Atonement as a Process (by John Nielson)

The Atonement of Christ as a Process rather than a Single Event

Many Latter-day Saints, perhaps most, think of the atonement as a single act of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. as he took upon himself the sins of all mankind, suffering great agony such that he shed great drops of blood from every pore. Some expand it to include his suffering and death on the cross since it is said that he died for us. McConkie believed that it “took place in Gethsemane and at Golgotha”(Mormon Doctrine ). Others may expand it further to include his burial and resurrection since it is said that “he lay down his life that he might take it up again” and that “he died that we might live.”

I suggest that we should expand it even further to include not only Gethsemane and the Cross but his resurrection and his subsequent Ascension into heaven where he took his place, once again, on the right hand of God and resumed his premortal role as the Great Jehovah. He then became the “Eternal Judge of the Quick and the Dead”(Moroni 10:34). Even now, according to the Book of Mormon, he sits at the Judgement Seat of Christ, judging all men according to the deeds done in the body as they appear before him, each in turn, at some point following their deaths on earth.

I was led to this view by three major considerations: (1) Profound discomfort over the traditional explanations which have God the Father, the embodiment of Eternal Justice, punishing an innocent being, Jesus, for the sins of the guilty, and letting the guilty go free and somehow being satisfied by this that justice had been done. Further, that an innocent being could literally become guilty of the sins of others simply by saying that he accepted their guilt. I found it difficult to get beyond the fundamental point that the guilty are guilty and the innocent are innocent regardless of any claims to the contrary. Actually, I think that Jesus took upon himself our sins, not in the sense that he became guilty of them as Martin Luther taught, but in the sense that he took responsibility for them to see that justice is done in regard to all human sin; (2) Atonement literally meaning at-one-ment or human beings becoming at one with God spiritually, seemed to require human involvement through such things as exercising faith and offering to God some evidence of sincere and humble repentance rather than becoming one with God solely through a single act of Jesus in Gethsemane; and (3) The Book of Mormon repeatedly describes the atonement of Christ as a long process of faith, repentance, baptism, the sanctifying effect of the Holy Ghost, enduring faithfully to the end of one’s life, keeping all the commandments of God, and after all of these steps being forgiven by the power, authority, and grace of Jesus Christ and being perfected in him(Moroni 10:32), reconciled to God(at-oned) and welcomed, guiltless, into his celestial kingdom(2 Nephi 31:17-20 and 3 Nephi 27:14-20). Or, if we have failed to take these essential steps, being cast out into a lesser kingdom, not having become “at one” with God.

How is eternal justice actually accomplished? At least the following steps in the process would seem to be important. The repentant sinner makes whatever restitution he can to those he has sinned against. If he is unable to make full restitution to the innocent victims of his wrong-doing, the Lord makes up the short-fall by compensating the innocent with blessings in the resurrection(Luke 14:14). So justice is achieved in the process of judgement by rewarding the righteous, punishing the unrepentant, compensating the innocent victims of sin, and forgiving the penitent, and only the penitent (Alma 42:–). It is a logical process, not an incomprehensible, magical act.

Thus, the atonement is a process, not a single event. It brings together, not only the suffering and death of Jesus and the shedding of his blood, but his resurrection, his ascension, his role as Eternal Judge at the “pleasing bar of the Great Jehovah,” and our own faith, humble repentance, baptism by immersion for the remission of sins, receipt of the Holy Ghost and his sanctifying influence, endurance to the end of our lives, and keeping all the commandments of God. Only after all these steps are taken does the Savior’s power to forgive us our sins and to hold us guiltless before God and pronounce us “at one” with him have their full effect.

27 Responses to “Atonement as a Process (by John Nielson)”

  1. 1 Ryan March 3, 2006 at 12:46 am

    I hope I don’t derail your point here but your comments reminded me of a commentary I read by Cleon Skousen (I don’t normally ascribe to much of what he has to say but…) wherein he supposedly asked Elder Widtsoe why there had to be actual suffering by a savior. I mean, God is God isn’t He? Why can’t he just declare that if men will repent and come unto Him, then He will forgive whom He will. What great cosmic force said: “Umm excuse me God, someone has to suffer pain and anguish before you can just start forgiving people”

  2. 2 Anonymous March 3, 2006 at 12:57 pm

    Ryan you make a good point. I know a lot of people knock Skousen and I can understand why, but at least with this he is trying to answer a question few people seem willing to attempt. Why was so much suffering required by God?

