This Easter Sunday, we’re sharing a beautiful chapter from Terryl and Fiona Givens’ new book All Things New from Faith Matters Publishing. The chapter is titled “Atonement: From Penal Substitution to Radical Healing.”
It sketches out an understanding of Atonement that is more faithful to the original understanding. The Givens walk us through the history of poorly translated texts and the incursion of a medieval worldview that reflected the notion of a jealous, retributive God. They show how we’ve inherited from later Christianity a conception of Atonement that focuses on being “saved from depravity and damnation” rather than being “healed and empowered.”
Religious language matters, and by absorbing the language derived from inadequate Biblical translation, we can do ourselves a great disservice. By considering better Biblical translations, Restoration doctrine, and the details of Jesus’s life, the Givens point to an evolving understanding of Atonement that, in the words of theologian Delores Williams, can give “humankind new vision to see the resources for positive, abundant relational life.”
Happy Easter to each of you, and we really hope you enjoy this excerpt from All Things New.
All Things New
Atonement: From Penal Substitution to Radical Healing
Christian doctrines have come under such concerted attack in recent years as the doctrine of atonement, which Stephen Finlan refers to as an “embarrassment among Christians.” In his work on the subject, he notes the growing view that “a compassionate God is…incompatible with all atonement theories.”1Stephen Finlan, Problems with Atonement: The Origins of, and Controversy about, the Atonement Doctrine (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005), 84.Finlan is here citing Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, Jesus Against Christianity (Harrisburg: Trinity, 2001), 222–24. To the extent that those theories bear the traces of medieval and Reformation assumptions alike, we agree.We do not agree with Finlan’s conclusion but understand why he would feel driven to jettison the whole project: “Atonement is not an essential doctrine of Christianity.”2Finlan, Problems with Atonement, 104. How can we return to a healthier and truer conception?
Many ideas that Latter-day Saints hold about atonement are in fact products of that same Reformation era that left such widespread theological carnage. A review of the historical evolution of that most essential doctrine, the doctrine of the Atonement, requires a long digression but is necessary to understand the roots of our own ideas and language on the subject. And the following review may help us sort out how we can return to a conception generative of greater peace and hope.
In the earliest Christian writings on the subject, Eve and Adam (and by inheritance, all their posterity) fell into Satan’s power by sinning.They thereby became his captives in hell.In this “ransom theory,” God tricked Satan by offering Jesus as payment for humanity’s debt. In Gregory of Nyssa’s conception, Christ was “the bait” that enticed Satan to accept the deal; unaware of Christ’s divinity, the devil “swallowed [the hook], he was caught straightaway [and] the bars of hell were burst.”3Gregory of Nyssa (as recast by Rufinus of Aquileia), in Henry Bettenson, ed., Documents of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), 34. In the middle ages, Anselm revised the model from ransom theory to satisfaction theory in accordance with medieval notions of honor and feudal obligation.As he wrote, “To sin is to fail to render to God His due.What is due to God? Righteousness, or rectitude of will. He who fails to render this honor to God, robs God of that which belongs to Him and dishonors God….And what is satisfaction? …More than what was taken away must be rendered back.” Only Christ, as human, could share in the debt, and only Christ, as God, could restore God’s honor. Thus, only Christ as man-God could accomplish atonement. Christ died in our place to satisfy the debt of an offended honor.4Anselm, Cur deus homo? 1:xi–xiii, in Henry Bettenson, ed., Documents of the Christian Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947), 196–97.
With the Reformation, legalism replaces feudalism, and we see the development of penal substitution as the primary variant of satisfaction theory. God is the embodiment of justice, and as such, He demands a payment for violation of the law. Jesus is sacrificed in our place—this is the doctrine of penal substitution. In Calvin’s words, Jesus “by his sacrifice, appeased the divine anger; by his blood, washed away our stains; by his cross, bore our curse; and by his death, made satisfaction for us.”5John Calvin, “Reply to Sadoleto,” in John C.Olin, ed., A Reformation Debate (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002), 66. Or in Luther’s language, “For we are sinners and thieves, and therefore guilty of death and everlasting damnation.” In our place, “God hath laid our sins, not upon us, but upon his Son, Christ.”6Martin Luther, Commentary on the Galatians (Lafayette, IN: Sovereign Grace, 2001), 274. In Tyndale’s language, we need Christ to save us “from the vengeance of the law.” “His blood, his death, …appeased the wrath of God.”7David Daniell, William Tyndale: A Biography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 131.
Notice several implications of this model, which the Saints regrettably generally accept unquestioningly: Sin is offense against God and demands punishment; it is not a misstep or educative experience of the bitter. Justice is retribution for that offense; it is “vengeance,” rather than a principle of restoration that operates in accord with our evolving desires and yearnings. God is angry and wrathful toward us and our sins, but He is mollified by seeing Jesus suffer in our place. Jesus is our shield against God’s vengeance.In sum, the phrase “penal substitution” reveals the utter dependence of this atonement theory on a model of criminality and punishment.As René Gerard remarked, “God feels the need to revenge his honour, which has been tainted by the sins of humanity….Not only does God require a …victim, but he requires the victim who is most precious and dear to him, his very own son.” Gerard concludes with tragic truth: “No doubt this line of reasoning has done more than anything else to discredit Christianity in the eyes of the people of good will in the modern world.”8René Gerard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987), 182.
