Both LDS theological maximalists and minimalists seem to think that there is something invialby sacred about the atonement. It is the quintessential doctrine, the essence of Christianity, and the sine qua non of Christian faith. Perhaps the Book of Mormon isn’t ancient, and perhaps Moses didn’t write the Torah, and perhaps Jesus didn’t do the miracles–but if Jesus did not suffer, die, and be resurrected to satisfy God’s plan, then the really is nothing of value in these stories. Perhaps this perspective has some value, but at the very least it effectively warns anyone from looking too closely at the atonement.
The doctrine of the atonement is remarkably thin in New Testament texts. Just why exactly did Jesus have to die? What did it accomplish? We have a few scant passages from the NT on this topic, mostly focused around language about animal sacrifice, connecting Jesus’ [human] sacrifice as the perfect version of ritual animal slaughter and burning to satiate God’s anger (and hunger). It was later theologians that sought more robust answers to these questions, answers that have been adopted in Mormon texts and teachings. The two major versions are substitutionary propititiaon and satisfaction. What both theories take for granted is that sin is something that must be punished and that Jesus’ violent death in some way meets that demand. God’s judgement would necessarily be severe and painful had not Christ endured the severe and painful punishment God inflicted upon him for our sakes. In a system where God is the sole, sovereign source of authority, his wrath and judgment seem irrational and unjust. Much of Mormon doctrine arises out of a reformation of Christian notions of divine wrath, vengeance, and judgment, such as the three degrees of glory, baptism for the dead, the limitation of “eternal damnation,” and even a crucifixophobia expunging the gaze on the tortured body of Jesus. Yet these teachings do not repudiate the notion of God’s violent punishment of Jesus, but instead build on it as the foundation for God’s mercy.
Jesus’ death is reenacted on the sacrificial altar in LDS chapels each Sunday, where his body is broken, torn, and consumed by the congregation, and his blood lapped up washing down the flesh still clinging to our teeth and roofs of our mouths. As Jesus is butchered, we are called to both “remember” and “witness” that awful event, silently recounting our own crimes in our head, so that we can be resolved to “always keep his commandments.” Jesus’ death, flesh, and blood are presented to us under threat and promise. The promise is effectuated through the violence inflicted on Jesus’ body.
The critique of this narrative of Jesus’ violent torture and death as the source of our redemption is worth taking seriously. Not only do we have a kind of divine child abuse in this story, but the notion that violence is itself redemptive. We must be especially concerned that it is an innocent person who suffers vicariously for the guilty. What sort of legal system is this that an innocent man’s violent torture satisfies for the crimes of another? Of course, Mormon historians have been increasingly looking at violence as a redemptive concept in early Mormonism, being such ideas as blood atonement and even the various wars and aggressions Mormons found themselves in. Such accounts cannot be fully separated from the notion of redemptive violence in the New Testament, both in the story of Jesus, as well as the apocalyptic arrival of his kingdom.
Even if this violence is not a part of contemporary Mormonism (and pace Krakauer, I don’t think it is), what does it mean to have it symbolically present in our texts? In God’s Gym, Stephen Moore describes apologetic accounts of the atonement that see a transition from Christ’s violent punishment as accomplishing an interior call to obedience as telling the same story of the account of transition of punishment in modern society in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. The atonement effects a change in the heart of the believer, a changed attitude, not in the same way that public exectution was once supposed to deter crimes in the premodern era, but in the way that in the modern era such public torture has been replaced with more discreet operations of power to produce “obedient,” docile subjects. One used to hear more often in talks in church, but I think much less so today, the kind of popular “medical” accounts of Jesus’ torture that filled in the gory details of the excruciating pain of scourging and crucifixion, the details of which worked to motivate its hearers to a renewed commitment to obedience. Perhaps this violence is not symbolic at all, but continues to lurk behind the new forms of power that attempt to make violence invisible. In the attempt to hide it, to make the violent punishment of Jesus a event safely in the past, it also cooperates with modern forms of power as a “reminder” of how else it could be, and may be, had we not submitted.
38 Replies to “Atonement and Torture”
Crucifixophobia? This hurts my soul a little.
Staurophobia? That’s more like it.
