Atonement: The Only Wholeness

“Atonement: The Only Wholeness,” Ensign, Apr. 1975, 12


The Only Wholeness

Article of Faith 3: “We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.” [A of F 1:3]

We Are Not at One

The world is sick and most of us are sick—perhaps all of us are sick in some way or another. We need to be healed, to be made whole.

We are sick because we are not whole: we feel separated, we feel incomplete.

To us who believe, the Lord is the healer, the one who makes us whole.

Then why do we not feel whole? Why do we not feel at one?

In the first weeks of life we still respond to our mother’s heartbeat because it is the one that we know; then we lose our remembrance of that response. We lose still further when we are weaned, for we are separated still further. We separate ourselves further yet by learning to crawl, to walk, and so it goes on. Do we ever naturally feel whole again after birth? And does our mother? Does she not long to go on being one with her child?

Husband and wife yearn to be one with each other always and in all ways. Do we ever completely succeed?

Does the family feel at one? Is it not always struggling, even in its goodness, with the trammels of its badness?

Are we at one with our brethren? We have been told, “If ye are not one, ye are not mine.” What about the barriers of environment, race, creed, education, fortune? Can we be at one in a society that is not at one? How can we be at one with ourselves when we are aware all the time of the imperfections of society and our unfulfilled duty to help remove them?

Are we at one inside ourselves? Most of us feel more than one aspect of separation from others: the sense of inferiority, jealousy, fear, guilt, of evil, of suffering, of death, all of them symptoms of separation. We have a sense of limitation, and wonder whether it is our mind or our body or both that limit us. We feel pulled in several directions at once, we feel the need of having to choose the lesser of two evils. We are sick in body and mind—we have so much illness because we are not at one with ourselves. The number of illnesses regarded by the experts as having to do with attitude of mind—the psychosomatic illnesses—increases steadily.

And are we at one with God? How can we be at one with him unless we are at one with our family, with society, and with ourselves? And how can we be at one with ourselves, and with father, mother, brother, sister, husband, or wife, if we are not at one with God? If we were at one with God, should we not feel at one with all mankind?

But as Christians we know that the Lord is the healer, the one who makes us whole.

The Word Atonement

“We pray you in Christes stede that ye be atone with God” (2 Cor. 5:20, Tindale’s Version; the Authorized Version says “reconciled”). “To be atone” means to be reconciled. Romans 5:11 reads: “We also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.” [Rom. 5:11] In the Revised Version, the New English Bible, and the Jerusalem Bible, “atonement” reads “reconciliation.” The German Bible’s word is “versoehnung,” whose usual translation is “reconciliation.” The Basic English Bible says “at peace.”

To be reconciled (2 Cor. 5:18, “God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ”) we need a mediator. Christ is that mediator (“one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” 1 Tim. 2:5).

But Romans 5:11 is the only place where “atonement” is used in the sense of “reconciliation.” [Rom. 5:11] Other scriptural references, particularly in the Old Testament, have a sense that is more familiar to us. The verb “to atone for” can mean “to be penitent, to pay for.” For example, we find in Leviticus 1:4 the sense “expiation” (appeasement by sacrifice) [Lev. 1:4], in Romans 3:24 “redemption” (which means “buying back”) [Rom. 3:24], and in 1 John 2:2 the word “propitiation” (meaning “making gracious”). On the day of atonement, the Jewish national sins were heaped on the scapegoat and he was driven out: “And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited.” (See Lev. 16:22; the literal sense of “not inhabited” is—and this is significant to us here—“a land of separation.”)

Of all these senses, the one most familiar to us is that of “redemption.” But it is the one in which we have lost the original sense of “buying back.” It may be that in dealing with these things of the spirit we should not push the metaphor too hard. The sense “redemption” is not, after all, so very different from that of “reconciliation”; see, for example, “I know that my redeemer liveth” (Job 19:25), where the word “goel” translated as “redeemer” could equally well be rendered by “vindicator” (New English Bible) or “mediator.” In fact, if we think of and feel the word “atonement” with the right degree of generality, we can reconcile the senses: we need to be made whole; we cannot be made whole without being reconciled to God; we are reconciled to God by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Putting the senses together in this way, we are led to the meaning in which we understand the plan of salvation. Christ offered himself to make up for the transgression of Adam, the consequence of which was death. Christ sets all the posterity of Adam free from death (general salvation). “When Adam fell, the change came upon all other living things and even the earth itself became mortal, and all things including the earth were redeemed from death through the atonement of Jesus Christ.” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions 3:100–101. See also 2 Ne. 2:22.) The animals and the elements, too, suffered death for Adam’s transgression. But Christ also shed his blood (1 Pet. 1:19) for every man individually, and that is why his atonement must be infinite. (2 Ne. 9:7.) This salvation is for everyone who will repent, obey the ordinances of the gospel, and do good works (individual salvation); if a man refuses salvation, he is banished from God’s presence; if he commits the ultimate refusal, he dies the second death.

