A Snake Set on a Pole — The Infinite Atonement of a Finite God

Kim McCall

Prepared for the 1998 Sunstone Symposium

The book of Numbers records an occasion during their long wilderness pilgrimage when the children of Israel got impatient and started kvetching that Moses had led them out of Egypt only to die in the wilderness. According to the record, the Lord then sent poisonous snakes among the camp. Many Israelites were killed by the snakes, which were seen as God’s punishment for their murmuring against him and against Moses. They repented, promised to be good, and pled with Moses to ask the Lord to "take away" the snakes. Moses did so, but the Lord, instead of removing the snakes, told Moses to make a bronze image of a snake and set it on top of a pole. Whoever was bitten by a snake, if they would fix their gaze on this bronzed snake, would be healed. (Numbers 21:4-9)

Please agree with me that even before all the atonement symbolism that Christians later attached to it, this is already a rather symbolically mind-bending story. Some future paper could try to learn something from the fact that the Lord explicitly commands something awfully close to "make unto thee a graven image" and setting it up for something that could easily lead toward adoration. The most striking aspect of the story for me is that the source to which the afflicted are to look for deliverance and healing is the image of the very source of their affliction. Snakes are killing you, and you’re supposed to look to a bronzed snake for your deliverance. Add to this the fact that up to this point in the Torah snakes have not exactly gotten a lot of positive press, and you’ve got a mighty paradoxical path to physical salvation.

Christians, including John’s Christ himself, later found in this story a foreshadowing of the crucifixion of Jesus and the eternal salvation of all who would fix their spiritual gaze on him. John records Christ preaching that "Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life." (John 3:14-15) At least two Book of Mormon figures see the same analogy. (Alma 33:19-21; Hel 8:14-15) The symbolism is powerful, but once again highly paradoxical. The symbol we have most closely associated with Satan is now being used to represent our Lord, his diametrical opposite. And once again, how can the symbol of our affliction and torment be identified with the source of our healing and redemption? How can a deadly snake represent God’s ultimate act of healing? "It is a puzzlement."

I hope in this paper to take seriously this powerful and paradoxical symbol of the atonement. It is my experience that of such paradoxes can be born fresh insights; rich symbols will abundantly repay our sincere efforts to unpack and learn from them.

All my life I have found the atonement the most difficult of doctrines, intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally. I understand the critical roll the suffering and sacrifice of Christ are supposed to play in our salvation, but I have never felt that I understood satisfactorily why such suffering was necessary or exactly how it was supposed to help anything. Almost every explanation I have heard seems transparently inconsistent either internally or with my sense of justice or with my sense of the love and mercy of God. But through listening anew to some of my most respected teachers, through what I hope is at least a modest amount of growth in my own life, and through pondering such conundrums as the one currently before us, I am inching my way toward a new (for me) conception of the atonement that I hope will be fruitful in my life and perhaps even a source of some inspiration or comfort to others.


The theological enterprise

Well, having, with luck, aroused (if not "piqued") your interest, I will now bore you with an extended digression on the enterprise we are up to here. We have set ourselves the task (under the merciful thumb of my own most beloved professor of religion) of developing a scripturally based theological treatment of the atonement.

[This section even more "still under construction" than the rest]


This last point raises one further concern of special relevance to this paper. Some commentators have criticized Paul as basing an entire theology on his own mental and emotional experience. Much of his explanation of Christianity is indeed based on his introspection into his own response to the experience of Christ, and this raises the danger that his doctrine might have been too much influenced by his Jewish heritage and his own particular internal conflicts. If this is even remotely true of Paul, it is far truer of this Mormon with my (probably even greater) abundance of conflicts, "baggage," and "issues." I am bound to look for (and find) in the saving message a resolution for my peculiar conflicts, a balm for my peculiar wounds. So, caveat lector.


