Atonement Soup Revisited

September 15, 2010    By: Matt W. @ 1:29 am   Category: Atonement & Soteriology

Some time back, Kevin Barney ventured forth the opinion that the Church’s approach to atonement is a mix of many theories, especially pointing to how the hymns of the Church can be mapped to what Barney refers to as the four key theories of atonement. [1]

I believe Barney is correct in his assertion that the Church adopts a variety of explanations for how the atonement operates, but I’d like to further note that this is really the only option that a church attempting to holistically follow the Bible can make. The Bible itself does not have a central argument for explicitly how the atonement occurs, but rather has several contradictory metaphors.[2]

In order to illustrate this point, I would first like to openly suggest that everything we know from the Bible regarding the atonement is primarily derived from the writings of Paul. Paul is the one who connects the dots between Old Testament forms of ritual and law and Christ. New Testament teachings regarding the atonement outside of Paul are typically seen either as derived from Paul (Hebrews, Letters of John) or as later additions to early texts (as in the last supper references). For those who say these points are arguable, that’s totally fair, but I think focusing on Paul can still get my point across.

Paul uses a variety of metaphors, drawn from his Jewish culture and background to explain the atonement. He uses sacrificial sprinkling [3], the sin-bearing scapegoat[4], a paschal lamb [5], heroic martyrdom [6], royal adoption [7], slave redemption [8] and conquering victor [9] just to name a few examples, and he often mixes and conflates metaphors. [10] As one author put it, he uses these concepts not to create a singular doctrine, but instead to create a “multiplicity of ideas” that “influence one another…but also contradict one another”. [11]

So while it is totally fair to say we do not have a singular atonement doctrine, it is only because there is no definitive doctrine to be had from God at this time. “I sense in a measure,” President Hinckley said, “the meaning of His atonement. I cannot comprehend it all. It is so vast in its reach, and yet so intimate in its affect that it defies comprehension.” [12] That is not to say that studying the atonement does not bear fruit [13], but that we have to expect that using our scriptures as our only prooftext in discussing the atonement is going to lead us to a veritable plethora of side roads which may come with as many issues as “the parable of the bicycle”. There are many, many ways to understand the atonement, and it does not hurt us to be open to the variety.


[2]- I am adopting the term metaphor here based on Stephen Finlan’s usage of it- see “Options on atonement in Christian thought” by Stephen Finlan, Liturgical Press, 2007, partially available online here

[3]- ritual purification, not penal substitution, like in Romans 3:25 NET where Christ is compared to the Mercy Seat [hilastrion] where the blood is sprinkled and also later to the animal whose blood is sprinkled. See also I Cor 5:7, I Cor 11:25

[4]- the expulsion of sin via a cultic rite, not a sacrifice, but actually quite the opposite, like in Gal 3:13, II Cor 5:21, Rom 6:6, Rom 7:4, Rom 8:3

[5]- protection from the wrath of God via the painting of blood on the door posts, not a temple sacrifice; see 1 Cor. 5:7-8

[6]- a link to Maccabees [see IV Macc. 17:21-22] and messianism in general (not to mention Greeks like Socrates), where the deaths of some brought about salvation [liberty] for Israel. An example is Romans 5:7, also Rom 6:1-11; 8:10, Gal 2:20-21, I Thess 5:9-10

[7]- signifying a change of status like in Romans 8:12-25

[8]- also a change of status, but here involving a financial transaction or ransom like in I Cor 6:20, 7:23

[9]- Victory over death and temptation, like in 1 Conrinthians 15:20-28

[10]-“ Problems with atonement: the origins of, and controversy about, the atonement doctrine” by Stephen finlan, Liturgical Press 2005 available partially online here

[11]- “ Jesus and the Doctrine of the Atonement: Biblical Notes on a Controversial Topic” Author: C. J. Den Heyer, Trinity Press, 1998

[12]- Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Wondrous and True Story of Christmas,” Ensign, Dec 2000, 2

[13]- “This was the most transcendent act that has ever taken place, yet it is the most difficult to understand. My reason for wanting to learn all I can about the Atonement is partly selfish: Our salvation depends on believing in and accepting the Atonement. Such acceptance requires a continual effort to understand it more fully.” James E. Faust, “The Atonement: Our Greatest Hope,” Ensign, Nov 2001, 18


  1. Excellent summary Matt.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — September 15, 2010 @ 3:58 am

  2. Matt, are you arguing that all theories of the atonement are of equal value or do you think some are more valuable than others?

