The Atonement of Jesus Christ, Part 1
July 1990

“The Atonement of Jesus Christ, Part 1,” Ensign, July 1990, 18

The Atonement of Jesus Christ, Part 1

The Atonement of Christ is nothing less than the answer to the great and terrible question that life inevitably poses: “Is this all there is?” If you are a saint, you know that this is a wicked world; if you are the most cynical and worldly unbeliever, you still know by experience that it is a vicious one. It seems that everything we want here is either destructive or trivial.

Peter was not philosophizing or theologizing, but stating the facts of life when he said: “Go about [anastraphete, conduct yourselves] in fear during your transient stay, knowing that perishables like silver and gold cannot free you from the futile way of life of your fathers.” (Author’s translation; see 1 Pet. 1:17–18.) Thus he concludes his comment:

“For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flowers thereof falleth away:

“But the word of the Lord endureth for ever.” (1 Pet. 1:24–25.)

Between these two statements of the problem, Peter gives us another choice; there is an order of things which goes back “before the foundation of the world” and is now emerging again to our advantage—“manifest in these last times for you.” (1 Pet. 1:20.) It is the carrying out of the Atonement, for which the law of Moses was a preparation.

The Good News

Jacob, in the Book of Mormon, goes right to the point. The problem is “that our flesh must waste away and die,” for “death hath passed upon all men” (2 Ne. 9:4, 6); and without the resurrection, death becomes final: “And if so, this flesh must have laid down to rot and to crumble to its mother earth, to rise no more” (2 Ne. 9:7).

And what is to stop it? Jacob grasps the situation. “There must needs be a power,” he says, “a power of resurrection,” and such a power has indeed been provided, “to fulfil the merciful plan of the great Creator.” (2 Ne. 9:6; italics added.)

What a comfort to know that things are under control after all. The Fall has put us into a state of corruption in which it would be disastrous to remain if man should “put forth his hand and partake also of the tree of life, and eat and live forever [in his sins].” (Moses 4:28.) Nobody wants to live forever in a sewer, yet according to Shakespeare, even that is preferable to the alternative: “The weariest and most loathed worldly life that age, ache, penury, and imprisonment can lay on nature, is a paradise to what we fear of death.”1

But it doesn’t have to be that way. That is just the point. The Atonement makes available the only kind of lasting life worth having. The great Christian tract on the Atonement, Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews, begins with an exhilarating prospect: “God … hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds;

“Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high.” (Heb. 1:1–3.)

Atonement and Reconciliation

People are usually surprised to learn that atonement, an accepted theological term, comes from neither a Greek nor a Latin word, but is good old English and really does mean, when we write it out, “at-one-ment,” denoting both a state of being “at one” with another and the process by which that end is achieved.

The word atonement appears only once in the New Testament (Rom. 5:11 in the King James Version), and in the Revised Standard Version it does not appear at all, the translators preferring the more familiar word reconciliation. (See also footnote to Rom. 5:11 in the LDS edition of the King James Version.) Reconciliation is a very good word for atonement there, since it means literally to be seated again with someone (re-con-silio)—so that atonement is to be reunited with God, just as Paul said: “[The Lord] sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on High.”

The Greek word translated as “reconciliation” is katallagein. It is a business term, which the lexicon tells us means “exchange, esp. of money; … change from enmity to friendship, reconciliation; … reconciliation of sinners with God.2 It is the return to the status ante quo, whether as a making of peace or a settlement of debt.

The monetary metaphor is by far the most common, being the simplest and easiest to understand. Hence, frequently the word redemption literally means “to buy back”—that is, to reacquire something you owned previously. Thus, Moses said: “But because the Lord loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers, hath the Lord brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh.” (Deut. 7:8.)

By redemption, someone has paid a price to get you off, restoring you to a former, happier condition. But the frequent use of the commercial analogy is not out of reverence for trade and commerce—just the opposite, in fact. The redeemed are bought to clear them of all worldly obligation by paying off the world in its own currency, after which it has no further claim on the redeemed.

