Some thoughts on atonement theory

October 9, 2006    By: Jacob J @ 10:22 pm   Category: Atonement & Soteriology,Theology

Not too long ago here at the Thang we were arguing about Blake Ostler’s atonement theory. In the course of that discussion, more than one person made a statement to the effect that some particular question was the central question of atonement theory, or, on one occasion, that a given theory did not really qualify as such unless it resolved a certain problem.

When you get focused on some specific problem it is easy to start thinking this way, but I don’t really buy into it. The atonement is the central element of the gospel, and as such, it gets its doctrinal tentacles into nearly everything. The result is that a theory of atonement needs to answer a lot of questions, and many of them feel pretty “central.” The following list provides a good start:

Why was the atonement necessary?
Why was Christ the only one who could perform the atonement?
Why would we have been hopelessly lost without the atonement?
What caused Christ to suffer?
What did Christ suffer?
What did Christ’s suffering accomplish?
What is the meaning of justice and mercy?
What is the nature of sin and sinfulness?
How does the atonement satisfy justice?
How did the atonement bring about the resurrection?
How is the atonement related to forgiveness?
How is the atonement related to repentance?
How do we account for the various things scriptures say about the atonement?
How was the atonement efficacious before it was performed?
How is the atonement related to the fall?
How did the atonement make us free?

Now, any one of these questions can prove difficult, but a theory of atonement is supposed to answer them all. When evaluating a particular theory, each one of the answers given to the questions above must be considered for its strengths and weaknesses. How well is everything accounted for? Where are the holes? Which answers are strained, or inadequate, or have unacceptable implications?

After that, we still have to ask how well a given theory of atonement can be integrated into the rest of the gospel. As I mentioned, the meaning of the atonement ends up having implications on almost everything. So, we must ask what implications there are on the Godhead, what it says about the plan of salvation, how well it fits our overall cosmology, and on and on.

Here’s the thing: I have yet to come across a theory that comes through such an analysis unscathed. We can hope that a theory will be forthcoming which answers all of these questions in a satisfactory way, but until then, I don’t really look at any one of these questions a the all-important question. Instead, I take more of an “all things considered” approach. If a theory can answer most of these questions in a compelling way, that puts it in the running for me.

Further, I find that I care more about the implications on the rest of the gospel than I do about some of the technical problems. For example, the problem of backward causation is one which I find intractable, for reasons I explained during the aforementioned debate. Being inclined to worry about philosophical problems, I am actually bothered by this problem, as strange as that will seem to some people. Nevertheless, when evaluating a theory of atonement, I am not likely to give as much weight to the resolution of this problem as I do to the implications on repentance and forgiveness.

The most disturbing thing to me about the current widespread acceptance of the penal-substitution theory is that it conveys wrongheaded ideas about the problem of sin, the nature of repentance, and the meaning of forgiveness. I find it troubling that so many people believe suffering is the key aspect of repentance and that God cannot forgive them without punishing someone innocent. These ideas have real effects on how people live, how they seek forgiveness, and how they approach God. That is why getting the “big picture” right is far more important to me than resolving the more technical problems. It is also the reason I really like Blake’s theory, despite the fact that I have disagreements with him on some points. Those disagreements are overemphasized in the previous thread because in debating a theory of atonement we focus on the differences and on the problems. But I think Blake is right on track when he describes the relationship of the atonement to other gospel principles and when I read his chapters on the atonement I was cheering for the vast majority of the points he made. For the same reason, I like Mark Butler’s theory of atonement (as described on that big thread as well, in the 200s) despite some disagreements I have with Mark on what the atonement is. Again, on the issues of how the atonement fits with other key gospel principles I find Mark to be right on track. By contrast, I think the penal-substitution theory is a disaster which gives us an incorrect perspective on justice, mercy, forgiveness, repentance, the fall, and the plan of salvation. I guess that is why I wrote my Dialogue article despite my inability to answer some of the questions on the list above. Our current theory is pretty poor in my opinion, so it does not require a perfect theory to improve upon it.

So, what is the most important part of atonement theory for you? Is there a central question of atonement theory? How concerned to you get over the more “technical” problems like backward causation?


  1. Jacob: I’m not sure I can adequately discuss this topic in a blog setting, but I’ll give it a shot. The Atonement is something so special and sacrad to me that I always feel I fumble when trying to put it down in words.

    I think many of your lead up questions where rhetorical, so I will only play with your end questions. This may be in error, as I didn’t read the Ostler post, and haven’t read Ostler’s Book, so I may be in left field.

    So, what is the most important part of atonement theory for you?
    That Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ loved me so much to both go through with it for me. That they loved everyone else, especially my enemies, that much also.
    Is there a central question of atonement theory?
    I’m not sure if this is the proper way to phrase my question, but I think the central question of the atonement is “What are YOU going to do about it?” You being any entity to which the atonement applies.
    How concerned to you get over the more “technical” problems like backward causation? Marginally concerned. The technical problems go away when my faith is strong and my doubts are weak. They come out in bold relief when my faith is weak and my doubts are strong. I find that having answers to the technical problems are beneficial in helping my faith/doubt dichotomy, but secondary.

    Comment by Matt Witten — October 10, 2006 @ 7:37 am

  2. Good post Jacob.

    I think a major question or set of questions is missing from your list though. What I mean is that we ought to clarify what we mean when we say “atonement”. Do we mean the entire plan and process that God has of making us “at one” with him? Or do we mean the “Christ Event” that took place in Gethsamane and culminated on the cross? I prefer to separate the two in those terms right now (though further precision is certainly needed). So most of your questions seem to be asked about the Christ Event (that’s a term I stole from Mogget over at FPR, btw) but I’m not sure the answers about the Christ Event would apply to the enire overarching process of God plan and efforts to make us at one with him.

    So I agree with you that Blake has provided a really useful model in dealing with the Atonement. I think one of the greatest strengths of his view is that he does step back and focus on the overarching atonement as an ongoing process instead of focusing exclusively on the Christ Event component as most other theories do. (And I think Mark also brings some very useful points to the table, though I think he veers off into untenable theological territory early on in his model.)

    Comment by Geoff J — October 10, 2006 @ 9:25 am

  3. Thanks Matt. I probably should have said, for anyone unfamiliar with my terminology, I am using the term “atonement theory” in a specific way. What I mean by “atonement theory” is an theory which attempts to answer all the questions in the big list at the beginning of the post. Historically there have been a few theories of atonement which have been the most influential. Geoff posted on them ealier this year. Other theories that come up in a Mormon context are Stephen Robinson’s parable of the bicycle and Dennis Potter’s empathy theory from a Dialogue article several years ago.

    So, my intention in asking the question “what is the most important part of atonement theory for you?” is much different than the the question “what is the most important thing about the atonement for you?”

    The answers you give in #1 seem to be geared toward the atonement itself rather than atonement theory. With that clarification out of the way, I think you give excellent answers in relation to the atonement itself.

    Comment by Jacob — October 10, 2006 @ 9:43 am

  4. Jacob, reading your Dialogue article opened my eyes to some of the problems of the penal substitution theory (as well as some of the other historical approaches.) I liked Ostler’s theory because I enjoy puzzling through questions and issues of doctrine. Some of the questions that intrigue me most about the atonement are:
    What role does suffering play in forgiveness?
    What additional work or suffering is required on our part after we have accepted the atonement?
    Exactly what constitutes our acceptance or acknowledgement of the Atonement and haw does this make the Atonement more efficacious than for those who have not accepted?

    I believe that Atonement theory must touch the soul in some manner in order to gain much of a following. That is why Robinson’s atonement theory in the form of the parable of the bicycle has given so much credence to the penal substitution theory. I must admit, the story is touching. And it gave me a greater desire to participate in the atonement. (Especially the part about his wife wanting to give up because she was so tired.)

    Same thing with Skousen’s theory that was so popular years ago about the little obedient intelligences who were outraged at the horrible suffering of the Savior. Very touching. Lots of us missionaries were thrilled with this explanation.

