Roundtable: How Does the Atonement “Work”?

The following excerpt from the Mormon Matters podcast episode, “The Atonement in Mormon Thought and Experience” (Episode 54), focuses on a presentation and discussion of the four main theories in Christian thought about how Christ’s Atonement “works.” What are the mechanisms by which humans are rescued from the consequences of sin? And is a Savior really even necessary? The full episode, originally released on 4 October 2011, is available for free download at

The full discussion (about two hours in length), covers a wide range of topics related to the Atonement, including the aspects most often emphasized in LDS discourse, such as the concept from 2 Nephi 25 that we are “saved by grace after all we can do,” what it means for Jesus to be our “advocate” with the Father, and the strong and somewhat unique Mormon focus on Gethsemane as the primary time the Atonement took place. The full discussion also contains an overview of ideas found in the New Testament and among early Christians, and a participationist-empathy model presented by Jared Anderson.

The excerpt below is printed with the permission of all participants.


Image: Kelly Brooks and G. English Brooks

Dan Wotherspoon: Our goal in this conversation is to celebrate the grace of Jesus Christ as experienced by so many people, while still asking some questions about how the Atonement might actually work. Why would sin require an innocent person’s suffering? Can moral obligations be transferred from one person to another? If every sin must be punished, is there such a thing as true “forgiveness”? Though these questions lurk in the background when Mormons discuss the Atonement, they are rarely asked.

So as we deconstruct, we don’t want to lose sight of the miracle of people’s experience with the Atonement. We always want to celebrate that experience, even if the theories of the Atonement can be problematic.

Tresa Edmunds: Let me say at the outset that I am a great big Jesus lover. My whole testimony is based on Jesus Christ, so I’m looking forward to sharing my experiences and learning more about the philosophy behind it from all of you.

Brian Johnston: The experience of the Atonement really is all-important. If some explanations and theories of the Atonement start to fall apart as we deconstruct them, that doesn’t negate anyone’s experience. The sense of redemption—the sense of becoming close to the divine—is the solid, real thing.


Ransom Theory

Dan: There are four major theories about the mechanisms through which the Atonement “works.” I’ll get things rolling with the “ransom theory,” which most likely got its start from scriptures in which Jesus says he has “ransomed” us. The question that naturally comes up is, “If there’s a ransom, who is the ransomer?” One answer is the Devil. As soon as we sin, we become servants of the Devil.

Jared Anderson: Slaves. Slaves.

Dan: Right. That’s better. Somehow, because of our sin, the Devil has a claim upon our souls, like what a master would have on his or her slave.

Jared: The Devil owns our souls. That’s the general view.

Dan: But because Jesus never sinned, the Devil doesn’t have a claim on Jesus’s soul—and the Devil’s a bit ticked about that. Jesus saves us by promising his soul to the Devil in exchange for all the souls the Devil has claim on. The Devil agrees, but then to his surprise and consternation, finds out that he can’t hold onto Jesus’s soul. This theory kind of implies that Jesus played a trick on the Devil.

As a side note, this is the basic Atonement model we encounter in C.S. Lewis’s first Chronicles of Narnia volume, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Brian: I seem to remember that it was also part of the bargain that the Devil got to be the one who kills Jesus. But since Jesus is God, he can’t die permanently. So that was part of the trick.

Dan: In my mind, the ransom theory is the least employed in Mormonism. It shows up in some places, such as in Second Nephi 9 which talks about the Atonement saving us from being consigned to Satan’s grasp and servitude. We also have it in a few hymns. For example, Elder McConkie’s “I Believe in Christ” has ransom language in it, and the hymn “Reverently and Meekly Now” has the lines, “With my body on the tree, I have ransomed even thee. O remember what was done, that the sinner might be won.”

So whenever I hear the word “ransom” in reference to the Atonement, I understand that it has a place in Mormon discourse, but it’s still hard for me to take the ransom model seriously as the mechanism by which the Atonement was accomplished—that Jesus played a trick on the Devil.

Brian: I agree. That model seems to make light of the Atonement. It also seems too simple. But most of all, it doesn’t really involve us as individuals. In ransom theory, humanity is kind of a side note—we’re chips on a poker table between God and the Devil.

Jared: Well, to me, the original language of the ransom theory is more based in victory than trickery. The idea is that Jesus begins with an economic proposition and ends with a military proposition. Jesus made a bargain, but by the end, he had conquered the Devil. And I actually think the ransom theory—that we are in the power of Satan—is more popular in Mormonism than Dan gives it credit for.

