Sunday sermon: Understanding atonement

A talk delivered in my ward on Jan. 11, 2015.


Reconciliation by Josefina de Vasconcellos.

Sometimes when I think about the atonement I think about an elephant. Most of you have heard the little story about the blind people who encounter, for the first time, an elephant. Each person feels a different part of the elephant’s body and offers a unique description of the strange beast. For two thousand years followers of Jesus have struggled to come to describe the most mysterious, puzzling aspect of the “good news” they’ve proclaimed. As I’ve spent some time reviewing various ways people have described the atonement through the years, and as I’ve thought about some of the ways I’ve personally experienced the atonement in my life, I have to confess that I feel like I’m blindly reaching out.

But wrestling with the idea of the atonement can’t be avoided, given the importance we Latter-day Saints place on it. Joseph Smith wrote: “The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the apostles and prophets concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are but appendages to it.”1 The testimony of the apostles and prophets—Joseph speaks of the testimony, singular, but elsewhere he recognized that there are testimonIES of Jesus Christ. The four gospels in the New Testament bear the headings “The Gospel according to St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, St. John, and the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible adjusts these to “the testimony of St. Matthew”—both descriptions acknowledging something individual about these core books witnessing of Jesus. In a sense, we all—prophets included—see through a glass darkly in this life, and so can only offer an imperfect yet adequate witness of God’s Son and what he did and continues to do for us.

So there are different ways to think of the atonement, and even though we don’t always recognize the differences, they’re there. These distinctive perspectives have been shaped by the understanding, hopes, and desires of the people who articulated them. People differ and so do their perspectives. God sends revelation to us in our weakness and after the manner of our language (D&C 1:24). I think that accounts for why some explanations of the atonement resonate much more with me than others, depending on my life at the time. I’ll briefly mention four that are found in our own LDS hymnal. My friend Michael Hicks put these simplified connections together; he’s a professor at BYU’s school of music.2

1. Substitutionary

First is a “substitutionary” perspective. This is the view that human sin requires punishment and that Christ came to serve as a substitute to pay the penalty for our sins. This idea made sense especially to Israelites who had performed blood sacrifice as a way of purifying their community of wrongdoing. One of Eliza R. Snow’s hymns describes it this way:

How great the wisdom and the love
That filled the courts on high
And sent the Savior from above
To suffer, bleed, and die!

His precious blood he freely spilt;
His life he freely gave,
A sinless sacrifice for guilt,
A dying world to save.
(Hymn 195: “How Great the Wisdom and the Love.”)

2. Ransom

The second perspective gives a larger role to Satan. According to this view, Satan somehow takes ownership of us when we sin. In a sense, we are his hostages, until God offered Jesus as a ransom payment. According to this ransom view, Satan exacts his payment in the suffering and death of Jesus, but then Christ rises triumphant from the dead thus freeing the hostages, thwarting the devil’s plan.

When Jesus, the Anointed,
Descended from above
And gave himself a ransom
To win our souls with love—
(Hymn 175: “O God the Eternal Father.”)

For Jesus died on Calvary,
That all thru him might ransomed be…
(Hymn 177: “’Tis Sweet to Sing the Matchless Love.”)

He seized the keys of death and hell
And bruised the serpent’s head;
He bid the prison doors unfold,
The grave yield up her dead.
(Hymn 182: “We’ll Sing all Hail to Jesus’ Name”)

3. Satisfaction

The ransom view tended to give more credit to Satan than some Christians were comfortable with. Satan, it seemed, held the bargaining power and God had to play along. A different view was drawn from the scriptures called the “satisfaction” theory.

The law was broken; Jesus died
That justice might be satisfied,
That man might not remain a slave
Of death, of hell, or of the grave…
(Hymn 173: “While of These Emblems We Partake.”)

This view drew partly on political ideas about kings. The idea is that God is like a king to whom all honor is due, and whom demands complete justice. Justice ensures anarchy doesn’t take over. Human sins are an affront to the honor and justice of God, and therefore there must be retribution in order to restore the King’s honor, to uphold justice, and ensure the stability of the kingdom. I admit this isn’t my favorite view, but I enjoy the hymn that employs it and I can appreciate the usefulness it had for some Christians.

4. Moral Imperative

Finally, the fourth view. I’ll start with the hymn that preaches it:

I stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers me,
Confused at the grace that so fully he proffers me.
I tremble to know that for me he was crucified,
That for me, a sinner, he suffered, he bled and died.

