Just What Does the Atonement Cover?

July 3, 2005    By: Geoff J @ 11:59 am   Category: Atonement & Soteriology,Theology

Not surprisingly, my comments on the flaws of the now-famous “Parable of the Bicycle” started a discussion of the atonement and what it does or does not do for us. The primary point I was trying to make in that post was that while the atonement frees us from a permanent death and from paying for all of our own sins ourselves, it does not change our natures for us. Only one thing changes our natures and that is our repentance. Our repentance (or changing for the better) is as much enabled by our free agency as it is by the Atonement. (A short discussion of this point was also going on over at Nine Moons). So if ongoing repentance and change is required for us to become like God it seems that the obvious next point should be that it will take a lot more time than this single mortal probation to accomplish that Herculean task. I have my preference on how I think we are given sufficient time to in the eternities, but that is not the point I want to discuss here. I want to focus on how much of exaltation is a result of our works throughout the eternity and how much of it comes from the atonement.

The Two-Headed Monster

The scriptures seem to focus on two things the atonement helps us overcome: death and hell. I like the way Jacob describes it as a two-headed monster (see a previous discussion on this concept here). One of the heads represents death and the other represents hell and the devil. It is clear that Christ completely disabled the effects of death upon us from the outset. That is not our worry at all. But the devil and hell still have their bite. We escape hell and the devil through repentance and calling on the mercies of Jesus Christ. By so doing Christ saves us from the hell (it is still hell even if not a forever hell in our doctrine) that we earn through our sins and thus allows us to change to become more like him.

Does the Atonement Save us From Sickness and Pain?

A popular interpretation of the comments in Alma made in Alma 7 is that in addition to saving us from death and Hell, Christ also took upon him all of our sicknesses and pains as well as death and sin. After looking more closely at this passage I think that such an interpretation is both unnecessary and incorrect. First I explain why I think it is wrong. Here are the verses:

10 And behold, he shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers, she being a virgin, a precious and chosen vessel, who shall be overshadowed and conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost, and bring forth a son, yea, even the Son of God.
11 And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.
12 And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, 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.
13 Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance; and now behold, this is the testimony which is in me.

In the context of this sermon, Alma does not appear to be talking about the atonement in verses 11-12 but rather the mortal ministry of Christ. As a mortal Christ did indeed condescend and become subject to sickness and physical pain just like all of us do. He knows what it is like to be a mortal on this planet and thus knows how to succor us. But the real purpose of his visit is made clear in verse 13: “that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance”.

The second problem with this is that healing is a gift of the spirit but I know of no references that imply that healing is directly connected with the price the Christ paid on the Garden. Further, while there is ample testimony and experiential evidence that the atonement does powerfully and immediately remove the sorrow, anguish and guilt associated with sin, I have not seen such evidence of the atonement itself frees us from all sickness and pain.

So if the atonement is just what the scriptures say it is – a free escape from death and a conditional escape from having to pay for our own sins how are we to find the time to become exactly like God if we end up permanently assigned to one kingdom of glory or another? The thought makes reason stare. I believe that the idea that all testing ends after this test causes some people to overcompensate by unnecessarily applying attributes to the atonement that the scriptures don’t support (this was my fundamental complaint agains the parable of the bicycle). God remains just and loving if the atonement does less than some Mormons claim it does. And the atonement as the scriptures describe is sufficiently awe-inspiring without our adding things to it. I believe God just gives us more time to deal with our process of becoming like him than some Mormons want to accept.

(In the sister post to follow I will suggest my own parable to describe what the atonement does and doesn’t do. I’ve dubbed it the Parable of the Mortgage.)

6 Comments »

  1. I would have to agree, the atonement itself covers the sins of the the sinner and allows us to repent and change. However, It does say that He took upon Him all of our sufferings that his bowels might be filled with mercy towards us that he might comfort us.

    It never states that we would never suffer but that He would comfort us. There is an inherant pain in growth that must be paid an therefore to take it away robs us of that growth, but to have someone who has “decended below them all” with us to help us back and to comfort us on our journey. That is the fulness of the Atonement, at least to me.

