Recently the Mormon Matters podcast released three episodes titled “Resurrecting Atonement” where Dan Wotherspoon, Mark Crego, and our very own Andrew S. discuss atonement theory, the nature of sin, God, and how it all fits together. They present various theories of atonement and discuss both the merits and flaws of those theories. It is a fantastic discussion featuring three bright, articulate people. I highly recommend it for Mormons seeking to explore ideas of the atonement at a deeper level than is done in Sunday School.
With that said, I would like to add some thoughts on the discussion. Hopefully my thoughts aren’t random and instead have some semblance of coherence. The need and mechanism of the atonement of Jesus Christ is complex and draws in the related subjects of the nature of God and the nature of sin – two pretty basic subjects we can cover in a couple of paragraphs, right? For brevity’s sake I’m not going to dive in too deep on some of the ancillary topics, but some comments on them will be necessary because my perspective on the Atonement is built upon some specific beliefs about God and sin.
I’ll also add that these thoughts are mine. I’m no philosopher or theologian, so take what I say with a heaping helping of salt and instead do your own research.
What, or Who is God?
I’ll begin my comments with some quick thoughts about God. I approach this subject from a Trinitarian perspective because, for matters I won’t get into now, I think it is a compelling model for understanding God.
One of my favorite writers on this topic is David Bentley Hart, a philosophical theologian at Notre Dame and practicing Eastern Orthodox Christian. In his book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, he states:
To speak of “God” properly, then – to use the word in a sense consonant with the teachings of orthodox Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, Baha’i, a great deal of antique paganism, and so forth – is to speak of the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things. God so understood is not something posed over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being. (page 29)
Later, Hart contrasts this view of God with the typical view of many believers and, subsequently, their critics:
Yet the most pervasive error one encounters in contemporary arguments about belief in God – especially, but not exclusively, on the atheist side – is the habit of conceiving of God simply as some very large object or agency within the universe, or perhaps alongside the universe, a being among other beings, who differs from all other beings in magnitude, power, and duration, but not ontologically, and who is related to the world more or less as a craftsman is related to an artifact. (page 32)
What Hart is getting at, I think, is that God is the source of all that is. He (for lack of a better descriptor) is something along the lines of what our consciousness is to our bodies. For example, if I reach over to my right, pick up my cup of water, take a drink, and do so while somehow allowing scientists to watch my brain functions, those scientists would observe some changes within my brain preceding my physical actions. They’d then observe my arm reaching out to the cup along with the action of my drinking. What they cannot observe is the consciousness driving all of that – my person. This, while a crude metaphor, is something akin to how I think of God. He is the “mover”, or transcendent consciousness of all that is, and what we observe around us are the results of his “being”.
The act of creation, then, is something along the lines of that described by Gregory of Nyssa, where the act of God’s creation is timeless, the result of God’s desire, and what we observe has unfolded progressively in time, according to its own potential, following what we observe as natural processes; thus nature becomes the agent of creation. Nature in this instance functions similar to the activity in my brain prior to drinking my water, and the subsequent actions of nature would be analogous to observing me physically taking the drink. God, in this case, is like my consciousness, the unseen, unobservable, prime mover of it all.
Who Are We?
As a result of God’s process of creation we humans have come to exist. The story of our beginning is told in the book of Genesis, though the story there is not a literal (in the modern sense of the word) recounting of our creation. It is meant to be a narrative that explains our relationship to God. The Genesis creation account seeks to explain our unique position among God’s creations and thus, by inference, our unique capacity.
In the ancient near east it was common to build a temple where the presence of one’s god could dwell. Following the building of the temple, one would place the image of one’s god within that temple, thus completing its construction. That image served to represent the presence of the god within the temple.
So it is with us, though in our case God created the temple: our universe and all that we see. We were created in God’s image and represent God within the temple. We are meant to bear God’s image in creation, and a key part of that capacity to bear his image is our agency: our ability to choose whether to become one with God.
Sin and Death
A key component in the exercising of our agency is the fact that we are the result of natural processes – nature as craftsman – and so have weaknesses and imperfections that prevent us from fully realizing our potential as God’s image bearers. This is demonstrated in three ways:
- The concept of “original sin” as seen from a non-Augustinian perspective (many Anglican and Eastern Orthodox Christians hold this perspective) and it is similar to the statement by King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon that “the natural man is an enemy to God”.
- Our inability to utilize our agency to fully orient our wills to God (become one with God).
- The fact that we will die.
All of this is sin in that we “miss the mark” and become estranged from God. We do not realize our potential and, through death, become forever separated from God. To correct this situation God has covenanted and worked through people who choose to seek to be God’s image bearers. The specific example of this in the Old Testament is Abraham, who was promised that his posterity will bless all of the earth. That posterity – Israel – has that promise renewed, and are given a Law that was meant to serve as a taskmaster, or teacher, to help them learn to live up to their potential as image bearers. In Galatians 3:23-24 Paul says:
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.
The Law, however, served an even more important role: as a means of demonstrating to Israel (and thus to us) the futility of trying to justify oneself before God. As Paul discusses in his letter to the Romans, the only way one can be justified by a law is through perfectly keeping it, and since we know that nobody is capable of perfectly keeping the law, nobody can be justified through an appeal to the law – we are all sinners, particularly Israel, who had sin defined for them and yet broke the law. Paul, in Romans 7:7-8 says it this way:
What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.