    So I guess what I’m saying is: although answering the doctrinal questions you mentioned is important to me, what is of greater significance is whether the theory reaches me at a deep enough spiritual level to cause me to change my thoughts and behaviors so I can partake more fully of the gift of the Atonement.

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — October 10, 2006 @ 9:43 am

  5. I actually don’t think it is wise to lump the Robinson parable in with atonement theories. Such parables are pre-theories at best but they don’t get into any of the details that an atonement theory is supposed to help I think.

    BTW – I have spent some time bashing on the parable of the bicycle and proposing alternative theories here. My best attempt to date is my Parable of the Pianist.

    Comment by Geoff J — October 10, 2006 @ 10:30 am

  6. Jacob: I’ll have to read more on what has and has not been said. Thank you for the very kind words.

    I guess the most important aspect of an atonement theory for me would be that it spurs me to motivates me to live the gospel better. I would think the theory imperfect if it did not either increase my capacity to live the gospel or at least increase my motivation to do so.

    Again, I’ll have to read more and get back with you.

    Comment by Matt Witten — October 10, 2006 @ 11:09 am

  7. Geoff,

    Good point. The distinction between the “whole plan” of atonement and the Christ Event is an important one. Although I didn’t make this distinction explicitely, I don’t think the post neglects this. Several of my questions are about the Christ Event, but several others are much broader in their scope and have to do with how the atonement relates to the plan of salvation and our participation in that plan (e.g. questions about repentance, the fall, sinfullness, forgiveness, freedom). Answering those questions necessarily pulls one into a discussion of the plan of salvation much broader than just the Christ Event.

    Like you, I have my disagreements with both Blake and Mark on some points, but on some of the foundational points I very much agree with them. I guess I could state my point differently by saying that our joint rejection of penal-substitution gives us all more common ground than I share with most people I discuss atonement with in church.

    Comment by Jacob — October 10, 2006 @ 11:15 am

  8. Geoff, I liked it. Thanks for the link. I have some more thoughts on this–will return later.

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — October 10, 2006 @ 11:16 am

  9. BiV,

    First, thank you for correcting my neglect of Skousen’s atonement theory, which I should have mentioned in my comment #3. It was all the rage in my mission as well. I have much to say about his theory, but it was relegated to a short endnote in my article because of space limitations.

    I think your comment raises a very important issue which is at the heart of the question of this post. You mentioned the fact that what you are really looking for is something that helps you connect emotionally and spiritually with the atonement in a way that motivates participation in the atonement. I think this has to be considered a very important goal of atonement theory. Stories like Robinson’s parable of the bicycle, as Geoff said in #5, are not really atonement theories in the full sense.

    (By the way Geoff, I think you are right and I only included it because it is often discussed in these discussions (both Potter and Ostler make mention of it in their discussions of atonement theory).)

    It seems to me that Robinson is very clearly intending for his parable to do just what you are hoping for. It is meant to help us connect with the story of the atonement on an emotional level. It is meant to be devotional more than theological. Of course, once people connect with something emotionally, they inevitably start to derive theology from it, which is another reason it is not altogether unfitting to mention it here. Packer’s “The Mediator” is another parable of atonement which is popular in Mormonism and it tries to explain the “logic” of the atonement at the same time it tries to help us connect emotionally.

    So, my question is, to what extent does it matter that all the logic works out if the parable succeeds in connecting us emotionally and motivating us to participate? Do we really even need atonement theory, or could we get by just as well (or better?) with things like the parable of the bicycle?

    Comment by Jacob — October 10, 2006 @ 11:26 am

  10. Something I try to bring up sometimes, but have never really discussed much is that the atonement was necessary partially to provide a perfect judgement – roll your eyes now. This is based somewhat on Mosiah Chapter 3. I made a post on that once here.

    Although I’m afraid it lacks some sophistication.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — October 10, 2006 @ 11:47 am

  11. Some of us need atonement theory. God likes us to seek understanding when we do it faithfully. I recall reading and watching Elder Packer’s Mediator and talking about it with friends. They ALL said how grateful they were for this perfect explanation of how the atonement worked. I didn’t have that experience. In one way, I love The Mediator. In another way, it just left me with more questions. For instance, I understand being in monetary debt. I understand how someone else can pay that debt. I understand that because I understand the currency involved. But I don’t undertand spiritual debt or how it is paid by someone else. What was the currency of the atonement? Anyway, I appreciate atonement theories because it helps me get my mind around some of this. And its not a choice…I mean it’s just the way some of our spirits and minds experience things. Many of us have no choice but to try to come to some understanding of these things. However, without them I still know the atonement to be true and effective in my life. I will “get by” without them – but I surely like reading and pondering them.

    Comment by Hal H. — October 10, 2006 @ 12:05 pm

  12. Jacob: So, my question is, to what extent does it matter that all the logic works out if the parable succeeds in connecting us emotionally and motivating us to participate?

    When you say participate I assume you mean repent, right? Certainly repentance is the first priority. But one can repent and come unto Christ with incorrect beliefs about the atonement too. (We both believe that penal substituion theories are untenable now but most of us used to buy it and that didn’t hinder our turning to God and repenting.)

    But if we are to eventually become like God and One with the Godhead we will need to know how things really work, so if we are committed to repenting and drawing closer to God the next logical step is to commit to obtaining more knowledge about things as they really are. Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life will rise with us in the resurrection after all.

    Comment by Geoff J — October 10, 2006 @ 12:34 pm

  13. Can you define Penal Substituton Theory?

    If you are saying it is untenable that Christ will “take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance” (Alma 7:13). If so, allow me to disagree.

    Comment by Matt Witten — October 10, 2006 @ 12:49 pm

  14. Matt,

    See this post. It is a basic overview of most of the prominent atonement theories out there and includes a penal-substitution theory section.

    Comment by Geoff J — October 10, 2006 @ 12:56 pm

  15. I am using the term “atonement theory” in a specific way. What I mean by “atonement theory” is an theory which attempts to answer all the questions in the big list at the beginning of the post.

    First off, I appreciate your effort to apply some thoughtful rigor to the thinking we do about the atonement.

    I know your list is preliminary, but since you are in effect using the questions atonement theory ought to be able to answer as a definition of atonement theory, it’s probably worth asking whether these questions (and their answers, of course) are necessary and sufficient to understand the atonment. Which in turn raises further questions about the nature of the atonement and eventually spiralling out of control into the depths of epistemology.

    While it may be impossible to avoid that precipice, maybe it would be a good idea to re-examine the requirement that “a theory of atonement needs to answer a lot of questions” without an explanation of why these questions are both necessary and sufficient.

    What I’m shooting at is a description of atonement theory even more specific than what you have provided thus far, but not necessarily more complex. Good theories shouldn’t be as complex as the reality they attempt to describe, explain, predict, etc. and I think Geoff’s call for a narrower definition (post #2) is a step in the right direction.

    In addition, any theory makes certain assumptions; in the interests of clarity you could consider making your assumptions about the atonement explicit. From your list of questions, it appears you are making at least the following assumptions:

    The atonement is necessary
    Christ is the only one who could perform the atonement
    We would be hopelessly lost without the atonement
    Christ suffered
    Christ’s suffering had a purpose
    The atonement satisfies justice
    The atonement brought about the resurrection
    The atonement is related to forgiveness
    The atonement is related to repentance
    The atonement is related to the fall
    The atonement makes us free

    Since any of these points could be argued, starting with the assumptions may help focus the discussion on the essential elements of a particular theory. For example, if I present a theory of market forces and neglect to make clear assumptions about rational actors seeking to maximize their utility, we may spend the rest of the day discussing human nature and why it is my theory ignores observed altruistic behavior rather than the merits of the theory itself.

    I don’t know if this contributes anything you hadn’t already considered, but here you go anyway.

    Comment by Peter — October 10, 2006 @ 1:42 pm

  16. Geoff: I took a gander, but Isn’t there an “all of the above and more” theory? I think we have to develop a holistic atonement theory.

