Dane Laverty over at Times and Seasons recently wrote a post called “Reasoning the Doctrines” in which he says the following: “It makes no sense to me that someone had to suffer infinitely before God could forgive us.”

As we all know, members of the church often pride themselves on knowing “the whole truth,” on having answers to questions that everyone else in the world (allegedly) asks themselves all the time. So, as far as the atonement goes, in the great debate over saved by works vs. saved by grace, in my experience most Mormons see our particular model of [works (i.e. “all you can do”) + Jesus’ grace = forgiveness] as uniquely coherent, as if we are the only ones that have this redemption thing figured out.

So let me just throw it out there: None of this makes sense to me. I don’t understand the atonement and I don’t believe that anyone else does. If you do, here’s your chance to explain it to the rest of us.

[Don’t let the length of this post discourage you. It only looks so long because I included the full text of two atonement parables which, since you probably already know them, you can skip through.]

Before I go on, let me add an important disclaimer: What I’m talking about here is how or why the atonement works, not if it works. I can take God’s word for it that if we do what he has asked, he will do what he promises, even if we can’t figure out the mechanics of it or the reasons behind it. (This is the old “God’s ways are not our ways” loophole that Dane also mentions). This isn’t intended as a debate about — or attack on — faith in God, Christ, or the efficacy of the atonement.

Also, I am deliberately going to avoid any philosophic jargon here because 1) I don’t want that to be a barrier to anyone’s participation and 2) my focus is on how we teach the atonement in the church. Therefore, I think the most practical approach is to examine a couple of our most popular models for explaining the atonement in a way that we can readily grasp. The gospel is supposed to be simple and pure, after all.

1. He Took My Lickin’ for Me

This is an Especially for Mormons stalwart that has been used in General Conference addresses and the Ensign several times. (For anyone that doubts its penetration into the Mormon psyche, I offer this abomination as proof.)

Here is a shorter version of the story, as paraphrased by James E. Faust. (President Hinckley’s is longer). For those of you that are already familiar with it, just skip to the end.

Some years ago, President Gordon B. Hinckley told “something of a parable” about “a one room school house in the mountains of Virginia where the boys were so rough no teacher had been able to handle them.

“Then one day an inexperienced young teacher applied. He was told that every teacher had received an awful beating, but the teacher accepted the risk. The first day of school the teacher asked the boys to establish their own rules and the penalty for breaking the rules. The class came up with 10 rules, which were written on the blackboard. Then the teacher asked, ‘What shall we do with one who breaks the rules?’

“ ‘Beat him across the back ten times without his coat on,’ came the response.

“A day or so later, … the lunch of a big student, named Tom, was stolen. ‘The thief was located—a little hungry fellow, about ten years old.’

“As Little Jim came up to take his licking, he pleaded to keep his coat on. ‘Take your coat off,’ the teacher said. ‘You helped make the rules!’

“The boy took off the coat. He had no shirt and revealed a bony little crippled body. As the teacher hesitated with the rod, Big Tom jumped to his feet and volunteered to take the boy’s licking.

“ ‘Very well, there is a certain law that one can become a substitute for another. Are you all agreed?’ the teacher asked.

“After five strokes across Tom’s back, the rod broke. The class was sobbing. ‘Little Jim had reached up and caught Tom with both arms around his neck. “Tom, I’m sorry that I stole your lunch, but I was awful hungry. Tom, I will love you till I die for taking my licking for me! Yes, I will love you forever!” ’

First of all, I don’t understand why the kids get to take God’s role here — as if God were some democratic abstract and we only have ourselves to blame for his unreasonable, unmerciful statutes, etc. — but I’ll let that pass. What bothers me the most is, since the students made the rules to begin with, why can’t they just change them? They have full authority over the laws and punishments such that they can decide to accept beating Big Tom in the place of Jim. So, if they could alter the rules in that respect, what’s to prevent them from just making an exception and absolving Jim once and for all? If the purpose of punishment is to somehow make up or pay for breaking a rule, what’s to be gained by punishing the person that didn’t break it? Why the unnecessary violence? The only explanation that I can come up with is that the class is comprised of a bunch of heartless sadists.

So, by extension, what is the purpose of making Jesus suffer for us if God can just forgive us anyway? Why the middleman, why the gruesome window dressing? And what kind of sacrifice is it really when he knows Jesus will just be resurrected in glory in the end? (Big Tom got the short end of the stick, if you ask me, because his back wasn’t resurrected as quickly.) Why does God want to flagellate his own son for no reason?