The Greek equivalent is lutrosis, a ransoming. Paul tells the Saints to prepare for the salvation that has been made available by disengaging from this world—“denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world”—so that God “might redeem [lutrosetai] us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people.” (Titus 2:12, 14.)

Salvation likewise means “rescue” (soteria, also rendered “deliverance”). Another expression is “for a price,” the word being time, “that which is paid in token or worth of value.” He paid for us what he thought we were worth so he could join us with him.

In the spirit of Article of Faith 8 (“We believe the Bible … as far as it is translated correctly”), [A of F 1:8] a verse in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians has always cried out for re-examination. The proposition actually reads like a business agreement, not binding but releasing: “In whom we have bail [apolutrosin—our release pending the judgment] through his blood, the pardoning [aphesin, setting aside] of misdemeanors [paraptomaton, blunder, trespass] on consideration of the money [ploutos] of his generosity [charitos], which on our behalf has exceeded in all wisdom and understanding [phronesei].” (Author’s translation from the Greek; see Eph. 1:7–8.)

Meanwhile, Paul counsels the Saints, “Grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption [bought free, apolutroseos],” and be united in love, “forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” (Eph. 4:30, 32; italics added.)

So when the scriptures speak of atonement, it is always as re-conciliation, re-demption, re-surrection, re-lease, salvation, and so on. All refer to a return to a former state.

Semitic Origins

This theme is even more vividly and concretely expressed in the Hebrew terminology.

In Semitic languages, where one root can have many meanings, the first rule is always to look for the basic or literal meaning of the word, which in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic usually takes us back to early days and simple homely affairs of life in the desert or the countryside. One simple physical act often triggers a long line of derivatives—meanings which are perfectly reasonable if one takes the most obvious steps from one to the next, but which can end up miles from the starting-place.

The basic word for atonement is kafar, which has the same basic meaning in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic—that being “to bend, arch over, cover; 2) [to pass over with one’s palm &c., to wipe out, rub] … to deny,to forgive,to be expiated,renounce.3

The Arabic kafara puts the emphasis on a tight squeeze, such as tucking in the skirts, drawing a thing close to oneself. Closely related are Aramaic4 and Arabic kafata,5 meaning a close embrace, which are certainly related to the Egyptian hpt,6 the common ritual embrace written with the ideogram of embracing arms. Hpt may be cognate with the Latin capto7 and the Persian kaftan,8 a monk’s robe and hood completely embracing the body.

Most interesting is the Arabic kafata,9 as it is the key to a dramatic situation. It was the custom for one fleeing for his life in the desert to seek protection in the tent of a great sheik, crying out, “Ana dakhiluka,” meaning “I am thy suppliant,” whereupon the host would place the hem of his robe over the guest’s shoulder and declare him under his protection. In one instance in the Book of Mormon we see Nephi fleeing from an evil enemy that is pursuing him. In great danger, he prays the Lord to give him an open road in the low way, to block his pursuers, and to make them stumble. He comes to the Lord as a suppliant: “O Lord, wilt thou encircle me around in the robe of thy righteousness! O Lord, wilt thou make a way for mine escape before mine enemies!” (2 Ne. 4:33.) In reply, according to the ancient custom, the Master would then place the hem of his robe protectively over the kneeling man’s shoulder (kafata). This puts him under the Lord’s protection from all enemies. They embrace in a close hug, as Arab chiefs still do; the Lord makes a place for him (see Alma 5:24) and invites him to sit down beside him—they are at-one.

This is the imagery of the Atonement—the embrace: “The Lord hath redeemed my soul from hell; I have beheld his glory, and I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love.” (2 Ne. 1:15.)

“Behold, he sendeth an invitation unto all men, for the arms of mercy are extended towards them, and he saith: Repent, and I will receive you.” (Alma 5:33.)

This is the hpt—the ritual embrace that consummates the final escape from death in the Egyptian funerary texts and reliefs, where the son Horus is received into the arms of his father Osiris.

