Similarities and Difference
We all have some things in common: we are all children of God, each on of us born with a purpose, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ died for each one of us, and each one of us will one day stand before God and give an accounting of our lives. Yet each of us comes from a huge variety of life experience; a few examples:
- Some people are born into wealth with a world of opportunity and few material challenges at their feet. Some people are born in abject poverty with barely a chance to stay alive.
- Some people are born into safe nurturing environments with many opportunities for growth. Some are born into nightmarish circumstances with challenges few of us can imagine and even fewer can relate to.
- Some people are born with hereditary challenges that make keeping God’s commandments a greater burden than for others.
Most of us fall somewhere in between these extremes. Multiply these differences the world over and our variety of life experience is nearly infinite.
Fairness and Standards
These differences were made very clear to me first hand, in my early college years I worked with children adopted from extremely troubled backgrounds. The things many of these children had to endure do not bear repeating. For many of these children the simplest tasks of social propriety and right living were a great challenge. As a mentor and tutor I formed some close relationships with some of these children and over time questions of fairness began to weigh on me as I compared my life to theirs.
We often tell one another this life is a test? If it is a test, in many ways this test doesn’t seem very fair. For example a child born in a crime ridden slum to evil parents has vastly more challenges than I did. I was born to what can surely be described as “goodly parents”. I never endured any real abuse, unless you consider abuse an occasional maternal wooden spoon on the backside to clear me out of the kitchen or weeding a few extra rows in the garden.
We have been taught Jesus died for all of us, both the abused child and I have access to Jesus Christ’s atonement. As Jacob teaches “[Jesus] suffereth himself to … die for all men” [2 Nephi 9:5], but, in what way does Christ’s Atonement and sacrifice help both of us, despite our vastly different circumstances and capacities? How does it help us to “pass this test”?
This is the question about the Atonement I struggled with for some time. I knew that repentance was real, I had felt the cleansing and renewing power of Jesus’ sacrifice in my own life. I had felt the sanctifying power of the Spirit witness it to me, but how could God expect myself and the nine year old boy I was mentoring, who was abused so wickedly from birth, to pass the same test? It was a troubling question. Through faithful patience, study, and contemplation I found answers that satisfied me. I hope they may bring you some satisfaction too.
Stories of the Atonement
Christ’s Atonement is central to our religion and Christianity in general. It is central to our understanding of life and its various challenges and blessings.
Many critics of Christianity mock and mischaracterize our Christian story of redemption. Some of these so-called new-atheists go beyond mockery and describe the atonement as philosophically evil. As they tell it if we sin just once (and do not repent), God will torture us in a lake of fire and brimstone forever and ever. They say, “What kind of cruel monster is that”? Indeed, to make matters worse our only escape from this fate is if someone else chooses to suffer instead. That sacrificial solution seems to make God both cruel AND unjust.
Alternatively, most of us believe that our sins create a debt that must be repaid. Strictly speaking, this is true, but I think the analogy can be taken too far. It seems to imply that the cost of a sin is some abstract price, added on as something separate from the sin itself. It does not explain what the cost is. Why can’t I just recognize I’m a fool and stop sinning? Why does Jesus have to suffer for my stupidity to repay this debt?
There are two important questions to ask yourself in trying to understand Christ’s Atonement. These questions were posed to me by a friend I met on my LDS mission.
- What Did Jesus Want to Achieve?
The answer is found in the word itself: At-One-ment with God. To have immortality (which we had before the fall anyway) AND knowledge, freedom, appreciation, and the ability to progress. Or in other words, He wants us to become as He is. Suffering is just a necessary side effect. If our Father in Heaven and Jesus just wanted us to avoid suffering, He would have left us as we were, dwelling with Him, but with no knowledge.
- Why Do Sins Get in the Way?
Sin is not some abstract idea, the creation of a bored and arbitrary god. God did not just look at life and say “surely these people are having too much fun! I will call this and that thing SIN and stop them doing it!” Sin is at its heart behavior that causes destruction and suffering. As the apostle Paul teaches us “…the wages of sin is death…” [Romans 6:23] Some sins are obvious –– like murder and adultery. But some sins are only apparent after many generations –– for example, sins that lead to the breakdown of family life, the fraying of community, and the decay of nations and civilizations. Sin keep us from God because it is destroys our capacity to be as he is. A sinful person does stupid and destructive things. It is simple, but certainly not easy, the way to overcome sin is to repent and start living right.
