54: The Atonement in Mormon Thought and Experience

The central claim of Christianity is that all human beings are “fallen,” held captive by sin, or are in some other way in a dire circumstance that can only be overcome through God’s aid, which comes through faith in the infinite love and sacrifice of God’s own son, Jesus Christ. According to the Christian tradition, this is the central truth of the human condition, and it is only through what has been labeled the Atonement of Jesus Christ that there is a way out. Throughout history, many Christians have celebrated their feelings of being rescued from the grasp of sin, selfishness, and aimless searching for purpose via the Atonement, and they claim their transformed lives are living testaments to this saving act of God’s grace. Still, many—both outsiders and Christians themselves—have paused to ask questions such as: Why is this the only way someone can turn from sin or be made worthy of heaven? What kind of God requires the suffering of an innocent being in order to be willing to forgive humans of their shortcomings? If every sin must be punished, is there even such a thing as genuine “forgiveness”? Many people seem to be able to forgive others for their faults and evil acts who don’t believe in or have never even heard of Jesus Christ, so why can’t God? Many Christians have not only asked such questions, but from the very earliest days following Jesus’s death, they have formulated various theories to answer them and also explain the reasons the Atonement “works.”

In this podcast episode, Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon and panelists Jared Anderson, Brian Johnston, and Tresa Edmunds explore these questions and the historical attempts to answer them and explain the experience of transformation or renewed life through Christ that so many claim, including the panelists themselves. In general, the discussion explores the Atonement from the ideas that first show up in biblical sources and then onto the main Atonement theory categories: ransom, satisfaction, penal substitution, and moral influence. It also gives attention to various angles on the Atonement and Christ’s redeeming work that are emphasized the most in Mormonism, as well as a couple of Atonement models that are unique to it. The panelists then close the discussion with their own views regarding or experiences with the Atonement in their own lives.

This episode is longer than a typical Mormon Matters podcast, but if one is to believe the Atonement is the most important single thing to ever take place in this world, the discussion’s extra length is fitting for its subject (and even far too short)! We hope you will all join in and further the discussion in the comments section below.

_____

Links to articles/essays of possible interest:

Lorin Hansen Dialogue article that describes the main categories of Atonement theories while suggesting Mormon ideas are closest to the Moral Influence theory.

Eugene England essay on the Atonement, which also suggests a Moral Influence reading. He adds an attempt to do what Moral Influence has had trouble doing, which is to explain why it was “necessary,” how it is that “only Jesus” could effect this change.

J. Clair Batty Sunstone personal essay that shares his journey from confusion over God needing blood and anguish to forgive us to a sense of peace about the Atonement.

Link to an online posting of W. Cleon Skousen’s uniquely Mormon take on why the Atonement requiring Christ’s sacrifice was necessary.

Blake Ostler article outlining his views on how the Atonement works and comparing them to other Mormon theories.

Jared Anderson essay, “Jesus: Savior or Symbol,” mentioned a few times in the podcast. Anderson’s attempt to honor the reality of the experiences with the Atonement many persons have while not necessarily forcing one to see the Atonement as a discreet, literal event.

Comments

comments

53 comments for “54: The Atonement in Mormon Thought and Experience

  1. Chris
    October 5, 2011 at 6:34 am

    My interpretation of the atonement is perhaps more simple than those theories discussed.  I believe that God, being bound by eternal law, needed a perfect One to atone for our sins, and Jesus Christ, His Only Begotten Son, alone qualified for that role because of His perfection in the preexistence.  I believe that Jesus, because of His infinite love for the Father and for us, chose to become our Savior, taking upon Him all of our sins, sorrows, pains, and suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross at Calvary.  I believe that as we trust in God, give our hearts to Him,and seek to follow Him, we can return to live with Him eternally.  To me, the parable of the Prodigal Son exemplifies the Father’s perfect love and illustrates the power of the atonement, which gives  each of us the opportunity to return to the loving arms of our Father in the hereafter if we chose to love Him more than we love the world.

    • October 5, 2011 at 12:29 pm

      That’s a great way of looking at the atonement.  I think Mormonism allows more freedom to build the reasons, which has its roots in our more expansive story of pre and post life existence.  We are also much more comfortable with the idea of a limited God.  Like you described — you see God as being BOUND by an external and abstract concept of law.  This causes problems for other Christians, but isn’t so upsetting to us.  Mormonism seems to meander all over the spectrum of traditional Christian theories of atonement, but I see that is extremely positive.  More options to me = more ways for it to “click” for more people.  Beautiful!

      Cleon Skousen’s theory of Atonement via being bound by honor or law, and that “intelligences” (from Abraham chpt 3) must be satisfied in their sense of justice, it weaves together a uniquely Mormon-Christian atonement theory.

    • November 2, 2011 at 12:21 am

      This doesn’t make much sense to me, Chris. The point in trying to understand the atonement is to understand how Jesus “took upon” himself our sins, but suffering. Amulek rejects a substitutionary attonement quite clearly in Alma 34. What does an “eternal atonement” mean? What is “infinite love”?

      And the parable of the Prodigal Son runs completely counter to atonement theology in my view–the father doesn’t take the good son and torture and kill him before welcoming back the prodigal. The father has the power to forgive the prodigal and does so as a loving gift, not because the debt was paid by another.A Muslim once told me that he couldn’t understand Christianity because he couldn’t conceive of a Creator God who was powerful enough to create the universe, powerful enough to give us life and agency, but didn’t have the ability to simply forgive us and love us and welcome us home. We as Mormons are proud of Joseph Smith’s doctrinal innovation of claiming a limited not-omnipotent God subject to some outside law. But what a law that must be!! Commanding our Father to not forgive us and welcome us home unless some other prescient being is tortured and killed unjustly.