These ideas are indeed jarring to modern sensibilities; in fact, they are increasingly becoming an “embarrassment among Christians” and have prompted a range of new atonement theologies. J. Denny Weaver advocates an approach to atonement and Christology that “does not presume justice depends on punishment, that does not put God in the role of chief avenger.”9J.Denny Weaver, “Violence in Christian Theology,” Cross Currents 51, no.2 (Summer 2001): 150–76. In her critique of substitutionary atonement, Delores Williams writes that “it seems more intelligent and more scriptural to understand that redemption had to do with God, through Jesus, giving humankind new vision to see the resources for positive, abundant relational life.” In the gospel Jesus taught, she continues, “the kingdom of God is a metaphor of the hope God gives those attempting to right the relationship between self and self, between self and others, between self and God as prescribed in the sermon on the mount, in the golden rule and in the commandment to show love above all else.”10Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993), 166.Cited in J.Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 165. In a similar shift of emphasis, Rosemary Radford Ruether writes that Jesus’s principal purpose was not “to suffer and die.” Rather, “redemption happens through resistance to the sway of evil, and in the experiences of conversion and healing by which communities of well-being are created.”11Rosemary Radford Ruether, Introducing Redemption in Christian Feminism (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 104–105.Cited in Weaver, Nonviolent Atonement, 125.
Christ Makes All Things New
These ideas are consistent with the Latter-day Saint picture of a plan of happiness presented to and accepted by us in order that we could become joint-heirs with Christ.The focus of that proposal was the resurrection of Christ to bring life (resurrection) and the more abundant life (in present life and culminating in immortality and eternal life).The distinction we are suggesting between earlier atonement theologies and Restoration conceptions of Christ’s mission was made long ago by the theologian Abelard (of Héloïse and Abelard fame). He believed that Christ died on the cross “not to satisfy the demands of the Devil, but to awaken humanity to love.”12The paraphrase of Abelard is by Tom Holland, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (New York: Basic Books, 2019), 245. He protested: “Indeed, how cruel and perverse it seems that [God] should require the blood of the innocent as the price of anything, or that it should in any way please Him that an innocent person should be slain—still less that God should hold the death of His Son in such acceptance that by it He should be reconciled with the whole world.”13Quoted in Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 1989), 115–16. This same contrast emerged with the Reformation: resisting the developments of Protestant theology, “Erasmus based his spiritual vision on imitating the living Jesus; Luther, on faith in the crucified Christ.”14Michael Massing, Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind (New York: HarperCollins, 2018), 240.
One danger of the latter emphasis, the crucified Christ, has been noted by scholars such as Joan Brown and Rebecca Parker: an Anselmian Christianity too fixated on the suffering and death of Christ upon the cross runs the risk of providing “a divine model of submission to victimization which can have dangerous consequences for those who are in abusive and oppressive situations.” In their discussion of Anselm’s satisfaction theory, Brown and Parker say they fear a view of justice demanding that wrongs should not be righted “but that wrongs should be punished.” Such an image, they argue, has sustained a culture of abuse, and they believe that “until this image is shattered it will be almost impossible to create a just society.”15Joanne Carlos Brown and Rebecca Parker, “For God So Loved the World?” in Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: A Feminist Critique, ed.Joanne Carlson Brown and Carole R.Bohn (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1989), 7–9. “We need to say no,” Carter Heyward agrees, “to a tradition of violent punishment and to a God who would crucify …an innocent brother in our place—rather than hang with us, struggle with us, and grieve with us….Jesus’s mission was not to die but to live.”16Carter Heyward, Saving Jesus from Those Who Are Right: Rethinking What It Means to Be Christian (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 175, 138.In Weaver, Nonviolent Atonement, 152–53.
One prominent theologian suggested in personal correspondence that Christianity has a “big problem” with its historic use of “legal analogies with criminality” as a model for atonement theology, and she agrees that “healing” might be more apt as a key concept.17Frances Young, personal correspondence with Andrew Teal, November 5, 2019, in reference to our own recasting of sodzo as “healing” rather than “saving.” This concept of healing would mark not an innovation but a correction of Calvin’s lamentable analogy of mankind to “a poor criminal with a rope around his neck.”18John Calvin, Sermons on Genesis 1–11, trans. Rob Roy MacGregor (East Peoria, IL: Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), 260. It would return us to an early Christian emphasis on humanity as wounded and the Atonement as healing, as expressed by the fourth-century church father Gregory of Nazianzus: “What has not been assumed [taken upon Himself] has not been healed” (our emphasis).19Gregory of Nazianzus, Letter 101.32, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 7:440. Such an emphasis would also find greater harmony with Restoration teachings.
