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The Atonement of Christ
why the atonement?
How and Why

Introduction

Jesus Christ is the most important being who ever lived. His mission is summed up in one word: atonement. This literally means "at one ment." Jesus can make people at one with God. But the atonement involved suffering. Christ suffered great agony in the garden of Gethsemane and on the cross. he "took on him the sins of the world." But why? And how?

Please note: this page represents my own understanding, and as such is open to error. You be the judge.

Theories about the atonement

There are several popular theories about why Jesus had to suffer, and all of them are useful. But they all have weaknesses.

Theory 1: God wants to torture SOMEBODY - anyone will do.

Atheists point out that the popular view of Christianity is plain evil. It says that if we sin just once (and do not repent), God will torture us in a lake of fire and brimstone forever and ever. What kind of a monster is that? And our only escape is if someone else chooses to suffer instead. But that seems to make God cruel AND unjust.

However, modern revelation teaches that the "fire and brimstone" scriptures are only symbolic of how we will feel when we realise what we have done. (2 Nephi 9:16, Mosiah 3:27, Alma 12:17, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p.357) So the torment is a natural result of our actions, and not added artificially by God. The the question remains, why did Jesus have to suffer?

Theory 2: We got in debt, and Jesus paid the bill.

Strictly speaking, this is true. But the analogy can be taken too far. It seems to imply that the cost of a sin is some abstract price, added on as something separate from the sin itself. It does not explain what the cost is. It does not help some people appreciate what Jesus has done, because they can answer "so what? I don't believe in the debt." For example, some people believe that sin, if it exists, simply refers to not understanding. To them, as long as you stop sinning, there is nothing more to do - no debt. Where does this concept of a separate debt come from? (See below fo how Jesus pays for our sins.)

Theory 3: Jesus earns the respect of the universe.

This theory goes as follows (see "The Meaning of the Atonement" by Skousen). None of us deserves to get into heaven, so all the little intelligences that make up the universe would rebel if we did. They would not respect God's justice any more, and he would cease to be God. However, Jesus wants us to get to heaven. So Jesus shows that he loves us so much by his suffering. The intelligences are humbled, and they accept whatever Jesus says.

The problem is that it is still fundamentally unjust. It is like an innocent man being hanged so the murderer can get away free. Even though no-one can complain (we are humbled before Jesus' infinite love) it is still unjust.

Having said that, I think there is a lot of truth in this approach. We are all deeply humbled by Jesus' suffering, and that is what matters. Not because he suffered, but because he cares enough to go through everything we could go through. He genuinely understands us.

All these theories are external

A general problem with all these theories is that they imply some kind of external cause. Someone else has made rules (which we have no say over) and we must live by them. Yet the whole concept of the atonement is personal. It is between us and God, with Christ forming the join. It is all about either following him or not following him. Any ideas about abstract debts and the universe are either secondary, or just helpful analogies.

I think when we see it all as being simply a leader-and-follower situation, it all becomes clear.

 

Another look at the atonement

The only way to understand the atonement (in my opinion) is to ask three questions:

1. What did Jesus want to achieve?

At-One-ment with God. To have eternal life (which we had before the fall anyway) AND knowledge, freedom, appreciation, and the ability to progress. He wants us to be like him. Suffering is just a necessary side effect. If he just wanted us to avoid suffering, he would have left us as we were, with God, but with no tree of knowledge.

2. Why do sins get in the way?

Sin is not some abstract idea, the creation of a bored god. God did not just look at life and say "the people are having too much fun! I will call this and that thing SIN and stop them doing it!" Sin is simply behavior that causes destruction and suffering. Some sins are obvious - e.g. murder. But some sins are only apparent after many generations - for example, sins that lead to the breakdown of family life and thus of society. Sins keeps us from God because they are counter-productive. A sinful person does stupid and destructive things.

So the way to overcome sin is simply to start living right. But we do not have the perspective to see the long-term results of all our actions. So "not sinning" must include finding those who have a broader perspective (and, if they appear to act responsibly with that perspective, respecting them). I respect God because he is consistent with what I would expect of an all-wise, all-loving being who nevertheless sees things differently from me (so I expect to not understand a proportion of his decisions, but for that proportion to go down with time).

3. How does anyone suffer for sins?

We suffer because we are conscious. We appreciate the significance of our actions. When we experience pain, we don't just register it and react, as an amoeba might, but we can examine it and appreciate what it means. Most important, we can appreciate how we have caused that pain. Suffering is a by-product of knowledge.

So, why DID Jesus suffer?

Jesus had to know what it was like to be us. Otherwise, as independent beings, we could not have confidence to follow him.

