A Response to Blake’s Critique of My Atonement Paper

June 16, 2010    By: Jacob J @ 1:21 am   Category: Atonement & Soteriology

Blake has a relatively new paper up on his site called “Atonement in Mormon Thought (a Response to Deidre Green Regarding the Compassion Theory of Atonement)”. As the title indicates, it is largely a response to a paper critiquing his compassion theory of atonement.†

Before making his response to Deidre Green, Blake does a quick survey of uniquely Mormon theories of atonement and offers some critiques of his own. He did me the honor of offering a short critique of my Dialogue paper The Divine-Infusion Theory: Rethinking the Atonement (which is now available online, thanks Kristine and Dialogue!). When I read what Blake had to say it got me thinking about how it came about and I wanted to make a short response here.

When I started researching for my paper (ha!) I was actually doing nothing of the sort. I was trying to make sense of what the atonement was supposed to mean. I was frustrated, not by how incomprehensible it was, but by how comprehensibly wrong certain aspects of the atonement seemed to me. I framed my paper as a response to Dennis Potter’s paper because my journey with atonement theory really began when I stumbled onto his paper. (As it turns out, I stumbled onto it because I was looking up Blake’s paper Mormonism and Determinism and it was in the same issue of Dialogue.) It blew the door right off the hinges for me. Substitution theories felt like a tight and constricting box, but I had never been able to think outside that box. Potter’s paper was a revelation and I accepted his rejection of penal-substitution almost immediately because penal-substitution was what I had been trying to reject for years without realizing it.

With a blanker canvas than I had ever worked with before, I started re-reading all the scriptures on the atonement from the Book of Mormon. I read Lehi and Amulek and Alma over and over and over again in an effort to figure out what they were trying to convey without the preconceived ideas I had previously brought to those texts. I wanted to know if the Book of Mormon had something interesting to say about the atonement or not. As it turned out, I started to realize that foundational ideas behind the atonement as portrayed in the Book of Mormon were not at all like what I had previously understood them to be.

What I began to realize was that the foundational concepts of justice, forgiveness, and the fall were the problem. Most theories of atonement derail before they leave the station because they are built on inadequate or unacceptable notions of justice, forgiveness, or the fall. I spent many lunch hours discussing justice with my genius brother, debating various hypothetical scenarios like the ones philosophers come up with to tease apart intuitive notions of various concepts. (Hypotheticals about torture during this time gave rise much later to a post here about how I would torture Saddam Hussein.) As demolition on penal-substitution and its oversimplified version of justice made progress, I had to start rebuilding.

I started to piece together my own understanding of what the atonement was all about, largely from reading Lehi and Amulek and Alma. The key for me was that the atonement had to be built on better foundational concepts than I had been given growing up in the church. I started to get an opinion about how I would reformulate those foundational elements on which the atonement is based.

At some point, I started to write, which for me is a process by which I find out if I have anything to say, and if so, what it is. During the years this was going on, I moved into a my first house, tore up my yard, put in sprinklers, planted trees, built a retaining wall, and put in a brick walkway. I remember digging trenches with a pickaxe for hours in the hot sun while I pondering all this stuff about the atonement and trying to fit things together. At night, I would stay up late trying to capture all my thoughts and put some organization to them.

I never got to a point of thinking I had it all figured out, or anything approaching that. The idea of the atonement still poses problems for me that I don’t know how to solve. But when I compared my new notions of the atonement, repentance, and forgiveness to the ones I was replacing, I grew more and more convinced that this was important, that I was on the right track. I had read everything I could find on the atonement in Mormon thought and it all seemed to be infected with screwed up notions of justice and the fall. I wondered if anyone else could be helped by the ideas that unlocked new meaning from the atonement for me.

Eventually, I had a version of my thoughts down on paper (although at that time it was three times the length of the published paper). It was the product of isolated thinking; I had no idea how anyone else would respond. The bloggernacle was just being created during this time and I had never heard of it anyway. I passed it around to whoever I thought I could get to give me feedback. A CES instructor in my ward stared back blankly when I handed him a 60 page paper on the atonement I was looking for feedback on. I sent it to my family. I wished more than ever that I knew some of the people who wrote the articles and books I read so I could ask them what they thought and if I was off in the weeds. I rued the fact that Truman Madsen was not my stake president.

It was during this time that it occurred to me (I can’t remember when or how) that I could submit my paper to Dialogue. After all, it was a Dialogue paper that got me started on the topic in the first place, right? I liked my idea better than the Empathy Theory so maybe someone else would too. Somehow I mustered the hubris and audacity to take that idea seriously and I started working on a version I could submit. (I am still surprised by that.) I trimmed it down some and reworked it with a new audience in mind. Eventually I looked up the instructions on how to submit a paper and hit send.

All of this might give you a sense for how blown away I am five years later to show up in a paper by Blake Ostler on the atonement. I mean, sure, he says my theory is not really a theory of atonement at all, but I’m not greedy.

Overall, I feel like Blake was very kind in his critique. He goes out of his way to say that he agrees with my paper as far as it goes. He even tips his hat a bit later in his paper when he uses my term “super-fallen” to describe the state we would have been in if there had been no atonement.‡ Blake’s complaints are four in number:

1. That I claim there are two kinds of laws of justice when there is in reality only one law of justice.

Even though Blake calls this critique “merely a small correction,” it is the most disappointing one to me because it means I didn’t communicate my thoughts on justice very well.

