As I’ve made very clear on this blog, I think about Christ’s Atonement quite a bit. I always have. I think part of the reason is that the ingredients that make up the Atonement within Mormonism never quite “cooked” right to me – the parts don’t seem to quite fit. There are many theories of the Atonement within Christianity, all based on Tradition, logic, and Scripture, but Mormonism has a few extra ingredients that have to be taken into account: specifically, the event in Gethsemane described in D&C 19, in which Christ experienced some kind of additional, excruciatingly painful event that made up what seems to be the lynch-pin of the Atonement. The Book of Mormon mentions Jesus “bleeding from every pore.” It’s really just that piece that I never quite felt right about.
I tried to make my objection to this bit of Mormon doctrine in the comments on this post, but I feared that it was a thread-jack and I think that without a full understanding of the classical picture of existence, it probably didn’t make much sense.
That’s because I really think the Atonement is about existence and non-existence.
This might seem odd to many of you, especially who were raised in the Mormon tradition. I’ll try to explain.
In the classical Christian picture of the world, all things can be seen in a unipolar scheme of existence. On one hand, we have Reality/Goodness/Existence. At the other “end” of this pole, we have… nothing. It can’t really be seen as a “pole” of existence, because it’s not a thing at all.
Humans get a tiny taste of this reality when we create things. Let us say that a human creates a chair out of wood. What is a chair? A chair is typically a kind of a platform with four legs that is meant for people to sit on. Its existence as a chair is measured by its ability to do what its creator intended for it to do. A chair that fulfills this function is a “good” chair.
Now let’s say that, in a fit of rage, the chair’s creator grabs a chainsaw and cuts off one of the legs of the chair. Is it still a chair? If the chair can still stay up and allow a person to sit on it, then we can say that it’s still a chair – albeit not a great chair. A three-legged chair is usually less stable than a four-legged chair.
Now, the chair’s creator saws off the other three legs. Now she saws the seat in two. Now she saws off the back. Then, she lights the remaining pieces on fire and stomps on them, reducing the chair to a pile of ash.
Where is the chair now? It’s gone. The chair is no more. It went from “good chair” to “bad chair” to not a chair at all. Thus, the chair has passed from Real (or Good, or Existent) to Bad to nothingness.
On the classical Christian scheme of reality, God brought all things into being from nothingness. This includes you and me. As such, every part of our being and every object and environment we encounter in our lives can be defined only in reference to that Being who brought it into existence. And our measure of whether we are “good” or “bad” is only in reference to that purpose (the Greeks called it a telos) for which we are made.
On this scheme of things, to be good is to be more human.
(note: some philosophers would take great issue that I’m comparing humans to an artifact created by humans, but let’s try to skip that and continue)
On the Mormon scheme of things, existence is not really framed in this way. According to a common interpretation of Mormon scripture, the “spark” that makes humans what they are is called an intelligence, and intelligences are not made. It is simply the nature of an intelligence to exist, and intelligence existed with God in the beginning. Joseph Smith said (quoted from Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith):
God himself, finding he was in the midst of spirits and glory, because he was more intelligent, saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself. The relationship we have with God places us in a situation to advance in knowledge. He has power to institute laws to instruct the weaker intelligences, that they may be exalted with himself, so that they might have one glory upon another, and all that knowledge, power, glory, and intelligence, which is requisite in order to save them.
On this scheme of things, non-existence is not really an option for us. We have always existed in some form or another, and thus we weren’t brought into existence for any purpose. Thus, there really is no built-in purpose or reason for our existence: we just are. Whatever purpose exists for us is one that we design for ourselves. God, being greater than the other spirits in existence, instituted laws to help us all get to where He is – but it is our choice to follow that path.
Mormon does leave room for a purpose for humans – “men are that they might have joy.” However, it is not clear whether this purpose is imposed on us from the outside (in which case, what gives another being the right to do this to us?) or if it is something that we are by our nature (in which case, how did we get our natures?) or if it is something that we choose (in which case, can we freely choose a different purpose?).
Thus, on the Mormon scheme of things, existence can be seen as bi-polar. On one end we have progression, learning, and joy, and on the other hand we have damnation, stagnation, and suffering.
What does all this have to do with the Atonement? Remember that on the classical Christian conception of the world, our greatest enemy is non-existence (chaos, meaninglessness, absurdity). The philosophers Camus, Nietzsche, and William Lane Craig have painted a cold picture of man’s role in the Universe without God (Camus and Nietzsche obviously rejecting the existence of God – Craig merely using that picture as a rhetorical tool); on this view, any meaning created by man is simply a puny act of rebellion against a Universe that couldn’t care less.