In the simplest restatement of the Original Plan conceived in premortal councils, Jesus summarized the purpose and end and final result of the entire cosmic project—to be whole, fully realized beings.“Be ye perfect” is a common translation, but we prefer that of the translator Kevin Wuest, which is closer to the reading of the Greek text: “Therefore, as for you, you shall be those who are complete in your character, even as your Father in heaven is complete in his being” (Matt.5:48). We note two distinctive surprises in Wuest’s rendering. First, he translates the verb as a simple, comforting future tense, not an intimidating command form: you will (in the future) be.20The verb is in fact a future indicative, though a future indicative can on occasion be rendered as an imperative.We agree with those (few) translators who prefer the simple future to the command.As one Greek scholar explained, “The passage contains plenty of imperatives (not jussive futures), where imperatives are wanted (e.g., at 5.44 ἀγαπᾶτε, προσεύχεσθε, ποιεῖτε) and plenty of future indicatives that are quite clearly to be understood as future indicatives and not as jussive. Note, too, that at 5.44 the present imperative ἀγαπᾶτε replaces the jussive future of the direct quote! Clearly Jesus himself prefers imperatives when he wants to issue a direct order.” Julie Laskaris, personal communication with author, November 4, 2019. Second, Wuest renders the Greek teleios as “complete.” Teleios, completeness, takes us even closer to that original scene in premortal realms, that commencement of each individual saga, when Heavenly Parents proposed giving us the “privilege to advance like [Themselves] and be exalted with [Them].”21Stan Larson, “The King Follett Discourse: A Newly Amalgamated Text,” BYU Studies 18, no.2 (Winter 1978): 204. A telos is an envisioned end, finality, or completion of an intention or process. Teleios therefore signifies the fruition of a seed that has successfully come into bloom. One could see Christ’s words, on this occasion, as reassurance: Follow the precepts I have just laid down, and all will be well. You will find yourself a fully realized child of God. Or as Kevin Wuest renders the term teleios, “All is accomplished, their probation, their righteousness, God’s purposes respecting them.” One has “grow[n] into maturity of godliness.”22Kenneth S.Wuest, Wuest’s Word Studies from the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1973), Treasures section, 3:120, 117.
As we saw in Wiman’s phrasing, we are “not corrupt, …but unfinished.”23Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), 103. Elsewhere, Wuest writes that in the New Testament, “salvation …is growth in Christ-likeness.”24Wuest, Word Studies, Golden Nuggets section, 3:70. To be whole, complete, and perfect in character and body alike, all this is implied in the Greek term employed in the Sermon on the Mount.In the Original Story, we are gods in embryo, and healing from life’s wounds restores us to that path of growth.Salvation is growth, process, unfolding of a potential.
We can actually witness the tension between these two versions of Christ’s atoning work—saving from sin versus healing from woundedness—in a textual contrast between two of the most important Bible translations in Christian history and the different ways they translate the Greek term sodzo (“heal” or “save”). Few biblical texts should be more central to our understanding of the Christian message as Jesus taught it than a record of one of the first public sermons delivered by the Apostle Peter. Second in sequence only to his Pentecostal testimony, this two-part address occurs before a Jewish crowd and then before a Jewish council. In the third chapter of Acts, in the King James Version, Peter heals “a certain man lame from his mother’s womb” (Acts 3:2). An audience gathers, and after enacting the central principle of Jesus’s ministry—healing—Peter uses the occasion, and his healed, restored teaching aid, to emphasize that central principle.
The first translation into English of these passages is by John Wycliffe, in the fourteenth century. Working before the Reformation, he rendered the critical verses into English as follows: “This [sick] man is made saaf;” “In the name of Jhesu Crist …this man stondith hool bifor you;” There is no other name “in which it bihoveth us to be maad saaf ” (Acts 4:9, 10, 12, our emphasis).The Middle English word saaf, like a principal meaning of the original Greek term sodzo, means “healed,” “made whole.”25Walter W.Skeat, Concise Dictionary of Middle English From A.D. 1150 to 1580 (self-pub., 2020), s.v.“saaf.” In sum, Jesus Christ is the name and power whereby we can all be made whole, healed, sound, and complete. As was the design from the beginning—explained after Eve’s fateful ascent, reaffirmed by Jesus on the Mount, and prophesied by the angel to Nephi—we would not be left “wounded” but would be restored to the path of divine ascent by Him who comes “with healing in his wings” (Mal.4:2).The Healer and the Restorer to At-one-ment—the one who brings us into the fullest possible unity with each other and with the Heavenly Family—are the same. Even Augustine at one time saw our predicament in these terms; “through grace,” he wrote, “the soul is healed from the wound of sin.”26Augustine, Spir. et litt.30.52.Cited in Stuart Squires, Pelagian Controversy: An Introduction to the Enemies of Grace and the Conspiracy of Lost Souls (Eugene OR: Pickwick, 2019), 208.