      It is just all so barbaric. And your peace on the topic, as expressed, doesn’t move me. But, sincerely, thanks for sharing it.

  2. J Madson
    October 5, 2011 at 6:24 pm

    Chris, 

    so eternal law is penal and allows substitution? Who exactly is enforcing/creating this eternal law and why does it resemble western notions of retributive justice? Does this not enshrine vengeance as the ultimate order/law of the universe and make Jesus into a sacrificial animal of sorts (a perfect unblemished animal)? I see no reason to assume eternal law demands any of this. There is also the OT reality that the scapegoat (the animal who had the sins placed upon it) was not sacrificed but sent into the desert. 

  3. BRIAN K.
    October 5, 2011 at 7:53 pm

    Such a good episode! MM is so amazing! Keep it up!

  4. Anonymous
    October 5, 2011 at 8:23 pm

    I think another very Mormon aspect of the atonement is found in our belief in the pre-existence–specifically the War in Heaven. As Mormons, we put a lot of emphasis on how controversial Lucifer’s plan was, but we rarely talk about how controversial Jehovah’s plan was. One-third of the hosts of Heaven declined mortality because they were so against Jehovah’s plan. With this in mind, I think it is easier to reject a simple born-again, evangelical (i.e., “confess His name and your saved”) view of the atonement. If one is to believe in the Mormon doctrine of the pre-existence, I think it is quite reasonable to think that by grace we are saved “after all that we can do.” I think Lucifer’s followers realized how many of God’s spirit children would be unable to, through agency, “do all that they can do”and therefore would not return to live in the presence of God. In other words, I think we all knew, as pre-existent spirits, that Jehovah’s plan didn’t have a high success rate.

    That said, I do think that Christ’s “grace” will play a bigger role in salvation then most Mormons think. If Mormonism really is true, then I think we will all be pleasantly suprised at how much Christ’s grace makes up for our sins and weaknesses in mortality.

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  6. Kevin
    October 6, 2011 at 12:40 am

    It’s interesting to speculate on the nature of the Atonement, but at the end of the day it is all only speculation. I don’t believe that anyone knows how or why Christ’s sacrifice works in us or in the world.

    I don’t think it’s important to know. The important thing is to have a relationship with Christ.

    Systems like the one espoused by Cleon Skousen seem uniquely Mormon: It emphasizes what appears to be the main difference between Mormonism and traditional Christianity, which is Mormonism’s post-Enlightenment view of the supernatural.

    Mormonism seeks what John A. Widtsoe called “a rational theology” and what Gordon Allred called “a comprehensible God.” In other words, Mormonism tries to fit God into a naturalistic system in which Gods are not only plural but finite, and are subject to external laws, and procreate and evolve like all other creatures. It tries to be, in a way, a scientific faith.

    This can lead to problems. On a macro scale, it can diminish our view of God and unduly exalt our view of humanity’s role. On a micro scale, it can paint us into corners where we are trying to rely on revelation to determine facts that are better ascertained through sciences such as, for example, anthropology and astronomy.

    Any effort to combine science and religion does a disservice to both. It often leads people to a point where they become unduly skeptical of one or the other.

    I don’t mean any disrespect to anyone’s faith. Just wanted to share a thought about the podcast.

    • Dan Wotherspoon
      October 6, 2011 at 3:57 pm

      Kevin, I think you land in your first lines where we as panelists all landed. We, of course, enjoyed working through the theories, and I DO think that some of them lead to unhelpful views about God or what the real issues are that keep human beings from growing into their natural divinity, but in the end, like you, it’s about our experiences of healing, saving, life more abundant, etc.–and if we have that healthy encounter with God and our highest self, all worry about Atonement “mechanisms” are quite unimportant.

      If I am hearing you right on science and religion, I agree about it being important to not try to combine them. I want them to engage each other and not back down. Both are vital, and we would do disservice to both to let either of them think they are better off without the critique of the other.

  7. RachelM
    October 6, 2011 at 6:12 pm

    Like the panelists, I really thought Tresa’s experience with the Atonement was amazingly beautiful and cuts to the heart of the very nature of the atonement.  I don’t share that experience, it made me cry to hear that particular testimony.  Perhaps the key to really loving the idea of the atonement is to approach it as something that heals our wounds or salves our disappointments and not so much from the ideas of serving justice.

  8. Lietta Ruger
    October 6, 2011 at 10:07 pm

    I wanted to simply give huge kudos to this podcast.  It served me well.  I appreciated the discussion sharing the different takes or models of the atonement over the course of history.  It did a world of good for me in that it embraced the idea that there are many concepts by which to interpret the atonement, death and resurrection of Jesus, and did not insist on only the LDS/Mormon interpretation as the only means by which to assimilate a personal view, representation or interpretation of it.  I valued the personal beliefs that Tresa expressed born of her personal life experience, I could easily say ditto of my own experiences and how strongly it formulates my spiritual connection.  I very much liked the direction Jared was pointing, it felt inclusive and embraced value concepts that are not unique only to LDS and that is where I think we all share a deeper human connection one to another as well as to the Christ concepts. Overall, I thoroughly appreciated the entire podcast and for me, it was probably one of the best, although that is always a relative viewpoint; more a matter of how the content of the podcasts speak to different people.  This one resonated with me strongly.  Thank you, Dan, and panel for the work that goes into putting these together, as well as the outreach it provides to so many.  

