Jeffrey R. Holland, “Atonement of Jesus Christ,” in Latter-day Saint Essentials: Readings from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. John W. Welch and Devan Jensen (Provo, UT: BYU Studies and the Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2002), 12–7.
The Atonement of Jesus Christ is the foreordained but voluntary act of the Only Begotten Son of God. He offered his life, including his innocent body, blood, and spiritual anguish as a redeeming ransom (1) for the effect of the Fall of Adam upon all mankind and (2) for the personal sins of all who repent, from Adam to the end of the world. Latter-day Saints believe this is the central fact, the crucial foundation, the chief doctrine, and the greatest expression of divine love in the plan of salvation. The Prophet Joseph Smith declared that all “things which pertain to our religion are only appendages” to the Atonement of Christ (Teachings, p. 121).
The literal meaning of the word “Atonement” is self-evident: at-one-ment, the act of unifying or bringing together what has been separated and estranged. The Atonement of Jesus Christ was indispensable because of the separating transgression, or fall, of Adam, which brought death into the world when Adam and Eve partook of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:9; 3:1–24). Latter-day Saints readily acknowledge both the physical and the spiritual death that Adam and Eve brought upon themselves and all of their posterity, physical death bringing the temporary separation of the spirit from the body, and spiritual death bringing the estrangement of both the spirit and the body from God. But they also believe that the Fall was part of a divine, foreordained plan without which mortal children would not have been born to Adam and Eve. Had not these first parents freely chosen to leave the Garden of Eden via their transgression, there would have been on this earth no human family to experience opposition and growth, moral agency and choice, and the joy of resurrection, redemption, and eternal life (2 Ne. 2:23; Moses 5:11).
The need for a future Atonement was explained in a premortal Council in Heaven at which the spirits of the entire human family were in attendance and over which God the Father presided. The two principal associates of God in that council were the premortal Jesus (also known as Jehovah) and the premortal Adam (also known as Michael). It was in this premortal setting that Christ voluntarily entered into a covenant with the Father, agreeing to enhance the moral agency of humankind even as he atoned for their sins, and he returned to the Father all honor and glory for such selflessness. This preordained role of Christ as mediator explains why the book of Revelation describes Christ as “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8) and why Old Testament prophets, priests, and kings, including Moses (Deut. 18:15, 17–19), Job (19:25–27), the Psalmist (Ps. 2, 22), Zechariah (9:9; 12:10; 13:6), Isaiah (7:14; 9:6–7; 53), and Micah (5:2), could speak of the Messiah and his divine role many centuries before his physical birth. A Book of Mormon prophet wrote, “I say unto you that none of the prophets have written, nor prophesied, save they have spoken concerning this Christ” (Jacob 4:4; 7:11). To the brother of Jared who lived some two thousand years before the Redeemer’s birth, the premortal Christ declared, “Behold, I am he who was prepared from the foundation of the world to redeem my people” (Ether 3:14). Such scriptural foreshadowings are reflected in the conversation Christ had with two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus: “Beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27; cf. also 24:44).
For Latter-day Saints, it is crucially important to see the agreed-upon and understood fall of man only in the context of the equally agreed-upon and understood redemption of man—redemption provided through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Thus, one of the most important and oft-quoted lines of Latter-day Saint scripture says, “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy. And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall” (2 Ne. 2:25–26).
LDS scripture teaches that the mission of Christ as Redeemer and the commandment to offer animal sacrifice as an anticipatory reminder and symbol of that divine Atonement to come were first taught to Adam and Eve soon after they had been expelled from the Garden of Eden (Moses 5:4–8). The Atonement of Christ was taught to the parents of the family of man with the intent that they and their posterity would observe the sacrificial ordinances down through their generations, remembering as they did so the mission and mercy of Christ who was to come. Latter-day Saints emphatically teach that the extent of this Atonement is universal, opening the way for the redemption of all mankind—non-Christians as well as Christians, the godless as well as the god-fearing, the untaught infant as well as the fully converted and knowledgeable adult. “It is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice,” said Amulek in the Book of Mormon, “an infinite and eternal sacrifice. . . . There can be nothing which is short of an infinite Atonement which will suffice for the sins of the world” (Alma 34:10, 12).