Dan: I hear what you’re saying in terms of there being a good chunk of rhetoric about our being in Satan’s grasp, but I don’t think we hear much talk in Mormonism that the mechanism by which the Atonement works is through Jesus trading with the Devil for our souls.

Jared: True, it’s more that he “paid the price.”


Satisfaction Theory

Brian: My understanding of “satisfaction theory” is that it comes from a time when the feudal system was in place. The theory casts God as a kind of sovereign feudal lord who must have the honor of his subjects if he is to keep his power. If the lord’s serfs have committed any kind of injustice that either hurts the lord or reflects badly on him, the lord’s honor must be satisfied.

Dan: And it’s a two-way honor system. The feudal lord must punish his subjects if they do something wrong, but when they do something virtuous that brings great delight or benefit to the lord, he is honor-bound to reward them. Also, if the lord doesn’t punish the wrongdoers, then the law breaks down and chaos ensues, so he is actually being loving by punishing wrongdoer since it will keep order. That’s why he can’t just freely forgive someone who messes up. On the other hand, if somebody does great honor to the lord, then the lord has to bestow a gift.

Brian: This system developed in the era before the abstract concept of “law” came into vogue. It’s enmeshed in a “might makes right” culture. The theory came from a time when a feudal lord could kill anyone and be in the right simply because of his power. But he was also bound by a quid pro quo system. If someone does something for you, you have to give them a reward with similar value.

Jared: This type of system is also common in the New Testament period. For instance, when Herod was pleased with Salome’s dancing, he said, “What favor would you ask of me?”

Dan: “The head of John the Baptist!”

Jared: “Whoops. Well that sucks!”

Brian: Yeah, asking for John the Baptist’s head was outrageous, but Herod had said publicly that he would give Salome whatever she wanted, so he was honor-bound to do it.

Jared: And there are plenty of other stories along the lines of, “I will give you half my kingdom because you’ve pleased me so much.” That was the culture.

Tresa: This connects with the concept in the Doctrine & Covenants that God is bound if you do what he says, and also the idea that, given certain conditions, God could “cease to be God.” It’s not a model that resonates with me personally, but there is some precedent in our scriptures for the satisfaction model.

Dan: The ransom and satisfaction models are the oldest so they are often talked about together. But one observer who was not impressed with either of them coyly suggested that the ransom theory makes the Devil into a god (in that he has godlike claim over us), and the satisfaction theory makes God into a devil (in that he demands satisfaction—”I must have my honor!”). The satisfaction theory puts God into a shocking light if we see the price of his honor being the death of an innocent person.

For me, those critiques are persuasive. Neither of these theories seems ennobling. Why would God be offended by my sins when it was the plan of salvation that we’d come down here and inevitably sin?

Brian: Yeah, if the Big Guy can’t stand sin, he shouldn’t have made so many broken people.


Penal Substitution Theory

Jared: The “penal substitution” theory arose when the idea of abstract law had developed along with the idea that when laws are broken, “justice” demands punishment or payment. We’re familiar with this basic view because of the way our legal system works. If you break the law in our penal system, you pay the price. The idea is that, as mortals, we cannot pay the price of our sins, so we are exposed to the whole penalty of the law. Jesus’ suffering and death pay our debt to the law. His suffering is a substitute punishment for sins.

Brian: The penal substitution model is the first to take our individual sins into consideration: every time we sin we create a new required punishment. The two earlier theories posit that humanity in general has fallen, and that Christ helps us out of this predicament as a group.

Dan: Great point, Brian. Really good. Penal substitution was also the first theory to suggest that the Atonement solves a metaphysical problem. It suggests that there is a kind of cosmic justice that places demands on us, and that something has to happen on that same cosmic, metaphysical level in order to balance things out. In other words, while the other theories play in the realm of relationality, here justice is a real thing in the universe—and justice demands to be satisfied.

Brian: Yeah, it’s like justice is a super God because even God has to obey it.

Jared: God is a landlord who has to pay his rent, too.

Tresa: Well, Mormonism does have a concept of a limited God. God is bound. God might cease to be God. We also have the idea of God working through natural laws—that every miracle is really God working through superior knowledge of the rules of the universe.

Jared: Yes, God became God because he followed these cosmic rules—one of them being, “You cannot deny justice.” So in Mormonism there is this super framework that is explicitly greater than God.