    I guess I don’t see something “untenable” in Christ paying for our sins and the sins of others. I do think your description of it is somewhat skewed. (no offense) After all, I don’t think the “Mormon Mainstream” view Christ as “He died for our sins” but “He suffered all of our sins, and all the consequences of all of our sins.” Granted, I haven’t done a survey or anything…

    Have you read the peacegiver? The whole book is free online:, but we all know paper is better than digital. Anyway, the whole book, deals with practical application of the atonement, and thus parts of the atonement theory.

    Maybe you or Jacob can enlighten me on the “untenable” nature of Christ taking upon himself our sins.

    Comment by Matt Witten — October 10, 2006 @ 1:57 pm

  17. Eric (#10),

    Thanks for the link, that went up before I had ever been to the ‘nacle. Far from being a bad theory, the idea that the atonement took place to make Christ the perfect judge is the central premise of the Empathy Theory as advanced by Dennis Potter in this issue of Dialogue starting on page 73. While it is true I took this theory to task in my paper, it is not because I don’t think there is some truth to it. I simply think it is inadequate as a complete explanation of the atonement.

    Hal H (#11),

    You captured how I feel about it very well. I had a similar experience with The Mediator as well. I think I have told the story before of having Millet show The Mediator in my freshman BofM class at BYU (long before I’d ever heard of “atonement theory”) and he got a bit frustrated with me when I raised my hand afterward to poke at the analogy.

    Geoff (#12),

    For the most part I agree with you. As C.S. Lewis said, we don’t need to understand vitamins to get nourishment from food and we don’t have to understand the atonement to apply it and benefit from it. However, I do worry at times that our misconceptions about the atonement can affect our ability to apply the gospel now. For example, I have spoken with many people who have worried that they didn’t really repent and gain forgiveness because they were worried they never got sad enough. That sort of thing can be a direct result of poor atonement theory causing us to misunderstand repentance and forgiveness.

    Matt (#13),

    I am not saying that at all, don’t worry. The central premise of the penal-substitution theory is that justice demands that we suffer because of our sins and that the atonement consisted of Christ standing in our place (substitution) to take the punishment required by justice (penal). This is a very common explanation in Mormonism as well as in Christianity generally, but it is not the only way to understand Alma 7:13. The paper I linked to above (in this comment) by Potter spends most of its time discussing problems with the penal-substitution theory and why we might want to reject it in favor of a different theory of atonement.

    Comment by Jacob — October 10, 2006 @ 2:04 pm

  18. Jacob!

    Thank you so much for your response and the appropriate link to Dialog. I will read this article when I have time.

    Thank you again.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — October 10, 2006 @ 2:14 pm

  19. Peter,

    It is perhaps sloppy of me to define “atonement theory” using my list of questions, but at the time I was trying to say something concrete rather than giving a more proper definition which might convey less. Although each of my questions makes an assumption, I am totally willing to entertain theories which answer the question by challenging the assumption of the question. My list really arises from the kind of questions that will be asked of any theory. Because people generally believe these things about the atonement, a theory of atonement generally needs to have an answer ready in order to serve its purpose of explaining the things people want to understand about the atonement. So you can put forward a theory which does not answer all of these questions (for instance, mine didn’t), but unless your theory explains why the question is wrongheaded in the first place, the lack of an answer will be a mark against your theory as a complete explanation of the atonement.

    Hopefully it is clear from the above that I think you are pretty on track with you comment and I agree with the points you are making. Do you have a theory which is less complex but more specific which explains the meaning, purpose, and mechanism behind the atonement?

    Comment by Jacob — October 10, 2006 @ 2:21 pm

  20. Matt: Geoff: I took a gander, but Isn’t there an “all of the above and more” theory? I think we have to develop a holistic atonement theory.

    One of the points I made in that post was that we Mormons do tend to try a smorgasbord approach to atonement theories. Check out the comments there as well — Kevin Barney noted that a friend of his did a survey of the LDS hymnal and found references to all of the major theories in our hymns. The problem is that these theories are not complementary for the most part. There certainly could be hybrid theories embracing parts of the various theories but an “all of the above” approach would be self-contradictory and incoherent.

    (I actually lean toward a hybrid between moral-example and Potter’s empathy theory but have not gathered the energy or courage to write it out yet…)

    Comment by Geoff J — October 10, 2006 @ 2:41 pm

  21. Jacob: I have told the story before of having Millet show The Mediator in my freshman BofM class at BYU (long before I’d ever heard of “atonement theory”) and he got a bit frustrated with me when I raised my hand afterward to poke at the analogy.

    Lol! Stop asking all them durn questions son!

    However, I do worry at times that our misconceptions about the atonement can affect our ability to apply the gospel now.

    I completely agree with you. Incorrect theology is at the root of all sorts of problems. But aren’t you now answering your own question posed at the end of #9?

    Comment by Geoff J — October 10, 2006 @ 2:47 pm

  22. Geoff:

    One of the points I made in that post was that we Mormons do tend to try a smorgasbord approach to atonement theories.

    Good point. I would also note that this is one of the main points McMurrin makes in his Theological Foundations of Mormonism when he discusses atonement theory and the Mormon approach to it. “All of the above” turns out to be very problematic. (Although, at the end, McMurrin signs up for the Satisfaction Theory, which disappointed me.)

    Kevin Barney noted that a friend of his did a survey of the LDS hymnal and found references to all of the major theories in our hymns.

    I wasn’t around when that thread happened, so now I get my chance to say something about that comment. Not to make a big deal of it, because I think I know what Kevin was getting at, but I think it is problematic to find the word “ransom” in a hymn and conclude that the Ransom Theory is represented in our hymnal. The idea of Christ as a ransom is scriptural, so I reserve the right to continue referring to Christ as the ransom long after I have rejected the Ransom Theory. Maybe that is a minor point, but it ends up being important when answering questions like that posed in #13. My rejection of penal-substitution is not a rejection of Alma 7:13, althought it might require a re-interpretation of that scripture for some people. I don’t mean this comment to be directed to you, Geoff, I just wanted to take your comment as an opportunity to say this because I’ve thought of it many times since reading that comment from Kevin.

    But aren’t you now answering your own question posed at the end of #9?

    Of course. I asked the question because I am interested in other people’s opinions, not because I don’t have a strong opinion on this one already [wink]. By the way, your commitment to the importance of theology is what has always drawn me to your blog.

    Comment by Jacob — October 10, 2006 @ 3:15 pm

  23. I don’t have anything original to add to this discussion, and I have no idea if anyone is interested in this, but here is a paper that has done a lot to illuminate the atonement for me, especially the paragraphs under the heading An Infinite Atonement which is a little more than halfway down the page.
    To my simple mind at least, this seems to answer quite a few of Jacob’s questions and uses a fairly thorough scriptural approach.

    Comment by C Jones — October 10, 2006 @ 5:54 pm

  24. Jacob,

    I claim that my conception of the atonement answers all of those questions comprehensively, both in terms of the Christ-event as it applies to the Lord Jesus Christ (the captain of our salvation [3]) and in terms of our personal participation in the grand plan of At-one-ment[5]. I believe that it is impossible to separate the two, as each is spiritually bound together in one great whole.[6]

    If the Lord’s suffering sacrifice did not lead us to follow his example it would be a failure [4]. The whole point of his sacrifice is to draw all mankind unto him [1]. If as a consequence we did not repent of our sins, and take up our cross, and follow him his suffering on the cross would be pointless. [2]

    [1] John 12:32, 2 Ne 26:24, 3 Ne 27:14-15
    [2] Matt 16:24-26, D&C 56:2-3
    [3] Heb 2:10
    [4] 2 Ne 31:16
    [5] 2 Cor 1:5-7
    [6] 1 Jn 4:16

    Comment by Mark Butler — October 10, 2006 @ 5:58 pm

  25. C Jones,

    Thanks for the link. The paper linked to gives a pretty standard treatment of the atonement from the Mormon perspective. Many of the points seem fine, but I would take issue with his assertion that “Included in this is the shocking reality that he not only bore the eternal consequences of our sins but also the very sins themselves.” Nevertheless, this is not really intended as a thread on all the different theories, so I won’t say more than that.


