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The Atonement of Jesus Christ, Part 3

TitleThe Atonement of Jesus Christ, Part 3
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1990
AuthorsNibley, Hugh W.
Issue Number9
Date PublishedSeptember 1990
KeywordsAtonement; Doctrine; Jesus Christ; Principle; Resurrection

A four-part series that emphasizes that the Book of Mormon teaches the correct principles of the Atonement. The power of resurrection is provided only by the Savior. Only the Book of Mormon teaches the fulness of the truth of the Atonement, why life is as it is, and how one may approach God to be at one with him. Since all fall short, the blood sacrifice of the Savior was the indispensable step. Atonement is both individual and collective and so God’s people must be “of one heart and one mind.” “The Atonement is one of the grand constants in nature.”


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The Atonement of Jesus Christ, Part 3

By Hugh W. Nibley

In Part 2 (August), Brother Nibley discussed how religious ceremonies involving atonement are found throughout the world. This month, he reviews ways by which the Atonement is made effectual in our lives.

The Atonement and the Law

The Nephites lived by the law of Moses, as implemented, for example, by the laws of King Benjamin and Mosiah. Yet they were constantly reminded that salvation does not come by the law of Moses:

“And, notwithstanding we believe in Christ, we keep the law of Moses, and look forward with steadfastness unto Christ, until the law shall be fulfilled.

“For, for this end was the law given; wherefore the law hath become dead unto us, and we are made alive in Christ because of our faith; yet we keep the law because of the commandments.” (2 Ne. 25:24–25.)

The law leads us back home; the at-one-ment takes place when we get there. In other words, the law is all preparation. Everything we do here is to prepare for the Atonement:

“Therefore this life became a probationary state; a time to prepare to meet God; a time to prepare for that endless state … which is after the resurrection of the dead.” (Alma 12:24.)

The early Christians also taught that, as this life is a preparation for the next, so in the premortal existence we had to prepare for this one.1 To reach a stage in which the test would be meaningful—the plan itself being “prepared from the foundation of the world,” well ahead of time and well understood by those who accepted it there—angels were sent to remind men of that preparation. (See Alma 12:28–30; Alma 13:2–5.)

The Ordinances

Consider now how the rites of atonement were carried out under the law of Moses.

Before approaching the tabernacle or tent covering the ark, Aaron and his sons would be washed at the gate (see Ex. 29:4); then they would be clothed with the ephod, apron, and sash (Ex. 29:5), and a mitre, a flat cap or pad which may have been meant to support the weight of a crown, was placed on their heads (Ex. 29:6). The priests were also anointed with oil (Ex. 29:7) and consecrated or set apart (Ex. 29:9). Then they put their hands upon the head of a bullock (Ex. 29:10), transferring their guilt to the animal, which was slain. Its blood was put upon the horns of the altar (Ex. 29:12), which represented the four corners of the world. Two rams were then slain, and their blood was sprinkled on the altar as an atonement for all; then blood from the second ram was placed upon the right ear and right thumb of Aaron. (See Ex. 29:15–20.) The blood was also sprinkled over the garments of the priests (Ex. 29:21), who then ate parts of the ram with bread, Aaron and his sons “eat[ing] those things wherewith the atonement was made” (Ex. 29:22–24, 32–33). Each day for seven days, a bullock was offered for atonement. (Ex. 29:36–37.) Then the Lord received the high priest at the tent door, the veil (in Lev. 16:17–19, the high priest alone enters the tabernacle), and conversed with him (Ex. 29:42), accepting the sin offering, sanctifying the priests and people, and receiving them into his company to “dwell among the children of Israel, and [to] be their God” (Ex. 29:45).

This order is clearly reflected in D&C 101:23: “And prepare for the revelation which is to come, when the veil of the covering of my temple, in my tabernacle, which hideth the earth, shall be taken off, and all flesh shall see me together.” What an at-one-ment that will be!