A representative distortion from this blueprint is plain to see, dated to a text and time in history. When William Tyndale (upon whose work the King James Bible is based) translates this story of the healing of the paralytic, he forges in immutable form a narrative that is a stark departure from the original. He begins in Wycliffe’s steps. This “impotent man …is made whole,” he translates. “By the name of Jesus Christ …doth his man stand here before you whole,” he continues. Then the fatal pivot on which the whole contemporary Christian message is built: “Neither is there salvation in any other; for there is none other name under heaven given whereby we must be saved.” The story of healing a particular man, as a type of the healing of which we all stand in need, is shifted to a story about salvation from damnation. One Protestant commentator has conceded that “‘salvation’ means to rescue or protect, although it also has the association of healing or restoring to health” (our emphasis).27 Robert Sherman, King, Priest, Prophet: A Trinitarian Theology of Atonement (London: T&T Clark, 2004), 15. Our point is that in this story, context and language alike could not be clearer. Christ’s incomparable gift is his power and desire to heal us all as individuals, regardless of the nature of our wounds.This is at-one-ment. Tragically, catastrophically, the preoccupation of Tyndale and his fellow Reformers with sin rather than woundedness, and with salvation from hell rather than healing from the “infirmities” and “the pains of all” triumphs (Alma 7:12; 2 Ne.9:2).
Tyndale’s biographer notes that by the time Tyndale translated the New Testament he had studied and “been deeply stirred” by Luther’s exposition of original sin and depravity and that much of Tyndale’s New Testament work is essentially an “expansion” of Luther.28David Daniell, William Tyndale: A Biography (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994), 30, 161. Damnation is our default condition, that Reformer had taught. Tyndale accepted this premise that “by nature men are convicted to eternal damnation” and that we can be rescued only by Christ’s imputed righteousness.29Daniell, Tyndale, 124. Tyndale’s views, reflected in his translation, “smell strongly of Luther: the vivid image of the man bound to a post by a hundred thousand chains.”30Daniell, Tyndale, 132. No wonder that, unlike Wycliffe, Tyndale was perfectly comfortable preferring saving to healing in Peter’s sermon, even though nothing in the events or words of that story justifies such a reading.
We see the shift in emphasis—healing from woundedness to salvation from hell—in other passages of the King James Version, some more egregious than others.For example, one finds in Mark, Matthew, and Luke—in five healing accounts—the identical Greek phrase, repeated five times: he pistis sou sesoken se (ἡ πίστις σου σέσωκέν σε).The phrase is translated in the King James Version, respectively: “thy faith hath made thee whole” (Matt.9:22), “thy faith hath made thee whole” (Mark 5:34), “thy faith hath made thee whole” (Mark 10:52); however, in Luke we find “thy faith hath saved thee” (Luke 18:42) and again “thy faith hath saved thee” (Luke 7:50).Why did the translators change Wycliffe’s “healed” (saaf) to “saved” in these last two instances? The grammar and vocabulary are identical in the five cases.And as such parallelism implies, the situations are parallel.In Matthew 9 and Mark 5, Jesus “heals,” He “makes whole,” the woman with the issue of blood. In Mark 10 and Luke 18, He gives a blind man his sight. And yet, incongruously, in Luke’s case Tyndale translates the act of healing as an act of “saving.” His choice is a good example of a general inclination to associate Christ’s ministry with saving rather than healing—even though healing is the central activity of his ministry in the New Testament and the Book of Mormon alike.31See in the latter instance, 1 Nephi 11:28.
The story in Luke 7 of the woman “who loved much” should be particularly instructive to us. We find her anointing the feet of the Christ from an alabaster box of ointment.Her affliction? She is, Luke tells us, “a sinner.” And yet, Jesus speaks to her the identical words he spoke to the blind and to the ailing woman in the stories of Matthew and Mark: ἡ πίστις σου σέσωκέν σε.“Thy faith hath healed thee. Thy trust in me has made you whole” is the only reasonable rendering. The clear contextual implication is that Christ does not see before him a sinner; he sees a woman wounded by her past. Julian of Norwich understood the import of such a moment: Christ “wills that we readily incline to his gracious touching, more enjoying his complete love than sorrowing in our own failings.” And as “sin is unclean and hurtful, …he shall heal us full fair.”32Denise N. Baker, ed., The Showings of Julian of Norwich 16.81 and 14.63 and (New York: Norton, 2005), pp.121, 98.We have modernized the spelling and at times modified the translation. The Son of God is the healer of our wounds.
Why, in this case as in the scene in Acts, would the King James translators (starting with Tyndale) employ the word saved rather than the healed of Wycliffe?33Wycliffe’s word is saaf, “healed” or “made whole.” The deviation from the expected word (healed) is exactly like the unwarranted change we saw in the book of Acts. There a paralytic is healed; he is healed by the power of Christ, and so, preaches Peter, must you all be—saved? Or in Luke 18, the blind man given his sight is “saved”? There seems to be a clear disposition on the part of the translators—and remember, these are Reformation translators breaking with the language of the fourteenth-century Wycliffe—to immediately go to sin as the default human condition in need of saving, rather than go to woundedness as the universal human condition in need of healing. This tendency is not speculation on our part: William Tyndale explicitly defends his use of the sin/salvation over wounded/healed paradigm, and it is thoroughly Lutheran in its rationale: the woman who anoints Christ “saw herself clearly in the law, both in what danger she was in, and her cruel bondage under sin, her horrible damnation and also the fearful sentence and judgment of God upon sinners.”34Daniell, Tyndale, 165. Tyndale could see only saving, not healing, at stake.