Members of the Church are familiar with these doctrines; they have been summarized above as a reminder. But what do these doctrines really mean? That because Christ rose, man also can rise? That Christ came to earth to show us the example of his infinite love and conquer us thereby by kindling our love (Abelard)? That Christ showed us the example of what perfect man can be and that we can follow that example? That God became man so that man could become God (Irenaeus)? That Christ exerts on us the moral influence of his suffering? When we read such explanations we are in part satisfied, but we are not satisfied altogether: such explanations do not account for the atonement. They are merely rationalizations that we more or less understand. These helpful and many other silly and heretical explanations have concerned the apostate church throughout the ages. I have simply made a selection of some that our Church would accept.

But accept only with provisos. Can man rise merely because Christ rose? Can man imitate Christ simply because Christ has given the example? If God became man, can man become God by his own effort? What influence has the suffering of Christ so long ago on a world so used to suffering en masse?

It would seem that our rational explanations are no higher than at the level of the law of Moses. And “the law of Moses availeth nothing except it were through the atonement of his blood.” (Mosiah 3:15.)

And why the blood? To many modern persons, reference to Christ’s blood is vulgar. But are they being realistic enough and robust enough in taking such a view? Archbishop Soederblom of Sweden once said that it took a barbarous thing like the crucifixion to have any effect on barbarous men.

That would seem to be true, but it, too, is not the whole truth. The atonement is (for us as we now are) seen “through a glass, darkly.” (1 Cor. 13:12.) But it is a satisfying darkness, an eternally flowing well from which we can gain greater and greater meaning for ourselves and still find inexhaustible. For is it not infinite?

Let us meditate together in our limitations on some of the things about the atonement that we at least feel, and “know in part.” (1 Cor. 13:12.)


“For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things … Wherefore, if it should be one body it should needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.” (2 Ne. 2:11.) For this reason, Adam and Eve developed after the fall the power to discriminate. For without opposition there is no choice. “Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other.” (2 Ne. 2:16.)

Hence the choice of Christ’s plan of salvation, leaving us our agency. We are separated from God in order that we may voluntarily return to him.

But we are not whole as long as we are separated from him, though in this life repentance and good works may give us some sense of that wholeness, some premonition. And if we do not voluntarily return to him we shall be involuntarily separated from him forever.

The more the separation or the opportunity of mortal probation, then, the more the opportunity for abundant life and also for sin.

Opposition is a fact of the universe, a fact by which the universe is, by which it defines itself, and by which it develops. But there is clearly a wrong opposition as well as a right one. The opposition of day and night is morally indifferent; the opposition of good and evil is not. Does not the sense of sin, of wrong opposition, cause the greatest separateness, the greatest distance from God?

We find that distance first in family quarrels, the struggle for power between spouses, between parents and children; in the bad-tempered husband and the nagging wife; the stern face of a father exercising hypocritical authority over his teenage son; the chill of a mother who no longer remembers what she was like at her daughter’s age.

Family quarrels may last through generations. But is there not an image of atonement in the family through genealogy? Cannot the hearts of the fathers and the children be brought together from their long separation in the restoration of the oneness of the family through the generations, a family atonement? The family tree, the tree of Jesse, the tree of life, and the tree of the cross are all symbols one of another and of the love of God.

With all its imperfections, the family unit is close to salvation. Husband, wife, parents, and children have the opportunity of working out unity in separation; but casual, extramarital relations cannot do this. Sexual relations temporarily entered into only increase the sense of separation, of loneliness, of selfishness. Only through the unity of the gospel of Jesus Christ can a sense of lasting wholeness be achieved.

And so, with the prevailing sexual sins of this generation, we come to the sickness of society. We are members one of another and our action in sin shows it as much as our action in virtue. But we are not willing to shoulder our social responsibilities. Robert Musil, in his novel The Man Without Qualities, shows us the society of erring Vienna centering its interest on a sex murderer in prison awaiting death. The murderer, being a weaker vessel, a kind of safety valve or scapegoat, has acted out the wicked fantasies of the population. For the same reason, in Forester’s Passage to India, when the Englishman asks the Hindu professor his opinion about who committed the assault on the young woman in the cave, the Hindu answers, “You did, I did, we all did.” Those of us who have helped to build up the evil pressures in society, or who neglect to do our best to combat them, are co-responsible for the crimes that result from those pressures.

In a psychology manual I once saw pictures of hundreds of children from Oslo at the age of four and then pictures of the same children again at the age of nine. The four-year-olds were bright and forward-looking and eager, their life shining out of their faces. The nine-year-olds were already dull and apathetic.

