The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that Jesus Christ’s atonement is the central doctrine of the great plan of life and salvation. On one occasion the Prophet Joseph Smith was asked the question, "What are the fundamental principles of your religion?" The Prophet's answer to the question was: "the fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and the Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it ..." (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 121).
Truly Jesus’ mission, culminating in His Atonement, is the most important message of Mormonism.
Why the Atonement was Necessary
The literal meaning of the word "Atonement" is at-one-ment, signifying the act of unifying or reconciling that which has been separated. When Adam and Eve partook of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:9; 3:1-24), they brought about the Fall. The fall of Adam brought two kinds of death into the world: 1) a separation of the spirit from the physical body, or physical death, and 2) a separation of all people from their perfect and holy God, or spiritual death. The Atonement of Jesus Christ was necessary to overcome both physical and spiritual death—physical death by guaranteeing Mankind resurrection, and spiritual death by providing a way for them to be forgiven and purified, qualifying them to enter God's presence.
The Atonement, which is the most important event in the history of the world, was accomplished through Jesus’ sufferings in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross. Although the finite human mind cannot fully understand how Jesus suffered for our sins, the scriptures affirm that in the Garden of Gethsemane, the weight of mankind’s sins caused Him to feel such agony that He bled from every pore (Luke 22:39–44). Later, as He hung upon the cross, Jesus willingly suffered a painful death inflicted by one of the cruelest methods that men ever devised.
The Savior tells men why He yielded to these experiences: "For behold, I ... have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer ... even as I" (Doctrine and Covenants 19:16–17). In other words, those who don't accept or lay hold of the atonement already performed for them must suffer for their own sins. Most of that suffering is an unquenchable agony of spirit, which will come when they realize they have offended God and must remain eternally separated from Him.
- And I say unto you again that he cannot save them in their sins; for I cannot deny his word, and he hath said that no unclean thing can inherit the kingdom of heaven; therefore, how can ye be saved, except ye inherit the kingdom of heaven? Therefore, ye cannot be saved in your sins. (Alma 11: 37)
- But behold, an awful death cometh upon the wicked; for they die as to things pertaining to things of righteousness; for they are unclean, and no unclean thing can inherit the kingdom of God; but they are cast out, and consigned to partake of the fruits of their labors or their works, which have been evil; and they drink the dregs of a bitter cup. (Alma 40: 26)
- And no unclean thing can enter into his kingdom; therefore nothing entereth into his rest save it be those who have washed their garments in my blood, because of their faith, and the repentance of all their sins, and their faithfulness unto the end. (3 Nephi 27: 19)
Justice demands that when a law is broken, there must be a consequence. Those who ignore the atonement, which satisfied the demands of justice, must therefore endure the consequences of their sins. Jesus said—
- "For behold, I God, have suffered these things for all men, that they might not suffer if they would repent. But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I; which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men." (Doctrine and Covenants 19:16-19)
Why the Effects of the Atonement are Conditional
Because God guarantees agency to His children, He cannot force them to acknowledge Him or to follow His plan. Many of His children reject Him. The Atonement enables men and women to return to the presence of God after their resurrection, but only if they accept Christ and desire to reconcile themselves to God. To lay hold upon the power of the Atonement, a person must do certain things. First, he must have faith in Christ; second, he must repent of his sins; third, he must be baptized by someone who has the proper priesthood authority; fourth, he needs to receive the Gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands; and finally, he must strive to keep the commandments of God to the end of his life.
For those who are willing to take the steps listed above, Christ has paid the debt and suffered the consequences of their sin. They can return to the presence of God as pure as if they never had sinned. The Lord promises He won't remember the sins they committed: "I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins." (Isaiah 43: 25)
Latter-day Saints believe that if men and women will do these things, the benefits of the Atonement can reach into their individual lives and allow them to return to live with Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father forever. According to the doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, men and women are saved by grace after all they can do to obey God's commandments, repent of their sins, and allow His loving influence to change their hearts, so that they become charitable beings, and "purified even as He is pure." (Moroni 7:48)
The Scope of the Atonement
Christ not only died to offer Himself as a ransom for the sins of Mankind, but He took upon Himself all the pain, grief, and agony of soul of every living being, in order that every man can find sweet relief through Him.
