Life before the atonement

July 27, 2007    By: Matt W. @ 12:00 pm   Category: Atonement & Soteriology

One of the conundrums for me has been in resolving how the effects of the atonement were efficacious before the cause of those effects had even occurred.

There are really only three options I am aware of:

Events like the atonement, while happening in linear time, have effects which can occur forward and backward in linear time. The pros of this explanation are that it is a tidy explanation which is easy to state, impossible to test, and has some traction with Neal A. Maxwell and some potential backing from a few statements and scriptures tying directly to Joseph Smith. The big pro for me is that this way offers an extremely tidy theory for the relationship between evolutionary human beings and the fall bringing death and sin. The cons for me are that the concepts of a concrete timeline run contra in my logic to the whole purpose of the atonement to begin with, freedom and happiness.

A second option is that there are no “effects” of the atonement outside of memetic effects, similar to those generated by propaganda. Thus the story had the same potential to transform lives before it occurred as it did after it occurred, dependent on faith in it’s occurrence. There are several ugly cons in this solution. For starters, this concept somewhat trivializes whether the event really occurred, and whether Christ’s atonement was exactly the necessary means to the ends of what had occurred.

The Third option is that the direct effects of the atonement were not available before it’s occurrence, and those things we consider effects of the atonement which happened before the atonement occurred are actually effects of the existence of the plan of salvation, which is dependent on the atonement occurring, but not on the atonement already having occurred. In other words, the Godhead knew exactly what needed to be done before it was done, and knowing it would be done, set up all other tenants reliant on the fact that it would be done.

One way to think of this is in terms of risk taking activities like taking a loan or placing a bet. We are making decisions now based on our belief in what will happen in the future. An extreme example makes such a concept seem fairly stupid, like buying a lottery ticket and then buying a house based on the assumption that we will win. However, a more common example seems more reasonable, like getting up in the morning and going to work, based on the idea that a nuclear bomb isn’t going to go off and incinerate your family while you are with your boss.

So the question comes up then as to what are the effects of the atonement? While there are concepts which we can throw out (like being like God, entering the celestial kingdom, being resurrected, receiving a remission of sin, etc.) I see none which would be perceptible to us in our fallen mortal state. We can not look back and note a perceivable difference between a man in 60 BC and a man in 60 AD. We can look back to Enoch and Zion and ask what is the difference between their exaltation and the exaltation of the three Nephites, yet we see no answers there. If we say the atonement’s effects can not be perceived until the final judgment, then why did the atonement occur 2000 years ago?


  1. Yea, this is a tough one.

    Some other options you didn’t list are:

    Fourth option: The atonement is an ongoing process which Christ has been engaged in throughout all of history. We explored some of the advantages and disadvantages of this when we discussed Blake’s theory.

    Fifth option: Jesus descended below all things in the pre-mortal world and overcame sin before history began. Thus, certain effects of the atonement were in place from the foundation of the world, even though the completion of the atonement could not occur until he overcame physical death and experienced mortality. For example, resurrection seems to have been unavailable before Christ was resurrected, whereas repentance and sanctification seem to have been available from the beginning.

    Sixth option: There is no such thing as time for God.

    I’m sure others will be able to offer even more options.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 27, 2007 @ 1:34 pm

  2. I look at atonement as an ongoing process, and that much of the eternal benefits of the atonement are in the future, even for us.

    It seems there might be a temporary ‘forgiveness’ granted unto us as we return to a relationship of trust with God. But maybe an ultimate forgiveness will not be formalized until final judgement.

    I think we might overestimate how much of the benefits of the atonement we currently enjoy in comparison to the benefits we have yet to enjoy. We may not have much if any real advantages over people who lived a few thousand years ago.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — July 27, 2007 @ 2:15 pm

  3. Jacob J:

    I’m not sure I see the difference between your #6 and my #1.

    #4 and #5 disassociate the atonement from the Gethsemane event. THis is fine, but make the event in Gethsemene either pointless or merely symbolic i nature. An error I may have made in the orignal post was returning to the word atonement when I mean the Gethsemane event.