Dan: So if there is this free-floating something or other called justice, does that mean that it can only be satisfied by a free-floating thing called mercy? And how is this mercy triggered? Is it when great injustice is done, such as what happened to Jesus? How would a free-floating law of justice recognize the injustice of Jesus’ suffering and be “satisfied”?

Jared: I think the answer lies mostly along the lines of justice only caring that it gets payment. Jesus somehow paid the price. Justice got its rent.

Dan: How? Why would the death of an innocent person serve as rent for anything?

Jared: I think Mormonism formulates it that suffering is the currency that can be applied to the rent. Jesus suffered enough to pay the price for all who will repent.

Dan: That idea has a kind of Platonic view of the universe rather than an Aristotelean one. Plato’s idea is that there are these eternal “Forms” out there. For instance, something is “just” because it participates somehow in the eternal form Justice. Aristotle, on the other hand, would say that there are no eternal Forms, only acts that we all agree are good—that seem like they would work well as societal rules. So we create this idea of a law of justice based upon particular instances of social interaction.

Jared: Now let’s flip the theory around and ask the question, “What precisely is it that prevents God from just forgiving us?”


A Cleon Skousen Side Trip

Brian: I think this is a great lead in to Cleon Skousen’s specifically Mormon attempt at explaining the Atonement, which draws on the idea of “intelligences” as presented in the Book of Abraham. When I was on my mission, other missionaries would have photocopies of photocopies of photocopies of Skousen’s talk because this was before the Internet. I thought it was the coolest talk ever. It was this juicy, deep doctrine thing.

Dan: There was a tape that everybody was passing around on my mission, too.

Brian: The basis of Skousen’s theory is that everything in the universe has some level of intelligence, from the smallest atom all the way up to viruses and bacteria and monkeys and humans. All intelligences are graded from least to most intelligent and they have to fulfill certain laws in order to progress—to become a higher grade of intelligence.

Human intelligences obeyed all the laws during the pre-existence, and God spent a lot of time and love and effort on them because they were his spiritual children. But at this point, human intelligences became the only ones smart enough to rebel against God. When God says to all the other intelligences, “Will you please form into a planet?”, they all say, “Yes, we’d love to do that.” “Would you water molecules please become wine?” “Yes, we’d love to do that!”

When human intelligences disobey, all the lower intelligences express outrage if God doesn’t punish them. They say, in effect, “It isn’t fair if a disobedient human progresses when we’re being held back by the law.” So, according to Skousen’s model, if God gave us a free pass, he’d lose the honor and street cred that he has with all the molecules of the universe, and everything would fall apart.

Dan: Right, the universe would quit choosing him as God. It’s interesting that God isn’t the one who refuses to forgive, but it’s strange to imagine that Christ had to make the Atonement because lower intelligences were making demands, “Hey, man, I want justice if you want me to keep following you.”

Brian: Yeah, the fatal flaw in the end is that God seems to be trying to win a popularity contest. And if you think about that too long, you cringe and go, “Oooh.”

Jared: I agree that Skousen’s theory is quite elegant. But here’s an analogy that shows its weakness. Let’s say an older child breaks a rule. How would it be if that child’s parents, instead of trusting their own judgment, gave into their really fussy younger child who says, “No, that’s not fair, you should punish her this way!” It seems that God is lowering himself to the immaturity of the lower intelligences.


Moral Influence Theory

Dan: Let’s talk about the fourth of these theories, which is often called the “moral influence” theory. The other theories deal with sin as an external problem—the Devil somehow truly does own our souls and we need Christ’s ransom; or sin truly does demand punishment either to satisfy God’s honor or the demands of cosmic law. But the moral influence theory says the real problem is not cosmic justice or the Devil; nothing keeps God from forgiving us—indeed God truly does. The problem is our own feeling of alienation from the divine. It is our own sense of justice and our own guilt over falling short of our highest aspirations that causes us to kick ourselves. There is no cosmic law of justice; it’s all an alienation that we created ourselves.

The moral influence theory encourages us to look at Christ’s life and suffering in order to understand just how much God loves us. Jesus’s mission was to come into the world to show us what God is really like. When we really “get” the true nature of God, the knowledge works upon our hearts. It pulls us toward an understanding that we really are special. God really is incredible and really does care about us. This gives us the confidence to forgive ourselves and change for the better. We can find this theory in Alma 34 where Amulek declares that the intent of the great and last sacrifice is “to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance.” The demands of justice are internal to us, but through experiencing God’s love, we are freed from thinking that our internal judgment demands our punishment and we gain the courage to change our behavior and become more Christ-like.

