Let me just say up front that I, like everyone else in the world, am incapable of understanding the true measure of the Fall of Adam and the Atonement of Christ as parts of one large event. Exactly how it was all accomplished, and how it was all made possible is beyond the ability of a mortal mind to fully comprehend. It is our responsibility to accept that it all works and that the Fall and Atonement, step by step brings happiness and opens possibilities for us that are beyond compare.
With that said, let me assert that it is possible to understand the basic steps and mechanics behind the events that made the Fall and Atonement happen. I am going to focus on just the reasoning and logic behind the events, rather than document each statement with a series of verses and quotes from scripture and prophets. At the bottom of the article are two talks from the General Authorities of the Church to back this up. Please listen to them, it will all make better sense that way.
A law given
God operates by way of laws. The scriptures teach us there can be no punishment without there first being a law in place that forbids us from doing that thing. Without the law we cannot be punished. If a man is not taught that it is wrong to murder, and a man goes out and kills his neighbor, God cannot hold him accountable for punishment because there was nothing to say that killing was a bad thing. It also means that the reverse is true. If that same man were not to murder his neighbor he would not receive any kind of blessing from God for being nice enough not to slaughter the said neighbor. It is the law that sets all the conditions for blessings and punishments. All boundaries are set by God in the making of laws, and everything the Lord does is governed by those laws. Even God lives by His own laws. That is how the universe is run. Everything that is made is made to run under a specific set of rules and regulations. Some things have simple laws and other things have higher or more complicated rules, but all things are ruled and governed by God through the laws of behavior that He sets in place before anything is created.
This idea or concept that laws govern all things is the most basic part of what it meant for Adam and Eve to “fall” and for the atonement of Christ to work. Without laws that were already in place before anything else happened, neither part of the process of the redemption of the human race could happen.
When Adam and Eve were created, the scriptures tell us they were placed in the Garden of Eden. While there they were as innocent as children. Even the animals got along with each other. Adam and Eve had immortal bodies. That means they could not grow old and die. They would have lived out all of eternity just as they were, in a state of innocence, like children, had not something changed all that.
The Lord married Adam and Eve and personally taught them what their responsibilities were. Their first commandment or law was to multiply and replenish the earth. In other words, “Go have children.” The second law was that it was their job to take care of the garden. As part of that care, they could freely eat from any tree in the garden, except one. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was forbidden. They were not even allowed to touch the tree, let alone eat the fruit. But they could eat from the Tree of Life. That was a pretty simple arrangement. So they had two opposing laws given to them (or so it seems to us). First, they were to have children. Second, they were to care for the garden, but not touch the forbidden tree. By living the second commandment they seemingly could not keep the first commandment, for they needed the knowledge of God in order to be able to have children – they needed to lose their innocence.
If you recall, Lucifer was the one who rebelled against God in the premortal world and sought God’s throne for himself. There was war in heaven and Lucifer, along with a third part of God’s children were cast out of heaven for openly rebelling against God. The place they were sent was here, the earth. They became the counterbalance to God’s goodness so that we would have the ability to exercise our agency in choosing ultimate good or ultimate evil. We could only truly learn how to exercise the full use of our moral agency if we had the ability to go all the way, either toward the complete goodness of God or the complete evil of Lucifer, now called Satan.
The stage is set. We have the innocent-as-children Adam and Eve who have been given simple laws of behavior by God. He holds them responsible for their behavior because he has taught them what he expects of them. He has also explained to them the results of disobeying the laws. Now Satan comes knocking and mixes truth with lies and convinces Eve that she is being the responsible person if she breaks God’s commandment and eats the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. She willingly chose to eat of the fruit so they could know right from wrong. But in making her choice she transgressed the first commandment to not eat of the fruit. Satan had convinced her that the one commandment was more important for them than the commandment not to eat of the fruit.
Eve went and told Adam what she had done and he knew the result. If he did not also eat the fruit then she would be thrown out of the garden and he would be left in the garden, but they had been commanded to stay together because they were married. Adam reasoned that he needed to eat the fruit as well so that they could stay together. By Eve eating the fruit, Adam was forced to decide between the lesser of two evils, if you will – be eternally separated from his wife or go with her and live with the consequences. So he ate the fruit to be with his wife. Good man.
Let’s pause this story to see what the results will be because of their actions. (I will speak for a moment in present tense.) If nothing else comes along to change things, they have just ruined themselves. God cannot tolerate the violation of his laws in the least bit. If a law has been given, and He has personally given them the laws and taught them how to obey the laws, then they have to be punished according to the law. This is justice. Justice does not allow for mercy, it is very black-and-white. God’s laws are very strict. I suppose that without such exacting strictness the universe would be a much tougher place to rule and govern. This means Adam and Eve now have to be punished by being cut off from the presence of God for their disobedience.
Because Adam and Eve have broken one of God’s laws, even though it isn’t a sin, but just a transgression, they had to be kicked out of paradise. (A sin is an act of rebellion or willfulness or a deliberate refusal to do something good we have been commanded to do. A transgression in this case is choosing to obey one commandment [a good thing] over another commandment [another good thing]. They had been given two seemingly opposing commandments and had been living by the second commandment, which was to not eat of the fruit.) By itself that doesn’t sound so bad, but their new choice came with a ton of consequences. While in the garden, they were in the presence of God. They could walk and talk with him. Now they would be cast out, never able to come back into his presence again. This is called spiritual death, the separation of man from God. And because they were told that in the day they ate the fruit they would die, they now also had physical death to look forward to.