In my paper I never suggest that there are two different kinds of justice. I do say that there are two common notions of justice which are sometimes in conflict and which we wrestle with as we try to figure out the best way to deal with reformed criminals. I point out that both notions of justice appear in the scriptures. Over at Mormon Mentality, I recently explained the importance of these two concepts of justice vis-à-vis Alma 42.

Anyway, without going through the whole analysis, the point of that section of my paper was to argue that justice is ultimately and fundamentally the law of the harvest. The reason this is critically important is that the penal-substitution theory incorrectly assumes that justice is fundamentally punitive in nature. I recently called this “one of the most damaging ideas in theology.” As I said in my paper at the conclusion of my discussion of justice:

This conclusion undermines our usual explanation of the atonement by suggesting that there is no need for suffering (vicarious or otherwise) once we have reformed from our sinful ways. It also provides its own answer to the question of what justice demands: We must learn to live the celestial law before we can be saved in the celestial kingdom.

So imagine my surprise when I read this in Blake’s paper:

According to Morgan, the demands of justice spoken of in the Book of Mormon are the demands for punishment of punitive justice.


It’s not quite as bad as that quote makes it seem. Despite this statement above which made me wonder if the central point of my comments on justice was misunderstood (and despite twice referring to “deserts punishment” instead of “deserts justice”), the rest of Blake’s summary of my position on justice was pretty close. However, Blake’s summary of my position on justice raised enough questions for me that I am simply not sure that his “small correction” to my position is meaningful. Blake and I agree that justice is fundamentally not punitive but deserts based. Over on the Mormon Mentality thread Blake agreed with my analysis of Alma 42.

So, my best guess is that Blake and I are actually in close agreement on the nature of justice and all of this confusion above is evidence that I did a terrible job explaining myself in my paper.

2. That “it is clear that Jesus does not need to suffer in order for his light to be in and through all things”

Blake’s reason for saying it is clear is that, as he says, the light of Christ “was in and through all things before he suffered.” The problem is that, as I quote in my paper, the scriptures say that:

“Jesus Christ. . . descended below all things, . . . that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth; . . . the light of Christ” (D&C 88:5-7; emphasis mine)

Given that the scriptures explicitly disagree with what Blake finds clear, I think it is worth considering that it is not so clear as he suggests. This argument skirts the difficult issue of how the atonement was in effect before Gethsemane and the cross given that the scriptures emphasize the suffering during the Passion as being synonymous with the atonement (e.g. when Amulek describes the atonement as the “great and last sacrifice” to end animal sacrifice). I know that the scriptures refer to Christ as the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world,” but I don’t know what that means exactly. The issue of the atonement’s temporality is one I still struggle with.

I find Blake’s critique to be fascinating when compared to statements Blake makes a bit later about his own theory of atonement. When critiquing my theory he says that it is clear Jesus does not have to suffer to be in and through all things, but then in response to Green he says of his own theory that,

[Christ] shares with us the very pain of our sins because whatever energy it is that causes that pain in us is transferred to him in union of our life’s light to be transformed and “quickened” by his light.

That sounds to me like an explanation of why Christ’s union with us (his light being in and through all things) necessarily entails the sharing of our pain. Elsewhere in his paper, Blake says:

The Compassion Theory posits that when the darkness of our sins is mingled with the perfect light of Christ we are enlightened, but the darkness that is in us causes him to experience momentary but excruciating pain.

Again, it appears to me that Blake’s theory is very much aligned with the scripture in D&C 88 whch I base my explanation on. In my paper, after discussing the idea that Christ’s suffering was necessary to infuse the light of Christ through all things, I make this concession:

I readily concede, however, that the theory does not explain why suffering was required to accomplish this infusion. I simply accept that it does on the authority of scripture.

Blake’s theory seems to pick up the same idea and attempt to fill in this gaping hole in my theory with a plausible explanation for why being in and through all things unavoidably requires suffering on Christ’s part. I think that’s great. I tried to be upfront and explicit about this significant hole in my own theory and I am thrilled that Blake’s theory turns out to line up so well with my own so that his ideas here can supplement my thinking so perfectly. Keep in mind that I Blake’s theory had not been published when I wrote my paper (had it been, I am sure I would not have submitted my paper to Dialogue, or even written it for that matter). I wrote my paper because everything I read on the atonement seemed to be based on such wrongheaded foundations. I find it simply remarkable that when I read Blake’s theory we use so many of the exact same scriptures to make the exact same points. We set up, in large measure, the same framework for understanding justice, mercy, and the fall. It still blows me away.

When I first got Blake’s second book (shortly after my paper was published) I started reading his chapters on atonement and I told my wife I was glad my paper got published first because otherwise people would think I had obviously copied big chunks of Blake’s book and tried to pass it off as my own. I know Blake sees a lot of differences between my theory and his own, but when compared with every other theory I have read on the atonement the two are virtually identical. The differences arise primarily because Blake’s theory goes much farther and gets into a level of detail I was not prepared to address. All of that is just as it should be since I am an untrained lay person and he is a scholar, philosopher, and theologian.

Despite Blake’s criticism here, I continue to see his theory as being very much in line with mine on the exact point he criticises. Of course, I welcome his correction.

3. That I don’t mention Gethsemane, the cross, or why Jesus suffered or how he bears our sins.

Actually, when I was writing the paper, every time I talked about “the atonement” I had in mind the suffering of the Passion and the effects of that suffering. It was not until I read Blake’s and Mark D’s theories that I first considered the idea that “the atonement” might refer principally to an ongoing process throughout history. So, although I never mention Gethsemane or the cross they are not really missing from the paper. As to the last part about how Jesus bears our sins, I’ll address that in the next section.