It’s the old adage that where much is given, much is required. Israel was given the tools to justify themselves before God (and thus rescue humanity). They had a leg up on all the rest of God’s children, but where much is given much is required: now that they had sin defined for them, they were obligated to completely live up to those expectations. And we know that they did not do so; thus the rescuers were themselves in need of rescuing.
The Righteousness of God
So, now we get to Jesus of Nazareth, born as a Jew, a descendant of Abraham, and subject to the law which was spoken of by Paul. Jesus provided for us an example of what it means to fully reflect the image of God into the world. The question important to the Mormon Matters podcast is: how did Jesus atone for us? He overcame sin and death in three ways.
First, Jesus became the mechanism by which God himself intervened and atoned for humanity. Through Jesus the gulf separating humanity from God was bridged, fully fusing humanity and God. Through the incarnation he clothed himself with humanity and subjected himself to our shortcomings (and thus “original sin”). By doing so, he elevated that human nature into a oneness with God.
Jesus as Paschal Lamb
As God’s unique creation capable of freely offering and aligning our will to that of God, we are supposed to reflect God’s image into the world through love. As stated earlier, human nature is such that we fail on a regular basis to do this. Each and every day we fail to love our neighbors as ourselves. Israel was called to be the example, or even the proxy, for humanity in functioning as God’s image in the world, overcoming natural tendencies and fully becoming one with God. Israel failed at this vocation and was itself in need of rescuing. As a result, all of humanity found itself condemned: those without law ignorant of how to become like God; and those with law cursed because of their failure to keep the law.
Jesus enters the picture as the one, unique human who completes mankind’s vocation. He was a Jew, thus was aware of the law, yet fully adhered to the law. He served in place of all of Israel in keeping the law, and as all of humanity in fulfilling our vocation. Ironically, it was his adherence to the law for which he was ultimately killed. He was innocent of condemnation (he had fully kept the law’s requirements to love God with one’s entire being and to love one’s neighbors as oneself; and, as his resurrection showed, he wasn’t lying when he claimed to be King of the Jews) yet was unjustly condemned to death for sins he did not commit. In offering himself as a ransom for us – to be condemned for sin in our place – he bore the brunt of the law. He serves as our Paschal lamb, without blemish and thus unable to be condemned by the law, yet bearing the brunt of the law’s condemnation so that we may be passed over and come through to our own promised land.
Importantly, this isn’t some penal substitution theory – it is God himself entering into the world and swallowing up our failings. He is doing his own work. He is taking upon himself humanity in order to bring us into union with the divine. As a result, we are empowered to go forth without guilt and shame and be the image bearers we are supposed to be, for it is through his grace that our shortcomings are swallowed up and we are able to fully realize our potential.
As Paul says in Romans 3:21-26:
But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.
Resurrection and Justification
Paul stated, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:13-14). Without a resurrection none of this matters and is in vain, for death would separate us from God and the long, slow march of entropy would continue on without disruption. But the resurrection of Jesus Christ means that death is overcome and is not the final state of humanity. Entropy doesn’t get the final word.
It also shows that our faith in Jesus is justified, for Jesus was vindicated by God. Despite the claims of the powers of this world, God’s kingdom and new creation has been enacted. Jesus was the beginning of that new creation and he stands as the reigning king, despite the claims of the Romes and empires of this world; or what the accusatory, mimetic influence of Satan might otherwise depict.
Paul probably says it best when he repeats what most scholars believe is likely the earliest Christian saying we have:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
‘who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’
A common theme in the podcast was the question, “What now?” If any of the theories of atonement have any validity, what does it mean for us now? What do we do with it?
I think the answer to this question lies in the relational nature of the Atonement. It brings us into one with God and then empowers us to go forth and take that relationship into the world.
As I’ve mentioned before, the discussion of the two great commandments as recorded in Mark 12 is somewhat unique in that it more explicitly ties the two great commandments to our relationship with God. Here is what is said:
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
To answer the scribe’s question Jesus refers to the Shema, which references God’s supremacy, “oneness”, completeness, full existence, etc. God is one: in all things, through all things – supreme – and that “oneness” is placed alongside our obligation to love God with our entire being – essentially become one with him – for if our entire being loves God, then we are one with him.
Then, we are told to love our neighbors as ourselves, which means we are to become one with them as well, bringing all into that same relationship of “oneness” with God.
This concept is aptly demonstrated by the Eucharist. Jesus, in an effort to teach his disciples about his upcoming sacrifice, didn’t give a lecture; instead, he washed their feet and ate a meal with them. It was relational. And in that meal he instructed them to eat the bread and wine as his body and blood. The symbolism is quite clear: he is becoming one with them and they are becoming both one with him and one with each other. Then, he went out and performed his great act of love to bring all people into communion with God.
In the liturgical traditions of Christianity the “what now?” is answered quite clearly following the Eucharist. The deacon stands at the exit of the church and offers the dismissal, telling us to go forth in peace and bring the Gospel to all the world. In other words, we are supposed to take Jesus (who is now part of us) to the sick, the poor, where the world’s pain is, etc., praying and sacrificing for others – just as he did following his meal. And, just as he did, following that meal we take upon ourselves Jesus’ name, take up our cross, and die to selfishness so we may become a new creature along with him.
Those are my thoughts. A lot of this is quite difficult to express and I frequently find myself inadequate to the task of describing it.
What do you think? Do you have any favored atonement theologies? How do you respond to the “what now?”