    Blake claims the same thing about his theory. As I said in the post, I find a lot to recommend in both of your theories even though they are drastically different when we dig down to the details. But, just as I said one second ago, I don’t really want to get caught up debating various theories in this thread. This post is more about the purpose of atonement theory than any specific theory and its strengths or weaknesses.

    Comment by Jacob — October 10, 2006 @ 6:56 pm

  26. Jacob,

    I think people can do quite well living their lives according to a collection of apparently unrelated gospel principles. But I also believe that one will do better, be less prone to practical mistakes, and build stronger testimonies, if he can successfully integrate those principles into a coherent whole. And that is what atonement theories or other comprehensive explanations of the gospel are good for.

    In its fulness the understanding of the at-one-ment leads a unification of all moral truths into one great whole. It often seems that half of the errors in the religious world are the result of taking one principle too seriously while ignoring or discounting the others that properly balance it.

    Absolutist theology is incomprehensible because it is a bundle of contradictions – and as is well known, a bundle of contradictions can be used to justify anything. No theology worthy of the name admits the existence of any contradictions at all – tensions may be plentiful, but contradictions are deadly.

    So I see the purpose of such theories is to converge on the one true theory of the at-one-ment, to clarify our understanding so we are not led to commit the most foolish of errors (MMM anyone?). A little theology is a dangerous thing.

    Comment by Mark Butler — October 10, 2006 @ 7:21 pm

  27. What’s MMM?

    BTW – I very much like your use of footnotes in #24 Mark. Makes for much more palatable (read: shorter) comments.

    Comment by Geoff J — October 10, 2006 @ 7:36 pm

  28. This post is more about the purpose of atonement theory than any specific theory and its strengths or weaknesses.

    So, my question is, to what extent does it matter that all the logic works out if the parable succeeds in connecting us emotionally and motivating us to participate? Do we really even need atonement theory, or could we get by just as well (or better?) with things like the parable of the bicycle?

    I mentioned before that the parable of the bicycle and other such stories had been motivational to me. But I wanted to clarify that dissecting the doctrinal theories they seem to promote has caused much ambiguity. The Lectures on Faith preaches that in order for an intelligent being to exercise faith in God, he must have the idea that God actually exists, a correct idea of his character and attributes, and a knowledge that he is following God’s will. I love that statement from the Lectures. And I don’t think an emotional response to a story that is not correct in its underlying assumptions can bring me to a proper exercise of the atonement in my life. I want to be able to have a full and correct understanding of the Atonement.

    Look at the difference between the Parable of the Bicycle and the Parable of the Pianist (realizing they are not full-blown Atonement theories). In the Bicycle, the little girl works as hard as she can and makes the 27c, or however much it was. The Savior makes up the difference. In the Pianist, the parents provide the piano, lessons, support, etc, and the pianist by effort makes up the rest. In the end, the responsibility for salvation is his. For some reason, that doesn’t give me as much hope as when the Savior makes up for what we can’t possibly do on our own.

    You see, I’ve practiced for many years trying to be an accomplished pianist, and have realized I will never get there. (speaking both literally and figuratively.) I really hope the Savior can make up the difference for me. If the purpose of Atonement theory is to motivate me to participate, I vote for the Parable of the Bicycle. But if it’s Wrong, I guess I’d better know now so I can give up all of my other pursuits and bust my chops on the piano.

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — October 10, 2006 @ 9:22 pm

  29. BiV,

    You are certainly right that becoming like the Master would never happen in this life. A key component to the parable of the piano is an assumption that progression after this life (aka progression between kingdoms) is possible. If one believed that all chances to progress and become better abruptly ended after our judgment following this life then it would seem like an overwhelming task. My contention is that since I believe there is progression after this life a paradigm similar to the parable of the pianist is more likely to lead one to continue to repent throughout their entire mortal life than the paradigm associated with the parable of the bicycle. The parable of the bicycle seems to be an example of what I call “free ride” theology and I think it leads to a certain complacency after one loosely “gets with the church program”.

    Comment by Geoff J — October 10, 2006 @ 9:49 pm

  30. Geoff,

    MMM is a short hand reference to the Mountain Meadows Massacre, which appears to have been justified using a bizarre conception of blood atonement. And despite what Hebrews says, this conception did not dissapear overnight – I had a good man tell me when I was young that murder is such a severe sin that the murderer needs to suffer capital punishment to make complete at-one-ment.

    On the two wrongs do not make a right principle, I think that is a serious error. And if indeed it was part of the justification used for the MMM, one can see how serious an error a false conception of atonement can be.

    Comment by Mark Butler — October 10, 2006 @ 9:52 pm

  31. Geoff,
    Yes, that perspective certainly does make your paradigm seem more hopeful…I like it.
    Free ride appeals to so many, though. My elderly maiden aunt, a fundamentalist Christian, received the missionaries some years ago. The one question she asked them was if they could be sure if they died that moment they would go straight to heaven. They answered that they couldn’t be sure. She told them she had to reject their message, for at this late stage in her life, she couldn’t give up the absolute assurance she already had.

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — October 10, 2006 @ 10:01 pm

  32. Let me say first that I want to thank you all for enlivening the conversation between my wife and I last night. I simply asked her “Do you have a theory of how the atonement works?” and a few hours later we found ourselves reading the exaltation chapter in Gospel Principles.

    While I still think there are short comings in the Pianist Parable, the was one quote I reade last night that reading BiV’s comments and Geoff’s comments made me think of this morning.

    I quote: “When you climb up a ladder, you must begin at the bottom, and ascend step by step, until you arrive at the top; and so it is with the principles of the Gospel-you must begin with the first, and go on until you learn all the principles of exaltation. But it will be a great while after you have passed through the veil [died] before you will have learned them. It is not all to be comprehended in this world; it will be a great work to learn our salvation and exaltation even beyond the grave” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 348).

    I do however believe there is merit to the Robinson Parable, but not as much as the Mediator Parable.

    A few other things came up last night with my wife that I think an atonement theory should involve or at least contemplate.

    1. While Christ’s Suffering does in some way bring him to us, it also takes away our excuse. For us to know that his suffering was greater than any other, we can never say, “But I went through this, I have reasons for why I am the way I am. I couldn’t help it. You don’t understand.”

    2. Related to #1, The Atonement counters Determinism and gives us the capacity to freely exercise our agency.

    3. This is a little more speculative, but perhaps Christ’s suffering was him becoming familiar with his father’s Burden. Our Father in Heaven is Omniscient. He knows our needs and pains. He knows our sufferings, infirmities, and afflictions even as we know them. Perhaps what happened in the Garden was Christ taking upon himself this knowledge as well.

    I haven’t wrapped my mind completely around that last one yet, but there you go.

    Oh, and Jacob (#17), I guess I agree, in that there is definitely more to it than that. Christ did atone, “to answer the ends of the law.” where there is a “punishment afixed” (2 Nephi something something) butin your words I think the idea of what the cause of that punishment is is confusing. Similar to the confusion some have to the debt in the Mediator. (In my opinion, The Debt is the opportunity of life.)

    Comment by Matt Witten — October 11, 2006 @ 7:10 am

  33. Just stumbled upon this discussion this morning, what a great question to answer. I am wondering though if it might be more fruitful to discuss assumptions first then which theories fit them. I think that is what you are trying to get to in your questions but for my simple mind it needs to be more explicit.

    These are probably obvious but I think the different theories have different assumptions of even why we need an atonement.

    For example do we assume…
    Commiting sin requires punishment or a different assumption might be committing sin seperates us from God which could be punishment?…
    Blood needs to be shed to pay for sins.
    One sin sends us to hell to be ruled by Satan.
    We have to be perfect (not just without sin)to endure the presence of God
    We inherit not earn eternal life.
    Its one thing to pay for sins (we can do it in hell) it another to inherit eternal life (Celestial Kingdom)
    The purpose of the Atonement is both to take away sin and to lead us to perfection or Eternal Life.
    God is not bound by time so his acts are timeless

    Probably could create a large list then boil down to most important.

