The Nature of Jesus’ Suffering

I’ve been pondering the Atonement lately and I recently had some inspiration that I’d like to share. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me but I am interested in discovering what people think of my idea and how they view different aspects of the Atonement. Part of my thoughts concerned the nature of Jesus’ suffering and so I think I’ll start with that.

There are a number of scriptures which deal with Jesus’ suffering during the Atonement. We know that he suffered at Gethsemane. Luke is the one who first teaches us that bled there (Luke 24:44). And while the meaning of this verse has been debated, D&C 19:18 gives us as close to a firsthand account as we could hope for. Apparently what occurred there was Christ suffered a most terrible pain which caused him to bleed at every pore and wish he didn’t have to suffer any more. That is some big time suffering if God wants it to end.

The verses that precede 18 speak about how unrepentant individuals will have to suffer in like manner. Doesn’t this offer us a clue as to how severe the suffering that Jesus bore was? And prior to <i>those</i> verses Christ reveals that endless torment and eternal punishment are finite, meaning that they will always have an end. This seems revelatory too.

So Jesus suffered and that suffering was so severe that he had to fight not to shrink from it. But it wasn’t so unbearable that we can’t undergo it ourselves <u>for a period</u> if we don’t repent. Just how much did he suffer and for how long?

These two questions are at the heart of my inquiry. The atonement’s power is such that it crosses the bounds of space and time, applying backwards and forwards. We could say that it fills time and space in every direction. That’s pretty impressive. And it’s infinite (Alma 34:14). It endures forever and there is nothing that doesn’t fall under its purview. But what makes the Atonement have this infinite endurance? What gives it its lasting power?

We know Jesus had to die and we know that he had to suffer. We know that he had to be resurrected. What other elements <i>had</i> to be present to make the Atonement a reality? And which of these elements gave the atonement its enduring power?

I don’t know all the answers to those questions but I’d always understood that it was the suffering that gave the Atonement its eternal quality. Or at least that it was one of the qualities that did so. I’m not alone in this either, I’ve found, and so the question is one that bears asking.

But, working on the assumption that it was <i>the</i> factor that made the Atonement apply eternally, as I was, I always asked myself the question “how could an infinite Atonement occur when Jesus only suffered for a finite amount of time?” It bothered me. I’ve since thought of or been introduced to several possible answers.

It seems to me that there are four possibilities that exist concerning the nature of Jesus’ suffering: either it was infinite in its intensity, it was infinite in its length or endurance somehow, it was neither and that my assumption that the suffering need be infinite in some way was fallacious, or it is some combination of length and intensity. I actually favor this last idea of these options which involves eternal time (in-spite of my concerns above). But I want to know how everyone else feels about this and which side they take. Or if there are other possibilities that I haven’t heard before.

In the first idea Jesus suffered an infinitely painful feeling. This infinite intensity fulfills the requirement to make it infinite in some manner. The strength of the argument is that it fits the bill for the saying that only Jesus could have done it in mortality and not died. It is weakened by the fact that Jesus seemingly suffered for a notable length of time. He made several prayers, came back and admonished Peter, James, and John a couple times, and seemingly suffered for what may have been hours. Why draw it out? If the suffering only need reach that infinite intensity to fulfill the requirement

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16 Comments

Filed under Atonement, Doctrine

16 responses to “The Nature of Jesus’ Suffering

  1. TT

    This is an interesting post and some interesting suggestions. I wonder, however, if you could say more about what you think is at stake in this question and the importance of the answer. Is it just that you are trying to understand the ways in which the atonement can possibly be efficacious, or is there something more that I am missing? If so, can you explain a bit about why the answer matters?

  2. Jason

    Back in Iraq I read the book “The Peacegiver”. In it, the Atonement and the nature of Christ’s suffering was reinterpreted as being the suffering we feel as things happen in >i>our life. At the time I believed in the D&C Student Manual’s version of the way God experiences time (exactly as you described) and this new interpretation of the Atonement suddenly made everything understandable to me–Christ didn’t suffer pain just to satisfy some threshold requirement, but, in that one night, became a part of us all. He lived our lives with us, experiencing the ups and downs and miseries and joys, and, most important, helped each of us, individually and separately, remove the “chains of sin” from our heart, which we couldn’t do on our own. He infinitely spread himself out and helped us, and that’s why the atonement is effective. I later came to associate the Light of Christ as what was “spread out” that night.

    Since then, though, I’ve become wary of the idea of God’s timelessness (mostly on the basis of physics). I’ve also come to question the idea that we can’t do anything for ourselves.

    TT brings up a good question. It would be interesting to think about what the implications of these questions are.

