From my earliest memories as a small child, I have heard countless stories and personal testimonials of how much comfort people gain from "the atonement." I've found it difficult to find similar comfort and assurance myself, mostly due to lingering questions and issues that I have never been able to resolve and will detail here, but it is undeniable that this is an extremely powerful idea to a lot of my good friends. Anyway, I am going to untangle my thoughts on atonement theology and hopefully it will be of interest and/or help to others who don't fit the mold like me, or anyone else who wants to read a differing view.
What is the Atonement?
Since I grew up Mormon, my view of atonement theology will be forever centered from that perspective, so maybe it would be helpful to distill the basics of Mormon atonement theology. My summary will mirror Chapter 12 of the LDS Gospel Principles manual.
First, God created mankind. Then there was a fall which was a result of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit. This fall caused death to come into the world. Mormons talk of two types of death that result from the fall, physical and spiritual. Physical death is exactly what it sounds like. Spiritual death means that mankind has to be forever separated from God.
The only way that this crappy situation could be fixed is if someone who was perfect and was sired by God himself (Jesus) came along and fixed it for us. (Aside: In Mormon theology, Jesus and God are entirely separate people which is a notable difference from other Christians.) Jesus makes a sacrifice during which time he suffers every bad thing that has ever happened to anyone who ever lived and who will ever live all at once. In Mormon theology, this happens in the garden when he prays, not on the cross.
After Jesus accomplishes this, he gains the power to solve the problems introduced with the fall. He extends the power to be resurrected at some future point to everyone who ever lived and who will ever will live. He does this for free basically. Everyone who ever lived will get this gift. He also makes it so that whoever has faith in him and does what he wants them to will be able to live with God again. Faith in Jesus is of the utmost importance, though. You skip that, you get nothing to fix spiritual death. Being a kind and generous person by itself won't get you there. Jesus also has a lot of boxes that need to be checked off in church for this to work for you, and the only church that can get those boxes checked for you is the Mormon church.
I imagine that other Christian churches vary somewhat in the details here but nearly all will have reasons that they have the means to check off all of the correct boxes to make this atonement effective and make it so that we can be reconciled with God.
Now, I want to expound on one point above; the part where Jesus suffers everything that anyone has ever suffered or will ever suffer all at once. This is a very powerful idea for a lot of people, the idea that there is a being out there who loves them perfectly and who perfectly empathizes with all of their suffering. I have had a lot of difficulty tapping into this comfort. I have always been bothered by the fact that what I viewed as pointless suffering on my part had to be foisted on Jesus as well. It seemed like an unjust system that required the doubling all of the total suffering in the universe. We are told that it has to be that way and the only possible answer to the question "Why?" is "We'll find out after we die." It turns out that a great number of basic and fundamental questions have to be answered that way. But it is undeniable that a great many good people gain a great deal of comfort from knowing that Jesus experienced all of the suffering that they have ever felt and then some.
Some Basic Problems and Questions
So what are my problems and/or seemingly unanswerable questions with respect to the atonement?
First, I don't feel fallen. The idea just doesn't feel right to me. I'm trying my best to be good person and I think that alone makes me a good person. I am "enough" just as I am. I didn't make a decision eat any fruit, so God needs to take this up with Adam and Eve if it creates issues for him.
Second, I don't find any of this logical or obvious. It is a tangled spaghetti, logically speaking, full of non-sequitur and begging the question. I'll elaborate more below. Furthermore, I feel alienated from everyone around me at church because they all act like it is obvious. It is a very lonely feeling to have questions that no one around you seems to have.
Third, I feel disturbed by the image of God that this paints. This is a God who cannot consider me acceptable until someone pays him an infinite amount of money, a God who can't forgive me for anything I do until blood is shed, a God who doesn't seem very loving. In fact under this model, God doesn't seem to stack up very well against many men I know in real life as far as ability to forgive goes. What makes it so that God cannot forgive us without an atonement? I guess we'll find out after we die?
Fourth, the primacy of faith seems out of order. Why is it seemingly more important that I believe that Jesus did all of these specific things 2000+ years ago than it is to be kind to our fellow man? Maybe it isn't, but the message I got loud growing up Mormon is that kindness counts for very little without faith in Jesus and the church.
The Packer Parable
Boyd K. Packer, an LDS Apostle, related a parable to teach about the atonement in 1977. In fact, the lesson linked above is mostly that parable quoted, and it illustrates the dominant Mormon view of the atonement quite well. The short version is that a man takes out a loan and is careless in repaying it. One day, it comes due and the lender threatens to have him imprisoned. Along comes a third party who pays the debt and makes newer, more favorable terms with the man. I suppose the first man represents God the Father and the second, Jesus.
From this story comes the "mercy vs. justice" idea that is common in Mormon atonement theology. "Mercy cannot rob justice" is stated frequently in church. If Jesus comes along a pays the debt, he can redraw the terms of the loan as he sees fit but God cannot because he is on the side of "justice." I've always had a big problem with this explanation. It seems like a false dichotomy and it doesn't really solve the problem. It also paints God as incapable of mercy.
One of my favorite books is Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. The main point that the book makes (and quite well) is that mercy and justice often go hand in hand. Mercy is often justice and justice is often mercy. I do not consider "mercy cannot rob justice" to be an obvious conclusion. It does not make sense to me. The Mormon argument in favor of "mercy cannot rob justice" will invariably come down to begging the question.
