)
  • Satisfaction (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 21

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33 Responses to Atonement Theories

  1. Stephen M (Ethesis) on February 13, 2012 at 6:34 AM

    Not to mention, in many societies the temples held somewhat of a monopoly on the butchering of animals, or why so many sacrifices seem to require so little of the animal.

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  2. Ron Madson on February 13, 2012 at 6:41 AM

    Rene Girard’s scapegoat mechanism. We kill our gods and call it God’s will. Human inevitability not divine will. He makes a perfect offering by not resisting evil even unto death, so I voted moral influence as the closest that fits my belief. Also I believe that when a God comes to a planet and He is not rejected then His Kingdom comes. Otherwise, he comes and plants a seed/example to incubate in the hearts and minds of men until a world is prepared to receive Him/Her.

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  3. Kent (MC) on February 13, 2012 at 6:46 AM

    You need to add Blake Ostler’s Compassion Theory of Atonement to the list for those of us who find Penal Substitution theory unacceptable.

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  4. Jeff Spector on February 13, 2012 at 6:53 AM

    A few things come to minds here. I like the discussion, first of all.

    If we go with the idea that the animal sacrifice taught in the Old Testament was in fact, a “schoolmaster” to teach the Jews about the coming of the Messiah, it was a hard lesson to have to learn. The entire idea was that the people were giving up something valuable to them (their animals, their food, etc) in order to make amends with God for sin and transgression.

    The animal was a substitute for them. As Christ is a substitute for our own suffering for our sins.

    The other point, is that Rabbinic Judaism was a system put in place after the Babylonian conquest and does not necessarily reflect the true teachings that existed prior to the captivity. The Rabbi’s had differing opinions on various practices and laws and that was reflected in the various sects that arose, all practicing and believing slightly different.

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  5. Howard on February 13, 2012 at 8:28 AM

    Why does killing an animal satisfy God for a sin? It satisfied God only because it satisfied primitive humankind. It does so in a very primitive way precisely because it is is bloody and involves a level of suffering which is witnessed by many. All but the sickest among them can relate to it so it descends to the level of common denominator. I suppose it’s possible to sin against God but this isn’t common, typically we sin against each other so atonement is mostly about balancing the books between people. A bloody sacrifice is psychological and emotional sleight of hand, like a train wreck it gets everyone’s attention and it is very cathartic. Scapegoats, confession, repentance and psychotherapy are progressively more enlightened ways of atoning for sin, in other words making up, providing restitution and eliminating dissonance and we find them used in place of blood sacrifice as man evolves toward enlightenment.

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  6. Bob on February 13, 2012 at 8:57 AM

    If the Post is about “Atonement Theories”, Why is Mormonism left out?
    Does not Mormonism connect the sacrifice of “blood” of animals or persons with atonement?
    Does not Mormonism contain the idea of Christ being the “Lamb of God” sacrificing his blood on the day of the Passover?
    Did not JS believe that animal sacrifices were to be done in his day?

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  7. ji on February 13, 2012 at 9:27 AM

    Wikipedia writes, “Christ’s infinite atonement was required to satisfy the demands of justice based on eternal law”. This presumes that there is an eternal law which is greater than God, and that God is subject to that law. Some among us believe this; I do not. I am satisfied for the time being to see God as supreme over all else, and I do not need to reduce God to my human understanding.

    This presumption among the Latter-day Saints arose or became prominent in the early 1900’s, I think. It is not a necessary part of the restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It might or might not be true.

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  8. Mormon Heretic on February 13, 2012 at 10:26 AM

    #1 @ Steve–yes you’re right. The documentary went into much more detail than I did here. I thought the explanations for why Jesus was upset at the temple to be very enlightening, but I have to say I was mostly grossed out by the animal sacrifice, which is why I wanted to discuss that here.

    Ron, are you saying that scapegoat should be added as another theory? Isn’t that just a form of penal substitution?

    @Kent, can you expound more on the Ostler Theory. I agree that I just don’t like Penal Substitution as a theory.

    @Jeff, yes I’m familiar with the “Schoolmaster” idea, but I have to say I don’t like it. It seems quite primitive to me, and seems to mischaractize God’s (lack of) compassion. You’re right about Rabbinic Judaism being different than the Judaism prior to Christ. If I remember correctly, it seems to me that Pharisaic Judiasm became rabbinic Judaism. Is that your understanding as well?

