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.