I’ve been threatening for quite some time to post an atonement theory. Blake Ostler has written a good one of his own and has thrown out the challenge to the rest of us to come up with a better one if we can. As it turns out, coming up with a coherent theory of atonement is really quite difficult. We have discussed his theory and others here for months and no one has come up with a theory that answers the questions we have have discussed about the atonement. Jacob wrote an excellent paper on the atonement (it was published in the Spring 2006 issues of Dialogue) in which he critiqued some of the theories out there but ended up demurring when it came to answering many of the tough questions a theory should answer. Mark Butler has talked about a theory but has never written it down in a single and concise form that can be adequately engaged. So this post is my preliminary and very rough whack at an atonement theory.
First, I want to catch you up on the conversations we have had on the atonement here at the Thang. In June of ’05 I posted on why I thought Stephen Robinson’s well known Parable of the Bicycle is theologically misleading. I followed that up with an two attempts at what I hoped were better atonement parables. First I tried one I called the Parable of the Mortgage, but then decided that didn’t work either because like the bicycle parable it was treating exaltation like a thing rather than a state of being. So about a year ago I posted what I called The Parable of the Pianist which compared exaltation to achieving virtuosity at piano while at the same time becoming one with the teacher. I like that parable much better.
But parables are not atonement theories, so I can’t count that as my theory. Last Spring I began a series of posts the week before Easter. I had naively hoped to iron out a working atonement theory that week. I first posted on some perplexing questions that surround the atonement, next I posted an overview of the most popular theories of atonement over the centuries (and discovered that we Mormons tend to preach a hodgepodge of theories that predate the restoration by centuries, with penal substituion generally getting the most air time), I then posted on Blake’s Compassion Theory of Atonement.
I decided that of all the theories of atonement I had heard Blake’s rang the most true to me. One of the things I very much like about his approach is that he considers the overall atonement to be the ongoing and never-ending process of God working to help free-willed humankind become at one with Him. Blake focuses of the previent grace of God in the form of God’s outstretched arms toward us beckoning us all to enter a loving relationship even though we have not behaved in ways to deserve such an offer. He also focuses on salvation as a a state of being, with us potentially becoming unified and at one with the Godhead, rather than treating salvation like a Celestial admission ticket. All of that seems just right to me and I incorporate it into the theory I have in mind.
But I have a major complaint about Blake’s Compassion Theory as well. While Blake reject penal-substitution theories (a very good idea I believe and something we have discussed at some length here) his theory is still a variation on a substitution theory. That is because he believes that every time we repent Christ literally absorbs “painful sin energy” that is somehow stored in us. That is a concept that I simply don’t buy. (You can see hundreds of comments debating that subject in the thread on his theory). If we must accept a substitution theory I would take Blake’s “painful energy transfer” idea over the unjust penal substitution model, but I don’t believe we must accept a substitution theory variation at all .
A uniquely Mormon hybrid theory [Update: Stapley suggested calling it a "Royal Empathy" theory of atonement. I like it.]
I have hinted for some time around here that I favor a theory that is somewhat of a hybrid between the classic Moral Example theories and the more recent Mormon notion called Empathy Theory (a term coined by Dennis Potter in a Dialogue article as far as I know.) The complaints against these theories when taken alone are pretty straight forward: Empathy Theory has Christ learning how to be a perfect judge of humankind and how to empathize with us all. But it makes the suffering of the Christ Event portion of the overall atonement (Gethsemane through his death) exclusively efficacious on him and not on us at all. In direct contrast, Moral Influence theories hold that the suffering Jesus experienced in the Christ Event portion of the overall atonement had no positive effects on Christ and were in effect a massive attention getter to draw the attention of the world to him in sympathy and gratitude. The complaints against this model are 1) That the suffering of the Christ Event could have been faked and had the same effect so why the actual suffering? And 2) If the entire goal was to inspire obedience, is the suffering of Jesus really the most effective way to do so? – particularly if it boiled down to a massive publicity stunt in the end?
So how does creating a hybrid of two theories that don’t stand up on their own help create a theory that will stand up. The answer is: It doesn’t without a little massaging.
The first thing I need to do is describe some assumptions. There is a major strain of Mormon thought that sprung from Joseph Smith’s King Follet Discourse and Sermon in the Grove that holds that God the Father formerly a Savior on a previous inhabited world. I have heard this idea called “The Divine Succession of Saviors” before though I don’t know who coined that term. If we assume this model (along with many 19th saints from what I can tell) then such a hybrid model does work:
The Empathy Theory portion does indeed exclusively affect Christ but that is not a bad thing in this hybrid theory. His experiences in Gethsemane and on the cross allow him to, as Joseph Smith described, attain a higher exaltation. A firsthand understanding of the pain and sorrows and suffering of all people was given to Jesus during the Christ Event portion of the Atonement. It appears to me that such knowledge and experience filled in his experiential knowledge gaps and gaining that knowledge was a rite of passage allowing Christ to become as the Father is. It further seems from the teachings of Joseph that such has been the pattern on every inhabited world throughout all eternity.
The Moral Example Theory works as well then. Depending on the assumptions one makes about the nature of our pre and post mortal life, the literalness of The Examplar theory can vary; but in any case the example of Christ suffering our pains so that he can be our God and perfectly empathizing and loving judge does serve to turn us to him in love. Further, the moral example Jesus set throughout his life becomes the template for us all to follow if we wish to improve our personal relationship with him and the Father. On a separate level from the suffering he experienced in the Christ Event portion of the atonement, the ongoing example of Christ’s grace — his willingness and desire to enter a loving relationship with us now regardless of our past — is more than sufficient to inspire our love and repentance.
So here are some questions Jacob recently asked that I think can be answered by such a theory:
Why was the atonement necessary? – See my definitions post. The overall atonement is the plan God follows to make us at one with him so of course the Plan of Salvation and Grace are necessary if we are to be at one with God. The Christ Event and suffering were necessary for Christ to know as the Father knows.
Why was Christ the only one who could perform the atonement? – In this case you mean the Christ Event portion of the atonement and it is apparent that such was the plan before this world. Who will fill that role on future worlds is another discussion.
Why would we have been hopelessly lost without the atonement? – Well it is obvious that we would be hopelessly lost without God’s overall plan for making us at one with him. But if you mean the Christ Event portion of the atonement only, answers to this question probably depend on your definitions of hopelessly lost and your assumptions as to how “at one” we humans can become with God in the eternities…
What caused Christ to suffer? – See above.
What did Christ suffer? – See above.
What did Christ”s suffering accomplish? – See above.
How does the atonement satisfy justice? – The overall atonement satisfies justice because it doesn’t offend justice.
How did the atonement bring about the resurrection? – No one seems to know how or why resurrection happens overall. But I don’t believe the Christ Event brought about resurrection. Rather I think Christ was the first on our world to be resurrected.
How is the atonement related to forgiveness? – The Christ Event gave Jesus the ultimate empathy which makes his forgiveness and grace toward all more understandable. The Father had this experiential empathy previous to Christ gaining it.
How is the atonement related to repentance? – Umm, inextricably…
How do we account for the various things scriptures say about the atonement? -Partially that they talk about different components of the overall atonement in different ways but use the same word (atonement) in many cases.
How was the atonement efficacious before it was performed? – The overall atonement is an ongoing process. The Christ Event affected Christ and he gained empathy there that he previously did not have (though the Father did.)
How did the atonement make us free? – The offer of a relationship, or to become at one with God, must come first from God. The overall atonement is partially synonymous with that previent grace that God offers all. We are only free to progress toward oneness with the Godhead because God graciously and freely offers that relationship first.
Ok, let me have it…