Givens on Atonement, Agency, and the War in Heaven
Terryl L. Givens, professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond, published two articles in Meridian Magazine early this year, taking up the perennially problematic topic of divine justice. Givens ends part one with this promise:
I believe what will provide greater clarity on [the problem of suffering], as well as greater clarity about LDS conceptions of the war in heaven, the purpose of mortal life, and the nature of the atonement, is a more coherent account of the meaning and role of moral agency. So in what follows, I want to make some very tentative efforts in that regard.
This is a serious claim. In this post, I would like engage Givens’ ideas, explore whether the article delivers on its claim, and offer a tentative critique of my own.
One of Givens’ central arguments is that human agency cannot exist unless every choice is linked to its natural consequence. For example, if an ice cream parlor offers several choices of ice cream, but everyone is served the same flavor no matter what they order, Givens might point out that in reality there was no choice. Merely providing choice is not the essential ingredient of freedom—it is guaranteeing that choices have predictable consequences. Otherwise, we end up with, in Givens’ words, a sham, “a mere pantomime of decision-making.” From here, Givens discusses the true nature of Satan’s alternative plan—a plan not brought about by coercion—but brought about by the seductive delinking of choice from consequence.
The problem arises when Givens takes up the theme of Atonement. Indeed, there can be no better example where the consequences of our moral choices are, in fact, abrogated, interrupted, even denied. The Atonement is the Great Plan to avoid the consequence of our actions, to escape the ‘exquisite’ suffering of divine wrath (D&C 19:15-17). Thus, according to the logic Givens puts forth, the Atonement—that great system par excellence for erasing the horrific consequences of our choices—must inevitably and irrevocably result in the complete and total decimation of human agency.
Fortunately, Givens recognizes this dilemma and asks:
How can another agent (Christ) bear the consequence of all human actions, without compromising our agency? How can he suffer in our stead, without sacrificing our accountability and therefore our moral freedom? … If we don’t receive what we chose to receive, how can our freedom be intact?
Like most readers, I continued to read, expecting Givens to sever the Gordian knot. Can he explain how the Atonement could possibly function given the fact that it should compromise our agency? Could he deliver on his introductory promise to provide “greater clarity” on the nature of the atonement through a “more coherent account of the meaning and role of moral agency”?
Givens responds as follows:
And what is the role of Christ in this conception? One might posit in this scheme of things that Christ bears the consequences of all the wrong choices that have ever been made, to assure, to guarantee, the principle of moral agency, maintaining the law of restoration and the equilibrium of choice and consequence, thereby permitting an errant human kind to repent, or as the word signifies, to re-decide, to choose afresh. The law of agency requires that choices of moral moment eventuate in their decreed consequences. But so many of our choices, made in our frailty, entail catastrophic pain and suffering. Christ is willing to bear that pain and suffering in our stead, that we may re-employ our agency to better ends. The atonement, then, does not eliminate or override individual agency; it reaffirms its status as the precondition for all meaningful existence.
Givens tells us that Christ bears our consequences without destroying agency. Even though our choices should ultimately end in pain and suffering, Christ abrogates those pains, but apparently without destroying our moral freedom. Unfortunately, this explanation, however, begs as many questions as it attempts to answer.
It’s useful to consider the Merdian articles in light of Givens’ larger body of work. He first published his theory of agency—that agency is only guaranteed when natural consequences flow from choice uninterrupted—in his 2002 opus, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World. There, he first explored Book of Mormon atonement theology, probably weighing into LDS discussions on atonement theory at that time.
Givens continued to think of such issues as the war in heaven and Lucifer’s competing plan of salvation. In 2007, he briefly broached these topics in People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture. He writes:
According to this scenario, then, the first cosmic conflict on record is between the principle of agency and the threat of compulsion. Whether we see that attempt at coercion as the first form that evil took, as an evil secondary to a dissent from God’s proffered plan, or, more radically, as preceding revolt and rebellion—and thus the primal evil itself—it is clear that Joseph [Smith] is making moral agency the locus and origin of the moral dualism of the universe.
Here, Givens perpetuates the common characterization of Satan’s plan as compulsory. While he does introduce some nuance into Satan’s actions, Givens retains the language of coercion and describes Satan’s actions as evil.
However, he seems to have re-conceived some of these ideas.
Givens brought together his writings on atonement and the war in heaven in an address given May 7, 2010, titled Moral, Responsible, and Free: Mormon Conceptions of Divine Justice, which talk, by the way, was expanded for the Meridian articles.