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  9. Mormon Heretic on February 13, 2012 at 10:38 AM

    @Howard, I agree completely.

    @ Bob, Why is Mormonism left out?. Uh Bob, I didn’t leave it out. Perhaps you forgot to read the end of the post. Let me quote it for you.

    How do the LDS fit within these concepts of atonement? Wikipedia says the LDS

    doctrine of the atonement [is] complementary to the substitutionary atonement concept.

    It goes on to explain that LDS believe the Atonement began in the Garden of Gethsemane, and that “Christ’s infinite atonement was required to satisfy the demands of justice based on eternal law, rendering Him Mediator, Redeemer, and Advocate with the Father.”

    Do you think Wikipedia is correct concerning LDS beliefs?

    Perhaps you could answer the question?

    @ji,

    I’m not clear if you think that Wikipedia has LDS beliefs wrong, or if you think that there are different views of the atonement among LDS (and therefore the question isn’t settled among LDS).

    I believe that Joseph and Brigham said that God obeys certain laws that even he can’t break. What does this apply to? Probably gravity, electricity, and other things. Now does is there an eternal law of justice? I think I am with you here (but I’m not sure.) I don’t think that God requires blood sacrifice to atone for certain things. I’m much more comfortable with a M0ral Influence Atonement that a Penal Substitution atonement as Wikipedia proposes, though I believe that most GC talks seem to be proponents of a substitution atonement.

    In one of the Wikipedia articles, it referred to God requiring the death of Jesus as “cosmic child abuse.” I just don’t like or agree with penal substitution, or any of the other theories requiring the death of Jesus.

    I have been told that Catholics (and by Extension Protestants) hold the suffering Jesus in high regard. On the other hand, Eastern Orthodox Christians hold an image of a resurrected, triumphant Jesus. I’ve always found the suffering Jesus as repulsive, and I find a lot of agreement with a triumphant Jesus. There are some things about Orthodox Christianity that I really like, and their view of atonement seems much more palatable to me.

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  10. Kent (MC) on February 13, 2012 at 11:03 AM

    Mormon Heretic,

    I’ll include a link to Blake’s Compassion Theory of Atonement at the bottom, but I’m going to rather provide a narrative of what I speculate happens with atonement. Terry Warner once told me that philosophical problems don’t get resolved, they rather dissolve. I posit that the need for justice resides in the heart of the one hurt/offended, not with God or others. Once that pain is removed from my heart, my requirement for justice disappears and I am able to love again and forgiveness is accepted. On to the narrative.

    As a human, Christ chooses to experience the lives of those around him as he walks with them. Receiving more grace from the Father, he eventually knows the thoughts and intents of the hearts of the people, feeling their feelings literally. His power becomes greater and greater as he opens himself to God’s knowledge of existence. He weeps with those who weep and becomes a man of sorrows while seeking to mitigate that pain of this life wherever he can by healing others.

    Now, fast forward to Gethsemane. Christ has grown to the point where he is experiencing a fullness of Godhood, which means omniscience is coming upon him and he becomes fully aware of the lives of the apostles sleeping in the garden. He knows them perfectly and intimately. He feels the pain that others have caused them. He knows the burdens in their hearts and the debts of justice they carry for those they have hurt. He feels the pain of those they have hurt. He bleeds from every pore because he is experiencing the cumulative pain of all of those individuals.

    Christ decides to stay “present” with that pain, then he expands his omniscience to include more and more individuals until he is present with all of creation, experiencing all of the joy, hopes, dreams, desires, and pain of everyone (but mainly existence is pain, just ask the Buddha). This is the way that the atonement is infinite. The burden of sin, pain, and existence in this fallen world is fully upon him and only his power as having received a fullness allows his body to not pass out under the weight of it all. Christ carries that burden with him and presents himself to us and asks us if our demands of justice which we hold against others for hurting us are not satisfied by him suffering our pain too. Ashamed, we look upon him bloodied and in excruciating pain and relinquish any additional demands from our hearts and allow healing to come into our lives as he takes those pains from us and absorbs them. We repent and forgive. He expiates, purges, scrubs clean, and undoes all the painful effects of sin, my own and others’. Christ is betrayed, whipped, and put on a cross. These acts cause those of us who have no idea what he is suffering internally to pay attention to his pain and listen to the message that it is his love for us that he chooses to suffer (I believe the Passion is mainly the SIGN of the atonement, but not the atonement itself). Christ remains fully present (omniscient) while on the cross, experiences alienation from the Father (since it is also part of our experience through sinning) and then because the human body cannot survive such torment internally and externally, he dies. He dies, but he does not cease to stay present with us; he remains fully divine and aware of our lives. He is resurrected and by showing his power to reverse the regular course of life he demonstrates that he can also “undo” all the acts that we deem negative in this life. His life, death, and resurrection reveal that all that we experience in this life can be for our good because he has power to mitigate and return beauty for ashes. All the bridges we feared were burned are rebuilt.

