In favour of substitutionary atonement, sort of (a postscript)

Q: Do you believe that Jesus died as a vicarious sacrifice for sin?

A: Yes.

Q: That’s a pretty standard belief. What’s the big deal?

Q: I do not believe he died in order to satisfy some cosmic law or to appease God. Given what I believe about justice — that it would not be just to punish another for someone else’s sins — this belief does not come as a surprise to me.

Q: So why did he die?

A: Because his disciples needed him to die.

Q: Explain!

Q: My reading of Holy Week is that Jesus rejects Herod’s temple. That’s pretty much the sum of everything he does. The Last Supper is thus the initiation of a new ritual — new sacrificial flesh and blood — leveraged to build a new, inclusive kingdom.

Q: OK, that’s the Eucharist explained, but why did he die?!

A: Prophetic enactment. The journey from Herod’s temple to the Upper Room and then to Calvary was part of a dramatic attempt to wrench his disciples away from the Jerusalem cult. As Jews, forgiveness was inexorably bound-up in the rites of the temple, seen by Jesus as corrupt. To begin something new, Jesus would have to replace that which was old. Having replaced the Passover sacrifices with the communal meal, he then goes further, radically further, and becomes the Paschal lamb. He becomes for his disciples — who believed in such things — a high priest of new things. He dies for them, not for God. God was already able to forgive sins without the shedding of blood. “Your sins are forgiven you” came easily to his lips, after all. They just couldn’t quite believe him, hence the sacrifice.

Q: So if Jesus died to be a vicarious sacrifice for his Jewish disciples, in what sense did he die for me?

A: If Jesus had not died, there would be no Christianity, and so on one level, without his death, Jesus would have no salvific power today. It’s more than that, though. The atonement of Christ is not just the Garden and the Cross. It is the entire condescension of God from Bethlehem to the tomb and the shocking truth of the resurrection. In his humble birth, his ethical teachings, his association with the lowly, his establishment of a new kingdom based on love, his rejection of empty piety, the ease with which he forgave sins, his willingness to sacrifice himself for his friends, his charity in the face of evil, and in the conquest of death, Jesus assumed and exuded a spiritual power that was both historically real and universally effective. If we are seeking for some cosmic underpinning of the atonement (meaning the totality of the incarnation), perhaps it is this: we are saved by grace, and in experiencing the totality of the human condition, God’s grace became an unstoppable force.

Comments

  1. The atonement of Christ is not just the Garden and the Cross. It is the entire condescension of God from Bethlehem to the tomb and the shocking truth of the resurrection.

    That is a powerful reframing of the atonement, Ronan–and like your post yesterday, one I’ll have to think about for a while. On first reflection, I like it–it tastes good, as Joseph Smith would have said. Two quick thoughts, though:

    1) In presenting this reframing in terms of a hypothetical “in what sense did He die for me?” question, are you not implying that, just as the redemptive power and meaning of Jesus’s actions for His first-century Jewish disciples were tied up in the way He enacted a sacrificial model for their behalf, perhaps the redemptive power and meaning of Jesus’s actions for us today is tied up in presenting an understanding of His actions along the lines of a (to our eyes) more humane, personable model? In other words, that the abiding meaning of Jesus’s transcendent acts of condescension and suffering will quite plausibly receive entirely different theological descriptions depending on our time and place in history? I don’t have a problem with that conclusion, I think; I just want to make certain that you’re not suggesting a kind of progressivism or “improvement” in our understanding of Jesus over time.

    2) The fact that we believe that Jesus, in performing this atonement, was acting as our Eternal God, does seem to suggest that He would not have brought about the specifics of the Incarnation without some divine reason. Unless we want to also believe that God has provided numerous (culturally and historically) distinct acts of atonement through numerous different acts of condescension and suffering–and who knows; maybe we should!–then I think we are obliged to take seriously the notion that this particular set of acts performed by Jesus, however tied they may have been in the minds of Jesus’s early disciples to the sacrificial rituals of 1st-century Judaism, serves to communicate to all human beings, in all times and all places, something that we need to understand about ourselves if we are really to become capable of accepting God’s forgiveness and communion, and thus become capable of forgiving and being in communion with others in turn. In other words, maybe the rhetoric of Jesus as the Paschal Lamb whose blood is spilled to seal a covenant isn’t particularly fit for what we need to understand about the atonement today…but then again, maybe because God acted in that place at that time means that accepting the atonement, becoming capable of both forgiving and forgiveness, ought to remind us that there is something about the 1st-century understanding of sin, covenant, and sacrifice that is still important for us today.