    Comment by Aaron R. — September 15, 2010 @ 7:11 am

  3. I don’t think they are all of equal value, and hopefully am not arguing for the value of any of them. I am arguing that they all need to be considered, and I am arguing that we can’t just say the scriptures clearly lay out a model for us to follow. Most atonement theories that I know of give supremacy to one or two of the metaphors Paul uses as an explanation of how the atonement occurs, and I think miss the mark because of that. I think we need to look for the commonalities between all the metaphors Paul uses rather than for a play by play of what actually occurred. To that end, I think the metaphors universally denote a change of state occurring within us due to what Christ did, whatever that may be.

    Does that help clarify. Perhaps I should have been more explicit in the original text.

    Comment by Matt W. — September 15, 2010 @ 7:50 am

  4. I’ve found this source to be useful. James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy, eds. The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views (IVP, 2006). Preview.

    Matt, the fourth view in the book is called the Kaleidoscopic View, presented by Joel B. Green. Green seems to argue that no one view can be the dominant view. I don’t know to what extent you agree with Green (your view seems similar to his) but you might find his perspective useful as you explore this topic.

    Comment by aquinas — September 15, 2010 @ 9:02 am

  5. Thanks Aquinas, that book has been on my Amazon wishlist for a while. I’ll have to move it up a bit.

    I am not sure I’d say all the views are true, which I am guessing Green espouses from your statement. In fact, I think many of what we term atonement theories are built upon Paul’s metaphors for the atonement, and again, those metaphors are just metaphors, and are perhaps only as useful as a raven being like a writing desk in terms of connection.

    Comment by Matt W. — September 15, 2010 @ 9:11 am

  6. Excellent thoughts Matt. I think a good portion of scriptures and sermons about the atonement were given for the purpose of inspiring us to repent and return to God. From that perspective, there is no reason to split hairs after stretching metaphors way past their intended purpose. There is no one perfect way to inspire people based on what Christ has done for us so a potpourri is inevitable and even desirable.

    Of course, I do think there is something worthwhile in the effort to make sense of the atonement and metaphors are part of that struggle, but we get carried away with them too often I fear.

    Comment by Jacob J — September 16, 2010 @ 12:38 am

  7. Exactly Jacob. I think this is where things like a penal substitution theory arise from. We, not being Jews in the first century, do not understand the differences between scapegoats, sacrifices, sin offerings, and liberation from slavery. Because Paul conflates these ideas intentionally, so do we, and we end up with a God who is manipulated to not hate us by Christ (penal substitution) rather than a loving God who sent Christ to help us in our present situation (a more typical mormon approach) and worse, we don’t see the difference.

    Up to this point, I’ve been borrowing a lot from Stephen Finlan for this, but I really want to try to push his ideas through the LDS scriptures and see where I come out. I believe we will see the same mixing of metaphors there as well.

    Comment by Matt W. — September 16, 2010 @ 6:52 am

  8. Nice post, Matt. It really irks me when members act like the Atonement is the easiest thing in the world to understand, and that we Mormons have the truth of the matter, to the exclusion of anyone else.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — September 16, 2010 @ 8:57 am

  9. Matt, thanks for your response. My question arises because though I agree there is a great deal of value in considering the various metaphors I am skeptical of the benefits that some of the offer.