  9. Jacob M
    October 7, 2011 at 12:09 am

    This was very beautiful, thank you all for your thoughts. As I ponder the atonement, I tend to think of it as the Creator of this world, Christ, offering himself as a way of almost apologizing for all the difficulty that this world puts us through. I don’t have the time to look for the poem, but there is a great one that is the other guy on the cross saying that since it was God who placed the fruit in front of Adam and Eve, He should be the one “a-hangin’ on the tree.” I don’t really know if that fits into any of the other theories.

    • Jacob M
      October 7, 2011 at 6:30 am

      Ok, found the poem in a book I have at home. The poem is called “It was on a Friday Morning” by Sydney Carter. Here’s the full poem:

      You can blame it on Adam
      You can blame it on Eve
      You can blame it on the apple
      But that I can’t believe
      It was God that made thetime Devil
      And the woman and the man
      And there wouldn’t be an apple
      If it wasn’t in the plan
      Its God they out to crucify
      Instead of you and me
      I said to the carpenter
      A-hanging on the tree

      • Jacob M
        October 7, 2011 at 11:12 pm

        Sorry! Typing on the phone! Not sure where “thetime” came from. It should just say “the”.

  10. Anonymous
    October 7, 2011 at 1:28 am

    Solid performance guys!!  Loved Brian’s zingers.  A great balanced conversation that ended up with a swansong by Teresa bearing a powerful testimony that puts it all in perspective.

  11. RJ
    October 7, 2011 at 3:38 am

    Listened to this today and really enjoyed it. The subject has never been one that I could totally wrap my head around, even when my belief was more conventional. I thought the discussion gave a good glimpse into the complexity of the topic. Teresa’s summary at the end really captured a lot of what I feel about the principle of the atonement. An understanding of the atonement that has the most resonance to me it the one that connects God to us as much as it connects us to God. That God is not above it all, disconnected from our pain and sorrow. With all the immense misery and suffering that so many of his children must endure in life, he too is willing to experience it all himself, literally, as the only way to meet his children on their level and begin to heal and make right the injustices they were caused to endure. The ransom, the demands of justice, the “paying” for our sins, side of the atonement message has never fully computed for me, as hard as I have tried to buy into it.  That perspective  has never given me feeling of grace and love, but usually feeling of greater guilt.

  12. Wade
    October 7, 2011 at 5:11 am

    Thanks for another great discussion Dan et al.

  13. Dan Wotherspoon
    October 7, 2011 at 2:10 pm

    So thrilled by this great conversation and very relieved that we didn’t lose focus on the experience when we went into all the various theories of mechanism. So worried about that! Thank you, panelists! 

    Every comment here has been thrilling to read. Please keep sharing your own thoughts and experiences! Thank you!

  14. Anonymous
    October 7, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    I really liked Jared’s theory about the atonement being out of time and space, and then having Christ being within us.  I wrote a poem many years ago that used much of that same imagery/theme and it brought it back to mind so I thought I would share it with you:

                           Transcention
    As the circle flows, entrapping the fish within
    Only the claws of a Winged Beast can deliver him.
    Taking them turning toward the rising sun,
    Where He will feast and they become one.

  15. October 7, 2011 at 6:28 pm

    For those that are interested…  The LDS notion of Gethsemane as the focus of the Atonement can of course be traced back to D&C 19.  But Talmage took it up in Jesus the Christ.  Talmage was deeply influenced in this book by Fredric Farrar’s The Life of Christ.  Farrar placed great emphasis on Gethsemane.  Here is a link to the page in his (Farrar’s) book:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=DOsQAAAAYAAJ&dq=life%20of%20christ%20farrar&pg=PA394#v=onepage&q&f=false

    McConkie relied heavily on both Farrar and Edersheim.  I think it was Jared that talked about McConkie’s speculation that the agony of Gethsemane recurred on the cross.  You can find similar sentiments in Farrar, which McConkie quotes in his Mortal Messiah, Vol. 4.  Here is the link to the Farrar quote that McConkie used to support his speculation:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=DOsQAAAAYAAJ&dq=life%20of%20christ%20farrar&pg=PA446#v=onepage&q&f=false

    Great podcast all.  My only complaint is that it was too short!

  16. tld
    October 8, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    First let me offer another theory of the atonement and then try to describe what actually appears to happen outside of mortality. I was for some years a student of A Course in Miracles. What the Course teaches about the atonement is that it is synonymous with healing. According to the Course, we are the perfect Son of God. For some reason we fell into a dream state that involves a separation from God and a belief in our individuality. We maintain this dream state, and our individuality, by our involvement in the reality of the physical world and particularly in our belief in sin, both within others and ourselves. It is sin that keeps us separate from each other and our awareness of who we really are. Jesus recognized this, was able to forgive himself and others, and thus awakened from the dream. Put in other words, from his perspective, he saw the possibility of healing the separation (the atonement) and returning to his awareness as the perfect Son of God. The problem is that he cannot accomplish this without the participation of all of us. Each of us must awaken from the dream (heal the separation) in order for the Son to be whole. This involves our individual participation in the process of forgiveness in which we see ourselves and others without sin and the world as illusion. In this way we become one with Jesus and return to our awareness of our perfection as God’s Son. An important aspect of this is that Jesus is always with us to help us awaken from the dream. In other words, he helps us correct the error that is the separation and does what he can to heal the separation when we falter.

