The Physicality of the Atonement

March 11, 2004 | 16 comments
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All of the discussion about The Passion has prompted thoughts about the importance of the physical in the Atonement. This topic has been touched briefly in some of the comments below, with Melora opining that “Christ’s atonement did not need to be violent and bloody,” and Matt responding, “but the atonement was preordained to parallel the violent and bloody slaughters of the sacrificial lamb.” I am interested in the unspoken premise of these arguments, namely, that the physical pain and death endured by Jesus was part of the Atonement. In my view, the physical pain the Jesus experienced at the end of his life may have been an important part of Jesus’ personal development, but it was, at most, a small part of the Atonement.

While the inner workings of the Atonement remain shrouded in mystery, the basic outline is pretty settled: Jesus “paid” the price for our sins. By treating the Atonement as primarily a physical event, we imply that a substantial part of the payment was made by Jesus’ having to endure physical pain. While I suppose this is possible, this view of the Atonement seems to me to diminish the work of the Savior. After all, many people have been subjected to physical suffering equally as severe as that heaped upon Jesus. The crucifixion was a horrible way to die, to be sure, but it was not uniquely horrible. While I believe that Jesus needed to endure extreme physical pain to experience all things, I do not believe that this was part of the payment exacted by justice.

In my view, there is no physical suffering that Jesus could be made to endure at human hands that would exceed the suffering that many on this earth have endured at the hands of their tormenters. The fact that he willingly submitted to the suffering may make his suffering seem worse, but it does not make that suffering unique, and I assume that the Atonement was a unique experience. One possible location for unique physical suffering was the pain of bleeding from every pore in Gethsemane. As described in the scriptures, this seems to me like a physical manifestation of spiritual pain. In any event, when the human body experiences extreme pain, it responds by essentially shutting down the nervous system. This fact suggests an inherent limit on Jesus’ ability to feel physical pain. I know of no such corresponding spiritual limit.

Further evidence in support of my thesis lies in the manner of punishment meted out to those people who reject the healing power of the Atonement. Do they pay for their own sins in a physical way? No. Their suffering occurs after physical death and prior to the resurrection. Consider, for example, Alma 40:13-14:

And then shall it come to pass, that the spirits of the wicked, yea, who are evil?for behold, they have no part nor portion of the Spirit of the Lord; for behold, they chose evil works rather than good; therefore the spirit of the devil did enter into them, and take possession of their house?and these shall be cast out into outer cdarkness; there shall be weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth, and this because of their own iniquity, being led captive by the will of the devil. Now this is the state of the souls of the wicked, yea, in darkness, and a state of awful, fearful looking for the fiery indignation of the wrath of God upon them; thus they remain in this state, as well as the righteous in paradise, until the time of their resurrection.

As for the prophesies of Jesus’ bloody demise (Matt’s point), why does the fact that the manner of his death was foretold — and used in ordinances to “remind” the people of his sacrifice — make physical pain part of the Atonement? The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t. Many aspects of Jesus’ life were foretold: his birth, his miracles, his teachings, his resurrection. That does not mean that each was part of the Atonement.

A final thought: I have stated the case against viewing physical pain as part of the Atonement as strongly as I dare. Frankly, I am not sure that I agree with everything I have written here. Since I just developed this idea today, I am certain their are holes, but my sense is that it is right to emphasize the spiritual over the physical when it comes to the Atonement.

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16 Responses to The Physicality of the Atonement

  1. William Morris on March 11, 2004 at 8:42 pm

    I kind of agree with what you are getting at, Gordon.

    My take is that Christ’s suffering was physical in a more important way than the fact that he was beaten and hung on a cross. That is, he felt the full force of our sins because he was a God born into a physical body. Or in other words, he was a soul (in the Mormon definition of the word). Because he had progressed as a spirit to the point of Godhood, he could trascend time (an eternal atonement) and take upon himself all the sins of all mankind and endure the pain they cause and effectuate an atonement — meet the demands of justice. But because he was also in the flesh, that corporeality was an integral part of *how* he felt the consequence of our sins. Just like when we feel guilt, we feel it in both (or perhaps across) our body and our spirit.