    Anyway this might be a start…

    Comment by Greg Ricks — October 11, 2006 @ 8:40 am

  34. Greg,

    First, nice to meet you, thanks for posting. I totally agree that one of the first things to answer is why the atonement is necessary. In fact, the first question on my list was “Why was the atonement necessary?” and the types of answers you suggest are just the sorts of things I had in mind with that question. It should be clear on reflection that the answer to this question is central to the meaning of the atonement as well as having a multitude of other theological implications.

    Comment by Jacob — October 11, 2006 @ 8:54 am

  35. Greg: so in other words, It seems you are saying that in order to develop an atonement theory, we first need to develop a sin theory?

    What makes an action, thought, or deed a sin? Of course I have my own answer to this, but will rest on it for now.

    Comment by Matt Witten — October 11, 2006 @ 9:24 am

  36. I think that is probably true Matt. In fact, an atonement theory is probably inextricably connected with an overall theology. Blake’s and Mark’s theories are examples of this and my current atonement theory is the same way. I suspect that the reason so many atonement theories float around in Mormonism is because the church has consciously eschewed a formal and codified theology.

    Comment by Geoff J — October 11, 2006 @ 9:45 am

  37. Geoff, I think you are right in part. I think much of our religion and theology is an appendage to the atonement, which implies being an appendage to the atonement theory, rather than a component thereof. I guess I am proposing that most ordinances and principles of the Gospel which are extremely important, are appendages not components of a proper atonement theory. (Baptism, Endowment, Faith in Christ(maybe maybe not) etc.) Of course, perhaps part of the issue of developing a concise atonement theory is deciding which other aspects of our theology matter and which are secondary(or only matter in relation to the atonement mattering).

    I have already proposed the definition of sin as one component necassary to understanding the atonement. Perhaps it is argueable to add the concepts of Death, Life, The Fall, Heavenly Father, Love, Jesus Christ, and Existence to those items which need to be clearly defined to develop a clear atonement theory.

    In writing this, I can’t help thinking that what used to be the second discussion could be argued as the most “official” atonement theory. Perhaps it is not developed enough for our discussion here though.

    Comment by Matt Witten — October 11, 2006 @ 10:44 am

  38. Matt,

    I don’t think there was an atonement theory in the 2nd discussion. It was general and vague enough to fit with most any of the atonement theories out there. An atonement theory is all about looking under the hood at the nitty gritty details and mechanics and metaphysics behind the atonement. The 2nd discussion did none of those things.

    Comment by Geoff J — October 11, 2006 @ 10:53 am

  39. Geoff:
    Ha! I knew I gaffed when I put in that last paragraph. Would love to hear your thoughts on the rest.

    I guess I don’t see how the Parable of the Pianist, Mediator, or Bicycle give us a look under the hood as the chrome plated fine tuned beauty of the atonement. In fact, I’d say they only look at the car from a distance, and fail to even get close enough to check out the rims. At least the 2nd Discussion defined sin, death, and a process for using the atonement.

    Comment by Matt Witten — October 11, 2006 @ 11:23 am

  40. Jacob, what do you think is the Church’s “official” atonement theory? Would it go along with Penal Substitution? Or do we even have one?

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — October 11, 2006 @ 11:38 am

  41. Matt – None of those parables are atonement theories. As I mentioned earlier, parables serve as pre-theories at best. An atonement theory like Ostler’s or the standard ones I listed in that earlier post do look under the hood and deal with the metaphysical questions in some detail.

    Regarding your other points in #37, I think it is just a matter of semantics if we say atonement theory is a component of a theology or that theology is a component of an atonement theory. They are all part of the great whole of trying to understand who and what God is and what exactly God’s plans are for humankind. Atonement theories assume that God does want us to be “at one” with him and they try to explain how he goes about helping that happen.

    BiV – It is safe to say there is no official atonement theory in the church. That is why so many theories (or at least parts of theories) get airtime in church and General Conference and manuals etc.

    Comment by Geoff J — October 11, 2006 @ 12:09 pm

  42. Biv,

    Interesting question. I would suggest that, as for most theological questions, we have no official position. Of course, “officialness” is one of those things people like to argue about a lot, but I don’t think this one is too hard to establish. For example, in B.H. Robert’s Seventy’s Course in Theology, he argues for something very close to the Satisfaction Theory (although he does add a few mix-and-match points as well). If you follow the endnotes in my paper when I review historical theories, I put in a quote from B.H. Roberts to back up this claim. Boyd K. Packer gave us “The Mediator” which is essentially the Penal-Substitution Theory. The Skousen theory you mentioned before (from the appendix to one of the Thousand Years books) is a creative twist on what is essentially the Moral-Influence Theory (he does add some uniquely Mormon theology to it, but in the end it is about persuading all the intelligences through his dramatic demonstration of love). So there you have three of the four most important atonement theories (we have never been too excited about the Ransom Theory in Mormondom) represented in Mormon thought.

    That said, it seems that the vast majority of members accept something like the penal-substitution theory, mixed with whatever other theory fits the moment. I think Geoff and McMurrin are right that Mormon atonement theory is best characterized by our use of every theory at once without any concern for if they actually fit together or not. We are not really known for our love of systematic theology. As Mark said in #26, that is not a great way to do theology, but at the same time, the lack of an “official” theory leaves us free to work out these theological questions on our own until the Lord reveals something more definite. Personally, I think it is always better to have no official position when the Lord has not revealed something definitively, so this is a good thing in my mind.

    Comment by Jacob — October 11, 2006 @ 12:29 pm

  43. Matt: I guess I don’t see how the Parable of the Pianist, Mediator, or Bicycle give us a look under the hood

    The Mediator is much more of an atonement theory than the other two. It addresses the core issues in a much more definite way than the Parable of the Bicycle, for example. The fact that it is putting the penal-substitution theory into a parable helps a lot also. If it was offering some novel approach to the problem of atonement it could never do so in a short parable, but since it is drawing from a famous and well-known approach, it doesn’t have to fill in all of the details. If you read the Parable of the Bicycle it is clear that Robinson is not trying to give a theological treatise but a devotional presentation of the atonement which is intended to touch us on an emotional level. That said, we can definitely get some idea of the general approach suggested by the PotB and there are clear theological implications.

    Comment by Jacob — October 11, 2006 @ 12:39 pm

  44. Geoff: Regarding #37, I guess I meant I don’t think Analysis of the Word of Wisdom, while important to our theology, would aid in the construction of a solid atonment theory. A minor quibble, really.

    Jacob: I don’t see the mediator as directly correlating to penal-substitution theory as you’ve explained it (maybe I am missing something.) Let me sya what I think you are saying. Penal Sunstitution Theory implies that Christ takes our place in suffering for our sins and we therefore no longer have to suffer, but are saved from them. This would be something like a Faith only Christian apporach in my mind.

    The Mediator shows Christ paying off our unpaid debts with his abundance, but then we are not out of debt, but merely granted a more generous debtor. I don’t want to compound the threadjack on this, as I fear I am like unto the third friend who wants to talk about Golf during Football season, but would love to discuss what your exegesis of the mediator is.

    I will have to eventually check out Blake’s book, I suppose.

    Comment by Matt Witten — October 11, 2006 @ 12:54 pm

  45. Matt,

    There are lots of variations on every theory so when I say The Mediator is presenting the penal-substitution theory, it is because the central idea is the same in both. The penal-substitution theory originated in the reformation and it was a tweak on the Satisfaction Theory. The central idea of the Satisfaction Theory is that the atonement was necessary to restore God’s honor. Sin dishonors God and the atonement restored that honor. The central tweak of the penal-substitution theory was to say that rather than sin dishonoring God, sin incurred a debt to justice. Thus, the atonement was necessary to pay this debt to justice. The “penal” in penal-substitution is due to the central place of justice in the theory. If you watch The Mediator, the foolish boy incurres a debt which he cannot pay. The Mediator pays the debt for him. At the end, there is some commentary which says explicitely that the debt is incurred to justice and that Christ (the Mediator) pays that debt to justice. This is the penal-substitution theory in a nutshell.