The concept of the atonement

What are we talking about when we talk about the atonement? It will be helpful here to introduce just a tiny bit of philosophical apparatus. We want to distinguish between the concept of the atonement, and various possible conceptions of the atonement. I became familiar with this analytical technique in John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. The concept of justice is something like: Justice is the morally correct distribution of rights, duties, and resources among the members of a society. It says what we mean by ‘justice’ in general, without saying just what constitutes such a morally correct distribution. Once we’ve agreed on this concept, then we can argue about various conceptions of justice, e.g. whether it is "the greatest good for the greatest number," "fairness," "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need", "equality of opportunity," or whatever.

So we want first to specify the concept of the atonement in a way that says what we mean when we talk about the atonement, without prejudicing further discussion of exactly what it consist in or how it works. Here’s an attempt to express the concept of the atonement.

For Mormons, the atonement:


Conceptions of the atonement

As mentioned briefly above, centuries of commentators have tried to comprehend and communicate their understanding of the atonement. Some have experienced Christ as ransoming their souls from the devil. Others have imagined an angry God whose offended sense of justice must be appeased. Others have imagined an eternal balance scale where every ounce of sin must be answered by an ounce of suffering.

If church-produced videos are indicative, the current prevailing conception of the atonement among church leaders runs something like this. Each act of sin requires, as a matter of justice, some amount of compensatory suffering or payment. Each of us has sinned and thereby incurred a debt. But we, being mortal, are not capable of paying this debt. It is too great for us. Christ, however, suffered so much or so profoundly in the garden of Gethsemane that he can pay the debt for all of us. He chooses to do so for all (and only) those who repent.

In the opinion of the current author, this understanding of the atonement is fraught with difficulties (although this hardly makes it unique among conceptions of the atonement, not excluding the one to be hinted at in the body of this paper).

One obvious problem, and I find it insurmountable, concerns vicarious payment. As Amulek puts it, "Now, if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother? I say unto you, Nay. But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered." Human creditors may be satisfied to take payment from whoever wants to pay, but a debt which is incurred to a law, as a consequence of retributive justice, can only be paid by the one who incurred the debt. Imagine a parent whose rule is broken and therefore demands to spank someone, anyone. What kind of "justice" is that?

A more subtle (and intriguing) problem concerns why Jesus would extend his saving payment only to those who exercise faith in him and repent. This is not well accounted for in this conception of the atonement. Either God seems mildly arbitrary, or there is much more to overcoming sin than vicarious payment, and the theory is subverted. The answer to this problem (which must be addressed in any conception of the atonement) exposes deep philosophical beliefs, and reveals one of the great strengths of Mormon theology as I understand it. We will take up this question in exploring our own understanding of the atonement.

Perhaps the greatest theological problem with this conception of the atonement is that, for the central, pivotal doctrine in all Christianity, it really has very little connection to what God is trying to accomplish here. In Mormon theology this life is not about paying for (or even cleansing from) sins, but about becoming good, godly people. It seems as though God’s central act in our eternal progression should be about making us better, not about appeasing abstract laws. We will turn next to this theme.


Metaphysics and Soteriology

Let’s consider the question of the atonement from a theological perspective. What is the relationship between our conception of the atonement and the rest of our theology? Clearly any global understanding of the universe and our place in it, of the nature of our eternal existence, will influence our understanding of the atonement. It seems clear that our meaning-of-life theology will impose some limits on the possible goals and mechanisms of the atonement. The atonement will play a role within the entire plan of salvation. What could God possibly be trying to accomplish? Within LDS theology, what could reasonably be the goal of his central act vis a vis humanity?

The LDS scriptures contain profound (and, to some, startling) doctrines concerning the nature of the universe, of humanity, and of the purpose of existence. Man (like Christ) is co-eternal with God. The intelligence that is at the center of human identity is uncreated. (D&C 93:29) Even the elements are uncreated and eternal. (D&C 93:33) God’s work is to bring about, if possible, the "eternal (glorified, god-like) life" of these other eternal beings. (Moses 1:39) There are laws governing all these things (D&C 88:36), and they are independent in their respective spheres. (D&C 93:30) If they do not abide the laws that govern them, they cannot be glorified; (D&C 130:20-21; D&C 132: 21) and the kind of glory they are capable of inheriting is determined by the level of law they live, i.e. by the kind of life they learn to live. (D&C 88:21-24)