As we read the full account, it becomes clear that there were a number of blood sacrifices of different animals and at different levels. There is perhaps much that escapes us. The newly discovered Temple Scroll is important on this score, describing some things that are quite different from what we find in the Old Testament.2 Such freedom of action makes it clear that the ordinances were indeed but a type and a similitude of the great and last sacrifice of Christ, which was to come. Meanwhile, Aaron was to continue to make atonement once a year “with the blood of the sin offering of atonements,” while every individual was to continue to pay ransom for his own soul of one-half shekel, the atonement money going to “the service of the tabernacle.” (Ex. 30:10, 16).

As understood by the rabbis today, atonement can only be granted by God, but to have it, one must make a confession of guilt with an asham or guilt offering. With the loss of the temple and its sacrifices, teshuvah was interpreted as a “turning” or “returning” to the way of righteousness, requiring both remorse and reparation for one’s sinful ways. “Judaism maintains that human beings have the capacity to extricate themselves from the causal nexus and determine freely their conduct.”3 Though teshuvah is achieved by one’s own effort, “divine mercy is necessary to heal or redeem man from the dire aftereffects of sin”; since sin “damages a person’s relationship with the Creator, divine grace is required to achieve full atonement.” But while prayer and suffering are required for atonement, Rabbi Yishma’el says that for the “desecration of the divine name” only “death completes atonement.”4 The idea that one’s death is an atonement is widespread, but since death is usually anything but a willing sacrifice, that leaves much to be required.

Particularly interesting is the teaching of the rabbis that “the dead require atonement,”5 and since the dead cannot repent, they must be helped by the living through charity, prayer, and Torah study. The prayer for the dead (the Qaddusha or Kaddish) goes directly back to the temple in the time of the Maccabees.6 “Significantly, vicarious expiatory significance is attributed to the death of the high priest or that of the righteous.”7 Here we have elements of the rites of atonement reflected in rabbinical teaching long after the temple and the priesthood had been taken away. It is interesting that the idea of “work for the dead” still lingers, if only on the level of good intentions.8

And how was the Atonement understood by Christians? “There is no single New Testament doctrine of the Atonement,” writes William J. Wolf. “There is simply a collection of images and metaphors … from which subsequent tradition built its systematic doctrines and theories. … Tradition has tried to decide what parts of this picture should be taken literally and what parts metaphorically and has developed extended rationales.”9 Wolf lists a number of ways in which the Atonement has been interpreted symbolically. There is, for example, the ransom metaphor, the buying free of a slave, etc. (see Mark 10:45); this is the commercial interpretation. There is the emphasis on forgiveness of sins. (See Matt. 26:28.) There is the image of the lamb, developed by John. (See John 1:29, 36; Rev. 13:8.) The main issue, Wolf says, is whether the Atonement is the completion of the Old Testament sacrifice or something independent and unique.

There are three main Christian interpretations today. First is the classical interpretation of the Greek Fathers, which integrates Incarnation, Atonement, and Resurrection, and uses the military context—the Christus Victor. Second is Anselm’s interpretation, in which “satisfaction” must be paid for offense to God’s honor, because a son or subject, by the medieval code of fealty and honor, must vindicate any offense to his lord.10 The Roman catechism defines sin as “any damage done to the glory of God”; and Christ’s death, being undeserved, has a superfluous virtue to cover all sins. Third is the Reformation theory of Calvin that Christ was a substitute who endured God’s punishment for man or for the elect.

H. Grotius and Jonathan Edwards propounded the rectorial or governmental theory of Christ’s death having a deterrent effect on sinners in the public interest. More recently, emphasis has been put on the “moral-influence theories,” according to which we “respond to Jesus’ message and example of love” in our minds and hearts.11 This is Abelard’s “love answers love’s appeal,” which he intensifies by making the crucifixion an object of such pity as to stir all beholders to reform.12 Albrecht Ritschl argues that Christ’s example inspires “ethical response in history.”13 And so it goes. Vatican II and the Ecumenical Movement have turned back to the patristic writers and Anselm, restoring “sacrificial language,” the “Christus Victor,” and “moral-influence,” with an inclination toward the theatrical, now moving toward “a reformation of sacrificial theory, which [is] fortified by the use of liturgy and … comparative history of religions.”14

True Discipleship

In Latter-day Saint doctrine, the Atonement of Christ is far from being a merely theological, philosophical, or psychological exercise. At-one-ment fulfills the measure of man’s creation and is the culmination of the plan of salvation. As such, it requires more than our casual attention as we live out our days on earth. No detached intellectualism; no frenzied quick-fixes; no “cheap grace,” as Bonhoffer put it. “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship. … Costly grace is … the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. … It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”15

The “only true life” requires a lifetime of obedience (see Matt. 7:21) and cleanliness before God (see 3 Ne. 27:19). It is specifically a matter of covenants, to which one must be true and faithful before overcoming this world and finding at-one-ment in the world to come. (See Rev. 3:21.)

