In our day the Lord has said, "Listen to the voice of Jesus Christ, your Redeemer, the Great I Am, whose arm of mercy hath atoned for your sins" (D&C 29:1)
The atonement is central to God's plan of salvation but it is a subject that is both simple to understand and yet so complex and intricate that we cannot fully comprehend it.
We can liken trying to understand the atonement to buying a house. When someone wants to buy a house the first thing they look at is the house itself as a whole. If the outside of the house doesn't look appealing to the prospective buyer they will not spend any more time worrying about it. But if the house looks pleasing to the eye, then there are a number of different areas that a prospective homebuyer will look at. For example, they may look at the front of the house, the back of the house, the sides of the house, the bottom of the house (i.e., the foundation), and the top of the house (i.e., the roof.)
If everything on the outside looks good then they will investigate the home more closely. They will go inside and examine every room and if the rooms look appealing then the homebuyers will examine each room more carefully, looking for specific details. For example, the wife might study the kitchen, looking for such things as counter space, a dish washer, a garbage disposal, how much sunlight the room gets, etc. Yet the husband may be more interested in looking at the mechanical parts of the house such as the hot water tank, the heating and cooling equipment, the number of electrical outlets in each room, how well the windows work, etc.
On the other hand, the children are not interested in any of those things. Instead, they want to examine the bedrooms to decide which one they want, and the things they look for are roominess, the color of the walls, the amount of closet space, etc.
What this illustrates is that each member of the family has different things that they want to examine more closely about the same house based on their particular interests. And the same scrutiny happens outside the house. For example, when they examine the back yard the children will look to see if it is a good place for them to play in, while the father may look at the slope of the ground because he is concerned with water runoff, while the mother may look to see if it is suitable for planting a garden. And the same thing will happen as they examine the front, side, bottom, and top of the house.
What we learn from this example is that there are many different areas or perspectives to viewing a house and that we can get into more depth in each one of those different areas. Furthermore, some people have a greater interest in some areas than in others and people will have different perspectives even as they delve more deeply into a particular area.
When studying the subject of the atonement we go through the same process because it is both wide and deep. We can look at it from many different angles or perspectives and see something different yet accurate in each perspective. Furthermore, we can choose to look at just the subject of the atonement superficially, seeing its broad outline and admiring its beauty, or we can choose to delve more deeply into it.
But for those who love the atonement they may wish to delve more deeply into the subject and explore each of its many different facets, similar to a homebuyer paying particular attention to one room of a house. At the same time, others may want to focus on learning more about a particular perspective that's outside of but part of the atonement, similar to someone focusing on the back yard of a prospective house.
To help illustrate this principle, here are some examples of not only different perspectives on the atonement that we can examine but examples of how we can delve deeper into each perspective:
One such area of interest is finding out what the atonement is. To answer that question we can delve more deeply into finding answers to such questions as: What does the word "atonement" mean? Why is Jesus called our redeemer? What is the relationship between the atonement and repentance?
Another area of interest is discovering how the atonement actually works by finding the answers to such questions as: Why was it necessary for Jesus to be divine? How did Christ take upon himself our sins? How much did He have to suffer before His sacrifice was sufficient? Why did He need to shed His blood and how much blood did He need to shed? Was Christ's suffering in Gethsemane part of the atonement? Was Christ's resurrection part of the atonement?
Another area is learning how the atonement saves us by asking: What is the definition of "being saved?" What is the difference between universal salvation and individual salvation? How does the atonement save children under the age of accountability? What role does the atonement play in the resurrection?
Still another area to examine is finding out how the atonement helps us in this life. We can look more deeply at: How does it help us to repent? How does it give us hope? How does it provide emotional and spiritual strength? How does it give us comfort during times of trials?
Who or what does the atonement cover? What role, if any, does the atonement play after the resurrection? Does the atonement have any effect before the earth was created or after it has passed away?
