The Snarkernacle at http://snarkernacle.blogspot.com/2008/01/stop-thinking-about-yourself-and-start.html recently drew my attention to the ongoing discussions of atonement theories on LDS blogs. Reading through these theories I had to feel that they underestimated God in one form or another: It seemed that whatever way each theory went God came out with personality problems.
I realise that the church was generally built by ex-Protestants, who's churches are themselves built by ex-Catholics. This makes a strange Roman God to transform from, to begin with. And considering that the Scriptures do partially support the confusing God of vengeance (in so many places) and yet mercy (in other places), it is no surprise that confusion would exist on God's true personality and reasoning.
If a theory is approached with such a confused being as the God OF the theory, then the theory will be incorrect. To get the concept correct requires an understanding of the true nature of God in the first place. While some of these theories did represent the true God in parts, because of, what I would see as, false perceptions existing, in other areas they come adrift.
So to fully understand the atonement a person must completely reform their view of the relationship between man, God and eternal laws until it is correct. The hardest doctrine for people to grasp (particularly considering the Law of Moses style God presented to the hard hearted in the Scriptures) is the first I will come to.
First we need to actually BELIEVE that "God is love", rather than just quote it. Not love to only those who accept and obey him, but love to all - that he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good. That God is actually TOTALLY impartial. If God is love then can we really believe that God will cause anyone to actually suffer pain and not allow them into his presence: That he will personally inflict agony upon those he loves - his own children? Even a good parent only disciplines a child so that the child will learn to do right in the future. And Christ made it obvious (to a more enlightened audience) that we can relate to God as a better father than we are (Matt 7:9-11).
Of those who have known the truth and rejected it Mosiah 2:37-38 says,
"...therefore he listeth to obey the evil spirit, and becometh an enemy to all righteousness; therefore, the Lord has no place in him, for he dwelleth not in unholy temples. Therefore if that man repenteth not, and remaineth and dieth an enemy to God, the demands of divine justice do awaken his immortal soul to a lively sense of his own guilt, which doth cause him to shrink from the presence of the Lord, and doth fill his breast with guilt, and pain, and anguish, which is like an unquenchable fire, whose flame ascendeth up forever and ever."
So what has caused the pain? And why doesn't the Lord dwell in them: Is it because he hates them? The person has made themselves an enemy to "righteousness". So the Lord (being righteous) CAN'T dwell in him as it is contrary to the nature of the Lord. And it is the person's sense of justice from their OWN immortal soul that causes them to both suffer and feel separated from God. NOT GOD. These things are SELF imposed. God wants to free us from them; not create them.
We are separate and free individuals. God can't just bash the door down and make us feel good inside. We have to open up and let him come in and help.
So he used the same plan that is used for all people's throughout eternity for removing the pain from past sins, so that the repentant can move on and become one with God during this life (where possible) or as a spirit before the resurrection.
So that is why an atonement is necessary.
Another question considered is how does the atonement cover people of all time periods, when Christ didn't even live until about 4,000 years after the beginning? This same question relates to questions such as how the brother of Jared saw Christ's flesh? And how is it that Christ came to Abraham and ate with him? This may be a bit of a mind bender to understand as we are used to time things. But God dwells in eternity (we do also in reality but just don't see it because of change and decay) (Eccles 3:15) whereas we see things as a time line. Relative to the atonement and putting it simply, Christ's mind could go into eternity and come back into any time of this earth. This is how God has shown people the future.
So how does the atonement work?
I would first like to mention an experience I had when a teenager. I had done something wrong years before. Every time I thought of this thing (I can't actually remember what it was now) I felt terrible inside. However one day when I thought upon it a voice inside me (my spirit) said in an assured tone, "I have suffered enough for that."
As we open our hearts to Christ in true repentance he is able to come into our hearts from the garden of Gethsemane (which has already occurred, from his perspective, long ago) and suffer the pain for each and every sin. Our conscience inside feels this pain being suffered and accepts that as sufficient payment and feels appeased (our sense of justice is appeased). He suffers individual pain for each individual sin until we feel that is enough pain for that particular sin (depending on its size). The same applies to those who lived even before he was born. Thus such people as Enoch had their conscience cleared and could go on and grow in righteousness. This fact is demonstrated in the Law given to Moses where every man had to offer an INDIVIDUAL sacrifice outside the temple door (signifying the sacrifice in the garden). So individual pain had to be suffered for each individual. Whereas the sacrifice outside the camp (signifying his death on the cross) was only one sacrifice that covered everyone.
Some may question how he could do that in such a limited time? Yet if you think about your thinking at times you will realise that you often process a lot of thoughts within a second or even less. Several entire concepts can pass through your mind before you could blink your eye.
Now the question comes as to why Christ was the only one who could perform the atonement? Firstly it had to be someone who had no sins of his own harrowing up his own conscience. Jehovah (Jesus Christ) was just that type of person that wasn't going to make a mistake: He could see it was wrong without having to actually mess up first. Secondly he needed a body that was perfect enough to withstand the pain required. So his father was Heavenly Father in order that he had a part of him as coming from a perfect being.
So where does the cross fit in with this?
Having gained a body and living a life (which as our brother he needed to do also). Having learnt the truths relative to righteous life living. Having done a mission and preached the gospel. Having performed the atonement act. Having at that point ruined his body by doing the atonement. Knowing that some had waited thousands of years to be resurrected and were eager for that resurrection. He knew it was time to die. His manner of death set an example of dying a painful way, that no one could argue that they are asked to suffer more. So, as he had to die having ruined his body, he took the physical result of our sins and nailed it to the cross.
As he was sinless and had a body that wasn't able to die at the time of his death, he had no trouble resurrecting his body. From this time resurrection became available to others.
One day (during this life) I hope to actually understand why no one could be resurrected until he was. My understanding of the physical nature of a resurrected body is zero, other than it won't die and its state is relative to the righteousness of the owner.