  2. Adam Greenwood on March 11, 2004 at 9:30 pm

    It’s precisely because he was a soul that he had to suffer both physically and spiritually and that the suffering from both had to bleed into the other.

    We tend to think of the atonement as Christ paying for our sins. We could also profitably think of it as Christ putting all things under his feet, anguish of spirit, abandonment, anguish of body, death, all of it together.

    Finally, let’s not forget that the atonement isn’t meant to redeem us just in an abstract, accounting sense. Christ was lifted on a cross so men would be drawn to him. The physical passion is a necessary part of our piety. Remember that it was voluntary, unlike most examples of extreme suffering, and remember that it was done for you.

  3. Julie in Austin on March 11, 2004 at 9:41 pm

    I have also been thinking about this very issue in relation to the movie. Here’s my take: what happened in Gethsemane was necessary. What happened on the cross (that is, Jesus’ death) was necessary. What happened at the hands of Roman soldiers was, in some sense, unnecessary.

    However, that unnecessary suffering provided Jesus with an experience necessary to understand the suffering of those who suffer unnecessarily.

    As someone who has been through PTSD, my experience of suffering may be above the norm, but I think everyone, from time to time, experiences suffering that seems unnecessary, and the lack of necessity of the suffering makes it all the harder to bear. But I believe in Jesus’ ability to understand unnecessary suffering, having been through it himself.

  4. Clark Goble on March 12, 2004 at 4:46 am

    I think D&C 19:18-20 also suggests that it is the withholding of God’s spirit that is tied to the suffering as well.

    However I also understand what the people who emphasize the substitutionary aspect of the Atonement are saying. What is important isn’t how much he suffered or necessarily even what he suffered. It is the fact that it was God who was *totally* innocent and who had *total* power who suffered. I think for some that is what makes it an infinite atonement. i.e. it is the unjustness of the suffering.

    I’m not sure I agree with that. I’ve touched on my own views before:

    http://www.libertypages.com/clark/00004.html#1

    I tend to favor Nibley’s view which emphasizes more the at-one-ment aspects of Christ’s suffering.

  5. ed on March 12, 2004 at 8:19 am

    I was wondering about this same question. My impression is that Mormons believe that the main “atonement” happened in the garden, not on the cross. (I’m certain that’s what I was taught.)

    Does anyone know what the source of this Mormon teaching is? I’m wondering if it comes from Talmage. It’s certainly not in the Book of Mormon–all the BOM references to the atonement as an event seem to talk about the cross. For example, 1 Nephi 11:33:

    “And I, Nephi, saw that he was lifted up upon the cross and slain for the sins of the world.”

  6. greenfrog on March 12, 2004 at 10:08 am

    Gordon,

    You seem to have defined atonement by what you believe it isn’t…

  7. Adam Greenwood on March 12, 2004 at 11:18 am

    Ed,
    Do check out Clark’s link, and the links of the links.

  8. Gordon Smith on March 12, 2004 at 11:25 am

    greenfrog, My initial goal was not to define the Atonement, but to consider the role of physical suffering in the Atonement. From all accounts, The Passion emphasizes the physical suffering of Jesus, and I was trying to think about that. Nevertheless, you are right to perceive that this exercise started me thinking about the definition of the Atonement.

    My wife and I had an interesting discussion about this last night. She suggested that the Atonement was the process of Christ’s becoming one with God. By accomplishing that for Himself, He simultaneously opened the path for us. Under this view, everything about His life is part of the Atonement. Stated another way, the Atonement was a process, not an event.

    While this seems right to me, I think we usually employ the word Atonement in a narrower sense. That is, we use the concept to describe the fact that Jesus took upon himself the punishment for our sins. This sacrifice on His part makes our repentence efficacious (i.e., allows us to substitute repentence for punishment). Therefore, when we repent fully, we become spiritually one with God.

