Questions on the Centrality of the Atonement in Mormon Theology.

June 30, 2013    By: Matt W. @ 8:41 pm   Category: Atonement & Soteriology

Is it too much of a stretch to say that any Mormon discussion of the atonement must answer the big three questions: Where are we going? Why are we here? Where did we come from?

These questions have become so predominant in our theology that I think for the atonement to be truly central to our theology, the answers to the big three must be:

Why are we here? To be atoned for
Where did we come from? a place we needed the atonement at
Where are we going? a place where we will be able to fully realize the benefits of the atonement

Is it too strong to say that if the atonement is merely limited to the removal of the effects of sin and death, it is too limited to say that all other things pertaining to our religion are appendages to it?


  1. “Atonement” seems to be under-defined in general Sunday usage. I like to use the very broad and very literal at-one-ment definition. Becoming at one with God is certainly central to everything we do in the church.

    Comment by Geoff J — July 1, 2013 @ 12:02 am

  2. Every time someone says “at-one-ment,” I have the burning uncharitable desire to quote Jack Handy’s definition of mankind.

    More on-topic, the Atonement itself is an appendage, in a manner of speaking. Better answers center around exaltation: “to become like God.” The Atonement is an essential part of HOW we become like God, but it isn’t an answer in and of itself, in my opinion. Which is kind of what Geoff J was saying, once I get past my own snark….

    Comment by SilverRain — July 1, 2013 @ 7:07 am

  3. I don’t think the Atonement is very central to our religion. I mean, the main speaker in church yesterday centered his talk on the evils of communism. I’m in a BYU singles ward, and he’s my age. Sigh.

    I like Geoff’s comment. I think we tend to limit, and even formulize the Atonement so it ends up being one box in the Plan of Salvation chart. But we ought to think of it as far more encompassing.

    Comment by DavidF — July 1, 2013 @ 8:39 am

  4. That’s a good way to put it Geoff. This makes the purpose of atonement theosis.

    Silverrain, I just wasted 30 minutes reading Jack Handy quotes. Thanks.

    DavidF: The evils of Communism? Must have been a talk on the united order….

    Comment by Matt W. — July 1, 2013 @ 6:57 pm

  5. Interesting post. I’m not sure why, but the answer “to be atoned for” implies to me that our lives are merely passive, the purpose for which is to be acted on and I know that isn’t your intent. Combing your answers with Geoff’s leads me to answers more like “to come closer to God and the universe”, “because we were not close enough”, and “close to God and the universe”. The atonement isn’t just a helper in gaining this closeness, it is everything to all three of those answers and is in a sense that power of the universe that makes all of this work. Even if it isn’t the most direct answer to all three questions, I think it is safe to say that the atonement in an integral and infinite power generating all three questions and moving the discussion forward.

    Comment by Toria — July 2, 2013 @ 10:04 pm

  6. I get confused when I see phrases like “closer to the universe”. I’m located in the universe so I don’t know how I could get closer than that.

    Comment by Geoff J — July 3, 2013 @ 11:14 am

  7. Also, I think many Mormons are in the habit of using the word “atonement” to really mean “the grace of God”. I think the latter is preferable and makes more sense in many cases

    Comment by Geoff J — July 3, 2013 @ 11:16 am

  8. Geoff J,

    They equivocate to both the grace and passion-events of Christ. I am very partial to the encompassing principle of atonement. (Thank you Blake)

    We drove to Seattle and then on to Moses Lake for my wife’s family reunion. By the end of the week we will make our way to Jackson Hole for my families reunion. Needless to say I needed something to listen to. After We finished Max Brooks’ World War Z on audiobook I plugged in some Sunstone talks by Blake and others. I had to pause and explain to my mother-in-law several times that the word “atonement” isn’t just the events of Christ’s passion. It is very hard to to dislodge people from the culturally structured understandings, especially when words and phrases are misused from their broader sense.

    Dennis Potter’s talk on Christ not “paying” for our sins caused much consternation – even when he explains this same misunderstanding with his then SP. (he has since left the Church from what I understand)

    Comment by Riley — July 3, 2013 @ 3:16 pm

  9. I definitely need to come up with a better way of describing how the atonement brigs everyone and everything into better harmony. I think there is more to the one-ness of the atonement than just bringing us closer to God as defined as 1 person. The atonement also helps us come in concert with the laws of the universe and potentially gives us the power to make our own worlds according to these laws. I guess I wanted “closer to the universe” to mean “perfect or like God” but I want the atonement to explain more than just theosis. Although maybe that’s a mistake.
    I would love to hear the phrase “the grace of God” used more often.

