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.


dheninger said...

Not sure if this is the exact talk, but Cleon Skousen pretty much nailed this question on the head for me. If it's not this talk, the premise is basically this:

1. inteligences exist.
2. Some inteligences are greater than others, with God being at top.
3. Some were chosen to be greater than others and became spirit sons and daughters of God.
4. God rules over all his creations, but only his spirit sons and daughters can progress as He.
5. God is holy and cannot dwell with any degree of wickedness. If he were, those inteligent creations that are not spirit sons and daughters would see imperfection in God and cease to follow. Without the ability to control inteligences, he would cease to be God.
6. A plan needed to be created to allow sinners to come back to God.
7. Jesus Christ was the creator of the things upon the earth. These inteligences realize this and listen to Jesus.
8. Jesus lived perfectly so as to be able to enter into the Kingdom.
9. Jesus chose to die for all humanity and the inteligences (his creations) greived for three days.
10. Jesus acts as a intermediary between God and us, taking upon himself our sins which answers to the demands of justice from the inteligences.
11. However, we are given a law to follow Christ. Any who does not cannot receive forgiveness and must answer to the laws of justice and cannot enter into the highest kingdom where God resides.

Anyway, hope this helps a bit. I've seen multiple copies of the Cleon Skousen talk since it's been given many times. Some seem to be more "meat" than others. Here's the quick link I found:

I have not been able to find it on any church website, which makes me think that this is speculative, which the Bible dictionary says will do you no good (see mystery). But anyway, it is a point of view that seems to make sense to me.

But don't take my word for it...

Bennion said...

Thank you for your comment. It seems like your answer to my question is in #10, that Jesus takes upon himself our sins to answer the demands of justice from us. This implies that the Atonement wasn't strictly necessary, but was done to induce feelings like gratitude in us. But then, I wouldn't feel grateful if I knew the Atonement wasn't actually necessary, and I don't think I'd feel good about a God that hid the truth from me to induce desirable feelings in me. Let me know if I've misinterpreted your comment. I hope to read the Cleon Skousen talk later if I have time.

watertread said...

From a logical standpoint, I don't see what is wrong with the idea that sinners (without Christ) are doomed to punishment by some natural metaphysical law to which God is subject. It's certainly no more or less likely than any other metaphysical claim, seeing as metaphysical claims are by nature unfalsifiable.

Bennion said...

Watertread, you have a good point. I guess I should say "makes sense" instead of "logical," because it's not so much that it violates a rule of logic, but more that it isn't likely to be true.

Metaphysical "laws" that are dependent on concepts that can't be defined very objectively, like mercy and justice, don't make sense to me, even if they don't strictly violate a rule of logic.

Post a Comment