This is a fascinating topic. Have you been reading Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain recently? If so we are walking under the same star.
A quick, instructive exercise in how the violence of the crucifixion can be rhetorically presented for very different purposes is to compare the Mark account with the Luke account. When it comes to a theologia crucis I am a Luke man mostly–what can I say, I love me a (Roman) philospher-hero who willingly, placidly, and equanimously bares his flesh to the instruments of torture (sorry Han Solo, you don’t make the cut, so to speak).
As for the consumption of the dismembered body of Jesus, I have heard that adrenaline-filled game (e.g. a wounded, terrified, and struggling deer) tastes less desirable than clean killed game, so again, I am a Luke man because if I have to eat raw human meat, I at least want the non-gamy stuff.
Have you read Stephen Finlan’s “Options on Atonement in Christian Thought”? This made me think of a lot of what he covers there.
However, “but in the way that in the modern era such public torture has been replaced with more discreet operations of power to produce “obedient,” docile subjects” needs some decompression for me to be able to understand what you are implying, exactly. It feels disconcertingly paranoid and cynical, but may still be nonetheless true. Just trying to make sure I am clear.
oudenos, see what happens when I carelessly invent neoverba (that one is intentional!)
Matt, thanks for the recommendation on Finlan. Looks like a good book.
the reference to the line you are asking a question about is basically a one-line summary of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, where he chronicles the transition from body-based punishment as the primary way of exercising power in premodern society to various deployments of power based on surveillance and concern for the interior state of the soul in modernity. That is admittedly perhaps not much help either, but I’m sure there are loads of good summaries of his thesis online somewhere.
The violence of the atonement is more a reflection of us than of God. Violence is the only language the entire human race understands. Perhaps the language will change as society evolves.
The elephant in the room for me is the shear force of will that makes life live yet remains invisible to us. This blindness can only be by design. Separation (fall) from God is inevitable in such a state. There is God and there is life, so there must be a Christ. I infer from what I observe that there can’t not be a Christ. The Mormons agree with my reality, so I hang with them.
Punishment as a form of debt settlement is a human notion. We can forgive all debts and ourselves be forgiven. For some people, that is not an option. Some people just can’t let go, so they retain their debt, so an atonement was needed to cover the greatest of these debts.
Bradley, if I understand you, you are suggesting a sort of docetic understanding of Christ’s suffering, where it is just a show for humans, but that God didn’t really desire it or require it. That may be the case, but I’m not sure that this changes much about its symbolic role as a representation of God’s will.
Moore chillingly concludes God’s Gym describing a hypermasculine, dominating God with his bloodstained butcher’s apron: “Blessed are those who have not seen me, and therefore believe.”
The idea that God is punishing the Savior is ridiculous. Punishing him for what? The idea that God is torturing him is even worse.
The only way a suffering atonement makes any sense is if the suffering is an artifact of something necessary to make it effective at all. Otherwise the suffering is either a gratuitous evil (like torture) or all for show.
Paul says (twice) “ye are bought with a price”, or in other words the price is necessary to carry the transaction (redemption in this case) off.
The main question is why does redemption have one? There are several options:
(1) An evil demi-god holds all of humanity hostage with bonds greater than what God can break unless he is bribed into releasing them.
(2) God the Father arbitrarily and for no reason demands gratuitous torture as the price for the redemption which he himself makes effective.
(3) Natural laws make it impossible for a person to be redeemed from the consequences of sin without the an enormous expenditure of divine energy and effort.
Naturally, I favor the third option. But if you are a classical creatio ex nihilo theist, the only really good option is “it is all for show”, because it isn’t really possible (let alone necessary) for a divine being who exists independent and apart from the universe to suffer in any real way. At best, it is like imagining that you are suffering. The slumming theory of the atonement, or the shadow play (exemplary) theory, take your pick. Five theories, and only one of them makes a whole lot of sense, in my opinion.
The idea that God is punishing the Savior is ridiculous. Punishing him for what?
It is an excellent question, but your own preferred option that Jesus needed to be punished so that we may “be redeemed from the consequences of sin” seems to be the common answer. I’m not sure I see much a distinction between Jesus’ punishment and his suffering, since the latter just seems like a euphemism for the former.
