One well known Atonement theory is that of Cleon Skousen. The best known explanation of his theory is a talk he gave to a meeting of missionaries in Dallas, TX in 1980. The audio and video of that talk can be purchased from his official website here. Someone somewhere made a transcript of the talk. I read it here.
The main points of Skousen’s theory are:
- The universe is composed of two basic building blocks: “intelligences” and “elements”.
- “Intelligences” are self-aware entities that are self-existent and at various levels of complexity and progression. They are independent and act voluntarily, and cannot be compelled. God is the greatest of the intelligences, and every human is an intelligence at his core and we rank relatively high on the scale of complexity and greatness.
- “Element” is matter, and there are two types of matter: spiritual and physical. They are fundamentally the same but exist on two different planes. Element is not voluntary nor even “alive”, but it is self-existent.
- God pairs together every intelligence with a portion of element. They are paired in complex but orderly ways, and they are assigned functions and roles and must abide by the physical laws of the universe. Some intelligences are paired with plant life, others with animal life, and every human is an intelligence which is paired with human “element(s)”. Other intelligences are paired with non-organic element(s).
- By pairing intelligences with element God is able to command these intelligence/element unions and accomplish the creation of the universe.
- God is “God” only because he is respected and loved by the intelligences of the universe. He derives his authority and power because the intelligences, who are paired with element/matter, decide to obey him. He is just and constant and they trust him. If God loses their trust they may no longer respect and obey him, and he would lose his ability to govern them and would essentially cease to be “God”.
- God created this Earth and populated it with humans (intelligences paired with element/matter). But these intelligences (humans) broke laws and became undeserving of eternal joy in God’s presence. God cannot simply ignore the laws of justice and bring humans back to his presence because if he did he would lose the trust of the eternal intelligences of the universe, and without that he would cease to be God.
- One of the intelligences, Jesus, is infinitely loved and respected by the intelligences of the universe. Jesus is God’s first counselor and advisor, and God works through Jesus in his dealings with the intelligences.
- Jesus came to Earth and suffered indescribable pain and torture in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross. He did this to soften the hearts of the intelligences of the universe and to gain their approval to allow God to extend mercy to man.
- The intelligences of the universe were so moved by Christ’s suffering, which was a display of love and compassion for man, that they choose to allow God to extend mercy to man. Even though God extends undeserved mercy to man, the intelligences remain loyal to and trusting of God which allows God to retain his position as God and also to save mankind.
Within the Mormon tradition there are very few well defined and uniquely Mormon theories about Atonement. This is one of them, and it is one that has managed to gain some traction. If Atonement theory is ever going to mature in Mormon thought we ought to have a better name for this theory than just “Skousen’s theory”. Maybe we could call it the “Intelligence Theory”.
I find this to be a remarkably fascinating theory, partly because it is uniquely “Mormon” and partly because it appeals to my interest in science. It links the atonement to the creation and remains fundamentally naturalistic in scope. By “naturalistic” I mean that it doesn’t appeal to mystery or the supernatural. God is a great and respected scientist who must convince the intelligence-elements to obey him. I like this theory because of its universal scope, unabashedly going beyond atonement theory and explaining so much more, and yet keeping atonement right at the center. Another reason I like this theory is because it provides a reason for why the universal law of justice must be fulfilled. Other theories I think don’t really do that. At least in this one you actually have individuals demanding it and for a good reason, instead of it simply being required just because.
There are also some things about this theory that I think could be improved. It almost has a sci-fi flavor to it, which simultaneously piques my interest and throws up a red flag. One aspect of it that I’m not favorable to is the idea that “justice” is enforced by the multitudes of lesser intelligences. I’d prefer that Christ not suffer because of the demands of these lesser beings. Also, if the concept of “justice” being satisfied is important, I’m not really sure that this theory accomplishes that. In this theory Christ’s suffering doesn’t appear to actually satisfy justice, but instead acts as a mechanism for subverting justice. Another thing I’m not sure I agree with is Skousen’s “atomistic” view of intelligences, which is clearly modeled off of Orson Pratt’s ideas. Finally, I think this theory isn’t clearly found in the scriptures. Instead, this theory acts as a lens for interpreting the scriptures. In his talk he does that somewhat extensively, interpreting passages to fit his theory which could easily be read a different way. Having a theory serve as a lens for reading the scriptures isn’t in itself a bad thing, but if the theory itself isn’t rooted in scripture it will always be suspect.
I’m sure there is much more to say on this theory. In the end, it is a creative twist on the Moral Influence Theory. In this theory Christ’s suffering serves the purpose of moving the intelligences to compassion. His suffering does not pay any sort of legal debt, or pay a ransom, so it doesn’t really fit the other traditional models. I don’t know how much I agree with the theory, but it certainly is worth discussing and thinking about.
Finally, I’ve just become aware of a rebuttal to this theory by Clyde Williams. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but here it is.