    While I have found this theory of the atonement attractive, my reading of what happens in the afterlife, based on the numerous accounts of those who claim to have experienced the spirit world, is that we intentionally choose to take on mortal bodies. When we die and return to the spirit world from which we came, we continue on in our eternal progress as souls. As far as can be determined, this happens to everyone who dies. No decision has to be made, or can be made, while in mortality, that affects or hinders this process of returning to the spirit world. One caveat, there appear to be some who do remain earthbound for various reasons, but their return is always open to them.

    Returning to the spirit world does not mean that everyone goes to the same “place.”  We seem to separate ourselves from each other, or congregate with each other, based upon our thoughts, desires, and interests. The spirit world seems to be pervaded by light and love. Those who have thoughts, desires, and interests that are the antithesis of light and love will apparently decide on their own to move away from the light to regions of relative darkness where they can continue to satisfy their inner desires. But they are not necessarily permanently “lost.” There are those who minister to them and who watch over them, and when they are ready, help them return to the light. 

    Every individual who returns to the spirit world appears eventually to go through a life review. This involves a vivid reliving of one’s life and a recognition of the “good” and the “bad” that was done during that lifetime. There appears to be no condemnation, by those who participate in the review process, of one’s negative (unloving) actions, but there is approval of positive (loving) actions.

    What is the point in all this? Perhaps our emphasis on sin, guilt, judgment, and justice is misguided.  Nor is it necessary that we accept Jesus as our Savior, or anyone else, in order for us to return to our home in the spirit world and continue our progress as spirit beings. I expect that the spirit world is home to spirits with a wide variety of beliefs, interests and desires. Having said this, in this physical world I am grateful for a religious belief, for me in particular as a Mormon and Christian, that helps me to moderate some of my baser human instincts.

    And then, again, it could all be illusion.

    Thanks to those of the panel who participated in this podcast.

    Tom    

         

    • Dan Wotherspoon
      October 9, 2011 at 1:43 am

      Great stuff. Love the sensibilities about humans and what our main life tasks are that you have described here. In addition to the Course in Miracles and its obvious eastern-tinged Christian soteriology, you’re also describing the view of the spirit world described in Michael Newton’s very interesting books _Journey of Souls_ and _Destiny of Souls_, which I also like. I’m on record saying in several venues how I find what Newton describes to be the most fair and attractive vision of life and its purposes and mechanisms for growth I’ve ever encountered, and that if it what he describes isn’t true, it ought to be! Thanks for introducing it to this discussion!

      • tld
        October 9, 2011 at 1:38 pm

        Yes, the Newton stuff is interesting, as are many of the near-death accounts. However, we must be careful in assuming that they are representative of the “real” spirit world. The experiences may very well be an illusion produced for our comfort and accessibility to our human understanding. There also may sometimes be tricksters involved. What I am saying is that there is no necessary reason why non-physical existence, as it exists in reality (?), should duplicate our modern-day world, as it seems to do in these experiences: buildings, parks, etc. After all, from our space/time perspective, non-material reality has been in existence for at least billions of years, but in actuality it probably timeless. All of this is way beyond my comprehension, so I stick with the stuff I think I understand, which are the experiences that people claim to have had. Also, as I have said before, there are multiple possibilities: a strictly material reality, a virtual reality, parallel realities, and other realities that are beyond our present-day comprehension. Mormonism, while valuable to me in many ways, is, in my view, outdated in the view that it presents of non-physical reality. (If you have not already done so, you might look into some of the Monroe Institute stuff. Also the Seth material.). 

        Thanx,

        Tom 

        • Dan Wotherspoon
          October 13, 2011 at 7:54 pm

          I’ve also explored TMI and the Seth materials that have come forth from Jane Roberts and find them very interesting. My dissertation engaged the work of physicist David Bohm, where I became pretty intrigued with the idea of the universe’s holographic nature, and I’ve continued to try to follow current trends in string theory and others that also point in this direction. Given that, I have hadn’t felt as drawn to the work of those others as I might otherwise have.

          Agree that Mormonism rhetoric tends to portray a very concrete picture of eternal realities as involving physical-seeming buildings, etc. (and that one also finds in Newton’s accounts from those he’s hypnotized, etc.), and I find all of this understandable. I don’t, however, really see anything in Mormon teaching or Newton or those of other explorers that contradicts the idea that all of this might appear this way in order for us to better relate to it. All the possibilities about the way matter and energy relate to each other, existence in different dimensions, etc. are still open for Mormons. And the Mormon sensibility that we might continue, and that the continuation of that life has growth and deeper abilities to handle and navigate whatever is really real as the high purpose to our eternal journeys is definitely intact.

  17. tld
    October 8, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    First let me offer another theory of the atonement and then try to describe what actually appears to happen outside of mortality. I was for some years a student of A Course in Miracles. What the Course teaches about the atonement is that it is synonymous with healing. According to the Course, we are the perfect Son of God. For some reason we fell into a dream state that involves a separation from God and a belief in our individuality. We maintain this dream state, and our individuality, by our involvement in the reality of the physical world and particularly in our belief in sin, both within others and ourselves. It is sin that keeps us separate from each other and our awareness of who we really are. Jesus recognized this, was able to forgive himself and others, and thus awakened from the dream. Put in other words, from his perspective, he saw the possibility of healing the separation (the atonement) and returning to his awareness as the perfect Son of God. The problem is that he cannot accomplish this without the participation of all of us. Each of us must awaken from the dream (heal the separation) in order for the Son to be whole. This involves our individual participation in the process of forgiveness in which we see ourselves and others without sin and the world as illusion. In this way we become one with Jesus and return to our awareness of our perfection as God’s Son. An important aspect of this is that Jesus is always with us to help us awaken from the dream. In other words, he helps us correct the error that is the separation and does what he can to heal the separation when we falter.