To carry the illustration of buying a house a little further, when someone really likes the house they are looking at and are seriously consider buying it, they begin to examine other areas not directly attached to the house itself. They will look at the neighborhood to see what kind of neighbors they will have, whether the neighborhood is neat or shabby looking, noisy or quiet, or has a lot of traffic. They will look further out of the immediate neighborhood to see how close the shopping areas are, where the schools are located and the quality of the school system. They may look at recreational opportunities that are nearby as well as things such as the post office, doctor offices, etc.
In the same way there are many side issues associated with but not directly part of the atonement itself. These would include such things as the fall of Adam and Eve, the effects of the fall, understanding physical and spiritual death along with their causes and cures, comprehending why we must die (even Jesus had to), appreciating why having a immortal physical body is so important, and many other related topics.
Obviously, no one book, let alone one short article as this, could possibly come close to answering all of the many questions there are about the atonement, and books could be written on each of the side topics just mentioned. This is why the study of the atonement can take a lifetime. For that reason the most that can be hoped for in one small essay such as this is to show the broad outlines of the atonement and help the reader see various avenues of exploration and ways they can delve more deeply into them. Therefore the purpose of this article is to arouse interest in the subject of the atonement and give a foundation to those who seek to pursue a quest for that knowledge.
It has often been said that the spelling of the word "atonement" shows it means "men" being "at-one" with God and while that is an accurate statement the atonement means so much more. Therefore let's take a little closer look at its meaning.
Its root word is "atone" which means "to repair that which has been broken, to restore, recover, reinstate, make reparations, pay the penalty, satisfy the demands of the law, or make whole." According to this definition, in order to atone for something, it must first be broken or damaged in some way because the act of atoning means that we are repairing that which has been damaged and restoring it back to its original condition.
Because God is perfect and there is no unrighteousness in Him, He cannot dwell in an environment which contains any kind of imperfection because to do so would make Him imperfect. For example, even though it is possible for a person to temporarily be in a dirty environment and, with caution, not become dirty, it is not possible for someone to live in a dirty environment without becoming dirty themselves. This is why the Lord has said He "cannot look upon (i.e., tolerate) sin with the least degree of allowance" (D&C 1:31). Therefore, if we want to live with a sinless God, we too must be sinless.
Because not one person has ever been able to live a perfectly sinless life other than Jesus, every one of us has become incapable of living forever in the presence of God. Yet, there was a time when we did live with God in heaven as His spirit children, but because of the sins we ourselves have committed by our own decision while living here in mortality, our relationship with our heavenly Father has been damaged or broken, and because of that we have become unworthy of returning to live with Him. The atonement of Christ was a sacrificial act that had the power to repair that damaged relationship and restore us back to our original sinless condition.
It is for that reason it is said that the atonement has "reconciled" us to God by "making amends" or "paying the debt" for our sins" and "ransoming" us in order to "redeem" us from our sins. All of these words and phrases - reconcile, making amends, paying our debt, ransom, redeem - are implied in the meaning of the word
"atonement." Interestingly, the word "repent" has a similar meaning. To repent means more than just being sorry for what we've done. It requires us to "make amends" for the wrongs we have committed and "repair" the damage we have caused. What makes the sins of murder and adultery so difficult to repair is that we cannot restore a life we have taken or the chastity of someone we have violated. But as far as we are able to repent we are engaging in our own personal act of atoning for our sins.
We often refer to Jesus as our Redeemer. The word "redeem" has two meanings. One is "to exchange, buy back, or compensate." The other way it can be used is "to release, liberate, make free, or rescue." Therefore, someone who is a redeemer is someone who performs the exchange or does the rescuing. The way Jesus atoned or repaired the damage to our relationship with God caused by our sins was by exchanging His life for ours. He compensated for the consequences of our sins by paying the penalty that the law required. And because of this act, He has rescued us from suffering the just punishment that our sins deserve and has made it possible for us to freely decide whether we truly want to have eternal life with God or whether we want to follow the kind of life that Satan offers.
