When I was young, I thought there was something wrong with me. I didn’t have any idea how the Atonement worked. So far as I could tell, I was the only one who suffered from this malady. Others would say how glad they were that we had the perfect understanding of the Atonement, and I would always wonder what they were talking about, because I just didn’t understand it. I still remember feeling embarrassed about this ignorance of mine and wondering why everyone else seemed to have a handle on this doctrine that I just couldn’t grasp. This state of my (non)understanding continued throughout my mission.
At some point after my mission I read the chapter on the Atonement in Sterling McMurrin’s Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion, and my eyes were finally opened. What had always seemed to me a meaningless jumble of ideas and concepts actually reflected discrete theories (or metaphors) that developed historically over time. People acted as though there were a single Atonement theory that we understood well, and I could never see it. But now I knew the reason I could never see it is that it didn’t exist. People would mix and match concepts and vocabulary from these different concepts as though they were part of a coherent whole, apparently without realizing that they were doing so.
To review, the four key theories are (i) substitution (imagery from the sacrificial cult of the Jewish temple), (ii) ransom (which focuses on the claims of the Devil and a transaction in which God uses Jesus as the purchase price or ransom to free sinful men, but the Devil is tricked when he is not able to keep Jesus’ soul after he dies [see for example The Chronicles of Narnia, which is based on the ransom theory]), (iii) the satisfaction theory (based on Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo “Why Did God Become Man?” and grounded in feudal conceptions of honor–the demands of God’s own nature as both absolute justice and absolute mercy, and the affront to God’s honor causeed by man’s sin could only be rectified by a God-man, since the offense was infinite and yet mortal), and (iv) the moral theory (largely based on Abelard, who denied any objective saving efficacy to the death of Christ, but focused instead on the moral influence the death of Jesus had for man, causing him to repent of his sins). There are variations on these ideas, but these are the basic ones. After I learned about this, I still didn’t really understand the Atonement, but at least now the way we talked about it made sense to me, and I could appreciate the historical development of the different ideas people tossed around. I at least understood why I hadn’t understood it before.
While I was in law school, my EQP was Michael Hicks (now a professor of music at BYU), and he had a terrific handout in which he illustrated each theory by snippets from different LDS hymns. The handout was maybe three pages long, and each theory had about 3/4 of a page (single spaced) with illustrations devoted to it. I wish I still had that handout, but I looked and couldn’t find it among my papers. But it scarcely matters; anyone could go through our hymns and create one for oneself.
Next time you’re sitting there singing the sacrament hymn in church, think about this. For example, “Behold the Great Redeemer Die” is immediately followed by the lines “a broken law to satisfy/he dies a sacrifice for sin,” mingling concepts from the satisfaction and substitution theories in adjacent lines.
So I no longer feel so self-conscious about my ignorance concerning the Atonement. But I’m also not overly impressed by occasional expressions of our supposed greater light and knowledge on this subject. Sure, we have some insights on the margins, such as a greater emphasis on Gethsemane. But as far as I can tell, we dip our ladle from the very same pot of Atonement stew of theories that all Christians do. So it really annoys me when I hear people at Church casually and smugly talk about how much better we understand the Atonement than other Christians do. It just ain’t so.