Atonement theory

Introduction

The Atonement of Jesus Christ is the central part of the Plan of Salvation but how does an atonement actually work? Although it may not be necessary to fully understand how it works, it is beneficial to explore and appreciate the effects of the atonement in our lives. 

Atonement theory is a way of trying to understand some of the following questions we may have:

  • Why need an atonement at all?
  • Who was causing the intense suffering that Jesus went through?
  • Who was being appeased by Jesus suffering? 
  • How does suffering appease anyone?

Blake Ostler said a theory of atonement should answer the following questions:

1. How is Christ’s life, death and resurrection either necessary or uniquely beneficial to expiate or eradicate the effects of sin in our lives so that we are reconciled to God here and now?

2. Why can’t we just be forgiven without someone suffering?

3. Why does Christ’s suffering and experience atone for our sins in a way that the Father and the Holy Ghost do not?

4. How could Christ “bear our sins” or “take our sins upon him” that we commit in the here and now in a way that caused him to suffer?.

5. How do the ordinances of sacrament and baptism (among others) signify what occurs in atonement? 1

Traditional theories

The following theories are the most well known and most widely-believed in Christianity 

  1. Ransom theory – Suffering was a ransom – Satan had to be paid to release us
  2. Satisfaction theory – Suffering was a satisfaction – Gods honour had to be restored or balanced by a sacrifice. Jesus pays honor to God. Honor must be paid or punishment follows 
  3. Moral influence theory – Suffering was a motivator – Demonstrated our worth and how God loves us
  4. Governmental theory – Suffering was a substitute – God demonstrated his displeasure of sin so he could forgive yet maintain the principles of government
  5. Penal substitution theory – Suffering was a punishment – Jesus received the punishment for our sins that we deserve 

Each will be explored further below

Ransom Theory (and Christus Victor)

Summary

The ransom theory posits Satan as the one who must be paid. Through the fall of Adam, Satan has claim upon the souls of sinners but agrees to free us on the condition that Christ pays a price and dies. However, Christ was resurrected so Satan was tricked. 

Pros and cons:

Satan is the one who required the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. This solves the problem as to why a perfect God would need appeasing in any way. But the theory seems immoral in the sense that Satan was tricked. It also gives Satan an embarrassing degree of power.

Scriptures supporting this theory:

2 Nephi 9:10

O how great the goodness of our God, who prepareth a way for our escape from the grasp of this awful monster; yea, that monster, death and hell, which I call the death of the body, and also the death of the spirit.

Mark 10:45

For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many

I Believe in Christ

I believe in Christ; he ransoms me.

From Satan’s grasp he sets me free,

Reverently and Meekly Now

Rev’rently and meekly now,

Let thy head most humbly bow.

Think of me, thou ransomed one;

Think what I for thee have done.

With my blood that dripped like rain,

Sweat in agony of pain,

With my body on the tree

I have ransomed even thee.

Satisfaction Theory

Summary

In this theory man’s debt is to God’s sovereignty. God could freely forgive sin but his honour and dignity would be compromised. So God requires a sacrifice in order to maintain his goodness as it is not proper for God to forgive sin without punishment or satisfaction. Jesus is sacrificed as a substitute to appease God’s wrath against human sin.

Pros and cons:

It maintains God as the ultimate authority but the theory seems to suggest that God “has a problem” that must be solved by a sacrifice. 

Scriptures supporting this theory:

Alma 42:13

Therefore, according to justice, the plan of redemption could not be brought about, only on conditions of repentance of men in this probationary state, yea, this preparatory state; for except it were for these conditions, mercy could not take effect except it should destroy the work of justice. Now the work of justice could not be destroyed; if so, God would cease to be God.

Moral Influence Theory

Summary

In this theory, there is no external debt to be paid or any ransom to be had. Instead, it is our own guilt and our own sense of justice that requires an atonement be made. Jesus felt the weight of our estrangement from God. The life of Christ works within us to show God’s true character to bring about a change in us. 

Pros and cons:

Satan is the one who required the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. This solves the problem as to why a perfect God would need appeasing in any way. But it seems to contradict most of scripture which speaks of Jesus paying the price for our sins.

Scriptures supporting this theory:

Alma 34:15-16

And thus he shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance.

And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety, while he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice; therefore only unto him that has faith unto repentance is brought about the great and eternal plan of redemption.

