Violent Grammar of the Atonement


August 10, 2009 by J. Madson

DaliI will be presenting this Friday at the Sunstone Symposium at the Sheraton in Salt Lake. You can get a program here. Anyone is of course welcome to come.

My topic of presentation is on the atonement. Specifically I will be looking at the common understandings of the atonement and how when unpacked of religious language, they describe a deity who tries to redeem the world through violence. I will show how these false understandings allow us to justify our own violence in the world and may be part of the reason American Christians including mormons are so prone to justify wars, a draconian penal system, economic forms of violence, and other violent acts in our history.

Session Title:
Violent Grammar of the Atonement

There is a saying that “bad theology leads to bad morality.” Most explanations of the atonement lead to a belief in a deity who supports or uses violence to redeem the world. These theories not only justify violence but argue for a God whose nature is at odds with the God manifest in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Such theories not only obfuscate the nature of God but reduce Jesus to an empty vessel whose purpose seems more in line with a sacrificial animal than an actual individual with a vocation or work to perform. It disconnects Jesus’ life, where we encounter his actual words, deeds, and his vision of God’s kingdom, and instead gives us an icon. This in turn allows us to justify our own violent actions in the world.
I will look at a number of scriptural passages arguing for a new interpretation not based upon the myth of redemptive violence. I will also show historical examples of how atonement theology interplays with conflicts of war and other acts of violence.


9 thoughts on “Violent Grammar of the Atonement

  1. Forest Simmons says:

    I think you are on to something important here.

    It is common for members (even leaders) to say, “I don’t understand the atonement, but I am grateful for it.” This confession is often followed by a statement (in which they try to explain it) that proves beyond doubt their lack of understanding.

    The main problem is taking poetic metaphors of the atonement too literally, namely “by his stripes we are healed,” “an offering for sin,” “a ransom for sin,” etc. These metaphors are useful at an emotional level as long as we don’t let them hijack our understanding.

    The scape goat idea is implicit in all of these metaphors. The only metaphors I can think of that hold up beyond a superficial level are “sponsor” (as in sponsoring a refugee into the country) and “father.”

    At age five years my oldest son threw a rock and broke a window. He felt bad about it, but he couldn’t repair it or pay for it. I took him with me when I went to apologize to the owner and pay for the repair. My boy was so frightened that he hid behind me, but I thought it would be good for him to see what was involved so he could do the same for his own son someday.

    How much good would it have done to beat him or somebody else in order to make sure somebody was punished? How would that “satisfy the demands of Justice?”

    The purpose of the atonement is to repair damage, both physical and spiritual, and to teach the offending parties that someone is willing to help them progress beyond the stage of bull in a china shop.

    These repairs are not done by magic, but rather by “means.” Heaven has an economy of time and energy, and these resources, though immense, must be deployed wisely. If heaven squandered its resources like our government does, it would go bankrupt, too.

    Jesus is the leader of the atonement effort, but as we become more like him, our desire is to help him as much as we can in the effort. The buck stops with him, so he has a terrible responsibility. But it is a joyous work for all that are yoked together with him. I believe that it truly cheers him to know that most people in the spirit world (and even a few on this side of the veil) eventually do catch the spirit of the work and want to join in. Who could refuse his entreaties after feeling his loving concern?

    It seems to me that the work of the atonement is synonymous with the ongoing work of salvation as opposed to a single event in the meridian of time. The time in the Garden of Gethsemane that most people refer to as “the atonement” must have been a time of intense agonizing over a vision of the enormity of his responsibility (should he,in the face of his first hand experience, renew the commitment that he made prior to mortality ), while the suffering on the cross was a way of sealing his testimony and commitment with his blood, the way other prophets sealed their testimonies by their willingness to remain loyal at all hazards.

    It seems to me that Talmage, Bruce R. McConkie, and other prophets (ancient and modern) who could only explain the atonement by saying that Jesus had a physical body that could suffer more than a normal human because of an immortal biological father… I say that it seems to me that they have missed the point, and have even cheapened the real sacrifices that Jesus made at the end of his life (as well as throughout his life) by taking upon himself an ordinary mortal body (whether or not his biological father was immortal, which is none of our business).

