Atonement–Easier for the Faithful?

Catching up on fun reading, tonight I read a brief Dec. 2 NYT mag interview of Ian McEwan about his novel and film “Atonement.” For him, an atheist, the impulse to atone is human rather than religious. I agree. He adds that atheists “have the same problem of how they reconcile themselves to a bad deed in the past. It’s a little easier if you’ve got a god to forgive you.”

But is it? Where, as in McEwan’s story, restitution is impossible, reconciling ourselves is terribly difficult. Yes, Mormon belief gives us hope and faith in the forgiveness of the atonement, but, it also puts a substantial burden on the sinner to repent and make restitution. Absent the opportunity for restitution and/or seeking the forgiveness of those we have wounded, perhaps the nagging pain and guilt are compounded rather than eased by the knowledge we must please not only ourselves, but also our God–and all at a handicap. The atheist may have as much or more conscience than the believer, but he need only worry about the effects of his deeds in this life.

Or perhaps McEwan is right and it is easier for us to reconcile ourselves to a bad deed. He has me pondering though, especially since a friend who has counseled many young people in the church has concluded we lose many of our youth because they do not understand the atonement and cannot bring themselves to stay active after committing a serious sin. Perhaps as truly as they do not understand the atonement, they also do not understand how to reconcile themselves, how to attempt to make right and how to forgive themselves when they cannot fully make right. If the promise of a god to forgive you makes atonement easier, why would a believer run from religion as a consequence of sin?

Loved McEwan’s film, partly because I think atonement is equally tough going for us all.


  1. I think that the atonement is a wonderful thing and helps me want to repent of past misdeeds, knowing that I have a path to forgiveness helps. I don’t know what I would do if I was an atheist. Perhaps resolve to do better in the future. I’d be more inclined to do what I want out of societal pressures than actual contrition for self improvement, as I imagine most atheists don’t believe in an afterlife, what’s the point of being good?

    I think that we might lose some of our youth to sin because they, like the prodigal son, feel that the rules are a confinement. Many people I have known have taken this path. Part of the real root to this is a lack of an abiding testimony in the truthfulness of the gospel. If you have a strong testimony of the gospel, then you want to repent and come to God. If you don’t what’s the whole point? can become a common mantra.

  2. I am not an atheist, but I no longer believe in many of the tenents of Christianity in a strict literal sense. Therefore, after I left the Church, and I committed what would be seen in your eyes as a major sin (although I do not use that word, I still saw it as a terrible hurt inflicted against another, and was overcome with guilt and shame) Not having a “savior” figure made “repentence” much more difficult and lengthy. I had to come to God by myself, and it took literally years before my prayers were tear-free. But the process itself taught me about godliness, the nature of goodness, and what it means to truly repent. I feel like a transformed person now. When I was in the church, my “sins” were just the daily jabs and hurts of community living; I was really pretty good, and never experienced this transforming power of repentence. I’m not sure why it happened to me outside the church, but I know it did.

  3. Susan-
    God doesn’t stop loving us; I don’t think it’s weird at all that you felt what you did outside of the church. The difference with atheism, though, is they don’t believe there even is a God.

    My step-FIL is an atheist and I know he’s spent most of his life trying to overcome his past mistakes and forgive others’ mistakes. In fact, I believe that most of his personality is formed on the fact that he doesn’t believe that some God somewhere loves him. It has influenced every decision he has made (which makes sense, seeing as every decision I make is based off of my feelings for my God). But it has taken years of therapy for him to work through it all. Okay, granted, believing in God doesn’t stop one from needing therapy. But I truly believe his life would have turned out differently (happier, really) if he had some belief in a loving God.

  4. As a young man I left the church after committing a serious sin. My testimony slowly dwindled to something less than Christian. While the impulse to atone is human rather than religious, without Christ in my life I just didn’t know how to do it. Like Susan, I had to come to God by myself.