Our point is not that we are not sinners, or that we do not need, in some sense, salvation. Our point is that Christ’s language and ministry clearly indicate that from His perspective, as the story of the “woman who loved much” clearly tells us, sinning is a type of woundedness, like blindness or illness or lameness; it is an infirmity, a brokenness. As Healer, He ministers to the entire range of our afflictions: psychological, emotional, physical, and spiritual. The story of the “sinful” woman in particular has incredible potential to shift the emphasis in our relationship to Christ, from that of sinner and Savior to one of wounded and Healer. Restoration scripture makes it clear that the maladies we suffer span the spectrum and that Christ’s act of atoning was intended to heal across the wide range—“the pains of every living creature.” Or, as Elder David Bednar teaches, the Atonement addresses “not just …our sins and iniquities—but also …our physical pains and anguish, our weaknesses and shortcomings, our fear and frustrations, our disappointments and discouragement, our regrets and remorse, our despair and desperation, the injustices and inequities we experience, and the emotional distresses that beset us.”35Elder David A.Bednar, “Bear Up Their Burdens with Ease” Ensign 44, no.5 (May 2014): 89–90.
The damage wrought—to ourselves and to others—by what we call sin needs healing just as much as other forms of spiritual and emotional harm do. The most fruitful way of considering sin may not be to see it as an evil that leads to a hell from which we must be saved but rather as a wound that needs to be healed. Both the context and the identical grammar require one and only one rendering of Christ’s words to the weeping woman, and they are instructive: “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Enter into a state of peace.”
In recent decades biblical scholarship has begun to move an understanding of atonement in this same direction. Conventional interpreters of atonement’s roots have seen the word as indicating “to cover.” Mary Douglas, however, notes that while the Hebrew root k-p-r can mean “to cover or recover,” it has a more complex meaning: “to repair a hole, cure a sickness, mend a rift, make good a torn or broken covering….Atonement does not mean covering a sin so as to hide it from the sight of God; it means making good an outer layer which has rotted or been pierced” (our emphases).36Mary Douglas, “Atonement in Leviticus,” Jewish Studies Quarterly, no.1 (1993–94): 117–18. In other words, atonement means “to heal.” Margaret Barker agrees that the Hebrew k-p-r, translated as “atone,” “has to mean restore, re-create, or heal” and argues that for the Hebrews, atonement was “the rite of healing.”37Margaret Barker, “Atonement: The Rite of Healing” (paper presented to the Society for Old Testament Study in Edinburgh, July 1994); published in Scottish Journal of Theology 49, no.1 (February 1996): 1–20.The Douglas citation in note 34 above is quoted by Barker.
This reading of the meaning of atonement is twice affirmed in the Book of Mormon. Nephi foresees the day that “the Son of Righteousness shall appear unto them [that …look forward unto Christ with steadfastness]; and he shall heal them” (2 Ne. 26:9).The fulfillment of his prophecy comes in 3 Nephi. There, the Son of God does indeed appear to the Nephite people, and He pleads with those who anticipated His coming in language that clearly evokes the scene of the woman who washed Jesus’s feet with her tears: “Will ye not return unto me, and repent of your sins, and be converted, that I may heal you?” (3 Ne. 9:13; our emphasis). In this magnificent scene we witness the purpose and culmination of Christ’s great designs for us. The resurrected Christ here links the final stages of His mission with our return through conversion and healing. The familiar formula—“repent and be saved”—is expanded and enriched to a vastly more encompassing project. The lame, the blind, and the infirm, the guilt-ridden and sin-laden, the spiritually hungry and emotionally wounded, the wandering soul and lonely pilgrim—all are swept up in the embrace of His desire—and capacity—to heal. “Have you any that are sick among you? Bring them hither. Have ye any that are …afflicted in any manner? Bring them hither and I will heal them, for I have compassion upon you; my bowels are filled with mercy” (3 Nephi 17:7; our emphasis).
Christ here echoes the voice of the prodigal son’s father—and His own—“a father who asks no questions, wanting only to welcome his children home.”38Henri J.M.Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 23. Eugene England believed the realization of such an unprompted love, such a disposition to “set aside” our offense, was precisely the “shock of eternal love” necessary to prompt our healing—and our forgiving of and reconciliation with others.39 Eugene England, “That They Might Not Suffer: The Gift of Atonement,” Dialogue 1, no.3 (Autumn 1966): 141–55. Christ, in His mercy, already “hath atoned for [our] sins” (D&C 29:1).Christ, setting our sins aside, loving us perfectly and understandingly in whatever condition He finds us, empowers us to do likewise and complete the cycle of at-one-ing, of perfect healing.