  3. 3 Eric Nielson March 3, 2006 at 2:35 pm

    Does Mosiah 3:10 give a glimpse into why suffering? My dad turned me on to this verse once. I posted on it here.

  4. 4 John March 3, 2006 at 6:00 pm

    Ryan, what was Elder Widtsoe’s reply?
    Or have I misunderstood you?

    There is an interesting statement by King Benjamin in Mosiah 3:7 in which he suggests that the pain of Jesus, as he “descended below all things”(D&C 88:6) and became acutely aware of all of the past and future sins of mankind, such that blood came from every pore was due to “his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people.”
    This suggests that his great pain was not because he was becoming guilty himself of all human sin, or that he was thus paying for our sins, but because he was so horrified and anguished by how wicked people would be to each other. He had taken upon himself the responsibility to see that justice was done in regard to every evil act of mankind down through history. It is hard for me to think that God the Father would say that he would forgive everyone if he could just see a sufficient amount of suffering from Jesus. How does the suffering of an innocent being pay for the sins of the guilty? It seems to me that justice can only be served and mercy granted if the sinners themselves humbly repent, make restitution as far as possible, refrain from further wickedness, and rely on the grace of a merciful Savior to forgive them. And those who will not repent or feel any remorse must be punished and held accountable. For eternal justice to be complete the innocent victims of human evil on earth must be compensated in the resurrection.
    Of course, all this is just my own speculation and my attempt to explain the atonement in a logical way. Perhaps it just isn’t logical to our finite minds and we should just accept it gratefully and not attempt to fully comprehend it.

  5. 5 Rob Osborn March 4, 2006 at 3:17 am


    You made a coment in your post about repenting and enduring or being cast into a lower kingdom.

    I would tend to disagree here on this because Christs atonement is for all 3 kingdoms according to D&C 76. All those who are saved into a kingdom of glory must repent and be washed through the blood of Christ becoming spotless.

    Unless they become spotless, they will be cast into outer darkness which is hell. the third article of faith is the saving requirements for all three kingdoms of glory.

  6. 6 Eric Nielson March 4, 2006 at 8:33 am

    My link to the post I wrote does not quite work. You need to delete the slash on the end and then it works.

    Rob, I’m not sure what statement of mine you were referring to. Are you referring to my link to the perfect judgement or my father’s (John Nielson) post? I could not see that direct statement in either.

  7. 7 Eric Nielson March 4, 2006 at 8:36 am

    Rob, now I see it. It is in one of the last paragraphs of my fathers post. I will give him some time to respond, and think about it myself.

  8. 8 John March 4, 2006 at 9:30 am

    Rob, as I read D&C 76:50-70, baptism and the receipt of the Holy Ghost are requirements only for the Celestial Kingdom. It is true that all three kingdoms are degrees of glory but there are vast differences between them. (See verses 71-106) I see no suggestion that all inhabitants of all kingdoms are spotless. The use of the word spotless in verse 107 refers, I believe, to the Kingdom of God on the earth or the Church(see footnote b in verse 107.

  9. 9 Rob Osborn March 4, 2006 at 12:59 pm


    In D&C 76:40-43 it mentions that Christ came into the world to cleanse it from all unrighteousness- and that through him all might be saved. He then states that he saves all except the sons of perdition. The point of interest here is that all get saved into a kingdom of glory who are washed clean through Christ.

    There is only one way one can be saved through Christ- it is the waters of baptism, otherwise they remain filthy and are cast off from his presence.

    Section 138 also makes a good case for the need of preaching to the rebellious and wicked in spirit prison. They are taught there that they can be redeemed through Christ through proxy work done for them through templ work. After they have paid their penalty in hell and are washed clean through baptism and further obedience to the house of the Lord they can inherit a knigdom of glory.

