It's Easter Week, so this particular Mormon girl is once again pondering the nature of the Atonement, at least as I (very imperfectly) understand it. Specifically, I'm thinking about the way I might answer an interesting question I heard a while back: "If God really wanted to motivate people to be good, why only tell them 'Jesus died for your sins?' Why not just leave Jesus permanently suffering in hell instead?"
Well, I can't speak for every Christian, so perhaps the idea that Jesus Christ is constantly, actively being made to suffer for their sins might well provide some Christians with motivation to be better people. But that's not the way I see it.
I think the primary motivator in the situation described above would be guilt. And yes, guilt can be a powerful motivator, but guilt is also more of a short-term emotional response. If you do something wrong, the feelings of guilt associated with that activity are meant to goad you into action, to right the wrong as soon as possible. But if you repress or ignore feelings of guilt over long periods of time, you can become inured to them. The belief that Christ is permanently suffering for your sin, and the complete inability to bring that suffering to an end, would be far more likely to inspire a kind of guilt burnout.
Another possible motivator is a sense of duty or obligation. If someone does something for you, you feel compelled to do something in return -- either by paying back, or by paying forward. The problem with obligation as a motivator is that payment for sin is a debt that cannot be repaid in any meaningful sense. You cannot take the sin or the suffering away from Christ, nor can you in turn "pay it forward" by suffering for someone else's sin -- Christ's payment for sins, Christians believe, is a unique contribution that no one else can duplicate. So a mere sense of obligation, like a sense of guilt, has no way of being acted upon and therefore also inspires emotional burnout.
Perhaps another motivator in this situation might be fear. Surely a God who has the capacity and desire to torture an innocent person for all eternity would inspire fear in sinners. But I don't subscribe to the Jonathan Edwards style of theology, the idea of a vengeful God waiting for people to slip up so He can send them straight to hell. A God who tortures the innocent solely to keep others in line would not be, in any manner of speaking, a deity worthy of our praise or worship; He might have the ability to inspire terror, but little else. Simply put, a God who is not good is not God at all.
So then, what does motivate people to be good?
Let's look at the Atonement in a little more detail. What exactly did Christ come to do?
Here's the conundrum: life is a learning experience. We go through life to struggle with and overcome challenges, to be tested, to face situations only the experience of mortality can provide. In the process, because we are imperfect, we all commit sins, which separate us from God. God dearly loves us and wants us to return to Him, but there are fixed, eternal laws in place which even He cannot abrogate. Justice demands that we suffer for our sins. Mercy, on the other hand, must be extended to all who ask for it. How is it possible for God to satisfy the demands of both justice and mercy in order to draw us back to Him? We need a mediator: someone who is capable of paying the price of sin to satisfy justice, and who may therefore extend mercy to those willing to accept it.
But simple empathy -- the act of suffering with us -- is insufficient to remove sin. So the Atonement goes further. After taking upon himself all sin, Jesus Christ died. Again, though we are not certain how it works, this act -- of an innocent person willingly taking on the burden of sin and then offering himself as a sacrifice -- expiates sins. Had no one been able to atone for us, the burden of our sins and the demands of justice should drag us down to a prison of the soul from whence there could be no escape, even in death. Instead, we receive a promise that we can be free of that burden as long as we continue to turn away from our sins and try to follow Christ.
It goes still further. The Gospels all proclaim that on the third day, Jesus Christ rose from the dead as a fully restored and perfected living being. He was the first to be resurrected, but he would not be the last. His resurrection is an even greater promise -- the promise that even death can have no permanent hold on us.
All this Christ did for us, not merely because he had to, but because he saw us as his friends and he loved us enough to save us through his sacrifice. He said so himself: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."
Believing all this, knowing what Christ did for me and why, what would my primary emotional motivator have to be? Not guilt, nor duty, nor fear -- but love, a kind of love that can scarcely be articulated in words, and therefore must be spoken through acts of kindness and service. A love born of gratitude for a supreme act of grace that cannot be repaid, but whose mediator makes only one request: "Follow me." A love that inspires the courage to do what is right, even when it's hard to do.
And that's what Easter is about. It's the celebration of an act of love that bought our freedom.