    Many years later I encountered the Spirit. I was promised that if I followed he would lead me back to Jesus. Then I was prompted to face my sins. I began to pray, apologize and provide restitution one by one as they were brought back into my memory. After 18 months of this I was feeling better, lighter and happier but I still hadn’t found Christ. Finally I reached a point where restitution was no longer possible for the sins that remained. I pondered this uncomfortable dilemma for some time before I finally realized that the atonement is the solution and the Spirit kept his promise. Through sin I found Jesus Christ

  5. I have never been without religion or religious influence in my life, so it’s difficult for me to put myself in the place of an atheist and say “this is how I would atone for misdeeds.” I could imagine it’s like a resolution and, frankly, that seems to let the transgressor off the hook more easily after initial attempts. Oh, well… On the other hand, having a couple atheist friends who are very moral and responsible with their families and fellowmen, I’d have to say, though disbelievers of God, they are still responding to their light within. Ironically, then, they are disavowing deity and using His power given them at the same time. It prompts me to ask, are we given the Light of Christ so that, even when we stray to the point of not believing the mapmakers, we have a handy compass to keep us out of harm’s way?

  6. I personally know more than a handful who have left the church, not for intellectual reasons (i.e. they were no longer convinced by some certain claim) but because they had committed what is considered in the church a serious sin (persistent WoW violations, unsanctioned sexual behavior, and the like). I’m not completely sure what to make of this phenomenon, but I know it’s a serious and growing problem in the church, particularly on the Wasatch Front.

  7. What do you mean by atonement in this post Molly? Do you mean becoming at one with another? If so, I’d say that the odds of God forgiving us for injuring our relationship with him — presumably through us freely changing our characters to remove whatever part of us caused the injury — are much greater than the odds of people forgiving us for injuring our relationship with them in this life. In other words, the odds of us becoming at one with God seem higher than the odds of us becoming at one with the people we hurt; mostly because I think God is a lot more charitable and forgiving than most people are.

  8. Geoff, at least we hope he is… ;-p But seriously, I agree with the sentiment. I’m glad that I’m not judging my neighbor/brother/friend, and Christ gets to do it, because I’m not impartial enough for my own liking.

    The Light of Christ is a marvelous things and goes hand in hand with agency. I’m grateful that everyone gets a chance to use it in this life until they reject it completely. I think that repentance can still take place even without acknowledging Christ, it just takes longer. However, true peace given to the righteous can only be found through Christ.

  9. Nick Literski says:

    I don’t know what I would do if I was an atheist. Perhaps resolve to do better in the future. I’d be more inclined to do what I want out of societal pressures than actual contrition for self improvement, as I imagine most atheists don’t believe in an afterlife, what’s the point of being good?

    While I do not consider myself an atheist, I reject the LDS/christian concept of atonement. (In fact, I find it morally reprehensible, but that’s another long discussion.) The perceived need for “atonement” relies in the first place on a belief that “sin” creates some sort of cosmic debt, requiring payment, retribution or punishment. To me, this ultimately motivates behavioral choices on the basis of either fear or anticipation of externally-imposed consequences. The above comment illustrates this. The writer indirectly suggests that the only reason to “be good” is to influence the quality of one’s afterlife.

    Personally, I work from a model of integrity these days. I strive to live my life in a way which reflects my basic values of right and wrong. (Admittedly, this structure is very much influenced by the fact that I spent many years violating my own integrity, by fooling everyone else into thinking I was something I wasn’t.) When I act outside my integrity (violate my own conscience), I notice it quickly. Unless my actions have involved harm to another, I really don’t engage in “contrition.” Rather, I simply recognize that I need to adjust my behavior to reflect my values.

    I can’t pretend to say what will work for everyone, but I find that for me, this approach to life has given me greater motivation to improve myself than what I had when I was a believer in “sin” and “atonement.” To me, my desire to do good now comes from within, rather than from outside.

  10. Nick Literski says:

    However, true peace given to the righteous can only be found through Christ.

    Perhaps I’m not one of “the righteous” to whom this statement is intended to apply, but if the writer’s intent is to suggest that “true peace” only comes through Jesus of Nazareth, I can’t say that my experience squares with it. What I’ve described in my #9 above has brought what The Book of Abraham describes as “greater peace and rest for me.”

  11. Geoff,
    I agree that the odds of us becoming at one with God seem higher than the odds of us becoming at one with the people we hurt. But by doing this and forgiving all of those who hurt us, we can become one with everyone else who has accomplished this.