4. That by virtue of the failings above (especially 3) my theory is not a theory of atonement at all.

While I appreciate the temptation to denigrate other theories of atonement when discussing one’s own, were I to make this complaint I would rephrase it from saying my theory “just isn’t a theory of atonement” to saying it “just isn’t a complete theory of atonement.” If it was phrased this way I would have no rejoinder. As it stands, I think Blake is making one of the classic blunders of taking a single missing piece and magnifying it as though this missing piece is actually the central point of atonement theory. As it turns out, I have already responded to this critique specifically with an entire post: Some thoughts on atonement theory.

Let’s put things in perspective. The Ransom Theory does not explain how Christ bears our sins. Is it a real theory of atonement? The moral-influence theories do not explain how Christ bears our sins. Are they real theories of atonement? The Satisfaction theory does not explain how Christ bears our sins. Is it a real theory of atonement? Of course all these are really theories of atonement despite their shortcomings. I explicitly called attention to the biggest hole in my theory in the main text of my paper. This hole certainly makes my theory incomplete, but I see no validity in the claim that it is not really a theory of atonement because of some unexplained piece of the puzzle. Blake says what I have offered is a theory of prevenient grace. Yes, it is that, but it is much more as well. I guess people can decide for themselves.

Blake concludes by saying that he thinks my theory is correct as far as it goes. I’ll take that. It is a better verdict than I could have possibly imagined back when I was sitting at home wondering what a Truman Madsen or a Blake Ostler would think of my reformulation of the atonement. Thanks for the review Blake.

† Frankly, I think the discussion we had with Blake back in 2006 here at NCT was as insightful and in-depth a discussion of his atonement theory as you are likely to find anywhere. Sadly, due to the excessive length of that thread and the structureless nature of online conversations it is not much use to anyone. Still, some of Green’s critiques seem less well aimed than the best shots taken there, imho.

‡ Of course, my discussion of the super-fallen state described in the Book of Mormon does have a footnote to Blake’s paper The Development of the Mormon Concept of Grace in which he makes a very similar point about the Book of Mormon and calls this were-it-not-for-the-atonement state theoretical original sin.


  1. I think part of what you are seeing are debate tactics. Statements like ‘it is clear that’ usually mean it is not clear (else why bother saying it) or it is so difficult to really explain that they do not want to get into it. I think we all do this.

    Blake is actually quite a nice guy.

    I’ll have to read the paper – thanks.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — June 16, 2010 @ 4:33 am

  2. Isn’t it implicit in your theory that Christ suffered “that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth”? Also, isn’t it implicit that “how he bears our sins” is by suffering? I know the answer is not granular and lacks any sort of nuance, but an answer is still an answer, even if it lacks the depth and clarity desired. Is the correct question “How does Christ’s suffering bear our sins?”

    Comment by Matt W. — June 16, 2010 @ 6:44 am

  3. What an interesting exercise it would be Matt, if we were to formulate all of the correct questions that must be answered to properly understand the atonement. I like the question.

    Jacob, when I read this paper a couple of months ago when I put it up on Blake’s site I had not realized that you had published your paper in Dialogue previous to reading Blake’s stuff. It is remarkable that you both arrived at the same place. Good on you!

    Comment by Kent (MC) — June 16, 2010 @ 8:50 am

  4. Eric, I totally agree with you. I’m worried that if you have to tell me Blake is a nice guy I might have come on to strong or been too defensive. Of course, I love Blake.

    Matt, yep, you nailed it and your rephrase is more accurate to what is being asked.

    Kent, thanks.

    Comment by Jacob J — June 16, 2010 @ 9:30 am

  5. Jacob,

    I think ‘slain from the foundation of the world’ means that the atonement was effective from the moment it was decided that it would occur. We clearly see the effects of atonement, sans resurrection, in the lives off …everybody … before the actual events took place. It says somewhere else that if the actual events of the atonement hadn’t taken place that the works of God would have been frustrated. Whatever alteration is made in the universe by the atonement, the power to make those changes was present before the events took place on condition that they would take place.

    The rest sure is interesting. I’m reading it much differently now than I would have even several weeks ago. ~

    Comment by Thomas Parkin — June 16, 2010 @ 9:36 am

  6. This is my theory of the atonement: “Relax, do your best to do good and it’s going to be okay.” Except for my daughter-in-law, who’s too relaxed and doing very little good. She’s so screwed.

    Comment by annegb — June 16, 2010 @ 10:00 am

  7. The question, “If we repent of our sins, why do we need the atonement to be forgiven?” has at least two different answers that seem reasonable to me. One answer is that without the atonement it never would have been possible for us to repent in the first place. Another answer is that even our best efforts to change fall short of what is really needed; only the atonement will ever make up the difference. We need to have faith that our past and future sins can be forgiven or are already forgiven, and we need to have faith that Christ will help us to leave our sins and weaknesses behind in the long run if we are willing to accept his grace. Although an understanding of how this really works is a good thing to seek, a belief that it really works is probably more important.