    Comment by Casey Blau — July 3, 2005 @ 6:06 pm

  2. It does say that He took upon Him all of our sufferings that his bowels might be filled with mercy towards us that he might comfort us.

    That is the assumption I am questioning here. Where does it say that besides Alma 7? I think that such a reading of those comments by Alma is a stretch.

    Comment by Geoff J — July 3, 2005 @ 6:21 pm

  3. Way long post

    I was reading the Ensign and thought that maybe the brethren were going to answer the question for me, they got close but no bubble gum cigar.

    President Faust spoke of Spiritual Healing and spoke of Christ as the Comforter and Healer as I did but he never went so far as to say that saying that although we will still have pain we can be comforted by His grace and mercy

    After full repentance, the formula is wonderfully simple. Indeed, the Lord has given it to us in these words: “Will ye not now return unto me, and repent of your sins, and be converted, that I may heal you?” 18 In so doing, we have His promise that “He healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds.”

    We find solace in Christ through the agency of the Comforter, and the Savior extends this invitation to us: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” 19 The Apostle Peter speaks of “casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you.” 20 As we do this, healing takes place, just as the Lord promised through the prophet Jeremiah when He said: “I will turn their mourning into joy, and will comfort them, and make them rejoice from their sorrow. . . . I have satiated the weary soul, and I have replenished every sorrowful soul.” 21

    And in the celestial glory, we are told that “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain.” 22 Then faith and hope will replace heartache, disappointment, torment, anguish, and despair, and the Lord will give us strength, as Mormon says, that we “should suffer no manner of afflictions, save it were swallowed up in the joy of Christ.” 23

    This however does not really say that he took upon Him all the sickness. But It does say that He will comfort us. As for healings, I have seen the priesthood work to many times to argue that point. God Heals when it is within the will of His plan of progression. That may sound trite, but I have seen it.
    I have a good friend who is in complete remission from cancer while I have seen many, many people die in my career in the hospital. Death and pain are a part of the plan. How we comfort each other (eg:Mosiah 18) is also part of that test. I have learned that treating a terminal patient with respect as they pass into the next life is vital to my progression.
    What does that have to do with what the Atonement covers, well, again, It covers sin, and it covers children, and those without the law,and it allowed Christ to Descend below them all and mature from the Vengeful, premortal, OT Elder Brother he was to the Merciful, Post mortal, Resurrected, Bowels full of mercy, Christ who succors his people as they go through their trials and waits to bless them if they will just ask.

    Comment by Casey Blau — July 5, 2005 @ 11:13 am

  4. There is no doubt that spiritual healing and comfort and forgiveness are what the atonement gives us, Casey. My point is that I see no direct ties between the atonement and physical healing as some saints teach. Healing is a very real gift is the spirit but I think it is a mistake to assume we can be healed because Christ somehow took upon him all the illnesses of the world in the Garden. That doctrine is an unnecessary man-made addition to the astonishing atonement as far as I can tell.

    Comment by Geoff J — July 5, 2005 @ 3:12 pm

  5. I think we are arguing the same point. Physical healing comes at the will of the Father through the priesthood and spiritual healing or comfort through the grace of the atonement. Am I catching the vision of the statement now?

    What about the fact that He, Christ, still would have had to take upon Him all the pain and suffering to succor those who needed it as I said above and also so he could mature from the Vengeful OT Jehovah into the Resurrected Christ, full of mercy.

    This was his last step for His progression to become like His Father.

    Comment by Casey Blau — July 5, 2005 @ 7:47 pm

  6. Yes that is a good summary.

    Regarding the supposed change from teh OT — I don’t think he did change from vengeful to compassionate. I think he was teh same throughout and that perception is solely an issue of the perspective and writing style of the authors.

    Regarding Christ succoring his people — the HCK/MMP model has a built in answer to that. Some feel He went through basically all the trials and pains of humanity prior to his role here in that model and as such could very literally understand what it is like (especially assuming the veil of forgetfulness was lifted for him.) But in any model the scriptures at hand seem to only be saying that he understood what mortality was like because he went through it here. And besides “the Spirit knoweth all things” to fill in the experiences he didn’t have.

    Comment by Geoff J — July 5, 2005 @ 8:22 pm

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