When we think of Christ’s atonement we think of the garden of Gethsemane and the cross. These are the main events of our human story, but there were events that came before the atonement that made the atonement necessary. To better understand why Gethsemane and the cross is the climax of the human story, we need to start at the beginning and see where these events fit in to the overall story of God’s family.
The groundwork is in God’s laws
To understand why things happen the way they do we need to first understand how God works. He operates by way of laws. All things must be defined and given room to operate within the boundaries of their existence before they are created. For example, God created rules of conduct we call the gospel which existed before we were given our spirit bodies. While on earth, if one of God’s children were to commit murder, and if there had not been any law made beforehand that forbade murder then no punishment could justly be given for killing another person. And on the other hand, just as no punishment could be given for murder, no blessing could be given for not murdering. A law defining behavior must exist before any blessing or punishment can be given.
Here is an example of this concept in Alma 42: 19 – 22. This is where I got the example of murder I just used.
19 Now, if there was no law given—if a man murdered he should die—would he be afraid he would die if he should murder?
20 And also, if there was no law given against sin men would not be afraid to sin.
21 And if there was no law given, if men sinned what could justice do, or mercy either, for they would have no claim upon the creature?
22 But there is a law given, and a punishment affixed, and a repentance granted; which repentance, mercy claimeth; otherwise, justice claimeth the creature and executeth the law, and the law inflicteth the punishment; if not so, the works of justice would be destroyed, and God would cease to be God.
Law is required in order to give out blessings and punishments. Boundaries of behavior have to be set by laws God ordains or no justice can be found. Without laws chaos would rule. Before God creates anything laws are established for what will be created outlining the sphere in which it will operate and exist, and defining its behavior in that sphere. This is true of everything in the cosmos, and for all of God’s children as well.
As verse 22 points out, there is no justice without laws, and there can be no mercy without laws. Without laws God would cease to be God, because He is the great law giver. Our Father in Heaven sets the rules for everything in the universe. His rules govern all things. Unfortunately, those rules allow for no mercy, no forgiveness, only justice. Unless you have some way to pay for breaking a law, which payment will have to be made so that the payment is permanent and perfect, anyone who breaks a law will fall under the penalty of that law forever and ever.
Adam and Eve
This brings us to the event that created the need for the atonement, the fall. Without the fall of Adam and Eve there would be no need for an atonement. Let’s start with some definitions. When we talk about Adam and Eve falling, we are referring to them going from a state of grace, a state of favor, a state of being in harmony with God’s laws to a state of violation of God’s laws. They went from their behavior being justified by God’s laws to being condemned by God’s laws.
But let’s back up and see how this happened. 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 young children. 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 little 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 we know of was that it was their job to take care of the garden. There were two special trees in the garden. One was the Tree of Life, which let them live forever. The other was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which they were told would kill them. They were told 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.
As long as Adam and Eve kept the commandment to not eat from that one tree, they lived in harmony, and in a state of justification with the laws of God. For a time everything went well. Then Satan came and convinced Eve with his lies and half truths that she needed to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree.
As soon as Adam and Eve violated one of the laws of God, and it doesn’t ever matter what the reason for the violation is, they fell under condemnation of the laws set up by God. What were the punishments set up with this law? Well, for one thing they were no longer allowed to stay in God’s presence. We learn in Doctrine & Covenants 1:31 that “… I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance,” so they experienced a spiritual death. Spiritual death is a separation of us from our Father in Heaven. They were told that in the day they ate the fruit they would die, so physical death was introduced into the world. In order for physical death to happen to an immortal being, they had to become mortal.
One simple violation of law and Adam and Eve found themselves on the other side of a great divide. They were cut off from God spiritually, the first death. They had gone from being immortal to being mortal, which meant experiencing all the suffering that mortality brings with it, including physical death, the second death.
Now that they were no longer innocent, but could understand right from wrong, and good from evil, they were able to have children, and both forms of death would be experienced by their children as well. This is the fall of Adam and Eve. They chose their behavior, but they had no choice in the consequences of their behavior. Those consequences were a result of the laws they broke, just as their happiness was bound up in the laws they kept. Life is no different for us. Our punishments and blessings are all tied up in the laws we either keep or break.
An atonement is needed
Where does this leave mankind? Since all of Adam and Eve’s posterity were born into a state of being cut off from the presence of God, and would all die, everyone who came to mortality had only permanent death to look forward to. Under these conditions, once we die we become subject to Satan, and all of us would become devils, subjects to a devil. What a miserable situation to be in. This is why they talk about the sting of death and the victory of the grave. Without a way to make our peace with God’s laws, we would all be lost from Him forever.
