I recently read a blog article entitled, Theories on the Atonement of Christ – An Overview and didn’t see my particular theory among the list. (What a surprise!) So, I thought maybe it was time to publish an article explaining my understanding of how the atonement of Jesus Christ actually works to get us sinners off the hook, despite the justice of God which requires that the sinner be punished for his own sins.
On the 22nd of October, 2007, on another blog, I posted a comment which explained a little about this theory. The article I responded to was titled, BH Roberts: Atonement in Harmony with Inexorable Law and I wasn’t completely in agreement with Roberts’ views of the atonement, and more especially of his idea of “inexorable law,” so I felt inspired to post a comment. Here is what I said:
It seems to me that the obstacle that people seem to be having with this topic is the definition of eternal law. Roberts calls it “inexorable.” From the comments, it almost seems like certain people think that eternal law is some written text in heaven, like we have here on earth. D&C 88: 7-13 pretty clearly shows what the eternal law is and also shows that that law is alive. It’s a living thing. Living things are capable of compassion and mercy and this is why the atonement of Christ works, despite the fact that one man cannot justifiably pay the penalty of another. When we repent, Christ shows his suffering and death, and makes his plea to the Father and the entire created Universe, which are demanding that the law be executed. As soon as the tremendous suffering of Christ is manifested to the ensemble, discerned by the Spirit, all creation’s bowels are filled with compassion and they change their minds. The sin of the person is then forgiven. Christ illustrated this principle in 3 Ne. 17: 4-7 when he was about to leave but looked around and saw that they desired that he stay. His bowels were filled with compassion and he stayed instead of leaving. This is what happens on a Universal scale concerning sin and forgiveness. The magnitude of suffering of the Christ had to be such that not a single living thing in the Universe would not be moved to compassion and change its mind concerning the inflicted penalty.
Another illustration is this: John 8: 10-11. There must be someone who accuses someone else of wrongdoing, otherwise, the law’s penalty cannot be executed. Christ’s atonement effectively takes away every accuser (for the penitent,) leaving the sinner free to go.
After my comment, the blog owner (Eric Nielson) responded with the following question:
If I understand right, you are forwarding an empathy model, that satisfies the law from the persepective of all possible accusers?
I answered his question with this:
I guess you can call it that. In any court, there must be a judge, the accused and the accuser(s). There may also be lawyers present, representing the accused and/or the accusers. In our heavenly “court case,” those who repent get a lawyer, Jesus, who essentially says, “Hey, look at me. I did no wrong, yet I suffered severely in this manner. [Shows his suffering and death.] Do not accuse this man (or woman.) Let my suffering suffice for the penalty required by the law.” The accusers, upon gazing upon his suffering and discerning the intensity of it by the Spirit, are moved to compassion. The Father (the judge) calls forth the accusers and no one shows. No one makes an accusation. There is no case. The Father then releases the [un-]accused into the custody of Jesus, who then passes a judgment on us (he becomes our Judge) and assigns us one of the three degrees of glory.
On the other hand, the unrepentant show up for their case and Jesus doesn’t own them, he doesn’t represent them. They are on their own. The Father calls for the accusations against them and the Universe accuses and shows the evidence, which the accused cannot deny. The penalty is inflicted: expulsion from the kingdoms of glory (inner light) into outer darkness. (There is only one penalty for disobeying the laws of the Universe, the second death.)
In this way, the Father gets to show both justice and mercy by using the death and suffering of his Son to manifest the mercy.
Unfortunately, of the two people who responded to these comments, one said he needed time to digest this model and come to any conclusion and the other flatly said he didn’t buy it.
Also on the 22nd of October (same blog, different article), I posted another comment about this model. The article I responded to was entitled, The Efficacy of Vicarious Atonement. Here is what I wrote:
J. Stapley asked, “What about the atonement gave Christ the ability to heal the penitent?”
My understanding is that the laws of the Universe demand the second death as the penalty for the breaking of any of those laws. It was the suffering (and death and resurrection) of Christ that allows everything to happen. When we are penitent, Christ’s suffering is, essentially, shown to the created Universe and the Father, along with Christ’s plea, “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.”
The greatness of the suffering of the innocent Christ was of such magnitude that all creation, the whole Universe, cannot help but say, “Okay. It is enough. Do not apply the rule of justice. Allow mercy to be extended to the individual in question. Christ hath suffered and paid the penalty for him.” The penitent then can receive forgiveness from Christ, which is merely a communication of the knowledge that the Father and all the Universe no longer holds that individual guilty. In other words, he is justified. Once he realizes he is forgiven and justified, the burden of sin is lifted, as the penalty will not be applied to him.
We came into this created Universe (2 Ne. 2: 14) from outer darkness (the uncreated Universe, i.e. the “compound in one” – 2 Ne. 2: 11) and we remain here by obedience to the laws of this Universe. The breaking of any of the laws requires expulsion from the Universe back to where we were brought from. Christ’s suffering allows us to overcome the breaking of any of these laws through our repentance and the forgiveness of our sins, allowing us to remain in the Universe in a resurrected body as inheritors of one of the three kingdoms of glory. The only ones who will “return again to their own place” (D&C 88: 32) from whence we all came will be the filthy still, which are those who refuse to repent, even after a thousand years of anguish and suffering, which suffering and anguish is to merely help these people to repent, so that they can remain in the Universe, and not to punish them.
The Resurrection also plays into this, but that is a topic for another discussion.