The Day of Atonement

In Israel, when the sacrifices and sin offerings were completed on the Day of Atonement, the high priest went to the door of the kapporet to receive assurance from the Lord that He had accepted the offerings and repentance of the people and forgiven them their sins: “At the door of the tabernacle of the congregation before the Lord: where I will meet you, to speak there unto thee.” (Ex. 29:42.) The kapporet is usually assumed to be the lid of the ark of the covenant, yet it fits much better with the front, since one stands before it.10 The Septuagint, the old Greek text of the Bible, makes the verse clearer: I will meet you at the “door of the tent of the testimony in the presence of the Lord, on which occasion I shall make myself known to you that I might converse with you.”

The setting is clarified in the Gospel of Luke when Zacharias, a direct descendant of Aaron (as was also his wife), entered behind the veil into the Holy of Holies (naon tou kuriou, the skene or tent of the Old Testament) while people waited on the outside. (See Luke 1:9–10.) He did not meet the Lord, but rather his personal representative, a messenger of the Lord standing beside the altar, who identified himself as “Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings.” (See Luke 1:11, 19.)

The news was about a great at-one-ment that was to take place in which the children would “turn to the Lord their God” while the “hearts of the fathers” would be turned again [epistrepsai] “to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:16–17.) It is all a preparation for a great bringing together again through the ordinance of baptism after they had been separated by the Fall: “I will sanctify the tabernacle of the congregation, and … Aaron and his sons, … and I will dwell among the children of Israel, and be their God.” (Ex. 29:44–45.) They will all be one happy family forever.

As Jesus himself prayed on the eve of his crucifixion: “Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world.” (John 17:24.) They are going back to that premortal glory. “And I have declared unto them thy name, and will declare it: that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:26.)

“Holy Father, keep [tereo] through thine own name those whom thou hast given me,” reads John 17:11 in the King James Version; but in the Greek text, there is no direct object “whom,” and the word tereo can mean to “test by observation or trial.”11 Instead, we have an instrumental dative, so in the spirit of Article of Faith 8, this verse could read, “Holy Father, [test them on] thine own name [with which] thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are one.” [A of F 1:8] This takes us back to the kapporet, for only the high priest knew the name which he whispered for admission through the temple veil on the Day of Atonement.

It is understandable that the kapporet should be called the mercy seat, for it was there, in the most guarded and sacred part of the sanctuary, that Israel was reconciled at-one with God on the Day of Atonement: “And after the second veil, the tabernacle [succoth, booth, tent] which is called the Holiest of all … [contained] the cherubims of glory shadowing the mercyseat; of which we cannot now speak particularly.” Thus said Paul to the Hebrews. (Heb. 9:3, 5.)

Commenting on the ancient synagogue at Beth Alpha in Palestine, Erwin R. Goodenough notes, “The scene as designed shows the curtains drawn back at either side to disclose the objects behind them.” The custom has persisted: “In a synagogue the Torah shrine is still properly concealed by a curtain, but these curtains in the mosaic are not especially connected with the shrine: they serve when drawn to open up a whole stage, a whole world. … So the curtains have taken the place of the old carved screen which seemed to us to separate the world of man from heaven. … Only the few were allowed to penetrate to the adyton behind. … The sense of distinction between the earthly and heavenly [was] still kept.” Even more important than the idea that the veil introduces us into another realm is that “the curtains have also the value of suggesting the curtain in the Temple which separated the sanctuary from the world of ordinary life.”12

And where does the Atonement motif come in? In a stock presentation found in early Jewish synagogues as well as on very early Christian murals, “the hand of God is represented, but could not be called that explicitly, and instead of the heavenly utterance, the bath kol [echo, distant voice, whisper], is given.”13 From the hand “radiate beams of light.”14 “To show the hand and light thus emerging from central darkness,” writes Goodenough, “is as near as one could come in conservative Judaism to depicting God himself.”15 In early Christian representations, the hand of God reaching out of heaven is grasped by the human spirit who is being caught up into the presence of the Lord.16

