‘Holy Envy’: What ‘Mainstream’ Christians Can Teach ‘Latter-day Saint’ Christians About the Atonement of Christ

In a book published in 2003 by Brigham Young University’s Religious Studies Center, LDS author Mark Elbert Eastmond presented a fascinating exploration on the doctrinal reasons for Christ’s atoning sacrifice.  I’m really quite fond of Eastmond’s article.  Since its original publication, I have found Eastmond’s essay to provide wonderful insights into the unique ways in which Book of Mormon sermons depict why Christ needed to suffer the demands of justice, together with what precisely those demands constituted of.  If you have never read Eastmond’s essay and are at all interested in Book of Mormon theology, I would highly recommend reading the article.  It’s wonderful!

Now, that having been said, in the introduction, Eastmond presents what I personally find to be a problematic claim regarding a general lack of comprehension on the doctrine of Christ’s Atonement amongst non-LDS Christians who rely solely upon the Bible.  Here are his words:

“That Christ paid the horrible price [for our sins] is widely accepted throughout the world.  Yet the nature of that price, including the ignominious way the account was settled and the reasons such payment was required, poses a formidable challenge to students of the Bible everywhere… Taken alone the New Testament gives little detail about the atoning sacrifice beyond a chronology of events.  However, within the Book of Mormon we find those events fleshed out, along with an unparalleled doctrinal explanation of why Christ suffered and what he suffered during the hours of Atonement.”[1]

There’s no question in my mind that Eastmond’s study uncovers a fascinating Book of Mormon theological construct concerning Christ’s atoning sacrifice.  So I’m really not trying to be critical here.  But I believe that this assessment of both the New Testament and traditional Christian theology is really quite unfair.  And as a believing Latter-day Saint, I have unfortunately found that this perspective represents an all too frequent assumption on the part of my fellow Mormons: “when it comes to the Atonement of Christ, we get the doctrine, but other types of Christians do not!”

Unfortunately, this type of comparative assertion happens all too frequently amongst practitioners of religion of all sorts, including Mormons.  Ironically for us, this mindset stands in stark contrast to the one advocated by New Testament scholar and Church of Sweden Bishop, Krister Stendhal in defense of Mormonism.  In my mind, Stendahl demonstrated his sincere Christian love for others in formulating three rules of religious understanding.  He presented these guidelines in a 1985 press conference in Stockholm, Sweden in response to local opposition to the building of an LDS temple.

As one of those principles for comparative study, Stendhal famously encouraged believers of all faiths to “leave room for ‘holy envy.’” Stendahl coined this expression as part of his proposal that a religious person should be willing to recognize elements in other traditions that she admires and wishes could, in some way, be reflected in his own religious faith.  As a person fully engaged in Religious Studies, I have come to appreciate the great wisdom in Stendahl’s proposal.

As a Mormon, I’m going to try and return Stendahl the favor and openly confess that I have “holy envy” for the way in which many non-LDS Christians understand the doctrine of Christ’s Atonement.  Many mainstream Christians have what I would consider to be a beautiful theological construct explaining why a sacrificial Atonement on the part of Christ was necessary.  Contrary to what many of my fellow Latter-day Saints have traditionally assumed, mainstream Christians do have a profound doctrinal understanding of why Christ needed to provide the Atonement, and quite frequently, this perspective comes from a serious study of the Pauline epistles.

Tragically, the reason I believe that so many Mormons presume that the New Testament “gives little detail about the atoning sacrifice beyond a chronology of events,” is that in their study of the New Testament, most Latter-day Saints focus primarily upon the four Gospels, since these books depict Jesus’ life and ministry. I don’t believe that most of us take Paul seriously enough, which is ironic, since Paul seems to have in many ways served as a role model for Joseph Smith.  “I felt much like Paul,” wrote Joseph in reference to his spiritual conviction that he too had seen the resurrected Christ and would stand by that religious assertion come what may (JSH 24).

From my perspective, this constitutes an important observation, for in reality, the Pauline epistles, particularly Romans, have much to say concerning why an Atonement was necessary.  True enough, in the New Testament, the Gospels tell us what happened to Christ.  The epistles (that we often ignore) explain why these events were necessary.  In my own studies, I have benefited both intellectually and spiritually from many mainstream Christian studies of the Pauline epistles.  In order to demonstrate that contrary to what some Mormons believe, that mainstream Christian actually do have a very profound way of looking at the Atonement of Christ, and that this understanding can benefit Mormons, I will focus upon two of my favorite contemporary Christian theologians: N.T. Wright and Timothy Keller.