Heaven, as Joseph taught, is not a matter of reward or position or place but a particular kind of sociability. We saw previously that heaven is the absolute harmony of human relationships. Among Latter-day Saint distinctives, this concept looms large. Some writers have contrasted our emphasis on a sociable heaven with Christianity’s “theocentric”—God-centered—preoccupation. Theologian Kenneth Kirk, for example, believed that the final purpose and “end of life is the vision of God.”40Kenneth Kirk, The Vision of God: The Christian Doctrine of the Summum Bonum (New York: Harper, 1932), ix. God is the fixed star around which the saved will gather in an eternal beatific vision, to which all the mystics aspired.With that image in mind, many Christians were anxious lest any human attachment threaten to displace God as the center of the galaxy of our love.
In C.S. Lewis’s account of his wife’s death and the spiritual illumination it brought him at great cost, he concludes with a cryptic sentence about her last words: “She said not to me but to the chaplain, ‘I am at peace with God.’ She smiled, but not at me. Poi si torno all’ eterna fontana.”41C.S.Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 75. The Italian is a quotation from Dante, at the moment when his beloved Beatrice guides him to the summit of Paradise and into the Eternal Presence: “Then she turned back to the eternal fountain.”42Dante, Paradiso 31.93, trans.John Ciardi (New York: New American Library, 1970), 341. Beatrice was Dante’s earthly love, who led him to a greater. In the Divine Presence, both forget each other in the light of the True Source. In Lewis’s case, his words betoken reorientation, recognition, and loss. She said, but not to me. She smiled, but not at me. In other words, he is crushed by a paradigm he believes he needs to embrace: Though my preoccupation is with the wife I am losing, her love for me disappears in the greater radiance of love for God.
The fear of loving family or beloved more than God has long pervaded Christian culture.The Restoration reexamines this longstanding tradition. Jesus named love of God first in the hierarchy of heavenly commands, with love of others second (Matt. 22:38–39). Yet, when Enoch asks a weeping God the Father (“Man of Holiness”) the cause of His tears, His answer has three astonishing dimensions.The first appears when God prefaces His response by reciting the two great commandments but which He here pronounces in reverse order: “Unto thy brethren have I said, and also given commandment, that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father.” The second paradigm disruption is that though God’s children have clearly broken both commands, God’s grief is over their violation of the second. He is not weeping because they have failed to worship, honor, or obey Him; “Behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood.” Third, His tears flow, indeed, “the whole heavens shall weep over them …seeing these shall suffer.” Human suffering, not human sin, is the focus of his grief. Three times the account affirms, and Enoch marvels, that God’s weeping is over human “misery.”
These verses are the clearest prism through which to see our Divine Parents’ true nature and greatest concern. It is not for Themselves, for Their glory, or for Their priority in our hearts that They labor.Their greatest longing made manifest in those verses accords with the deepest desire we know as parents—or one day shall: that our children live in love and harmony with one another.That we would be jealous of our children’s love for each other is simply perverse. Love in a community of perfect sociability is not competitive—it is mutually reinforcing. How could we have missed that lesson? To serve each other is to serve God. Ministering to each other is to honor and worship Them, as Benjamin taught. To succor the thirsty or to feed the hungry is to succor Christ, to feed Christ. We may make distinctions, but God does not. We cannot contribute to the heavenly community, the Zion of perfect sociability, if our relationships with each other are fractured. Another way of saying this is that our love for one another does not compete with our love for God—as C.S.Lewis and countless poets have suggested; our love for one another registers with God as love for Them; it is the most concrete manifestation of our love for God and the form of worship They most desire.
If this idea is true—as we believe Enoch attests—then the work of atonement would be intended to bring about the healing and unifying of the entire human family. In this project, we are invited to be coparticipants with the Godhead. Indeed, atonement cannot be accomplished without our collaboration. The most emphatic invitation to collaborate comes at that moment when we participate in the ordinance of adoption into the Heavenly Family—otherwise known as baptism. At this most appropriate moment of covenant making, we commit to join in the enterprise of Zion-building, to erect, edify, and constitute a community of love—of at-one-ment. Mosiah’s language beautifully reminds us that we have been called to work collaboratively with the Godhead in Their healing enterprise.
At one time, converts to the restored faith vocally affirmed the baptismal covenants at water’s edge. At the present, the covenants outlined in Mosiah 18:8–10 are implicit.We covenant to “bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light.” That language evokes the role of God the Christ, who bore our burdens throughout His life, into Gethsemane and onto Golgotha. We pledge to “mourn with those that mourn.” These words call to mind that same God the Father who revealed to Enoch that He wept tears of grief, in solidarity with those who suffered misery and fratricidal hate. We can be assured, as Chieko Okazaki has written, that both our Heavenly Parents “have suffered with us …in our own suffering.”43Chieko N.Okazaki, Sanctuary (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1997), 149. And we covenant to “comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” That phrasing could hardly direct us more explicitly to the role of God the Holy Spirit, our Comforter in all our afflictions.Though we (sadly) no longer verbally pronounce the words of a baptismal covenant, remembering this sacred trilogy of obligation to mourn, to share burdens, and to comfort can make the at-one-ing of God’s family a daily act of worship in which we participate with the Divine Family.