To “Have Place” with God

This yearly rite of atonement included the teshuvah, a “return to God, repentance.”17 The prophets repeatedly invite Israel to return to God, who is waiting with open arms to receive them if only they will repent. They not only return and are welcomed in, but they also sit down. This is the yeshivah, “1) sitting, rest, 2) settlement, dwelling, … 3) … session, council,court.18 The meanings all combine in the Yeshivah shel maclah or Metivta de-Rakica (“The Academy on High” or “Academy of the Sky,” respectively): Heaven (where the angels and the souls of the righteous are believed to dwell), a place of divine justice to which all will be summoned.19 The root yashav has the basic meaning of sitting or settling down to live in a place, yashuv “seated, … [a] sitting.”20You have a place because you have returned home.

All this we find in the Book of Mormon. Along with the embrace already mentioned, we find the formula “have place” used in exactly the same sense. (Alma 5:25; cf. Mosiah 26:23–24, “a place at my right hand”; Enos 1:27, “there is a place prepared for you in the mansions of my Father.”) This is also the metaphor that Alma uses: “Do ye suppose that such an one can have a place to sit down in the kingdom of God, with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob, and also all the holy prophets, whose garments are cleansed and are spotless, pure and white … through the blood of Christ, who will come to redeem his people from their sins?” (Alma 5:24, 27.)

Let us recall that it was on the Day of Atonement that the priest entered the tent and that the people’s garments were all made white by the atoning sacrifice of the Lamb. The Book of Mormon is, of course, in the milieu of the old Hebrew rites before the destruction of Solomon’s temple, for after that the ark and the covering (kapporet) no longer existed there, but the Holy of Holies was still called the bait ha-kapporet. The loss of the old ceremonies occurred shortly after Lehi left Jerusalem. “As long as the Temple stood,” we read in the Talmud, “the altar atoned for Israel, but now a man’s table [i.e., each man’s temple] atones for him.”21

Thus, the ordinances of atonement were, after Lehi’s day, supplanted by allegory. Let us recall that Lehi and his people, who left Jerusalem in the very last days of Solomon’s temple, were zealous in erecting altars of sacrifice and building temples of their own. It has often been claimed that the Book of Mormon cannot contain the “fulness of the gospel,” since it does not mention the temple ordinances. As a matter of fact, they are alluded to everywhere in the book if we know where to look for them, and the dozen or so discourses on the Atonement in the Book of Mormon are replete with temple imagery.

From all the Semitic variations of kafar (atonement), for example, we concluded that the literal meaning of the term is a close and intimate embrace, which took place at the kapporet or the front cover or flap of the tabernacle or tent. The Book of Mormon instances are quite clear:

“Behold, he sendeth an invitation unto all men, for the arms of mercy are extended towards them, and he saith: Repent, and I will receive you.” (Alma 5:33.)

“Behold, the Lord hath redeemed my soul from hell; I have beheld his glory, and I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love.” (2 Ne. 1:15.)

To be redeemed is to be atoned. From this it should be clear what kind of oneness is meant by the Atonement—it is being received by the Lord in a close embrace of the returning prodigal son, expressing not only forgiveness but oneness of heart and mind that amounts to identity, like a literal family identity.

To be continued.


  1. Measure for Measure, act III, sc. 1, lines 129—32.

  2. Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, rev. Henry Stuart Jones and Roderick McKenzie (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), p. 899.

  3. Marcus Jastrow, A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature, 2 vols. (New York: Pardes, 1950), 1:661–62.

  4. Regarding the Aramaic kafat, see William Gesenius, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, trans. Edward Robinson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), p. 1097.

  5. Regarding the Arabic kafata, see Edward Stanley Lane-Poole, Arabic-English Lexicon, 2 vols. (London: Williams and Norgate, 1885), 1(7):2618–23.

  6. Regarding hpt, see Adolf Erman and Hermann Grapow, Worterbuch der Aegyptischen Sprache, 7 vols. (Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1929), 3:71.

  7. Regarding capto, see, P. G. W. Glare, ed., Oxford Latin Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), p. 273.