    Comment by Toria — July 3, 2013 @ 3:18 pm

  10. I think a lot can be learned from prayerfully studying Nephi’s dream, and other scripture.

    In part, the Atonement brings us closer to God because it reveals the secrets of divine power. Christ gained all power because He descended below all things. Because of the manner in which the Atonement is worked—the voluntary condescension and suffering of God—we glimpse the true nature eternity and heaven. In a mortal world with imperfect vision, we can approach immortality and perfection by pursuing the pattern of divine power demonstrated by Jesus and touched upon in D&C description of the power of the priesthood.

    Naturally, it’s not an easy topic to discuss. I just don’t have words for all of what I feel regarding the Atonement and its significance, but that’s a start.

    Comment by SilverRain — July 3, 2013 @ 3:56 pm

  11. Huh. I’m missing a few words up there, and I don’t even have typing on a phone to blame this time. Sorry about that….

    Oh, and “sorry” for the Jack Handy trap, Matt. *mwahahah*

    Comment by SilverRain — July 3, 2013 @ 3:57 pm

  12. Where did we come from? Innocence and naïveté. Why are we here? To gain knowledge. What is atonement? A way to settle the books with those we hurt and are hurt by while gaining this knowledge. A mystical way to process our hurts, anger, fears, sadness and disabilities that facilitates our eventual maturation and growing spiritual connection with deity and others leading to becoming one with God which is where we are going.

    Comment by Howard — July 5, 2013 @ 4:44 pm

  13. If we take Geoff’s broad concept of at-one-ment then it can rightly be the central goal/purpose of our existence (and theology). But then if we take that definition, it throws a monkey wrench in some of the statements suggested in the post. For example:

    Why are we here? To be at-one’d for

    Not sure what that means, and I’m still pretty sure I disagree with it. We obviously talk of the atonement as something that saves us (Geoff wants to call this grace instead of atonement) and I would not say that this is central to our theology in the sense of being the purpose/goal per se. So when you say:

    Where did we come from? a place we needed the atonement at

    If you mean: before earth life we came from a place where we were not at one with God and we wanted to become at one with God, then I am on board. However, if you mean: before earth life we came from a place we needed to be saved from the fall, then I don’t agree. Similarly,

    Is it too strong to say that if the atonement is merely limited to the removal of the effects of sin and death, it is too limited to say that all other things pertaining to our religion are appendages to it?

    Yes, if the atonement is just about removing effects of sin/death then it seems to limited. If you say that the atonement is about removing sinfulness and death, then I’m on board.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 26, 2013 @ 11:02 am

  14. Here are my answers to these three questions:

    Why are we here? To be tried in all things such that we may become Gods.
    Where did we come from? A place where we had no body, spirit or physical, and we could not progress.
    Where are we going? Back to from where we came because we sin.

    The consequences of sinning is death, loss of both the spirit and physical body. Thus the need for the Atonement, so that we can be redeemed before we loose most of what was gained in this life (Satan will loose it all because he will not be redeemed). If we don not repent, we will still be redeemed, but only after the uttermost farthing has been paid by us. But if we repent, Christ, due to the power he gained from the Atonement, will redeem us without us having to pay it all and thus we are called forth early.

    Learning what we need to know to become gods should be our Central theme, and a great portion of that knowledge is the Atonement and how it works for us. Most of this is described in D&C 76. with some help from D&C 43:18

    Comment by Doug Hale — July 26, 2013 @ 1:42 pm

  15. Jacob,

    If we assume that exaltation means becoming at one with the Godhead then saying we are here to be “at one’d” with God makes perfect sense.

    Comment by Geoff J — July 26, 2013 @ 7:07 pm

  16. But atoned for?

    Comment by Jacob J — July 27, 2013 @ 11:30 pm

  17. Jacob J: good points

    Jacob- If “atoned for” is the equivalent of “saved” and the whole plan of life is the plan of salvation, not sure why it wouldn’t follow that we are here to be saved. Of course this means that we needed to be saved from something outside of this life, before the creation, fall, etc. This, to me, presupposes that there must needs have been something more than wanted to be like HF that made us want to be like Him. Thus, when I wonder if sin and death are too limited to be the purpose of an all-encompassing atonement, I mean if the atonement of Christ is merely counteracting the effects of the fall, is it too limited.

    Make sense?

    Comment by Matt W. — July 28, 2013 @ 6:31 pm

  18. “if the atonement of Christ is merely counteracting the effects of the fall, is it too limited”?

    I think yes. I would add that the in addition to the atonement being about removing the effects of sin and death, it is also about giving beings enabling divine grace helping them to gain a fullness of life and salvation (through gaining charity, intelligence, and eternal relationships with like beings).

    Comment by SteveF — July 28, 2013 @ 8:23 pm

  19. Jacob,

    I see what you mean now. Yes, the phrase “at-one’d for” would definitely require further explanation.

    Comment by Geoff J — July 28, 2013 @ 11:10 pm