Brainstorming on the Atonement

April 9, 2006    By: Geoff J @ 11:31 pm   Category: Atonement & Soteriology,Theology

Do any of you really understand the atonement? I don’t think I do. Sure, I have the pithy one-liners about the atonement memorized just like ya’ll do but I can’t say I really get it. As we approach Easter 2006 I thought I’d post on the atonement this week to see if we can help each other understand this whole concept a little better.

At-One-ment

As has been discussed in lots of places, the word atonement is an English word that is simply the words at-one-ment mashed together. The idea, as I understand it, is that God’s act or process of atonement is the act or process of helping us become one with Him.

Resurrection

Ok, our scriptures say that because Jesus Christ was resurrected we all will be resurrected too. I honestly have no idea why that is the case. If God can cause all of us to get new bodies then why did Jesus specifically have to be resurrected to make that possible? If Christ never came couldn’t God have resurrected us all anyway? If so, then what’s the connection? If not, then what is the law that would prevent God from doing so?

God vs. Justice

The scriptures also indicate that Christ came to pay a debt on our behalf. We sin and therefore we are in debt. But who or what are we in debt to? (And what exactly is sin anyway? I prefer the idea that it is freely choosing to alienate ourselves from God.) Apparently we are indebted to Justice. It seems to me that in Mormonism, Justice is a Universal principle that is at least co-eternal with God and apparently it is a principle that God cannot overpower. It further seems to me that Justice is immutable (immoveable and unchangeable) whereas our God is quite changeable and movable. So while we Mormons reject the immutable God of creedal Christianity, we accept passionless and immutable Universals like Justice to which God must adhere. What that gives us is a God who legitimately is a person with passions and parts with whom we can have a real personal relationship. But it also gives us a God who must obey certain laws rather than being above all laws. I’m happy with that exchange, but I suspect others would not be.

Process vs. Event

Because I am wholeheartedly buying in to the concept that Blake Ostler is preaching that exaltation is almost entirely about our personal relationship with God, I think the at-one-ment is best described as the process that God has undertaken over the eternities to lovingly persuade us to freely choose to become one with Him. It seems to me that such a personal relationship also necessarily changes our fundamental character over time and makes us more like God.

But in addition to that eternal process there is also the event in the Garden of Gethsemane (and on the cross) to consider. That grand event seems to be the point at which Jesus paid a debt to the passionless Universal called Justice so that we would not have to pay ourselves if we repent. So the question might be: If the entire process is really about our personal relationship with God why was that payment to Justice so necessary? What exactly did our debt to Justice do to interfere with our relationship with God?

I have some vague ideas but they are not yet coming together for me. I’m hoping we can brainstorm on the subject a little together here to try to figure this out — or at least come up with some coherent theories…

22 Comments »

  1. Hi Geoff. Some thoughts:

    As far as the resurrection goes, is it possible Christ was an example or testimony of what the resurrection would be? A way for us to see what is meant by a literal resurrection? Becasuse of the life he lead he could be resurrected in a final state with no waiting….

    Process vs. event. My dad posted a nice thing on this once. I think a big part of Christ’s experience in the garden was to be able to be in a position to be a perfect judge. I think he got the ultimate insight into what the effects of sin and the weaknesses of the flesh are all about for everyone. Now he knows what he needs to in order to pass eternal judgement.

    Comment by Eric — April 10, 2006 @ 5:36 am

  2. As Kevin Barney pointed out at BCC recently the at-one-ment thing really is the word origin in English. But it isn’t clear to me how this word was selected to represent Christ’s sacrifice. Do any other languages render it similarly?

    Also odd is that the word only shows up once in the KJV NT. The OT usage (which is frequent) doesn’t seem to support the at-one-ment idea very well since it is often referring to the animal that was just sacrificed. I am guessing now that being at one with an animal was the idea the original authors had in mind. What words at actually being used in the original languages of the OT and NT?

    Comment by a random John — April 10, 2006 @ 7:21 am

  3. I agree that we have very little insight into why the atonement works at all. There have been two very nice pieces working on this theological puzzle in Dialogue recently; Jacob Morgan in the most recent issue on “The Divine-Infusion Theory: Rethinking the Atonement,” and Dennis Potter’s “Did Christ Pay for Our Sins?” in Dialogue 34(4): 73-86 (Winter, 1999). Both of these guys argue that God can simply forgive our sins when we repent and foresake them, and that the scriptural discussions of justice refer to the impossibility of being in a kingdom whose glory we can’t support after final judgment. So the current cutting edge within Mormon theological work on the atonement may try to understand the atonement by rejecting the very Platonic theory of justice you’ve discussed here… At the very least, this is a move you should consider and argue against, I think.