    The atonement is Christ’s way of BEING with us. He is at one with us always, whether we acknowledge it or not. It wasn’t just in Gethsemane and on the Cross that he was at one with our lives, he is still choosing to be with us in that way. His death is an invitation for us to look deeper into his desire to be at one with us as John 17 so well describes. His death is the culmination of being at one in the flesh with us, but by itself, his death has no power to save. If Christ were merely executed without being fully present with us, it would be the same as executing the brother of the murderer (Alma 34) to make up for the crime of the murderer. We all need restitution to be paid to others for our sins, not just punishment for the sinner (or Christ in this case).

    For more on Ostler’s Theory, see http://www.newcoolthang.com/index.php/2006/04/ostlers-atonement-theory/232/

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  11. Justin on February 13, 2012 at 11:17 AM

    Besides the mention of Ostler in the comments — I found no theory close to the compassionate empathy model — so I didn’t vote in the poll.

    Is that because most LDS favor a view that God needs to be “satisfied” in one way or another to love us?

    Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven

    This is the principle on which the atonement of Jesus Christ forgives sin.

    Sin is not forgiven and punishment withheld because God effectively beat it out of Jesus. Justice is not satisfied by the punishment of an innocent.

    The gospel teaches us that Christ can satisfy the demands of justice on the behalf of those who repent and believe in Him.

    In other words, Jesus satisfies those seeking justice [the judging/condemning] thereby putting an end to their demands. He can remove all accusers as demonstrated in John 8:10-11.

    The visual imagery of Jesus being:

    filled with compassion towards the children of men; standing betwixt them and justice;

    is that for a person to obtain or “get to” justice — they would first have to go through Jesus.

    And He is there to present His atonement as evidence in your behalf so that justice will pause from making its demands long enough for Christ to make his own demands of mercy.

    Where there is no condemnation [meaning we do not accuse or judge], there can be no punishment.

    But I looked at the results — and the poll [as of now] shows favor for “moral influence” — which I guess means that readers here prefer something that is “person-focused”, i.e. that Christ’s atonement motivates people to be their best, etc.

    The only issue I have with that is that no one is ever saved by “being good” anyway.

    A person is saved through Jesus Christ — nothing more, nothing less — relying solely on the merits of Christ, and not on some motivating power to have good merits of our own.

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  12. Cowboy on February 13, 2012 at 11:52 AM

    Whether this sums things up entirely or not, I would argue that the Temple Endowment advances the idea that at least part of what is happening is a literal ransoming from the devil.

    The Ostler theory while interesting in concept, ultimately comes across as an empty rationalization of things.

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  13. Justin on February 13, 2012 at 12:00 PM

    Would God require a human sacrifice, such as Christ?

    No.

    According to the preaching of Amulek:

    There is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of another.

    He says that a law, which is just, will not take life of the brother of any offender — which sounds like what penal substitutions describe [i.e. that the law is satisfied by the punishment of an innocent].

    Instead, Amulek says that the intent of the great and last sacrifice of Jesus Christ is to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance.

    And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety,

    while he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice…

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  14. Mormon Heretic on February 13, 2012 at 4:27 PM

    Kent, I really liked your explanation of Blake’s theory. I think it is similar to the Moral Influence. Personally, I can find a lot of agreement with it. I’ve recently started to do some meditation, and I’ve heard that some claim that Jesus may have learned a bit of Buddhism. I’m sure some would find that problematic, but I “seek after all things which are praiseworthy.”

    Justin, I must say that I find Kent’s description of “Compassion Theory of Atonement” easier to understand than the link you provided to your “compassionate empathy model.” I haven’t read Blake’s book, and I don[t know if you have either, but I’d be interested to see if you might be able to highlight similarities and/or differences between the 2 similar sounding theories.

    Cowboy, why do you think Ostler’s theory is “an empty rationalization of things”?