  10. 10 John March 5, 2006 at 9:53 am

    Rob, I have never heard your interpretation regarding baptism before. It has always been my understanding that baptism is a requirement only for the CK and that honorable men and women of the earth who are not members of the Church may obtain the Terrestrial K. and those who are not even honorable may obtain the Telestial K.
    How is it that someone who has become “spotless” not worthy of the CK?

  11. 11 Rob Osborn March 5, 2006 at 12:38 pm


    I know it must sound like a strange doctrine, but it is the doctrine found in the scriptures. True it is that baptism is viewed as the gateway to the CK, it is also the gateway into any kingdom. A person at the final judgement is either clean (spotless) or filthy (spotted). This unclean/ clean is the effect of sin. It can also be termed- the repentant (cleaned)/ unrepentant (filthy still).

    Look at 2 Nephi 9:16, D&C 88:34-35, 101-102 for further clarification on who will be righteous and who will not be righteous. The righteous are considered all od those who are found in a kingdom of glory having their sins forgiven them and being washed clean. D&C 138:57-59 talks about those who are not CK bound that must repent and be washed clean through the work in the house of the Lord (temple)

  12. 12 John March 5, 2006 at 3:23 pm

    Rob, why is it that baptism is listed as a requirement for the CK in D&C 76:51 and is not listed as a requirement for salvation in the lesser kingdoms?
    Perhaps we are just talking past each other and will each go away convinced we are right. Maybe some other readers can shed some further light on the subject.

  13. 13 Eric Nielson March 5, 2006 at 6:38 pm

    I have heard of the notion that by the time the judgement is complete all sin will be taken care of, either through repentance or paying the price ourselves. But there may be more than just the absence of sin that would serve as a seperation between kingdoms.

    I can’t remember a reference for all sin being taken care of prior to judgement. I’ll try and find something.

  14. 14 Geoff J March 5, 2006 at 11:40 pm


    Good post and I completely agree with the idea that the atonement is a long ongoing process. I have written several posts on the atonement that more or less agree with your position at the Thang too.

    BTW — I think Rob is totally out to lunch on this subject. We have debated it in the past. If those in the Telestial kingdom end up “spotless” it will not be because they all accepted the gospel but rather because they paid for their own sins prior to the Second Resurrection. The first principles and ordinances of the gospel are the gateway to the Celestial law and those who abide the celestial law receive Celestial glory. (Maybe Rob could flesh out his unusual ideas on this at his blog…)

    BTW John — I also very much agreed with your previous thoughts on “teach me all that I must BE”.

  15. 15 Rob Osborn March 6, 2006 at 12:01 am


    Thanks, out to lunch eh? How come those in spirit prison are taught the first principles and ordinances? we are not referring to the CK in 138 in reference to the wicked and disobedient.

    I think the atonement gets a bum rap a lot of times on who it covers. All those in any kingdom are covered fully by the atonement both physically and spiritually. Where a person goes after resurrection depends on his diligence and obedience. Those who are more obedient will be farther along then others who to that point are not as advanced.

    The atonement can only cleanse one who has repented and then is baptized. There is no other head where man is made free from the penalty of sin. The suffering done in hell is part of the penalty of justice and has no cleansing power. Only the waters of baptism and the receipt of the Holy ghost has the power to clean.

    In the scriptures the prophets repeatedly say to come unto Christ and be saved. To be saved is to have salvation. Salvation only comes to the repentant. A person is either saved or damned- salvation or damnation.

  16. 16 Rob Osborn March 6, 2006 at 12:25 am


    I believe that D&C 76:51 refres to those who did that while in mortality. There are a lot of hard to understand doctrines and word plays in section 76. For instance take verses 38 & 39, they almost make the reader to believe that the sons of perdition will not be resurrected. Another is in reference to the resurrection of the just/ unjust in verse 17. The confusion here is if John 5:29 is really mistranslated or needs clarification. John 5:29 mimicks BoM scriptures Mosiah 16:11, 3 Nephi 26:5, & D&C 29:43-44. I tend to think that the words just/ unjust are substitution words and that John 5:29 in the KJV is the correct translation and Joseph Smiths reinterpretation is nothing more than a word substitution to gain a different view.