Brian: The thing about this theory is that it doesn’t rely on some magical attribute in Christ or suggest that he is paying for something.

Dan: Right. It’s about awakening our souls to our own infinite worth. And from there we have the courage to embrace the divinity within ourselves—to transform and become more godlike—which is the ultimate goal. Who cares about getting freed from guilt and sin if you haven’t transformed your soul?

Jared: I agree that the Atonement is all about transformation. But in this theory, Jesus seems to be a superfluous part of the equation—he isn’t necessary. When we think about all the goodness and all the love in the world, why is the death of one good person greater than the self sacrifice of millions of mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and saints?

Dan: Absolutely. The major critique of the moral influence theory is that the ideas behind it might put some people in touch with their higher selves in a way that leads to positive, forward, transformative action, but it doesn’t suggest the kind of power before which every knee would bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is the only one who can save us.

Eugene England, who prefers this basic moral influence theory, tries to rescue it from this critique by suggesting that the radical love required for this kind of transformative power can only be brought to bear in our hearts when we recognize that the being who is inviting us toward this change is also the creator of the world and our final judge. I’m with you, though, Jared. England’s attempt notwithstanding, I still don’t see Jesus as a necessary ingredient in this formula. There are plenty of people in other traditions who are able to forgive others and become Christ-like in character without ever even hearing of Jesus.

Jared: An explanation of Jesus’s death that does not require Jesus’s death. Doesn’t that seem like it’s not doing its job?

Brian: Yeah, it seems like in order for the moral influence model to work, it needs some kind of “wow factor.” If Jesus were just a nice man who ticked off the Romans and got crucified, we’d be like, “Oh, that wasn’t too smart.” But if it was God who lived this life, if it was God who was willing to come all the way down from wherever and model this life and love—that could possibly create the necessary “wow.”

It’s my theory that Mormonism has baked a sort of deep-dish “Atonement Casserole” made up of all these different ideas.

Jared: Yes, anything apart from the Atonement and casseroles are just appendages unto the Gospel!

Brian: I know we like to think that there’s unity in Mormon views of doctrine, but I think there’s a lot of diversity in how Mormons see the Atonement working. You can find some people who focus on hardcore justice and how it’s almost impossible to get clean, but you can also find highly compassionate views. And you can read Church authorities throughout our history teaching everything on that spectrum.

Tresa: None of the four theories can really describe my experience, but I like your theory of the Atonement Casserole, Brian. Some of us might see the moral influence theory as being the ham, while the tater tots are the ransom model, with maybe the cream sauce being a variation of penal substitution theory. I definitely do find elements of all of these to be very Mormon. But I don’t think any of them by themselves explains the relationship I have with Heavenly Father and Jesus.


Personal Views

Dan: Even though we’ve been problematizing these various theories and suggesting weaknesses in each, we have still chosen to remain Christian. So let’s move from the abstract to the concrete. How has the Atonement worked or been powerful in your own life, and why do you choose to hang in there as a Christian?

Jared: I have tremendous respect for the symbolic power of the Atonement and the reality of people’s experience with Jesus. I want to emphasize that. I have a difficult time appreciating this idea of Atonement by Jesus because for me it seems unnecessary. I love the message of Jesus; I love what he taught—that we live our religion by loving God and loving each other. I think salvation is about maximizing love, peace, joy, freedom, and growth. But I just—I say this respectfully—I just don’t see the need for Jesus. So if you really push me hard, I don’t consider myself a Christian.

However, I have had powerful spiritual experiences with God. I believe in God. I love the idea of uniting with God. But I just don’t understand why it couldn’t work for God to say, “I understand what you’re going through. I know that you’re in this life adventure—this life journey. I want you to become like me, and I will empower you; I will forgive you; I will be with you; I will lift you; I will be everything for you.” So I’m a Christian by default because I’m Mormon—these are the resources I’ve been given. For me, there’s a divine drama going on within our souls: a part of us is savior and a part of us is sinner. Jesus is a symbol who allows us to forgive ourselves and be reunited and achieve our divine potential. But at the end of the day, I don’t see why Jesus is a necessary ingredient. Is that a total downer?

Dan: I don’t think that’s a downer at all. It does seem as if the early Christians were trying to search for what Jesus’s death meant and they worked backwards to arrive at these Atonement theories.