    Justin, I am always interested to see scriptural justification for things. I note that there is scriptural support for all 5 of the atonement theories I listed, so I think that scriptures aren’t completely helpful in answering this.

    I think that justice is a powerful sense among mankind. When we are wronged, we want justice. I think that is why the “Law of Justice” is seen as an eternal law, but I question whether this is an eternal law or a man-made law. I think it is not eternal.

    However, this “Law of Justice” is ancient. As you mentioned, even Amulek talks of “overpowering justice”, and certainly dates to Law of Moses. An eye for an eye does seem to exact a measure of vengenace, if not a bit of fairness, despite the fact (as Ghandi said) it makes the whole world blind.

    Jesus talked about forgiving rather than exacting fairness (or justice) through and eye for an eye. However, forgiveness just doesn’t seem just. When questioned, he said we were supposed to forgive not just 7 times, but 490 times (which means always.) He didn’t seem concerned about being wronged “unjustly” by the Romans (forgive them for they know not what they do.) I just don’t think justice is as important as we have been told, nor do I think it is eternal. I’d be curious to hear someone defend the proposition that Law of Justice is eternal, rather than a man-made law.

    I also note that Ransom now leads Moral Influence. Could some of you who have voted that way expound on why you think ransom is the best explanation for the atonement?

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  15. Kent (MC) on February 13, 2012 at 4:38 PM

    Cowboy, I’m interested in hearing your argument.

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  16. Heber13 on February 13, 2012 at 4:45 PM

    Hmm…which theory would best fit for the “Bicycle” parable I so often hear about at church (and read in Robinson’s “Believing Christ” book)? I interpret that as teaching us the need for an Atonement is not about punishment and needing to spill blood, but that no matter how hard we try, the Plan includes mortality to be like the “Kobayashi Maru” test (from Star Trek) that was designed to try us, but we can’t win it.

    That does not mean we fail, it means we prove ourselves, and then rely on Christ as our mediator. We give him all we have, then he makes up the difference in order for us to gain a reward.

    Otherwise, we just don’t have enough on our own.

    Adam was told his sacrifice was a symbol to teach about the Messiah, so they could look forward in faith.

    To me, the “bicycle” parable most closely resembles Governmental theory presented above, except not focusing as much on the need for punishment, but on the need for more capacity to do good, or more commerce to get into heaven. Am I reading that right?
    (see:
    http://speeches.byu.edu/reader/reader.php?id=7054)

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  17. Justin on February 13, 2012 at 8:02 PM

    MH: I haven’t read Blake or Ostler — so I’ll go off of Kent’s description [#10]

    I agree that:

    the need for justice resides in the heart of the one hurt/offended, not with God or others. Once that pain is removed from my heart, my requirement for justice disappears and I am able to love again and forgiveness is accepted.

    As I described it in #11:

    Sin is not forgiven and punishment withheld because God effectively beat it out of Jesus. Justice is not satisfied by the punishment of an innocent. The gospel teaches us that Christ can satisfy the demands of justice on the behalf of those who repent and believe in Him. In other words, Jesus satisfies those seeking justice [the judging/condemning] thereby putting an end to their demands. He can remove all accusers as demonstrated in John 8:10–11.

    The visual imagery of Jesus being: “filled with compassion towards the children of men; standing betwixt them and justice;” is that for a person to obtain or “get to” justice — they would first have to go through Jesus.

    I would say that the pain and suffering associated with the atonement [to quote the post I linked to] was so great so as to be sufficient to fill all things in the created universe with compassion towards Jesus when he reveals the extent of his suffering and pleads for a repentant soul before the judgement seat.

    What effectively happens is that justice stops making demands when the atonement is presented. The accusers who were making demands of justice are suddenly [upon seeing the suffering of Christ] presented with an intense scene of suffering that overcomes them with compassion towards Jesus — and in this state of compassion and mercy, when Jesus requests that the sinner be spared, they consent to his pleas for mercy.

    Because of Jesus — justice stops making demands long enough for Jesus to make his own demands of mercy.

    Kent wrote:

    Christ carries that burden with him and presents himself to us and asks us if our demands of justice which we hold against others for hurting us are not satisfied by him suffering our pain too. Ashamed, we look upon him bloodied and in excruciating pain and relinquish any additional demands from our hearts and allow healing to come into our lives as he takes those pains from us and absorbs them.

