There are many theories about the Atonement. All are at best analogies. What Christ did matters much more than our explanations about it do. Especially on Good Friday, we should probably spend more time at the foot of the cross instead of critiquing concepts and philosophies.
Nonetheless, nothing is more worthwhile than trying to understand the central event of history, so Atonement theories abound. They range from the Catholic-Protestant substitutionary sacrifice and ransom theories (I’m not real clear on what the difference is) to the Catholic-Orthodox mystical theory that in the Atonement Christ mystically merged with human suffering and lowliness and made it partake of his divinity, to the modern liberal Royal Exemplar theory where the Atonement itself doesn’t accomplish much of anything but it is extremely moving. I’ve even offered my own meaningful choice theory of the Atonement, which I’m happy with as far as it goes.
The basis for a unique Mormon understanding of the Atonement include whatever can be drawn from Mormon scripture, including 2 Nephi 2 (my theory seems to be a restatement of 2 Nephi 2), Mosiah 3, Mosiah 15; Mormon teachings that the Atonement was accomplished at both Gethsemane and Golgotha; and unique Mormon insight into the nature of God, Christ, and mankind.
While each of these could be important, my personal belief is that Mormonism’s most remarkable contribution to our understanding of the Atonement is Alma 7:11-12.
And he 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 death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind 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.
Christianity has traditionally understood that the Atonement overcame sin. Christianity has usually understood, and Mormonism makes it clear if there were any doubt, that the Atonement overcomes death. Alma 7:11-12 suggests that overcoming pains and sicknesses is also part of the Atonement, that besides taking on him the burdens of death and sin, Christ also took on him the burdens of our afflications and infirmities. This is a marvelous expansion of our understanding of what the Atonement accomplishes.
It also offers some possibilities for understanding how the Atonement works. Empathy theory, for example, which as far as I know is unique to Mormonism.
Now, there are generally two different types of answers that people want from an Atonement theory. A certain type of person–call them liberals, though this term is very inexact–want some explanation of why God would require *anybody* to atone for sins. Why can’t we just feel penitent and God says, that’s OK, you’re good now? These people’s views of the divine are in some sense democratic or egalitarian–that is, they feel themselves to be in a position that they can judge the fairness of God’s actions. These type of people are quick to denounce theories that don’t answer their question as making God into a monster. My meaningful choice theory is meant to answer this person’s type of question.
Another type of person–call them conservative, sort of–are too impressed with the grandeur of God to make demands on him. They also understand very well why God holds their fallen nature against them. Their religious views are monarchical–they feel very much that God is above them. What these people want is some explanation of how the death of a man, even of the Son of God, can excuse their failure. They tend to dismiss theories that don’t answer their question as impossibly sanitized, or else they just despair.
I’ve been thinking lately about Alma 7:11-12 and an Atonement theory that might answer the second type of question. Alma 7:11-12 doesn’t say exactly how it is that Christ bore the burden of our infirmities and afflictions. We sometimes believe that when he bore the burden of our sins, he bore the full burden of each person individually. In other words, we talk as if the burden of our sins was quantifiable and Christ bore the sum of all those burdens. It’s from this perspective that we can say and feel that each time we sin we add to Christ’s agony. If we apply this same line of reasoning to Christ’s atonement for our afflictions and infirmities, then it follows that every time we extend a helping hand to someone, we are relieving Christ’s burden. Remember Matthew 25:40?
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have adone it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
What if that were literal? What if every good deed we did to somebody literally relieved Christ of some of his suffering? That is what the Alma 7:11-12 view of the Atonement implies. We are literally like Simon the Cyrene, bearing the cross for him to relieve his burden.
Christ has put himself in a position where we can do him favors. Is it any wonder that his reward for those favors is munificent and kingly? Forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
So there you have it, my royal largesse theory of the Atonement. It’s less airtight and schematic than my meaningful choice theory, but to me its more satisfying.