Public Execution Theory – Another Way to Think About the Atonement

I wanted to piggy-back on a post by Jeff G. over at the New Cool Thang blog. What I thought was both novel and unique was the idea of thinking of the atonement as a type of public execution. At first glance, thinking of the atonement that way seems repulsive. I think this is largely because we assume that anyone who would publicly execute someone must be arrogant, vain, and evil. But this is not necessarily the case. The idea of Christ’s atonement being a type of voluntary public execution interests me quite a bit, and I do think it explains a lot of things like animal sacrifice, the law of Moses, Abraham and Issac, ‘not my will but thine’, repentance as returning to God, etc.

There was an old post at the New Cool Thang blog that outlined what Jacob J. felt were criteria for evaluating atonement theories. I would like to take a simple initial attempt to run ‘public execution’ theory through this list and see how it stands up. But first I would over simplify the theory like this: public execution theory says that the atonement of Christ is a type of public execution where the king (God the Father) has a public execution of His Son (Jesus Christ) to establish his absolute sovereignty over mankind, and motivate obedience and repentance in His other subjects. Or something like that. So let’s see how this theory stands up.

Why was the atonement necessary?

To provide a type of public execution that would establish the sovereignty of God, and the need for obedience to the gospel and repentance of sin. Otherwise similar suffering of the subjects would result. (see D&C 19)

Why was Christ the only one who could perform the atonement?

Christ makes for the perfect example subject for such an execution. God’s own son, without sin, nevertheless subject to the absolute sovereign. But also that Christ was a voluntary subject for this execution is a strong point. Further, His ability to withstand, and overcome the execution makes Him the only ideal candidate.

Why would we have been hopelessly lost without the atonement?

Without something like this atonement, mankind would be less likely to worship and be obedient to God.

What caused Christ to suffer?

Experiencing the consequences of those who do not obey the gospel and repent of sins.

What did Christ suffer?

See above.

What did Christ’s suffering accomplish?

A motivation for mankind to treat God as an absolute sovereign through obedience and repentance.

What is the meaning of justice and mercy?

Justice is being punished for your own sins. Mercy is being forgiven of those sins.

What is the nature of sin and sinfulness?

Sin is disrespecting the sovereignty of God through disobedience to His commandments, and an unwillingness to repent.

How does the atonement satisfy justice?

Justice is satisfied when individuals acknowledge the sovereignty of God through repentance.

How did the atonement bring about the resurrection?

A miracle occurs.

How is the atonement related to forgiveness?

When we acknowledge God’s sovereignty by repentance we can obtain forgiveness. The atonement shows an extreme example of God’s sovereignty.

How is the atonement related to repentance?

Acknowledging God’s sovereignty leads to repentance.

How do we account for the various things scriptures say about the atonement?

They are all ways to motivate repentance.

How was the atonement efficacious before it was performed?

Animal sacrifices, and Mosaic laws show similar examples of God’s sovereignty.

How is the atonement related to the fall?

The fall places mankind in a condition where not acknowledging God’s sovereignty is certain.

How did the atonement make us free?

When we realize that God is sovereign, and we must obey his commandments, and we must repent of our sins, then we have a more clear view of the purpose of life, and we are become free from the consequences of sin.

So my thoughts on this are obviously fresh and shallow, but I feel that there is some merit in thinking about the atonement of Christ as a type of public execution to motivate future obedience and repentance. I welcome any thoughts on this approach.

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4 Responses to “Public Execution Theory – Another Way to Think About the Atonement”


  1. 1 el oso February 14, 2016 at 11:52 pm

    There are many types and signs of the Savior. Also, all just laws of men are inherently derivative of God’s laws.
    Administering justice through public execution is either a complete contradiction, or it is an example of the justice of God.

  2. 2 Eric Nielson February 15, 2016 at 7:44 am

    Thanks for the comment. I think public execution is about establishing sovereignty of the King, and is just if the king is just.

  3. 3 Jeff G February 16, 2016 at 12:36 pm

    I’m happy that you pretty much got the jist of what I was trying to get across in that post. The authors I am appropriating are not easy to understand, and sometimes my own writing gets a little convoluted.

    Another thing that I touched upon was the difference between (modern) discipline and (premodern) punishment. Within the premodern mindset, blood=power in a way that connected the purity of a bloodline and “spilling blood” as punishment. (After WW2 we have become very sensitive and hostile to this deep connection between what we now see as gratuitous violence and quasi-eugenics.) The premodern idea of sovereignty also involved primarily “thou shalt not’s” that, if violated, required blood punishment.

    The modern mindset, by contrast, traded out this idea of punishment for the violation of “thou shalt not’s” in favor of disciplining people in terms of “thou shalt’s”. Thus, we are required to actively comport ourselves and our children according to the commands of a state-run schools, the recommendations of doctors, etc. Whereas people used to get punished for actively doing what they were told not to, now we are disciplined for passively failing to do what we have been told to do.

    This frames the sinlessness of Jesus very differently that we sometimes imagine. The flawlessness of Jesus did not consist in him being some kind of genie/superman that was the most competent, rational and disciplined person to ever grace the planet. Rather, it consisted in His never doing what he was commanded not to do. He had plenty of things to learn and he probably acted irrationally in lot’s of ways. That said, he never did that which he had been commanded not to do. This is why he was an unblemished lamb that could be sacrificed for our sins.

  4. 4 Eric Nielson February 17, 2016 at 10:23 pm

    Thanks Jeff. But on the last sentence, with this line of thinking, the ‘object’ of the sacrifice was to establish the sovereignty of God, rather than pay some debt – right? This would be somewhat different from penal substitution theory. Same result, but a somewhat different purpose. Unless the payment of a debt IS the restoring of sovereignty.


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