    Which I would say I could agree with — as I wrote in #11:

    Judge not
    and ye shall not be judged
    condemn not
    and ye shall not be condemned
    forgive
    and ye shall be forgiven

    This is the principle on which the atonement of Jesus Christ forgives sin.

    The atonement of Jesus Christ is a way in which accusers stop making accusations.

    It is a way for people to forgive one another their trespasses — and have their demands for justice satisfied.

    Everyone has the right to press charges, but everyone also has the right to drop all charges. When we are in an offended state, what we want most is justice and we demand it emphatically.

    But there are other states of human feelings, including the state of compassion. The atonement gets the mind of an offended party into that mental state of compassion where the offended no longer makes a demand fir justice — but drops all charges for the sake of Jesus, allowing forgiveness to manifest itself.

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  18. Kent (MC) on February 13, 2012 at 8:18 PM

    Justin, thank you for that. “Woman, where are thine accusers,” now is a new story of atonement for me.

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  19. mh on February 13, 2012 at 8:23 PM

    sorry for the confusion. blake ostler is the individual in my previous comment. from what I gather, there seem to be a lot of similarities between justin and blake’s theory.

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  20. Andrew S on February 13, 2012 at 8:36 PM

    I’m just going to do a drive-by sniper comment, so here goes nothing:

    I haven’t been keeping up with this post, I will gladly admit. In fact, I don’t think I’ve even read the original post. (Sorry MH). I just don’t get the atonement. It doesn’t inspire me, excite me, make me feel much of anything at all. So talking about different *theories* of atonement don’t really do much at all.

    Anyway, I just caught a whiff of this discussion from seeing Justin’s comments.

    And I will say, I’m really digging what Justin and Kent have been saying.

    anyway carry on

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  21. prometheus on February 13, 2012 at 9:28 PM

    I think that Ostler’s theory makes the most sense, personally. Christ enters into our suffering, suffers because he maintains a relationship with us, and changes our hearts, if we will let him so as to bring us into unity with God, thus ending our separation and redeeming us from death.

    As far as justice goes, justice is only meaningful in terms of someone claiming it. Who can claim justice? We all have a claim to justice for the harms others have done to us. Mercy overcomes justice when we forgive others, allowing a full reconciliation, again leading to unity with God and each other.

    Joseph Smith said, “If you do not accuse each other, God will not accuse you. If you have no accuser you will enter heaven. . . . What many people call sin is not sin; I do many things to break down superstition, and I will break it down.” — History of the Church, 4:445-446

    That sums it up for me, really.

    The two great commandments are to love God, and to love each other. Nothing to do with dress, food, customs, or anything else.
    Sin is really just an absence of love, which causes harm and leads to separation, which separation is death. Thus, the wages of sin are death and all the law is contained in love.

    This law of love exists to bring unity, as the eternal life God wishes for us is to be one with Him, even as Christ is one with Him. We become one by repenting and forgiving each other, and through the Resurrection, our relationships, our unity will be permanent.

    The way I see it, the Atonement can’t be separated from the Resurrection – for our relationships to be permanent, we must be immortal, and we must love/forgive everyone so as to become of one heart and one mind.

    If I seem obsessed with the concept of unity, forgive me – I have come to believe that it is a key principle in the point of life, the universe and everything. Zion is unity, the intercessory prayer is unity, the law of love is unity, forgiveness is unity. Christ came to bring us home, to be the bridge between heaven and earth, to provide a means whereby we might return to the presence of God, nevermore to go out – unity.

    I love the post, and the discussion. Super stuff here.

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  22. prometheus on February 13, 2012 at 9:38 PM

    I will add too, if I may, that the whole purpose of sealing in the temple is to bring us together, in one unbroken circle, back into the presence of God.

    And I really like what you wrote, Justin (17), but I would go one step further and posit that the hope is not that for Jesus’s sake only that we would forgive, but in the hopes of bringing a brother and sister back home. That we would look upon their suffering and feel their brokenness, and embrace it as our own – and casting away our own hurt to heal theirs. If we are to become like Christ, then I believe that that includes entering into the suffering of our family, and mourning with them and comforting them, and opening the doors of heaven to welcome them home.

    There is so much more to the parable of the prodigal son and the parable of the 12 workers than I think we really understand.

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  23. Mark D. on February 13, 2012 at 11:20 PM

    There are two key issues for any theory of the atonement. One is “does it make sense relative to a reasonable understanding of divine power?” The other is “how is it related to its actual effects?”