This infinite Atonement of Christ—and of Christ only—was possible because (1) he was the only sinless man ever to live on this earth and therefore was not subject to the spiritual death that comes as a result of sin; (2) he was the Only Begotten of the Father and therefore possessed the attributes of Godhood, which gave him power over physical death (see 2 Ne. 9:5–9; Alma 34:9–12); and (3) he was the only one sufficiently humble and willing in the premortal council to be foreordained there to that service (Talmage, Jesus the Christ, pp. 21–62).
The universal, infinite, and unconditional aspects of the Atonement of Jesus Christ are several. They include his ransom for Adam’s original transgression so that no member of the human family is held responsible for that sin (Article of Faith 2). Another universal gift is the resurrection from the dead of every man, woman, and child who lives, has ever lived, or ever will live, on the earth. Thus, the Atonement is not only universal in the sense that it saves the entire human family from physical death, but it is also infinite in the sense that its impact and efficacy in making redemption possible for all reach back in one direction to the beginning of time and forward in the other direction throughout all eternity. In short, the Atonement has universal, infinite, and unconditional consequences for all mankind throughout the duration of all eternity.
Emphasizing these unconditional gifts arising out of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, Latter-day Saints believe that other aspects of Christ’s gift are conditional upon obedience and diligence in keeping God’s commandments. For example, while members of the human family are freely and universally given a reprieve from Adam’s sin through no effort or action of their own, they are not freely and universally given a reprieve of their own sins unless they pledge faith in Christ, repent of those sins, are baptized in his name, receive the gift of the Holy Ghost and confirmation into Christ’s church, and press forward with a brightness of hope and faithful endurance for the remainder of life’s journey. Of this personal challenge, Christ said, “For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, 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” (D&C 19:16–18).
Furthermore, although the breaking of the bonds of mortal death by the resurrection of the body is a free and universal gift from Christ, a product of his victory over death and the grave, the kind or nature of the body (or “degree of glory” of the body), as well as the time of one’s resurrection, is affected very directly by the extent of one’s faithfulness in this life. The apostle Paul made clear, for example, that those most fully committed to Christ will “rise first” in the resurrection (1 Thes. 4:16). Paul also speaks of different orders of resurrected bodies (1 Cor. 15:40). The bodies of the highest orders or degrees of glory in the resurrection are promised to those who faithfully adhere to the principles and ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ; they will not only enjoy immortality (a universal gift to everyone) but also eternal lives in the celestial kingdom of glory (D&C 88:4; 132:24).
Latter-day Saints stress that neither the unconditional nor the conditional blessings of the Atonement would be available to mankind except through the grace and goodness of Christ. Obviously the unconditional blessings of the Atonement are unearned, but the conditional ones are also not fully merited. By living faithfully and keeping the commandments of God, one can receive additional privileges; but they are still given freely, not fully earned. They are always and ever a product of God’s grace. Latter-day Saint scripture is emphatic in its declaration that “there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah” (2 Ne. 2:8).
The Church is also emphatic about the salvation of little children, the mentally impaired, those who lived without ever hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ, and so forth: these are redeemed by the universal power of the Atonement of Christ and will have the opportunity to receive the fulness of the gospel in the spirit world.
To meet the demands of the Atonement, the sinless Christ went first into the Garden of Gethsemane, there to bear the spiritual agony of soul only he could bear. He “began to be sorrowful and very heavy,” saying to his three chief disciples, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, unto death” (Mark 14:34). Leaving them to keep watch, he went further into the garden, where he would suffer “the pains of all men, yea, the pains of every living creature, both men, women, and children, who belong to the family of Adam” (2 Ne. 9:21). There he “struggled and groaned under a burden such as no other being who has lived on earth might even conceive as possible” (Talmage, Jesus the Christ, p. 613).