Oh, it is wonderful that he should care for me
Enough to die for me!
Oh, it is wonderful, wonderful to me!
(Hymn 193: “I Stand All Amazed.”)

The impetus behind this view of the atonement is easy to explain because it either has or will touch every one of us to the core: life hurts. People suffer. People die. What’s worse, we hurt people, too. What kind of Creator sets up this sort of scenario when he might have made things a little more safe, a little less painful? In Christ we learn that God joined us here in the depths of sorrow and suffering. And we stand all amazed at that strange fact. And it moves us to follow him.

The Book of Mormon adds a vital additional witness to this understanding of the atonement. It is the idea that by becoming mortal, like us, Christ learned like us. Looking ahead to a future appearance of the Messiah Alma explained:

“And [Jesus] shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people…and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.” (Alma 7:11-12)

I tend to think of physical pain when I read these verses but other accounts suggest there was more to it. In the New Testament Matthew describes Jesus approaching the Garden of Gethsemane, exclaiming to the three disciples accompanying him: “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me.” As Jesus suffered there Luke reports an angel appeared to strengthen him (Luke 22:43). Still, Jesus thought of his friends sleeping nearby, and asked them “What, could ye not watch with me one hour?” (Matthew 26:39). Loneliness and estrangement were part of the extreme suffering he felt there. And as Mark’s account has it, Jesus endured more loneliness on the cross where after six hours he “cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).

This must be one of the most ironic things about the atonement. As Elder Holland put it, “The literal meaning of the word ‘Atonement’ is self-evident: at-one-ment, the act of unifying or bringing together what has been separated and estranged.”3 Jesus experienced atonement all alone. His greatest pain, according to these scriptures, resulted from disconnection, estrangement. Like most parents come to appreciate, God’s supreme act of love, the atonement, involved deep and far-reaching pain. As John has it, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:16-17).

The atonement moves us to reconciliation. It doesn’t merely operate on the individual in somehow taking away our sins, it operates in relationships, it moves us in our connections with God and others. This is how Enos experienced it in the Book of Mormon.

“And my soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul…And there came a voice unto me, saying: Enos, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou shalt be blessed.

…I began to feel a desire for the welfare of my brethren, the Nephites; wherefore, I did pour out my whole soul unto God for them.

…my faith began to be unshaken in the Lord; and I prayed unto him with many long strugglings for my brethren, the Lamanites.” (Enos 1:4-9, 14)

It’s beautiful to think of the ways God’s love is accessed and spread in community. But all sources of light cast shadow. It seems one of the reasons the pain of losing a loved one is so deep is because our loved ones form part of the network of love through which we are connected to God, the source of love. In losing a loved one we lose direct access to that part of the current. Still, I try to perceive that loneliness as being a witness to the reality of at-one-ment. The loss is not papered over, but the depth of pain is a testimony to the strength of at-one-ment.

For me, Atonement is the feeling of being united in God’s love. You will know it’s God’s love when that love does not stop in you, but when it flows through you to others. Of all the different ways to understand the at-one-ment, this is how I feel it in my life now. I catch glimpses of it when I feel love, when I experience reconciliation. “Christ comes alive in the communion between people.”4 Forgive someone. Ask for forgiveness. Love and be loved. Stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers us and through us. That is atonement.



1. From an unsigned editorial published in Elders’ Journal, July 1838, page 44. Smith was the named editor at the time. See

2. Michael Hicks, “The Atonement of Christ,” undated handout in my possession. The descriptions here are quite simplified and several LDS hymns contain multiple atonement views. Kevin Barney blogged about different views of the atonement here. Wikipedia actually seems to have a few good entries on the different theories as well.

3. Jeffrey R. Holland, “Atonement of Jesus Christ,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism

4. Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), 20.


  1. Kristiina says:

    I am so grateful for this. Although I can appreciate debtor/debt and ransom analogies, they have never spoken to me in a compelling way. In these, the action of the atonement all seems to be happening in some distant accounting room where God, Jesus, and a greedy merchant are measuring and weighing and checking off boxes on an ancient legal document. I am grateful that in those scenarios Jesus comes out and announces that I am the winner, but it all seems quite remote and inscrutable.

    The fourth view of the atonement that you describe here feels so much more personal and real. God’s love isn’t just the cupcake we get as a reward for good effort; love is the very essence of what God is trying to create within each of us. Love is what connects us to God.