    As those we hurt forgive us, they may also join the group.

  12. Nick (#9) – my purpose in writing the snippet you quoted from post #1 was more an ignorance of atheistic views than anything. Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough, but reading between the lines I have never been an atheist, so I don’t know too much of what guides their actions. I’ve had two people I’ve been close to that are Atheists – a coworker and a grandfather.

    My grandfather believed that when you die, that was it – a big void. Not a very happy person, and although missed by his family when he was gone, it was more of a bittersweet moment. He saw majesty in the world around him, but he never felt moved upon to do something religious in his life. He had a moral compass, but he took regular deviations from it. I never heard him say he was sorry and he could sometimes be cruel.

    A coworker and I had a few chats on religion. He couldn’t understand how a person trained in scientist thought like myself could give him self over to any religion. He felt that we did the best with what we did here, but that everyone prospered according to his own genius (to borrow a phrase) and that society regulated human behavior more so than anything else, but that religion was just a false balm to soothe the frenzied mind.

    With those two examples as my only real substantive conversations with atheists, I must admit that I don’t know too much about the group as a whole other than that they don’t believe in God. There is a lot more to it than that I have no doubt. I assume that their motivations would be as varied as any believers.

    To your other point, while I do believe that a reason to be good in this life is to affect our reward in the afterlife, I do more out of a desire to spend eternity with my family and a love of God. Those are my two main motivating factors.

  13. Nick (#10) – I do believe that true happiness can only be found in following the teachings of Jesus Christ. The scriptures define a fullness of joy as the body and the soul inseparably connected (D&C 93:33). One of the gifts of the Spirit is peace and confirmation of truth. Those two powers can be remarkably noticeable after the atonement has touched your life and feel like shouting hosanna when your sins are washed away. This peace of knowing you are on the path God would have you walk, and a clear conscience comes only through faith on the Lord Jesus Christ. I have frequently dined at the table of Christ’s forgiveness.

  14. Hi Molly,
    I was searching a topic on the net and stumbled on your post. I hope my take on your post doesn’t offend you. Your post made me think – and I always like that. However, you seemed very analytical and sterile in your discussion. I got the impression that you don’t really believe the atonement is anything more than an option. Molly, the atonement is the paramount event of human history – for atheist, agnostic, Christian, indifferent or anyone else. Jesus Christ lived a perfect life. Then, He suffered, bled and died amidst perfect injustice. The fact that He did these paramount acts, purely out of love, made the atonement’s influence and effect pass upon all human beings, both past, present and future. We are taught that, eventually, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is the Christ. His atonement opened the one and only door to pass through if we are to be reconciled to God or to man. Any other human attempt to reconcile ourselves, as noble or as good as it may be, is not complete without the atonement.

    As for the puzzlement over why people leave the church after they stray; the answer is very simple. Jesus Christ lives and influences all through His light. Satan is also a very real being with very real power. Satan’s goal is to “make all men miserable like unto himself”, but each sentient human being has the power to overcome Satan’s power. However, once a person yields to Satan’s influence, his or her personal power to resist weakens. The influence of the Light of Christ also weakens. As long as a person feels like they cannot return from a forbidden path, they never will. This is the key and the answer. God himself will not interfere with that person’s agency. If I am embarrassed or offended by the fruits of my own agency, my only choices are: 1. To lay hold upon the power of the atonement sufficient to be spiritually healed. or 2. To either ignore or fester the source of my embarrassment or offence and be led away carefully down to hell. Ignorance of the law of God is the only defence that will be accepted as an excuse, and any ignorance I have will one day be eliminated – and not just from me, but from all mankind. An intelligent atheist once told me: “A man can be honestly mistaken, but when he is shown the truth, he is either no longer mistaken or no longer honest.”

    Molly, I hope my words have added to you and not offended. I believe that we each have the right to personal choice and belief. God bless you in your quest for both.

  15. Catherine says:

    For me, the most important part of the Atonement of Christ, that which makes it truly different from a non-religious atonement, is the gift of Grace. I think that atoning (or making right) those things we have done to hurt others is a desire of most people, believing or athiest. However, we can never undo what is already done. It is in finding and, more importantly, accepting divine grace that I have found peace.