    Comment by kamschron — June 16, 2010 @ 10:13 am

  8. Thomas: I think ’slain from the foundation of the world’ means that the atonement was effective from the moment it was decided that it would occur

    Sure, I agree with that. The problem is explaining how that could be. How can something be in effect before it happens? For me, that is a tough one to resolve satisfactorily. It always seems to lead to either backward causation (which is philosophically problematic) or to downplaying the importance of the Passion (which is theologically problematic).

    annegb, awesome. (and such a succinct theory!).

    kamschron, I like your first answer over your second. I agree with you that that the atonement works is more important than how the atonement works.

    Comment by Jacob J — June 16, 2010 @ 10:52 am

  9. Jacob: some of Green’s critiques seem less well aimed than the best shots taken there


    Comment by Geoff J — June 16, 2010 @ 11:30 pm

  10. I printed the post and all the links and now I have about 300 pages of material to read through. Maybe in a month I will be able to form an opinion worth posting, but I am willing to bet it is going to be “I don’t understand the Atonement.” But at least I should be able to tell you why I don’t understand it specifically.

    Either way, my Sacrament talk in August should be a little more informed than usual.

    Comment by TStevens — June 17, 2010 @ 6:38 am

  11. TStevens, Wow, if you make it through that will be quite impressive. Please feel free to report back on your impressions after reading. Hope you find something worthwhile in there.

    Comment by Jacob J — June 17, 2010 @ 9:17 am

  12. Dang. I have a half written response to both Blake and Deidre Green that has laid unfinished for a few months. Now I really need to finish it!

    Comment by Clark — June 17, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

  13. “I had read everything I could find on the atonement in Mormon thought”

    Did you include my atonement theory in your studies?

    Comment by LDS Anarchist — June 18, 2010 @ 1:29 am

  14. Anarchist,

    Since the reading I am describing in the sentence you quoted took place in the 2003-2006 timeframe it was not possible for this reading to include your theory which was posted in 2008. However, what you are describing is nearly identical to what Cleon Skousen proposes in the appendix of his volume The Second Thousand Years.

    In your theory you suggest that:

    The greatness of the suffering of the innocent Christ was of such magnitude that all creation, the whole Universe, cannot help but say, “Okay. It is enough. Do not apply the rule of justice.

    As soon as the tremendous suffering of Christ is manifested to the ensemble, discerned by the Spirit, all creation’s bowels are filled with compassion and they change their minds. The sin of the person is then forgiven.

    Compare to Skousen, who said:

    You are an intelligence. You are capable of being subjected to so much sympathy and compassion that you stop asking for every “pound of flesh” that the law permits. To overcome the demands of justice on all mankind, you must have a person who is infinitely loved as it says in Alma 34. You know that infinitely means universally.

    …That was the mission of Jesus Christ. He had to suffer so much that when He goes to those little intelligences and pleads on the behalf of someone who did the best he could, which is called repentance, they’ll say, “Well, he shouldn’t go back, but if you want him to, after all you’ve gone through, then, yes, he can go up.” That’s the atonement. (Skousen, The Meaning of the Atonement. You can find this various places online, the place that came up first on google right now was this site.)

    In Blake’s paper I link and respond to above, he actually reviews this theory of atonement. I also reviewed it in the original paper I wrote but I cut out that review when I condensed my paper. The short answer is that although I appreciate certain aspects of your theory, I think it is not based on a reasonable theory of justice.

    You are saying justice is defined by the demands of everyone in the universe, predominately the demands of all the lowest level intelligences, who for some reason demand that people be perfect, even though they are not perfect (which means they are working against themselves). Does God, the all-good and all-wise tie his hands from doing the right thing based on the demands of a bunch of low level intelligences? That makes no sense to me. It seems to me that it would not require Christ to suffer at all if this were the case. If the requirements of the law are so arbitrary as to be subject to a universal vote, I expect that the requirements would be very lax indeed. The whole idea of justice being based on a big vote seems relatively perposterous to me.

    My bigger problem with your theory is that it focuses almost entirely on the idea of some required punishment (required by all living beings in the universe) instead of focusing on the requirement whic D&C 88 makes explicit which is a matter of sanctification rather than justification. The real reason we cannot go to the celestial kingdom is that we are not celestial beings. The atonement was instituted to help lesser intelligences become what God is. This focus on sanctification and repentance as the reform and gradual perfection of the individual is the key concept for me in soteriology.

    Comment by Jacob J — June 18, 2010 @ 11:32 am

  15. Anarchist,

    I got a minute to read through the comments on your thread. I see that in one comment you say this in response to Doug’s comment about reputation:

    The scriptures refer to this reputation as honor. (See D&C 29: 36 and Moses 4:1.)

    Compare with Skousen who said this:

    The source of God’s power is described in D&C 29:36. It is in some other places, too—Moses 4:1,4. What makes him God? What makes, over a process of time, a God? “My honor is my power.”

    I have to ask, was your theory heavily influenced by Skousen’s? It would be remarkable to me if you zero’d in on all the same scriptures. I’m not saying you didn’t, I’m just asking because I don’t see any references to Skousen in that post and the parallels are striking.

    Comment by Jacob J — June 18, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

  16. In the list of things that I *did* read on the atonement years ago is this article by J. Clair Batty in Sunstone in 1983: The Atonement: Do Traditional Explanations Make Sense? I don’t think we’ve ever linked to or talked about this paper on NCT.

    The first half of the article explaining the problem of atonement is excellent. I love this:

    Closely tied to the notion of Christ’s sacrifice being to his heavenly father in his role as mediator or advocate with the Father. Is an advocate or mediator necessary because the Father doesn’t know us as well as the Savior does or is more stern than the Savior is or has a different opinion about the plan of salvation than the Savior does? Are they arguing over who gets saved and who doesn’t?