There was no response to this comment. Taken altogether, either people didn’t read these comments, or they read them and either didn’t care about them (or thought they were too preposterous to comment and correct my erroneous conclusions) or they didn’t understand them. I’m thinking a combination of all three scenarios is probable. So, I am left to wonder, are the above three comments sufficient to explain this model?
Also, I suppose I ought to name this “theory,” right? I think Eric hit the nail on the head when he said it was an empathy model. The dictionary defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this.” So, empathy fits as a description, but there is also the element of compassion. When the suffering of Jesus is observed and experienced vicariously, it generates compassion in those who view it. Therefore, I have labeled this “theory” the Compassionate Empathy Model of the Atonement.
Some of the key scriptures to this model are Alma 34: 15 (“to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice”) and Alma 42: 15 (“to bring about the plan of mercy, to appease the demands of justice.”) The term “bowels of mercy” refers to compassion. First it is Jesus that has compassion towards us, insomuch that he both goes through the Atonement for us and then becomes our Mediator at the day of judgment (for those who repent.) Secondly, it is the Father (and all the Universe) who is filled with compassion towards Jesus when Jesus shows him his suffering and pleads our cause before him. (See D&C 45: 3-5.) He then grants Jesus’ request that we be spared.
Just as Amulek explained, the atonement of Jesus Christ “overpowers” justice. It doesn’t rob it (Alma 42: 25) or destroy it (Alma 42: 13), it “overpowers” it and “appeases” its demands. What this means, in even plainer language than the scriptures themselves, is that justice stops making its demands when the atonement is presented. The accusers who are making the demands of justice are suddenly, upon seeing the suffering of Christ, presented with such an intense scene of suffering (even infinite suffering that is perceived by the power of the Spirit) that they are overcome with compassion towards Jesus and in this state of compassion and mercy, when Jesus requests that the sinners be spared, they can’t help but consent to Jesus’ demands of mercy!
The key to the mystery of the atonement, therefore, is that it is able to stop justice from making demands, long enough for Christ to make his own demands of mercy. You will find the word “demands” almost always linked to justice and whenever justice is spoken of alone, it is always with the assumption of it making demands.
The other atonement theories miss the mark, so to speak, in that they try to complicate the matter more than it really is. The Ransom Theory (purporting that the atonement of Christ was a ransom paid by God to the devil) doesn’t work because the devil isn’t owed anything. The Satisfaction or Commerical Theory (that the atonement of Christ was a debt paid to God on behalf of sinners) doesn’t work because King Benjamin (in Mosiah 2: 23-24) busts it wide open with his statement that we will forever be in God’s debt, even with the atonement. The Penal-Substitution Theory (that Christ paid the penalty for our sins by suffering and dying) doesn’t work because justice demands that we sinners be expelled from the kingdom (meaning that we suffer the second death, or are cast into outer darkness) and it is impossible to substitute the demands of justice for something else and still remain just. Amulek shattered this theory with these words:
Amulek said, “And now, behold, I will testify unto you of myself that these things are true. Behold, I say unto you, that I do know that Christ shall come among the children of men, to take upon him the transgressions of his people, and that he shall atone for the sins of the world; for the Lord God hath spoken it. For it is expedient that an atonement should be made; for according to the great plan of the Eternal God there must be an atonement made, or else all mankind must unavoidably perish; yea, all are hardened; yea, all are fallen and are lost, and must perish except it be through the atonement which it is expedient should be made. For it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice; yea, not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast, neither of any manner of fowl; for it shall not be a human sacrifice; but it must be an infinite and eternal sacrifice. Now there is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of another. Now, if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother? I say unto you, Nay. But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered; therefore there can be nothing which is short of an infinite atonement which will suffice for the sins of the world. (Alma 34: 8-12)
Amulek makes it very plain that a) one man can’t atone for the sins of another, b) penal-substitution is unjust, c) that just laws demand (or as he puts it, “require”) that the one who breaks the law must suffer the penalty. Those who buy into the Penal-Substitution Theory are doing so by saying that infinite and eternal suffering, like Christ’s, can make penal-substitution just, or, in other words, that infinite and eternal penal-substitution works, whereas finite penal substitution doesn’t. This is akin to saying that the laws of physics only work here on this planet, but “over there” the same laws don’t apply. The Penal-Substitution Theory, then, relies on magic and the thought that “we don’t understand how it works, but somehow it works on an infinite level.” But Amulek emphatically and purposely explains that penal-substitution is unjust, so that we understand that the atonement of Jesus Christ doesn’t work according to penal-substitution! Those who espouse this theory, miss this point entirely.
The Moral Example Theory (that Christ’s death was merely to motivate us to greater righteousness) doesn’t work because even with greater righteousness, we still have our sins that must be paid (by us) when justice gets around to demanding that the penalty be inflicted (the second death.) The Government Theory doesn’t work because God does indeed exact strict judgment (the second death) to all those who do not repent, so the atonement was not just a token or demonstration of God’s displeasure at man’s sin, as this theory holds.
There is one other theory mentioned on the theory list: Blake Ostler’s Compassion Theory of the Atonement. Unfortunately, this theory is not explained so I do not know how it explains the atonement. In fact, I don’t even know who Blake Ostler is. If there is anyone out there who is familiar with him and his model, you can tell me how it compares with my own Compassionate Empathy Model of the Atonement.
Now, I think I’ve sufficiently explained the model. What are your thoughts?
Next Jesus Christ article: How the atonement of Jesus Christ solves the “victim” problem