Daily we see the face and swollen body of famine in the newspaper advertisement and daily we turn our eyes away from it.

Worse than the sins that we recognize to be sins are those we do not recognize to be sins in our false atonement with this world—with the world of fashion, in its stupidity about cosmetics and clothes; the world of politics, with its naive ideas about what can be done without the help of the Lord. Whatever our political complexion, we need to remember that no political party preaches the United Order as we in the Church have had it revealed to us. Neither capitalism nor communism is reconcilable with it. It is a voluntary giving up of self and all that belongs to self, to be entered into with joy.

Satan’s solution was uniformity. We see this most clearly in the plan for a communist society (though no state in this world is yet entirely communist), but we should also see it in the dangerous monotony of mass production, both in the boredom of the work itself and the commonplace nature of the product.

Some reconcile themselves to this world in terms of what they think to be its highest culture. But most art, and most modern art in particular, is an illusion. Only the greatest art with a religious impulse can truly support the gospel. Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” can do so, as can Bach’s The Saint Matthew Passion. But even Beethoven’s harmony is only temporary, and the self-assertion constantly breaks through. And the most considerable artist of our time, Picasso, descended into ironical senility and despair.

Art reminds us of another aspect of separation and sin, another thing for which we need atonement: the ugliness of our environment and ourselves. What window does not look out on something ugly that man has made? What man can look with approval at himself as he shaves each morning? Or what woman as she does her hair? And we constantly mistake certain kinds of ugliness for beauty, especially in our judgment of the beauty of women. We should remember that the Lord himself had “no apparent beauty” (William W. Phelps, LDS Hymns # 125, based on Isa. 53:2); many of us are insensitive to the radiance of loving and faithful eyes in a so-called plain face. The beauty of holiness is not skin deep. There is so much vanity that we need to purge ourselves from if we are once again to become whole through the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The separation from God by which we identify ourselves with the world is worse than our separation from the world, because we should be in the world but not of the world. Being merely in the world has its griefs and its trials, however. There is unhappiness at not being one with society; that unhappiness can be purged only by our becoming missionaries to our fellowmen. That is what the Church gives us the opportunity to do.

We come to the separation of the individual within himself. I cannot help thinking of it as mind and body, because our culture has so insisted on this dichotomy that it is almost impossible to get rid of it, although it is not in keeping with the teaching of the Church. That is how most of us feel the struggle, often simplifying it to the tempting of the mind by the body, although it is obvious that the mind always begins temptation and corrupts the body, not the other way around. But to think of temptation, for example, as a struggle between mind and body is to simplify the problem to the point at which it seems readily soluble—but falsely so. In not following the gospel, we fall into hopeless divisions of ourselves and run always into the same cul de sac. We criticize our thinking in the same language as that in which we think. We analyze the situation between the individual and society in more and more subtle ways, only to realize that man intuitively and instinctively does as one operation what to a sociologist or a social psychologist is a hundred. We struggle on the moral plane because we cannot really believe in evil or a devil, and we regard our problem as a skirmish with ourselves rather than a battle with an inveterate adversary. We may be so frightened at the way we struggle with ourselves that we mask the deeper struggle and therefore find it impossible to resolve the more superficial one. The depth of our self-deceit is only exceeded by the depth to which the Lord descended to save us.

In the long run our greatest difficulty is to be humble enough to put ourselves in the position to be saved, a position that may mean losing the self-concern of the struggle within ourselves, and looking outward to be concerned with others and their struggles. The Good Samaritan was not divided against himself. But the Levite was (Luke 11:32), and will only have increased his concern about himself by his action in passing by on the other side.

Fear is a great separator of selves and of self. To be courageous at one level may involve being afraid at another—this helps to explain the difference between physical and moral courage. Most fears in the end are fears of oneself and can be conquered by bringing in the Lord as an ally.

And that brings us to separation from God. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31), but it is a still more terrible thing to fall out of the hands of the living God. To realize that Jehovah and Christ are one is to realize that the books Luke and Jeremiah are both part of the gospel, and that the books Judges and Acts are both part of the gospel. We have not to look upon Jehovah and Christ as different aspects of the same God, but to realize that they are one and the same God. Many people feel that when he looks at them they are at one with his eyes of concern; but when he gazes at horizons they do not like they feel that his eyes are as those of eagles. But what if they cannot see his eyes at all?