The idea that God is torturing him is even worse.
Well, make no mistake, scourging and crucifixion are torture (not enhanced interrogation), so I’m not sure why you are arguing that they are not. Torture doesn’t have to be gratuitous to be torture.
I’m with you that Mormonism offers perhaps another way for thinking about the need for Christ’s punishment, but I’m not convinced that it doesn’t just push the problem back onto an (equally arbitrary) nameless “nature” rather than God. If anything, the power at work is even more insidious in such a system since it is to “natural law” rather than a monarch that the source of power is attributed, and the questioning of its justification is even more difficult precisely because it masquerades as anonymous and “natural.”
TT, I never claimed that Jesus was, is, or needs to be “punished” for anything. The idea that the atonement is about punishment is incoherent. Punishment is only good for two things – deterrence and reformation. Jesus was not in need of either.
Punishment, in and of itself, in any amount or in any degree, even when applied to the proper party cannot redeem anyone either. Redemption is healing. Punishment in and of itself does not heal anyone, but rather destroys.
Now where you appear to go wrong is to equate the terms “price” and “punishment”. They are not the same thing. When you set out to acquire a great talent, the price that you must pay is not a punishment from anyone or anybody. It is simply a measure of the human cost in time and energy that is necessary for you to re-form yourself sufficiently for the purpose.
Similarly, if redemption from the consequences of sin has a natural cost in terms of time, effort, and energy required on the part of anyone in heaven or on earth, that cost is part of the “price” of redemption, a price that no one anywhere can waive.
If anyone could waive the price, the atonement wouldn’t be necessary. In fact, it would be more or less pointless. The coherence of the doctrine of the atonement hinges on the proposition that there are some costs that God cannot avoid, if he wishes to obtain the desired result, and the suffering of the atonement is incident to those costs, much like the burden of a physician incident to his practice of medicine, or that of bishop incident to his duty.
Multiply the weariness of a bishop (or a parent) by an arbitrarily large number, and that is what I imagine the atonement is like.
“Jesus’ death is reenacted on the sacrificial altar in LDS chapels each Sunday, where his body is broken, torn, and consumed by the congregation, and his blood lapped up washing down the flesh still clinging to our teeth and roofs of our mouths. As Jesus is butchered…”
TT: I have always been a fan of your perspective and ideas but, dude, this isn’t transsubstantiation we’re talking about here. Do you really believe there is even one person in an LDS congregation, while they’re listening to the sacramental hymn, are saying to themselves “oh boy, it’s time to butcher Jesus again!” After all, ordinances are symbolic rituals and are therefore subject to the intrepretation of the participant. Religious symbols are particularly mallible: one person’s pagan bend on the tree-decorating at Christmas is another person’s representation of light and everlasting life provided by their Savior’s sacrifice.
TT, what do you think of Niebuhr’s argument that Christ willingly submitted himself to the violence inherent in (corrupt, limited, anxiety-derived) human systems of power in order to expose their essential frailty, and in the resurrection overcame them with the perfect power of God’s disinterested love?
Another interesting option is Jack Miles’s argument that in the incarnation God is repenting for all the awkward stuff in the Hebrew Bible.
Larry, probably not, but there is something intentional about the breaking of the bread. Note that “breaking” is specifically referred to in the liturgical texts of the Last Supper.
In the Anglican Easter Mass the priest reads the words of Pilate – “What shall I do with him?” And the congregation responds, “Crucify him.” This is chilling but also inescapably true.
p.s. And yes, I do realize that some of the hymns speak of Jesus’ body broken and torn, but I believe in the minds of most this is akin to pondering on Veteran’s Day how many young men and women have been violently killed to perserve our freedom. It instills an element of gratitude.
It seems to me the pertinent issue is why he had to die like that rather than just dying. I mean the dying bit is easy to explain. The question is whether the cross and scourging were essential to the atonement. Honestly I don’t think they were although it was prophesied. I’m quite sympathetic to the more traditional LDS view that the real work of the atonement was done in Gethsemene and then after he allowed himself to die. The rest was just somewhat arbitrary trappings which at best offer teaching benefits.