This is why father Lehi told his sons, "And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem (rescue) the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed (liberated) from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day... And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil" (2 Nephi 2:26,27).
In a similar sense, when we help bring people to Christ or help them live the gospel so that they willingly choose eternal life by following the commandments of God then we are assisting Christ in helping Him redeem people from the effects of their sinful ways.
As we can see, all of these words - atone, reconcile, ransom, redeem, repent, rescue - are all combined and incorporated in the act of Christ's atonement. Yet this is just one area of the atonement that focuses only on what the atonement has accomplished. However, there is debate over another area which concerns what constitutes the atonement.
Most Christian churches teach that the atonement took place at the time Jesus died on the cross. The reason for this belief is that Paul talked a lot of about salvation coming through the cross. He wrote, "But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world" (Galatians 6:14) "that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby" (Ephesians 2:16).
When it comes to Christ's suffering in the garden of Gethsemane, nearly every Christian church believes that Jesus was merely praying for strength to face the horrific pain He was about to endure by being crucified, and, as for Christ's resurrection, nearly all Christian churches say it was meant to demonstrate His divinity and how He had power over death but that it didn't have anything to do with the atonement.
Yet, all Christians believe that Jesus took upon Himself our sins. The apostle Peter wrote, "Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed" (2 Peter 2:24).
But when did Jesus take our sins on His body? Was it while He was on the cross or before He was crucified? If the ancient ritual of animal sacrifice performed by the Jewish priests in the temple represents Christ's sacrifice then our sins had to be transferred to the sacrificial lamb (Jesus) before the animal's blood was spilled by the hand of the priest (see The Garden of Gethsemane ).
The blood of Jesus was first spilled at the hand of Roman soldiers when they brutally scourged Him with the whip. The blood of Jesus was further spilled when the Roman soldiers mockingly shoved a crown of thorns onto His head and both of these bloodletting acts happened before Jesus was nailed to the cross where His blood ran like water from the gaping holes in His hands and feet. Therefore, our sins had to be transferred to Christ before His scourging occurred if the sacrificial rites performed by the Jewish priests were a true representation of Christ's sacrifice.
Since sin brings pain and misery, and if Christ took upon Himself the sins of all people in the garden of Gethsemane, it would be understandable why He was in "agony" as He prayed. (Luke 22:44). If Jesus had never sinned and He took upon Himself the sins of all mankind while He was in the garden of Gethsemane then it makes sense why he felt "sore amazed" (Mark 14:33). It would also explain why He cried out to have this cup taken from Him.
Furthermore, even though the apostle Paul talked a lot about the cross, he also taught "if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching [in] vain, and your faith [in Him] is also [in] vain… For if the dead rise not then is not Christ raised. And if Christ be not raised, your faith is [in] vain; [because] ye are yet in your sins… But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. " (1 Corinthians 15:13,14,16,17,20).
If Christ did not rise from the grave then we would not rise from the dead either and if we do not rise from the dead then Christ would not have conquered death. But the scriptures plainly teach that our bodies will rise from the dead in the resurrection. In other words, we too will be resurrected, just as Jesus was.
According to Paul, Jesus was not to be the only person who rose from the dead, He was to be "the firstfruits of them that slept." But if we don't rise from the dead as Jesus did then our faith in Him is in vain because our sins will not have been removed or, as Paul put it, we will yet be in our sins.
The message Paul preached was that the resurrection of Christ was just as essential to our salvation as was His death on the cross. But His death would not have had any saving power if His blood had not been shed and the shedding of His blood would have been of no effect if He had not first taken our sins upon Him. Thus, the atonement includes His agony in Gethsemane, His scourging, His death on the cross, and His resurrection. All were necessary in order for the atonement to be complete and effectual.