    Most theories of a _suffering_ atonement, or any causal effect deriving therefrom, fail completely in the sense of either being entirely gratuitous in the context of a belief in absolute divine omnipotence or in the context of any reasonable understanding of divine power, at all.

    If God has absolute power, i.e. any objective can be accomplished in an infinitesmal time with no constraints whatsoever, then nearly all these theories except perhaps moral influence are more or less incoherent, because they put God in the position of either being sadistic, masochistic, arbitrary, or subordinate to the devil.

    So the first question that has to be asked is “why must God _suffer_ in order to accomplish anything at all?” The next question is, assuming that suffering per se has no intrinsic value, “what divine activity necessarily results in divine suffering?”

    Of all of these I thing Ostler’s compassion theory is the most coherent, but there are lots of other things that could be done on the same or related lines. Restitution substitution, for example, e.g. divine suffering incident to the provision of spiritual and temporal blessings to those injured by the actions of others.

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  24. Jan on February 14, 2012 at 12:21 AM

    In his talk, . The Miracle of the Atonement (2011 Annual General Conference, Ensign) Elder C. Scott Grow said that “the Messiah came to redeem men from the Fall of Adam.”

    As a reference for his statement, he cited 2 Nephi 9:25-26: “Wherefore, he [Christ] has given a law; and where there is no law given there is no punishment; and where there is no punishment there is no condemnation; and where there is no condemnation the mercies of the Holy One of Israel have claim upon them, because of the atonement; for they are delivered by the power of him. For the atonement satisfieth the demands of his justice upon all those who have not the law given to them, that they are delivered from that awful monster, death and hell, and the devil, and the lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment; and they are restored to that God who gave them breath, which is the Holy One of Israel.”

    Nephi 9:1O states, “O how great the goodness of our God, who prepareth a way for our escape from the grasp of this awful monster; yea, that monster, death and hell, which I call the death of the body, and also the death of the spirit.”

    I had assumed that justice was an eternal law until I carefully read this chapter, it appear that the atonement satisfied the demands of his [Christ's] justice and that he [Christ] gave the law.

    Also, the chapter indicates that without the atonement, Adam and Eve would have succumbed to both death and hell, which are defined as the death of the body and of the spirit.

    This chapter seems to contradict some of current LDS theology regarding the definition of hell, the Savior’s role in the atonement, and the doctrine of the Fall. It identifies Jehovah as the “giver” of the law and then describes him as One who delivers Adam and Eve from death and hell. The theology in this chapter seems to fall into the category of the Protestant “penal substitution theory,” which, “instead of considering sin as an affront to God’s honour, sees sin as the breaking of God’s moral law.”

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  25. Bob on February 14, 2012 at 1:43 AM

    For me, I find a lot of my problems in understanding modern Mormon ideas of Atonement, are just that__they are modern ideas. They are not the way the Bible, BoM, or JS defined the atonement.
    I feel it’s OK to have these modern ideas, they seem to work well with modern Mormons, until Mormons try to match them up with the older thinking.
    The older thinking was the Atonement only was only a paying of a debt. God’s Blood for Adam’s sin. It only brought back Mankind to zero. The atonement was made, the debt paid, and ended with the blood death of Christ.
    Today, modern Mormons add a lot to this.

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  26. Justin on February 14, 2012 at 6:13 AM

    I don’t much understand the concept of “Justice” as some Inexorable, Eternal Law — as though the eternal law is some text written in heaven, like we have laws written here on earth.

    Because either God wrote the book, and then Mark D #23 has a good point:

    If God has absolute power, i.e. any objective can be accomplished in an infinitesmal time with no constraints whatsoever, then nearly all these theories except perhaps moral influence are more or less incoherent…

    Or else God just inherited this eternally existing book of Law and is bound to it, and ji #7 writes:

    This presumes that there is an eternal law which is greater than God, and that God is subject to that law. Some among us believe this; I do not.

    D&C 88:7-13 describes the law as an enlivening principle. It’s a living thing. Living things are capable of compassion and mercy and this is why the atonement of Christ works, despite the fact that one man cannot justifiably pay the penalty of another.

    prometheus #22:

    but I would go one step further and posit that the hope is not that for Jesus’s sake only that we would forgive, but in the hopes of bringing a brother and sister back home.

    Certainly — I like the way that’s worded. That concept of “justice” is our concept of justice. When we feel wronged, even by family, there is an almost insatiable desire for retribution that starts burning in the mind of the offended party.