To add, the Gethsemene theory arises partially out of D&C 18:11 where Jesus “suffered the pain of all men, that men might repent” and D&C 19:16 where Jesus as God “suffered these things for all that they might not suffer if they would repent.” Interestingly D&C 19 suggests it’s a kind of singular punishment and it’s not violence in the normal sense of the term. It also suggests this suffering was in Gethsemen (verse 18) based upon the gloss of blood coming from every pore. (Which is problematic as a translation but is adopted in both the D&C and BoM)
The common reading of this is that there was some universal experience by Jesus such that a literal atonement takes place where God doesn’t merely know our experiences in a propositional way but in an experiential way.
There appears more than this: the mysterious “eternal punishment” and it’s not clear what that is. I don’t think it’s a punishment in the normal sense of the term but maybe something akin to experiencing what others experienced as a result of your sins. (Although there’s much less agreement on this point) There is also a more legalistic view of what this punishment is. That raises the obvious problem of punishment in general though. As Mark points out one has to explain the point of punishment and how replacing Jesus with it deals with these punishments. I think though that the experiential model does explain how God can be a substitute for us.
Dare I suggest that the real atonement of Jesus Christ has little or nothing to do with what happened in Gethsemane and on the cross except in a representative fashion?
TT ~ I echo Matt’s recommendation of Finlan. I’ve noted this before but Finlan should be required reading.
Finlan’s view, and I agree, is that many of the problems we have with the atonement stems from Paul’s writings.
I don’t know whether Finlan includes this example in his book, but one example is that Paul has to reconcile how it is that Jesus can be the Messiah when the Torah states that anyone who is hung on a tree is cursed. (Deuteronomy 21:23). How can Jesus be the Messiah and have been cursed? Paul ultimately came to the conclusion that Jesus was cursed but the curse was ours, not his. (Galatians 3:13). Thus, Paul’s reconciliation of the Torah and the events of Jesus’s life and death force Paul to conclude that we are cursed of God because of sin and that we require redemption through Jesus’s violent death. The seeds of Atonement theory and its concomitant problems, which are many, are found in Paul’s own letters.
While those after Paul amplify certain elements of Paul, this isn’t a situation where the original teachings are coherent and we fault later interpreters of Paul who muddy the waters.
The history of Atonement theory, to me, is inevitably problematic. I do not think that Mormonism offers any better solution to the problems inherent in Paul. As a recent example, Terryl Givens outlined a kind of solution to the problem of Atonement. While I agree it has a more palatable flavor to it than other proposed explanations of Atonement, I argue that it still fails to satisfy as a morally acceptable understanding of Atonement theory.
Matt W. at NewCoolThang gave an excellent summary of theories of atonement about a year back. My own narrative of how the atonement works is found here.
Rather try here, the last link didn’t work. See comment #17 which is too lengthy to paste here.
Admins, can you help a brother out?http://www.newcoolthang.com/index.php/2009/05/chapter-5-atonement/1047/#comment-347830
Mark, could you expand on that?
Clark, the last time we talked about this at NCT, the main argument in favor of the position that the atonement didn’t entirely occur in Gethsemane or on the cross (in the literal sense of the term) was causality – namely that all the immediate blessings of the atonement were available thousands of years prior, on the same conditions that they are available to us now. If the power of the atonement is contingent on a sacrifice that occurred over several hours many years in the future, we would seem to have a rather serious causality violation.
In addition, it is hard to see how suffering in and of itself can have positive effect on third parties. Above a certain point, it doesn’t even benefit the sufferer, otherwise we would all be asetics.
For the suffering of the atonement to be meaningful, it must be necessary for the purpose. The only thing that can make suffering necessary to God is a natural law of some kind. As it happens, I don’t first order causality violations are very good candidates for natural laws.
On the other hand, beneficial suffering is inevitably incident to something that does have a positive effect – work for example. We work for a purpose, and fatigue, weariness, and suffering are incidental to that effort.
The scriptures say that God’s work and glory is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. Moses 7 gives a moving example of how much emotional work alone is involved. I am not saying that the suffering in the garden or on the cross wasn’t real – I am suggesting that it was exemplary for the suffering incident to the real divine work necessary to bring to pass the redemption, a work and a sacrifice that continues today.