    Comment by RoastedTomatoes — April 10, 2006 @ 8:23 am

  4. Eric – I think that both of your thoughts are interesting. But of course they are effects of this thing called the atonement. I’m trying to figure out what the atonement really is.

    arJ – Thanks for that BCC link. It was one of the posts I was thinking of in that section.

    RT – Thanks for the heads up. Here is the Potter article but I couldn’t find the Morgan article. What issue was that in again?

    Comment by Geoff J — April 10, 2006 @ 9:42 am

  5. Nevermind RT — I see that it is in the current issue of Dialogue.

    Comment by Geoff J — April 10, 2006 @ 9:52 am

  6. You raised some good questions here. A related question that I’ve been asking myself for a long time is: why did the fall of Adam lead to our fall? I can accept that Adam’s fall was due to his own sin. (I don’t buy the arguement that he only transgressed. Sin is the transgression of the law, so there is no difference between the two.) However, if we were initially sinless spirits, why were we required to come to earth and be in a fallen condition? Why was God even justified in putting sinless spirits into a fallen condition?

    Another question that at first appears to be off the topic but really isn’t is: is there something inherently good about God making trillions of pseudocopies of himself to populate the universe? In other words, is there a moral reason that God created us, or did he do it just because he wanted to? If it was the latter, then we might say that all the commandments that God has given us are based not on a moral issue but simply on nothing more than His desire to produce trillions of us. In this case, good and evil are nothing more that what helps God to get the result he wants and what doesn’t. I don’t want to believe this, because it means there is nothing that is inherently good or evil. I want to believe in “Immutable Universals”, as Geoff put it. But I’m starting to think that it may be that good really is good simply because God says it is, not because there is an objective, moral reason, but simply because it helps God to accomplish his goals. I don’t like this idea. I want there to be truth, falsity, good, and evil that have nothing to do with what is convenient for spreading us across the universe.

    It seems to me that the truth of the doctrine that we have always existed in some form really does not change the validity of the above questions, because it doesn’t do away with the question of whether our creation was based on a moral decision or just a whim of God’s (due to his love) to create us in our present form. Is possible that good and evil are really just love and nonlove? No, because you can love something that is evil.

    On the question of why Christ had to be resurrected in order for us to be resurrected, here is a spectulation that I’ve heard before. It may be that resurrection is an ordinance. We know that before we can officiate or participate in an ordinace for someone else, we have to have received that ordinance for ourselves. Therefore, Christ was following that rule with his own resurrection. However, you could also ask why this rule about ordinaces is in place. All I can say is that it just makes perfect sense to me, which doesn’t lead to an answer to your question.

    Comment by Bill B — April 10, 2006 @ 12:59 pm

  7. Geoff… will you be my home teacher??? sure, Germany is far but it’s an even better reason for you and Kristen to come visit!!!

    Comment by Debi — April 11, 2006 @ 12:25 am

  8. The only meta-theory of the justice requirement that makes any sense to me is the idea that the Atonement is an ongoing process that literally sustains us from day to day, a source of spiritual power (“the light of Christ”) necessary for us to remain alive (“draw daily breath”), to maintain order in a world where order naturally dissapates like the hoar frost.

    Or more explicitly (by my account), that the law of Justice and the necessity of a suffering Atonement, have at their root a metaphysical requirement not infinitely far removed from the first and second laws of thermodynamics – an Atonement which by everlasting divine exercise gradually rolls back the otherwise inevitable consequence of the second law, which is universal Death, not by revoking natural law (lest the suffering be of no consequence), but by painstakingly working within its confines both physical and spiritual to sustain an everlasting posterity.

    All the alternatives I am aware of fail to properly account for the *neccessity* of a suffering Atonement, not to mention theodicy in general.

    Comment by Mark Butler — April 11, 2006 @ 1:32 am

  9. I know that it is a bit heretical, but I think that Joseph Smith was clear in the last months of his life that the Atonement was for God as well as Man. This is supported by the Book of Mormon – “that he might succor his people.” “The Spirit knoweth all things, nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh.”