    While I have found this theory of the atonement attractive, my reading of what happens in the afterlife, based on the numerous accounts of those who claim to have experienced the spirit world, is that we intentionally choose to take on mortal bodies. When we die and return to the spirit world from which we came, we continue on in our eternal progress as souls. As far as can be determined, this happens to everyone who dies. No decision has to be made, or can be made, while in mortality, that affects or hinders this process of returning to the spirit world. One caveat, there appear to be some who do remain earthbound for various reasons, but their return is always open to them.

    Returning to the spirit world does not mean that everyone goes to the same “place.”  We seem to separate ourselves from each other, or congregate with each other, based upon our thoughts, desires, and interests. The spirit world seems to be pervaded by light and love. Those who have thoughts, desires, and interests that are the antithesis of light and love will apparently decide on their own to move away from the light to regions of relative darkness where they can continue to satisfy their inner desires. But they are not necessarily permanently “lost.” There are those who minister to them and who watch over them, and when they are ready, help them return to the light. 

    Every individual who returns to the spirit world appears eventually to go through a life review. This involves a vivid reliving of one’s life and a recognition of the “good” and the “bad” that was done during that lifetime. There appears to be no condemnation, by those who participate in the review process, of one’s negative (unloving) actions, but there is approval of positive (loving) actions.

    What is the point in all this? Perhaps our emphasis on sin, guilt, judgment, and justice is misguided.  Nor is it necessary that we accept Jesus as our Savior, or anyone else, in order for us to return to our home in the spirit world and continue our progress as spirit beings. I expect that the spirit world is home to spirits with a wide variety of beliefs, interests and desires. Having said this, in this physical world I am grateful for a religious belief, for me in particular as a Mormon and Christian, that helps me to moderate some of my baser human instincts.

    And then, again, it could all be illusion.

    Thanks to those of the panel who participated in this podcast.

    Tom    

         

  18. Guest
    October 8, 2011 at 11:31 pm

    So how exactly does the Atonement work?  Dang, if only there were modern day prophets who could get to the bottom of this for us… and while they are at it could they solve a few other dilemmas that seem to cause a lot of consternation in the world… like: Is homosexuality a “born” trait? And when will the next 9/11 happen?  And where was Bin Laden from 2001-2011? And when exactly does a spirit enter a fetus? And, how can we cure cancer?  And, what’s the formula for energy self sufficiency?

    How about some USEFUL revelation for a change.  Instead our modern day apostles give talks on how massively important the NAME of the church is.  And cute stories about $5 dollar bills sent to the dry cleaners.  Sigh.

    • Dan Wotherspoon
      October 9, 2011 at 1:34 am

      From your post at least, you don’t actually don’t sound like someone who would be open to what those modern-day prophets might say on the issues you are concerned about. Can you share why we’d think otherwise about you and should take your post as a serious attempt to engage, or is this just a rant without a constructive purpose?

      • Guest
        October 10, 2011 at 5:35 pm

        Yeah, it was a bit of a rant.  Sorry to be negative Dan.  I am a fan appreciate your work on this podcast.  But, I’m sure you understand these kinds of emotional outbursts are not uncommon as people painfully and cautiously extract themselves from their previously treasured world views. 

        But, underlying the admittedly snarky tone of my original post is a legitimate question.  If the Atonement is real and is the single most important hinge upon which the eternities swing, why doesn’t God (through his servants) explain it to us in a clear and unambiguous way?   Why are we left grappling somewhat blindly with a host of theories about it (as covered well by the podcast)?  

        I’m truly not trying to be impertinent here, but honestly, why do we get concrete messages on minutia like appropriate # of earrings, but we can’t get clear defining language on the most important of all topics like how exactly we are saved by Jesus’ suffering?  

        I earnestly ask, with as much constructive purpose as I can gather… what is God’s reason for being so vague on this most critical of topics?  What is his motive for leaving us in the dark on this? 

        That is my serious attempt to engage.  I hope it is an improvement and passes muster.  

        • Dan Wotherspoon
          October 13, 2011 at 7:42 pm

          I appreciate your continued engagement here. Thanks for sharing more about what was behind your earlier note!

          Yours are good questions that come from good desires. And you are hitting on the age-old question all theists must ask at some point (and ask again and again): if God has something really important to say, if there is some vital understanding that saves or practice that is essential, why not make it clear and unambiguous? Somewhere along the way, I became convinced that it’s better the way things are, that the search is vital for our growth, that no one theological system can do justice to the fullness of “Truth” so its best that its scattered and lived and made as robust as possible by individual communities (including secular and scientific ones) that then engage and learn from each other and help give the truths of reality more full expression, but I’m still totally sympathetic to the desire for clarity behind your comments.