I would say that Niebuhr exhibits the kind of modern Christian embarrassment for the atonement doctrine that is evident with many of the other proposals put forward. I’m not say that these alternatives are cosmically “wrong,” just that they are significant revisions of the narrative of the NT texts and later traditional interpretations. To not hold God responsible for the events of the suffering and death of Jesus is probably theologically preferable, but not particularly reflective of the texts. I suppose my exercise here is playing out the texts and traditional theories of atonement.
Matt B., those are not the only two theories of punishment that there are, since your list notably misses the “atonement” theory of punishment that punishment is for the reconciliation of wrongs.
Sorry folks, but I am short on time. More later, but I am pleased with this good discussion and for the links to the NCT discussion. I will have to refresh my reading of that thread when I get a sec.
The best work on this matter has been done in Finlan’s “Options on Atonement” and “Saving Power: Theories of Atonement and Forms of the Church,” by Schmiechen, both relatively recent and very helpful reviews of the topic. Both might help illuminate the possibilities here.
Great post. On the topic of sin, punishment, and forgiveness, the atonement appears to me to work like this: If your best friend offends you, would you require that your daughter be tortured and killed before you forgive your friend? This is what God has done with us. I’m not sure why he can’t just be a loving father and forgive us. Why make someone else suffer for it? It just seems cruel and unnecessary.
Oh, that I agree with. I thought you were making a stronger claim when you said,
I think most Mormons think the atonement didn’t entirely occur in Gethsemene or the cross. I think both those events were very significant beyond it mattering little and don’t think them merely representations of something. (i.e. merely a matter of teaching – the more Pelegian view)
Clark, my main point is that it seems essentially impossible to tie Christ’s actual suffering on the cross or in Gethsemane to any non-exemplary beneficial effect on any third party anywhere, such as redeeming grace, forgiveness of sins, or anything else, while it is trivial to associate the burden of divine ministry and spiritual support for all of us from day to day with those things.
Most of the Christian world maintains that every good thing comes by divine grace. What they do not maintain is that suffering is incidental to its exercise, because the idea that God could suffer is basically incoherent in classical theism. Generally speaking, we don’t have that problem. The only question is when does divine suffering have anything to do with anything. I believe that can only be the case when something that is actually productive is going on.
So my question for you is, other than Christ serving out his own mission, and being perfected thereby, and showing by example (and personal knowledge) what divine suffering is really like, what else do you think was going on in Gethsemane or on the cross?
Mark, I think we have to distinguish between the suffering being the cause of what is effective in the atonement versus the suffering being a side effect of some act that is effective in the atonement. My sense is you are merely addressing whether the suffering proper is what enables the atonement.
I agree that I don’t think the suffering is what is significant. However I think the traditional view of Gethsemene was that it was there that he experienced in a direct first person way our experiences so he could understand them. It would be the understanding that is key but a necessary side effect would be that he suffers all we suffer.
With regards to the cross an other popular view is that Jesus experienced the withdrawal of God so that he (Jesus) was on his own. (D&C 19 suggests this) Once again the suffering wouldn’t be what is significant so long as being without the Father.
It might be that we actually agree – I’m just trying to figure out what your position is. (Sorry I just don’t remember who said what back in the old NCT comments)
Clark, I certainly agree on suffering not being the cause of what is effective in the atonement. However, I can hardly imagine something non-exemplary and non-personal that is actually effective taking place on the cross or in Gethsemane.
If you have a suggestion of what if anything that might be, I would like to hear it. The idea that anything in that category might be taking place is so off the wall to me that I can’t think of that particular sacrifice being effective in any other way. When I read scriptures and think about the motive power of the atonement, that is not what I think of, but rather what it seems to stand for.
If I read the term “the cross” outside of the four gospels, my first instinct isn’t to think of actual events on the cross, but rather what I would call the real cross, and Christ’s greater sacrifice, to say nothing of his blood, body, and spirit, and our participation as members of the body of Christ.
I think I did list the main theories. In Gethsemene Christ experiences while mortal a full at-one-ment with all people. One can think this wrong, of course. Likewise sometime on the cross Christ has to be alone without the Father. Now this doesn’t mean they had to take place on Gethsemene or on a cross. I’m sure that had the Romans used a different torture method it would happen there. So the torture of Christ by the Romans is at best a useful symbol that Christians can use. But what is significant is Christ coming to understand all things in a direct fashion so he can become our savior.