Jared: Right. It seems like they made a list of desired outcomes: “We want to become one with God. We want to live forever. We want to have this relationship. We want to be loving. We want to be transformed.” But it seems kind of arbitrary to then say, “Oh, and Jesus is the key.” It could be like saying Gandalf is the key. Or Buddha is the key.

Brian: I have definitely deconstructed my theology pretty far down the rabbit hole, but I tend to be very practical and pragmatic. Though I’m entertained by all the theories, the core thing is what I experience, what I feel, and how I have changed.

So, once everything else gets blown apart, I start to ask, “What do I feel?” I know that over time I’ve become a different person. I remember decades ago being somebody who was angry, who did not like himself. As much of a screw-up as I still am, I’ve become someone I like. I’ve come to a point where I have this transformative sense that, in the long run, I will be okay. Sure, I’ll fail sometimes and it will hurt, but I’ll survive.

So I say to myself, “Where did I get this from?” and I have to admit that I got it from the teachings of Jesus. Whether he was half God, half human, my older brother, and/or God incarnate, the changes in me came from reading about Jesus and following his example. And that’s why I still consider myself Christian. I was saved through the teachings of Jesus, through faith in Jesus, even though I’m not necessarily attached to all the Christology. He could just have been a great teacher and a self-actualized human being, but somehow by trying to follow his example, I got to where I am now.

Dan: Like Brian, I have deconstructed my faith and views of the Atonement many times over. One of the very first classes I took in my Ph.D. program was on Christology. I couldn’t wrap my brain around how the whole Jesus thing worked and I hoped the course would give me clues. It was in learning about the moral influence theory that I found a little peace. It allowed me to relax and simply feel satisfied in my own soul that whatever the power of the Atonement is, it’s the power of love, and it has nothing to do with metaphysical bookkeeping or cosmic rifts or the demands of abstract, free-floating justice.

Somewhere along in my life, “growth” has become the most important thing for me. So for the past twenty years, I haven’t really worried much about salvation. I haven’t worried about what kingdom I might be going to, or anything like that. No matter what the world is, no matter whether it has an ultimate meaning or purpose, I simply like growing. And that’s why I like Mormonism: it pushes me to grow. It asks me to reevaluate myself every week, and even to reevaluate myself in the face of some people who are living totally inside the Mormon box and are yet very powerful and impressive to me.

Perhaps, like Brian suggests, Jesus is just a self-actualized human being, but I still hold open the possibility that he is something more. However things shake out, the model of Jesus’s life—how he interacted with others, how he didn’t back away from pain, how he deliberately encountered all the ugly things instead of retreating into detachment—that model “works” for me.

Brian: Totally. If Jesus is all that extra stuff, I’m totally happy. I have hope in that possibility, actually.

Jared: I agree. Even though I have a hard time believing in the Atonement, I do try to live it—if that makes any sense. If Jesus really is Savior and he appears to me after I die, I will be forever grateful and worship him always. I’m open to that.

Tresa: Well, I have to say that when it comes to my relationship with Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father, I am all about lived experience. I frequently wrestle with polygamy and the priesthood ban and all the issues that so many other Mormons put on their shelf, but these theories about the Atonement are the kind of things I put on my shelf, because this to me is where we are looking through a glass, darkly. A lot of people through the centuries have talked about their opinions and bits of revelation, trying to piece together an explanation of the Atonement, but none of it changes anything about what I experience on a daily basis. So what I will share is my spiritual language. I know for a fact that it’s not everybody’s spiritual language. Plenty of people—and I’m probably talking with three of them right now—speak a spiritual language that exists very much in logic. But for me it’s more comfortable to put the mechanics aside and just enjoy the benefits.

My relationship with Jesus Christ is completely bound up in the fact that I’m an abuse survivor. My childhood family was abusive. When I think of the Atonement, I don’t think about cosmic bookkeeping, I think about the bearing of burdens.

As an abuse survivor, I am intimately acquainted with bearing the consequences of another person’s sin and what that requires. And so I feel intrinsically connected to the Savior. To his mercy. To his act of empathy. And maybe because of this experience, the Atonement doesn’t feel so metaphysical to me. I know from experience that people make horrible mistakes and that someone always pays a price for them. I’ve lived that. And that’s why I feel that, being an abuse survivor, I am called to be a savior with a little “s.”

I eagerly await the discovery of the mechanics of the Atonement, but right now, I know the succor Jesus has brought me, the healing he has brought me, and honestly I just don’t care about the engineering behind it all because I am enjoying the atonement’s benefits so much.

Brian: Yeah. I like yours the best.

Jared: Yep.