  2. Jason K. says:

    So: atonement = incarnation/hypostatic union as instantiation of cosmic grace? If that’s what you’re saying, I think I like it.

  3. >the abiding meaning of Jesus’s transcendent acts of condescension and suffering will quite plausibly receive entirely different theological descriptions depending on our time and place in history?

    Yes. That’s why it’s an infinite atonement.

    As for #2, I’m not sure. God had to incarnate is *some* point in time, which point was bound to influence the very nature of that incarnation. I’m just not entirely sure there is something singular about that particular moment. Who knows?

  4. Amen to this:

    “The atonement of Christ is not just the Garden and the Cross. It is the entire condescension of God from Bethlehem to the tomb and the shocking truth of the resurrection. In his humble birth, his ethical teachings, his association with the lowly, his establishment of a new kingdom based on love, his rejection of empty piety, the ease with which he forgave sins, his willingness to sacrifice himself for his friends, his charity in the face of evil, and in the conquest of death, Jesus assumed and exuded a spiritual power that was both historically real and universally effective. If we are seeking for some cosmic underpinning of the atonement (meaning the totality of the incarnation), perhaps it is this: we are saved by grace, and in experiencing the totality of the human condition, God’s grace became an unstoppable force.”

    For me, personally, one of the most powerful statements of the reason why Jesus died for us is Jesus’ statement in the Book of Mormon that he was lifted up on the cross in order to draw all men unto him. That sure sounds like grace becoming an unstoppable force.

  5. JK, I think I am (on a cosmic level).

  6. To the other JK(C),

    I have appreciated your comments!

  7. Jason K. says:

    Yes, JKC: your comments have been fantastic!

  8. Thanks for this series Ronan. It puts me in mind of my work on Platonism, which has lot of similarities to Christianity but no vicarious atonement. Also 3 Nephi 27:14: “And my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me, that as I have been lifted up by men even so should men be lifted up by the Father, to stand before me, to be judged of their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil.” Here Christ’s death is not for redemption but instead to provide justice in Christ’s judgment of us: humans judged Christ and therefore he can judge us. So of similar to the death of Abinadi, which has a lot of similarities to the death of Socrates: death as martyrdom to spread the word.

    So it looks similar to Platonism: come to earth to spread the truth and show the way and even do so through martyrdom.

  9. Oh, missed JKC’s comment. Again, I think we tend to misread 3 Nephi 27:14.

  10. “Your sins are forgiven you” came easily to his lips, after all. They just couldn’t quite believe him, hence the sacrifice.

    This is revolutionary to me. I really need to sit with it and contemplate. I really appreciate these posts, RJH.

  11. Ronan and Jason, Thanks!

  12. Emily U says:

    Ditto on Tracy M’s comment.

  13. Steve S says:

    I can’t say I disagree with most everything said here. I think there is a significant amount of good and truth in this view, and I think that the impression it has made on several commenters is evidence of that.

    And yet, I feel there is more, something perhaps even greater in addition to these beautiful thoughts. (As is probably true for any model of the atonement right now) Specifically, I think the sacrifice of Jesus was more than death, more than martyrdom. I believe Jesus took upon Himself the pains, sins, and sicknesses of His people – each person who has or ever will live – which caused He, God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit. And I believe this had a purpose, that without this act all mankind would be inevitably lost. His moral example notwithstanding, I believe His suffering and in it overcoming all things is an integral key to the atonement and salvation of mankind.

    I also agree His sacrificial death accomplished the many things you outlined, and I really liked this, “The atonement of Christ is not just the Garden and the Cross. It is the entire condescension of God from Bethlehem to the tomb and the shocking truth of the resurrection. In his humble birth, his ethical teachings, his association with the lowly, his establishment of a new kingdom based on love, his rejection of empty piety, the ease with which he forgave sins, his willingness to sacrifice himself for his friends, his charity in the face of evil, and in the conquest of death, Jesus assumed and exuded a spiritual power that was both historically real and universally effective.”

  14. Jason K. says:

    Steve S: I don’t see how your “and yet” is incompatible with Ronan’s notion of incarnation as atonement. That goes beyond moral influence.

