I was recently rereading Mere Christianity and found a passage that eloquently expresses an idea I hinted at in “Metaphors of the Atonement” and “Knee-Bending Rules.” The idea is that it is something within us that prevents us from returning to God if we don’t repent, rather than some metaphysical law that forbids us from returning. Speaking of the final Judgment, C. S. Lewis said:
The point is not that God will refuse you admission to His eternal world if you have not got certain qualities of character: the point is that if people have not got at least the beginning of those qualities inside them, then no possible external conditions could make a ‘Heaven’ for them—that is, could make them happy with the deep, strong, unshakable kind of happiness God intends for us.1
The atonement is crucial for that change of heart that will make us comfortable in God’s presence. What a happy thought! Through the Atonement, the Savior can actually change my desires so that I do not even want to do evil. To me, this is so much more personal and applicable than describing the Judgment and Atonement as if they were part of some heavenly traffic court. Jesus didn’t suffer to appease some God who was unwilling to forgive otherwise; although the Atonement was necessary because the law itself had no provisions for mercy, its purpose is to open the path of repentance for each of us by extending the invitation of love we need to forsake our hard hearts, turn to God, and find joy and happiness that inheres in righteousness. Bruce Hafen explains:
We clearly lack the capacity to develop a fully Christlike nature by our own effort alone. Thus, the perfecting attributes, which include hope, charity, and finally the divine nature that is part of eternal life, areâ€”as Mormon put it so eloquentlyâ€”ultimately ‘bestowed upon all who are true followers of … Jesus Christ’ by the grace that is made possible by the Atonement.2
Thus, we may think of the Atonement not just as an act that appeases God in spite of our lacking certain attributes, but rather an act that makes it possible for us to develop those otherwise unattainable attributes. Or, rather than thinking of “heaven” as living with God and “grace” as an appeasement that let’s us live with God even when lacking certain Christlike attributes, we can think of “grace” as an aid in developing those attributes and “heaven” as the state of having achieved them.
1. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 1952), p. 41.
2. Bruce Hafen and Marie Hafen, The Belonging Heart (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1994).