    I think of that when I see arguments that stress Christ as advocate. And this:

    It is difficult to worship a god who either has such a warped sense of fair play that the vicarious suffering of an innocent can satisfy his notions of justice or is of such limited power as to be coerced into cooperation with beings who do.

    Both of these seem like excellent rejoinders to the Skousen theory.

    Comment by Jacob J — June 18, 2010 @ 7:36 pm

  17. Jacob, my understanding is that all things in the Universe are perfect. Nothing breaks the law of God. All things fulfill the measure of their creation, with one exception: the children of God. These are the only things that are imperfect, that follow their own path. Everything else remains in a sinless, guiltless state, following God. So, the standard used (by all these perfect intelligences) to measure all things is perfect obedience to divine law, as they themselves are perfectly obedient.

    This creates a problem for the children of God, who screw up, hence the need for an atonement.

    The “whole idea of justice being based on a big vote” may seem preposterous to you, but it is scriptural doctrine that the law of heaven is one of common consent. God is not a tyrant and does not do things without the consent of the governed, that would be unrighteous dominion. If you wish to delve deeper into this topic, I recommend you read An alternative view of the keys and other common consent posts on my blog.

    I never mentioned the word “punishment” in the theory, so I think you may be projecting a pre-conceived notion onto it. The atonement is based solely on rewards, not on punishments. The penalty of not taking advantage of the atonement is that you don’t get the reward. The only punishment mentioned in the scriptures is referring to damnation.

    The points you bring up concerning focus (focussing on punishment vs. focussing on sanctification in the CK) seems to be based on the idea that damnation can exist in the Ter. and Tel. kingdoms. (You can correct me if I’m wrong in that assessment. If, though, I am right, you might find the blog post, Damnation, and its comment section, to be of interest.) The focus on “sanctification in the CK” tends to leave out sanctification in the Tel. and Ter. kingdoms, which theory, if believed, conflicts with D&C 88: 34, which applies equally to all three kingdoms of glory.

    In D&C 88, sanctification is mentioned in conjunction with obedience to law. Justification also comes by obedience to law, so I am not sure how you are getting that this is “a matter of sanctification rather than justification.”

    Lastly, Jacob, I’ve never read Skousen’s book, though I’ve heard of it. I came to these conclusions by searching the scriptures on my own.

    Comment by LDS Anarchist — June 18, 2010 @ 9:41 pm

  18. Anarchist,

    Thanks for the response, that is interesting. I have a whole bunch of questions now.

    So when you talk about the whole universe agreeing you are not including intelligences that could someday be born as people, is that right? What are these other intelligences, are they the intelligence that inhabit the dust of the earth which the Book of Mormon talks about being more obedient than people? In your view is all of the inanimate matter filled with perfect individual intelligences so that molecules hold together because they perfectly obey the laws of physics?

    I am familiar with the law of common consent, but can you help me connect it with the law of justice? Is it your view that all laws are based on common consent? Is morality based on common consent? That is, if the intelligences all decided together that murder is okay, would they be right, by definition? (I will be arguing that justice is part of the law of morality.)

    Even if punishment is merely the lack of a reward, having the reward withheld can rightly be called a punishment. In your theory you talk about accusers and say this:

    Jesus, who essentially says, “Hey, look at me. I did no wrong, yet I suffered severely in this manner. [Shows his suffering and death.] Do not accuse this man (or woman.) Let my suffering suffice for the penalty required by the law.” The accusers, upon gazing upon his suffering and discerning the intensity of it by the Spirit, are moved to compassion. The Father (the judge) calls forth the accusers and no one shows. No one makes an accusation. There is no case. The Father then releases the [un-]accused into the custody of Jesus, who then passes a judgment on us (he becomes our Judge) and assigns us one of the three degrees of glory.

    This is the language that lead me to make my statement about punishment, since you do say that Christ’s suffering suffices for the penalty of the law (I see now you make a distinction between penalty of the law and punishment). But more importantly, you have it explained so that the suffering is all about getting us past the judgment of these perfect intelligences, after which Jesus just assigns us to a kingdom. I believe it is the opposite. I think that God can forgive us without an atonement, but the problem is that we are not worthy of a kingdom of glory without tremendous reform and that the atonement, as it says in the Book of Mormon, brings about means unto men that they might repent (i.e. reform). That is the difference in emphasis I am talking about. Sanctification is a matter of a person gradually becoming like God is. Justification is a legal matter and we can be justified before we are sanctified. (I am not a person who mistakes damnation with damming water.) As you said:

    Universe no longer holds that individual guilty. In other words, he is justified. Once he realizes he is forgiven and justified, the burden of sin is lifted, as the penalty will not be applied to him.

    Again, the focus seems to be on forgiveness, justification, and the removal of a penalty. In my opinion, the atonement is about making sanctification possible. D&C 88 separates the three degrees based on various levels of sanctification.

    Comment by Jacob J — June 19, 2010 @ 8:34 am

  19. I’ve always loved what I’ve personally taken from the so-called “New Perspective on Paul” biblical scholarship with this topic:
    God unconditionally accepts me to enter into a covenant with Him (justification). But the moment I enter into the covenant, turn around to face God, I have to abide the conditions of the covenant, walk back to him (sanctification).

