Metaphors of the Atonement

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Jeffrey Thayne

As Latter-day Saints, we know that every sin, every heartache, and all suffering can be redeemed through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. We also know that the Savior is the only way to find redemption from and through these things. There are a great many metaphors in circulation that explain why the atonement is crucial to salvation and redemption, and there is scriptural support for most of them. I believe, to an extent, what C. S. Lewis said about this subject:

The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter. … Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works. Christians would not all agree as to how important those theories are. … But I think they will all agree that the thing itself is infinitely more important than any explanations theologians have produced. I think they would probably admit that no explanation will ever be quite adequate to the reality. …

We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ’s death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to left alone if they do not help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself.1

The metaphor that is perhaps the most frequently used is, as Lewis states it, “the one about our being let off because Christ has volunteered to bear a punishment instead of us.”2 This popular and useful metaphor has at least one limitation, which Amulek explained to the Zoramites:

Now, if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother? I say unto you, Nay. But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered. (Alma 34:11–12)

As Amulek pointed out, the Nephite legal code, although it was just (morally right), did not allow for vicarious punishment; neither does our own legal system today. Most people would agree that it never should. As Lewis says, “If God was prepared to let us off, why on earth did He not do so? And what possible point could there be in punishing an innocent person instead?”3

Lewis then offers a valuable insight when he presents the metaphor of the debtor. This metaphor is intensely valuable because it does draw on fair and common practices in our legal system. We find nothing morally wrong when someone volunteers to pay a debt on another’s behalf.4

However, because no metaphor can provide a sufficient account of the Savior’s sacrifice, this metaphor is also incomplete. The Savior Himself recognized the genuine human capacity to forgive debts without recompense, as illustrated in His parable that depicts a king who, “moved with compassion,” forgave his servant a debt too large for his servant to pay (Matt. 18:27). Merciful forgiveness without recompense is commendable; in fact, in matters of offense, forgiveness is commanded of us, recompense or not. I relate with the words of Eugene England:

It is a very disquieting notion that God should be bound to an unfortunate situation and in a way that men clearly are not. In human experience, we continually are able as men to forgive each other without satisfaction and yet with redemptive effect.5

We find in the parable of the prodigal son another example of unqualified forgiveness. A man who had squandered his inheritance experienced a change of heart which brought him to return to his father’s house, and “when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). If this is, as I believe, partly a metaphor of our return to our heavenly home, this certainly does not square with the image of a Father who demands recompense prerequisite to forgiveness.

I would like to present the possibility that the Atonement is not necessary to allow God to forgive us, for he is already willing to do so; the atonement is necessary for the change of heart needed within us that allows us to return to God. Our separation from God is the result of sinful desires that estrange us from God. The atonement is necessary for our hearts to change enough to want to go home, to want to live the life that God lives. In the story of the prodigal, the Atonement was not needed for the father’s forgiving embrace; it was needed for the change of heart that led the son to the father’s embrace. Eugene England explains:

There is no reason to imagine God being unable to forgive. The question is what effect will the forgiveness have; the forgiveness is meaningless unless it leads to repentance. The forgiveness extended in the dramatic events of the Atonement is that kind of forgiveness uniquely capable of bringing ‘means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance.’5

The Lord declares his unabridged capacity to forgive to Joseph Smith: “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men” (D&C 64:10). What keeps us from returning to God is something within ourselves. Moroni illustrates this principle clearly:

Do ye suppose that ye shall dwell with him under a consciousness of your guilt? Do ye suppose that ye could be happy to dwell with that holy Being, when your souls are racked with a consciousness of guilt that ye have ever abused his laws?

Behold, I say unto you that ye would be more miserable to dwell with a holy and just God, under a consciousness of your filthiness before him, than ye would to dwell with the damned souls in hell. (Moro. 9:3–4)

England continues:

[The Atonement] is not necessary because of some eternal structure of justice in the universe outside man which demands payment from man for his sins, nor of some similar structure within the nature of God. The Atonement is absolutely necessary because of the nature of man himself, a nature that is self-existent, not the creation of God, and therefore uniquely impervious to metaphysical coercion. The problem is not that God’s justice must be satisfied (or the universe’s) but that man’s own sense of justice demands satisfaction. When it creates a barrier to repentance that barrier must be broken through, and it can not be broken by metaphysical tinkering with the nature of man; it can only be broken though by the powerful persuasion of a kind of love which transcends men’s sense of justice without denying it—the kind of love that Christ was uniquely able to manifest in the Atonement. …

We do not repent in order that God will forgive us and atone for our sins, but rather God atones for our sins and begins the process of forgiveness … in order that we might repent and thus bring to conclusion the process of forgiveness. And the center of the experience somehow is Christ’s ability to break through the barrier of justice, in those men who can somehow freely respond, with the shock of eternal love expressed in Gethsemane.5

Again, the exact process of the Atonement and how it works in our lives is something that often escapes explanation. However, I do not adhere to mystical philosophies that say that God’s truths and actions are inherently incomprehensible to the intellect; only that we do not have the experience needed to understand the process. Eugene England’s view, however, offers the possibility that it is the transformative effect the Atonement has in us that gives it its redemptive qualities; it changes our hearts and turns us in the direction of home, where we can experience the embrace of our Father in Heaven and the forgiveness that requires only our safe return home.

Continued in “Knee-Bending Rules.”


1. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 1952), p. .
2. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. .
3. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. .
4. See, for example, Boyd K. Packer, “The Mediator,” Ensign, May 1977, p. 54.
5. Eugene England, Dialogues with Myself (Midvale, UT: Signature, 1984), ch. 7.

One comment

  1. I’ve noticed that metaphors can conceal aspects of the thing they describe, even as they reveal other aspects. That’s why, for example, the Holy Ghost is represented by so many different things: wind, fire, a dove, a voice, oil, a scent, etc. Each symbol describes some things about the Holy Ghost, but none can fully describe Him by itself.

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