Fortunately for us, our Father chose Jesus to be our Savior and Redeemer. He is the only one capable of paying the price required by God’s laws to save us from a miserable life in eternity with Satan. Jesus had the ability and was willing to come to earth and satisfy the demands of justice so he could, in turn, offer us mercy.
We don’t really understand what He did in the garden of Gethsemane. We have no clue as to how He was able to shoulder the sufferings required to pay for every violation of every commandment made by all of God’s children in all ages. We only know that He did it, and He did it out of love for us and for our Father in Heaven. The reconciliation He made with the demands of God’s laws is what we call the Atonement. The word atonement means to bring into agreement.
How does the atonement work?
The atonement is the central belief in the whole plan of salvation. It effects everything we do, say, and believe. It is not easily understood, and never fully comprehended. There are four parts to the atonement I would like to briefly discuss.
1. Little children have no need of repentance. Because they are still innocent, like Adam and Eve were, they cannot be held responsible for their behavior. The atonement of Christ covers their behavior and saves their souls in the Celestial Kingdom. This includes all those who live without the law, who are incapable of being responsible for their choices, no matter how old they are. For these people there is no need for baptism, because baptism is unto repentance, and they are without understanding of the law and so have no need to repent.
2. Those who lived in mortality and died without ever hearing the gospel will be saved in the end if they would have accepted the gospel with all their hearts, had they had the opportunity to hear it in mortality. Joseph Smith’s brother Alvin is a case in point. Alvin died before the restoration of the gospel, yet Joseph saw Alvin in vision sitting on a throne in heaven. He asked the Lord how this was possible. Here is Doctrine and Covenants 137:5 – 9.
5 I saw Father Adam and Abraham; and my father and my mother; my brother Alvin, that has long since slept;
6 And marveled how it was that he had obtained an inheritance in that kingdom, seeing that he had departed this life before the Lord had set his hand to gather Israel the second time, and had not been baptized for the remission of sins.
7 Thus came the voice of the Lord unto me, saying: All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God;
8 Also all that shall die henceforth without a knowledge of it, who would have received it with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom;
9 For I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts.
3. Those who refuse the Savior’s payment on their behalf will have to face the laws of justice on their own. This means the full weight of the penalty of the laws they break will have to be answered by themselves. They will not be able to rely on the suffering of the Savior to soften the blow. This payment will by done by spending time in hell before the resurrection. In hell they will suffer to the maximum amount they are capable of suffering for every sin they ever committed. They will be released from hell only after they have paid all they can pay for their own sins. Jesus described their suffering this way:
Doctrine and Covenants 19:16 – 18:
16 For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;
17 But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I;
18 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—
4. Those who choose to be obedient to God’s laws by doing their best to live them and obey them can have their broken commandments (their sins) forgiven by Christ. He will plead with the Father in behalf of these brothers and sisters and ask that for His sake the Father forgive them. Note that it is not because of anything we do that we are forgiven, it is because our Redeemer intercedes for us before the throne of God and pleads for us. God allows us to be forgiven because of the behavior and suffering of His beloved Son.
Does the atonement take away all the pain of repenting? No, but it does make repenting possible. Is there less suffering on my part if I repent, even though it can be painful? Most definitely yes! No matter what pains we have to go through in this life to be forgiven for our sins, it won’t be nearly as painful as having to pay the full price on our own. And if we repent by keeping the commandments and doing all in our power to obey God, Jesus offers us mercy in the form of forgiveness for the commandments we do break along the way. But as long as we fully repent and make ourselves better through Christ’s teachings, come judgment day our sins won’t be brought up and we will be viewed as clean and pure when we stand before God to be judged worthy to return home and continue our growth to become like our Father in Heaven.
We owe everything to Christ, because without Him we would be eternally lost. His atonement saves us from being eternally separated from God, prevents us from being enslaved eternally to Satan, and opens the door to repentance and forgiveness. We bless the names of Adam and Eve for creating the conditions upon which the atonement of Christ could be offered to us. And we should thank our Father in Heaven for choosing Jesus to be our Savior and our Redeemer. Through His atoning sacrifice all of us have the opportunity, should we choose to take it, to become perfect like Christ, and to live with God for eternity, and to never have to leave their presence again.
References used for this month’s talk:
“Where Justice, Love, and Mercy Meet” – Elder Jeffrey R. Holland (General Conf. April 2015)
“The Gift of Grace” – Pres. Dieter F. Uchtdorf (General Conf. April 2015)
2 Nephi 9:6-16
I also used this article from gospelstudy.us: The Fall and the Atonement Step By Step