  16. I think the biggest impediment to understanding the atonement is the same thing that drives people away from the Church when they commit what is considered to be a serious sin. There is a **powerful** concept taught in Matthew 5:48 that has been distorted and twisted into something terrible by the effects of apostasy – that, unfortunately, has made its way into common Mormon thinking.

    Matthew 5:48 says, “Be ye therefore perfect.” The footnoted definition of perfect is “complete, whole, fully developed”. It is a forward looking, proactive process of becoming and it makes “repentance” a positive process of growth (the acquisition of characteristics listed throughout the Sermon on the Mount, but especially in Matthew 5) – founded on the idea that Jesus paid for our fallen state and freed us from the consequences of those things we inherit as a result of that state (those things that we are because of Adam’s transgressions). “Atonement” means to bring to a unified state – to make us complete, whole and fully developed as our Father and Savior are.

    Too often, however, we accept the bastardized definition of perfection **that applies to us** as “without mistake or transgression or sin” – which means we mistakenly believe that when we do commit a serious sin we somehow have cut ourselves off from His grace and atonement. Avoiding sin becomes the focus, instead of striving for completeness, wholeness and full development. With that fundamental belief, it is no wonder these people leave the Church.

    Too many members fall back on a Law of Moses perspective that focuses on a check list of good actions vs. bad actions and ignores the process of growth and character change that grace allows. Personally, I think this tendency is the heart of why Elder Oaks spoke so directly about “Becoming” rather than just doing. Inability to “do” leads to discouragement and despair; acceptance of slow growth and becoming brings peace and assurance.

  17. Summary: I think atonement is easier for those who understand it properly but harder for those who misunderstand it – regardless of their religious or denominational affiliation.

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    Interesting and provocative post, Molly. (I too loved the movie.) I’m not sure which is easier; I can see it from both sides.

    I do think it is a shame that so many of our young people seem incapable of feeling forgiveness for even their very pedestrian faults, such that it becomes easier to abandon participation in the Church altogether. This is a harvest we reap by trying so hard to control people’s behavior using the combine of guilt. Reading Miracle of Forgiveness would almost be enough to make an average, ordinary kid with no great crimes to his credit but the usual teenage foibles to want to jump off a bridge for the despair of it all.

    I’m a pragmatist, which I picked up on my mission. The guilt is laid on so thick in that environment that the only way I could survive was to sear my conscience as it were with a hot iron. The result may not be ideal; I don’t feel my minor indiscretions so fully as perhaps I should, but at least I have the capacity to function on a day to day basis and within the strictures of the Church with a sense of equanimity.

    I think part of my problem is that I’ve never understood the Atonement with a captial A. To me it’s all a muddle, and I simply accept that such a thing exists with a leap of faith. But I personally have some pegalian tendencies as a result.

  19. tangent alert – I think that two great fallacies exist in the church. 1) you don’t have to be perfect to go to the celestial kingdom and 2) you have to be perfect to go to the celestial kingdom.

    1) James 2:10 is scary in certain connotations, but it dovetails nicely with D&C 88:22-24,35 explaining that you have to be able to live the entire law of a kingdom to go there. However, paraphrasing the prophet Joseph, no one gets there overnight. Perfection is something that we work towards, wholly consistent with Ray’s comment above.

    2) Moving on with Ray’s comment, many people become despondent and depressed when they can’t achieve perfection. This is the same crows that like to squawk about how important works are at the expense of grace. I’m grateful that the atonement makes up the difference for my effort when it would fall short on it’s own. For we are saved by grace after all we can do.

  20. Re perfection: In his book Desire of the Everlasting Hills, Thomas Cahill gives this translation of Matthew:

    You have heard that it was said: Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in Heaven–for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends his rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward can you expect? Don’t even the tax collectors do as much? And if you save your greeting for your brother, what are you doing that’s so wonderful? Don’t even the gentiles do as much? You must, herefore, include everyone, just as your heavenly Father includes everyone.

    I treasure this version of the final verse, both because it actually makes sense in context (which “Be ye therefore perfect” never has, to me), and because it captures the “completeness” sense of perfection in a manner that calls me to a much higher standard yet still feels achievable.