    More and more I get the feeling that Jacob and Blake’s (among many others of you) idea that we reap what we’ve sown, or we are what light we’ve received into our being. There’s no need for God to tell me his perspective, I’m of the opinion that the sayings that I will have a remembrance of my own guilt, enough so that I’ll want a mountain to cover me from His presence, will be enough for me to know and understand why I should be separated from persons who are less jerky than me.

    Comment by Riley — June 19, 2010 @ 9:03 am

  20. Jacob, everything in the entire created Universe is alive and endowed with agency, even dust. God’s eternal dominion flows to Him “without compulsory means”, just as ours may one day. What this means is that when God commands the elements to do something, He doesn’t force it to move, it moves of its own volition, because it wants to obey Him. It has power (agency) in itself to move. Everything does. God’s power (agency) is absolute because everthing voluntarily obeys Him. In other words, God’s almighty power is the combined agencies of all the living things that compose the created Universe. Both types of matter that compose the Universe (that which acts and that which is acted upon) are given agency. So, that which acts (spiritual matter) moves because it is voluntarily obeying the command of God to move and push around the other type of matter; and also that which is acted upon (physical matter or element) allows itself to be pushed around not because it has no power (agency) to move, but because it is voluntarily obeying God’s command to be pushed around.

    The laws of the Universe are the laws of the Universe because everything that makes up the Universe is in agreement that these should be the laws. God does not force His laws upon anyone. In fact, He CANNOT force His laws upon anyone, otherwise He would cease to be God, for if He abridges the agency of even one speck, He loses the respect of everything. (Abridging agency is satanic in nature, or anti-god.) It is this respect (or honor) that keeps Him almighty.

    Before we, the children of God, came to Earth, we were also in agreement with all of God’s laws, and we did not disobey anything. In other words, we were just as perfect in obedience as everything else was/is. No plan of God goes forth without agreement of His subjects. He cannot do anything without the consent of those He governs. So EVERYTHING is voted on. This is why Satan offered an alternate plan, because he knew that there was a possibility that the vote would go differently, changing the whole dynamic of the Universe. (See What would have happened if Lucifer had won the vote? and also Lehi’s model of the universe for more in depth analysis of these topics. You’ll need the password, found here.)

    I think that God can forgive us without an atonement, but the problem is that we are not worthy of a kingdom of glory without tremendous reform and that the atonement, as it says in the Book of Mormon, brings about means unto men that they might repent (i.e. reform).

    Take a look at Mosiah 3: 16-21 and Moroni 8: 8-14, 17, 19-20, 22. Notice that Mormon says that little children “are not capable of committing sin”, “need no repentance”, “shall be saved”, “are alive in Christ”, “are partakers of salvation”, and “cannot repent”. They are alive in Christ “because of his mercy.” Notice also that those who say that little children need baptism “setteth at naught the atonement.” In other words, it is because of the atonement that little children are saved. Why couldn’t God simply save the little children (who are incapable of committing sin) without need of the atonement?

    Also, of little children, the angel said to king Benjamin that “the atonement atoneth for their sins.” Also, that salvation can only come through the name of Christ (per the atonement), meaning that God cannot forgive sins without the atonement. Little children are “blameless before God,” which means that they are justified. They are also sanctified. The scriptures also say that “little children have eternal life”–they inherit “a kingdom of glory without tremendous reform”; “the atonement” does not bring “about means unto [little children] that they might repent (i.e. reform).”–and they “are redeemed from the foundation of the world through mine Only Begotten.” Also, “little children are holy, being sanctified through the atonement of Jesus Christ.”

    So, from the scriptures, it is clear that without the atonement even innocent little children “could not be saved.” Thus, God CANNOT forgive sin without an atonement, for that would go against His own, revealed word. It is through the atonement that God forgives sin.

    One last thing. On the surface, these scriptures I quoted may seem contradictory, as little children “are not capable of committing sin”, yet “the atonement atoneth for their sins”, but there really is no contradiction.

    Comment by LDS Anarchist — June 19, 2010 @ 4:44 pm

  21. Anarchist,

    Thanks for the response. I can see that our different views of the atonement stem from wildly differing views about the nature of the universe. This idea that everything is animated with perfect intelligences who obey completely is an odd view for an anarchist to take. In my opinion, the whole point of Lehi’s things which are “acted upon” is to distinguish those things from intelligent beings who have free will. Intelligences don’t appear to start out perfect, rather, the natural state of intelligence appears to be in a state of weakness and self-centeredness (disobedience). The idea that some poor intelligence worked its way up to a state of perfection just to inhabit a bit of dust and use its “intelligence” to move according to the laws of physics is not compelling to me. I think this would constitute neither intelligence nor perfection.

    You suggested above that all of us were perfect before coming to earth, which (again) is a fundamental and high-impact difference in our perspectives. I think the whole plan of salvation would be pointless if we were perfect already. What possible reason could God have for sending us to earth if we were already perfect?

    I have to wonder, if EVERYTHING is voted on, are things run by unanimous consent or by a simple majority? It seems that for practical reasons a majority rule is the only option, but I simply can’t sign up for a view in which morality is the manifestation of majority rule. I have a very different idea about what all the scriptures about little children imply, but that is a big can of worms.

    At any rate, it is alwasy interesting to see how different people formulate the gospel.

    Comment by Jacob J — June 19, 2010 @ 6:03 pm

  22. Lol, Jacob. You make it sound as if a bit of dust is such a lowly station. Don’t you know that “ye cannot say that ye are even as much as the dust of the earth” (Mosiah 2: 25)? Dust is higher than man, for it “belongeth to” the Lord. If I were you, I’d be careful how I spoke about the dust. Dust is involved in an ordinance of damning testimony. You better hope that dust never has to testify against you! ;)

    Although we were perfectly obedient in our pre-mortal existence, mortality was still required to obtain a physical body and develop faith, so as to progress and become like Father in heaven.

