Have you ever thought about whether you could have done what our Saviour did in Gethsemane and on the cross? In a Sunday School class earlier this year, while discussing the Atonement of Jesus Christ, we considered questions like, ‘Would you do what the Saviour did? Would you suffer these things for everyone on earth?’
Questions like this feel sacriligious to me. These are things only a god could do, and which our God did do; the right response isn’t to compare ourselves to Him in this like a game of ‘would you rather…?’, but to fall down in worship and adoration and unending gratitude for His incomparable love and mercy.
Such questions are also moot: we couldn’t do it, so even as an imaginary exercise, it doesn’t carry any of the weight of the decision which it did for Christ. We know that we would never have to, and can glibly say what we like. He knew, from the beginning, that He could – that He was the only one with the power and the love.
Additionally, we cannot even comprehend that suffering, and only ever feel ‘the smallest part’ ourselves, in our most dire moments.
Finally, the Saviour completed the Atonement so that we wouldn’t have to suffer the full weight of our sins and fallen natures. We don’t even have to consider needing to; our focus can be towards Him – His saving power, compassion, commandments, perfection, etc. Christ’s Atonement, for us, is a joyful thing, because He took the bitterness into Himself so that we could have joy. His gift to us is Life – possibility, hope, perfection/wholeness, glory, and everlasting happiness.
I don’t believe that we need to go through in our minds, over and over, His sufferings, and feel pain for the fact that He took them. I think that will be what we feel anyway, without trying to. I believe that His Atonement is for the purpose of giving us strength and reason to look up; beyond the hardship, beyond His suffering, and towards what He has pointed us to: God the Father and eternal life.
Of course, the questions posed above were mainly for the purpose of proving the love, graciousness and meekness of Christ, who did both offer and do this. But someone in the class shared that this was a very different thing than one of us considering all the people we don’t know or really care about. The Saviour knew/knows everyone, and knows more of us than we do of ourselves. Even if we did feel as though we might take on us the sufferings, guilt, and consequences of a loved family member, it’s still moot: we couldn’t. When you consider how hard our own sufferings are, there’s no way – no capacity within us – that we could do this for another. Which, really, is the greater lesson in this thought exercise.
Our Saviour did what we cannot possibly do for ourselves or anyone else.
As someone once said, He is not only our best hope; He is our only hope (it was probably C. S. Lewis). That gives me greater gratitude than anything – and Jacob opines about this in one of my favourite chapters of scripture: 2 Nephi 9. Christ saves us from the monsters of death and hell – monsters we would otherwise be in thrall to forever. There’s nothing we could have done about that.
And that leads into the next point: Jesus suffered our pains, the experience and consequences of our weaknesses, the guilt of our sins and their consequences, the sufferings inflicted upon us because of others’ sins and weaknesses, and those which we inflict upon them. This aspect of His Atonement justifies us: makes us clean from sin and guilt. It’s what we signify through baptism; the symbolic cleansing of our sins, the giving up of our enthrallment to sin and self, the commitment to now follow Christ and His ‘better way’, and the implication that we’ll continually repent through our lives.
But that takes care of only half the problem. Baptism justifies us – makes us clean and squared with eternal Law – with our implied continued repentance (and that repentance, of course, is only possible as a gift through the Saviour’s Atonement). But we need more. Making us clean again would only place us where we were at the beginning of our earthly lives: what, then, is the point of coming, if that is all His atonement does for us? Why not stay where we were? The obvious answer is, ‘We come to gain a mortal body, so that we can be resurrected and become complete souls’. Yes, but that’s only part of it.
The greatest gift, as I see it, from our Lord’s Atonement is that through it, He makes us whole. It doesn’t just clear our slate; the process of coming to Christ heals us from the consequences and guilt of those sins – ours and others towards us. Through His grace, we are enabled to overcome each of these things, and end up somewhere far above them – far beyond where we began. We’re not only cleansed from sin and healed from pain as though it hadn’t occurred; we’re blessed by having learnt from these experiences, so that we become more than we were before them.
Let’s say that I could go back to a time before having experienced some pain that deeply affected me. Loss, abuse, despair, failure, or whatever it might be. I could become innocent again and unaffected by this difficult experience. Is that desirable? Certainly, it would be nicer not to have endured such things, wouldn’t it? I.e., why not have a life free of pain – if not from the beginning, then because I can be ‘put back’ to the place I was before it, in a sense – to feel as though it had never happened. This would be nice, right? But you also see the problem: what is the point of earth life, if all those unpleasant things become as though they’d never been? If all the Atonement of Christ does is re-set the board, why keep enduring such things, over and over – if there’s no reward; no progress; nothing gained?
That is the marvellous, remarkable, and transcending thing about Christ’s atonement: it makes all of those things worth it. We endure the pain, receive healing from Him, and He makes those things become beauties for us. We’ve learnt, overcome, grown; we are more at the end of them – because His grace can take away the remaining pain and suffering of the experiences, and both leave what we’ve gained in wisdom, love, patience, etc., and teach us – and bring us to – more of these beauties. We develop in spiritual insight and grace as a result. We are more. As Christ said, He came to give us life, and more abundantly.
But even beyond this – learning through experience, becoming more than we were because the guilt and pain are made beautiful instead – there is more to Christ’s atoning power. As we accept Him and His ways, striving to follow both His example and the principles of His gospel, He (or, more accurately, the Godhead together) changes our hearts so that we become ‘new creatures‘. As our hearts are changed, our desires are purified, and we become more and more like Christ – we take on His attributes; the life – abundant, eternal – that He offers. This is the final part of the gift that His Atonement gives: sanctification. (I’ve probably repeated myself here; I’ve written about it at least a few times… a favourite topic, I suppose).
So, although asking whether you might endure what our Saviour did – with the point of demonstrating that you wouldn’t – might lead to some sense of gratitude and, perhaps, the magnitude of His gifts, I think that in the end, it’s not such a worthwhile exercise. The Atonement of Christ is much more, much more consuming – infinite and complete – than a focus on His sufferings brings alone. Because our circumstances are so different, considering whether you would do what He did is also, I think, pointless, and potentially treats something so sacred and marvellous too lightly.