The spiritual and physical death that came as a result of breaking that one commandment is what we call the Fall of Adam and Eve. They fell from a state of grace in the presence of God to a mortal state where they had to work and scrounge for their food each day, and eventually would die. This was a sad loss for Adam and Eve for more than one reason. Their children would be born into the same condition. Their children would be mortal as well. None of their children would be able to go back into the presence of God. All of them would die. This separation means that upon death all of the human family will become just spirits again, but this time Satan will be their ruler, not God. They had broken one of God’s commandments and were not physically or spiritually able to make proper restitution for their transgression, leaving them forever cut off from the presence of God, to live with Satan under his rule after death.
Remember that laws had been broken, and justice required that punishment be made. Mortals have no way to get around justice. Unless someone else, someone who is able to satisfy the demands of God’s justice steps in and rescues us, this is the only future we have to look forward to. We would all become devils in the afterlife, angels to a devil. A very bleak outlook for us.
The Fall of Adam and Eve cut us off from the presence of God, but it also freed us to be able to make any choice we wanted. We were already damned, in that we could not rescue ourselves from our situation, so we could make any choices we wanted without making our plight any worse than it already was. Now we just needed someone to come and rescue us so we could have the ability to return back to our Father in Heaven some day.
Fortunately, God had a plan in place to rescue us from this very predicament. He had a son, by the name of Jesus, who was God’s firstborn. Jesus was the most obedient of all of God’s children. He was the most intelligent and powerful of all God’s children. It was by his first born son that God had created all things in our universe, including this earth. Jesus was capable of paying the demands of God’s justice. What was even better was he was willing to do so because he loves us as much as God himself does. Knowing how badly we tend to mess things up, he volunteered to become our Savior, our Redeemer. To redeem something is to pay back or clear off a debt. When we commit sin (break a commandment) we “sell” our souls to Satan (Lucifer). Christ offered to buy our souls back so we would no longer belong to Satan.
God had planned for his only begotten son to come to earth to perform his mission in the middle of earth’s history, what the scriptures call the meridian or middle of time. From Adam’s day until Christ was born, all the prophets foretold of the day a Savior would be born to rescue us from the sins we commit. Without this payment all mankind is lost, so the birth of Jesus was the highlight of the ancient prophets’ prophecies. All their faith was centered in this payment that was going to be made in the future at some point in time by the Son of God, himself.
That payment was made when Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross. This is the part we don’t fully understand. We know the payment was made. We know that it had to involve the shedding of the blood of an innocent man. We know the payment had to be made willingly, without force. We also know that his payment for our sins lasts forever. It is not a temporary thing. The demands of god’s laws were satisfied with that payment for ever and ever. Christ ransomed or paid the price to redeem our souls from hell – spending eternity with Satan. Again, we don’t know how the debt was paid. We only know that it was and that Jesus paid it for us. He now owns the disposition of our souls. Because he paid the price to win us back it is up to him what is going to be done with us for the rest of eternity. He is now our judge, because he saved us from the immediate demands of the laws of justice.
New conditions set
For many Christians, this is the end of the story. Christ paid for our wrongdoings and we are saved. End of story. But this is not all of it. Christ paid for our sins to rescue us from God’s immediate justice, but only by being able to offer us mercy. If we refuse his merciful conditions then we still have to face the justice of God, the Father. What Jesus offers us is a way out, not free exoneration from our wrong doings. We also have a price to pay for our sins, and that price is repentance by accepting the terms of Christ’s atoning sacrifice.
The law of mercy that Christ offers us provides a way for us to still be able to return to live with our Father one day, but only by living by the terms and conditions Jesus sets for us. Now, instead of having to face the stark justice of God, we can face it along with the mercy of God’s son. We still have to pay a price for disobedience, but it is a price we are all able to pay – a much lower price.
This is the gist of the new law we have been offered – We still have to keep God’s commandments. That part hasn’t changed. But now, when we mess up and use our agency poorly and break a law, if we feel sorry for what we have done, plead for Christ’s mercy, promise never to do it again, and then live up to our promise, Christ will pardon the wrongdoing. When we face judgment on our lives, that sin will not be mentioned or brought up. It will be as though it never happened. This is a simplification, but it is accurate.
Because of Jesus and the personal sacrifice he made on our behalf, a door has been opened for us to spend our lives here in mortality improving and beginning the process of perfection, even though we make mistakes along the way. Without his personal sacrifice for us, we would be lost to God forever. But because Jesus was willing to make that sacrifice, we can repent, we can change, we can become better today than we were yesterday. It is only the atonement of Christ that makes this process possible. Yes, we still have to suffer for our sins, but the size of the payment has been greatly reduced to something we can manage. In fact, when it comes to living the Word of Wisdom, in the Doctrine and Covenants Christ says that the law was given such that even the weakest of saints could live it if they wanted to. So it is not like the bar of behavior has been set so high that only the elite few can reach it. Even the lowest of us can do it if we choose to obey. That means that forgiveness is available to all for the simple price of obedience.