England on the Atonement (and Shakespeare)

Some thoughts from Eugene England, the late great Mormon apologist and literary figure, from a longer essay on Shakespeare and the Atonement:

I have become convinced, not only that Christ is the greatest reality in the universe, but also that his redemptive love, expressed in his teaching throughout history and his mortal life, especially his suffering in Gethsemane and on the cross, is the greatest force aimed at the most crucial problem in the universe, which is sin. That force is sufficient in every case entirely to overcome sin, if we will learn how to accept it for ourselves and extend it to others. (p.33)

Later in his essay, he says:

It seems that the paradox of [justice and mercy, I think] is ultimately resolvable only by the one being, Christ, who is capable of standing in our minds as both ultimate judge and yet ultimate dispenser of mercy. He gives us our sense of justice by teaching us the law and its punishment, and he therefore is the only one able, as that same divine being, to extend mercy sufficient to appease that sense of justice. Thus he breaks through our self-condemning judgment by joining with us in the pain of our failure and alienation and self-rejection while still fully accepting us, even though it is he whom we have most offended. Unlike Hamlet he chooses freely to suffer with us the pain of our offense rather than to take vengeance.

The heart of this experience, when Christ bled not from the literal wounds of the crucifixion but from the pain of achieving at onement with us sinners, was in Gethsemane. In the nineteenth section of the Doctrine and Covenants [Mormon scripture] we have the most remarkable and moving description of that experience possible, because it is spoken by Christ himself, and we can feel the pain in his actual words. Listen:

“I command you to repent–repent, lest . . . your sufferings be sore–how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, how hard to bear you know not. For behold, I God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; but if they would not repent they must suffer even as I; which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit–and would that I might not drink the butter cup, and shrink.”

At that point, it appears to me, it would almost seem that Christ actually breaks off his sentence without completing it, as if the remembered and relived pain is too great. And that is, for me, the precise point where the central act of the At Onement occurs, where I am move most fully to experience At Onement with Christ and rejoice with him as he then goes on to say, “Nevertheless, . . . I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.” (47-48, emphasis mine)

One last bit from this great essay:

Christ teaches us that human evil is not reduced by calling people evil or by treating them as evil, even when they are evil. Justice is essential as a challenge to our own moral ideals, a minimum and initial standard for our own actions, but it can never bring salvation to others or ourselves. Only mercy, love beyond what others, and ourselves, deserve, can do that–and for our ultimate salvation only the love of Christ is sufficient. The unconditional love of Christ, expressed in his condescension, his voluntary joining with us in the pain of sin so fully that he bled for us in Gethsemane and on the cross–on that can give us power to gain a remission of our sins. This is the lesson of King Lear and The Winter’s Tale. And if, as Christ commands, we will then love ourselves and our neighbors–even our enemies–as he has loved us, that is, unconditionally, without worrying about what others deserve, we can retain a remission of our sins (see Mosiah4:12,26). Otherwise, we will destroy not only our enemies but our friends and ourselves. This is the lesson of Hamlet. (49-50, emphasis mine)

I really appreciate England’s insights about justice, mercy, charity, and the Atonement. The rest of this essay explores these themes in more detail in regard to Shakespeare and his plays, and it’s really wonderful. If you can lay your eyes on it somehow (it’s hard to come by, and the editions that do exist are not always the greatest), and you like Shakespeare or theology or both, I think you’ll find it a treat.

And here is a better, more moving essay on Easter than I could ever write myself.

Happy Easter.

(The quotes above come from Eugene England’s essay, “Shakespeare and the At Onement of Jesus Christ,” p. 31-51 in Why the Church Is As True As the Gospel, part of The Mormon Literary Library series, ed. Gideon O. Burton

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