    My purpose in raising this questions pertains to something suggested in the original Barney thread. It relates to whether we can take a pragmatic view of some theories of atonement, i.e. if they work for that person in the present should they be corrected, or do we wait until a crisis ensues in which their model of the atonement begins to crack and they are not in place in which they are likely to seriously consider the theological assumptions that might be causing them spiritual distress.

    Comment by Aaron R. — September 16, 2010 @ 9:24 am

  10. Matt: there is no definitive doctrine to be had from God at this time


    Comment by Geoff J — September 16, 2010 @ 10:27 am

  11. Because Paul conflates these ideas intentionally, so do we

    Yea, that is a very interesting point.

    I really want to try to push his ideas through the LDS scriptures and see where I come out.

    It will probably come as no surprise but I think the Book of Mormon approaches the problem of the atonement from very different foundational taking-off points than the Bible. The fundamental starting point and constraint in the Book of Mormon theology is individual agency, which doesn’t have the same prominent place in the Bible (hence Calvinism). A close second is that salvation comes through sanctification (must be saved from your sins, not in your sins to put it in Book of Mormon language). Sanctification gets attention in the Bible much moreso than agency.

    In any event, I think the metaphor mixing in the Book of Mormon is somewhat different than in the Bible. And of course, I think folks like McMurrin who see the Book of Mormon as endorsing Anselmian Satisfaction Theory are reading the Book of Mormon too much through the lense of the Bible.

    Comment by Jacob J — September 16, 2010 @ 10:29 am

  12. Jacob,

    I think you were getting to the heart of the matter when you said these theories/metaphors all seem to be given as motivational tools. They want to motivate us to good behavior — or as you put it repent and return to God.

    The question is: Is God a consequentialist?

    Comment by Geoff J — September 16, 2010 @ 10:35 am

  13. Kevin: thanks for the kind comments. I agree that I don’t like when members take a “holier-than-thou” attitude on any point. It reminds me of my first trip to a Utah Family Ward after being baptized and the EQ instructor said he was looking forward to being the one who got to “force knees to bow, ad tongues to confess”.

    Aaron R.- Ah, I see. I think we need to take a pragmatic view. I think the important thing with the metaphors of Paul is that we look at all of them together, to see what they all have in common. It’s sort of like the Historical Jesus approach, where you look for what aspects all the source texts have in common to determine what was most likely really what Jesus said or did.

    Jacob: I think there are two factors which must be separated from the theology of the Book of Mormon to understand its approach to atonement. Like you say, the bible is one, but secondly, I think we also need to remove it as best we can from the theology of the restored church. The Challenge of course is that the Book of Mormon is knee deep in both of these, quoting the bible heavily, and coming through the translation process via Joseph and his scribes. I do think it does set up a different set of cosmological paradigms than does the bible, in regards to agency and the even the divinity of Christ.

    Geoff: While I agree that Paul’s metaphors for the atonement were meant to motivate good behavior, I think they were also selected to Connect all the aspects of Jewish Ritual to Christ, as a form of supersession.

    I deeply and sincerely hope God is a consequentialist. Is there any reason not to?

    Comment by Matt W. — September 16, 2010 @ 11:17 am

  14. The question is: Is God a consequentialist?

    And the answer is: yes.

    Comment by Jacob J — September 16, 2010 @ 11:26 am

  15. I believe you are right about the consequentialism thing. Of course consequentialism allows for deceit. That fact terrifies some people.

    Comment by Geoff J — September 16, 2010 @ 11:40 am

  16. On the other hand, with the long view in mind, consequentialism has its own strong arguments against deceit in cases where the negative consequences of deceit would undermine the positive consequences. I think it ultimately boils down to trusting God when he says that he “knows the beginning from the end”

    Comment by Matt W. — September 16, 2010 @ 11:49 am

  17. And no, I don’t mean he has a delorean with a flux capacitor in it.

    Comment by Matt W. — September 16, 2010 @ 11:49 am

  18. Well Matt that “where the negative consequences of deceit would undermine the positive consequences” caveat doesn’t change things much for us as we try to figure out the metaphysical truths behind various atonement theories. Consequentialism opens the door to the idea that many of our core atonement doctrines are placebos. I am personally not overly terrified by that but I think many people are.