    By the resurection we are ransomed from Death and become Christ’s. He had to go first, perhaps, because we had to belong to someone. And Jesus was worth belonging to.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 11, 2006 @ 11:17 am

  10. This will seem haphazard of a response, but bear with me. There are at least two questions here, that are related, but can be discussed separately. First, the term ‘atonement’ is an English word referring to the reconciliation between God and Man. Atonement makes us ‘at one’. In the Hebrew, the term for atonement or the atoning process is ‘kippur’ as in Yom Kippur, at it carries with it the generalized meaning of ‘to cover’. On Yom Kippur (literally the ‘Day of Atonement’) one of two goats offered was slaughtered and the blood was splashed (or ‘applied’ if one thinks that Mosiah 4:2 is referring to this ritual) on the altar of burnt offerings, the altar of incense, and the ark of the covenant. Since the goat is designated as the one to Yahweh, it represents Yahweh. Thus the symbolism is of the blood of Jehovah which ‘covers’ Israel and makes him clean. Thus the scriptural references to becoming clean ‘through’ the blood of Christ, or of being washed clean. Both refer to the covering nature of the ritual. With that said, images and references of clothing, or of being clothed, are powerful images of the atonement, since it is Christ who ‘covers’ us. Interestingly, the word ‘endowment’ comes from the Greek word ‘enduo’ which also means ‘to clothe’ and from that ‘to invest’. Thus, the term atonement can be understood as ‘to cover’ as well as ‘at one with’. Ultimately, they are the same since by being covered we become one.
    The second part of the question concerns our understanding of the laws of justice and mercy and the role of agency, which ultimately must be understood in terms of our understanding as to who, or better, what we really are. Which, because my computer is acting slow, I’ll have to cover later.

    Comment by Dan Belnap — April 11, 2006 @ 12:39 pm

  11. What’s the value of faith in the atonement if it is incomprehensible? Can one even have faith in something one does not understand? It would seem to me that anyone admitting that they do not understand the atonement would be prohibited from securing a temple recommned.

    Comment by Paul Mortensen — April 11, 2006 @ 1:29 pm

  12. Geoff et al.: I address the atonement at some length in volume 2 and give what, as far as I am aware, is a novel approach what answers the issues raised here. Nothing impedes God from forgiving us without the necessity that someone must suffer (let alone a perfectly innocent sacrifice) as a necessary condition to such forgiveness. However, what God cannot do is enter into a relationship of loving an indwelling unity unity with us without feeling the pain that is necessarily attendant such loving relationships of indwelling unity and shared life. It is painful for Christ to enter into relationship with us because it is painful to be in relationship with us.

    Comment by Blake — April 11, 2006 @ 2:15 pm

  13. It is painful for Christ to enter into relationship with us because it is painful to be in relationship with us.

    I don’t know why, but when I read that I started busting up laughing. And I’m at the library so that wasn’t such a good thing. I think it’s so funny because its so true.

    Comment by Craig Atkinson — April 11, 2006 @ 4:45 pm

  14. Bill – Good questions all around. I hope to address many of them in my series of atonement posts this week. Here are some thoughts on your other questions that I doubt we will address elsewhere:

    a) I don’t think Mormon doctrine teaches god creates pseudo-copies of himself. According to Joseph we are all in some way uncreated and beginningless just like God is. Now as to our present form — that is a good question. I am of the opinion that worlds like this are part of the “One eternal round” pattern of God so he has always done these probations. (Of course I also suspect we have always been part of that process too..)

    b) This question about Universals is a crucial assumption. Their acceptance (or not) makes a huge difference in the theories of atonement we can entertain I think.

    c) I don’t think the resurrection as ordinance point really answers the question. If the Father has a resurrected body then why couldn’t do it himself? I can’t understand why Christ’s resurrection was necessary to get us all resurrected – at least I can’t see any direct connection between the two.

    Comment by Geoff J — April 12, 2006 @ 2:51 pm

  15. Debi – Hey! I’d love to be your home teacher. Didn’t I used to have that job?

    Mark – I really prefer the Atonement-as-ongoing-process model too. My problem is making sense of the climactic events in the Garden and on the cross.

    I actually also lean toward that idea that the atonement “gradually rolls back the otherwise inevitable consequence of the second law, which is universal Death” but I haven’t yet put together a coherent theory/model that employs that idea.

    J. – The idea that the atonement did something crucial for Christ would probably not find much resistance in the church on the surface. But unpacking the assumptions might start getting a bit dicey I think.

    Dan – Thanks for the interesting facts. I look forward to reading your thoughts on justice, mercy, and agency. Those subjects are at the heart of the questions at hand.

