We’re happy to have Morgan Davis as a guest author once again. Morgan is posting approximately once a month this year on several of the themes in the new youth manual, Come Follow Me. The third in his series is below. See previous entries here and here.
In my last post, I argued for patience with certain gospel mysteries, such as the pre-earth life, and showing care in not leaping to conclusions in our thirst for definitive answers. Now I will do an almost-about-face and charge headlong into speculation about one of the greatest of all gospel mysteries, the Atonement. I get to do this because, I am told, I am human and so embody contradictions, which means I need the Atonement as much as anyone. In what follows, I take Adam’s Miller’s marvelous Rube Goldberg Machines as permission to practice theology without a license, or even an apprenticeship, admitting that my speculations are just that and so have the potential to be—in Jim Faulconer’s powerfully ambivalent words—good for nothing.
I and others struggle to understand the Atonement. Without getting into a lot of detail, the Book of Mormon provides support for more than one theory of how the suffering and death of Christ were (1) necessary and (2) efficacious in overcoming sin and death for humanity. It also provides a question or two. Here is the one I want to think about:
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 34:11–12).
If human justice rejects proxy suffering or punishment-taking (see the “nay” above), then why do we suppose that divine justice should and does allow it in the case of Christ for our sins? Indeed, why do WE allow it? What is it about Jesus that makes him an exception to this innate sense of justice that we all possess which says that one person cannot rightly be punished—not even willingly—for the crimes (sins) of another? My sins are mine. How can anyone else, even Christ, own them or their consequences? The answer given by Alma to this is that somehow because the Atonement is “infinite and eternal” it can “suffice for the sins of the world.” But what does that mean?
For many years I supposed it to mean that the infinite suffering of Christ overwhelmed—Amulek’s word in Alma 34:15 is “overpowereth”—the demands of justice. It was just too much for God or anyone else to resist. Justice was drowned in the blood and tears of Christ and, in the end, emotion overruled reason, or so it seemed to me. But this doesn’t look very good on paper. The equation gets broken rather than solved; the final chord remains dissonant, unresolved. But what if there were more at work in the agonies of Christ than proxy suffering? Might our theology allow that Christ is actually a responsible party to human sin and suffering?
Mormon teaching is that, having created the earth for a purpose (Abraham 2:24–25), the Lord was a participant in the drama played out in Eden. It was his plan from the beginning to create the earth and enable the Fall, even if he couldn’t cause it directly. (Boyd K. Packer has observed that there was too much at stake for God to introduce mankind into mortality by fiat. It had to come about through their free choice, and so God placed them in a circumstance where they could chose mortality for themselves.) In Mormon teaching, God ordained the Fall. If we teach that the Godhead was involved in deliberately establishing conditions whereby Adam and Eve placed themselves and all their posterity in a state of moral and mortal jeopardy, then will our theology also allow that Christ (as a member of the Godhead) bears some responsibility for all sin and all death? I do not suggest, of course, that Christ is the author of sin or that he is responsible for having committed any sin; but if the Fall was God’s design, and Christ is God, then through his oneness with the Father he did bring about means whereby God’s children were placed in a position to sin and suffer sin’s consequences: Christ as God is responsible for the presence of sin and death in the world, because such was the divine plan.
If this is the case, then perhaps we can also say that Christ is not suffering for sins he has absolutely no part in, or evils he bears no responsibility whatsoever for. Rather, in working out the Atonement, Christ as God is taking full responsibility for the perils of the divine plan. He is taking upon himself the consequences of all sins committed and all pains endured by his fallen children—sins that he did not commit and sufferings that he did not directly inflict, but which were made possible through his agency as the author of the plan. He is doing the work necessary to see his plan through to its intended outcome, which was not the condemnation of people for sin, but the exaltation of his children through their becoming free to act for themselves and then freely choosing him, their God. On this view, Christ is truly the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2, Moroni 6:4). He has authority to intervene where none other could because of his exclusive role in setting in motion the series of events that make the intervention necessary in the first place.
There is something compelling to me about the possibilities of this idea of divine responsibility. Christ descends below all pains and suffers all penalties as a God who loves his children and is willing to bear responsibility for the very hard stuff he has sent them to experience. He shoulders this responsibility not just in theory, but in person. He suffers everything himself, asking no one to confront anything he is not willing to endure himself. In some way that we must still accept on faith, he opens himself to the full range of mortal hurts, enduring them all in fulness and without reservation, beyond what any mortal could endure, “that he may know according to the flesh how to succor His people” (Alma 7:12). He dismisses none of it; he is fluent in all the languages of suffering and need, and no one who suffers is beyond His compassionate reach or comprehension.
The voluntary sufferings of Christ take full measure of his divine omnipotence and put it to its most robust and redemptive use. None but a being with all power in heaven and earth could have succeeded at a mission requiring such a total and all-encompassing experience. The comprehensiveness of his suffering is crucial. I submit that it is this comprehensiveness that Alma 34 refers to as “infinite and eternal.” Christ has the capacity to heal not just some victims from their wounds, but all victims. He can redeem not just this or that sinner from spiritual death, but any sinner, including me. This comprehensiveness means that no one is beyond redemption, but also that no one can insist on their own version of justice outside of Christ’s. Christ says to one and all, “I will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.” He says, “If ye will forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Christ is the only member of the human family who is in a position to make this demand of any and every person and enforce it. The expectation and promise of the gospel is that one day the entire human family will be gathered and made whole through a vast web of expressed contrition and mutual forgiveness, all underwritten by the universal scope of Christ’s passion. At that revelation to one and all, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is the Christ.