    In chapter 2 of Second Nephi, Lehi’s philosophical lecture on the atonement from the point of view of “opposition in all things” shows how much he was in the thrall of Greek Philosophy already in 600 B.C. In the Greek manner he (and his more learned descendants) personified abstract qualities such as Good, Evil, Justice, Mercy, Wisdom, etc.

    As Nibley says, Lehi was probably an acquaintance of Solon of Athens.

    These were great prophets, but they had to express their understanding from within the philosophical paradigm that formed the framework of their thinking.

    The sacrifices of the Law of Moses that so easily fit within that paradigm were facilely transfered to the “Great and Last Sacrifice” that was prepared from the foundation of the world without breaking out of that paradigm.

    It seems to me that Jesus’ sacrifice of a broken heart and a contrite spirit was intended to put an end to childish scape goat style sacrifices, but instead has been mistaken as a sacrifice of the same kind.

    It also seems to me that our official missionary guide, “Preach My Gospel,” leaves a lot to be desired on this topic. It has as a definition:

    “Atonement: As used in the scriptures, to atone is to suffer the penalty for an act of sin, thereby removing the effects of sin from the repentant sinners and allowing them to be reconciled to God. Jesus Christ suffered in Gethsemane and on the cross. He was the only one capable of making a perfect Atonement for all mankind. He suffered the penalty for our sins in Gethsemane and died on the cross. He took upon Himself the pains, sicknesses, temptations, afflictions, and infirmities of us all (see Alma 7:11–12).” (page 58)

    Further explanations include ….

    “To fulfill the plan of salvation, Christ paid the penalty for our sins.” (p.51)

    “…the Father asked His Beloved Son to pay the price of
    the world’s sins… The Atonement included His suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane and His suffering and death on the cross, and it ended with His Resurrection… In paying the penalty for our sins… (page 52)

    The Savior satisfied the demands of justice … when He stood in our place and suffered the penalty for our sins. This act is called the Atonement…” (p.61)

    My quibble is the emphasis on paying a price or suffering a penalty to satisfy demands of an attribute of God (justice) if not the abstract quality itself.

    Furthermore, It is represented as an act that ended long ago, so the atonement is complete. Are we to think that all are already safely gathered in one? All the damage has already been repaired? The superfund pollution sites are already cleaned up? Judah has already ceased to vex Joseph? We are already all of one heart and one mind?

    At-one-ment is not just a folk derivation of “atonement.” It is is actual derivation of the word! And it is a better word than the second best choice, “reconciliation,” and better by a long shot than “expiation,” which carries the scape goat idea with it.

    Is everybody already reconciled to god? Perhaps in some tentative sense, given the assurance of Jesus’ absolute reliability in carrying out his ongoing commitment.

    I believe that the expansive view of at-one-ment which includes “all of one heart and mind,” is the view that is the most useful and productive way of defining “atonement.”

    “Once all things he meekly bore, but he now will bear no more” doesn’t quite capture the right idea for me.

  2. Grégoire says:

    This is going to be so interesting to read/listen to. I hope you can post a copy of the speech (or ‘talk’ as we used to call it in St. George) you give.

    I am curious about what you think about the Jesus character’s use of violence when he assaulted all the money changers and broke up their merchandise? The ‘sell your cloak and buy a sword’ scripture is interesting also. I’m not a theologist, and I have a feeling your exegesis will answer these questions for me, or at least provide food for thought.