Governmental Theory

Summary

The government theory focuses on good law. In this theory, God is not able to freely forgive us while simultaneously maintaining good government and divine order. Jesus suffers so that God is able to forgive us and balance the books. This allows God to demonstrate his displeasure and maintain divine order and government. 

More information:

Grotius argues that although God can remit the penalty of sin without satisfaction, as far as his own inner nature is concerned, he cannot do so in view of the welfare of the created order. God has created all things, in relation to which he now stands as Ruler and Governor. The necessities of such a moral order make it unsafe for him to exercise his power and right of remission of penalty 2

Pros and cons:

Focuses on God’s goodness and obedience to law but it limits God’s power as he is not able to do what he freely wants. 

Scriptures supporting this theory 

Hebrews 9:22

22 And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission.

Isaiah 42:21

21 The Lord is well pleased for his righteousness’ sake; he will magnify the law, and make it honourable.

See: https://crosstheology.wordpress.com/the-governmental-theory-of-the-atonement-according-to-hugo-grotius/ 

Penal Substitution Theory

Summary

This theory is an extension of the satisfaction theory and argues that justice is in some sense an eternal principle which must be satisfied exactly which then allows God to freely forgive. In this sense God is perfectly just. 

Pros and cons:

Seems to be true to scripture but how is it just that an innocent person suffer? 

Scriptures supporting this theory:

Isaiah 53:4-5

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

Theories specific to Latter-day Saints

As well as the main theories discussed above, there are several which are specific to Latter-day Saint theology. Such as:

  • Demands of Intelligence theory
  • Compassion theory
  • Divine infusion theory

Each will be explored further below

The Demand of Intelligences

Summary

This theory argues that God is respected by the intelligences of the universe (which is his power). Humans have broken God’s law so the intelligences will not allow anyone to be exalted. Jesus suffers to soften the hearts of the intelligences so that they will show mercy. 

See the original text here: http://whitebinder.com/index.php/articles/talks-and-stories/talks-by-church-leaders/147-the-meaning-of-the-atonement 

Pros and cons:

Explains who needs the justice but there is trickery involved 

Scriptures supporting this theory:

Abraham 4:18, 12, 10; 

18 And the Gods watched those things which they had ordered until they obeyed.

Alma 34:15

15 And thus he shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance.

Compassion Theory

Summary

The compassion theory can be summarized as follows: 

The purpose of the atonement in LDS scripture is to “bring about the bowels of mercy” so that God is moved with compassion for us and we are moved with gratitude to trust him by opening our hearts to him. 3

The proposed theory is that Jesus did not suffer for our sins as a means of paying a debt to the Father or Satan, or to balance the scales of an abstract law, but instead in order for us to move with compassion towards God and him toward us.

God is fully able to forgive us of our sins if he so wishes, but sin stops us from truly becoming one with him in our unholy state. The atonement of Jesus Christ allows Jesus to literally take away the pain we feel from sin, the pain which stops us from becoming one with the Father. 

Read the paper here: http://blakeostler.com/docs/AtonementInMormonThought.pdf 

Pros and cons:

Answers the tough questions but struggles to make sense of Gethsemane 

Scriptures supporting this theory:

Alma 34:15

15 And thus he shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance.

Mosiah 15:9

9 Having ascended into heaven, having the bowels of mercy; being filled with compassion towards the children of men; standing betwixt them and justice; having broken the bands of death, taken upon himself their iniquity and their transgressions, having redeemed them, and satisfied the demands of justice.

Divine infusion theory

Summary

The divine infusion theory argues that the atonement overcame the effects of the fall by infusing all creations with the light of Christ (in the form of conscience) thus avoiding a super fallen state. The light of Christ makes us aware of what is good and makes us feel that we ought to be good. Thus the atonement satisfies the demands of justice by making it possible for us to become celestial. 

Read the paper here: https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V39N01_65.pdf 

Pros and cons:

Gives a genuine reason for the necessity of the atonement but struggles to answer how Jesus paid for our sins:

I readily concede however that the theory does not explain why suffering was required to accomplish this infusion. I simply accept that it does on authority of scripture (4)

Scriptures supporting this theory:

2 Nephi 2:16

16 Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other.

2 Nephi 2:26

26 And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, 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, according to the commandments which God hath given.

An alternative theory – Consensual justice theory

Scope 

The atonement of Jesus Christ is multi faceted in that it is not simply a payment (in some form) for sin but also encompasses:

  • Resurrection for all
  • Succoring his people
  • Being a moral example

Although the following theory aims to account for this, only the subject of payment for sins will be described below. 