It seems evident to this author that given such a theology, God’s concern is to persuade us to live a certain kind of life, to develop the best eternal capacities within us. Our eternal progression and salvation depend on our obtaining the attributes of godliness. But, being eternal, independent, self-existent beings, these cannot be conferred on us, but must be developed through our experience. This is one of the "laws" by which we are governed. God’s plan for us must seek to encourage this development. Within Mormon theology, a complete understanding of the atonement should be expressed in terms of these needs and should illuminate not so much how Christ’s sacrifice cleanses us, but how it helps us grow or removes obstacles to our development. What are the key challenges to our progression, and how can Christ’s sacrifice help us overcome them? [guilt, sense of futility, alienation from God, need for forgiveness] (It may be here that guilt, payment, and the sense of forgiveness will reappear in our LDS conception of the atonement.)


The Serpent on the Pole

Let’s return to our guiding symbol of the snake set on the pole. It is simply part of our earthly, and perhaps eternal condition that we are beset with weaknesses and flaws that threaten to keep us from ever completing our journey to the Promised Land. Our greed, our sensuality, our anger, our jealousy, our sloth constantly bite us in the heel, and we stumble and fall.

Besides resignation, there seem to me to be two general possible responses to our weak, imperfect condition. The first and, at least for Americans and especially for Mormons, most natural is to strive mightily to overcome our weaknesses. We tell ourselves that Christ told us, and expects us at least to try, to be perfect. Our task here is to develop into "the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ," to become, as much as is earthly-possible, like our Heavenly Father. We imagine, not surprisingly, that this takes a lot of work. So we do our best to obey all the commandments, and call that righteousness. We build hedges around the law, creating new commandments about what movies we can watch and just what activities are OK on the Sabbath. We tell ourselves that goodness is achievable by eliminating and avoiding badness. And we work our way to heaven by shunning every appearance of evil and improving each shining moment.

I am not an expert on these matters, but it seems to me that this is essentially the approach to righteousness adopted by the Pharisees. It also seems to be the natural outgrowth of the "righteousness as cleanliness" metaphor embodied in the expiational conceptions of the atonement. To the ancient Jews, uncleanness really was the archetypal sin. But let’s remember what Christ had to say about such an approach to righteousness. First of all, it doesn’t work. In one fascinating parable he explained what happens when we seek to simply cast out our uncleanness.

When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none. Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. (Matt 12:43-45)

And Christ had little regard for this kind of performance-based righteousness. "Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven." (Matt 5:20) Given this standard, if righteousness consisted in punctilious observance of law, we would all be doomed. Ours could never surpass that of the Pharisees in quantity, so it must do so in quality. We must find another model of righteousness; one, as we learn elsewhere in Jesus’ teaching, that puts love, rather than obedience, at the center of our moral universe.

So what other positive response can we have to our weaknesses and failings, to the serpents that would kill us eternally? If a single-minded super-obedience is not the response our Heavenly Father urges, what is? We need to stop running away from our serpents and stop asking God to take them away. This seems to be the message of the snake raised on the pole. God doesn’t want to take away our problems, and we need to face them and see what they can teach us. I propose that we consider the possibility that it is our weaknesses, our flaws, and our afflictions rather than our strengths that bring us farthest on the path to genuine salvation and communion with God.

Listen to what Moroni learned about our flaws.

If men come unto me, I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them. (Ether 12:27)

And how do these weak things become strong? You might imagine that it is because once we recognize our weaknesses we know what to work on in order to become more righteous or more acceptable to God. But that is not what Moroni was talking about at all. Remember the story. He was very anxious about his weakness as a writer. He worried that those who would read his words would reject them on account of his poor writing, and he pled with the Lord for help. And this weak thing became strong for him. How? Did he become a better writer in the remaining few chapters of his book? Hardly likely. But the humility to which this concern led him, and the relationship that nurtured with the Lord made him a better and stronger person. Listen to how the Lord explains it to him.