Washed in the Blood

There is one expression connected with the ceremonies that seem strangely paradoxical. It is having one’s garments washed white with the blood of the Lamb. Washed white with blood? The Book of Mormon clarifies the apparent contradiction. Alma tells us that “there can no man be saved except his garments are washed white; yea, his garments must be purified until they are cleansed from all stain, through the blood of him of whom it has been spoken by our fathers, who should come to redeem his people from their sins.

“And now I ask of you, my brethren, how will any of you feel, if ye shall stand before the bar of God, having your garments stained with blood and all manner of filthiness? Behold, what will these things testify against you?

“Behold will they not testify that ye are murderers, … guilty of all manner of wickedness?” (Alma 5:21–23.)

Being guilty of the blood and sins of your generation, you may not “have a place to sit down in the kingdom of God, with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob, and also all the holy prophets, whose garments are cleansed and are spotless, pure and white.” (Alma 5:24.) This is nothing less than the yeshivah, literally “sitting down” in the presence of God.16

Note that there are two kinds of blood-stained garments here—the one showing the blood and sins of this world, the other attesting (for Alma expressly states that “these things testify”) that Aaron and his sons have completed the sacrifice of the Lamb and thus cleansed the people of their defilements, and their garments are white. The blood that washes garments clean is not the blood that defiles them, just as the serpent that healed the people in the wilderness was not the serpent that killed. (See Num. 21:9.)

It is on that principle of paradoxical opposites that Satan’s participation in our lives is to be explained. If we can be “encircled about eternally in the arms of [God’s] love” (2 Ne. 1:15), we can also be “encircled about by the bands of death, and the chains of hell, and an everlasting destruction” (Alma 5:7); and if we can be perfectly united in the at-one-ment, we can also be “cast out” (Alma 5:25), separated and split off forever—our names “blotted out, that the names of the wicked … shall not be mingled with the names of my people” (Alma 5:57).

If Satan claims you as his, there is indeed a horrible oneness; for he, too, can embrace you to get power over you: “[Do] not choose eternal death, according to the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein, which giveth the spirit of the devil power to captivate, to bring you down to hell, that he may reign over you in his own kingdom.” (2 Ne. 2:29; cf. 2 Ne. 28:19; Alma 8:9.) He would hold you in his strong embrace, having a great hold over you. (See Alma 10:25; Alma 12:17; Alma 27:12; Hel. 16:23.)

Joseph Smith felt that power, and it was not an imaginary power at all. It was a very real power many have felt since. (See JS—H 1:15–16.) He does indeed “get possession” of you (3 Ne. 2:2), “for Satan desireth to have you” (3 Ne. 18:18), just as the Lord does. While on the one hand, God “inviteth and enticeth to do good” and to be one with him, so on the other hand Satan “inviteth and enticeth to sin.” (Moro. 7:12–13.)

Why don’t we just get rid of Satan? Augustine lamented as an awful tragedy the fact that God had not made us incapable of sinning—“O miseria necessitas, non posse non peccandi.” But as Irenaeus pointed out much earlier, without some kind of test, we could not prove ourselves good or bad, never being obliged to choose between the two.17 If a probation on earth is to have meaning, then “it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things.” (2 Ne. 11, 15.) So, says Lehi, we must take a turn at resisting various enticements. (See 2 Ne. 2:16, 21.) Lehi knew the old literature, which declared “that an angel … had fallen from heaven; wherefore, he became a devil, having sought that which was evil before God,” and then proceeded to administer temptation, deception, and misery to the human race. (2 Ne. 2:17–18.)