    I did also fail to mention another option. Having looked over our archive, this would be the option Blake rejects as part of the Royal Empathy Theory. THe Gethsemane event wasn’t about our deficiency, but Christ’s, and he atoned so he would able to perform for us the final jdgment and help us on our way to that point. THe problem here is that we are unable to detect a difference in his abiiity to help us before and after the Garden….

    Eric: As a convert I can say that the atonement does make a difference in my life, or rather Faith in Jesus Christ does make a difference, and a huge difference at tht. But I think that difference was available to Alma the Younger before the bleeding from every pore ever occurred, and it was available just as much to him as it was to me. So I think we agree. THis strengthens my position around option #2 in my original post, but there MUST be more to the gethsemane event than that, or otherwise there is no reason for Christ to suffer. Except of course that at some point we are told we will have a perfect knowledge of all things and if we learned that Christ did not dsuffer all things we may not be able to revere him and follow him because he would no longer have referent power over us.

    Comment by Matt W. — July 28, 2007 @ 5:41 am

  4. Matt,

    I didn’t realize your #1 was my #6, but I can see that it could be now that you mention it. I got hung up on the way you described it as having backward causation in a linear timeline rather than having no time at all. That is fine though, I retract #6.

    #4 and #5 don’t necessarily make the Passion either pointless or merely symbolic. For example, I mentioned that in #5 there was no resurrection possible until after the Passion–and idea which has scriptural support. Overcoming physical death is certainly not pointless or merely symbolic. In fact, in some places the BofM lists resurrection as the principal effect of the atonement.

    Trying to solve this particular problem naturally leads one to consider the idea that the Passion was not the entirety of the work of the atonement. I think we must exercise the utmost care to insure that we do not trivialize the events in Gethsemane and on the Cross, but I don’t think this requires us to restrict the full work of the atonement to one week. I allow for the possibility that the events of that week are not the only thing Christ ever did to earn the title of Savior, which both #4 and #5 rely on.


    I believe just the opposite: that we often underestimate how many benefits of the atonement we now enjoy.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 28, 2007 @ 6:01 pm

  5. Jacob:

    I have no doubt that the Passion is not the fullness of the atonement, but the question to me is what part did the suffering in Gethsemane take? You say, and perhaps I agree, that resurrection was brought about by the Passion, but we can not mean being raised from the dead, because Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, and Elijah raised the widow’s son. And what does Enoch’s translation, Elijah’s Chariot of fire, and whatever happened to Moses inform us about what this resurrection is?

    Comment by Matt W. — July 29, 2007 @ 7:05 am

  6. I should add that the more I think about it, the more I fall into an “all but #1” answer…

    Comment by Matt W. — July 29, 2007 @ 7:06 am

  7. I have decided that I don’t like the name “Royal Empathy Theory” at all and will refer to that idea as something Exemplar-Empathy Theory instead since it really is a cross between and empathy theory and a moral example theory anyway.

    Anyway, yes despite the strengths of empathy theory it suffers from the criticism that it is all about teaching Jesus and not about us at all. However, when you combine that with a moral example theory then it becomes about teaching all of humanity how to be as well. Then when the mysterious parts about the resurrection are thrown in the Passion (aka Christ Event) portion of the ongoing at-one-ment becomes plenty meaningful.

    (It looks like you hint at moral example theory in your #2 Matt, but you do it so derisively that it is hard to recognize the theory in there…)

    Comment by Geoff J — July 29, 2007 @ 10:11 am

  8. Matt,

    Being raised from the dead is not the same as resurrection. I think everyone believes that Lazarus died again at the end of his mortal life, following his being raised from the dead by Jesus. Likewise, translation is explicitely not resurrection, since we know translated beings will be resurrected later.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 29, 2007 @ 10:42 am

  9. we know translated beings will be resurrected later.

    Jacob, you have me interested. I have never heard this before. How do we know this?

    Geoff: I did describe the moral example theory in fairly derisive terms. If moral example stood on it’s own though, it would be exactly true. Moral example is actually vital to the way the atonement work, it just doesn’t work well as the only way the atonement works. Now can moral example only paired with resurrection really satisfacorily explain the necessity of suffering for sin unto bleeding from every pore.