. . . And because thou hast seen thy weakness thou shalt be made strong, even unto the sitting down in the place which I have prepared in the mansions of my Father. (Ether 12:37)

So it was the humility occasioned by his faults that led to Moroni’s promise of exaltation. The scriptures insist that this softening or opening is a crucial element in our susceptibility to salvation. It is an essential part of the effectiveness of the atonement in us. "Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered." (2 Ne 2:7) [italics added] Without a repentant heart, the atonement can be of no effect. "All are hardened; . . . all are lost, and must perish" (Alma 34:9) unless they are enticed to exercise faith to repent. ". . . this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance." (Alma 34:15)

So what is it that makes it possible for us to overcome our hardness, to face our weaknesses and our fears, to overpower the claims not of some legalistic God, but of our own sense of justice and guilt and to come back into the presence of God? I can only speak for myself, here; but I can imagine only one answer to this question, and that is a firm sense of God’s unconditional love, his complete understanding of what I am feeling, and his willingness to accept and hold me just as I am. I am reminded of BYU psychology professor Alan Bergin’s research into the relative effectiveness of various psychoanalytic and counseling techniques. He determined that technique was virtually irrelevant to the likelihood of success, but that the primary determinant of positive outcomes was the therapist’s ability to empathize with the patient. Even more powerfully, I think of a good friend of mine who lost her best friend to AIDS. She was devastated and sought counseling. But she refused to see anyone who had not also experienced deep pain and loss. The scriptures are trying to tell us that Christ can identify with all our sorrows and all our afflictions.

And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind . . . and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, . . . that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities . . . the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people. . . (Alma 7:11-13)

Jesus wants us to know that he’s been there. That he is there while we are there. When Mary and Martha found him on the road after their brother had died, and they complained that if he had come earlier he might have saved him, Jesus could have decided this was a good "teaching moment" in which to educate them about the plan of salvation and where their brother was now. He might even have elevated their spirits with his vision of the eternal realms. But they were in sorrow and so "Jesus wept." (John 11:35) In my view, he wept not for them, but with them. And he wants us all to know that he weeps with us when we weep. Alma testifies that he actually feels what we feel, in order to help us through it. This is the message of the atonement, of Christ’s suffering when he "suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent." (D&C 19:16) He is not a removed judge, not an unapproachable perfect example, not a substitute sacrifice, but an infinitely "com-passionate" fellow sufferer.

The atonement does not take place on some cosmic balance scale, but in the only place in the universe that matters — in the human heart. It was begun in the garden of Gethsemane, but it is completed whenever one of God’s children is won back to him through his love expressed there.

To make just one more important theological point: Why did Christ suffer? Because there was "no other way." There are blessings God wants us to enjoy, but he can’t just bestow them on us. He wants us to experience joy and growth, to feel the warmth of love toward our neighbors. But these are qualities of spirit that must be developed. In the eternal nature of the beings that we are, there are laws, which even God must respect, that govern how such spiritual maturity is attained. It may be that a theology that craves an absolutely omnipotent god is blind to such a conception of the atonement. In Mormonism’s more finitistic theology, God needs to entice us and comfort us to love and obedience, rather than simply being able to bless us however he wills. Mormonism’s God, conditioned by the eternal nature our co-eternal intelligences, is doing whatever he can to persuade us to feel his love and to grow through our weaknesses.

So he gets his own hands dirty, identifying with our suffering, and sets his snake on a pole for us.

Perfection, happiness, closeness to God, righteousness, does not consist in or flow from the eradication of flaws or sins. We cannot out-perform the Pharisees. The kinds of growth that matter eeternally consist mostly in the development of love, of empathy, of humble generosity. If we truly sense God’s love and allow it to work its magic in us, to truly feel that God loves us in all our weakness, sensuality, fear, resentment, doubt — that He, in his love-inspired divine imagination, has felt all these things himself in order to be with us through it — we will respond with love of God.

In conclusion, it is both my experience and the testimony of the scriptures, that it is not so much the sacrifice or even the promise of forgiveness as the experience of God’s com-passion that teaches us to hear, and in time inspires us to join in singing the song of redeeming love. [We soften, the snake in us shed its skin, and we rise in a newness of life.]