    Comment by Geoff J — September 16, 2010 @ 2:00 pm

  19. I agree Geoff, many are worried about such an idea, and cling to God ceasing to be God if he lies. We want to trust God. In terms of the metaphysical truths of atonement theories, I don’t it’s deceit so much as withholding. I am completely a promoter of the idea of many analogies/metaphors of the atonement being inexact presentations of the actuality, and the idea that some theories based on those presentations being therefore bunk. I am open to the idea that God teaches us things which are not true, but I don’t think such a belief is required. We could just as easily attribute the deception to the vehicle through which we obtain revelation from God as we can attribute it to God himself.

    I think we have tons of scriptural precedence of God teaching his children at their level of understanding, and even more precedence for theological notions evolving over time. I think this speaks to us (all of humanity) as a people becoming more morally focused.

    Comment by Matt W. — September 17, 2010 @ 7:56 am

  20. I do realize that theology evolving runs counter to some notions of God being the same today, yesterday, and forever, but I think that notion has been incorrectly used.

    Comment by Matt W. — September 17, 2010 @ 7:58 am

  21. I agree Matt, I think the best way to understand God not changing in any way, besides committing metaphysical suicide as the “tradition” does, is to understand that his desire and care in guiding us back to him is what doesn’t change. It is possible for it to change but for some reason God is sticking with us dill holes.

    Comment by Riley — September 17, 2010 @ 8:38 am

  22. Consequentialism opens the door to the idea that many of our core atonement doctrines are placebos.

    In my opinion, God only endorses things to the degree they are correct. I can’t imagine him smiling on any explanation that doesn’t disguise a fundamental truth, no matter how motivational it is. No one is saved by doing the right thing for the wrong reason, nor by going through the motions without understanding them at all.

    Joseph Smith said that no man is saved any faster than he gets knowledge. Allowing for the right kind of knowledge, I believe that. I don’t mean fuzzy warm feeling knowledge, but the sort of knowledge that leads a person to know the truth, why it is true, and the moral imperative to act accordingly.

    That is one of the reasons I am deeply skeptical of the don’t worry about understanding anything theory of the gospel.

    Comment by Mark D. — September 19, 2010 @ 12:15 am

  23. Mark: Sorry for the delayed response. Can we emotionally understand the atonement, without being able to intellectually articulate that understanding, in your opinion? I think we can. I do think the more we understand the atonement the better we can benefit from it, but I think the knowledge of the atonement which is most important is not intellectual understanding, but rather a sort of emotional connection (maybe spiritual connection is a better term, but I’m afraid that would obfuscate my meaning.)

    Comment by Matt W. — September 27, 2010 @ 11:51 am

  24. Matt W: Can we emotionally understand the atonement, without being able to intellectually articulate that understanding, in your opinion?

    Strictly speaking, I don’t think any emotionally understands anything. Appreciates, recognizes the significance of, yes, understands, no.

    That is not to say than an appreciation for the atonement on the level of “Amazing Grace” isn’t an incredibly valuable thing, I just think that a basic understanding of what at-one-ment means, and how it might work is much more valuable than that.

    I do suspect that very, very many people, by the time they are in their mid thirties or so, understand what it means in non-theological terms, it is just that most theological explanations tend to reduce to “God did something we should all be grateful for”.

    My theory of the atonement is not very orthodox, but essentially amounts to the non-theological understanding of at-one-ment (or reconciliation) extended to multiple divine and mortal participants, with spiritual interaction in addition to the more obvious temporal participation. That looks wildly unorthodox of course unless one is willing to let the ‘name of Christ’ stand for something more than symbolic.