In his commentary on Romans, N.T. Wright has shown that Paul’s theological depiction of the Atonement is “shaped by the Second Temple Jewish setting of the lawcourt.”[2]  For the purpose of this brief essay, I’m simply going to summarize the basic observation here.  As Wright explains Paul, God gave humankind the “law” that if perfectly obeyed would make both humans and the world itself “righteous,” or “justified” in a legal sense.  God had a plan from the beginning to make the world a glorious entity with human beings reflecting back to God the divine image.  To help us achieve that divine image, God gave humans the law. Unfortunately, however, all of us fall short.  As Paul explains it, “there is none righteous, no, not one” (Rom 3:10).  And by this term “righteous,” Paul seems to refer again to a concept linked with Second Temple Jewish legal proceedings.  Here is how Wright explains the matter:

“Righteousness [in the Second Temple Jewish lawcourt] was the status of the successful party when the case had been decided; ‘acquitted’ does not quite catch this, since that term applies only to the successful defendant, whereas if the accusation was upheld the accuser would be ‘righteous.’  ‘Vindicated’ is thus more appropriate.  The word is not basically to do with morality or behavior, but rather with status in the eyes of the court–even though, once someone had been vindicated, the word ‘righteous’ would thus as it were work backward, coming to denote not only the legal status at the end of the trial but also the behavior that had occasioned this status.”[3]

The doctrine of the Atonement, therefore, according to this understanding is that Christ came to provide free justification or “righteousness” to all who have faith:  “Being justified by faith,” declares Paul, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1).  Therefore, through Christ, all of us can be “vindicated” in a legal sense.  Here is how the pastor of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, Timothy Keller, explains the doctrine:

“Though we deserve the wrath of God and punishment for our sin, Jesus Christ came and stood in our place.  He lived the life we should have lived and therefore earned the blessing of salvation that such a perfect life deserves. But at the end he died on the cross and took the curse that our imperfect lives deserve. When we repent and believe in Jesus, all the punishment we are due is taken away, having been borne by him, and all the honor he is due for his righteous life and death is given to us.  We are now loved and treated by God as if we had done all the great things that Jesus did.”[4]

I love this idea!  In other words, since humankind could not live the law themselves and rightfully earn “justification,” God himself came to earth, earned the reward and then transfered that justification to those who love him.  The honor Jesus is due according to law is given to us.  When God looks at us, in essence, he sees Christ.  This is justification.  The idea is really quite profound and explains many of Paul’s complex arguments, including his view on baptism:

“Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father even we also should walk in newness of life.  For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection” (Rom 6:4-5)

So through baptism, a disciple is raised up like Christ was raised up.  The person receives Christ’s properly earned status of justification through what Paul refers to as “the likeness of his resurrection.”  This, according to Paul, was the role that in a sense, God “foreordained” his chosen people to fulfill, to be “conformed to the image of his son” (Rom 8:28).  This justification is now available to all, not through the law, but through the Atonement of Christ.  As Wright explains, “this process [the Atonement] will bring God’s renewed people to the point where they reflect the Son’s image, just as the Son is the true image of God.”[5]  And of course, when God’s renewed people reflect his image, they obtain the justification, the “righteous” reward that he himself rightfully earned.

What an amazing way of interpreting the doctrinal need for an Atonement!  And it comes to us form mainstream Christian ministers’ careful reading of the New Testament!

Speaking personally, I believe that this constitutes a very profound way of explaining why an Atonement was necessary, and I am very grateful for the extraordinary insights I have received into the Atonement through exploring the theological constructs presented by mainstream Christians as an explanation for why they perceive that an all encompassing, infinite act of divine love was necessary.

Speaking of Keller, his podcast on the doctrinal reason for the Ascent is also very insightful, as is his extraordinary book, The Prodigal God: Recovery the Heart of the Christian Faith.  I have holy envy.  These religious views speak to my soul.