  3. LXX, I’ve often heard that God is situated much like the hub of a wheel. The very center of a wheel actually doesn’t travel at all, it just revolves around an infinitely small point. The rest of the wheel continues to revolve around that point. If the universe were flatted, God might be said to be at that hub because he’s not passing through space, and therefore time doesn’t apply (because really, “time” is just the mathematical measurement or representation of an object’s motion through space). As far as how his subjection to time and space and how they relate to the atonement, I’d say it’s time for you to get a day job. ;)

  4. lxxluthor

    TT: I am, on this topic, primarily interested in understanding how how the Atonement was effected. I’m the sort of sucker (see David J’s last comment) who takes the statement that “we can’t understand the Atonement” as a personal challenge. I want to know all there is to know about it and where and why our knowledge ends concerning it. The question and its answer are important to me because: 1. the Atonement is one of the single most important actions God has ever undertaken; 2. it directly relates to my own potential for salvation; and 3. I’m a firm believer that any increase in our understanding about God opens a new way for us to be more Godlike. I’m a big proponent of the whole “if you don’t know God you don’t know yourself” rhetoric. Is this making any sense?

    Jason: Who’s the author of this book? Sounds interesting. As for the description you gave about Christ becoming a part of us all and suffering our sufferings with us, I don’t know that I have a problem with that at all. My idea and yours don’t seem particularly exclusive. The only thing I have to add about that is that Christ suffered for far more than just the things we experience; he also suffered to reverse all the effects of the Fall, including the cursing of the earth, etc. So while I’m comfortable with your description being applied to us, I think there is something more. And, if the Atonement is thought of in mathematical terms, something that may not be a good idea, then in order for the Atonement to be efficacious infinitely, then it must have some characteristic which makes it infinite. Or so I think. That is what I am exploring.

    David J: Yeah, I’m hoping this will become my day job. :) I’ve heard that idea but I like this one better. It makes a few other things not explored in this post make more sense too. Maybe I’ll post on them too just to get the whole idea out there. I shied away from it because brevity is not my strong point. ;)

  5. Jason

    he also suffered to reverse all the effects of the Fall, including the cursing of the earth

    We teach that the reversal of the Fall comes through Christ’s resurrection, which reverses mortality. I don’t know what you mean by cursing of the earth.

    Anyway, with regards to the “infinite” aspect of the Atonement, how are you so sure it is the suffering part that’s infinite? I understand Amulek as saying that it is infinite (or nonlocal) in that it applies to everyone and not just a certain cityfull of people.

    Here’s how I see the evolution of Christ’s suffering: The passion was always the Catholic version: that Jesus was tortured and crucified. Later, the passion became thought of as the part that was effective. Then, commentators in our church decided that the passion must necessarily be more than just that, because many men have undergone torture and crucifixion, and Christ must have suffered more because it is the Atonement for crying out loud, and only one man/god could do it.

    I don’t think there is anything but tradition that says the suffering was the effective part. BTW, early LDS commentators (ie B.H. Roberts) saw D&C 19 in the context of the cross, not of the garden (if you’d like I could try to find the quote).

    So, I think your third option is the correct one. That Christ’s suffering need be eternal is fallacious.

  6. Jason

    Oh yeah, the books full title is “The Peacegiver: How Christ Offers to Heal Our Hearts and Homes” by James L. Ferrell.

  7. lxxluthor

    Jason: Fair enough, it’s nigh impossible to get any kind of agreement between people when it comes to the Atonement and its details. As for the Fall being reversed by the resurrection, that doesn’t make sense to me at all and I’ve never heard it said that way before. The Fall is the removal of man from the presence of God, something resurrection could never over come. The separation between man and God is caused by sin and so it is forgiveness that overcomes the Fall, not resurrection.

    As for your evolution of understanding of the passion, you may be right. But it assumes that the Catholics were wrong in thinking that the passion was effective, a thing which is not a given in my mind. Our Church leaders have not taught anything different that I’m aware of to dispute this claim. If anyone has something to that effect then I’d really like to see it.

  8. You may not be surprised that we have delved into these questions at some length in the past at the Thang. See here for our atonement/soteriology category of posts.

    I should also note that I (and others) consider the notion of God living outside of time to be incoherent and ultimately non-sense. (The same thing goes for the idea of backward causation.) See posts on that here and here.

  9. lxxluthor

    Ok, before I go check out Geoff J’s links I should state here more clearly that I do not think that God actually lives outside of time and if I directly said that or insinuated that then it was an accident and I goofed big time. I think God exists in a place where (this might sound corny but it isn’t meant to be) he is a higher dimension of time. This discussion has been had in print concerning higher dimensions of space and I have been led to understand that the two are similar. To view the article on space you can download it here:

    http://byustudies.byu.edu/Products/MoreInfoPage/MoreInfo.aspx?Type=7&ProdID=1639

    I think God is bound by some dimension of time, just not ours. And besides, we say that we think that God do virtually anything, that he has all knowledge and power but we aren’t willing to think that he might live in higher dimensions? I read a Time magazine article two years ago that reported that today’s theoretical physicists all agree that there are many more time-spatial dimensions than the four we comprehend; some postulate that there could be as many as 26! And it is no stretch to think that there could be at least one higher dimension of time. (actually string theory is based around this, just google time dimensions and you’ll find it) If none of this makes any sense then I highly recommend reading the BYU Studies article mentioned above, it really will make sense.