Whereas in Paradox Givens describes Satan’s actions as evil, he now writes “[I]n the logic of the scriptural narrative, [Satan's] proposal was not obviously and self-evidently evil.” Whereas in Paradox he describes Satan’s plan using terms like “coercion” and “threat of compulsion” he now distances himself from such ideas:
Many Mormons have long assumed, evident in a pervasive cultural grammar, that Lucifer’s plan involved coercion. That he would simply ‘force’ people to be righteous, or to keep the commandments. There are several problems with such a reading.
I like knowing that Givens is evolving as a thinker on these issues. The incremental, accretive and condensed nature of the Meridian piece, however, inevitably left some of Givens thoughts cryptic.
As I explained above, Givens argues that agency cannot exist unless choices have consequences. He acknowledges the problem and asks how the atonement can “bear the consequence of all human actions without compromising our agency” but then concludes that God affirms our choices and does not negate the consequences of our actions. This naturally leads the reader to ask what role Christ plays or what the atonement even accomplishes. Anticipating this response he asks what role Christ plays, but concludes that Christ bears the consequences of all human action while at the same time maintaining agency. But he doesn’t seem to explain how that can follow given what he has been writing all along.
In By the Hand of Mormon, Givens offer a more substantial explanation:
[N]o escape from the consequences of law is possible without destroying the entire moral order of the universe and both the human agency it grounds and the status of the divine guarantor of the whole system (“God would cease to be God”). As long as the penalty is executed, law is safeguarded. As long as man chooses to undo the effects of his decisions and then chooses anew (repentance), agency is safeguarded. So Christ offers himself as ransom to the demands of law, as the only being capable of paying a cumulative penalty as “eternal as the life of the soul” (Alma 42:16). The consequence of unrighteous choice unfolds as it must, but the pain it inflicts is vicariously felt. Therefore, “justice exercises all his demands, and also mercy claimeth all which is her own; and thus, none but the truly penitent are saved.” (Alma 42:24).
This seems to be Givens’ response. This may be difficult to follow, but here it goes. When man repents, the natural consequence that flows from this decision is to escape the penalty that naturally flows from his sin, which consequence, according to Givens, cannot be altered without rendering human choice meaningless and destroying the entire moral order of the universe. However, when a person chooses to repent, abrogating the natural consequences of sin does not render his initial choice meaningless and does not destroy the entire moral order of the universe. Apparently, the natural consequence of repentance seems to trump the natural consequence of sin.
It isn’t clear, however, that Givens can escape his own critique of traditional atonement theories. Of such theories he writes:
Since punishment—but not punishment of the guilty—is required, the impersonal demand is in accordance with some abstract calculus that has no earthly counterpart. No terrestrial magistrate would allow an innocent person to die for a guilty one and consider justice to be served. Peculiar, second, because Justice here usurps the place of God, as a principle before which he himself seems to bow. A wise father, given appropriate extenuating circumstances, or the timely and efficacious exercise of mercy, may remit altogether the punishment of a guilty son. God, apparently, cannot. Explanation of atonement in terms of a Platonic absolute called Justice, in other words, begs as many questions as it answers.
What I hear Givens saying is that God is punishing the Son not because he must satisfy a Platonic notion of Justice, but rather, God must punish “somebody” otherwise agency can’t exist. This seems novel. But is this supposed to make us feel better? The very notion of vicarious punishment is the problem, regardless of the reason. How is this just or fair? How is the principle that choices must have consequences for freedom to exist not also be a principle before which God himself must bow?
Givens’ argument seems to invite several critiques.
First, Givens says that consequences are chosen in the moment of choice, but I think this view relies too much on an absolute foreknowledge model. Is it truly the case that “Consequences are chosen at the time actions are freely committed”? Wouldn’t it make more sense to say that those consequences are not yet vested, but could vest if not superseded by making additional choices (i.e. repentance)? This discussion of choices having predictable consequences works so long as we stay within the realm of a divine punishment linked to an identifiable sin. But so many consequences of our choices are unpredictable and impossible to foresee. We simply do not always make choices with the full knowledge of what we are choosing.
Second, Givens equivocates on “pain and suffering” in a way that severely weakens his articles. In part one of his article, he discusses “the reality of a world drenched in pain and suffering” and the “pain, the trauma, and the horror in the world.” For example, Ivan in the Brothers Karamazov cares nothing about hell but wrestles with the pain and suffering of tortured children in this life. But inexplicably, in part two, Givens subtlety switches gears and defines pain and suffering much too narrowly as only that which occurs after this world ends. He considers consequences in terms of the eternal punishment that is affixed. Givens focuses on the conscious choices and consequences of those choices as they affect the person making those choices. But this simply doesn’t reflect our reality. It is often the choices of others that reap horrific consequences upon us, or non-human causes such as the trauma of natural disasters. For this reason, Givens does not sufficiently engage the problem of evil.