But let's just assume for the sake of argument that "mercy cannot rob justice." If that is true, why is extending mercy robbing justice if God does it but not if Jesus does it? We have simply pushed the problem to another individual. And on the other side of the coin, why can't God just decide to rewrite the terms of the loan? It is God's loan for crying out loud, is it not? Why does the loan need to be repaid and then forgiven by someone else? Why the middleman? It is unclear why, but it does appear from this parable that God is indeed incapable of forgiveness.
Let me make a quick digression here. I can't describe how effective this type of story has been in making me feel alienated from God. Throughout my church life, God has been the ultimate Alpha personality. He demands that I do things that I dislike just to see if I will do it. He gives me explanations that do not make sense, just to see if I will take them on faith and believe them anyway. He doesn't forgive, doesn't see me as acceptable, and he hits me because he loves me. Jesus, his son, loves me with a perfect love but has a nearly endless checklist of things I have to complete before he will make me acceptable to God.
Thomas Paine Refutes the Debt Model of Atonement
But let's get back to the Packer Parable or what I'll call the debt model of Atonement (really, atonement theology is very complex with lots of views and I'm not even close to doing them justice, just covering what I learned in my youth and why it doesn't work for me). Thomas Paine puts voice to things that bothered me on a subconscious level all my life:
Since, then no external evidence can, at this long distance of time, be produced to prove whether the Church fabricated the doctrines called redemption or not (for such evidence, whether for or against, would be subject to the same suspicion of being fabricated), the case can only be referred to the internal evidence which the thing carries within itself; and this affords a very strong presumption of its being a fabrication. For the internal evidence is that the theory or doctrine of redemption has for its base an idea of pecuniary Justice, and not that of moral Justice.
If I owe a person money, and cannot pay him, and he threatens to put me in prison, another person can take the debt upon himself, and pay it for me; but if I have committed a crime, every circumstance of the case is changed; moral Justice cannot take the innocent for the guilty, even if the innocent would offer itself. To suppose Justice to do this, is to destroy the principle of its existence, which is the thing itself; it is then no longer Justice, it is indiscriminate revenge. (Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason)The first time I read this I was finally able to put a voice to what bothered me about the "mercy cannot rob justice" line of thinking. It was the fact that "justice" wasn't moral justice at all. It was indiscriminate revenge masquerading as moral justice. Mormon theology makes an attempt at equating pecuniary justice and moral justice, but Paine astutely points out that they are not the same thing at all.
How Does it Compare to Alternative Views?
Mormons place a great importance on being led by "the Spirit." From a young age I was conditioned that God would use the Holy Ghost to confirm to me (through my feelings) that the things I was taught were true. I never received such a confirmation with respect to "mercy cannot rob justice" atonement theology. However, I *have* had such peaceful and positive emotional experiences from other alternate points of view. Here is an example of one from a fictional preacher:
I says, 'Maybe it ain't a sin. Maybe it's just the way folks is. Maybe we been whippin' the hell out of ourselves for nothin'.' An' I thought how some sisters took to beatin' theirselves with a three-foot shag of bobwire. An' I thought how maybe they liked to hurt themselves, an' maybe I liked to hurt myself. Well, I was layin' under a tree when I figured that out, and I went to sleep. And it come night, and' it was dark when I come to. They was a coyote squawkin' near by. Before I knowed it, I was sayin' out loud, 'The hell with it! There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do. It's all part of the same thing. And some of the things folks do is nice, and some ain't nice, but that's as far as any man got a right to say.' I says, 'What's this call, this sperit?' An' I says, 'It's love. I love people so much I'm fit to bust, sometimes.' An' I says, 'Don't you love Jesus?' Well, I thought and' thought, and ' finally I says, 'No, I don't know nobody name' Jesus, I know a bunch of stories, bit I only love people, An' sometimes I love 'em fit to bust, an' I want to make 'em happy, so I been preachin' somepin I thought would make 'em happy.' An' then-I been talkin' a hell of a lot. Maybe you wonder about me using bad words. Well, they ain't bad to me no more. They're jus' words folks use, and' they don't mean nothing bad with 'em. Anyways, I'll tell you one more thing I thought out; an' from a preacher it's the most unreligious thing, and I can't be a preacher no more because I thought it an' I believe it. I figgered about the Holy Sperit and the Jesus road, I figgered, 'Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus? Maybe,' I figgered, 'maybe it's all men an' all women we love; maybe that's the Holy Sperit-the human sperit-the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one bit soul ever'body's a part of.' Now I sat there thinkin' it, an' all of a suddent-I knew it. I knew it so deep down that it was true, and I still know it. (Casy's monologue from The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck)I simply just can't find a good reason to believe what I was taught as a child over what fictional Rev. Casy teaches above.
Mormon atonement theology strikes at the heart of why I find the entire LDS church experience to be deeply unfulfilling, anxiety-inducing, and depressing. The thing I hunger for most is the thing most consistently denied to me: acceptance. Disapproval reigns supreme, and it is baked into the most fundamental levels of the theology. Never in this lifetime will I be told that I am basically good, unless of course I am one of the lucky few Mormons to receive my Second Anointing ceremony (but that's a subject for a whole 'nuther blog post).
This is my experience. I know that the experience of others will differ and I acknowledge that your emotional reality in the LDS church may not bear any resemblance whatsoever to my own.