    The distinction you are pointing out between whether we are still in debt to Christ or not is not a central part of the penal-substitution theory and variations exist which argue both ways. “Penal-substitution” is a fairly broad umbrella at this point given how many people have adopted it and advanced their own solutions to the rest of the details. By the way, this is why I was saying that atonement theories must answer a lot of different questions. You can see that even the penal-substitution theory is not a complete theory without a bunch of collateral explanations.

    Comment by Jacob — October 11, 2006 @ 1:58 pm

  46. Matt,
    Yea (back to 35) I do think we need a sin theory and not just why sin is bad but why must it be punished. I don’t think I have the perfect answer to either of these but again the assumption you make on what is a sin and why it must be punished leads I think to which atonement theory you pick or could lead to a “unifying theory” and then answer the questions Jacob posed.

    Let me take a shot at some assumptions for question #2… Why was Christ the only person who could preform the atonement?

    …………………………………………God the Father………………………Man……………….Christ (Inherited from…)
    Must be without sin ……………….yes………………………………… no …………………yes (from his father)
    Must be tempted…………………….no…………………………………..yes………………..yes (from his mother)
    Must shed blood………………………no………………………………….yes…………………yes (from his mother)
    Must have power over death…..yes…………………………………………………..yes (from his father)

    Very simplistic but with my assumptions its easy to get to an answer with these assumptions that only Christ could perform the atonement.
    (my table skills do need some work)

    Comment by Greg — October 11, 2006 @ 3:20 pm

  47. Greg,

    Your table answers the question, but not before introducing several assumptions which would need justification. For example, why did the atonement require a person who was without sin (it is usually considered unjust to punish innocent people so what brand of justice rules in the universe that sin would require punishing an innocent). Why would it require a person who had been tempted? Why would it require the shedding of blood?

    You’ll notice that the nature of sin and the nature of justice both appear in my list of questions which must be addressed to explain the atonement. What you are really asking for when you talk about why sin must be punished is a theory of justice. I posted on that not too long ago.

    Comment by Jacob — October 11, 2006 @ 4:41 pm

  48. re: sin theory. I recently sat in a roundtable discussion about the “problem of evil” framed in the context of the Christmas Tsumani. The people around the table couldn’t even agree on what sin was, much less get to a thorough discussion of why God would allow it.

    re: atonement theory. I know Geoff really enjoyed Givens’ book “By the Hand of Mormon.” On pgs. 205 – 208 (in my paperback edition, the tail end of chapter 7) he discusses pieces of what we’re talking about here.

    Comment by Bradley Ross — October 11, 2006 @ 7:31 pm

  49. Jacob #9: So, my question is, to what extent does it matter that all the logic works out if the parable succeeds in connecting us emotionally and motivating us to participate? Do we really even need atonement theory, or could we get by just as well (or better?) with things like the parable of the bicycle?

    I think this is a very interesting question. I think it’s intimately tied to the divides in modern vs. post-modern and analytic vs. Continental thought. I think there is good as well as dangers in both approaches, though I find myself stumbling into more of the dangers with more analytic approaches. I’m not sure if this is a personal weakness or something more universalizable, but it’s hard for me not to start feeling like I’m wresting the scriptures with more analytic approaches. Another danger for me is to start reading the scriptures as though they were theological treatises which I don’t think is how or why they were written….

    Comment by Robert C. — October 11, 2006 @ 9:38 pm

  50. Robert: I have at times had exactly the same dilemma you point to. However, it seems that telling stories is the equivalent of just admitting that we cannot answer the questions about atonement that Jacob poses, or that our answers are always less than definitive (which is the case), and that we can tell a story that connects emotionally and expresses something but cannot be pressed to respond to questions the way a theory can be. However, I remember vividly when the story of the school-master and the pupil that he beat to a pulp to preserve his rules and “justice” brought tears to the eyes of just about everyone in the sunday school class — whereas I was feeling morally violated and quite dissatistfied.

    Parables teach and leave an openness to the questions that I like, but the parables for atonement attempt to provide some grasp for tough issues that Jacob raises and fail miserably because they leave us without any grasp. Parables can expose bad attitudes (like the view that if I have been a member and lived the gospel for longer than a new convert I should receive more recognition and better positions – the parable the talents) or the assumption that only those who belong to the chosen people deserve my compassion (the parable of the good Samaritan) and so forth. What parables cannot do is answer questions about the kinds of assertions we make that don’t connect with our religious attitudes, but with our religious world-view and whether such a view works for us. I have a hard time being inspired by morally repugnant non-sense which is where much of the talk about atonement leaves me. The parables leave me wanting to press them for their limits and they always leave a number of questions un-answered — among them precisely the one’s posed by Jacob.

    Comment by Blake — October 12, 2006 @ 6:40 am

  51. Jacob(45): I can definitely see your point that the Mediator, in light of your further explanation, holds out what we are calling the penal substitution theory. Again, last night I enjoyed contemplating these things during my scripture study. I have to say I am not thoroughly convinced that the penal-substitution theory ought be wholly discarded. I think alternative explanations of at least 2 Nephi 2 and 2 Nephi 9 would need to be elaborated upon, keeping in mind the responsibility of maintaining the “most correct” status of the Book of Mormon. I do not have the book open in front of me, but I would love your understanding of Christ’s answering the ends of the law unto the Broken Heart and Contrite Spirit.

    After this I will go and read your “justice theory” post and return.

    Greg(46): I like your categories, but Jacob has a point in that it begs a next step of further explanation. I don’t disagree with your set up, I am just hungry for more.

    Blake(50): You say using parables\stories is “admitting that we cannot answer the questions about atonement that Jacob poses, or that our answers are always less than definitive “. When the Prophet himself is known to make statements about the ineffability of the Atonement, I don’t think it ought be condemned to allow for parables which are not holistic but address aspects of our relation with God via the atonement. I do not feel we should use this as an excuse, and I am sure you’d agree, to not look for answers and theories regarding these things, so long as we keep the appropriate constraints involved.

    Comment by Matt Witten — October 12, 2006 @ 7:16 am

  52. Matt: I have to say I am not thoroughly convinced that the penal-substitution theory ought be wholly discarded. I think alternative explanations of at least 2 Nephi 2 and 2 Nephi 9 would need to be elaborated upon

    There are at least three places I recommend you look for fairly thorough explanations why penal-substitution theory is untenable. The first is the Dennis Potter article in Dialogue (Pg 73. — this is the only one online right now). The second is Blake’s Volume 2 of Exploring Mormon Thought. The third is Jacob’s article in the recent issue of Dialogue. I think all three of these sources successfully explain why penal substitution theory ought to be discarded.

    Comment by Geoff J — October 12, 2006 @ 8:48 am

  53. To be more explicit, these were the scriptures in 2 Ne 2 and 2 Ne 9, I had in mind.

    I site them as I think they are very important to development of an atonement theory.