The big gap in even these two theories is why Christ had to do this. Doesn’t the Father already know these things? And I’ve not seen Mormons explain why Jesus had to save us rather than the Father saving us. (For more traditional Christians this is less of an issue since in a deeper sense than for most Mormons they see Christ and the Father as the same being)
So to me the issue is less the cross than what gets discussed in passages like D&C 19:15-17, D&C 88:6 etc
I am not sure if I believe God the Father has existed as such forever, or if He is just one of many in a line going back forever. But in either case, it would seem that He cannot die, therefore, it took someone that could die, hence we have Jesus fulfilling that roll. At lease, this is what I have come to believe.
So I think the Idea that Christ came to show us how to be loving and forgiving is what the atonement is all about.
Clark, that is a great question which is especially problematic in LDS theology, as you said. Scriptures like D&C 45 put an even wider gap between the Father and the Son which is very problematic if understood as a description of “the way things really are.” There are just no shortage of tough questions.
Over the years I have become increasingly convinced of the basic premise of Mark’s and Blake’s arguments about what gives rise to the suffering of atonement. Although they don’t agree on details, they both argue for a view where the atonement is an ongoing process. Mark tends to refer to work as in #23 and Blake stresses the relational aspects (painful for Christ to be in relationship with us, etc.) but the premise is similar. (I should note that Blake makes an argument for why the Passion was necessary in addition to the ongoing suffering of atonement and would never use language like that in #17.)
Anyway, in such a scenario, an explanation for why Jesus had to save us rather than the Father seems like it would have to rely on an argument that there are practical limits on the Father and we live in a distributed system where the salvation of everyone is too large a task for one person to accomplish (as a practical matter) so that Christ is our savior, not because the Father could not have been, but if he had, then the suffering of atonement would have been suffered by the Father instead of the Son which would not amount to a real difference for us. At least that is the kind of answer I think Mark’s theory leads to.
CEF, that Pelegian view is popular with some but if the whole point was just to teach us something about God being able to forget what we did bad (i.e. sin is no different from human interactions with each other) then I have to admit it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
Jacob, I’m really sympathetic to a lot of Blake’s work but there is this weird key point where there is real “energy” transferred in these relationships. I have a hard time buying that metaphysical position.
Yea, there are a couple of other other points where several of us got off the bus which is why I was focusing on the foundational premise without getting tied up in the details.
Just to add, don’t take me as disparaging too much the Pelegian view. However it seems undeniable that there are a lot of scriptures that are hard to reconcile to it. Now it could be that people just read more into sin and intents than were there. Perhaps we should just accept that justification is just God recognizing that if you are trying hard to be like him that’s good enough and sanctification is ultimately just growing more in connection with the Holy Ghost and eventually getting a resurrected body without all the limits of this one (including our brain). There’s a lot to like in that view.
I will tell you why I think Jesus takes the primary role in the Atonement. It is because the atonement is distributed, and there are two parts, one is the sacrifice made by God in heaven and the other is made by the sons and daughters of God on earth, i.e. Jesus Christ and all those who are true followers, who take upon themselves his name and make their bodies a living sacrifice in his cause (cf. Romans 12:1), and who indeed are the body of Christ. As Christ suffered in body and spirit, so does his body.
I believe that the bread symbolizes the physical sacrifice involved in the atonement (mostly conducted by Jesus and his followers here on earth) and the water symbolizes the spiritual sacrifice (mostly performed by God in heaven).
(In fact, I don’t think that “Christ” is just Jesus Christ, any more than I think God is just Heavenly Father. I believe “Christ” ultimately properly refers to all those who take upon his name (spiritually anointed heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ) and share in his sacrifice. That is all scandalously scandalously unorthodox of course.)
“For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren” (Heb 2:11).
By the way, Pelagius is most well known for the view that the atonement and the grace of God are unnecessary to save anyone, i.e. that people essentially save themselves by their own efforts, no divine assistance required. Whatever is going on in the atonement, Mormons are not Pelagians, far from it, and I would be reluctant to throw around the term lightly.