Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Problem with the Atonement

The central doctrine of Christianity is the Atonement. It’s a powerful doctrine that often affects people very deeply. It plays strongly on our emotions, our insecurities, and our senses of gratitute and love. Even now, as an unbeliever, the analogies used to explain it, such as this one, affect me very deeply. But as emotional and powerful as this concept is, I don’t think it is logical. I haven’t yet heard an explanation of the Atonement that makes sense to me. The explanation given in the video I linked to is a pretty typical Mormon example, and I’m going to discuss the problems with it. Why was the Atonement necessary? The seminary video explains the conflicting demands of the Law of Justice (there must be punishment if a sin has been committed) with the Law of Mercy (when repentance has occurred, an offender may be forgiven the punishment). But the “Law of Justice” is not just. Justice would demand that the sinner himself be punished, not a surrogate. The “Law of Mercy” is similarly unmerciful. Mercy would not require a punishment at all, not merely punish someone else. If God was truly merciful, it seems he would desire to simply forgive the penitant without severely punishing His perfect and guiltless Son. So why doesn’t He? A common explanation is that there is some Law, related to the ones described above, that even God Himself cannot break, which requires the punishment. But what kind of law could it be? There are two types of laws:

  1. Natural laws, which are descriptions of how things work, like the law of gravity, which cannot be broken.
  2. Human laws, which require require someone intelligent to create, interpret, and enforce the law.
So which type of law would force a benevolent God to punish a perfect being? The only way I can think of to argue that this “Law” is a natural law, would be to suggest that sin creates some kind of evil energy, attached to the sinner, that can only be alleviated through suffering. That’s pretty metaphysical, and substantially different in nature than anything we've ever observed scientifically, which makes me think that it's also very unlikely. Concepts like justice and mercy seem to imply intelligent interpretation. What constitutes “sin” seems to change over time. For example, it apparently wasn't a sin to drink in Christ’s time, but is now. But if God is subject to the decisions of other intelligent beings who are neither just nor merciful, then why have faith in a Gospel that is missing such important information as who these beings are and why they are intent on their cruelty? Either way, the Atonement doesn’t make any sense to me. Even if someone found a logical explanation, how come that explanation isn’t regularly taught in church, or in the scriptures? If there was such an explanation, it seems like that would be important information to share.