          About earrings, etc. My sense is that it would be a huge percentage of talks and messages from Church leaders that are on the more substantive end of things than the trivial ones, way more that talk about the Atonement than earrings or white shirts or movie ratings and other silly things. I think one of the issues about why it may seem different, is that when LDS leaders do say something really concrete and relatively easy to follow like earrings and shirt color and MPAA ratings to avoid, local leaders and listeners know how to help make those things happen. The weightier stuff of the universe and human journey is about tougher transitions to make for all of us, and harder things for us to teach, and, perhaps most revealingly, harder to measure progress on. One can “see” or gauge progress on the others far more easily than internal transitions. Hence leaders, and I really do think it’s local leaders far more than general authorities, give the impression that these earring things are a bigger deal than they are.

          As for the bigger question, I just don’t think the Atonement is “understandable.” Our left brains just aren’t able to put language to or explain the entire world. So I don’t think it’s so much a lack of inspiration on the part of the GAs who don’t deliver the clear, unambiguous kind of “this is how the Atonement works” way that you’re suggesting they should, nor is it God choosing to keep us in the dark. My sense is that the “understanding” Atonement will always be impossible, always beyond words, beyond being something one is able to get one’s mind around–it is something that can only be experienced. Because of this, to me, LDS and other Christian leaders are doing about the best anyone can ask: testify of the reality of the miracle of Atonement and extend invitations to have one’s own experience with Christ and the changes these encounters can bring.

          My two cents, anyway…
          Cheers!
          Dan

          • Eric
            October 21, 2011 at 7:33 pm

            I agree with much of what you’re saying. To me, the how of the Atonement is something we can’t fully comprehend fully, so we come up with and/or rely on various analogies or models. What’s important to me (and it fits with more than one model) is that Jesus (who is both God and the Son of God) took upon himself human pain and suffering in a way that allows God to fully understand humanity and that provides humanity with a way to be reconciled to God and fulfill our divine purpose. 

            I haven’t thought through all the implications of this, but perhaps the “necessity” angle comes in in this way: Yes, perhaps God simply could have said we’re forgiven, but that wouldn’t have allowed God to fully experience what it is to be mortal. So while perhaps the reconciliation part of Atonement might have simply come about by fiat, that wouldn’t have given God the experience of mortality that he needed to make that reconciliation complete.

            Just a thought. Anyway, I enjoyed the podcast (and especially Teresa)!

          • Eric
            October 22, 2011 at 3:05 pm

            Make that Tresa!

      • Rude Dog
        November 19, 2011 at 7:40 pm

        Knock it off Dan, your condescention is off base and your response annoying.  Guest is engaging, and articulates a major frustration many, if not most people in the church that have given it even some serious thought, have about its weighty claims.  Many of us have been open for decade after decade for constructive, contemporary and visceral moral leadership from our “Latter Day Prophets”, who really have accomplished only two quasi declarations, and those only to “roll back” previous unerrant eternal principles of the Almighty.  Useful revelation, I mean, other than earrings and facial hair, could, would, and should help us in unity of voice, and movement of purpose.  

        The Atonement is central to our truth claims, and Joseph’s insight of the event, and our articulation of this gift is the best out there, and one of the only things that keeps me in this church.  However it is far from agreed upon, and from Skousen to McConkie, Smith Jr. to B. Young Adam God, to the Miracle of Forgiveness, it would be nice to hear some further light and knowledge of the event that the entire gospel message supposedly is an appendage to.  I for one see the Atonement as a similitude of becoming at one with oneself.  Self forgiveness, self healing, and self peace, as integrity must turn me there as my faith in the moral leadership of our Church is far gone.  Maybe I don’t belong here, but your response to Guest Dan is what I would expect from a pencil necked seminary teaching virgin.  Check your position. 

        • Jeralee
          December 13, 2011 at 7:55 pm

          I have read through this message several times, and it is unsettling.  In removing the first and last two sentences, one can see what you are getting at. But the name calling and anger is a spoiler… I think most of us here respect what Dan and his panels are attempting to do in bringing us new ideas of thought and understanding, no matter if we agree with them or not..

  19. Gail F. Bartholomew
    October 9, 2011 at 12:07 am

    Dan I think you like the atonement theory you do is any world  that needs an atonement is a very depressing place.

    • Dan Wotherspoon
      October 9, 2011 at 1:36 am

      Not sure I get what you’re saying. Something about my temperament influencing my outlook on the Atonement? Of course it does. What theory do you favor, and why should I be persuaded?

      • Gail F. Bartholomew
        October 9, 2011 at 4:30 pm

        Dan,

        Sorry to be unclear.  I am with you.  I struggle to the world in fallen light.  A world that needs an atonement is either fallen or man is fallen.  If an Atonement is need we are in a gulf and need to be lifted out by some one that seems to only be willing to do it if you are his friend.  It is hard to see the world that way.  Just as it is hard to see the world as a place that is the devil is lurking around every corner ready to trick you.  The world seems far more beautiful and ready to help us than that.  My comment meant to accuse you of anything, but making since.  I would need to favor the same theory as you for the reasons I mentioned.  But I also agree with Jared it makes the Atonement unneeded.

        Gail

        • Dan Wotherspoon
          October 13, 2011 at 7:06 pm

          Thanks, Gail. Agree. Unless one thinks that Eugene England is right that only Christ, who is not only God but also both creator and judge, can have the “Wow factor” (what Brian J. called it on the podcast, and which I loved!), it does call into question the need for an Atonement. Kierkegaard also spoke similarly to England: When one truly realizes, truly “gets it” that the greatest, most overwhelming being in the universe deigned to come down and suffer to such depths in order to show how much humans are loved, we are in a new existential situation. We are trapped. We are changed forever.