    What Christ is doning in the Atonement
    2 Ne 2
    Vs 7 he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin
    Vs 8 layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit
    Vs 9 make intercession for all the children of men
    Vs 26 the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time
    2 Ne 9
    Vs 5 he suffereth himself to become subject unto man in the flesh, and die for all men
    Vs 7 it must needs be an infinite atonement
    Vs 10 Prepareth a way for our escape
    Vs 21 And he cometh into the world
    Vs 21 he suffereth the pains of all men, yea, the pains of every living creature, both men, women, and children, who belong to the family of Adam
    Vs 26 the atonement satisfieth the demands of his justice upon all those who have not the law given to them

    What THe Atonement is Causing
    2 Ne 2
    vs 7 to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit
    Vs 8 that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead
    Vs 9 they that believe in him shall be saved
    Vs 10 because of the intercession for all, all men come unto God
    Vs 26 that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day
    2 Ne 9
    Vs 5 that all men might become subject unto him.
    Vs 7 corruption…put on incorruption…the first judgment which came upon man [becomes not of an] endless duration…this flesh [will]…rise [again].
    Vs 8 spirits [do not] become subject to that angel who fell from before the presence of the Eternal God, and became the devil, to rise no more.
    Vs 9 we [do not] become devils, angels to a devil, [and are not] be shut out from the presence of our God
    Vs 10 escape from…death of the body, and also the death of the spirit
    Vs 21 that he may save all men if they will hearken unto his voice
    Vs 22 that the resurrection might pass upon all men, that all might stand before him at the great and judgment day
    Vs 25 there is no law given there is no punishment; and where there is no punishment there is no condemnation; and where there is no condemnation the mercies of the Holy One of Israel have claim upon them, because of the atonement; for they are delivered by the power of him

    Comment by Matt Witten — October 12, 2006 @ 9:13 am

  54. Geoff: I will go to the sources as opportunity arrises. I am intending to order Blake’s books as soon as finances permits.

    Is Jacob’s article available on line, or is it too recent?

    Comment by Matt Witten — October 12, 2006 @ 9:16 am

  55. Ok, I’m only on page three (or four) of Potter, and I already have *several* issues.

    1. The McVeigh idea- What crappy analogy, first of all. I understand it is an attempt at reductio ad absurdem, but comparing a fallible judge to an infallible Father in Heaven is pretty limited.

    2. The Big Brother getting punished for the little Brother principle- I know this isn’t really contributive(or is it?), but my first response was if the older brother was supposed to be watching the younger brother, and the younger brother got into trouble or hurt, you know who is gonna be in trouble…

    3. The Medieval Fines- The act of murder recieving a fine is considered unjust when considered next to a parking ticket, etc. From an eternal perspective, why? This appears to be a major failing, to me.

    Also, My Screen size makes the dialogue interface very annoying… Sigh, I’ll keep plugging along though… Maybe it will get better.

    Comment by Matt Witten — October 12, 2006 @ 10:21 am

  56. Further issues with Potter:
    1. Fine Paid by Another\Criminal getting off Scott-Free- This is not the case, as our Fine converts to Debt to Jesus Chrst himself
    2. parking fines are just fees we must pay to park in certain places- and jail time or capitol punishment are just fees we have to pay for committing murder. After all, Money translates to Work tranlates to time doing something to earn money translates to use of life. It’s a cost-benefit analysis either way.
    3. God and Satan are just trying to work outa just arrangement- There are alternative views of tihs unmentioned, like the concept of hostage negotiation. Further, why is the debt to God or Satan? Could the Debt not be to self as in “I owe it to myself to be the best I can be.” concepts seem unexplored here.
    4. The economic Currency is pain- semantics here, but wouldn’t the economic currency be happiness\not happiness? Guess that isn’t as sensational as pain.
    5. Robinson critique- Can someone be responsible without being guilty? yes. If an emplyee of company X commits fraud, while company X is innoscent, they can be sued for damages rightfully for employing the fraudulant employee.
    6. The case of the amnesiac- Ok, It’s patently obvious Christ is not like the amnesiac. This is just silly filler..Perhaps it is illustratvie of the unprofittability of trying to place the atonement in what we currently understand of naturalism.

    I have disagreed with him so far, and up to this point, disagree with his reasoning for rejecting that christ paid for our sins.

    I will continue later on after I read his alternatives, but I wanted to keep this comment short…er…shorter…er…not long?

    Comment by Matt Witten — October 12, 2006 @ 11:16 am

  57. I also want to apologize if this is tangential. Feel free to zap me or annoy me if I am off base. It is your blog after all, and not mine.

    Comment by Matt Witten — October 12, 2006 @ 11:18 am

  58. Matt (#53),

    2 Ne 2 is actually pretty central in my thinking on the atonement (along with Alma 42 which is closely connected to 2 Ne 2). I have been considering posting on it, but I don’t think I can boil my exegesis down to a post-length commentary. Short answer is that I understand 2 Ne 2 to be all about prevenient grace and setting up the environment necessary for our progress (hence the talk about the atonement making us free and giving us a knowledge of good and evil).

    Understanding what it means for the atonement to “satisfy the demands of justice” requires us to first determine what it is that justice demands. I spent a significant portion of my paper discussing this question. I’ll try to find somewhere to put my paper online since it is too recent to appear in the online Dialogue archive.


    Your story of feeling morally violated while everyone else was touched hits home with me. I second everything in your #50.

    Comment by Jacob — October 12, 2006 @ 11:34 am

  59. Matt,

    It looks like we need a post on the penal-substitution theory. Keep reading, and I’ll see if I can get a post up tonight where we can hash out your arguments.

    Comment by Jacob — October 12, 2006 @ 11:56 am

  60. I was about to suggest the same thing Jacob. I’m looking forward to it.

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

  61. I truly do appreciate it.

    Comment by Matt Witten — October 12, 2006 @ 12:28 pm

  62. and I am so sorry about all the typos… I will pretype in word from now on. How embarrassing.

    Comment by Matt Witten — October 12, 2006 @ 12:30 pm

  63. Blake #50: I, like Jacob, relate to your story which is why I am interested in atonement theory, theology, etc. Perhaps a better way to express what I was getting at is in terms of patience and humility. That is, my point wasn’t that we shouldn’t do theology, but that we need to do so patiently and humbly. Oftentimes, it’s easy for me—esp. when thinking theologically, to get impatient and frustrated. This, I think, is a danger of theology. But I agree that it’s worse not to think carefully about the scriptures….

    Jacob #58: I would be very interested in your thoughts on 2 Ne 2. Perhaps you would consider a series of posts working through such thoughts? I’ve been trying to digest this article by Jim F. about community in Gen 2-3. In particular, it got me thinking about the “compound in one” vs. “one body” phrases in 2 Ne 2:11 (I posted my reading of these phrases here) and in what sense the fall was actually necessary. I’ve always sort of been suspicous about the serpent’s negative response to Eve’s question “is there no other way” (after all, it seems that Christ and infants are exceptions in the sense that it seems that sinning is not part of their progression experience, though I think this is an open question…). But after reading Jim’s article, I’m thinking more in terms of the creation being more about creating an opportunity for us to experience evil (and hence good also). I think I’ve been missing the larger issues in worrying about whether sin (or even transgression) is technically necessary for our progression. Sorry for rambling, I’m just trying to give a backdrop for some issues in 2 Ne 2 that I think would be interesting to discuss.

    Comment by Robert C. — October 13, 2006 @ 8:58 am

  64. Robert,

    Thanks for the link. I very much agree with the direction of creation giving us an opportunity for the experience of good and evil. I’ll try to think of a way to split up that discussion into some different posts.

    Brad (#48),

    I seem to have missed responding to your comment, sorry. Where was this roundtable discussion of the problem of evil? Who else was on the panel?

    Comment by Jacob — October 13, 2006 @ 9:43 am

  65. (Jacob, if you’re indeed thinking about posting on 2 Ne 2, you might be interested in this bit of a rant that Joe Spencer posted in reply to a comment I made….)

    Comment by Robert C. — October 14, 2006 @ 8:35 am

  66. Robert C, Your link in #65 didn’t quite make it through, can you try again? Thanks.

    Comment by Jacob — October 14, 2006 @ 9:35 am

  67. Oops, trying the link again: Talk:2 Ne 2:11-15.

    Comment by Robert C. — October 14, 2006 @ 11:33 am

  68. Robert C,

    I think what Joe Spencer wrote there is quite perceptive, although I wouldn’t agree with the radical anti-foundationalism, although it may well be what Lehi had in mind. Joseph Smith, however, set the LDS tradition in favor of something quite different – starting with everlastingly eternal matter and intelligence.

