The below is a work in progress in my continuing effort to articulate a theory of the atonement. Feedback needed and welcome.
I remember it well. What had once been one of the most powerful doctrines of the Gospel for me had become now a challenging open sore through which doubt flowed into me. If God was loving and good, why would he punish his son for our sins? Why would he require such a punishment? It had been my faulty assumption, based on the idea that Christ acted as a substitution for the penalty affixed by God, which had led to my hurt and my doubt. It had created distance between myself and God and undermined the power and efficacy of the atonement in my life.
That’s not to say I had not felt the power of the atonement before then, but as my perception of how the atonement worked was shaped, I began to confine it to certain parameters within which it could be utilized, and thus boxed it in. Further, when I had inevitably thought through some of the implications of my misconceptions, it left me troubled and eroded my faith. However, because I persevered and studied and prayed and took it to the Lord with fasting and prayer and a leap of faith, I believe I came to a better understanding of the atonement and became more empowered to feel its power in my life.
This is why I think it is important to have a clear understanding of the atonement and to study beyond the basic assumption that it is penal substitution. I believe we study the atonement because we yearn to better apply it to the challenges of life and to make Christ and Heavenly Father more accessible. The risk, of course, is that in studying the atonement, we end up with a conception formed by man, and miss experiencing the event itself.