When we talk about the Atonement, we often use analogies or explanations that make sense to us. For example, we hear about the parable of the bicycle - or the weak student who is going to get whipped for his actions but a stronger student steps in to take his punishment - or someone who is in overwhelming debt who has his debt paid by a rich benefactor - or any number of other examples. We want to understand the Atonement more deeply, so we create these explanations - and we pick whichever one resonates most deeply with our own personalities and experiences.
While I also like to try to understand the
mechanics of the Atonement (how it works in practical terms), I think
obsessing over exactly which explanation is "true" is an example of
something Elder Maxwell said in General Conference in 1988 - that the
dimensions of the cross are not as important as what happened on it.
Therefore, I am not going to talk about my understanding of the
practical details of the Atonement; rather, I am going to talk about
what the Atonement means to me - how it resonates most deeply with my
I start by comparing how the Atonement is addresses within mainstream Christian thought and within Mormon theology.
traditional belief in Christianity about our ultimate end can be summed
up as the wicked or unsaved suffering forever in Hell, while the
righteous or saved live forever in the presence of God (generally
focused on Jesus). In essence, this belief says that some will be
punished with eternal torment, while others will end up in the condition
we teach existed in the pre-existence. Framed differently, in Mormon
terms and not focusing on the differences in physical condition to the
resurrection, mainstream Christianity teaches that all people will end
up in either Outer Darkness or the Terrestrial Kingdom. It's not that
we reject their concept of Heaven and Hell; it's that we see more
eternal conditions than that - and, importantly, we teach that most
people will end up being more blessed than what is believed in most
other denominations. For example, the generically wicked will be
rewarded and blessed with a degree of glory, and those who strive to
live the best they understand will be blessed with a much greater reward
than the Terrestrial Kingdom, no matter their religious affiliation in
That concept of an "extra reward" is the heart of
the difference between how we view the Atonement - and I have to chuckle
a little whenever I hear someone say that Mormons believe they are the
only ones who will make it to Heaven. They simply don't understand our
theology - but I also think it's important to point out that this
misunderstanding sometimes occurs because of how we talk about "the
world" and "others".
That is part of the intellectual aspect of
the Atonement that means a lot to me, but the intellectual is not the
most powerful to me. I believe strongly that, in the Church, we so the
Atonement a disservice (that we actually devalue it) when we focus
exclusively on the Garden of Gethsemane and Golgotha. Those are
incredibly important aspects of the Atonement, but the ultimate goal of
our existence is NOT to be saved from sin and death and return to a
terrestrial existence (equal to the pre-existence, except with a
resurrected body). We are told that the purpose and measure of our
creation is to become like God - and it is Jesus' LIFE that provides the
blueprint for how that can occur. His suffering and death are said to
free us to pursue exaltation, but it is his life that teaches us how to
"become like God"; thus, his life is an integral part of his Atonement.
To state it differently, someone can lack an intellectual
understanding of Jesus and the Atonement (and not even have heard of
either in this life) and still become like God, while others can study
Jesus and understand intellectually the Atonement and not become
anything like God. Understanding Jesus and the Atonement to the best of
my ability is important, but actually striving to live like he lived
and become like him is FAR more important in the end.
How can we do that?
can read his words and emulate him. We can read the Sermon on the
Mount and strive to acquire the characteristics of blessedness it lists
and describes. We can see whom he served and look for ways to serve
those same people (the publicans and sinners in our own society). We
can stop focusing on serving those whom it is easy to serve (like each
other here in this chapel) and reach out to those we naturally would
avoid, despise and reject. We can try to love as he loved, knowing all
the other commandments hang on love.
Brothers and sister, we
need to acknowledge Jesus' suffering and death (and we generally are
pretty good at that), but I believe we need to be much more intentional
and dedicated to changing the world around us than we generally are. My
only New Year's Resolution this year is to find a way to help the
publicans and sinners around me - those people who I naturally see as
"unclean" - not just to check off something on a to-do list, but to
develop more fully the type of character and loving nature that Jesus
said in Matthew 5:48 is the full measure of perfection.
I hope we all can do so, together and individually.
Here in my waiting place
1 hour ago