    So I don’t disagree with you that there is present a desire to reconcile with all our human brothers and sisters — I’d just say that it’s the atonement that gets the mind of an offended party into the kind of mental state that can get over offenses committed by family, and into the kind of mental state that is filled with compassion.

    The suffering of Christ was immense — not because that’s what God needs to be pleased or what Satan needs to be payed — but b/c that’s what we need [when we're feeling offended] to get our minds out of that state and into a state of compassion.

    When the tremendous suffering of Christ is manifested, all things in the creation universe will have their bowels filled with compassion and they change their minds. The magnitude of suffering of the Christ had to be such that not a single living thing in the universe would not be moved to compassion and change its mind concerning the inflicted penalty.

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  27. Justin on February 14, 2012 at 6:15 AM

    That last paragraph should read:

    , all things in the created universe…

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  28. LDS Anarchist on February 17, 2012 at 12:13 AM

    It looks like I’m late to this discussion, but it doesn’t really matter. I’ll just say, “Ditto,” to what Justin said.

    If anyone wants to take a stab at this, I’ll throw this out. Perhaps it’ll generate more discussion about the atonement.

    In the Book of Enos is written:

    behold
    i went to hunt beasts in the forests
    and the words
    which i had often heard my father speak
    concerning eternal life
    and the joy of the saints
    sunk deep into my heart
    and my soul hungered
    and i kneeled down before my maker
    and i cried unto him
    in mighty prayer and supplication
    for mine own soul
    and all the day long did i cry unto him
    yea
    and when the night came
    i did still raise my voice high
    that it reached the heavens
    and there came a voice unto me
    saying

    enos
    thy sins are forgiven thee
    and thou shalt be blessed

    and i enos knew
    that god could not lie
    wherefore
    my guilt was swept away
    and i said

    lord
    how is it done

    and he said unto me

    because of thy faith in christ
    whom thou hast never before heard
    nor seen
    and many years pass away
    before he shall manifest himself in the flesh
    wherefore
    go to
    thy faith hath made thee whole

    Now, notice that when Enos asks how is it done that he his sins are forgiven, he is told by the Lord that it is because of his faith in Christ, not because of the atonement of Christ. Specifically, he is told that it was his faith (not the atonement) that made him whole.

    Everybody above approached the atonement, how it works, etc., without mentioning faith (other than Justin, who mentioned it twice and Heber13, who mentioned it once), but does anyone have any ideas as to what this scripture in Enos means, and how it relates to the atonement? Is this scripture literal? Are we forgiven by our faith alone? Or, are we forgiven by the atonement alone? Or, are both faith and the atonement necessary to obtain forgiveness? What is the relationship of the atonement to faith, and vice versa? How would the various atonement theories answer these questons?

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  29. Kent (MC) on February 17, 2012 at 8:03 AM

    Anarchist, bear with me as I address faith at the end:

    Christ can’t just DIE to atone for us, that just isn’t sufficient nor is it just. What he can and must do is heal the debt to the relationship that I have damaged through my sins. How does he actually atone for the effects of sin if his death alone can’t satisfy the demands of justice? Well, justice is personal, not impersonal. Who holds the debt to be paid? Not God, or some impersonal “Justice”; rather the person whom I have offended and hurt. It is MY sense of justice that must be satisfied as well as the sense of justice from everyone else (including God). Christ actually has to “undo” the offense in a sense.

    True story: In 4th grade I lied to the teacher about a girl named Carrie. I said that she threw a snowball at another boy (which resulted in his crying from pain). The teacher was upset and knowing that I had been trustworthy in the past, and how unpopular Carrie was, the teacher hauled Carrie inside for detention while Carrie cried and protested her innocence. Now, I stand condemned by my own sense of justice, not by God, but by myself (which is why without understanding (ie. little children) there is no sin). I knew she was innocent and I bore false witness. Carrie was my victim. What I need from Christ is not to impute righteousness and pass a “not guilty” sentence on me because he has forgiven me. What good does that do Carrie? What I need is for him to undo the pain I caused Carrie. Only when she is healed and she is reconciled to me can I release the demands of justice from my own heart. I cannot be in Abraham’s bosom and look down at Carrie in hell and in pain and feel good about God’s justice (which in that case would just be a legal fiction). I need restitution to be paid to Carrie, but I don’t have the means to undo the pain I caused her. Only Christ has the power to take away her pain and bring us together into a loving and trusting relationship again.

