The demands of justice
The atonement of Jesus Christ: his suffering, death on the cross, and resurrection made it possible for all mankind to be resurrected and forgiven of their sins. Occasionally I am asked why Jesus had to die. A student recently asked why Jesus could not just forgive us as mortals do. Why did he have to die to bring about our redemption?
To me this question really has two parts. 1) How does the Savior forgive us and 2) what does the Savior’s death on the cross have to do with us being forgiven of sin?
From the Bible Dictionary we read: (atonement) describes the setting “at one” of those who have been estranged, and denotes the reconciliation of man to God. Sin is the cause of the estrangement, and therefore the purpose of atonement is to correct or overcome the consequences of sin. From the time of Adam to the death of Jesus Christ, true believers were instructed to offer animal sacrifices to the Lord. These sacrifices were symbolic of the forthcoming death of Jesus Christ, and were done by faith in him (Moses 5:5-8).
Jesus Christ, as the Only Begotten Son of God and the only sinless person to live on this earth, was the only one capable of making an atonement for mankind. By his selection and foreordination in the Grand Council before the world was formed, his divine Sonship, his sinless life, the shedding of his blood in the garden of Gethsemane, his death on the cross and subsequent bodily resurrection from the grave, he made a perfect atonement for all mankind. All are covered unconditionally as pertaining to the fall of Adam. Hence, all shall rise from the dead with immortal bodies, because of Jesus’ atonement. “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22), and all little children are innocent at birth. The atonement is conditional, however, so far as each person’s individual sins are concerned, and touches everyone to the degree that he has faith in Jesus Christ, repents of his sins, and obeys the gospel…
Sin is lawlessness (1 Jn. 3:4); it is a refusal of men’s part to submit to the law of God (Rom. 8:7). By transgression man loses control over his own will and becomes the slave to sin (Rom. 7:14), and so incurs the penalty of spiritual death, which is alienation from God (Rom. 6:23). The atonement of Jesus Christ redeems all mankind from the fall of Adam and causes all to be answerable for their own manner of life. This means of atonement is provided by the Father (John 3:16-17), and is offered in the life and person of his Son, Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:19). ( Atonement– Bible Dictionary, p. 617)
The previous excerpt from the Bible Dictionary makes it apparent that to receive forgiveness we are required to repent of our sins. As to why the Savior had to die, “the means of atonement is provided by the Father (John 3:16-17)” although a correct answer, usually prompts the students to ask further, “but why?”
Some gospel questions have what I like to call the short and the long answers. So in short, to answer the question as to why Jesus Christ must suffer to complete the Atonement:
2. With agency, Heavenly Father knew that we would, during our mortal journey here on earth, sin. With sin, or the violation of the laws of God, mankind would incur penalties.
3. For God to take away the penalties of sin would eliminate agency. To have agency we need 1)opposition, 2)laws, 3)knowledge of right and wrong, and 4)the power to choose (2 Nephi 2). Both agency and penalty must be in place for justice, or order, to be in effect. If there is no penalty for breaking the law, the law is destroyed (Alma 42:17,21).
If law and punishment did not really exist, “God would cease to be God” (Alma 42:22-23). In other words, the entire order of the cosmos is destroyed if penalties for violations of heavenly law are waived. A punishment must be affixed to these violations or law, justice and order are annihilated and God ceases to be God.
4. The greatest penalty mortals dealt with in scripture was associated with murder. Amulek’s logic as to why Jesus Christ had to die for the atonement to be complete comes to us from Alma 34. The sacrifice must be an infinite sacrifice (Alma 34:10), then as if to make certain his hearers understood, he discussed murder: “Now there is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of another. Now, if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother? I say unto you, Nay. But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered; therefore there can be nothing which is short of an infinite atonement which will suffice for the sins of the world” (Alma 34:11-12 emphasis added).
5. For Jesus Christ to “answer the ends of the law”, he had to pay the ultimate penalty for the worst sin anyone could ever commit. In the words of Jacob, “Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered (2 Nephi 2:7 emphasis added). His suffering and death paid the price for all the sin, suffering, injustice or sickness ever suffered by mankind in totality (Alma 7:11-13). I cannot comprehend the goodness and supreme mercy of my Savior! I cannot fathom what He must have suffered to experience and atone for the negative consequences of every single one of Heavenly Father’s children (D&C 19:15-20), to literally “descend below all things” (D&C 88:6). If we really understood this, all mortals would praise him every day forever! (D&C 133:52-53)
Why did Jesus Christ have to die? (The more detailed answer)
Several years ago I read the following commentary by Terryl Givens, and it has strengthened my appreciation for the power of the Book of Mormon in explaining details relating to the Atonement in ways never before seen. I do not believe that the Bible teaches the Atonement of Jesus Christ and our relationship to Him as perfectly as the Book of Mormon.
