The Atonement of Jesus Christ
Since the events of both creation and fall indicate a transcendent theme of separation, they lead to questions of unity. The purpose of the atonement is to unite men and women to God, resolving the tension inherent in the separation introduced through the creation and the fall. A comparable example of a transcendent experience that unites the separated is the marriage of a man and woman. Interestingly the scriptures use marriage as a symbol of the Covenant, enabling Israel (bride) to unite with the Lord (Bridegroom). If we look, we can see traces of the atonement and its scriptural equivalent each day in marriage and family. Is it a wonder that these issues have been a center of attention among leaders for decades? The atonement presents itself as a transcendent experience in each life that recognizes these similarities and changes as a result of the transcending theme of unity that can come about through the atonement of Jesus Christ.
Before further analysis of the transcendent character of the atonement, an overview of applicable events may prove helpful. The events of the atonement have often been confined to the events on the cross. Some attempts have recognized its grandeur by expanding this timeframe to include all events from the agony of Gethsemane to the triumphal appearance at the Garden tomb and others even widen the timeframe to encompass the final week of Jesus’ life in its entirety. To appropriately include the transcendent nature of this act, given the eternal ministry of its Actor, it might be more appropriate to make the event of the Atonement inclusive of all of time.
Because the scriptures reveal Jesus as the Yahweh of the Old Testament who created the world and gave the Law (of Moses), we can push back the beginning end of the atonement to include all of recorded time. Even this (seemingly) generous expansion of the timetable, however, neglects to recognize that Jesus is the firstborn (even before Adam) and that He knew Job “when the morning stars were together” singing for joy (Job 38:7). This consideration leads us to consider that the atonement extends back eternally to the pre-mortal world. Similarly, the conversion experiences that employ the power of the atonement extend its efficacy and carry the event to the present. It is in this light that one can consider the ministry of Jesus to begin well before Bethlehem (or even Eden for that matter!) and to extend beyond Calvary and the empty tomb. Therefore, I cannot enumerate all of the events of the atonement. Nonetheless, a summary of the key acts of vicarious sacrifice can suffice for our purposes here. In Gethsemane Jesus “sweat as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). This suffering constituted the cup of reconciliation that overcomes the separation between God and His creations on an individual level each time that one creation chooses to follow the “doctrine” or ethic revealed in experience with the sacred. Following this, the events of a cruel betrayal and (mis)trial were succeeded by torture and finally death by crucifixion. These brutal events and Christ’s mastery of the situation attest to His transcendent character and attributes of perfection. After enduring this, He arose on the third day, overcoming the death that had captured all of humankind previously. This arising opened an exit through which all will eventually pass; “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15: 22).
John’s account of Jesus’ life and ministry seems to revolve around the recognition that His ministry was the archetype of eternity. In the first chapter of John, we read John’s narrative speaking to the reader as well as to the first century audience: “Behold the Lamb of God” (John 1: 29). This theme ties Christ’s life to the era of sacrifice, emphasizing that all such sacrifices were emblematic of the ultimate sacrifice that John describes. The events of the fourth Gospel indicate Jesus’ compassion and divinity. Jesus declares Himself to be the Christ on several occasions (John 5: 43; 6: 35, 48, 51; 8: 12, 58; 10: 11, 14; 11: 25; 14: 6; ;15: 1, 5; 18: 5, 6, 8), using the phrase “I am” which was the equivalent of the forbidden pronunciation of YHVH (Yahweh or Jehovah).
John portrays the divine Lord, showing miracles throughout His ministry from the transformation of water into wine evident in Cana to the ultimate miracle at the Garden Tomb where He appeared as the risen Savior. Some miracles were not unprecedented events. Water nourishes grape vines which yield grapes that can be used to make wine all of the time. Likewise, a few grains can yield many and two fish can produce hundreds or even thousands of offspring naturally. But the Lord, in transforming water into wine and in feeding thousands from five loaves and two fishes, illustrated that He could control the elements such that the natural processes could be accelerated instantaneously to produce miraculous events. In similar fashion, John narrates Jesus calming the Sea of Galilee during a storm, healing illnesses and injuries, and performing many miracles where He seems to transcend time in His ability to yield results that would otherwise require much more time.
Other miracles performed and related in John’s gospel suggest power to act in ways inexplicable to science or reason. Jesus forgave sins and healed otherwise incurable conditions. This command over all things indicates that the Lord’s power transcends all that is comprehensible to humanity. Likewise, His teachings present opportunities to shock their recipients with the seemingly contradictory nature of their message, yet with the verifiable results attached to their observance.