    I will say that th Empathy Theory where Christ suffers so he knows how to succor his people does show that we are the ones in need of succor, and christ is merely paying the price to succor us. It is perhaps debateable as to whether or not this makes Christ deficient, the more I think on it.

    Comment by Matt W. — July 29, 2007 @ 8:32 pm

  10. Matt,

    I was thinking of this quote from Joseph Smith:

    Many have supposed that the doctrine of translation was a doctrine whereby men were taken immediately into the presence of God, and into an eternal fulness, but this is a mistaken idea. Their place of habitation is that of the terrestrial order, and a place prepared for such characters he held in reserve to be ministering angels unto many planets, and who as yet have not entered into so great a fulness as those who are resurrected from the dead. “Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection” (Heb. 11:35.)

    Now it was evident that there was a better resurrection, or else God would not have revealed it unto Paul. Wherein then, can it be said a better resurrection? This distinction is made between the doctrine of the actual resurrection and translation: translation obtains deliverance from the tortures and sufferings of the body, but their existence will prolong as to the labors and toils of the ministry, before they can enter into so great a rest and glory.

    On the other hand, those who were tortured, not accepting deliverance, received an immediate rest from their labors. (Discourses of the Prophet Joseph Smith pg. 55-56)

    Comment by Jacob J — July 29, 2007 @ 10:07 pm

  11. Jacob (#4) My ‘underestimate’ was a comparison. I would agree that we underestimate what the atonement can do for us in the here and now. What I was saying is that I believe that there are more benefits available to us, that come from the atonement, that are still coming.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — July 30, 2007 @ 5:44 am

  12. Jacob J: Thanks. That is an excellent quote and I really appreciate it. I especially like how it defines resurrection as being taken “into the presence of God, and into an eternal fulness”.

    So are people now currently receiving these benefits, seeing that the Gethsemane event has already occured?

    Comment by Matt W. — July 30, 2007 @ 9:56 am

  13. So are people now currently receiving these benefits, seeing that the Gethsemane event has already occured?

    Well, we have the scripture which says many people were resurrected back when Christ was resurrected (Matt 27:52). In addition, we have this from D&C 132:

    Abraham …as Isaac also and Jacob …have entered into their exaltation, according to the promises, and sit upon thrones, and are not angels but are gods. (D&C 132:37)

    So, I’m sure someone could disagree, but the answer to your question seems to me to be yes.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 30, 2007 @ 10:27 am

  14. So, stepping back and looking at the big picture, Jacob, I am taking you to mean that the atonement is bigger than the gethsemane event, and includes the creation of the light of christ, which does not directly originate from the Gethsemane event, but originates from Christ taking upon himself the role of Christ in the council in heaven (I’m just guessing there.) and that the capstone (for want of a better term) to the atonement was the passion, which enabled us to be ressurected, meaning come “into the presence of God, and into an eternal fulness” with a perfect immortal body. Fair enough?

    on a side note, I tried to e-mail you, but not sure it made it through.

    Comment by Matt W. — July 30, 2007 @ 10:57 am

  15. Matt,

    That is a fair restatement. You summarized “Jesus descended below all things in the pre-mortal world and overcame sin before history began” as “Christ taking upon himself the role of Christ in the council in heaven” which might not fully capture what I think is required, but I think you’ve understood what I am suggesting. I have never advanced a theory as to how the problem of time relates to the atonement, but I think this should be on the list of possibles.

    I will check my email when I get home and let you know.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 30, 2007 @ 11:43 am

  16. I am stumbling on the terms “descended below all things” and “overcame sin” here. I’m not disagreeing, I am just saying I am not 100% certain what all you are loading into these words.

    Comment by Matt W. — July 30, 2007 @ 12:51 pm

  17. As you probably know, I am pulling the phrase “descended below all things” directly from D&C 88:6. I am not defining it more explicitely because I don’t know what it means exactly, and I don’t want to taint the scriptural phrase with my speculations. But you are correct that it is somewhat vague. Any theory that wanted to use #5 would likely want to flesh out some details in a speculative fashion.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 30, 2007 @ 1:26 pm