    Faith in Christ means faith in his ability to heal everyone. It is not necessary for him to have already healed the individual I have wronged for my pain to leave me, the fact that he will heal the individual sooner or later (or after death) is sufficient. I am not asserting that we have to comprehend the atonement intellectually to be able to feel free of the pain of sin, the knowledge that things will be okay is a knowledge similar to one’s knowledge/feeling of the truthfulness of the gospel or the restoration. My belief is that Jesus can heal all, will heal all, and will save all because all will eventually repent and receive the resurrection and enjoy a degree of glory. That is what faith in Christ means to me, that everyone’s demands for justice will be dissolved and loving relationships can be restored.

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  30. LDS Anarchist on February 17, 2012 at 2:27 PM

    Kent, you wrote, “My belief is that Jesus can heal all, will heal all, and will save all because all will eventually repent and receive the resurrection and enjoy a degree of glory.”

    Are you excluding or including the sons of perdition in your “all”? If you are saying that even the sons of perdition will be saved, that sounds like what Nehor was preaching:

    and he also testified unto the people
    that all mankind should be saved at the last day
    and that they need not fear
    nor tremble
    but that they might lift up their heads
    and rejoice
    for the lord had created all men
    and had also redeemed all men
    and in the end
    all men should have eternal life

    Re: faith, it sounds, then, like you are saying that both faith and the atonement are necessary parts to salvation. So, if I understand you correctly, the atonement takes care of the offended party’s complaint and pain, while our own faith in Christ takes care of our own sin and pain? Is that right?

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  31. Kent (MC) on February 17, 2012 at 9:31 PM

    I’ve been called Korihor in the past, but never Nehor. :-) I am not a true Universalist. If you look closely I stated that all will be saved because I believe all will repent and receive a degree of glory. Nehor was claiming that the natural man didn’t have to die and that God would save all men without repentance. Obviously if one doesn’t repent (by truly reconciling with all the others in heaven), one refuses to receive a kingdom. I don’t mention the sons of perdition because I don’t see them as a very likely scenario for those I communicate with.

    When I speak of atonement, I am not talking about an “event”, I am talking about how Christ continues to live my life with me by experiencing ALL of it and being ONE with me. Atonement is Christ’s willingness to feel pain because I am in pain, to know the path that I walk. Atonement means pain is seen as a valuable thing in itself because it creates intimacy when freely chosen. Atonement means I have a new story to tell wherein I am no longer a victim, rather a beneficiary of the greatest blessings that could be offered because the damage done to me is not permanent and can serve me.

    Faith in Christ means that I release my demands for justice and my demands for a different present, and just accept the gift of love that is always present. Faith is my belief that what Christ is offering me in a relationship is actually sufficient for my soul’s needs. Faith is a type of acceptance for the present inadequacies because his love makes life adequate.

    I am faithful to Christ because his love is the most compelling thing to me and the fact that he finds me valuable enough to share my life with me means I would like to try to share his life too. It is the mattering to someone else, namely Jesus, that gives all my past experiences value because he found them valuable enough to share them with me and he shows me how those painful experiences can soothe the pains of others.

    Beyond those statements, I can’t really address your question except to state that sooner or later the veil drops from everyone’s eyes and they realize that Christ has been experiencing their lives with them and what their actions to others felt like to them. Repentance means feeling the pain that you caused others and then letting Christ heal you because you have faith that he will do what is best for you and those who you have hurt and who have hurt you. His love is that compelling based on the life he chooses to live even today.

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  32. Kent (MC) on February 17, 2012 at 10:05 PM

    I just read this comment by Joe at Times and Seasons that so perfectly explains what I was fumbling to say:

    “I want also to say that love and faith can’t be disentangled, but not because faith in or fidelity to someone is equivalent to or another element of love for someone. Love, it seems to me, unfolds when two are jointly faithful to something that exceeds them. This, in the end, is what I find compelling about Adam’s original post: Theology, which is a working out of faith, is something we do together in love. The beauty of the specifically Mormon conception of God is, in my view, that God and I get to work together on building a kingdom—that we are together faithful to something that calls us both to work.”

    see comment 33
    http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2012/02/exploring-mormon-thought-second-principle/

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  33. prometheus on February 19, 2012 at 2:34 PM

    That was beautifully put Kent, thank you.

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