    There are some distinctions that precede the word, distinctions that the word must match or be no word at all. And all true words must have a relation to those fundamentals or have no relevance to any real or possible world at all.

    Theologically speaking, for example we might say that the Lord is not capable of making hate have the same effect as love, no matter how many decrees he issues in favor of that proposition. Love and hate reflect realities that precede divine creative activity. They are inherent potentialities of eternal intelligences. Thus we might reasonably conclude that the Lord can only achieve all power in heaven and earth by working with natural law, and not against it (which is fruitless in any case – natural law doesn’t know it exists).

    Comment by Mark Butler — October 14, 2006 @ 10:34 pm

  69. Ahh what the heck… might as well toss some additional questions in the mix… (A little devils advocate action, a direct result of heatstroke gotten while skating at the Daytona skatepark)

    1. Was the death of Christ an ESSENTIAL part of the atonement?
    2. If in fact the rumblings are true, and we are the only earth evil enough to crucify the Lord… what did the others do to him?
    3. If in fact the atonement was “infinite” was there never an atonement made for worlds before ours, and if so why was it not “infinite”?

    Ahhh, Memories. Sweet Memories. You guys don’t know what you have here… Lesser men have climbed great mountains to find the insights for people like jacob… ;)

    [Editor’s note: Years ago, Jake was the District Leader of Jacob back when their names were both Elder. Now, on stumbling onto his blogging personality, he cannot help but poke fun…]

    Comment by Jake — October 16, 2006 @ 12:54 pm

  70. I seem to recall some of this came up on previous threads and there was some disagreement as the answers to your questions. But for me, I would say that (1) the death of Christ was an essential part of the atonement, (2) the rumblings are probably not true since I tend to believe Christ is not the only person ever to atone on any planet, and (3) the “infinite” atonement refers to its being performed by an infinite being (Alma 34, cf. D&C 19) and its efficacy for all people(“infinite for all mankind” 2 Ne 25:16). But I don’t know, what do you think?

    Comment by Jacob — October 16, 2006 @ 1:43 pm

  71. Jacob,

    I just read your paper on the divine-infusion theory. Very compelling. I am left with some questions though. I’m sure they have been discussed somewhere on this blog already, but I haven’t been able to find it, so I thought I’d just throw them out here.

    First, I understand that the atonement saves us from an eternal state of innocence (which might be a form of hell), but it doesn’t seem that this perpetual innocence necessarily leads to “the devil, and the lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment” of 2 Ne. 9.

    How can the light of Christ save us from torment, when the light of Christ is necessary to truly experience torment in the first place? If we simply stayed in the super-fallen state, we would never advance in joy and glory, but I don’t think we would ever be tormented either.

    On another note, I’m still caught up in the question of Christ’s suffering. Why couldn’t God just grant us the light of Christ because he’s a real nice guy? I wondered if you had any partial thoughts on this that you ended up leaving out.

    Comment by Eric Russell — April 4, 2008 @ 8:20 pm

  72. Thanks Eric.

    First, I understand that the atonement saves us from an eternal state of innocence (which might be a form of hell), but it doesn’t seem that this perpetual innocence necessarily leads to “the devil, and the lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment” of 2 Ne. 9.

    Well, I’m not sure I agree with the first statement. I don’t think Adam and Eve’s state of innocence (as described by Lehi) is indicative of the pre-mortal state all of us lived in. The idea of a war in heaven seems to demand something more than ignorance and innocence. Alma 13 talks about certain priests “in the first place [pre-existence] being left to choose good or evil.” So, I would say that the atonement saves us from the fall, but that the plan of salvation pre-dates and subsumes the fall. It is not innocence which leads to the lake of fire and brimstone, but our continual rejection of goodness despite its being presented to us.

    Now, you may be suggesting that what I have called the super-fallen state (the state we would have been in if we fell but there was no atonement) sounds like a state of innocence. I think that’s a fair point. Although the Book of Mormon suggests the possibility of a super-fallen state, it says very little about it (presumably because no such state has every actually existed, it being prevented by the atonement). It does suggest that we would have been hopelessly lost and that redemption could not have come to pass, but the statements like the one you cite from 2 Ne 9 are speaking from the context of what has actually taken place, so it is not really speaking to what would have happened without the atonement, but rather, what will happen if we reject the atonement which has been offered. Does that make sense of what I am suggesting?

    On another note, I’m still caught up in the question of Christ’s suffering. Why couldn’t God just grant us the light of Christ because he’s a real nice guy? I wondered if you had any partial thoughts on this that you ended up leaving out.

    I think the only satisfactory answer to this question must include the idea that Christ’s suffering was connected to his ability to provide the light of Christ in some fundamental way. For example, Blake talks about it being intrinsically painful to Christ to be in relationship with us because of our sinfulness. If the light of Christ represents an active participation with us in each moment, that would provide the kind of answer I am thinking of.

    Comment by Jacob J — April 5, 2008 @ 11:11 am

  73. Now, you may be suggesting that what I have called the super-fallen state (the state we would have been in if we fell but there was no atonement) sounds like a state of innocence.

    Yeah, that’s how I interpreted it. Lacking the light of Christ means that we must also lack the ability to knowingly choose right or wrong. And lacking the ability to knowingly choose wrong means lacking the ability to truly suffer for so doing.

    Thus, a universe where there is no atonement is a universe where we’re all walking around all fat and happy and ignorant. Not a great world, but not a terrible one either. I suppose it is indeed a grand thing to be lifted out of an animal-like existence, but I guess I thought of the atonement as accomplishing something even greater (then again, maybe that’s just the influence of traditional Christianity).

    Comment by Eric Russell — April 7, 2008 @ 5:13 pm

  74. Eric,

    I see your point, good thoughts. Three comments. The first is that some people on this blog (Mark D. I recall specifically) have argued that I should make a more careful distinction between degrees of moral knowledge. I can’t remember which thread (I’ll have to look for it), but he made a pitch for the idea that some basic aspects of understanding right and wrong could be independent of the light of Christ without negating the rest of the theory. If that were the case, it would mean a super-fallen person would not be strictly animal-like and following our carnal desires me might very well be candidates for hell. I suggested in my paper that conscience provides not only knowledge of right and wrong but also the enticement toward the good, which I view as crucial. So, my point is just that there are possibilities and variations on the theme that could be worked out.

    Second point. I see the atonement as part of a larger plan. The universe without an atonement is a universe without a functioning plan of salvation. Whether that is terrible or not is certainly a point that can be argued since there are different views on our state prior to the beginning of the plan of salvation being kicked off. In the paper, I try to point out that the fall itself should not be seen as introducing wickedness or weakness, but rather exposing our pre-existing weakness and propensity for wickedness. I think that is very important because it makes the question of what would happen without an atonement somewhat complicated. Could we go back to our pre-mortal state? Would we be consigned to hell forever just because we gave the plan of salvation a shot and came up lacking? It is related, in one sense, to the debate about the destiny of the sons of perdition. However, since there is no such universe as one without an atonement, there is very little information about it and we are mostly just extropolating from various surrounding theories. The important thing in the scriptures is always that the atonement did happen, it enabled the plan of salvation, we are now free to choose, and we will be judged based upon those choices. I stressed the hypothetical situation in which there was a fall but no atonement in order to argue for how the atonement enabled the plan of salvation, which is why I go back to the fact that without the atonement there would be no plan of salvation as the main downfall.

    Last point. You said “I thought of the atonement as accomplishing something even greater.” I hope I have not communicated that the atonement is entirely limited to providing the light of Christ and nothing more. I personally view this as a very significant accomplishment, but I don’t mean to imply that it could have done nothing more. Of course, the tricky part comes if you list what other “greater” things you have in mind and we discuss those things specifically.

    Comment by Jacob J — April 10, 2008 @ 11:41 am

  75. Excellent discussion, gents. I appreciate the illumination regarding things neccessary for a good atonement theory.

    Comment by BHodges — October 7, 2008 @ 2:38 pm