The why and how of Christ’s Atonement have been greatly debated amongst Christians for centuries. Some stood in awe of this divine act, others asked how it related to them personally, or what it meant for God Himself. Latter-day Saints have not been exempt from these questions either. Such views can be divided into several categories –
Ransom – Adam and Eve sold humanity over to the Devil at the time of the Fall; hence, justice required that God pay the Devil a ransom to free us from the Devil’s clutches. God, however, tricked the Devil into accepting Christ’s death as a ransom, for the Devil did not realize that Christ could not be held in the bonds of death. Once the Devil accepted Christ’s death as a ransom, this theory concluded, justice was satisfied and God was able to free us from Satan’s grip
Satisfaction – Humans could not render to God more than what was due to him. The satisfaction due to God was greater than what all created beings are capable of doing, since they can only do what is already required of them. Therefore, God had to make satisfaction for himself. Yet if this satisfaction was going to avail for humans, it had to be made by a human. Therefore only a being that was both God and man could satisfy God and give him the honor that is due him.
Substitution – Christ died for man, in man’s place, taking his sins and bearing them for him. The bearing of man’s sins takes the punishment for them and sets the believer free from the penal demands of the law: The righteousness of the law and the holiness of God are satisfied by this substitution.
Governmental – God made Christ an example of suffering to exhibit to erring man that sin is displeasing to him. God’s moral government of the world made it necessary for him to evince his wrath against sin in Christ. Christ died as a token of God’s displeasure toward sin and it was accepted by God as sufficient; but actually God does not exact strict justice.
Moral influence – Christ died to influence mankind toward moral improvement. His death was designed to greatly impress mankind with a sense of God’s love, resulting in softening their hearts and leading them to repentance, and towards man with the purpose of persuading him to right action.
Many modern Mormon scholars (Millett, Ostler, Robinson) seem to be moving towards this “Moral Influence” theory (or variations on it). But it leaves us with the question of “If Christ died to provoke sympathy in us, why did He need to be divine, and what divine power – if any – was involved in his suffering?
John Taylor was one of the few early LDS Church President’s to weigh in on this subject, and this is what he had to say –
“God is unchangeable, so are also his laws, in all their forms, and in all their applications, and being Himself the essence of law, the giver of law, the sustainer of law, all of those laws are eternal in all their operations, in all bodies and matter, and throughout all space. It would be impossible for Him to violate law, because in so doing He would strike at His own dignity, power, principles, glory, exaltation and existence. …
Hence, the law of atonement had to be met as well as all other laws, for God could not be God without fulfilling it.
Jesus said, “If it be possible, let this cup pass.” But it was not possible; for to have done so would have been a violation of the law, and he had to take it. The atonement must be made, a God must be sacrificed. No power can resist a law of God. It is omnipresent, omnipotent, exists everywhere, in all things, through all things and round about all things. …” (Chapter 23, Mediation and Atonement)
“FROM the facts in the case and the testimony presented in the Scriptures it becomes evident that through the great atonement, the expiatory sacrifice of the Son of God, it is made possible that man can be redeemed, restored, resurrected and exalted to the elevated position designed for him in the creation as a Son of God: that eternal justice and law required the penalty to be paid by man himself, or by the atonement of the Son of God: that Jesus offered Himself as the great expiatory sacrifice; that this offering being in accordance with the demands or requirements of the law, was accepted by the great Lawgiver; that it was prefigured by sacrifices, and ultimately fulfilled by Himself according to the eternal covenant. “He was wounded (as prophesied of) for the transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed.”
The Savior thus becomes master of the situation—the debt is paid, the redemption made, the covenant fulfilled, justice satisfied, the will of God done, and all power is now given into the hands of the Son of God—the power of the resurrection, the power of the redemption, the power of salvation, the power to enact laws for the carrying out and accomplishment of this design. Hence life and immortality are brought to light, the Gospel is introduced, and He becomes the author of eternal life and exaltation. He is the Redeemer, the Resurrector, the Savior of man and the world; and He has appointed the law of the Gospel as the medium which must be complied with in this world or the next, as He complied with His Father’s law; hence “he that believeth shall be saved, and he that believeth not shall be damned.”
The plan, the arrangement, the agreement, the covenant was made, entered into and accepted before the foundation of the world; it was prefigured by sacrifices, and was carried out and consummated on the cross.
Hence being the mediator between God and man, He becomes by right the dictator and director on earth and in heaven for the living and for the dead, for the past, the present and the future, pertaining to man as associated with this earth or the heavens, in time or eternity, the Captain of our salvation, the Apostle and High-Priest of our profession, the Lord and Giver of life.
Is justice dishonored? No; it is satisfied, the debt is paid. Is righteousness departed from? No; this is a righteous act. All requirements are met. Is judgment violated? No; its demands are fulfilled. Is mercy triumphant? No; she simply claims her own. Justice, judgment, mercy and truth all harmonize as the attributes of Deity. “Justice and truth have met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” Justice and judgment triumph as well as mercy and peace; all the attributes of Deity harmonize in this great, grand, momentous, just, equitable, merciful and meritorious act.
In the first place, according to justice men could not have been redeemed from temporal death, except through the atonement of Jesus Christ; and in the second place, they could not be redeemed from spiritual death, only through obedience to His law.” (Mediation and Atonement, chap 24)
Here is a pretty exhaustive set of links to discussion on this subject:
Note: most of these blog entries are from liberal Mormons, and most liberals prefer the “Sympathy” theory.