    The section then continues but is totally unclear on who the just are and who the unjust are. Joseph does speak of the ungodly (sop) and then goes on to explain the just. There is also an interesting play on words when talking about those who “suffer the vengeance of eternal fire” Most have thought this to mean the fire in hell but it is actually the literal fire that will cover the earth to burn the wicked at Christs second coming. But because most are already shut up in the spirit prison they will not obviously suffer that physical torment.

    The case I am making is that D&C is very informative but some things are left unclear and unfinished- that whole line upon line thing. I believe that Joseph did not even realize what section 76 meant in it;s fullest when it was revealed. Section 138 is like the part 2 of the revelation concerning the atonement thus clarifying how the wicked become righteous through proxy temple work and repentance- more of that line upon line thing.

  17. 17 Eric Nielson March 6, 2006 at 12:22 pm

    Doesn’t D&C 19 speak to the idea that if you do not repent you will have to suffer for your sins? Will there not be some who simply will not repent and must face justice?

  18. 18 Rob Osborn March 6, 2006 at 3:06 pm


    I have discussed this in another post but I cant remember where. Section 19 refers to those who do not repent by the last judgement and final resurrection after the millenium. Those who are discussed in section 19 who must suffer even as Christ did are the sons of perdition ONLY.

  19. 19 Eric Nielson March 6, 2006 at 8:24 pm

    You may be right Rob, but I disagree. Have other commentators said that D&C 19:15-19 referrs only to the SOP?

  20. 20 Rob Osborn March 7, 2006 at 12:27 am


    The key to understand what type of suffering the unrepentant get you have to refer to the first few verses.-3-13 these specifically refer to the suffering after final judgement, and then god goes on to tell Martin Harris (and us all) to repent or he will suffer the punishment spoken of in verses 3-13

    As far as other commentators? I do know that numerous commentators have equated those found on the left hand in verse 5 as the sons of perdition.

  21. 21 Geoff J March 7, 2006 at 1:48 pm

    We discussed Rob’s “unique” reading of D&C 19 ad naseum here. The abridged version is I agree with Eric.

  22. 22 Rob Osborn March 7, 2006 at 2:41 pm

    Every sinner suffers from his own sins, this called the first spritual death. The type of people that the Atonement does not cover are the sons of perdition. D&C 19:20 talks of the first spiritual death as a small taste of what the second death is like. The second death is described in the opening verses. Tis second death will be a suffering similar to what Christ paid for. No one can actually say that those who are in spirit prison now are suffering as did Christ for their sins as is described in section 19. The spirit prison is designed as a separate place where sinners are kept until they pay the penalty for their sins and then upon obedience the atonement cleanses them of their sins.

  23. 23 Eric Nielson March 7, 2006 at 9:51 pm


    Your last comment sounds like a complete contradiction to me. You seem to say that those in the spirit prison are not suffering like Christ, but will need to pay for their sins. Iguess I do not buy the notion that everyone will eventuall fully repent of all their sins.

  24. 24 Rob Osborn March 7, 2006 at 11:35 pm


    It did sound kind of weird. let me explain better. The suffering that the Telestial and Terrestrial do is a temporary suffering and not as severe as the actual punishment of being eternally banished. Christ has paid for their sins already as long as they repent, but if they choose not to repent then they cannot be redeemed from their own spiritual fall. Repentance and forgiveness from sin is the law of entrance into any kingdom.

  25. 25 Anne Boyack March 9, 2007 at 11:58 am

    Geoff J,
    Where can I find the blog by John Nielson that includes the phrase “teach me all that I must BE”?

  26. 26 Eric Nielson March 9, 2007 at 12:20 pm


    I think Geoff was referring to Dad’s post here.

  1. 1 John Nielson (1937-2010) May he Rest In Peace « Small and Simple Trackback on May 19, 2010 at 7:09 pm

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