    And in my opinion, that is what all the curious language in passages like D&C 20:29 is referring to:

    And we know that all men must repent and believe on the name of Jesus Christ, and worship the Father in his name, and endure in faith on his name to the end, or they cannot be saved in the kingdom of God. (emphasis added)

    Or to put it more bluntly, the at-one-ment ultimately works only to the degree that the participants actually do something about it, and not just anything but rather those things that God would have them do. That is my opinion, anyway.

    Comment by Mark D. — September 28, 2010 @ 11:51 pm

  25. Sorry for the fly-by-night operation I’m running, never getting together anything close as coherent as this, but I also like to say something about this.

    I think that the key to understanding the Atonement is not a “scientific” or “universal” Truth that we can grasp as mortals, even if it exists. One day, long after this life, we’ll perhaps understand it better when we really have gotten to know the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

    But the best way I’ve heard it described are just those references 12 and 13 you gave. The Atonement is infinite and universal, yet the most important aspect is the intimate one.

    I had occasion a couple of years ago of hearing an elderly GA (now released from the 70 for health reasons, as I understand) muse about the personal relationship we should have with Christ. Can we say we know him, if we have no personal relationship with him?

    I think where the Apostate Christianity went wrong was when people started hammering Christ’s teachings and Old Testament into Hellenistic philosophical constructs. By creating such abstract concepts and universal statements that all were required to swallow they completely hid the personal, intimate relationship we should have with our Savior.

    Thank you for making me think about this again!

    Comment by Velska — October 1, 2010 @ 5:33 am

  26. Matt W, I’ve finally been able to read most of Finlan’s “Options” and I have found his work perhaps the best I’ve ever come across on atonement theory. Finlan’s treatment helped me realize the problem I’ve had with most of the treatments I’ve seen on atonement theory. Most works tend to delineate a few different models that Christian theologians have embraced (or to group several ideas into a few categories) and then critique those models.

    However, Finlan shows detailed historical development occurring within the Hebrew bible and within the New Testament writings itself. Finlan does an excellent job of teasing apart these metaphors that we have conflated, unbinding what has been bound together. However, Paul’s work has a logic to it. Paul is essentially taking every point of contact in the Israelite cult (which would be familiar to his audience) and infusing it with Jesus Christ. No matter what cultic aspect his audience considers, Paul is fusing those aspects with Christ. Yet, Finlan persuasively shows that, at times, Paul tries stop his readers from taking these metaphors to their logical conclusion.

    For example, some atonement metaphors lead to a wrathful and angry God that man must manipulate or appease or placate through violence. Yet, this is the idea that comes from the ancient Israelite cult, so Paul is taking this concept (from our perspective an undesirable and uncomfortable one) and infusing it with Christ for his audience, to turn their minds to Christ. The strange result is that we are left with an undesirable and uncomfortable concept where Christ’s violent death now placates or manipulates God’s anger (Paul tries to counter this side-effect by emphasizing God’s love).

    Yet, Finlan shows that some Hebrew prophets criticized such cultic aspects. So, Paul is utilizing concepts that have been criticized by anti-sacrificial movements or prophets critical of the temple cult to reach his audience. Thus, Paul tends to Christianize all metaphors in the Hebrew religion. What Finlan is suggesting, in my reading, is that we critique these views pre-Paul and then acknowledge that Paul also sees some of the shortcomings of these views even though he christianizes them anyway to further the Gospel message. It’s an extremely ambitious project, but I think Finlan delivers.

    Comment by aquinas — October 22, 2010 @ 10:55 am

  27. Aquinas- I am going through “Options” a second time now. I found it thoroughly engaging, but am somewhat embarrassed to say that upon finishing it, I was completely unable to articulate what Finlan proposes as his own Atonement Theory.

    I did love how Finlan brought out the Love of God as a counter to the Substitution Theory. This is the shortest book on the atonement I’ve picked up, but also the one I’ve gotten the most out of.

    Comment by Matt W. — October 22, 2010 @ 1:07 pm