Yet even if the atonement allows one to escape the eternal torment, individuals still suffer in this life as a result of choices, whether they later repent or not. The Sons of Mosiah continued to suffer “much anguish of soul” even after they repented of their sins (Mosiah 28:4). Mortals do not often lament that God doesn’t prevent eternal pain and suffering, but rather they question why God doesn’t prevent mortal pain and suffering, whether caused by their own actions, the actions of others, or the pains that come with living in a fallen world of disease and death. Givens raises the problem of earthly suffering in part one, and then offers the solution that Christ bears the consequences of our actions in part two. The reader is unable to know whether Givens is saying Christ bears our mortal pains not. It would seem there is a double suffering. We experience mortal suffering in this life, plus Christ suffers our eternal consequences.
Moreover, there is a crucial insight in Mormon theology about the educative nature of pain and suffering. Pain is a form of knowledge. (Alma 7:12; D&C 122:7). Our pain often makes us who we are. Indeed, for Christ to rob us of our pain would be to deny the experiential purpose of the plan of salvation. (Abr. 3:25). The Book of Mormon teaches that Christ came not to prevent our pain but to “succor his people according to their infirmities.” (Alma 7:12).
Third, if agency can exist so long as Christ suffers pains that flow from decisions, why doesn’t he just suffer for everyone and allow universal salvation? Under Givens’ explanation, universal salvation is theoretically possible. I see no reason, so long as consequences flow to someone, why agency could not be maintained. I suspect Givens would argue that this cannot be since a person cannot receive a reward he or she hasn’t chosen (i.e. salvation). Yet, wouldn’t it have held true for those that chose Lucifer’s plan that their choice too was a choice for salvation?
Fourth, what is the difference between Lucifer’s plan (negating the consequence of our actions) and God’s plan (negating the consequences of our actions when we repent)? In both scenarios the consequences of our actions are negated.
Fifth, I would like to see more exploration as to why creating a law of repentance (choice with a consequence) can override the effects of sin (choice with a consequence) without apparently “destroying the entire moral order of the universe.” Why does it not destroy agency for Christ to vicariously suffer due to our actions? If something like the Atonement doesn’t destroy agency, then should we really believe that abrogating the consequences of our actions will destroy agency?
 Terryl L. Givens. Part 1: “What is Man, that Thou Shouldst Set Thine Heart upon Him?” Meridian Magazine, February 16, 2011. off-site; Terryl L. Givens. Part 2: “Agency and Atonement.” Meridian Magazine, March 09, 2011. off-site. Originally given as a JRCLS presentation titled Moral, Responsible, and Free: Mormon Conceptions of Divine Justice, May 7, 2010.
 This is new material not found in his earlier 2010 address or published writings.
 Readers found Givens’ explanation less than satisfactory. See Matt W. “A Critique of Terryl Givens’ Theodicy.” New Cool Thang, March 19, 2011. Accessed June 3, 2011 from http://www.newcoolthang.com/index.php/2011/03/a-critique-of-terryl-givens-theodicy/2633/
 Terryl L. Givens. By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World. (Oxford University Press, 2002): 204-207. While this material finds its way to the Meridian articles largely unmodified, I recommended this original material as the most coherent articulation of his views.
 See R. Dennis Potter. “Did Christ Pay for Our Sins?” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 32.4 (1999):73-86. Potter writes “Indeed, it strikes me as right that God can decide to forgive without punishment” (p. 82). Givens, as if responding to Potter’s article, writes: “If humans can remit a penalty out of compassion or mercy, why cannot God? Because, as Alma continues, such apparent generosity would undermine the essence of that agency on which moral freedom depends.” By the Hand of Mormon, 206.
 Terryl L. Givens. People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture. (Oxford University Press, 2007): 3-5.
 Paradox, 5.
 Terryl L. Givens. “Moral, Responsible, and Free: Mormon Conceptions of Divine Justice.” May 7, 2010. Accessed June 3, 2011 from http://terrylgivens.com/addresses-and-essays/. This was expanded and divided into two parts for the 2011 Meridian articles. Part two includes some early Mormon views on the subject, probably culled from Givens’ latest project on the history of theology in Mormonism.
 By the Hand of Mormon, 207.
 By the Hand of Mormon, 205.
 By the Hand of Mormon, 206.
 Alma seems to have had a different experience from the Sons of Mosiah. Mosiah 27:29; Alma 36:19.
 This insight no doubt rings true for many, although it doesn’t answer the existence of pain and suffering that seems to go above and beyond any conceivable educative value.