In speaking of the atonement Amulek taught his people, "For it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice; yea, not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast, neither of any manner of fowl; for it shall not be a human sacrifice; but it must be an infinite and eternal sacrifice. Now there is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of another. Now, if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother? I say unto you Nay" (Alma 34:10,11).
There are two things we learn about the atonement from this verse of scripture. The first is that the "great and last sacrifice" could "not be a human sacrifice." That means Jesus could not have been a mere human because even if He had lived a sinless life His death would not have been sufficient to pay the penalty for anyone's sins let alone the sins of the entire world.
The second thing we learn is that the atonement had to be "an infinite and eternal sacrifice." In our day the Lord has explained that since He is endless, eternal, and infinite therefore those words are titles of God. Therefore, the term "eternal punishment is (i.e., means) God's punishment. Endless punishment is God's punishment" (D&C 19:11-12). In the same way, the term "an infinite and eternal sacrifice" is referring to a sacrifice that was made by a God who is infinite and eternal.
Jacob, the son of Lehi, told his people, "Wherefore, it must needs be an infinite atonement-save it should be an infinite atonement this corruption could not put on incorruption. Wherefore, the first judgment which came upon man must needs have remained to an endless duration. And if so, this flesh must have laid down to rot and to crumble to its mother earth, to rise no more" (2 Nephi 9:7).
The word "infinite" as used in this verse is not talking about the scope of the atonement but rather the kind of being who must perform it. What Jacob said was that unless the atonement was performed by a being who was infinite and eternal we could not rise from the grave (i.e., this corruption could not put on incorruption). In other words, Jacob is not talking about who is affected by the atonement but what will happen if it is not performed by an infinite and eternal being.
He clearly explains that unless the atonement was made by someone who was divine in nature "this flesh must have laid down to rot… to rise no more," meaning that we would never rise from the dead. This also agrees with what Paul said about the resurrection of Christ being just as essential to our salvation as was His crucifixion.
But why was it necessary for Jesus to be divine in order for the atonement to be effective? The answer can be found in the statement Jesus made when He said, "No man taketh it (my life) from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father" (John 10:18).
Jesus was born of a mortal woman, Mary, and from her He inherited all the traits of being human. But His Father was immortal and it was from Him that Jesus inherited God's divine traits. One of those traits was that Jesus was born immortal, in the sense that no man could take His life.
Death is merely the spirit becoming permanently disassociated with its body and as humans we do not have the ability to do that on our own. Unless we deliberately take our own life by damaging our body to the point where it no longer functions, death happens without our conscious effort. But that was not the case with Jesus. He had the power to permanently separate His Spirit from His body any time He wanted to but until He Himself made that conscious decision no one could take His life.
Yet Jesus was also fully human, meaning that He could feel and suffer everything just as we do. He got tired, hungry, and needed sleep just like we do, as well as feeling pain to the same extent as every other mortal. Yet, because He was also fully divine, no matter how much pain He was subjected to or how much damage was done to His mortal body He could not die.
When Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemane, as He took upon Him the sins of the world, the physical pain was so intense that no human body could have withstood it. Had Jesus been truly mortal, He would have died long before He was able to take the full weight of the sins of the world upon Himself. But because He was divine, Jesus could not die, no matter how extreme the pain was. Therefore, once the process of transferring our sins to Him had begun, Jesus had only one of two choices. He could either allow Himself to die in order to get relief from the severe pain or He had to endure it, no matter how bad it got. Jesus chose the latter and as the pain became almost unbearable, that's when He cried out "Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done" (Luke22:42).
But His suffering didn't end in Gethsemane. The scourging He was subjected to was so brutal that it was not uncommon for people to die from the whipping. The reason the Romans used crucifixion as punishment was because it caused the maximum amount of pain for the longest period of time. By the time Jesus was hoisted up on the cross He was already physically exhausted. He had been deprived of sleep, food, and water and had been horribly whipped which resulted in much loss of blood, as well as having already endured unimaginable pain in Gethsemane. Now, as He hung on the cross He had to endure still more excruciating physical torture.