Unfortunately, since he has much greater understanding than we do, the knowledge of what we do - every result of every destructive word and action - is extremely painful to him. Multiply that pain by about five hundred billion (e.g. every descendant of Adam), then multiply that again for every world that he has created, and we see the kind of suffering that only a God could endure.

(But it could be argued that, even if Jesus did see the results of our sins, he would not feel the pain of guilt. After all, he knew they were not his fault really. But think about it. The whole "freedom of choice" thing was Jesus' idea back when the world was planned. So yes, in a way Jesus could indeed feel real guilt.He could experience personal responsibility for every painful act that has ever been committed. The mental pain must have been unimaginable.)

So the suffering itself was not the point. He simply had to descend into all our possible suffering in order to lift us out of it.

Having said all that, because we are so ignorant and cynical, there is one benefit from Jesus' pure suffering. Just look at the great Christian hymns - they all sing about their response to the realization that anyone could love us so much that he would suffer and die for us. It makes us pay attention.

How does that experience pay for our sins?

Jesus paid for our sins, not in the way that a shopper pays for groceries, but in the way that a student pays for knowledge, or an athlete pays for success. It involves pain because it is difficult, not because the pain itself is desirable.

In addition, Jesus made sin possible in the first place by planning a world that involves free will. The atonement was where he took full responsibility for it. Not only in accepting the full weight of the pain that has resulted, but by providing a way out.

He paid the necessary price to be able to lead us back to God. Yes, he could have been sinless and known everything (intellectually at least) without the suffering. But without experiencing it he could not comfort us, and we would not follow him. And without following him we would never escape from this crazy, mixed-up, self-defeating, cruel way of life that we choose to live.

How Christ pays our debts: an analogy

A science analogy might help. Modern man can only enjoy the benefits of technology because thousands of scientists have paid the price of experimentation. We owe them a debt. They have paid the price for our ignorance, and we can now enjoy the benefits of their work by simply following the rules they have set down. There is no external malicious creditor, but the debt is real enough. If we do not accept what they have done, we can live a technology free life, but it would be far less pleasant, and probably a lot shorter.

What is our relationship with Christ?

Jesus is our creator. He is our judge - he is qualified to judge us because he has experienced everything we have. For the same reason, he is the only one we can trust to follow. And for the same reason, he is the mediator between us and the Father.

Doctrine and Covenants 45:3-5
"Listen to him who is the advocate with the Father, who is pleading your cause before him-- Saying: Father, behold the sufferings and death of him who did no sin, in whom thou wast well pleased; behold the blood of thy Son which was shed, the blood of him whom thou gavest that thyself might be glorified; Wherefore, Father, spare these my brethren that believe on my name, that they may come unto me and have everlasting life."

"Pleading" does not mean desperately. A legal advocate pleads a case.

All of this illustrates the fact that Jesus is a unique and independent intelligence, with a real and separate role. Although one with the Father, he is nevertheless independent.

Grace

Finally, no discussion of the atonement would be complete without mentioning grace. Grace refers to what Jesus does that we cannot do for ourselves.

Jesus has eaten of the tree of knowledge to an extent that we cannot comprehend. He understands the plan of salvation in perfection. He has experienced everything there is to experience, and he sees it all in its proper place. He is thus entirely responsible for his own actions. And at every stage he has chosen right. He earned his way to heaven, the hard way. No wonder we worship him!

In contrast, we (as ordinary descendants of Adam) do have some knowledge, but it is limited. Our idea of right and wrong is limited, and our behaviour is often even worse. Jesus is like the mountaineer who walks up the mountain, unaided, every day. We are like the unruly amateur climbers who can only hope to make it if we are roped to him. We pull, we wander off, we grumble. He has to rescue us again and again. Even though we have to become perfect, to say that we have somehow earned any achievement is madness! We are nothing without Jesus. It is only his love that gives him the grace to put up with us.


Conclusion:
Freedom, Knowledge, Power, Responsibility

the Atonement

"Things to act and things to be acted upon"

2 Nephi 2:14
"There is a God, and he hath created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are, both things to act and things to be acted upon."

As Spencer W. Kimball noted, "man is in the former category." We make our own decisions and take responsibility for them. We are free to blindly follow whatever spirits (or people) are around, for good or evil. We can let others choose for us, if we wish. Or we can choose for ourselves. We free to choose addiction, excuses, weakness, and disappointment. Or we are free to listen to someone who will show us the right way. Only God will give us freedom, because only God can give us more knowledge.

It is your choice.

the bottom line

2 Nephi 2:27
"Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself."

 

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