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Selling the Atonement Short

When considering the Saviour’s infinite Atonement, Latter-day Saints are faced with an act of sacrifice the effects of which are mind-bogglingly vast. And even if we can manage to sort-of wrap our minds around the salient effects of this supernal act, the mechanics of this pillar of eternity are hopelessly out of our reach.

When discussing the Atonement, or any aspect thereof (the Crucifixion, the intercessory prayer in Gethsemene), there is what I find to be an unsettling propensity toward a grisly cataloging of the horrible suffering the Saviour endured. This serves a purpose, I suppose, and I do think it’s important to understand what took place in the Saviour’s final days. But while I think this approach is effective in making people feel sad, it feels manipulative to me somehow, and it doesn’t particularly help me understand the Atonement any better. I also don’t think the gory details of the crucifixion are particularly relevant, since many other non-atoning people were also crucified by the Romans – there was something else, something more about Christ’s suffering that was unique, which we don’t understand, cannot comprehend, and cannot be made to recognize by absorbing more details about the human physiological response to being nailed to a cross. (That is one reason why a crucifix has never held much power for me as a symbol, and also why Mel Gibson’s fixation on exsanguination in The Passion of the Christ makes it more like a horror film than anything that might provide helpful insight into the nature of Christ or His Atonement.)

I accept that there are mysteries in God’s kingdom. Many of those mysteries are interesting and productive to contemplate. I believe firmly that God is much smarter than us; omniscient in fact; and that there are simply some concepts that our beyond our mortal comprehension. But I also believe, equally strongly, that we are given to understand as much as we need to in order to exercise faith. Such is the case with the Atonement. It sufficeth our Heavenly Father that we simply know the Saviour’s atoning sacrifice took place in Gethsemene and Golgotha, and that there were certain specific infinite and eternal effects that resulted from that expiation. We are redeemed and ransomed by it, and thus we also need to understand how to apply the Atonement in our lives. The science of how the death of one man could atone for the sins of everyone who ever has or ever will live, is beside the point. Likewise, it doesn’t matter if we comprehend the laws of physics that govern resurrection, but it does matter that we know Jesus Christ was resurrected.

But since the hows and whys of the Atonement are not as clearly laid out as the whos, whats and wheres, well-meaning Latter-day Saints step in to try to make things simpler. They do this through parables, naturally. After all, that is how the Saviour himself conveyed complex doctrines. He was, in fact, a master in this regard, and his parables are bottomless founts of rich doctrinal pedagogy. Suffice it to say, Latter-day Saints sometimes fall somewhat short of the Saviour’s high standard of instruction. Understanding how to apply the atonement in our lives is a worthy pursuit, and one that is not likely to become easier through contemplating doctrinally inaccurate parables.

I must stress that the parables are well-meaning. I don’t believe there is any malice in either their creators or disseminators. And there is some comfort in having something like the atonement distilled allegorically. However, in the vast majority of the modern parables with which I am familiar, key doctrines of the atonement are either omitted or seriously misrepresented. I am not suggesting that the Atonement could not or should not be constructively elucidated via parable, (on the contrary, as an important and poorly understood doctrine, it lends itself particularly well to metaphorical interpretation), but I am saying that most of the parables I come across are woefully inadequate, failing to accurately track the fundamental components of the atonement.

Take for instance, the idea of sin being like nails pounded into a two-by-four. Repentance is like removing the nails, but the holes in the wood remain. Granted, that is not a parable per se, just a hackneyed metaphor, yet it could not mangle the reality of the atonement more egregiously. The atonement does not only kind-of work. The atonement, to use the language of the metaphor, renders that two-by-four as though no nail had ever been put to it. (There are some variations on this metaphor that attempt to overcome its inadequacy by adding a part wherein the empty hole left by the nail is filled in with some kind of quick-drying wood caulk, but as object lessons go, it’s still pretty weak and somewhat belaboured.)

In a similar vein, there is the idea that continues to be taught occasionally in the Church that likens a young women who has engaged in sexual sin to a chewed piece of gum that cannot be unchewed, and is therefore as undesirable and repellant as a piece of chewed up, used up gum. This absurd and hurtful simile likewise sells the atonement short, putting bizarrely arbitrary limits on its efficacy. (Elizabeth Smart recently brought attention to the dangerous fallacy of this metaphor, though I’m not convinced as some commentators were that she was arguing against teaching abstinence.)