          But to be frank, given my own sense that the primary purpose of life is personal transformation that aligns one with the powers of heaven/God/universe and how my studies of non-Christian traditions and their people show that many people overcome the barriers to such things without even entertaining the idea of an Atoning god, I’m one of those who questions the claim of necessity. I don’t question the testimony of the Atonement working healing and feelings of reconciliation with God that many, including myself, have. My only question is if it is “necessary,” not whether  or not Christian approaches can and do “work.” They do.

  20. October 9, 2011 at 7:53 am

    Two things my husband and I felt was left out:

    At least the acknowledgment that view of a loving God who is capable of forgiving sin, without the need for a Savior, is a Muslim belief. Credit where credit is due, you know?

    The other thing was the idea of Atonement by proxy. When talking about the demands of justice and whether or not the person guilty is the one responsible for the punishment, there is a theory put out that has Christ acting as a proxy (like in temple work) but for us when it comes to where we are culpable for our actions.

    Other than that, great dialogue and presentation on the various theories. Tresa rocked it as usual. Her statement about dealing with the effects of another person’s sin got a resounding amen from me.

    • October 11, 2011 at 6:48 pm

      Atonement by Proxy sounds like a permutation of the Penal Substitution theory.  That is the theory where there is an abstract concept of The Law, a reified force in the universe that demands a punishment or fine be paid by the offender.  It sounds like Proxy version has a bit of Mormon flavoring added, based on a context of temple work that we are all so familiar with.  It sounds like a good version.

      As for the Muslims, yeah.  They wouldn’t include Jesus as a variable in the cosmic salvation equation.  I think we brought this up in the podcast — the tough question of why God can’t simply forgive us?  

      From a purely historical/theological standpoint, there’s a natural inclination for Christians to have a strong need to work Jesus into the picture somehow.  Christ is the most fundamental element for making Christianity.  But yeah, it still leaves that question open.  In order to fill that hole, people over the ages came up with all these different theories.

      • December 22, 2011 at 12:14 am

        Yeah I thought I remember explicitly bringing up the fact that it is a Muslim critique that God can forgive us without Jesus… perhaps I just thought it. 🙂

  21. Taylor
    October 9, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    What a great podcast.  I would put this up as one of my favorite Mormon Matters episodes.   Wouldn’t it be great if we could have these discussions in Sunday School? 

  22. KC
    October 11, 2011 at 4:39 pm

    Discussion of Jesus involvement in the forgiveness process was very interesting. The LDS Church adds an additional requirement for forgiveness of some sins; you must pass through a priesthood leader, bishop, stk president.  Where is the theological New Testament precedent for that?   So, Jesus stands between us and the Father, and the bishop stands between us and Jesus?

    • Gwenevere Bland
      December 22, 2011 at 1:20 pm

      but only if you let it. I’m grappling with this idea right now KC. I think this idea of confession has been tarnished. It’s useful to discuss errors with another person. But somehow this confession process in the LDS church is no longer for the benefit of the sinner, it’s turned into a tool of the priesthood to hold people captive. 

      I’ve known MANY who have gotten over their sin on their own and after time “confess” to a Bishop and there is  NO retribution. I’m left to believe that the bishop stands between us and Jesus only if we let it.

  23. C.
    October 13, 2011 at 5:40 pm

    I agree that most Mormons would say the Atonement took place in the Garden, but I have tended to view his whole life as an Atonement – a diving being  “lowering himself” and taking on mortal form and life,  a perfect life lived, the suffering the garden, the ultimate withdrawal of God the Father from him on the cross (so he could experience spiritual death as well), physical death, and resurrection.  In my mind, you can’t take out any part of that process and have the Atonement a complete process.

  24. October 17, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    I thought this was the case… the double Atonement idea is in the near-canonical Jesus the Christ as well as McConkie’s Purifying Power of Gethsemane. Here is the quote, on p. 661: 

    At the ninth hour, or about three in the afternoon, a loud voice, surpassing the most anguished cry of physical suffering issued from the central cross, rending the dreadful darkness. It was the voice of the Christ: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” 

    What mind of man can fathom the significance of that awful cry? It seems, that in addition to the fearful suffering incident to crucifixion, the agony of Gethsemane had recurred, intensified beyond human power to endure. In that bitterest hour the dying Christ was alone, alone in most terrible reality. That the supreme sacrifice of the Son might be consummated in all its fulness, the Father seems to have withdrawn the support of His immediate Presence, leaving to the Savior of men the glory of complete victory over the forces of sin and death.

  25. J. Madson
    October 21, 2011 at 8:05 pm

    I think its a mistake to discount atonement theories and suggest that all that matters is that it works (ie I feel better, overcome guilt, change etc). Certainly that matters, but atonement theories also matter because bad theology does and can lead to bad morality. At stake, is the very idea of sho God is and how he operates in the universe. This is why penal models are so problematic, they show us a God who is at odds with the one revealed in Jesus of Nazareth and more problematic suggest that ultimately violence reigns in the universe as part of God’s design (or in a unique mormon twist as part of the order of the universe). Many of these models take distinctly western ideas of justice and enshrine them as part of the order of the universe. It is no mistake for example that St Anselm developed Cur Deus Homo at the time the crusades were coming about and became part of the logic for killing saracens. Likewise, Luther (despite the positive things about him) took western ideas of jurisprudence put them into atonement theories and this did influence ideas about heretics, Jews, and others that he called for pogroms against. 