    Peace, Grégoire

  3. J. Madson says:

    As to the “violence” in the temple with the money changers, its only the book of John that says he got a whip. The original text is better translated as he whipped the animals in my view and other scholars. The whole point was to shut down the temple. He was making a statement about the temple and what was occurring within its walls. I think I highlighted this during holy week (when this event occurred)

  4. J. Madson says:

    I also wrote a post a while back on the sword passage:

    I personally think its a real stretch to attribute violence to Jesus. His teachings and life are a profound demonstration of love unfeigned. He even approached his death on the cross non-violently. I believe the resurrection in early christianity meant more than we will live again. The Jews felt that resurrection was a sign of vindication (ie that God was on your side) The resurrection symbolized that jesus was right and the powers that opposed him were wrong. I believe that he was trying to reveal the nature of God (if you have seen me, you have seen the father). There were many rival ideas in his day about what God was like. The OT obviously was a text in travail meaning it had a God who used violence at times and who denounced sacrifice and violence at other times (See Isaiah, Jeremiah, and other prophets who stated that God never commanded them to sacrifice). Jesus made clear that God sided with the victims and that his truth did not need violence or coercion. The only way a non-violent deity could manifest himself in our world unfortunately was by letting himself be killed, not passively but in active open condemnation of all the evils in his society and the world at that time.

  5. J. Madson says:


    I agree that many of the metaphors taken literal lead to bad theology. The preach my gospel unfortunately preaches penal substitution which is just more scapegoat retributive justice nonsense which at its heart says God is so unforgiving that hes got to get some blood lust released in order to forgive. Im pretty sure that the author of the preach my gospel does not even know the various historical approaches to atonement: christus victor, ransom, satisfaction, penal substitution, moral example/persuasion etc.

    I believe like it seems you do that the at-one-ment has no beginning or end. The gospel is about relationships (individual and outward to community) for me. It seems that the entire purpose of the atonement is to bring unity, harmony, and oneness to relationships that are damaged and broken. This applies just as much towards deity as it does to my wife, my children, my neighbor, and eventually among nations and all of humanity. I see the atonement in Jesus life and death as a vivid example of how to heal relationships, how to become one with God (john 16) and with each other. It is a prescription for a sick world and it is not substitutionary but participatory. We are all invited to create oneness following his lead.

  6. Forest Simmons says:

    J. M.

    You read me right. We’re on the same wavelength. Ezekiel 37 is all about the at-one-ment: the head bone (re)connected to the neck bone, Judah and Ephraim reuniting, the “sticks” brought together, etc.

    Ezekiel 18, which treats the topic of sin and punishment, especially refuting the doctrine of children being punished for the sins of the parents, ends in this verse:
    “For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord God: wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye.” (see also chapter 33)

    Jesus told the Nephites (chapter 20 verse 26 of Third Nephi) “The Father having raised me up unto you first, and sent me to bless you in turning away every one of you from his iniquities…”

    The workof the atonement is to turn people away from their emotionally harmful iniquities (i.e. inequities) and towards the spiritually fulfilling oneness that Jesus prayed for in his “intercessory prayer,” that plainly set forth the objective of the atonement. In other words, “…that they may enjoy eternal life with us…”

    When he told the Nephites that henceforth their sacrifices must be of a broken heart and a contrite spirit, he had already modeled this to the max when (in Gethsemane) he said, “Thy will, not mine be done,” rather than shrink from the heavy responsibility of the work of salvation. In other words, the atoning sacrifice was the sacrifice of a broken heart and contrite spirit, not penal substitution.

  7. Grégoire says:

    I’m still interested in your presentation. I hope it went well and look forward to a recording or transcript if possible. Best!

  8. Forest Simmons says:

    I’ve had some more insight on this topic:

    Jesus said that he was the good shepherd, and that the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.

    Let’s examine this closely.

    Is Jesus saying that a good shepherd’s death will appease the wolf, and thereby save the sheep?

    Of course not. He is saying that the good shepherd will work to save his sheep even in the face of danger to his own life. He doesn’t back off of his work to save his own skin.

    He is not talking “penal substitution” here, but rather being faithful and loyal at all hazards while working for the well being of the sheep under his care, i.e. being faithful and loyal to the one who gave him charge over the sheep in the first place.

    There is no conflict of interest between Father and Son in this interpretation. They are not working at cross purposes.

    “I am your advocate with the Father” should really mean just that the father gave us a good shepherd to take care of us, and that the father trusts the judgment of the son. “All judgment has been given to the son.”

  9. J. Madson says:

    I think thats a fine reading of the scriptures. I think its not only plausible but much more likely than other readings

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