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.)