  21. Nick-

    My understanding is that sin doesn’t create an abstract, distant, cosmic debt, but that sin brings an IMMEDIATE separation between God and man. God is perfect and “cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance,” and since sin is antithetical to his very nature, he cannot mix with it, just as oil cannot mix with water. The problem is that every good thing that we have comes from God, so separation from God means separation from every good thing in our lives. Immediate separation. If there were no atonement, the moment we sinned we would fall out of existence as we know it and find ourselves in outer darkness. After all, even in this fallen world of ours, there is still the influence of God. We are still living in a lesser degree of glory.

    One of the many things the atonement of Christ does is balance this out, making life as we know it in this lesser degree of glory possible for sinful creatures like ourselves. Every good thing we experience comes to us because of Jesus Christ; without him, we would fall into outer darkness the moment we sinned. Thus, the atonement buys us the time we need to repent, as well as making repentance possible through the grace of God. And just as sin is an immediate thing without the atonement, so is the atonement of Christ immediate! Forgiveness isn’t something that we may or may not experience at the final judgment, it is something that we can experience the very moment we meet the conditions of repentance!

    I think the main difference in the way we look at the world has to do with how much we take for granted what is right in front of us. Your worldview, which sees sin as, at most, a distant, cosmic debt, seems to presume that the world as we know it would exist whether or not God had a direct influence in our lives. My worldview is that everything in the world exists as we know it because of God’s direct and immediate influence, and that if that were to somehow change, the world would cease to exist as we know it.

    I don’t know exactly how correct or doctrinal my understanding is, but that is how I understand the atonement. It is as immediate to us in our lives as sin would immediately cut us off from God’s presence if there were no Christ.

  22. Some great questions, Molly. I think there are two sides of the coin.

    One is the pressure put on by the Miracle of Forgiveness‘ view of things Kevin mentions. (I wonder if Robinson’s Believing Christ can be seen as an antidote to it?) In an effort to avoid sin, we often forget that we are all sinners, and will be no matter what we do.

    On the other hand, serious violations of one’s sense of right and wrong — call it sin if you want — causes depression and/or a removal from the influence of the Holy Ghost, and either or both makes that leap of faith required for repentance very difficult..

  23. Color me ignorant yet again, but what is the Miracle of Forgiveness view of things and how is it different from your understanding of the gospel? I studied the book years ago and found it to be a good read. Although I can’t recall the specifics of the book now, I understood, at least what I felt at the time, was the core message in the book – forgiveness is a miracle and is accomplished by the grace of Christ. Am I missing something?

  24. Thomas Parkin says:

    “since sin is antithetical to his very nature, he cannot mix with it, just as oil cannot mix with water”

    I think I disagree with this. God can mix with sinners, and did throughout his life on earth without ever ‘losing the spirit.’ It is us, on our side, that as sinners can’t interact with him:

    As soon as we begin ‘covering our sins’, we lose the Spirit (one of reasons there isn’t as much genuine spirituality in church is that so much energy is devoted to cover-up.) Once the Spirit is gone -“ere we are aware” – we are left to ourselves. And whatever peace we find or fail to find is between us and el mundo unmediated.


  25. Nick Literski says:

    Aside from your interesting thoughts on existence and “immediately falling into outer darkness,” I think what you’ve said fairly represents the belief of most LDS members.

    I don’t think you completely understand my view of “sin,” however. Unlike most LDS/christians, I do not believe “sin” exists in a vacuum. “Sin,” even in an LDS/christian sense, can only exist when a person actually knows the will of deity, and acts in a way contradictory to that will. This means at least two things. First, a person who’s actions happen to contradict the will of deity will experience absolutely no sense of remorse, if she/he is unaware that their actions have done so. Second (and equally important), if a person mistakenly thinks his/her action is against the will of deity, that person will feel every bit of remorse that would otherwise apply to an act which actually was against the will of deity. The “separation from deity” exists entirely on our part, depending on how we perceive our own actions, i.e., whether or not we act in integrity. We can, in fact, be innocent of a violation of deity’s will, yet create the distance you speak of because we mistakenly think we have violated deity’s will.