[1] Mark Elbert Eastmond, “Gethsemane and Golgotha: The Book of Mormon’s Illumination of the Hours of Atonement,” The Fulness of the Gospel: Foundational Teachings from the Book of Mormon (Religious Studies Center BYU; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2003), 91

[2] N.T. Wright, “Romans,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible; vol. 10 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 398.

[3] Wright, 399.

[4] Timothy Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes us Just (New York: Riverhead Books, 2012), 97.

[5] Wright, 602.


‘Holy Envy’: What ‘Mainstream’ Christians Can Teach ‘Latter-day Saint’ Christians About the Atonement of Christ — 12 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this. I am an Evangelical involved in dialogue with other religious traditions, including Mormonism, through the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. Stendahl’s work and example are significant for us, and I appreciate your following of his approach and calling attention to it for other Mormons. We need your insights for the Mormon chapter of FRD. See http://www.fidweb.org for more information.

  2. Nice thoughts. It reminded me of this verse: “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit..” 1 Peter 3:18

    Also, some Mormons views of the Ransom of Christ are most often only shaped by other Mormons, throughout childhood or a life time. Few Utah Mormons get (or seek after) exposure to other Christian thought; therefore, they are left to their own preconcievd notions (right or wrong) about the Ransom of Christ and sometimes feel since they are in the “true” church they got it right, and others understand less than they do….

  3. This concept of Jesus actually earning the “righteous” rewards, suffering as if He hadn’t, and then being able to “transfer” His righteous status to His followers is, in my view, encapsulated in the following BoM verse:

    “…Christ hath ascended into heaven, and hath sat down on the right hand of God, to claim of the Father his rights of mercy which he hath upon the children of men[.]” (Moroni 7:27)

    It seems as if His suffering, according to this passage, allows Him to “claim of the Father” the “rights of mercy.” Perhaps in order to balance out Jesus’ “unjust” suffering and alienation from the Father, He is given the right to extend mercy to those who should justly suffer. I do not think this explains everything, but it does seem to make sense of Paul and others.

    Great write up, David. N.T. Wright has been one of my favorites over the past few years. He was the one who turned me toward a “new creation” view of theology.

  4. I am going to completely jump the shark here and ask the impertinent question of whether (as least according to OT teachings)the atonement was ever needed? Again, according to Mosaic Law was there a need for an ultimate atonement to cover an original sin?

  5. David

    I think a large reason for this misperception is ironically enough missionary service. Members spend two years laboring among very nominal Christians who are ill-informed and can hardly say what Christ did let alone why. This leads to the impression that other Christians don’t get Christ. There is however some reason to evaluate a church based on how well it helps it’s members truly get the concepts. In this regard we are nominally better at intellectually teaching the reasons for the atonement to the average member, but perhaps equally or more deficient at making sure that members really get the atonement and apply it to their life.

  6. This transfer of righteous status is also one of the key concepts in the Jewish understanding of the sacrifice of Isaac, and the reason why it is a central part of the liturgy for the High Holy Days. A day of merit for the children of Jerusalem, as one medieval piyut has it. Submitting one’s will to God allows one to intervene on behalf of another.

  7. This is a great post. When I was first exposed to Eastern Orthodoxy I was quite shocked by their doctrines of the Atonement – because I had never stopped to consider that there were such completely different ways of envisioning the same event. I grew up thinking that justice was basically about violence – that every sin is correlated one-to-one with a unit of pain, and that God was so willing to inflict that pain on somebody – anybody – that it didn’t matter whether it was us or Jesus. I don’t think I was an uninformed Mormon youth, nor do I think that Mormonism is entirely to blame for that view, but that is just the general idea that I absorbed from our scriptures and teachings. And actually, when I discovered the EO view (Christus Victor/Moral Influence and other non-Augustinian views) I found it so much more inspiring and true to human nature than the hyper-violent view that I think Mormonism adopted and amplified from the Western tradition. It has definitely increased my love of the Savior tenfold and has made me view the universe in a much less hostile light. I am glad that some Mormon thinkers like Ostler have re-worked Mormon symbols to avoid that sort of crude Penal Substitution view.