Getting into the extended metaphor of parables is equally problematic. Everyone must have heard the one about the room with the filing cabinets, with sins written on recipe cards. One person is ashamed by all the sin-cards in his file, and suddenly the Saviour is there, taking the cards one-by-one and signing them, with a “sad smile”. This is not only unhelpful in demystifying the Atonement, but weirdly overlooks the nature and importance of repentance. Even worse are the variations on this parable that imply each sin we commit retroactively increases the suffering of the Saviour. (Incidentally, despite our appropriation of that parable, it was written by non-Mormon speaker and author Joshua Harris who says he dreamed it while in Puerto Rico for the 1995 Billy Graham Crusade.)

Maybe you’ve heard the parable that involves a switch operator at a railway crossing. The switch operator’s four-year old son is, for some reason, playing on train tracks nearby as a train hurtles towards him. The switch operator could divert the train and kill all its passengers, or sacrifice his son to save them. The switch operator makes the utilitarian choice, diverts the train, and the son is killed, saving the oblivious commuters. This story, essentially a variation on the infamous ethical Trolley Problem, is ostensibly meant to help us empathize with what Heavenly Father did when he sacrificed the Saviour. This metaphor breaks down upon even the slightest reflection, in several obvious ways. For one thing, the metaphor denies the Saviour any agency, which I think many would agree is a crucial aspect of His atoning sacrifice. It is also presumptuous, I think, to speculate on the thoughts or feelings of our Heavenly Father when it came to the Atonement. I’m not sure a one-to-one correlation with the emotions of imperfect mortal beings is necessarily accurate. This is yet another parable which attempts to evoke strong emotions and then somehow connect those strong emotions with the Atonement in ways that are disingenuous and fallacious. The parable would have to be distorted significantly in order for it to make any relevant sense at all. The train would have to be filled with everyone who ever has or ever will live. The son would not be an oblivious 4 year-old, but an adult man who fully understands the sacrifice, and makes it willingly. (He would also need to rise from the grave in a resurrected body shortly thereafter.) The results of the sacrifice would have to include not merely the persistence of life for those on the train, but their eventual resurrection, their ability to repent of sins in such a way that they can return to live with the man’s father, (who is also literally the father of all of them). It would need to encompass all those other aspects of the Atonement that are so often overlooked, that have to do with assuaging sorrow, pain, anxiety, grief, and guilt, etc. Reframing the parable along any useful lines results in such a contortion of the original, that one might as well just talk about the actual Atonement. All this parable is good for is demonstrating that fathers love sons and will likely be sad when they are forced to kill one. I don’t need a contrived fiction to make that facile point, and it certainly doesn’t help me understand the Atonement, or even how Heavenly Father felt about the Atonement, which was, I think, the strange goal of the parable.

There are countless other examples of unhelpful parables, usually involving an appearance from the Saviour Himself. These Latter-day parables are only as valuable as they are accurate about the nature of the Atonement, and in my experience they tend to be severely lacking in that one crucial criterion.

For one thing, there is so much more to the Atonement than simply the ability it gives us poor sinners to repent and become clean. But overwhelmingly, the parables employed to explicate the Atonement focus exclusively on that single aspect of the doctrine. (Stephen E. Robinson has come closest to actually formulating a useful latter-day parable for the Atonement, in my opinion. Elder Boyd K. Packer also did well with his parable in the “Atonement” chapter of the Gospel Principles manual.)

I don’t wish to overstate my position; I’m not anti-parable. I love a good parable as much as the next person, and I admit they can be helpful in illustrating doctrinal concepts. I’m anti-simplistic, fallacious, and superficial parable, and we seem to have a surfeit of those in our Church when it comes to the Atonement.

The doctrine of the Atonement is beautiful. There is little need to look beyond the scriptures or the words of general authorities for elucidation. And we should definitely be skeptical of any parable which presumes to simplify the doctrine, or sell it short.

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