  26. To follow-up on #24: Think what would happen if we realized that we teach that Christ atoned for the effects of the fall – that those things we just can’t seem to conquer because they have been handed down to us through generations (our temper, our OCD, our judgmental nature – all of our “natural” faults and weaknesses) have been bought and paid for by the Son’s offer to heal us through His stripes and the Father’s acceptance of that offer. That would change fundamentally the way we “naturally” tend to hide our weaknesses; instead it would encourage us to disclose our weaknesses in an effort to improve them through the help of others.

    In a very real way, being “poor in spirit” means recognizing and accepting our inability to “afford” spiritual completeness without the help of others’ spiritual capital, so we would openly seek those (including Christ, but also each other) who could lend us their own insights and strength and borrow ours, in return. Sure, we would be in debt to them, but they also would be in debt to us (even Christ in a way, since His work and glory cannot be complete, whole and fully developed without our acceptance of it). Together, those debts would balance out, and Christ’s unlimited spiritual capital would cover any “natural” imbalance.

    If we understood the atonement more fully, we wouldn’t hide from each other; we would be closer and stronger as a people; the world would see the difference and flock to us; and this truth would make us free. At least, that’s how I see it.

  27. #25 – Nick, that is a very profound point.

  28. Geoff J #7, Yes, I was referring to a narrow consideration of atonement, that of McEwan’s consideration of being at one with another, as you suggested, and, I think he is adding, with ourselves.
    Davis Bigelow #14, And, with that narrow focus in mind, I was being very analytical, focused only on the narrow question of whether that reconciliation was easier for those who believed in a god who could atone for them. Your concern for me was most heartwarming and not at all offensive. Reading your note made me think you must be a good neighbor. Personally I line up behind Kevin Barney #18 in accepting that “such a thing (as the atonement) exists with a leap of faith.” Muddle is a good word, Kevin. I accept that it exists and try to live my life with that in mind, but no amount of study of the many theories of how it works has entirely convinced me. I love one of Gene England’s hypotheses, that perhaps the mere thought of another man’s torture and brutal death for our sakes stimulates in us an appreciation of the worth of one soul, our soul and every other soul, to God. Perhaps the shocking nature of Christ’s death serves to stimulate us, as could no other single act, to live better lives and be worthy of an atonement which could have been effected in any number of ways.
    I agree, Davis, that personal reconciliation is not complete without Christ’s atonement but I am intrigued with McEwan’s emphasis on the importance of a personal reconcilation. I find your 2 options when we are sorry for our actions fine for the religious, as you clearly identified yourself, but I’d add with interest McEwan’s suggestion that something innate in the human being, believer and non-believer seeks to return to an integral life and to reconcile with the wounded. His protagonist, Briony Tallis, spends a lifetime in service and introspective writing seeking that kind of atonement and, whether she knows it or not, God is pleased with her quest.

  29. RE #23 – ArielW, you are definitely not missing anything. This entire discussion, if you take time to stand back and read it, is more or less overflowing with over-intellectualization of the simplicity of the Atonement. (Perhaps I am also guilty as charged – sorry.)
    Sin is anything that violates eternal law. The Atonement is a free gift, but how far the free gift takes any of us is up to the individual. Mercy is available to all who sincerely seek it – with no respect to persons. Accessing the atonement through personal humility and positive effort counteracts all the eternal effects of sin. There is nothing more to it. If you don’t understand the gift, you may want to seek further understanding in prayer. No amount of talk from me or any other human being will get you there – only a direct, personal relationship with the Lord.

  30. Thanks Molly (#28),
    Reconciliation, I believe, is fuelled by at least one significant force – the Light of Christ. No matter who you are, you live under its influence, and as Bruce R. McConkie once said, “The Light of Christ is sufficient to bring any man to the Celestial Kingdom – short of the ordinances.”
    (The only other possible motivation for reconciliation, besides the Light of Christ, that comes to mind is a dependency problem. But his is a religious discussion not a psychology forum.)