In presenting “the Lamb of God” (John 1: 29), John shows the atonement as a supreme act of sacrifice and an exemplary use of choice or agency. John does not give details of the Savior’s moments in Gethsemane, but picks up the narrative with the betrayal, when the reader pictures the Lord following the agonizing hours of suffering in the garden. Given Luke’s description of the sweat being as blood, we can imagine Jesus standing on the night that John suggests is the night when each household would sacrifice its Passover lamb, His clothes stained with blood. As He stood, the events of betrayal indicate that He identified Himself, then turned His attention to those around Him. He tried to protect His disciples and to show love and mercy to all. He healed one of the soldiers who was to place this Lamb into the hands of those who would complete the sacrifice. In showing this, then showing the rebirth of the Resurrection, John proclaims throughout his gospel, “behold the Lamb of God” (John 1: 29). This presentation of a Lamb that transcends all other sacrifices illustrates a theme of transcendence prevalent in the atonement.
This transcendence can be seen in the theme of death and rebirth so prevalent in literary and religious traditions. I am not aware of any major religious tradition that has excluded this theme from its ritual or its canon. All sacrificial offerings prior to this “great and last sacrifice” (Alma 34: 14) were merely pre-representations of Jesus Christ’s life, sacrifice, death, and ultimate triumph over all things. The events of the resurrection open this possibility to all.
When individuals’ lives are directed to possibilities introduced by the resurrection and the atonement, they receive a measure of hope to add to their faith. This hope directs their thoughts forward, leaving behind any sufferings that they may have experienced or may yet experience and replacing these events with the expectation that the Lord will replace such sorrows with surreal celestial solace. The inception of this hope informs their living, changing the way that such individuals view the circumstances and things around them. With an attitude open to possibilities, despair has no power over them. Because of this power made possible by the atonement, such individuals are enabled to develop themselves, becoming embodiments of the principles taught through the transcending events that are operative in their lives. By presenting a theme so rich in its symbolic counterparts, the atonement of Christ can be seen in the seasonal cycles and the harvest patterns. The separation established during the creation and the fall is overcome by the atonement, which reunites Creator and creation and which unites body and spirit in a perfect condition called soul (see D&C 88: 15). This gives a unity to the themes of transcending experiences in that they separate or overcome separation.
In addition to the theme of separation and overcoming separation, transcendent events seem to involve both an event and participants in the event. Since the participants in these events recognizably cannot experience the event on their own, each event transcends itself to reveal within it and testify of itself of a Creator, Redeemer, Converter, Visitor, and Sealer—Jesus Christ! We now ask ourselves, seeing the transcendence of the Atonement a little clearer, ‘how does this play a role in my life each day?’ For an answer, we can turn to the scriptures in Alma. “And they began from that time forth to call on his name; therefore God conversed with men, and made known unto them the plan of redemption, which had been prepared from the foundation of the world; and this he made known unto them according to their faith and repentance and their holy works” (Alma 12:30). The last two words of this verse have intrigued me. Holy works. When examining their roots in Latin, one discovers that holy can be written sacra and works comes from the Latin root facer. When combined, these words sacra and facer form the basis of the word sacrifice. To truly live the Law of Sacrifice, or the Law of Holy Works, then, transcends ordinary experience to embrace a life founded on Christ, the “great and last sacrifice” (Alma 34:14). This transcendence extends further to include living a life unified by the Atonement and by true conversion to perform Christian (in its highest sense—meaning to act as Christ) works.
For further insight, we can turn to Mormon 9: 29 where we read: See that ye are not baptized unworthily; see that ye partake not of the sacrament of Christ unworthily; but see that ye do all things in worthiness, and do it in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God; and if ye do this, and endure to the end, ye will in nowise be cast out. The key phrase from this verse comes when Moroni exhorts us to “do all things in worthiness.” The word “worthy” connotes something “of worth,” when taken literally. The exhortation to act worthily, then, means to perform actions “of worth.” We can be married or sealed to Christ, “sealed His own” (Mosiah 5:15) if we will perform such works. As an example, we can examine the works of the Savior. He healed the sick and lame, gave sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and speech to the mute. He forgave, taught, and even raised the dead.
Can we not act similarly? We can visit the sick, mourn with those that mourn (Mosiah 18), offer comfort and friendship, bring others to drink of the living water (John 4) and to eat of the bread of life (John 6), and raise ourselves and others from among the spiritually dead as well as administering to temporal needs. We can act as “saviors on Mount Zion” (Obadiah 1:21). We can offer a broken heart and a contrite spirit (2 Ne. 2:7) in service to God and to others. In short, we can perform on a microscopic scale what the Lord has performed on His divine scale for all of us. In this way, the atonement becomes transcendent and meaningful to each of us. It not only holds a prominent place in our doctrine, but also shapes our way of living as we strive to follow the Savior and to become living testimonies (2 Cor. 3:2-3), showing the transcending significance of our Master’s sacrifice.