    As I head to a very sad funeral tomorrow, this is the line I will be thinking about:

    “It seems one of the reasons the pain of losing a loved one is so deep is because our loved ones form part of the network of love through which we are connected to God, the source of love.”

    Thank you.

  2. And Julia pondered these things in her heart………

  3. Thank you for this. I think part of the distance from and fear of God I felt in my younger years had to do with views 1 and 3. It seemed I had to repent and be perfect in order to please God and get him to love me. Fear was the motivator for obedience and after a time I began to resent that God for whom I could never be enough, who held my shortcomings over me like a guillotine blade.

    At some point in my adult years I began see the God you address in section four and things changed dramatically. I felt God’s love for me as I had felt the Savior’s. Times that I had felt abandoned or punished by God shifted in my memory and I saw a God who wept with and for me in my heartache. God was with me. He sent his son because he loved me from the beginning, not so He could potentially love me at the end.

    As you describe, this view of the atonement helped me discover the ways in which I was already at one with God and fostered in me a desire to deepen and strengthen that connection. In turn, feeling confident in God’s love for me and in my worth it is easier to share love with others and want them to feel the worth they have now in their imperfections and brokenness. We were always worth loving and saving and the love of God that binds us together will save us together.

  4. Great talk, Blair. Thanks for sharing it with us. Atonement continues to puzzle.

  5. A beautiful, thoughtful summary of our different ways of understanding the atonement in our lives, Blair; thanks for it. I really like the connection of these ways with different hymns, so my thanks to Michael Hicks as well.

    I particularly like how you set this post up with the elephant story, and your statement that “some explanations of the atonement resonate much more with me than others, depending on my life at the time.” It’s important to understand how much these different theories and accounts overlap one another, and can in different ways and at different times speak to us. Historically, the “ransom” theory which you describe has developed along several distinct paths, some of which involved a strong emphasis upon the idea that our sinful nature makes us captives to Satan who has the laws of nature or the universe on his side, thus making it necessary that someone, somehow, pay the debt which we cannot pay. But there is at least one other path that I find even more resonant with my own impressions: the “Christus Victor” model, which suggests that Jesus, in suffering on our behalf, triumphs over the captivity which Satan and/or our own natures hold us in, thus opening up to us the possibility of moral liberation. It’s not a debt which has been paid, but a condition which has been changed, changed by one who wields the power capable of making changes that we could not. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the very first LDS hymn I ever memorized, “Rejoice, the Lord is King” (#66 in the LDS hymnal) expresses this well:

    Rejoice, the Lord is King!
    Your Lord and King adore!
    Mortals, give thanks and sing
    And triumph evermore.

    The Lord, the Savior, reigns,
    The God of truth and love.
    When he had purged our stains,
    He took his seat above.

    His kingdom cannot fail;
    He rules o’er earth and heav’n.
    The keys of death and hell
    To Christ the Lord are giv’n.

  6. “Christ comes alive in the communion between people.” Thanks for this and for all of it, Blair.

  7. So much to love here, Blair, especially the rhetorically deft use of familiar hymns to illustrate the different models, but even more so the concluding emphasis on the relational and communal aspects of atonement. That’s where my heart lies, and you expound it beautifully. Thanks!

  8. Kristiina: “God’s love isn’t just the cupcake we get as a reward for good effort; love is the very essence of what God is trying to create within each of us. Love is what connects us to God.”

    This, and–

    Sunny: “feeling confident in God’s love for me and in my worth it is easier to share love with others and want them to feel the worth they have now in their imperfections and brokenness. We were always worth loving and saving and the love of God that binds us together will save us together.”

    RAF: great hymn addition.

    These could easy be inserted in the talk and I really appreciate you all for adding upon.

  9. Really, really loved this, Blair. So often authors have seemed to pit the different models against each other. I liked your elephant analogy here; it makes sitting in Gospel Doctrine class easier.

    Oh, and this: “You will know it’s God’s love when that love does not stop in you, but when it flows through you to others.” Wonderful.

  10. Miranda Wilcox says:

    Thanks Blair!

  11. I love your presentation. I, too, think that the most succinct way to get my point across is to quote the lyrics of hymns. They are pretty profound. When I was a young girl, I distinctly remember a sacrament meeting where the speaker said we could spend our entire life studying the atonement and never understand it. I remember thinking, then why bother? (My husband, on the other hand, is the kind of guy that takes that as a challenge to prove them wrong.) However, as I get older, I too realize that it is all about love. Thanks for expressing it much better than I did.

  12. Thanks. Let us know too if your husband solves it for all time.

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