Two Book of Mormon disquisitions (dissertations or formal discourse) on the subject, 2 Nephi 2 and Alma 41–42, move beyond such abstracting explanations by situating justice in a larger discussion of moral agency. In the first, Lehi asserts as fundamental dichotomy in the universe between those entities that have agency (“things that act”) and those that do not (“things acted upon”). (In a subsequent revelation, Joseph Smith would define the first category as the only true existence: “All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence” [D&C 93:30]). Such agency, to be efficacious, must operate in the presence of alternatives: “Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other” (2 Nephi 2:16). But more to the point, genuine moral agency must entail necessary consequences. If choice is to be more than an empty gesture of the will, more than a mere pantomime of decision making, there must be an immutable guarantee that any given choice will eventuate in the natural consequence of that choice. To paraphrase Edmund Husserl, choice must be choice of something. Christ, Lehi explains, institutes the terms whereby those consequences are assured and himself stands as the ultimate guarantor of the integrity of such meaningful choice: “Wherefore, the ends of the law [are those] which the Holy One hath given, unto the inflicting of the punishment which is affixed, which punishment that is affixed is in opposition to that of the happiness which is affixed” (2 Nephi 2:10).
It is the certainty of such punishment and reward, defined and differentiated by law and freely chosen by man, that establishes his moral agency: “Wherefore,” Lehi concludes, “men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, … or to choose captivity and death” (2 Nephi 2:27). In this view, justice seems to be another name for the moral order as defined and implemented by “the Holy One.”
Alma is even more explicit in defining justice as a moral order that validates human agency. “The plan of restoration,” as he calls this principle, “is requisite with the justice of God; for it is requisite that all things should be restored to their proper order” (Alma 41:2). And how is that order defined? “And if their works were good in this life, and the desires of their hearts were good, that they should also, at the last day, be restored unto that which is good. And if their works are evil they shall be restored unto them for evil” (Alma 41:3-4). Not simply because that is the “fair” or “just” thing for God to do. For God is also merciful, and if humans can remit a penalty out of compassion or mercy, why cannot God?
Because, as Alma continues, such apparent generosity would undermine the essence of that agency on which moral freedom depends. Consequences are chosen at the time actions are freely committed. To choose to indulge a desire is to choose its fruit – bitter or sweet- assuming, as Lehi did, that “men are instructed sufficiently” to understand what they are choosing (2 Nephi 2:5). So following the exercise of such agency, “the one [must be] raised to happiness according to his desires of happiness, or good according to his desires of good; and the other to evil according to his desires of evil” (Alma 41:5). It is a truth that harks back to Dante’s grim vision of hell in which God is not present as judge or dispenser of punishments, because choices are allowed, inexorably, to bear their own fruit. In Alma’s Inferno as well, future states are chosen, not assigned: “For behold,” says Alma, “they are their own judges” (Alma 41:7).
The rationale behind such a moral order is not an omnipotent, impersonal, and cruelly inflexible absolute called justice, but rather the protection of a necessary framework for human agency, that in assuring the promise of righteous reward for the righteous must equally guarantee evil (whatever is “contrary to the nature of God” [Alma 41:11]) to those who demonstrate through their actions their choice of evil. Given this framework, Alma emphasizes, Corianton’s attribution of punishment to a vindictive God is misplaced: “And now, there was not means to reclaim men from this fallen state, which man had brought upon himself because of his own disobedience” (Alma 42:12, emphasis mine).
So, Lehi and Alma agree that human moral autonomy is predicated upon a sacred connection between desire and reward, choice and consequence. And it is law that articulates and clarifies that connection, making sin, righteousness, and happiness possible. As Lehi says, “If ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness” (2 Nephi 2:13). And Alma asks “how could [man] sin if there was no law? How could there be a law save there was a punishment” (Alma 42:17).
Within these parameters that Lehi and Alma have framed, no escape from the consequences of law is possible without destroying the entire moral order of the universe and both the human agency it grounds and the status of the divine guarantor of the whole system (“God would cease to be God”). As long as the penalty is executed, law is safeguarded. As long as man chooses to undo the effects of his decisions and then chooses anew (repentance), agency is safeguarded. So Christ offers himself as ransom to the demands of law, as the only being capable of paying a cumulative penalty as “eternal as the life of the soul” (Alma 42:16). The consequence of unrighteous choice unfolds as it must, but the pain it inflicts is vicariously felt. Therefore, “justice exerciseth all his demands, and also mercy claimeth all which is her own; and thus, none but the truly penitent are saved” (Alma 42:24). (Terryl Givens, By the hand of Mormon: the American scripture that launched a new world religion, Oxford University Press, p. 206-207)
Scriptures to ponder
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)
And thus God breaketh the bands of death, having gained the victory over death; giving the Son power to make intercession for the children of men—Having ascended into heaven, having the bowels of mercy; being filled with compassion towards the children of men; standing betwixt them and justice; having broken the bands of death, taken upon himself their iniquity and their transgressions, having redeemed them, and satisfied the demands of justice. (Mosiah 15:8-9.)
For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 6:23)
And now, behold, I will testify unto you of myself that these things are true. Behold, I say unto you, that I do know that Christ shall come among the children of men, to take upon him the transgressions of his people, and that he shall atone for the sins of the world; for the Lord God hath spoken it. For it is expedient that an atonement should be made; for according to the great plan of the Eternal God there must be an atonement made, or else all mankind must unavoidably perish; yea, all are hardened; yea, all are fallen and are lost, and must perish except it be through the atonement which it is expedient should be made. For it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice; yea, not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast, neither of any manner of fowl; for it shall not be a human sacrifice; but it must be an infinite and eternal sacrifice. (Alma 34:8-10)