    Of course, we believe that full union with God also requires that we overcome physical death. Therefore, His willingness to submit to mortal death and the Resurrection are rightly considered as part of the Atonement.

    The Church’s online “Guide to the Scriptures” (http://scriptures.lds.org/gsa/atntnmnt) says this about Atonement: “His atonement included his suffering for the sins of mankind in the Garden of Gethsemane, the shedding of his blood, and his death and subsequent resurrection from the grave.” Interesting that it omits his suffering at the hands of the Roman soldiers. As noted above, I believe the suffering in Gethsemane was primarily spiritual. I am not sure why the shedding of blood was required, but that seems to be a consistent theme. Bottom line: I think the Guide has it right.

  9. Melissa on March 12, 2004 at 11:32 am

    I don’t have time to say much about this now—but in the academy the idea that Christ sweat blood in the garden is rejected because of textual discepancies in the Gospel of Luke, which is the only Gospel that mentions this. Even as the text stands the idea that Jesus shed blood in the garden is considered a metaphor since Luke’s Gospel is ambiguous on this. The BofM and Doctrine and Covenants 19 helps strengthen this point.

    For symbolic and metaphysical reasons I think the shedding of blood was necessary in the Garden.

  10. Kim Siever on March 12, 2004 at 11:45 am

    “My impression is that Mormons believe that the main ‘atonement’ happened in the garden, not on the cross.”

    I was taught this as well. However, it is my belief that the suffering took place both in the Garden and on the cross. The Atonement, as has been said, consists of both his suffering and his resurrection since the atonement provides freedom from spiritual and physical death.

  11. greenfrog on March 12, 2004 at 11:58 am

    To the extent that our understanding of Atonement should be constrained by the reference from the Guide, it may be worth noting that it uses language suggesting a non-exclusive listing of components. That would not necessarily exclude anything, including Roman torture practices.

    The scriptural references to Christ descending below all things may suggest some utility to undergoing torture.

    If atonement is a process, is it a path we should be following ourselves?

  12. Gordon Smith on March 12, 2004 at 1:45 pm

    “If atonement is a process, is it a path we should be following ourselves?”

    Yes. We need to become one with God, too. While each of us has a unique set of experiences along the path, all paths must converge on the path trod by Jesus. What is not at all clear to me is the extent to which we need to sacrifice as Jesus did. If we are to become one with Him and with Heavenly Father, don’t we need to have similar experiences?

    By the way, I didn’t intend to hold the Guide up as authority. I just thought that it had a nice concise statement of definition for the Atonement.

  13. ed on March 12, 2004 at 2:53 pm

    I came across this link last week—I think it gives a nice breakdown of various views of the atonement:

    http://www.eamtc.cam.ac.uk/residentials/christology/Atonemt-theories.pdf

    I think Mormon teachings tend to be kind of vague about our view of the atonement, and different members seem to embrace aspects of many of the views listed in the link. As far as I know we don’t have an official doctrine about this question, although there does seem to be a strong theme of vicarious suffering.

    We’ve all heard that awful story about the big kid taking the littler kid’s beating in school. I hate that story. Or the one about the debtor/creditor/mediator.

    A strange thing about both these stories is that they seem to be trying to make the atonement seem natural and logical. But I think that they fail…to believe in the atonement, you have to believe in some kind of deep magic from beyond the dawn of time.

  14. Gary Cooper on March 12, 2004 at 2:57 pm

    Gordon,

    Nice post, and everyone has contributed interesting comments. Let me add a few.

    1. While I am prepared to agree that it is possible that the scourging and other tortures of the Romans might not have been required for the Atonement itself, it certainly was necessary for another reason: has a powerful source of faith and strngth to the members of the ancient church, thousands of whom would end up undergoing similar horrors because of the testimony of Him. Imagine the thoughts of those Christians who were stoned, beaten, flayed alive, burned, thrown to lions, or crucified themselves. Do you think the mental image of Christ being whipped, crowned with thorns, beaten up, etc., didn’t come into their minds when they endured similar tortures, and felt the temptation to renounce their testimony? I have the strong feeling that Christ may very well have requested of His Father that He have the opportunity to suffer in the same way that He already knew His “little ones who believe in me” would suffer. I can’t help but think that His words “whatsoever men will do to you, they do to me” must have resonated powerfully.