- The Atonement not only benefits the sinner but also benefits those sinned against—that is, the victims. By forgiving “those who trespass against us” (Joseph Smith Translation, Matthew 6:13) the Atonement brings a measure of peace and comfort to those who have been innocently victimized by the sins of others. The basic source for the healing of the soul is the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
- The injured should do what they can to work through their trials, and the Savior will “succor his people according to their infirmities.” (Alma 7:12) He will help us carry our burdens. Some injuries are so hurtful and deep that they cannot be healed without help from a higher power and hope for perfect justice and restitution in the next life. Since the Savior has suffered anything and everything that we could ever feel or experience, He can help the weak to become stronger. He has personally experienced all of it. He understands our pain and will walk with us even in our darkest hours.(James E. Faust, The Atonement: Our Greatest Hope, Liahona, January, 2002)
To do his part, so that the Atonement can heal him, one must open his heart and long to forgive those who have wounded him. He must trust the Lord enough to lay his burdens at His feet.
Jesus Christ's Ability to Perform the Sacrifice
As the Son of God, Jesus Christ is the only being who could have performed an infinite sacrifice to atone for the sins of Mankind. Because He was (and is) the Son of God, He had the physical and spiritual strength to suffer for us all. Because He was the Son of God, He inherited from His Father in Heaven power over death. From His human mother Mary, Christ inherited the ability to die. Thus, He was the only person who could lay down His life and then take it up again in the resurrection. His resurrection completed His triumph over death and sin.
Gethsemane and Golgotha
Frequently, when Christians (including many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) talk about the Atonement, they emphasize its physical aspects. They often speak of the crown of thorns that was placed upon the Savior's head, his scourging by Roman soldiers, or the pains he suffered when nails were driven into his hands and feet. Surely these were painful events and are important aspects of the Atonement. However, there is also a more spiritual dimension to Christ's redemptive act.
The night before He was crucified, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane with Peter, James and John, the three chief apostles. Gethsemane means "oil press." For generations at that place, olives had been pressed under the weight of gigantic stones to extract their precious oil, an important source of light and nourishment. The atoning suffering of the Light and Life of the world, the Savior, caused blood to be pressed from every pore of His body under the crushing weight of the sins of the world.
The scriptures state that when in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus began to be sorrowful and very heavy. He said to His apostles: "My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, unto death" (Mark 14:34). He went a certain distance from them and fell on the ground. Then the Savior prayed fervently, crying to His Father to "take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt" (see Mark 14:35–36). For several hours the Lord poured out His soul in prayer and His blood dripped to the ground. At one point an angel from God came to strengthen and help the Savior complete His sacrifice. During this harrowing time, Jesus took upon himself the infirmities of all mankind, and entered into a covenant with the Father and all mankind to assist all who will come unto him to overcome all sinful or negative traits, and replace them with positive Christlike qualities. Thus, a person who enters into this covenant, will, on a line upon line basis, through the grace and mercy of Christ, truly become one with the Father and the Son.
Latter-day Saint scriptures emphasize Christ's suffering in the garden, where He took upon Himself the sins and suffering of Mankind. One of the great symbols of the Atonement is the blood of Jesus Christ, which was shed for all. The blood of Jesus Christ is a symbol of the cleansing effect of the Holy Spirit. When they are washed by Christ's blood, or fully immersed in the Spirit of the Lord, men no longer desire to do evil, but desire to do good continually. (Mosiah 5:2) Herein is the "Good News" of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the reason why no Mormon meeting house or temple displays a crucifix. The Atonement brings Mankind the promise of triumph over death, resurrection for all, the promise of reunion with God and loved ones for eternity, the promise of eternal glory, peace, and happiness.
Video: I Stand all Amazed
(See also Easter.)
For a better understanding of the Atonement of Jesus Christ you may want to read:
Skinner, Andrew C. Gethsemane. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002.
To watch a video of Elder Jeffrey R. Holland at the Garden of Gethsemane talking about the atonement, click here.
To watch a video of late President Gordon B. Hinckley at the Garden Tomb, click here.