How did the Atonement work for people who lived before it actually happened?

How could the gospel be in effect before the Savior actually performed the Atonement?

In Mosiah, we read the following from King Benjamin:

And the Lord God hath sent his holy prophets among all the children of men, to declare these things to every kindred, nation, and tongue, that thereby whosoever should believe that Christ should come, the same might receive remission of their sins, and rejoice with exceedingly great joy, even as though he had already come among them. (Mosiah 3:13) 

To King Benjamin, the Atonement was in effect even though the Savior had not “come among them” yet… to him, it was as if it had already happened!

Tad Callister wrote a great book entitled The Infinite Atonement. Here he writes:

Mortals Who Predate the Savior’s Sacrifice

The Atonement was clearly efficacious for mortal men who lived after the Savior’s ordeal in the Garden and on the cross. But what of mortals who lived before the Savior or even further back in time to spirits of the premortal realm? Does the Atonement reach that far? Is it infinite in time both retroactively and prospectively?

Does the Atonement apply retroactively to mortals who predated his sacrifice? In other words, could the people of the Old Testament repent and be cleansed of their sins before the Savior’s mission had been performed? The answer is yes. The headnote to Alma 39 reads in part, “Christ’s redemption is retroactive in saving the faithful who preceded it.” Paul taught that the gospel was “preached before . . . unto Abraham” (Galatians 3:8). Faith, repentance, and baptism were taught in every dispensation of the gospel commencing with Adam. This is what the scriptures mean when they say, “The Gospel began to be preached, from the beginning” (Moses 5:58; see also D&C 20:25–26).

Without the retroactive effect of the Savior’s Atonement, the teaching of gospel principles and the performance of related ordinances in Old Testament times would have been futile acts. The Lord made this unconditional declaration concerning the brother of Jared, who predated the Savior’s Atonement by about twenty-two hundred years: “Because thou knowest these things ye are redeemed from the fall” (Ether 3:13). King Benjamin put to rest any question about the retroactive nature of the Atonement in his magnificent discourse: “Whosoever should believe that Christ should come, the same might receive remission of their sins, and rejoice with exceedingly great joy, even as though he had already come among them” (Mosiah 3:13; emphasis added). Then King Benjamin confirmed the timelessness of the Atonement when he testified that men shall be damned unless they “believe that salvation was, and is, and is to come, in and through the atoning blood of Christ” (Mosiah 3:18; emphasis added). But how could that be? How could God retroactively extend the blessings of the Atonement before the purchase price was paid? Would this not violate the principles of justice? What if the Savior chose not to proceed? What if no blood were ever shed?

The principle of retroactive credit should not seem foreign to us today. In fact, it is an everyday occurrence. On a daily basis we buy merchandise with our credit cards and then pay for it after the fruits have been enjoyed. As we prove dependable and timely in making our payments the amount of our credit increases. Once we have proven creditworthy, companies will even solicit our credit with fervor. They know certain people can always be counted on to pay the bill.

How much more so it was with the Savior. Over long eons of time in the premortal realm he proved faithful and dependable and honorable in every commitment, every responsibility, and every charge. The scriptures tell us that “from eternity to eternity he is the same” (D&C 76:4). He never deviated from the mark, never slacked in his performance, never shrank from his word. He kept every command with exactness; he discharged every duty with precision; he was “not slack concerning his promise” (2 Peter 3:9). His promises were “immutable and unchangeable” (D&C 104:2). As a result, his spiritual credit was rapidly escalating until it was pure gold, even infinite in value. That is why the laws of justice could recognize the benefits of the Atonement before the purchase price was ever paid, because his promise, his pledge, his credit was “good for it,” and everyone who honored their first estate knew it.

In the premortal council the Savior covenanted with the Father to perform the Atonement. John Taylor wrote, “A covenant was entered into between Him and His Father, in which He agreed to atone for the sins of the world,” and hence he became known as “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” 1 (Revelation 13:8; see also Moses 7:47). The Gospel of Philip, one of the Nag Hammadi books, suggests similarly: “It was not only when he appeared that he voluntarily laid down his life, but he voluntarily laid down his life from the very day the world came into being. Then he came forth in order to take it, since it had been given as a pledge.” 2 Based on that pledge or covenant we had faith in him. Based on that covenant the Father could promise remission of sins prior to the atoning sacrifice because he “knew” his Son would not fail. The issue was not that he could not break his covenant, but rather, that he would not. In rhetorical fashion, the Savior reminds us of that truth: “Who am I,” he asks, “that have promised and have not fulfilled?” (D&C 58:31; see also Numbers 23:19). Solomon acknowledged that the Lord “hath not failed one word of all his good promise, which he promised by the hand of Moses” (1 Kings 8:56; see also Deuteronomy 7:8). Abraham was yet another witness: “There is nothing that the Lord thy God shall take in his heart to do but what he will do it” (Abraham 3:17). It should not be surprising that Nehemiah referred to him as the “God, who keepest covenant” (Nehemiah 9:32). Any question about the underlying integrity of the Lord’s promises was answered when he declared anciently, “I will never break my covenant with you” (Judges 2:1; emphasis added).

In A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens addresses the importance of fulfilling promises, as seen in his portrayal of Scrooge. After a life of parsimony, Scrooge’s heart is finally softened by the spirit of Christmas. He promises Bob Cratchit a raise; he promises to assist Cratchit’s struggling family—in fact, he promises to begin that very afternoon. And then this magnificent tribute to Scrooge: “[He] was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more.” 3 In such a spirit the Savior did it all; he kept his word; he performed an infinite atonement.

Consider for a moment the binding nature of an oath in Old Testament and Book of Mormon times. Now elevate that to the covenant of God, who is “bound” (D&C 82:10) when he so covenants, and who “never doth vary from that which he hath said” (Mosiah 2:22). Speaking of the oath and covenant of the priesthood, the Lord declared, “All those who receive the priesthood, receive this oath and covenant of my Father, which he cannot break” (D&C 84:40; emphasis added).

If a God “cannot break” a covenant, then why could not the laws of justice recognize the effects of a covenant prior to its performance? B. H. Roberts believed this to be the case: “The effects of the Atonement were realized by the ancient saints previous to the coming of Christ to earth and hence previous to his actually making the Atonement; but that was because the Atonement for man’s sins, the satisfaction to Justice, had been pre-determined upon [by means of a covenant], and this fact gave virtue to their faith, repentance and obedience to ordinances of the Gospel.”4

It may have been that such a covenant helped sustain the Savior in the Garden when all his apparent spiritual and physical energies had been exhausted, when there was “nothing left” to combat the Evil One and sin itself but the pure covenant to atone. How many such covenants have lifted men to loftier heights, conferred upon them added strength, and generated new-found reservoirs of resistance when all else seemed to collapse around them? So it may have been that, in some way, this covenant satisfied the laws of justice for those who lived before the Atonement was performed, and, in addition, helped to sustain the Savior in his hour of greatest need.


  1. Taylor, Mediation and Atonement, 97.
  2. “Gospel of Philip,” 132; emphasis added. The Gospel of Philip is one of the books of the Nag Hammadi library. These were Christian writings which were first discovered in December 1945 near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi.
  3. Dickens, A Christmas Carol, 151.
  4. Roberts, Seventy’s Course in Theology, Fourth Year, 123, note c.

About LDS Scripture Teachings

I write about ways scripture applies in our lives:
This entry was posted in Atonement, Jesus Christ, Student questions and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to How did the Atonement work for people who lived before it actually happened?

  1. Pingback: The Atonement of Jesus Christ | LDS Scripture Teachings

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s