Summary

The consensual justice theory draws upon elements of other theories including governmental theory and, penal substitution. 

The main principle of the consensual justice theory is that no one would ever consent to the consequences of an earthly experience without an atonement. 

This theory argues that justice is a principle of good society and that part of the plan of salvation was our consent that the infinite painful effects of sin could be paid at any point by Christ’s suffering on conditions of our repentance as judged by Christ. This would protect us from injustice. 

We each recognised that it would be good to be held accountable for the sufferings we cause and for others to be held accountable for the suffering they cause us. 

But all suffering caused has the potential to be infinite in duration. So justice would require each of us to suffer infinitely after Earth. 

As a merciful solution, Jesus offered to be a Saviour and we all consented that infinite suffering could be taken by him who caused no suffering and that our own suffering (and mercifully the suffering of others) would be finite on conditions set and judged by Jesus. 

Pre earth conversation:

What shall we do if you cause someone to suffer? And just so you know, that suffering you cause could be absolutely awful. 

I’d want to be treated fairly and recompense what I had done. 

What shall we do if someone causes you to suffer? And just so you know, that suffering caused against you could be absolutely awful. 

I’d want them to be treated fairly too and recompensed what they had done. 

Any suffering you create may potentially have infinite effects on other people so to maintain justice it would need to be recompensed by you infinitely. 

Any suffering that is caused against you may potentially have infinite effects on you so to maintain justice it would need to be recompensed by them infinitely. 

Now this is absurd because everyone would have an infinite debt to pay. 

So Jesus has offered to experience/pay for all possible pain that you will cause upon certain conditions of your confession and remediation (Jesus being the judge). 

But this also means that you would need to be willing to allow him to take away the infinite pain that other people who wronged you would have felt upon conditions of their confession and remediation (Jesus being the judge)

Are you willing to accept those conditions?

Q&A

What could have happened in Gethsemane?

Pain is essentially material (energy / material) and pain experienced is certain material experienced. Material has intelligence and Jesus has the command of all the material everywhere. In Gethsemane Jesus commands all pain material to be upon him. He commands and they obey. This means that any suffering needed for justice has now already been paid

What could happen when we repent?

Pain is essentially material thing (energy / material) and pain experienced is certain material experienced. Material has intelligence and Jesus has the command of all the material everywhere. When He recognises that we have repented, he commands that the energy / material that causes us to suffer leaves. He commands and they obey

How could forgiveness happen before Gethsemane?

Material has intelligence and Jesus has the command of all the material everywhere. Jesus is able to command pain to leave. As long as his suffering is made at some point during Earth life then forgiveness before the atonement wouldn’t be a problem. 

Scriptures supporting this theory:

Anyone who sins would have an endless punishment. 2 Nephi 9:7

7 Wherefore, it must needs be an infinite atonement–save it should be an infinite atonement this corruption could not put on incorruption. Wherefore, the first judgment which came upon man must needs have remained to an endless duration. And if so, this flesh must have laid down to rot and to crumble to its mother earth, to rise no more.

Every man must repent or suffer. D&C 19:4, 16-17

4 And surely every man must repent or suffer, for I, God, am endless.

16 For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;
17 But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I;

Our sense of justice is satisfied. Mosiah 15:9

9 Having ascended into heaven, having the bowels of mercy; being filled with compassion towards the children of men; standing betwixt them and justice; having broken the bands of death, taken upon himself their iniquity and their transgressions, having redeemed them, and satisfied the demands of justice.

Jesus commands material and it obeys. Abraham 4:18, 12, 10; 

18 And the Gods watched those things which they had ordered until they obeyed.

Alma 34:15 

15 And thus he shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance.

  1. Blake Ostler. 2016. Atonement in Mormon Thought. [ONLINE] Available at:http://blakeostler.com/docs/AtonementInMormonThought.pdf. [Accessed 25 July 2016][]
  2. Sam Storms. 2018. GROTIUS AND THE GOVERNMENTAL THEORY OF THE ATONEMENT. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.samstorms.com/all-articles/post/grotius-and-the-governmental-theory-of-the-atonement/. [Accessed 28 September 2018].[]
  3.  Blake T. Ostler, 2012. Exploring Mormon Thought: Volume 2, The Problems of Theism and the Love of God (Part 1). Edition. Greg Kofford Books.[]