Is there any evidence for that? Well, why is the world full of misery? Who wants it? And yet someone seems to be pushing it on us all the time. His system works beautifully, and so he rules to this day on this earth. (See 1 Ne. 13:29; John 12:31; John 14:30.) But it is our privilege to rise above his viciousness and our own weakness by repentance. One of the most heartening and encouraging verses in the Book of Mormon explains that the way is wide open, and God “commandeth all men, everywhere, to repent” (3 Ne. 11:32)—all men all the time. In fact, our lives have been prolonged for the specific purpose of giving us more golden opportunities to repent: “The days of the children of men were prolonged, according to the will of God, that they might repent while in the flesh.” All live in “a state of probation, and their time was lengthened” to give them every possible chance, for otherwise “they were lost.” (2 Ne. 2:21.) So “all men must repent” and keep repenting as long as they live, for who would throw away that generous extension?

Lehi goes on to tell us that Adam interrupted an eternal existence to get himself into the predicament that we are in. (See 2 Ne. 2:22.) For this the Christians execrate his name, for he “brought death into the world and all our woes.” But he brought something much better than that; verse 25 of 2 Nephi 2 is one of the best-known statements in the Book of Mormon: “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” [2 Ne. 2:25] Humans, “redeemed from the fall … have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, … free according to the flesh; … free to choose liberty and eternal life, … or to choose captivity and [eternal] death” in the power of one who “seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.” (2 Ne. 2:26–27.) He has that “power to captivate” because we give it to him. (See 2 Ne. 2:29.)

The purpose of the plan, it should be clear by now, is to get us all involved. We are “invited and enticed” from both sides.

But how can we withstand Satan’s skillful ploys of temptation? King Benjamin tells us how to go about it, warning us beforehand that there is no other salvation to look for and no other conditions for achieving it. (See Mosiah 4:8.) First, “believe in God; believe that he is, and that he created all things.” This does not require suspension of judgment, since honesty alone obliges us to “believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend.” (Mosiah 4:9.) And then, “Always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own nothingness, and his goodness and long-suffering towards you, unworthy creatures, and humble yourselves even in the depths of humility, calling on the name of the Lord daily.” (Mosiah 4:11.)

Is that asking too much? On the contrary, says Benjamin, never was there such a bargain, for “if ye do this ye shall always rejoice.” (Mosiah 4:12.)

What are we to do? Lehi explains that if we approach the Lord with “a broken heart and contrite spirit,” we have a case; “and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered.” (2 Ne. 2:7.) This puts an end to legalism and litigation. A broken heart and a contrite spirit cannot be faked or even calmly discussed, and that is a prime point: “How great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth.” (2 Ne. 2:8.) When all men stand in God’s presence to be judged, punishment will be meted out in terms of legal penalties—the law by which we were bound, the preliminary trials and tests to get us to our final hearing. But that is not what the Judgment is about. What we are expecting in this final judgment is that “happiness which is affixed” to the law and which is the final purpose or end “of the atonement.” (2 Ne. 2:10.)

So we also have our part in achieving in the Atonement. How is it all done? The explanation of predestinationism, Neoplatonism, and Islam is simply that God does it all because he can, which leaves us as completely irresponsible nonentities. That is not the way it really is, and it is not what we want—and it is not what God wants. He wants to be one with us, and we want to be one with the Father, which obviously is completely beyond our present capacity; it is only the Son who can help us: then we need to “look to the great Mediator, and hearken unto his great commandments”—he will tell us what to do, for he is anxious to help us. “Be faithful unto his words, and choose eternal life, according to the will of his Holy Spirit.” (2 Ne. 2:28.) The Holy Ghost, that other Mediator, who comes to take over when the Lord is absent, seconds him in all things.

“Redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah,” Lehi tells his son, “for he is full of grace and truth.” (2 Ne. 2:6.) That says everything: to be full of grace is everything good that you can possibly conceive of; it is a combination of love, charity, and joy—charis, gratia, and “cheer.” It is everything to be cheerful about and grateful for, and it is boundless love without a shadow of mental reservation, self-interest, or ulterior motive—in short, of anything false or untrue; it is all real, for he is full of grace and truth.

To be continued.