    The majority principle appears to be the order of heaven, not unanimity.

    Comment by LDS Anarchist — June 20, 2010 @ 3:25 am

  23. Rilke’s Atonement Theory –

    I cannot think of another atonment ‘theory’, so informed through experience as Rilke’s Duino Elegies, Part 1

    Has one yet experienced the Atonement so as to cease the analysis and speak the Atonement in its proper manner as a personal experience?


    Comment by Trent S — June 20, 2010 @ 12:47 pm

  24. I agree that the idea of justice as nothing but majority rule doesn’t begin to make sense, because majorities do not always behave justly.

    Suppose somebody injures his neighbors. Whether justice is done or not, his neighbors will suffer the consequences.

    The first principle of justice is the responsibility of the offender to make restitution for the harms he has caused, to make the injured parties whole as much as is possible. Only the injured parties can release him from that obligation. Without the consent of the persons who have been injured, no majority vote will suffice.

    However, any or all of the injured parties may choose to forgive his obligation to make them whole, and accept partial or no restitution at all. That doesn’t mean that both they and the persons who sustain and support them do not suffer, of course.

    Alternatively, the injured persons can release their claim for restitution to the community as a whole. If they do this, then the community can set the terms whereby the offender can come back into full fellowship. And if they discharge this responsibility well, they may certainly be said to satisfy the demands of justice on behalf of the victims, to the degree it is possible for them to do so.

    In the long run though, justice can only be satisfied if those injuries are actually made whole. Forgiving offenders does not repair the damage they have done. If the offenders don’t make restitution, somebody will have to, or in the long run we are all dead.

    Comment by Mark D. — June 20, 2010 @ 4:18 pm

  25. It’s always interesting to see where we all get separated with our opinions on “doctrine”…

    I really think the bottom line is where we lay on the “scriptural literalness scale” (and how we have tendencies to jump from one side to the other with certain topics).

    (But no need to worry about offending the dust though Jacob J, just make sure you keep doing what Jesus asks, because Jesus already has the “dust’s” hands tied so to speak. They have to honor him.)

    Comment by Riley — June 20, 2010 @ 5:34 pm

  26. I love atonement theory.

    I’m in your corner Jacob. I especially like your concept that the Light of Christ was created by the Atonement.

    A few months ago I was thinking about the Fall and Atonement during a morning jog. And while considering your concept of the origin of the Light of Christ I came to the conclusion that Jehovah must have done something very special during the Fall. Sure Adam and Eve partook of the fruit but this action had a much greater effect upon Jehovah, then upon Adam and Eve. With the Fall Jehovah partook of a monumental commitment. The Plan of Salvation was set in motion.

    Perhaps the reason that Adam and Eve did not perceive the difference between right and wrong while in the Garden is that the Fall itself created the Light of Christ. This would also explain how the Fall changed not only Adam and Eve but the entire planet.

    Comment by Mike M. — June 20, 2010 @ 7:29 pm

  27. Trent, the implication of your comment is that it is improper to analyze the atonement, which I find preposterous. One of the halmarks of Mormonism is an insistence on rational theology. Analyzing the atonement does not imply that one has not yet experienced the atonement. That seems like a very uncharitable assumption to make about people who care enough about the atonement to want to understand it as well as experience it.

    Mark, I am with you entirely except we still disagree somewhat on whether restitution is always and ultimately necessary. That’s okay though.

    Riley, thanks for the reassurance, lolz.

    Mike, thanks.

    Comment by Jacob J — June 20, 2010 @ 9:13 pm

  28. I thought Trent was linking to a clip at homestarrunner.com . You can imagine my disappointment when I followed his actual link…

    Comment by Geoff J — June 20, 2010 @ 9:36 pm

  29. Jacob, I am very interested in talking to you about this. I have a response, but would love to actually chat with you over the phone. If you get a chance email me at toddmclauchlin@gmail.com


    Comment by tjm — June 21, 2010 @ 6:58 pm

  30. Jacob, everything in the entire created Universe is alive and endowed with agency, even dust. God’s eternal dominion flows to Him “without compulsory means”, just as ours may one day. What this means is that when God commands the elements to do something, He doesn’t force it to move, it moves of its own volition, because it wants to obey Him. It has power (agency) in itself to move. Everything does. God’s power (agency) is absolute because everthing voluntarily obeys Him. In other words, God’s almighty power is the combined agencies of all the living things that compose the created Universe. Both types of matter that compose the Universe (that which acts and that which is acted upon) are given agency. So, that which acts (spiritual matter) moves because it is voluntarily obeying the command of God to move and push around the other type of matter; and also that which is acted upon (physical matter or element) allows itself to be pushed around not because it has no power (agency) to move, but because it is voluntarily obeying God’s command to be pushed around.

    Comment by Munmro — June 27, 2010 @ 1:10 pm

  31. Jacob J: Mark, I am with you entirely except we still disagree somewhat on whether restitution is always and ultimately necessary. That’s okay though.

    I don’t claim that restitution must ultimately be made by the sinner. I claim that it must ultimately be made by someone. Divine grace is in part about making restitution that would otherwise never happen. Not only that, but about absolving the sinner from ultimate responsibility from making complete restitution himself. What good would grace be otherwise?