  15. Steve S says:

    JK, that seems to be the general message I’m getting. It seems I am missing something, because I can’t see how Ronan’s model includes Christ taking upon himself the actual sins, pain, and sicknesses of mankind, the bitter cup that Christ wished to shrink from but did not because it was the will of the Father that He partake (not just a symbolic act, nor done only for the sake of His disciples and their cultural understanding). Maybe somebody can spell it out for me?

  16. Ronan, I love the thought you’ve put into this series. I fully agree with your critique of the penal substitution model, and while I’m not fully convinced of your alternative framing I do find it a beautiful formulation.

    I do want to push back rather heavily, though, on the idea that Jesus was rejecting the Herodian temple during the Holy Week. Such a view is a prevalent one, but I believe that it is not only theologically incorrect, but also inconsistent with the available historical evidence.

  17. Jason K. says:

    Incarnation = taking on the human condition, so as to redeem it, which isn’t symbolic at all, but embodied, literal.

  18. Steve S says:

    I suppose you can basically reconcile my actual words to this model if you take away my intent, but when I say taking sins, pains, sicknesses, etc. of people, I mean feeling the actual pain and experience of each individual, not simply taking on the human condition like the rest of us do. Each human does not experience every pain that can be felt (the pain of sin or otherwise) nor do they overcome every challenge that can be overcome. Thus merely taking on the human condition, or even sacrificing one’s life (which many have done), isn’t sufficient to me. To me the bitter cup is something much more than a single mortal experience that all of us go through.

  19. Steve S, I don’t think Ronan disputes that Jesus took upon himself the actual sins, pains and sicknesses of mankind, or that it was necessary. He’s just saying that it wasn’t necessary for the reason that we sometimes assume: to pay some metaphysical debt to a law of justice that demands suffering as payment for sin. I think he is saying that it was necessary to satisfy the disciples (flawed) understanding of justice. But I don’t think he is saying that that is necessarily the only reason why it was necessary, either. Another possible reason (or reasons): he took those things on, not to satisfy justice, but to descend below all things, to fully unite man and God, and to be with us in our sorrows that he may know how to succor us, to suffer with us out of compassion, and to do the will of the Father in all things, and because, in a way that I don’t fully understand, it gave him power to offer us grace and sanctification through the reception of the Holy Ghost.

    What I am saying here is more than just “Jesus experienced things that we also experience, for his own good, so he could be a better comforter.” I am saying that he actually took upon himself, our actual suffering, whether that suffering is a consequence of sin, or just a consequence of living in a fallen world where sickness and pain thrive. This is not just a guy who comes and sits with us in our pains and sorrows, and feels bad for us, like Job’s friends, for example, this is God himself who takes upon himself the form of man and as a man becomes obedient to all things, even death, and actually takes our sorrows and pains upon himself and experiences them himself in a way that nobody else can. Not because he had to because justice forced him to, but because he chose to, even though he didn’t want to, because his will was swallowed up in the Father’s will, as the flesh became subject to the spirit in all things.

  20. Two things:

    First: “Thus merely taking on the human condition, or even sacrificing one’s life (which many have done), isn’t sufficient to me.” Many mortal men and women have done this, yes, but only one God has done it. Again, it goes back to the incarnation.

    Second, I don’t think what Ronan is proposing is that Jesus only took on the pains and sicknesses of his own human experience, versus taking on the sins, pains, and sicknesses of all humanity. In fact, I don’t think what he has written takes a position on that point. Personally, I believe that he took on himself all human suffering, but I am just not entirely convinced that the reason he did that was because he was forced to by the law of justice. To me, it is at least as compelling that he chose to do so out of love and compassion and in order to “descend below all things” rather than that he was forced to because of justice.

  21. Steve S says:

    “he took those things on, not to satisfy justice, but to descend below all things, to fully unite man and God, and to be with us in our sorrows that he may know how to succor us, to suffer with us out of compassion, and to do the will of the Father in all things, and because, in a way that I don’t fully understand, it gave him power to offer us grace and sanctification through the reception of the Holy Ghost.”

    Completely agree! (Although I might quibble a bit on the “not to satisfy justice”, while maybe true in a direct sense, I would prefer – to bring about the plan of mercy to satisfy the demands of justice.)

    I’m not sure this is actually part of the model here, particularly “Jesus took upon himself the actual sins, pains and sicknesses of mankind” and “in a way that I don’t fully understand, it gave him power to offer us grace and sanctification through the reception of the Holy Ghost”, but if it is, then I think that’s great.