Yet with all the irritation at best and torment at worse of being divided against oneself, we need to remember that the prayer “suffer us not to be separated” (T. S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday) is a prayer against the destruction of our individuality which is the most important of all things to us. The fear need not and should not be for the struggles we may have that come from the “opposition in all things” and that we must admit to ourselves in order to be able to grow. However, that opposition is at its healthiest when we are not divided against ourselves, but may find ourselves in opposition to someone else and discover the need to modify ourselves accordingly. It is better to conquer oneself in terms of reconciliation with someone else. And the words of the poet, Yeats, apply here, too:

“For nothing can be sole or whole

That has not been rent.”

The Incarnation

Christ is the only begotten of the Father in the flesh, but he is begotten of the Father in the flesh and his spirit is united with his body in the same way as ours is—not added as a kind of loose inhabitant, but in union with the flesh.

By taking on a body of flesh, the Lord, like us, takes a step toward perfection. In so doing, like us, he extends his powers of sensation and perception. The only difference is that the greatest spirit has entered flesh begotten of the Father, and consequently his range is immensely wider than ours—his range for joy and grief, for good or for evil. With one side of himself the Lord experienced temptation more strongly than we can, and with another side of himself he was better able to resist it than we can. He was capable of experiencing more pain (as in Gethsemane) and more joy (as in his resurrection) than we are. He felt more profoundly and thought more deeply. Every answer to a trapping question is a turning of the trap of his adversary. Every action is appropriate to the situation and yet remains eternally true.

We can perhaps better understand incarnation (which we, too, have undergone) by the way in which, in our innocent state, we respond to the world around us and to the world of art. Every created thing is a symbol of its creator because it is his handiwork. Everything that we make ourselves has something of ourselves in it. The realization of a thought or a state of mind in a work of art can give us some shadowy idea of what incarnation is. If incarnation makes the struggle harder, it also makes the creative achievement richer and more abundant, more palpable and concrete, more there.

Christ in his incarnation as man shows the possibilities of man.

But Christ in his incarnation does not actualize those possibilities for man. Only with his sacrifice does he do that, and it is done only then on the assumption of man’s highest effort to help himself: the grace of God is given to those who work their utmost for the end which that grace enables them to reach.

Gethsemane, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection

What Winston Churchill offered the British people as their way to preservation, the Lord himself gave all peoples and every person to show them the way to salvation: blood, sweat, and tears. Christ’s agony in Gethsemane takes over where his teaching ends but his love continues. When his suffering caused him to “tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore” (D&C 19:18), it was not because of apprehension at his own death and suffering, but because he was taking upon himself the burden of all of the sins of humanity from all times. In his trial and scourging and crucifixion he was to suffer still further for the gap between his teaching and the way mankind was treating him, but that was just a prolongation of the climax of suffering in Gethsemane, when he accepted the cup with all its implications—implications that go far beyond not merely our thinking, but also our imagination. This in some way enables him to pay for our sins, to expiate them, to reconcile us with the Father, and to redeem us.

And then to suffer a greater separation than any separation man had ever suffered—the moment at about the ninth hour when he cried from the cross, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46.) Was it necessary that he also should suffer that last of separations, the separation of a Divine Father from a Divine Son in order to understand and stand for all those who, like William Cowper, had felt forsaken by the Father because of false doctrine, or because they had themselves forsaken the Father? Christ had not forsaken the Father, but he had to have the experience of being forsaken. Such a moment is beyond our power to comprehend or imagine.

And then the resurrection—the resurrection of the body to life everlasting—a resurrection from the greatest of agonies to the greatest of joys—the conquest of death for all and the conquest of sin for all those that will repent and seek eternal life by the grace of God.

The price: to suffer more agony than any man; the achievement: eternal life for all those that can and will accept him; the motivation: love—the medium, the air, and the life of wholeness, of being at one.


The parts are not to be joined or sewn or glued together. There are no more edges and no more friction. Each part contains the whole and yet the whole is more than any part. Each part is fused and interfused with the whole, but the whole is more than the sum of the parts.

But what of the need for opposition in all things, and what of eternal progression? In this earthly life we may feel wholeness and oneness, this atonement, fleetingly before the color of the experience changes and the harmony is gone to come again and then to go again.

“For we know in part and we prophesy in part.

“But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.” (1 Cor. 13:9–10.)

If we accept and live the gospel, we shall be made whole, we shall be glorified, we shall be that much further on in our eternal progression. What oppositions we shall then meet, what conditions for creation we shall then obtain, what new wholes we may rise to has not been revealed to us, and if it were we would not understand. But for the time being, if we have not a full understanding of divine or human love, we can be given the experience of it. We may have the supreme experience of it in contemplating the atonement and in trying to live to be worthy of the love that it shows to us. Praise be to the Father and the Son that they are at one and that we may be at one with them: “As thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us.” (John 17:21.)

  • Arthur Henry King, professor of English at Brigham Young University, serves as high councilor in the Orem Utah South Stake.

Paintings by Harry Anderson