  10. lxxluthor

    As a follow up to my last comment, I’ve now read as much of the links Geoff provided (and many of their spinoffs; very good stuff, I highly recommend it when you have an afternoon) as well as the results of my own searching the net for multiple time dimensions articles and I’ve gained some new insight. Lots of physicists like the idea of multiple dimensions of time and lots of physicists don’t. I didn’t find anyone offering a description like the one I gave above which makes me wonder how I got it. However, it doesn’t mean that in some fundamental way that I’m not right, but it seems really impossible to prove one way or another. At least, Geoff, I hope that you can appreciate that I’m not speaking about a timeless God, just one that experiences time differently.

  11. NoCoolName_Tom

    I personally have felt that the pain felt in the Garden (and, according to some, on the cross as well) was the culmination of Christ taking upon himself the pains and the sicknesses of his people. During this time I feel that he felt what it was like to starve, have a menstrual period, and all of the other afflictions of mortality that he may not have experienced in his mortal life, so that he would know how to succor his people in all of their infirmities.

    As for taking upon himself the sins of the world, I also feel that at this point he took upon himself the sins that had been committed to that point. As for the sins committed now, from what I feel about our agency I can’t imagine that he has somehow already paid for a sin that I may or may not actually commit, unless that’s part of what makes it infinite. I have to imagine that he somehow currently atones for my sins when I commit them (and hopefully repent). It also doesn’t make sense that I can somehow retroactively affect the past when a sin is committed. I can’t view God as somehow playing with time in a different fashion than His creation allows, since he bodily dwells within His creation (the universe), but that leads to some very different views on the atonement, obviously.

    I’m not sure how to handle the “suffer even as I have suffered” part, but that requires more prayerful consideration. Hopefully I will one day understand it (and not by firsthand knowledge!). Perhaps by then my views will become more conservative.

  12. AHLDuke

    I personally subscribe the idea of a God that exists in time. This does not come from any musing on theoretical physics,etc. but rather my own sense of what God is like, based on some writings by Terryl Givens and Sterling McMurrin.

    As to the infinite nature of the Atonement, I was thinking about this today because we discussed the Garden and the bloody sweat in Sunday School today. I find that when I try to comprehend that Christ atoned for every sin of everyone everywhere at any time, etc. etc., that it essentially becomes so great that it is meaningless. Kind of like discussing the U.S. GDP (now at $16+ trillion in 2006). Its such a large number and so hard to fathom that it becomes meaningless. I prefer thinking more in terms of Christ’s sacrifice for me and for those that I love most in this life. I understand that the Atonement extends to all, but keeping it personal makes it easier to keep perspective. The idea of infinity to me carries the connotation that I can always be forgiven for whatever I may have done (except for those few key sins). A passage in the BOM says “and as many times as they repented, they were forgiven.”

    Also, the SS teacher today made a comment that interested me. He read from Talmage that no part of Christ’s suffering was a fear of death. I don’t think the answer to this is as self-evidence as Talmage or the SS teacher would like to make it. If Christ was truly taking upon himself the sins and weaknesses of his people, wouldn’t he have to experience some kind of fear of death, even if not the fear of his own death?

  13. LXXLuthor,

    It seems to me that there are four possibilities that exist concerning the nature of Jesus’ suffering: either it was infinite in its intensity, it was infinite in its length or endurance somehow, it was neither and that my assumption that the suffering need be infinite in some way was fallacious, or it is some combination of length and intensity.

    I favor the third option.

    For it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice; yea, not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast, neither of any manner of fowl; for it shall not be a human sacrifice; but it must be an infinite and eternal sacrifice. (Alma 34:10)

    This scripture applies the term “infinite and eternal” to the sacrifice, not to the suffering. Thus, I take it to be a description of Christ, not to the atonement itself. The phrase “infinite and eternal” appears four times in the Standard Works and in each case, it is used as a description of God. So all of that hangs together pretty well.

    Of course, there are a couple of other places in the BofM that the atonement is referred to as “infinite.” One of them uses the phrase “the atonement, which is infinite for all mankind” (2 Ne 25:16), which I take to mean that it is infinite in that it applies to all mankind. Personally, I find D&C 88:6-7 and D&C 93:2 to be useful cross references for this idea.

  14. lxxluthor

    Jacob: Fair ’nuff and well said.

  15. I know I am way too late for this discussion, but just in case….

    Is it possible that the nature of Christ’s suffering was in experiencing what he, as God (the Son), should never have experienced; namely, a separation from God (the Father)?

    As for “infinite for all mankind,” I wonder if it’s correct to say that “it is infinite in that it applies to all mankind.” Is mankind infinite? I don’t know. Another way to interpret the phrase is to say that for each and every person, the atonement is infinite; i.e. it is infinitely sufficient to exact the infinite change necessary to unite a sinner with God.

  16. Member

    I think you are asking a pretty good question here.

    Elder Nelson said, “Jesus was the only one who could offer such an infinite atonement, since He was born of a mortal mother and an immortal Father. Because of that unique birthright, Jesus was an infinite Being.” The reason his atonement is timeless is because it was unjust that he suffered the way he did. Justice is eternal and has eternal consequences. I could go into it more but to put it simply, justice will always be in debt to the savior just as infinitely.