When dealing with the Atonement I don't think we can separate the symbolic from the literal, since we have no idea how it all happened. I think when we try to divorce the "symbolic" from the "literal", we end up killing what we are analyzing - just like trying to separate the spirit from the body to understand each better. Sure, we might end up understanding each part better in isolation, but we've destroyed the unique combination that made it worth studying in the first place. Isolating the symbolic or the literal - and accepting only one of them - causes the Atonement to cease to be "real" or "living" for me.
I choose to believe that the Atonement (all of it - not just the suffering part) is both highly symbolic and highly literal - and I'm not sure at all where to draw those lines. Honestly, I prefer to not draw them in permanent marker; pencil works just fine - and no recorded lines work even better. At least, for me that works better, since I have no problem admitting I really have no clue - and that allows me to accept whatever works best for me at any given time.