We believe one final shift is called for in our thinking about atonement. Oh, that we still pronounced atonement as it would have been heard in William Tyndale’s pronunciation: at-one-ment! We would then learn two of its aspects we may have forgotten. First, that the purpose of Christ’s work of healing was intended to restore unity to the human family and reunite us with God—at “oneness.” All things tend toward the “great one-ing between Christ and us,” Julian of Norwich wrote.44Baker, Showings of Julian of Norwich, 8.18, p.30. And second, Wycliffe’s earlier rendering of atonement as “reconciliation” would call to mind a process that requires active effort by both parties. The Atonement is not something Christ performed. It is not adequately encompassed in a picture of a suffering Jesus in Gethsemane or the Christ nailed to the cross. Important as those events are, they no more capture the aspiration and reality of atonement than a wedding proposal captures the totality of a joyful and harmonious companionate marriage. The central, two-fold process of atonement is captured in the Healer’s own words, “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8).The most fitting image of atonement is that given us in the book of Moses: “And the Lord said unto Enoch: Then shalt thou and all thy city meet them there, and we will receive them into our bosom, and they shall see us; and we will fall upon their necks, and they shall fall upon our necks, and we will kiss each other; And there shall be mine abode, and it shall be Zion” (Moses 7:63–64).
This passage is stunningly new, unexpected, and unlike the depictions over the centuries of losing ourselves in the beatific vision.Contrary to the fears of C.S. Lewis, we find here no diminution of earthly bonds, eclipsed in a superior Divine Presence.Here is totality, wholeness, reunion, healing, and unity.“They [the heavenly community] shall see us!” God and Christ, the living and the departed, divine and human, all merge into one celebratory community of the holy.That is the picture of atonement, reconciliation, “oneing,” brought to its perfect fulfillment.
This picture may be too distant, too abstract for those of us in immediate pain, however. We might ask, How does Christ’s atoning endeavor actually heal me, repair me and my relationships, make me one with myself and with Him, in the here and now? It would be marvelous if Alma’s experience were the pattern for us all: angelic visitation; acute sense of woundedness and need; despair crescendoing in the desperate plea, “O Jesus …have mercy on me”; followed by immediate “joy” and “marvelous light” (Alma 36:18–20).More commonly, healing begins gradually when we first open ourselves to the possibility that we are already in the embrace of a love greater than any we have known.Even those who doubt can begin by considering the remarkable, yet historical, fact of a young, itinerant Galilean rabbi who two thousand years ago offered himself up to barbaric execution as a criminal. He endured unspeakable pain, because by so doing He was offering me, personally, respite from the pains and humiliations and failures and wounds of my life, whether inflicted by others or by my own foolish choices.As the Book of Mormon testified would happen, we have found ourselves “drawn” to this person of unfathomable kindness and compassion (3 Ne. 27:14).
We need to provide a way for Christ to affirm that He knows us by name, that He has in reality set His heart upon us. That may take the form of pondering those words that most resonate with our heartstrings: Jesus’s expression of love for His disciples (“Little children, yet a little while I am with you …I go to prepare a place for you”), the testimony of John (“God sent his son into the world not to condemn us, but to heal us”), Dostoevsky’s witness of Christ that emerged through his own “great crucible of doubt” (“Believe that nothing is more beautiful, profound, sympathetic, reasonable, …and more powerful than Christ”), or the lyrics to Dustin Kensrue’s “Please Come Home” (“Please come home, please come home / Don’t you know that I still love you? / And I don’t care where you’ve been”).45John 13:33, 14:2; John 3:17, our translation; Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850–1859 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 160; Dustin Kensrue, “Please Come Home,” Please Come Home (Equal Vision, 2007). We must find a medium through which God can speak to us. We need to find our own Urim and Thummim.
In some cases, the healing will come slowly or incompletely. However, in such cases, our own experience of unmet need is a witness to the fact that Christ’s work of redemptive healing relies upon us as collaborators in His ministry of at-one-ing. “God will wipe away all tears from off all faces” (Isa. 25:8).The promise is given, but the timetable is not. The urgent responsibility to minister to the wounded is upon us all. Our baptismal covenants are the operative way by which Christ’s atoning ministry becomes universal.