    The principle though that restitution must be made by someone is equivalent to the cardinal rule of economics, namely that strictly speaking, there is no free lunch. God may give us grace without money and without price to us, but someone (usually him) must pay for it.

    Why else would God suffer if the atonement wasn’t actual work? This is my work and my glory to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man, etc.

    We talk about the necessity of good works in our religion. The idea that the universe is ultimately constrained by the laws of economics (and the natural laws that underlie those laws) is the most straightforward way to explain both why a suffering atonement is necessary, and why it is necessary for true Christians to suffer and sacrifice on behalf of others. Mourn with those that mourn, comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and so on.

    Comment by Mark D. — June 27, 2010 @ 1:54 pm

  32. Mark, right, I remember your position on this. Our difference is that I think there are many things for which no restitution will ever be made by anyone. For example, there are all kinds of injuries done to us that we will just get over on our own. To some extent we can choose how to respond to the injuries done to us and it is often within our power to simply move on and put things behind us.

    The idea that there is no such thing as sin without someone being caused to suffer is plausible. This is closely related to a consequentialist meta-ethic in which sin is defined by negative consequences to someone. However, I see no reason to suppose that in every case a person other than the injured party must suffer. Why can’t it just be the injured party and no one else? How would that violate your analogy to economics?

    Comment by Jacob J — June 27, 2010 @ 7:45 pm

  33. Why can’t it just be the injured party and no one else?

    True. Up to a point an injured party can make “restitution” on behalf of the person who injured him, by freely and fairly forgiving that person as well as bearing the consequences, to the degree he or she is able.

    There are a few difficulties here though. The big one is that a person who is injured severely very often cannot heal himself. He needs the support of others or he may die. And if he or she does die, nothing save the resurrection from the dead may make effective restitution (or “amends”) for that.

    It is as Alma 34 says, nothing save an infinite atonement – one far beyond our present comprehension – may bring a person back from the dead.

    Comment by Mark D. — June 27, 2010 @ 10:23 pm

  34. The other significant difficulty, by the way, is that as long as a person is sustained and comforted by the Holy Spirit, he is not bearing the full burden of injuries done to him, but rather he and the Lord that sustains him (cf. Mosiah 2:21).

    That principle of course extends to others of his friends, family and acquaintance. Nobody, not even (or perhaps especially not even) one who lives on a desert isle, survives and prospers except by the grace of others. An injury done to one is an injury to all.

    Comment by Mark D. — June 27, 2010 @ 10:51 pm

  35. Exactly. Your “few difficulties” indicate that everyone needs the atonement–I agree. But if “restitution” can just be a victim forgiving and bearing the consequences then surely that counts as there being no restitution made to that victim in the strict sense. Which is fine; that’s precisely why I think the idea that restitution must be made in all cases for there to be repentance or healing is a myth.

    Comment by Jacob J — June 27, 2010 @ 11:05 pm

  36. I think the idea that restitution must be made in all cases for there to be repentance or healing is a myth

    I have never claimed that complete restitution must be made for repentance. If someone doesn’t even try to make token restitution, however, I would say they probably aren’t repentant at all.

    I also agree that self-restitution isn’t restitution in the normal sense of the term at all. That is more in reference to the economics of restitution rather than the obligation to do so. It takes work / energy / effort to restore the injured party to a state equal to or better than the status quo ante. Until that restoration has taken place, the person has not completely healed.

    Comment by Mark D. — June 28, 2010 @ 11:12 pm

  37. All this speculation is rife with the smell of neo-Platonic metaphysics, and misunderstood neo-Platonism at that.

    I suggest that the error in these approaches is the assumption that there is a coherent, common, unified conception of “the Atonement” behind the writings of the various authors in the Scriptures generally.

    If I am right, any attempts to generate a unified theory of Atonement that will tie it all together is a fool’s errand that can only result in creating a Frankenstein’s monster (which brings up the question of whether and how the Atonement applies to Frankenstein’s patchwork abomination… hmmm)

    Comment by Dan — June 29, 2010 @ 11:55 am

  38. Dan, you should try to be even more insulting than that. As your comment stands, I can hardly work up the energy to respond. Perhaps it would have been more effective if you had said that my mother was a neo-Platonist. I hope this helps you in your future commenting.

    Comment by Jacob J — June 29, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

  39. I still am trying to discern if Dan is a troll or not. If he is a troll at least he is a fairly original one so I give him that…

    Comment by Geoff J — June 29, 2010 @ 2:50 pm

  40. Geoff and Jacob,

    In the metaphor of the troll, it hides under the bridge, which is its “home” and preys upon the passersby.

    As such, you two must be the trolls as I am just passing by.

    Is that original enough for you?

    Comment by Dan — June 29, 2010 @ 4:55 pm

  41. But at least you trolls are self-congratulatory enough to make really good Mormons as well. That is what I have always liked about the Church… how it seems to spawn such creatures.

    Comment by Dan — June 29, 2010 @ 4:57 pm

  42. Ha! Yes that is pretty good Dan.

    Comment by Geoff J — June 29, 2010 @ 5:14 pm

  43. I suggest that the error in these approaches is the assumption that there is a coherent, common, unified conception of “the Atonement” behind the writings of the various authors in the Scriptures generally.

    That is a really nice theory, as long as one is willing to entertain the possibility that there is no such thing as the atonement at all.

    Comment by Mark D. — June 29, 2010 @ 11:08 pm