It was this vivid nothingness that almost had its victory on the Cross.
What can we say about the picture of God Himself, the Creator, suffering and dying a humiliating, torturous death at the hands of soldiers, other than it is completely absurd? The apostles believed that Jesus was on the cusp of a great triumph that would defeat Israel’s enemies, and slowly they watched the life slip from Jesus’ eyes. And then He was gone. What could the apostles be thinking other than this:
“What the hell just happened?
“Did Jesus really die?
“Could this all have been one big joke? Have we all been deceived? Is it possible that life actually didn’t have the meaning we thought it did – or any meaning at all?”
We have all been confronted with this absurdity at times in our lives. Perhaps when a loved one passes away, one doesn’t get the job that would reverse one’s fortunes, a school full of children is shelled in a war. At these times the absurdity of life hits us squarely in the face, and leaves us wondering whether anything means anything at all. Is there any purpose at all in this world?
These are the times when Satan laughs – and thinks he has the victory. Movement toward chaos, absurdity, unreality… nothingness. Thus, on this view, the Problem of Evil is really the Problem of Nothingness.
Jesus being raised from the dead reverses this tragedy into the Greatest Victory in history. This, ultimately, is the triumph over sin, because sin is death and death is chaotic, purposeless nothing.
In Mormonism, the enemy is not non-existence, because this is really not an option for us. Instead, the enemy is suffering and damnation. Rather than confronting nothingness, Jesus instead must confront suffering. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus literally takes upon himself the suffering of humanity, and in doing so he gains the capacity to succor us – since he knows the suffering we’ve felt.
This is the thing that always rubbed me the wrong way, but I was never able to contextualize that feeling until tonight when I reflected on that BCC discussion. The Mormon view of Atonement, which hinges on an extremely excruciating event (whether Jesus was suffering the penalty of our sins or simply experience the suffering of humanity, I’ll let Mormon theologians figure out), puts suffering at the core of the human existence. Jesus can’t truly succor us unless he has suffered. We can’t be forgiven unless Jesus suffers. We will suffer if we don’t repent.
But I see this as missing the mark.
Imagine living the most difficult life anyone on the planet has lived, full of pain and suffering. The thought is so unbearable that I think our minds kind of buffer us from being able to cognitively grasp the idea completely, but give it a shot.
But what if we had a reason for suffering so much? What if you were told that your life of suffering actually prevented many people from suffering even worse than you did? Well, then a brave soul might actually be willing to take that trade out of love.
So it seems that suffering on its own is not the main problem: the problem is meaninglessness. If our suffering has no meaning, then it is truly a punishment beyond measure. But if we have a purpose or meaning behind our suffering, the suffering becomes bearable – even heroic. Take the following story from a truly heroic psychiatrist, Victor Frankl (in Man’s Search for Meaning, pg. 113):
Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now, how can I help him? What should I tell him? Well, I refrained from telling him anything but instead confronted him with the question, “What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?” “Oh,” he said, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” Whereupon I replied, “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering — to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.” He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office. In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.
Thus, it seems that meaning is a more fundamental human craving than simply the avoidance of suffering. If the center of the Atonement is Christ’s suffering (and the Mormon canon leaves us little room to escape the reality or centrality of that suffering), then it seems to miss the mark. Suffering is not the problem. The black, empty void is the problem.
The way it seems to me, in Mormonism, Christ suffers in the Garden because of sin. On the Mormon scheme of the world, sin is an object unto itself – one pole of existence. It is synonymous with suffering and damnation, because it hinders us from progressing toward greater light, joy, and intelligence. Sin is also viewed in terms of a transgression of the laws that God instates to help us progress. Thus, sin is a contractual or legal problem. Because legal terminology is used to contextualize sin, God’s only just response to sin is punishment or restitution. This punishment or restitution seems to be suffering.
But on the classical Christian view, sin is not an object, and ultimately, it’s not Real. Sinful acts are really just a symptom of an underlying sickness or weakness in humans – we often fail to fulfill that purpose for which we are created. Instead of treating the symptoms (sins), the Atonement cures the sickness (death).
Thus, any additional punishment or suffering heaped on Jesus to make restitution for sins would seem utterly superfluous. It just doesn’t make any sense and isn’t necessary at all.
I think I always sensed this but was never able to express it. Why would Jesus need to suffer pains in Gethsemane as a result of our sins? That just doesn’t seem to be the point. Outside of Mormonism one can completely explain the Atonement in terms of Jesus’ victory over death on the Cross, and in the Tomb. But in Mormonism, you’re always faced with D&C 19, and a Cosmology that simply doesn’t take into account the real possibility of nothingness.