Yet, despite all of this, Jesus could not die unless He deliberately chose to end His own life. But He knew He couldn't die until He had paid the full penalty for our sins or else the atonement would not be complete. Therefore He continued to suffer every pain necessary, no matter how hard to bear, until He had fully satisfied the demands of justice and the atonement was completely fulfilled. It was only then that He said, "It is finished: and he bowed his head, and [of his own free will] gave up the ghost" (John 19:30).
Jesus did not die of natural causes because no man was able to take His life. Instead Jesus willingly "gave up the ghost." But He didn't do that because He couldn't stand the pain any longer. Through all that He had already suffered He proved that He was willing to endure whatever pain was required of Him. Therefore, when He deliberately and with full intent, purposefully gave up the ghost He was literally sacrificing His life to save ours. That act of compassion and love was something only an infinite and eternal God was capable of doing.
But the atonement is infinite, not just because of the kind of being who performed it, but in its scope and power as well. Paul wrote, "For since by [one] man came death, [so] by [one] man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15:21,22, emphasis added).
The atonement is infinite in the sense that it is universal. It applies to everyone . Even the wicked will be saved from physical death because even they will rise from the grave (see Revelation 20:12-15). When Paul said that we are saved by grace and not by works because it is a gift of God, he wrote that in reference to us being "raised up together" (see Ephesians 2:6-8). The "gift" he is talking about is the gift of the atonement that will restore life to everyone who dies, including all those who lived both long before Jesus was born and long after Jesus died. And there is nothing anyone has to do to be saved from the death of the body. This is what Paul refers to as "the grace of God."
Yet Jesus taught, "For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works" (Matthew16:27). If everyone received the same reward regardless of how they lived or what they believed then there would be no need to accept Jesus as our Savior or follow His teachings.
But Jesus taught that to be saved we must "repent and be baptized." Since the atonement applies to everyone that means it allows everyone the opportunity to repent. If Christ had not atoned for our sins then there would be no point to repenting because repentance by itself cannot take away even the smallest sin. This is what Alma meant when he said that no human sacrifice can remove our sins. But because of Christ's infinite atonement it is possible for us to atone for some of our sins by restoring, repairing, or making amends for the wrongs we have committed. And as we do, we participate with Christ in His redeeming act of salvation.
But to give the unrepentant the same reward as those who accept and follow Christ is both unfair and unjust. Thus, when the scriptures talk about being "saved" there must be different kinds of salvation if God is just and fair. And, in fact, the scriptures do talk about a "first resurrection" in which those who believe in Christ will receive a greater reward than those who will rise later and become subject to a "second death" (Revelations 20:6-15). And it is the atonement that is responsible for not only determining who is saved but what kind of salvation each person will receive.
What this shows is that the atonement is much more than just paying the penalty for our sins. Although the atonement saves us from both spiritual and physical death, that by itself doesn't make us perfect as God is perfect (see Matthew 5:48). Therefore, it is obvious that the atonement does more than makes us "at one" with God by cleansing us from our sins and raising our body from the grave. It also has the power to makes us holy like God is holy, which is something that doesn't happen just because our sins have been removed.
The process by which we are made holy is called sanctification and it is the Holy Ghost who sanctifies us and prepares us to live with God forever (Romans 15:16). Without His efforts we would not be fit to live with a perfect and holy God but the Holy Ghost can only be effective in using His power of sanctification because of Christ's atonement. This is why the scriptures say "For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified." (Hebrews10:14).
As we have seen, the atonement of Christ is central to our eternal salvation in many different ways but it also has a tremendous impact on our spiritual growth, our emotional well being, our physical welfare, and our mental health while we are still living here on earth. In short, the atonement of Christ encompasses and is a blessing in all aspects of our life both in mortality as well as in eternity. And the more we study the atonement and come to more fully appreciate its magnificent powers, the more we come to realize how the atonement is truly a marvelous gift from God.