  8. Allen, I’m almost finished with Levenson’s ‘The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son’. You suggested it a couple years ago, but I’ve only recently gotten to it. Has had a pretty big impact on how I look at the Atonement. The fact that this narrative of the beloved son being brought to humiliation and/or death is prevalent in ancient Near Eastern and Second Temple Jewish thought makes me look at Christ’s sacrifice in less metaphysical ways and more through the lens of ritual and myth: a true ritual or true myth (as J.R.R. Tolkien put it). The redemptive power comes, at least somewhat, from the overall narrative in which the act takes place. Without the contextual background, I doubt the suffering and death would have the atoning effect.

  9. Ron Beron #4,
    The notion of atonement is completely different in Paul and Christianity than in the Hebrew Bible. So let us confine ourselves to the origins of Pauline atonement that became the basis of later Christian theologies. There is a reason that the notion of fall and atonement are not found in the teachings of Jesus but are plentiful in Paul. Jesus was a Palestinian Jew and Paul was a Helenistic Jew. They had different views of the world and their own religion.

    Last week I heard a lecture by Admiel Kosman, a Jewish scholar living on Berlin. It is his contention that the emphasis on the fall, human depravity therefrom, and need for atonement are notions in the Jewish Diaspora influenced by Helenistic dualism. Witness Philo. Hence the strong emphasis on celibacy in Paul and hermits in early Christianity—they were Helenistic Jews in outlook, needing a Grand Atonement.

    Palestinian Jews, according to Kosman, did not generally have the same stark dualism that emphasized the need for redeeming the flesh and hence no need for Atonement in that sense, even in the temple. Yes, Jesus honored the temple, but his whole message was the coming and present kingdom of God, not any need for Grand Atonement in a Christian sense. In the Pauline theology with its dualism, the soul was emphasized and the body de-emphsized to reach redemption from the Fall. This was not needed in the theology of Jesus.

    Kosman cites one example of the Palestinian Jewish concept—the wedding contract that dates back to before the time of Jesus which typically had three obligations for the husband in it:

    1-Take care of the basic financial needs of your wife
    2-Give your wife spare money for nicities
    3-You are obligated to fill the sexual needs of your wife

    The body is not Fallen. According to one shocking story from the Mishna (the inheritor of this Palestinian Jewish notion in this case), God in not in the Holy Books, he is found in the empty space between a husband facing his wife. Neither the soul nor the body needed to be redeemed from the fall in this Palestinian Jewish notion. The body and the soul are the frame for God.

  10. Thank you, Mark, for the fascinating contribution. Your post raises the important point that the Bible does not feature a singular theological perspective, but rather multiple religious paradigms that are often in conflict with one another. I too was greatly impressed with Admiel Kosman.

  11. Mark, I didn’t get to hear Kosman, but I would like to point out that the difference between a Hellenistic Jew and a Palestinian one is a false distinction. As Lee Levine pointed out in his “Judaism and Hellenism in Antiquity,” all Jews at the time were Hellenistic. “The issue boils down to the difference in degree and intensity of this phenomenon.” This idea of a significant difference between the two groups, in fact, the idea of two groups at all, was very much in vogue among scholars but is now mainly recognised as untenable. Even E. P. Sanders later changed his mind and wrote that there were “common Judaisms.” Some Jews in Palestine were radically Hellenistic, just as I’m sure that some in Egypt were hidebound conservatives. A lot also depnded on one’s social position. Even among “Palestinian Jews” one finds different outlooks. That strong emphasis on celibacy and hermits was a major characteristic of the Essenes! Basically, there was a common cultural continuum, which is what we term Hellenism, and there were many varied reactions to it. To quote again from Levine, “There was a range of responses to Hellenistic influences rather than a sharp dichotomy, a diversity rather than a polarity.” I should also point out that the main compiler of the Mishnah was significantly Hellenised, so that just adds to the fun…

  12. I enjoyed this post and certainly agree that other Christians have a rich atonement theology. But I am still left with two questions:

    1. How is it possible for Jesus to transfer his righteousness to us? Righteousness, or vindication, is not a prize which can be assigned to the wicked. At least, I struggle to understand how that makes any sense.

    2. Why did Jesus have to suffer as he did in order to be declared righteous? Why was it not enough that he kept the law, and was thus deserving of being declared righteous? Timothy Keller speaks of transferring his righteousness, but he also says that Jesus takes the curse that should have been inflicted on us. This sounds like good old fashioned penal subsitution to me, which I also struggle to make sense of.