  8. Regarding the Persian kaftan (caftan), see Philip B. Gove, ed., Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (Springfield, Mass.: Merriam, 1971), p. 313: “caftan: An ankle-length coatlike garment, usu. of cotton or silk, often striped, with very long sleeves and a sash [note that the garment is drawn up around the body by the sash] fastening, common throughout the Levant.” Cf. David B. Guralnik, Webster’s New World Dictionary (New York: Collins and World, 1953), p. 198: “caftan [Turk. qaftan] a long-sleeved robe with a girdle, worn in eastern Mediterranean countries”; Jess Stein, ed., Random House Dictionary, unabridged (New York: Random House, 1983), p. 208, “caftan. n. a long garment having long sleeves and tied at the waist by a girdle, worn under a coat in the Near East. Also, kaftan [<Russ kaftan <Turk <Pers qaftan].”

  9. Regarding the Arabic kafata, see Edward Stanley Lane-Poole, Arabic-English Lexicon, 1(7):2618–19.

  10. Regarding kapporet, see Francis Brown, The New Brown–Driver–Briggs–Gesenius Hebrew and English Lexicon (Lafayette, Ind.: Associated Publishers and Authors, 1978), p. 498: “It was a slab of gold 2 1/2 cubits by 1 1/2 cubits placed on top of the ark of testimony. On it, and a part of it, were two golden cherubim facing each other, whose outstretched wings came together above and constituted the throne of Yahweh.” Cf. Miles Martindale, Dictionary of the Holy Bible, rev. and corr. Joseph Benson (New York: Bangs and Mason, 1823), p. 116: “The Hebrew word, rendered atonement, signifies covering; a proper atonement covering sin and the sinner from the avenging justice of God.” Paul J. Achtemeier, ed., Harper’s Bible Dictionary (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), p. 64: “Interest is focused on the gold ’mercy seat’ or cover on top of it. This is now God’s throne, where he appears in a cloud [Lev. 16:2] to communicate his will [Ex. 25:17–22]. As the Hebrew term kapporet suggests, this was also the place where atonement was made by the sprinkling of blood on the Day of Atonement [Lev. 16:14–16].” This notes the contradiction between the idea of the lid or the roof. The original entrance to the most holy place was definitely a veil. (See Ex. 26:31–33.) The earliest representations of synagogues show both the door to the temple and to the Holy of Holies behind a heavy veil which has been partly drawn aside. Georgette Corcos, ed., The Glory of the Old Testament (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Publishing House, 1984), p. 45 (see caption of photo 64): “Such curtains conceal the doors of the ark in which the Scrolls of the Law are kept in the synagogue (‘that you mayest bring in thither within the vail of the ark of testimony’).” Illustrations on pages 45 (photo 64), 51 (photo 71).

  11. Liddell and Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, p. 1789.

  12. Erwin R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, 13 vols. (New York: Pantheon, 1953–68), 1:251.

  13. Ibid., p. 246.

  14. Ibid.

  15. Ibid., p. 248.

  16. Hugh W. Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1975), pp. 244–46, 253; cf. Henri Leclercq, “Ascension (dans l’art),” in Fernand Cabrol, Dictionnaire d’archeologie chretienne et de liturgie, 15 vols. (Paris: Letouzey, 1907), 1:2929 (Figure 988).

  17. Jastrow, A Dictionary of the Targumim, 2:1703.

  18. Ibid., 1:600.

  19. See Harry Freedman, “Academy on High,” in Encyclopedia Judaica, 16 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1971), 2:208–9.

  20. Jastrow, A Dictionary of Targumim, 1:600, 603.

  21. Berkaoth 55a in Seder Zera’im, The Babylonian Talmud, trans. Maurice Simon, 10 vols. (London: Soncino Press, 1948), part 5:334.

  • Hugh W. Nibley is emeritus professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.

Christ in Gethsemane, by Harry Anderson; courtesy of Seventh-Day Adventist Church

The Burial, by Heinrich Hofmann; courtesy of Brown Photos, New York City

Doubtful Thomas, by Carl Bloch; courtesy of Superstock