Christ’s Atonement satisfied the demands of justice and thereby ransomed and redeemed the souls of all men, women, and children “that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:12). Thus, Latter-day Saints teach that Christ “descended below all things”—including every kind of sickness, infirmity, and dark despair experienced by every mortal being—in order that he might “comprehend all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth” (D&C 88:6). This spiritual anguish of plumbing the depths of human suffering and sorrow was experienced primarily in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was there that he was “in an agony” and “prayed more earnestly.” It was there that his sweat was “as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44) for he bled “at every pore” (D&C 19:18). It was there that he began the final march to Calvary.
The majesty and triumph of the Atonement reached its zenith when, after unspeakable abuse at the hands of the Roman soldiers and others, Christ appealed from the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Forgiveness was the key to the meaning of all the suffering he had come to endure.
Such an utterly lonely and excruciating mission is piercingly expressed in that near-final and most agonizing cry of all, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). In the depths of that anguish, even nature itself convulsed, “and there was a darkness over all the earth. . . . The sun was darkened. . . . And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent” (Luke 23:43–45; Matt. 27:51–52). Finally, even the seemingly unbearable had been borne and Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30), and then, saying “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” he “gave up the ghost” (Luke 23:46). Latter-day Saints believe that every tongue will someday, somewhere confess as did a Roman centurion at the crucifixion, “Truly this was the Son of God” (Matt. 27:54).
“The Savior thus becomes master of the situation—the debt is paid, the redemption made, the covenant fulfilled, justice satisfied, the will of God done, and all power is now given into the hands of the Son of God—the power of the resurrection, the power of the redemption, the power of salvation. . . . He becomes the author of eternal life and exaltation. He is the Redeemer, the Resurrector, the Savior of man and the world” (Taylor, p. 171). Furthermore, his Atonement extends to all life—beasts, fish, fowl, and the earth itself.
To the thoughtful woman and man, it is “a matter of surpassing wonder” (Talmage, Articles of Faith, p. 77) that the voluntary and merciful sacrifice of a single being could satisfy the infinite and eternal demands of justice, atone for every human transgression and misdeed, and thereby sweep all mankind into the encompassing arms of his merciful embrace. A President and prophet of the LDS Church writing on this subject said:
“In some mysterious, incomprehensible way, Jesus assumed the responsibility which naturally would have devolved upon Adam; but which could only be accomplished through the mediation of Himself, and by taking upon Himself their sorrows, assuming their responsibilities, and bearing their transgressions or sins. In a manner to us incomprehensible and inexplicable, He bore the weight of the sins of the whole world, not only of Adam, but of his posterity; and in doing that opened the kingdom of heaven, not only to all believers and all who obeyed the law of God, but to more than one-half of the human family who die before they come to years of maturity as well as to the heathen, who having died without law, will, through His mediation, be resurrected without law, and be judged without law, and thus participate . . . in the blessings of His Atonement” (Taylor, pp. 148–49).
Latter-day Saints sing a favorite hymn, written by Charles H. Gabriel, that expresses their deepest feelings regarding this greatest of all gifts:
I stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers me,
Confused at the grace that so fully he proffers me.
I tremble to know that for me he was crucified,
That for me, a sinner, he suffered, He bled and died.
Oh, it is wonderful that he should care for me
Enough to die for me!
Oh, it is wonderful, wonderful to me!
(“I Stand All Amazed,” Hymns, no. 193)
McConkie, Bruce R. The Promised Messiah. Salt Lake City, 1978.
Nibley, Hugh W. “The Atonement of Jesus Christ,” Ensign 20 (July 1990): 18–23; (Aug. 1990): 30–34; (Sept. 1990): 22–26; (Oct. 1990): 26–31.
Talmage, James E. Articles of Faith. Salt Lake City, 1890.
Talmage, James E. Jesus the Christ. Salt Lake City, 1915.
Taylor, John. The Mediation and Atonement. Salt Lake City, 1882.