Now, I know what you’re all going to say: “Because justice must be paid.” We have repeated that phrase so much in the church that we’ve started to think that it means something, but I don’t believe it does. As we know, God can just change the rules — don’t even try to tell me that he would then “cease to be God,” he changes his rules all the time: Is polygamy a sin or not? The word of wisdom? The Sabbath on the seventh day? Eating non-kosher food? Nephi killing Laban? These probably aren’t even the best examples, but the list goes on and on. In short, sin is not absolute. God decides what constitutes sin, he changes his mind all the time, and he’s still God. The only reason that justice must be paid is because God said so, and, like the kids in the story, he can just as easily say something else if he wants to.

But, for the sake of argument, assuming justice (God) does need to be paid, what kind of sick individual would he have to be to accept the torture and death of an innocent as “payment” for some crime that someone else committed? We would never sanction that in our own criminal justice system, and one would hope that God makes more sense than our earthly attempts at justice. Sidney Carton-type heroics only work if you can fool the authorities. Are we supposed to believe that God is an idiot? How does that pay for anything at all? How do two wrongs make a right here? Our next model tries to address this problem.

2. The Mediator

This is an oft-quoted Boyd K. Packer parable from April 1977 General Conference that was even made into a video segment for the Book of Mormon Sunday School / Seminary curriculum. Again, if you are already familiar with it, feel free to skip ahead.

There once was a man who wanted something very much. It seemed more important than anything else in his life. In order for him to have his desire, he incurred a great debt.

He had been warned about going into that much debt, and particularly about his creditor. But it seemed so important for him to do what he wanted to do and to have what he wanted right now. He was sure he could pay for it later.

So he signed a contract. He would pay it off some time along the way. He didn’t worry too much about it, for the due date seemed such a long time away. He had what he wanted now, and that was what seemed important.

The creditor was always somewhere in the back of his mind, and he made token payments now and again, thinking somehow that the day of reckoning really would never come.

But as it always does, the day came, and the contract fell due. The debt had not been fully paid. His creditor appeared and demanded payment in full.

Only then did he realize that his creditor not only had the power to repossess all that he owned, but the power to cast him into prison as well.

“I cannot pay you, for I have not the power to do so,” he confessed.

“Then,” said the creditor, “we will exercise the contract, take your possessions, and you shall go to prison. You agreed to that. It was your choice. You signed the contract, and now it must be enforced.”

“Can you not extend the time or forgive the debt?” the debtor begged. “Arrange some way for me to keep what I have and not go to prison. Surely you believe in mercy? Will you not show mercy?”

The creditor replied, “Mercy is always so one-sided. It would serve only you. If I show mercy to you, it will leave me unpaid. It is justice I demand. Do you believe in justice?”

“I believed in justice when I signed the contract,” the debtor said. “It was on my side then, for I thought it would protect me. I did not need mercy then, nor think I should need it ever. Justice, I thought, would serve both of us equally as well.”

“It is justice that demands that you pay the contract or suffer the penalty,” the creditor replied. “That is the law. You have agreed to it and that is the way it must be. Mercy cannot rob justice.”

There they were: One meting out justice, the other pleading for mercy. Neither could prevail except at the expense of the other.

“If you do not forgive the debt there will be no mercy,” the debtor pleaded.

“If I do, there will be no justice,” was the reply.

Both laws, it seemed, could not be served. They are two eternal ideals that appear to contradict one another. Is there no way for justice to be fully served, and mercy also?

There is a way! The law of justice can be fully satisfied and mercy can be fully extended—but it takes someone else. And so it happened this time.

The debtor had a friend. He came to help. He knew the debtor well. He knew him to be shortsighted. He thought him foolish to have gotten himself into such a predicament. Nevertheless, he wanted to help because he loved him. He stepped between them, faced the creditor, and made this offer.

“I will pay the debt if you will free the debtor from his contract so that he may keep his possessions and not go to prison.”

As the creditor was pondering the offer, the mediator added, “You demanded justice. Though he cannot pay you, I will do so. You will have been justly dealt with and can ask no more. It would not be just.”

And so the creditor agreed.

The mediator turned then to the debtor. “If I pay your debt, will you accept me as your creditor?”

“Oh yes, yes,” cried the debtor. “You save me from prison and show mercy to me.”