  22. “Second, I don’t think what Ronan is proposing is that Jesus only took on the pains and sicknesses of his own human experience, versus taking on the sins, pains, and sicknesses of all humanity. In fact, I don’t think what he has written takes a position on that point.”

    This is still the crux of the issue for me. I struggle reconciling D&C 19:16 with the proposition that Christ did not take upon Himself the sins of mankind. But I agree that Ronan hasn’t taken a position on that point.

    But I do think his theory raises the question, what happened in Gethsemane? I struggle with the idea that there may not be “something singular about” the Garden.

  23. BHodges says:

    Steve S: I believe Jesus took upon Himself the pains, sins, and sicknesses of His people – each person who has or ever will live – which caused He, God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit. And I believe this had a purpose, that without this act all mankind would be inevitably lost. His moral example notwithstanding, I believe His suffering and in it overcoming all things is an integral key to the atonement and salvation of mankind.

    I think this is still compatible with what Ronan is suggesting. And it raises a more radical suggestion: that we could not be made right without Christ and that Christ could not become the Christ without us. There is a sense in which Christ makes us gods and in which we make Christ God. That is, Christ had to learn “according to the flesh” what mortality was all about. He descended beneath all in order to comprehend the depths that we can’t comprehend, and to raise us up with him. He was empowered by his mortal experience. It made things personal for him. So the suffering Christ underwent wasn’t for the purpose of appeasing an impersonal law of cosmic retributive justice, or to appease a God who would demand suffering to compensate for sin, but rather the suffering was required in order to empower Christ to fulfill his mission to raise us up. So his suffering was required, not only to get our attention/inspire our devotion/manifest his love, but also to draw Jesus’s bowels out toward us in mercy because he learned what life is like and counted the cost.

  24. Re: taking on our sorrows, sicknesses, etc.

    Doesn’t God do that all the time, forever? Does God (Heavenly Father, Heavenly Mother, Christ) ever not feel our pain? Or his/her own pain at our sins/sorrows/sickness?

  25. Ryan Mullen says:

    First, let me thank Ronan for this series. It has given me much to think about the atonement and restored some of my faith and hope in Jesus’ sacrifice because the “cosmic law”/spiritual debt model does not work for me. I suspect I will come back to the ideas here again and again.

    JKC: “Personally, I believe that he took on himself all human suffering, but I am just not entirely convinced that the reason he did that was because he was forced to by the law of justice. To me, it is at least as compelling that he chose to do so out of love and compassion and in order to ‘descend below all things’ rather than that he was forced to because of justice.”

    That Jesus chose to suffer is similar to the idea that Jesus chose to die. I’ve often heard that Jesus, as the Christ, could have saved himself from the cross, but he chose not to. However, part of being human (to me, an essential part) is not having control over all the factors that effect us. For God to fully take on the human condition requires that He relinquish whatever power he had premortally to make certain choices. In his prayer in Gethsemane, Jesus reconciles with his (temporary) powerlessness: he can’t avoid the cup, even though it’s a lot scarier now (on earth) than it seemed when Jesus made the choice to come to earth (in heaven). It is coming whether he wants it or not.

    In short, while the sentiment that Jesus chose to suffer draws me to Him, I see that He made that choice in heaven (generally) and not in the moment on earth facing each particular instance of suffering.

  26. The PangWitch says:

    this kind of flies in the face of everything any LDS apostle or prophet has said, doesn’t it?

    they all talk about the need for jesus to have suffered. dont they?

  27. Ryan, interesting thoughts. I admit that I haven’t thought much about the particular issue of Jesus’s choice having been made just once pre-mortally, and that he became powerless thereafter to change his mind. I’m not entirely convinced, but also see a beauty in that idea and I’m not convinced that it is wrong either. I don’t think anything you said is inconsistent with the way I see necessity of Jesus’s choice to suffer and die.

  28. Steve S says:

    BHodges, “…that we could not be made right without Christ and that Christ could not become the Christ without us.”

    Yeah, I like that. Reminds me a little bit of both “we without them cannot be made perfect” and Paul’s analogy of Christ and the Church as husband and wife, that neither is man without the woman nor woman without the man.

  29. BHodges says:

    Nice tie-in to the “we without them” bit, Paul stuff, Steve S.