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.”
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.” 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.”
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.”
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.” 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.
 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
 N.T. Wright, “Romans,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible; vol. 10 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 398.
 Wright, 399.
 Timothy Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes us Just (New York: Riverhead Books, 2012), 97.
 Wright, 602.