The atonement is to Christianity what enlightenment is to Buddhism: the foundational concept. How do you feel about the atonement? I admit to some mixed feelings on the concept of atonement.
I said mixed feelings. Let me start with what I like:
- I like the idea of Jesus as a lawyer for humanity. Having a defense attorney, someone totally in your court who will fight for your cause is enormously appealing to me.
- I like the symbolism of the atonement: olive press (Gethsemane), the name “at one” ment, the mingling of the divine and the human.
- I like the idea of Bodhisattva, a voluntary sacrifice for others. But I like it more as one who might sacrifice than as one who would be the recipient of the sacrifice. Similarly, I’m somewhat uncomfortable receiving gifts. Although I’m not that comfortable giving them either. So there you go.
What I have generally not loved about the concept of “atonement”:
- that it creates a religion of losers, appealing to the down-and-outers. Dennis Miller once observed that the prison inmates always seem to find Jesus when no one else down here will talk to them anymore.
- that it is a contrasting idea to theosis (the seeds of divinity within man), a concept which I find inherently more appealing. I’d rather focus on strengths & potential than weakness and shortcomings. I’m just a cock-eyed optimist! I do find sadness somewhat off-putting.
- the idea of justice and mercy that is represented feels man-made and not like something that God would be bound to follow. I don’t like the legalistic metaphors often used to explain the atonement.
Here are a few of the ways the atonement has been viewed over the centuries, each with a unique insight:
- Ransom Theory. In this metaphor from the 4th century, 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). A variation of this view is known as the “Christus Victor” theory, in which Jesus defeats Satan in a spiritual battle and frees the enslaved humans from their captor. (like an action movie with hostages being rescued). This one sounds kind of cool in a Die Hard sort of way, but it also doesn’t ring quite true for me. A variation of this I heard on my mission was someone buying a cage full of dirty, diseased birds with lousy attitudes. Not my favorite perspective on humanity.
- Penal Substitution. Another metaphor, from the 11th century, is that man is in debt to a sovereign God who has the power to forgive debt, but also has to uphold the laws. In this metaphor, only a perfect sacrifice could satisfy the demands of the transgressed laws, and Jesus, being both God and man, was this perfect sacrifice. A slight variation of this is the Protestant “penal substitution theory,” which sees sin as the breaking of God’s moral law, and Jesus takes the punishment in the sinner’s stead. This is probably the most common metaphor used for the atonement, but it is very legalistic and leaves me cold. I think we let the metaphor become the thing it symbolizes in this one. I suspect the atonement is not entirely encompassed by this view.
- Moral Influence. A third metaphor from the 11th century, and speaks to the power of the image of a suffering Christ who sacrifices himself out of love for man, and mankind, moved by the extent of God’s love is transformed and healed by the power of the Holy Spirit. I appreciated this one because I think we LDS tend to look at the crucifixion images in Catholic churches as ghoulish and morbid, but this metaphor explains their appeal to millions of worshippers in a whole new light for me.
- Theosis Metaphor. Eastern Orthodoxy views the atonement as not a legal release, but a transformation of the human nature itself in the Son taking on human nature. The Orthodox emphasis is that Christ died to change people so that they may become more like God. This is one I find very appealing, although it’s not one I ever recall hearing at church. It lines up nicely with our idea that we are sons & heirs of God, with the seeds of godhood within us.
As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we expand on these metaphors by recognizing and emphasizing some additional components to the atonement:
- Christ’s suffering in Gethsemane. Modern day revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants adds emphasis to the role of Gethsemane in the atonement process: “…how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not…. Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit…” I like the focus in LDS theology on the sacrifice being deliberate on Jesus’ part, that he chose to do this of his own free will despite how hard it was. I like the emphasis on free choice, not so much on the difficulty which feels like a major guilt trip (I suppose because it IS).
- The name Gethsemane literally means oil press. In Gethsemane, Jesus as the Son of God is pressed as the olives were. Oil was and is used for all sorts of purposes: to perform priesthood ordinances, to anoint the body, and to heal the sick and restore them to health. Metaphorically, Jesus is the ultimate healing and anointing oil.
- In a talk on the Symbols of the Atonement in 1991, E. Russell Nelson said: “Olive trees are special in the Holy Land. The olive branch is universally regarded as a symbol of peace. This tree provides food, light, heat, lumber, ointments, and medicine. It is now, as it was then, crucial to life in Israel. It is not a deciduous tree, but ever bearing—always green. Even if the tree is chopped down, life will spring from its roots, suggesting everlasting life. Jesus came to the base of the Mount of Olives to affect the first component of the Atonement. This He did at the Garden of Gethsemane. The word Gethsemane comes from two Hebrew roots: gath, meaning “press,” and shemen, meaning “oil,” especially that of the olive. There olives had been pressed under the weight of great stone wheels to squeeze precious oil from them. So the Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane was literally pressed under the weight of the sins of the world. He sweat great drops of blood—his life’s “oil”—which issued from every pore. Jesus was accorded titles of unique significance. One was the Messiah, which in Hebrew means “anointed.” The other was the Christ, which in the Greek language means “anointed” as well. In our day, as it was in His day, the ordinance of administration to the sick includes anointing with the consecrated oil of the olive. So the next time you witness consecrated oil being anointed on the head of one to be blessed, and these sacred words are said, “I anoint you with this consecrated oil,” remember what that original consecration cost. Remember what it meant to all who had ever lived and who ever would yet live. Remember the redemptive power of healing, soothing, and ministering to those in need. Remember, just as the body of the olive, which was pressed for the oil that gave light, so the Savior was pressed. From every pore oozed the life blood of our Redeemer. And when sore trials come upon you, remember Gethsemane.”
- Empathetic purpose. Christ did not only suffer for the sins of all men, but also to experience their physical pains, illnesses, anguish from addictions, emotional turmoil and depression, “that His bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:12; compare Isaiah 53:4). This empathy allows Jesus to be a more effective advocate and personal friend to us. This sounds remarkable similar to the one about the image of the suffering Christ creating empathy in humanity (the reverse of this). But I think when you put them both together, it adds some interest to the perspective.
- The relationship between justice, mercy, agency, and God’s unconditional love. We focus on the need for free agency. Just as Jesus had the ability to choose to lay down his life, if we are truly penitent we will voluntarily come unto him to receive his grace. We do this through the process of repentance. I do find this idea useful – the focus on our personal choice.
I liked the idea that there are many different ways to interpret the atonement, and some of these are more appealing to me than others. How about you? Were any of these helpful? How do you feel about the atonement? Discuss.