|↑1||Stephen Finlan, Problems with Atonement: The Origins of, and Controversy about, the Atonement Doctrine (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005), 84.Finlan is here citing Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, Jesus Against Christianity (Harrisburg: Trinity, 2001), 222–24.|
|↑2||Finlan, Problems with Atonement, 104.|
|↑3||Gregory of Nyssa (as recast by Rufinus of Aquileia), in Henry Bettenson, ed., Documents of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), 34.|
|↑4||Anselm, Cur deus homo? 1:xi–xiii, in Henry Bettenson, ed., Documents of the Christian Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947), 196–97.|
|↑5||John Calvin, “Reply to Sadoleto,” in John C.Olin, ed., A Reformation Debate (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002), 66.|
|↑6||Martin Luther, Commentary on the Galatians (Lafayette, IN: Sovereign Grace, 2001), 274.|
|↑7||David Daniell, William Tyndale: A Biography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 131.|
|↑8||René Gerard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987), 182.|
|↑9||J.Denny Weaver, “Violence in Christian Theology,” Cross Currents 51, no.2 (Summer 2001): 150–76.|
|↑10||Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993), 166.Cited in J.Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 165.|
|↑11||Rosemary Radford Ruether, Introducing Redemption in Christian Feminism (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 104–105.Cited in Weaver, Nonviolent Atonement, 125.|
|↑12||The paraphrase of Abelard is by Tom Holland, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (New York: Basic Books, 2019), 245.|
|↑13||Quoted in Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 1989), 115–16.|
|↑14||Michael Massing, Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind (New York: HarperCollins, 2018), 240.|
|↑15||Joanne Carlos Brown and Rebecca Parker, “For God So Loved the World?” in Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: A Feminist Critique, ed.Joanne Carlson Brown and Carole R.Bohn (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1989), 7–9.|
|↑16||Carter Heyward, Saving Jesus from Those Who Are Right: Rethinking What It Means to Be Christian (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 175, 138.In Weaver, Nonviolent Atonement, 152–53.|
|↑17||Frances Young, personal correspondence with Andrew Teal, November 5, 2019, in reference to our own recasting of sodzo as “healing” rather than “saving.”|
|↑18||John Calvin, Sermons on Genesis 1–11, trans. Rob Roy MacGregor (East Peoria, IL: Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), 260.|
|↑19||Gregory of Nazianzus, Letter 101.32, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 7:440.|
|↑20||The verb is in fact a future indicative, though a future indicative can on occasion be rendered as an imperative.We agree with those (few) translators who prefer the simple future to the command.As one Greek scholar explained, “The passage contains plenty of imperatives (not jussive futures), where imperatives are wanted (e.g., at 5.44 ἀγαπᾶτε, προσεύχεσθε, ποιεῖτε) and plenty of future indicatives that are quite clearly to be understood as future indicatives and not as jussive. Note, too, that at 5.44 the present imperative ἀγαπᾶτε replaces the jussive future of the direct quote! Clearly Jesus himself prefers imperatives when he wants to issue a direct order.” Julie Laskaris, personal communication with author, November 4, 2019.|
|↑21||Stan Larson, “The King Follett Discourse: A Newly Amalgamated Text,” BYU Studies 18, no.2 (Winter 1978): 204.|
|↑22||Kenneth S.Wuest, Wuest’s Word Studies from the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1973), Treasures section, 3:120, 117.|
|↑23||Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), 103.|
|↑24||Wuest, Word Studies, Golden Nuggets section, 3:70.|
|↑25||Walter W.Skeat, Concise Dictionary of Middle English From A.D. 1150 to 1580 (self-pub., 2020), s.v.“saaf.”|
|↑26||Augustine, Spir. et litt.30.52.Cited in Stuart Squires, Pelagian Controversy: An Introduction to the Enemies of Grace and the Conspiracy of Lost Souls (Eugene OR: Pickwick, 2019), 208.|
|↑27||Robert Sherman, King, Priest, Prophet: A Trinitarian Theology of Atonement (London: T&T Clark, 2004), 15.|
|↑28||David Daniell, William Tyndale: A Biography (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994), 30, 161.|
|↑29||Daniell, Tyndale, 124.|
|↑30||Daniell, Tyndale, 132.|
|↑31||See in the latter instance, 1 Nephi 11:28.|
|↑32||Denise N. Baker, ed., The Showings of Julian of Norwich 16.81 and 14.63 and (New York: Norton, 2005), pp.121, 98.We have modernized the spelling and at times modified the translation.|
|↑33||Wycliffe’s word is saaf, “healed” or “made whole.”|
|↑34||Daniell, Tyndale, 165.|
|↑35||Elder David A.Bednar, “Bear Up Their Burdens with Ease” Ensign 44, no.5 (May 2014): 89–90.|
|↑36||Mary Douglas, “Atonement in Leviticus,” Jewish Studies Quarterly, no.1 (1993–94): 117–18.|
|↑37||Margaret Barker, “Atonement: The Rite of Healing” (paper presented to the Society for Old Testament Study in Edinburgh, July 1994); published in Scottish Journal of Theology 49, no.1 (February 1996): 1–20.The Douglas citation in note 34 above is quoted by Barker.|
|↑38||Henri J.M.Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 23.|
|↑39||Eugene England, “That They Might Not Suffer: The Gift of Atonement,” Dialogue 1, no.3 (Autumn 1966): 141–55.|
|↑40||Kenneth Kirk, The Vision of God: The Christian Doctrine of the Summum Bonum (New York: Harper, 1932), ix.|
|↑41||C.S.Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 75.|
|↑42||Dante, Paradiso 31.93, trans.John Ciardi (New York: New American Library, 1970), 341.|
|↑43||Chieko N.Okazaki, Sanctuary (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1997), 149.|
|↑44||Baker, Showings of Julian of Norwich, 8.18, p.30.|
|↑45||John 13:33, 14:2; John 3:17, our translation; Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850–1859 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 160; Dustin Kensrue, “Please Come Home,” Please Come Home (Equal Vision, 2007).|