“Then,” said the benefactor, “you will pay the debt to me and I will set the terms. It will not be easy, but it will be possible. I will provide a way. You need not go to prison.”

And so it was that the creditor was paid in full. He had been justly dealt with. No contract had been broken. The debtor, in turn, had been extended mercy. Both laws stood fulfilled. Because there was a mediator, justice had claimed its full share, and mercy was fully satisfied.

Each of us lives on a kind of spiritual credit. One day the account will be closed, a settlement demanded. However casually we may view it now, when that day comes and the foreclosure is imminent, we will look around in restless agony for someone, anyone, to help us.

And, by eternal law, mercy cannot be extended save there be one who is both willing and able to assume our debt and pay the price and arrange the terms for our redemption.

Unless there is a mediator, unless we have a friend, the full weight of justice untempered, unsympathetic, must, positively must fall on us. The full recompense for every transgression, however minor or however deep, will be exacted from us to the uttermost farthing.

Elder Packer’s model deals with the problem of how someone else can “take our lickin’” for us — how punishing an innocent serves justice — by monetizing sin. A white lie, murder: it’s all the same thing, it’s just a question of quantity. Sin and forgiveness are depersonalized as a system of currency so that, in theory, anyone can pay for anyone else — there’s absolutely no personal distinction.

Now, this is something that we do in real life. If someone is in debt or sentenced to pay a fine, no one really cares where the money comes from as long as things get paid. Fine. But, in that case, why can’t I suffer for my own sins, my children’s sins, or anyone else’s, for that matter? Ah, you say, because even the smallest sin carries too high a price for us blue collar children of God to pay off. It is more than we can ever earn in a lifetime. Jesus is the only one rich enough to pay for anyone / everyone else.

However, sin isn’t a free market. It’s a closed, carefully engineered economic system. God not only decides what sin is, he also fixes its prices and pays our wages. Apparently he has rigged the system to keep us forever in the red. So why is he screwing us over with price gouging? It seems that he wants us all to remain in such colossal debt that we have no choice but to sign up with the debt relief agency which he sponsors (Jesus). And where does Jesus get the means to bail us out? From God.

This is all rather circular. For example, let’s say I have two sons. The younger one burns down my multimillion-dollar mansion. He’s in my debt and his future earning power is well below what he would need to ever pay it off (he’s not as capable as I am). So, he works for me for the rest of his life in the futile attempt to make up for it. He can’t do it, but I love him so I take his hard work and contrition into consideration and call things even.

However, if I were to alter this story to make it more like the atonement, it would look like this: I give my older son enough money to pay off my younger son’s debt. He gives it back to me, turns to my younger son and says, “I paid your debt. Now you owe me. Do me some favors and I’ll forgive you.” That’s just an unnecessary and absurd complication.

The only way this makes sense is if my older son can earn some money elsewhere with which to pay his brother’s debt. But, if that’s the case, then there’s a gaping theological hole in the atonement because our economy of sin would no longer be closed. If Jesus didn’t get the means to pay for our sins from God, then he had to get it somewhere else, which burdens him with his own debt. Who else is involved in this deal that we’re not aware of? He apparently pays better than God, so why don’t we all go work for him? Even if you believe in a plurality of gods, this line of thinking means that you have to be willing to accept that someone else is meddling in (our) God’s world.

So, coming back around to God setting prices and wages, what difference does it make if Jesus pays things or if God just changes the system so that we are capable of doing it ourselves — raising our spiritual wages, so to speak? Or why can’t he just give us the family discount? Why the circuitous, elaborate obfuscation of what’s really going on? He gets paid back with his own money no matter how you look at it. Either way we are still dependent on God, and either way we still need to have faith in him.

Anyway, we could tackle other models, but I think these two cover the same ground as the majority of what we use in the church (e.g. “The Parable of the Bicycle,” etc). All this boils down to the following: I have yet to see an adequate explanation for why Jesus’ sacrifice is necessary because God, if he wanted to, could just forgive us of our sins himself. Neither works, grace, nor a combination of the two changes that. As Dane Laverty puts it, “It makes no sense to me that someone had to suffer infinitely before God could forgive us.” It makes no sense to me that Jesus had to suffer at all, much less infinitely. In short, I don’t understand the atonement.

So, anyway, the title of this post is just supposed to be provocative enough to get people to read it. Do Mormons understand the atonement better than anyone else? I don’t think so. Do you understand the atonement? Some people say they do. So if you do, can you put it into words for the rest of us? Do us all a favor and share it below.