    2. I agree that the spiritual suffering for sins in Gethsemane was, techincially speaking, more important than the physical suffering there (more on that below) and at Golgotha, but I think it’s a moot point, like arguing that partaking of the water in the Sacrament is more important than the bread. The nature of At-One-Ment is that Christ had to become one with Man as well as one with God, and that meant, as I believe the BoM makes clear, that not only did He have to take upon Him our sins and trangressions, but also ALL of our suffering, temptations, and experiences as well. I hope I can explain this adequately, but my understanding of the Atonement in Gethsemane is that, in some way unfathomable to us and our limited understanding of time, space, etc., Christ was able to KNOW each one of individually in the garden, learning not only of all the pain and sorrow and anguish each of us had or would experience (so no one can say, “Jesus, you just don’t understand how it feels to have my cancer”), but also understanding each of our strngths, weaknesses, and whatever emotional and physical baggage God would put on us in mortality or we would bring upon ourselves. It is, I believe as if Christ came to stand beside each one of us at our birth, experiencing everything, but running ahead of us to the inevitable damnation and Hell that awaited all of us if there were no Atonement. He suffered there the full measure, spiritually, physically, emotionally, and now is able to walk back to where each of us is now and say, “Gary, I know you. I know what your family life was like as a child. I’ve felt the embarassment when other kids laughed at you. I know the temptations that you’ve felt. I know the pain you’ve experienced. But I’ve gone further ahead, and I’ve seen the Hell that awaits you if you do not repent. I’ve felt and endured everything that awaits you there. Please stop. You don’t want to go any further. Turn around and walk with me, back to the Father.” Pardon the dramatization, but I see the Atonement as Christ gaining the saving KNOWLEDGE that only He was able to obtain, so that He would know how to help and strengthen each one of us in mortality so that each one of us could take up OUR cross and be able to endure to the end. In this since, yes, the Atonement was a process, culminated by Gethsemane/Golgotha/the empty tomb.

    3. Do each of us have to learn in a similar way? What does the BoM mean, when it speaks in several places about us “taking up our cross”? Obviously we can’t suffer exactly what Christ did, but there’s no question that suffering is part of what we have to experience in mortality, and the closer we come to God, the more we feel suffering, less and less for ourselves and more and more for OTHERS.

    4. I agree with the earlier thread that the wording in Luke can be turned to denigrate the idea of Christ literally bleeding at every pore in Gethsemane, but the BoM and Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible both restore the fact that the bleeding took place. Why? I’m no doctor, but I do know that as emotional stress rises, so does blood pressure, and when the latter rises too much the heart stops. Imagine Christ, who had complete control over His body in determining if and when he would die, and able to keep His heart going despite all the agony He was experiencing. The blood pressure would reach a level in which it would be forced out of the body, hence, bleeding great drops of blood like sweat.

  15. greenfrog on March 12, 2004 at 4:54 pm

    I found the juxtaposition of these two statements interesting:

    Gordon S.: “We need to become one with God, too.”

    ed: “A strange thing about both these stories is that they seem to be trying to make the atonement seem natural and logical. But I think that they fail…to believe in the atonement, you have to believe in some kind of deep magic from beyond the dawn of time.”

    The one statement makes atonement sound like something we should be doing today, the second like something that none of us can begin to comprehend, let alone accomplish.

    Are Gordon Smith and ed talking about the same thing?

  16. Adam Greenwood on March 12, 2004 at 5:43 pm

    One is the gospel according to Thomas a Kempis, the other is the gospel according to Aslan. For all I know, they’re both right. Maybe the atonement is mysterious enough that we can’t understand it until we’ve approached it through experience.