    Comment by Geoff J — April 12, 2006 @ 3:00 pm

  16. Paul – You lost me bro. What was your point? That you do fully understand the atonement? If so, please share. Or was the point that none of us understand it so none of us should attend the temple? Why would that be?

    Blake – I read most of chapter seven in your book last night. I will post on your “Compassion Theory” of the atonement either tonight or tomorrow.

    Comment by Geoff J — April 12, 2006 @ 3:04 pm

  17. Paul, we have faith in so many things we don’t completely understand. One of our quests on earth is to gain knowledge and faith comes from believing and experimenting on the Word and finally obtaining a greater confirmation of truth.

    I understand the Atonement to a degree, just as everyone else does and through my failures and successes I gain a greater understanding and as I do my faith grows (until the perfect day).

    Comment by Heli — April 12, 2006 @ 3:33 pm

  18. Geoff – I lean towards interpreting Christ’s end of life suffering as only part of an ongoing and everlasting Atonement, an atonement that involves continued suffering sacrifice even now. As to why, I suggest that those events were allowed to occur so that we would have a reasonable appreciation of the level of sacrifice involved.

    Moses 7:28-41 has a good description of what I believe is going on here, a depth of emotion not simply derived from the superiority of the Lord’s character, but further due to a metaphysical connection between us that is much deeper than marks on a judicial tally sheet.

    Comment by Mark Butler — April 12, 2006 @ 3:52 pm

  19. Bill, you said:

    In other words, is there a moral reason that God created us, or did he do it just because he wanted to? If it was the latter, then we might say that all the commandments that God has given us are based not on a moral issue but simply on nothing more than His desire to produce trillions of us. In this case, good and evil are nothing more that what helps God to get the result he wants and what doesn’t. I don’t want to believe this, because it means there is nothing that is inherently good or evil. I want to believe in “Immutable Universals”, as Geoff put it. But I’m starting to think that it may be that good really is good simply because God says it is, not because there is an objective, moral reason, but simply because it helps God to accomplish his goals. I don’t like this idea. I want there to be truth, falsity, good, and evil that have nothing to do with what is convenient for spreading us across the universe.

    I’ve always understood that we are co-eternal with God. Obviously we are at a different stage in our progression and God, being good, wants to help us along. He helped us transition from intelligences to spirits and then to bodies. His goals are simple and pure, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. His goals are based on eternal truths, formost is Charity/love/cooperation theory (whatever you want to call it). It is good to help others because they will help more others and one day may help you as well.

    Its clear that in societies where competition and cooperation are healthy that the standard of living is higher than societies where competition dominates to the point of violence.

    Comment by Heli — April 13, 2006 @ 11:30 am

  20. “Ok, our scriptures clearly say that because Jesus Christ was resurrected we all will be resurrected too. I honestly have no idea why that is the case. If God can cause all of us to get new bodies then why did Jesus specifically have to do be resurrected to make that possible? If Christ never came couldn’t God have resurrected us all anyway? If so, then what’s the connection? If not, then what is the law that would prevent God from doing so?”

    Perhaps God cannot cause us all to get new bodies. Christ as part divinity, could have had an exceptional learning curve, plus a perfect understanding of the power of the priesthood and was able to take up his own body – just as each of us, taught by Christ, will learn to take up our own bodies. He paid the price (tuition) to make it possible for us to learn, and have faith that we, human as he partially was, could do the same.

    Comment by gilgamesh — May 7, 2006 @ 9:17 pm

  21. Gilgamesh,

    The only problem with the tuition idea is that it means there is a figurative professor (who is not the Father or Son) who is demanding payment for resurrection lessons. I think the Father and Son already knew how to handle those teaching duties prior to 34 A.D., don’t you?

    Comment by Geoff J — May 7, 2006 @ 9:51 pm

  22. I agree – maybe tuition was the wrong word. I look at Joseph’s Smith’s statement – I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves – as a possible universal doctrine. God taught Christ how to raise himself up – and he, being part divine had a more full understanding of the power of the priesthood, and could utilze his human earth experience to teach us as fellow eathlings. I would think that we would need to gain the experience of raising ourselves so we can pass it on to our own eternal offspring. (This would also put each of us in the position to do what our Father has done, namely lay down our lives -by agreeing to birth we also agree to death – and taking them up again.)

    Comment by gilgamesh — May 7, 2006 @ 10:30 pm

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