  31. Nick #9: I too have struggled to understand the atonement. Perhaps I have had some glimpse of what you have felt. It feels selfish to be obedient so that I can earn blessings in this life and the next. I would rather forget myself and try to help others. I think the view of atonement you describe has a lot of currency in Mormon circles. But I wonder if it is incomplete or inaccurate. Have you asked yourself whether the view you presented fits with what Alma preached–that regardless of our sins, the Lord “granteth unto men according to their desire” (Alma 29:4-5)?

    Kevin #18: Can you shed any light on what Blake Ostler means when he says he rejects the “penal substitution theory” of atonement? This wording comes the book blurb on Kofford’s web site.

    Nick #25: I think I understand what you are saying, but I am not sure. When I was a little boy, I was one day visiting the next neighbors. The dad was not a member but the rest of the family was. The dad offered me a can of soda pop. I accepted and drink the soda, probably because I wanted to be polite and because I innocently trusted him. Then I turned the can around and too my horror discovered that the soda contained caffeine. I ran home and cried in despair. I thought for sure I was a sinner. I prayed mightily for forgiveness. Looking back at this situation, I am not sure the Lord considered this a sin or that he even felt the need to grant me forgiveness. However, I do suspect that he sent some tender mercies my way to reassure me that all was not lost and that my life could go on. Have you considered the possibility that maybe the atonement can cover self-deception?

  32. I’ve always wondered at the concept of an atonement. We teach that it is the most important principle of the gospel. Yet so many people have lived without Christ or knowledge of what an atonement is. Surely they can progress in this life without the facts. Is knowledge of the atonement necessary for it’s application?. Doesn’t seem so to me.

    I really know almost nothing about the atonement except the peripheral facts. A real black box. Insert one sinner plus infinitely suffering god, out comes clean soul plus same god. How does the math work?

    I think the power of the atonement is its ability to change your very core–who you are. How can you meaningfully acquiesce to changing your nature? How can the being you may become voluntarily consent to having new thoughts, desires, emotions. Powerful and dangerous principle. Almost a subversion of agency.

  33. Molly: Your questions meant a lot to me, even though I have no answers. I find the atonement challenging, especially in situations where restitution is not possible. The Book of Mormon says it is by grace that we are saved after all we can do. I tell myself I am not trying hard enough to repent. Then it seems like I am relying on myself and not on the Lord. So then I ask the Lord to take away my sins. But as I wait for this to happen, it feels like I am still clinging onto something when I should instead be letting go. So then I try really hard to give up my will and let the Lord direct my life. But then I find that I am back where I started, trying hard to repent without getting anywhere quickly. Sometimes, when I get really discouraged, I think it is prideful to consider forgiving myself when I am not even sure if God has forgiven me. I just wait and hope that at some point the reconciliation will come.

  34. What would happen if we took a standard linguistic action and changed the order of the phrases? It would become, “After all we can do, we are saved by grace.” That structure legitimately could be read as saying, “(Even) after all we can do, we (still) are saved by grace.” Such a reading still can emphasize the need to “do”, while emphasizing that it doesn’t do any good at all without grace.

    I’m not sure that’s the original intended meaning, but I like it. It seems to strike the balance that is taught in other scriptures.

  35. Sterling (#31): Can you shed any light on what Blake Ostler means when he says he rejects the “penal substitution theory” of atonement?

    I know you directed this question to Kevin but I thought I’d chime in and point you to several atonement theory discussions we have had with Blake Ostler over at NCT. There are 26 posts on the subject so far there. Here is an overview of various traditional theories. Here is one on Blake’s theory. There is also one focusing on penal substitution theory (by Jacob Morgan who also has an article on the atonement that was published in Dialogue last year) but I’m only allowed three links in this comment.

  36. Nick Literski says:

    This entire discussion, if you take time to stand back and read it, is more or less overflowing with over-intellectualization of the simplicity of the Atonement.

    You may or may not be aware that there was a time when faithful Mormons put such an argument to ridicule, presenting a charicature of sectarian ministers who thought nonsensical doctrine was “the beauty of it.”

    Sin is anything that violates eternal law.

    This is patently false. The LDS standard works teach that one can only “sin” when one is aware of the law. One who violates an eternal law in ignorance is not “sinning” by doing so.