With this in mind, we know that Jesus suffered for our sins and that in some way that suffering allows us to repent and return to our Father’s presence, but what did Jesus’ suffering do?
God the Father, Justice, and Mercy
To understand this I believe we must first explore some aspects of God the Father. We must remember that God is a God of justice and that we exist in an ordered universe; there are eternal laws that God himself must follow. Selfish and ungodly behavior cannot ever bring progression; it would be unjust for God to force it otherwise even if motivated by love and mercy. As Alma teaches:
‘Therefore, according to justice, the plan of redemption could not be brought about, only on conditions of repentance of men in this probationary state, yea, this preparatory state; for except it were for these conditions, mercy could not take effect except it should destroy the work of justice. Now the work of justice could not be destroyed; if so, God would cease to be God.
‘And thus we see that all mankind were fallen, and they were in the grasp of justice; yea, the justice of God, which consigned them forever to be cut off from his presence.” [Alma 42:13-14]
Alma is teaching us that each of us needs mercy, we are all fallen and in the grasp of justice, and this same grasp of justice binds God from freely offering us mercy, as Alma puts succinctly later in the same chapter ‘. . . do ye suppose that mercy can rob justice? I say unto you, Nay; not one whit. If so, God would cease to be God.” [Alma 42:25]
How does God meet the demands of justice that he may show us mercy? Alma further explains:
‘And now, the plan of mercy could not be brought about except an atonement should be made; therefore God himself atoneth for the sins of the world, to bring about the plan of mercy, to appease the demands of justice that God might be a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also.” [Alma 42:15]
Our Savior Jesus Christ atoned for the sins of mankind and paid the price, and by saying ‘paid the price’ I believe he performed the difficult work that enables us to experience God’s mercy. However, this begs the question, how does Jesus Christ’s atoning sacrifice allow for mercy and justice? Remember mercy can never rob justice. The answer I believe is found in the Garden of Gethsemane, there while his apostles slept began the most momentous event in history, in the Garden and eventually on the cross Jesus Christ felt the weight of the world’s sins, pains, disappointments, and betrayals; the worlds suffering came upon him individually and personally.
Elder Merril J. Bateman in a 2005 General Conference taught:
“For many years I thought of the Savior’s experience in the garden and on the cross as places where a large mass of sin was heaped upon Him. Through the words of Alma, Abinadi, Isaiah, and other prophets, however, my view has changed. Instead of an impersonal mass of sin, there was a long line of people, as Jesus felt “our infirmities” (Hebrews 4:15), “[bore] our griefs, . . . carried our sorrows . . . [and] was bruised for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:4–5).
The Atonement was an intimate, personal experience in which Jesus came to know how to help each of us.”
Jesus Christ as Judge
This is why Jesus is not only our Creator and Savior, but also our Judge in that day of reckoning.
So what did Jesus’ suffering do? Because of his intimate knowledge of our challenges, sufferings, and failings Jesus can justly grant us mercy.
I, having been born of goodly parents, and the person born in barbaric circumstances can be judged at the last day individually, our Savior knowing what we were both uniquely capable of.
We all possess agency, though it is constrained within the bounds of light and knowledge brought with us and the variety of possible circumstances offered by this fallen world. Sadly, some will not choose to seek the light of Christ within them. At the same time those that follow their measure of light and reach their full potential, no matter how it is perceived by man, is to Christ our perfect Judge, a victory over sin worthy of eternal reward.
What I Believe
I believe he did pay the price of my sin-incurred debt, not some abstract debt separate from sin, but rather the debt incurred by every suffering I’ve caused in the world, for every ungodly choice that fell short of my potential. He had to experience each of those moments so he could be my perfect Judge, and in doing so he also became my Savior.
Through the miracle of Christ’s Atonement, Justice and Mercy become one; and this rough and tumble life becomes not a uniform unfair test, but a necessary experience and a personal challenge in a eternal journey to become like our Father in Heaven. Christ’s sacrifice and suffering becomes not as the critics say an arbitrary and cruel injustice, but a purposeful act of love for his people. As the prophet Alma so movingly teaches about our Savior:
‘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.
‘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.” [Alma 7:11-12]