    We cannot simply dismiss conservative christians obsession with penal substitution and their simultaneous support of torture, war, capital punishment and a generally punitive criminal justice system as unrelated. The problem with so many theories is that the obfuscate God’s true nature and prevent us from understanding the radical non-violence at the heart of the atonement which would give us the theological groundwork and understanding to take up our crosses rather than crucify those who we see out of line with justice. 

    • Brian Johnston
      October 31, 2011 at 7:41 pm

      That’s a really interesting perspective I haven’t considered before J Madson.  I don’t have much to add, but thought it was a cool expansion from the personal level to the societal level.  I can see what you are getting at.

      I guess we didn’t consider that angle in the podcast.  We were exclusively focused on the atonement and the individual.

  26. Anonymous
    November 17, 2011 at 6:12 am

    I really enjoyed this podcast.  Thanks to all who participated.  A lot of food for thought.

    I have another atonement model that I have been thinking about for a number of years.  I will state it simply without quoting scriptures, assuming that most here will recognize the teachings.  I don’t know that I fully buy into this model, but it is interesting to me.

    1.  Once man fell, God the Father lost claim to us.  This was also mentioned in the podcast.  This is what the scriptures call a spiritual death.  We were created spiritually by Heavenly Father.  It was necessary for man to fall so that we would be cut off, and that he would lose claim on us.
    2.  Through the atonement, Christ reclaims us.  But he does not claim us for the Father, He claims us for Himself in a sense.  The scriptures teach that we actually become “sons and daughters of Christ”.  We are saved under the name of Christ, not the Father.  Baptism symbolized being born of the spirit, a spiritual rebirth.  This is necessary because we are technically spiritually cut off, so we needed a spiritual rebirth.  Everything about the ordinance of Baptism symbolized Christ reclaiming us as His children.

    This is interesting because Christ is the Creator of the earth, including our physical bodies.  He is the God of this earth and pretty much did everything.  The only thing He didn’t do was spiritually create us.  This is why it was necessary for man to fall…..fall in a since that the Father no longer had claim to us as his spiritual children.

    3.  The Atonement was as much for Jesus as it is for us.  Read this quote from the King Follet discourse from Joseph Smith: 
    “What did Jesus do? Why, I do the things I saw my Father do when
    worlds came rolling into existence. My Father worked out His kingdom with fear and
    trembling, and I must do the same; and when I get my kingdom, I shall present it to My
    Father, so that He may obtain kingdom upon kingdom, and it will exalt Him in glory. He
    will then take a higher exaltation, and I will take His place, and thereby become exalted
    myself. So that Jesus treads in the tracks of His Father, and inherits what God did
    before; and God is thus glorified and exalted in the salvation and exaltation of all His
    children.”

  27. Jeralee
    December 13, 2011 at 8:23 pm

    I experienced so many different emotions during this discussion in
    trying to figure out how these ideas and thought might apply to me.  At
    times I felt some frustration with the talk about *mechanics* of the
    Atonement..

    Dan’s wrap up of the message of the Atonement being about love, and
    relationships, and being a big person in the world. I always love me
    some Dan Wotherspoon wisdom!  Then in the end Tresa Edmunds hit it out
    of the park for me with her testimony, and very real lived experience.
    Can’t say enough about the importance of what she shared, and that for
    me on so many deep levels, and with so many issues within the Church,
    it’s not the mechanics, but having lived life enjoying the benefits and
    that it works for me! 

    We all come to Mormon Matters for different reasons, and I admittedly am
    seeking the positive, and the uplifting in new ways or viewing things
    within the framework of the Gospel.

    Thank you to all of you on this panel!

  28. Stephen Carter
    December 19, 2011 at 5:48 pm

    Re: Jared’s thoughts about the
    moral influence theory: maybe Jesus is ancillary to the atonement
    because his story is only meant to be a vehicle for important spiritual
    information.

    In Alaska, I encountered a
    lot of stories that had information embedded in them. For example, I
    listened to an Alaska Native elder telling about how he had saved
    himself from a fall into an ice hole by using his ice pick. And a pair
    of local Inupiaq girls survived out on the tundra for a night by
    remembering stories they had heard from people who had been in similar
    situations.

    When the girls used the information in the story to survive, the role of the main character wasn’t be
    their savior but only to be the character the saving information was built around.

    Maybe
    there is spiritual “survival” information embedded in the story of the
    Passion and the atonement that we are supposed to tease out and use, but
    we get sidetracked by thinking that Jesus is going to come out of the
    story and do the saving for us.

    • Dan Wotherspoon
      December 19, 2011 at 6:08 pm

      Fascinating angle, Stephen. Thanks!

  29. JeremiahA
    April 14, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    It is always interesting to hear Mormon theology and how different issues are worked out…or almost worked out as the case may be. I found myself coming closest to Ms. Edmunds’ take in that the theories of the Atonement all touch on the truth to a certain degree, and I would add that the differences often seem to simply reflect people expressing the truth in the commonalities of their times.

    It is impressive how early the Atonement appears in the historical narrative, within several years after the death of Christ in the pre-Pauline creed (1 Corinthians 15:3-4) and in the earliest Gospel (Mark 10:45).

    Certainly the Atonement reflects reality. We all have felt guilty and are intuitively aware that we are morally imperfect, and only a morally perfect being could be a substitute on our behalf before the inherent just and merciful nature of the Godhead.

    Thank you for another informative podcast!

  30. Cleled2
    July 14, 2012 at 9:31 am

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