    Have you considered the possibility that maybe the atonement can cover self-deception?

    An interesting thought, to be sure, but this really goes back to what I was saying. For believers, the atonement carried out by Jesus is an actual redemption from an actual captivity/punishment. To others, the atonement looks a great deal like a psychological mechanism, empowering individuals to forgive themselves for their perceived errors—whether or not there is any actual need for forgiveness at all.

  37. StillConfused says:

    The atonement has been a big issue for me lately as I have found that members of other faiths seem to “get it” better than members of the LDS faith. I am obviously not speaking in absolutes. But it has been my experience as a currently unmarried person of the LDS faith that there are a lot of unmarried people of the LDS faith that have forgotten the atonement and carry the burdens of perceived wrongs rather than turn those over to Christ. Similarly situated people of other faiths don’t seem to have this problem as often.

  38. I’m a pragmatist, which I picked up on my mission. The guilt is laid on so thick in that environment that the only way I could survive was to sear my conscience as it were with a hot iron. The result may not be ideal; I don’t feel my minor indiscretions so fully as perhaps I should, but at least I have the capacity to function on a day to day basis and within the strictures of the Church with a sense of equanimity.

    These comments really resonated with me. As a youth, my conscience was sensitive to a degree that proved to be unsustainable (most drastic interpretation of ‘unsustainable’ is the correct one). At some point a base self-preservation instinct kicked in and luckily I was able to dull myself somewhat. Sometimes I miss the feeling of extreme sensitivity, since it was prone to higher highs in addition to the lower lows. I sometimes feel somehow less “spiritual” now. But I’m also a thousand times healthier, so I know I must not go back.

    I see it as a personal circumstance having to do with some brain chemistry thing or something, not any fault of the church or whatever. But I worry when I see signs of it in other youth. Luckily I have been able to have a “soft landing” reconciliation of these feelings and remain happy and active in the church, continuing to work very slowly on improving myself, and being content with that. But I think the original post is correct in that we lose many youth to unnecessarily extreme guilt.

  39. #34–I positively love this!!

  40. Doug Hudson says:

    I thought I might chime in here, to give an atheist’s viewpoint. Of course, there is no atheist’s creed, so this is merely personal perspective.

    My life philosophy, drawn heavily from Stoic and Epicurean philosophers, can be boiled down to “do no harm.” If I make a mistake (the concept of sin is of course irrelevant), then I try to correct the mistake if possible. Even if it isn’t possible, I try to study the mistake and take steps to avoid making that mistake again. If you consider that “atonement”, then I suppose I “atone”, but really, the whole concept is kind of alien.

    Of course, I must admit that, as easy as this is to write out, it is somewhat more difficult to carry out in practice. It requires serious self-introspection and a willingness to admit mistakes and take (sometimes painful) steps to correct those mistakes. In some ways, these actions might be easier if they came with a manual and a guide/enforcer, so I suppose you could say that in that sense “atonement” might be easier for theists than atheists, who have to decide on their own rules. The dedication to self improvement and change, however, requires the same effort from anyone. Whether the Holy Spirit makes such dedication easier is a question I cannot answer, naturally :).

  41. mondo cool says:

    I agree with Nick’s (many #’s above) presentation of what “sin” is. But, my thinking is that when an eternal law is violated, some, if not many, of the consequences are the same. Whether one deliberately kicks the chair or accidentally stubs a toe, the toe has a dificult time distinguishing the pain. Therefore, I tend to agree with onelowerlight in(#21) that transgressions of eternal law, whether intentional or not, will have the effect of immediately separating us from God. We may, by our own understanding (or misunderstanding) *exacerbate* the distance that exists between us and God. But, due to the Perfect Nature of God we immediately and irrevocably would be separate from Him without the Atoning intervention of His Son.

  42. In discussions in a number of contexts, I’ve encountered often the idea that without religion, we’d have no precepts to guide our conduct. For myself, at any rate, I believe that conscience (including the desire for atonement) gives rise to religion, not the other way around.

    Focusing on our own failures and depravity tends to go by the wayside when we turn our attention away from our own importance (positive or negative)to perceiving the needs of others clearly and then providing for those needs compassionately.