Friday, January 15, 2010

The Atonement: Part 1 The Garden of Gethsemane

Scale helps us to appreciate the size of objects, whether they be buildings, mountains or oceans. Scale can sometimes help us appreciate the scope of intangible moments that are emotional and can’t readily be measured by tools.

Here is a picture of the Eagle Nebula, courtesy of the Hubble Telescope.



The enormous nebula is located some 6,500 light years away in the Sagittarius arm of the Milkyway galaxy, between our solar system and the galaxy's core.

Here’s a closer look inside of the nebula.



What you see are the famous Pillars of Creation, so named by scientists because each one inside contains stars in the act of formation. Now try this next picture…



Look familiar? This is the single most famous photograph of these pillars, which is actually a composite of many overlaid photographs. Now, let’s peer even closer at one of these pillars…



Look closely at this billowing cap of gas and dust, which is a giant nursery for baby stars. Do you see those small protrusions sticking out, resembling tiny fleshy moles? Each one of these protuberances contains a single star. More remarkable is the size of each of these protuberances. Can you guess? These are roughly the dimensions of our entire solar system, roughly 7 billion miles across. Now let’s see those pillars once again.



The largest pillar on the left is roughly four light-years in length. What’s that mean? This giant column of gas and dust would stretch from our sun to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri. At the speed of light, it would take you four years to travel from one end of the pillar to the other. Can you believe something this ginormous actually exists, and that it gives birth to what will become solar systems? Hard to imagine. The scale leaves one gobsmacked. And yet…there it is, in all its glory, the majesty of our Heavenly Father’s workmanship.

(And it makes our giant solar system now appear…oh, so very small.)

It is within the infinite enormity of the universe that we need to embrace what Christianity calls The Atonement. I’m not sure that most of Christendom fully comprehends a particular cluster of scriptures within Luke 22, but it illuminates an event in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to the Savior’s arrest and eventual crucifixion.



Read the following:

39 And [Jesus] came out, and went, as he was wont, to the mount of Olives; and his disciples also followed him.
40 And when he was at the place, he said unto them, Pray that ye enter not into temptation.
41 And he was withdrawn from them about a stone’s cast, and kneeled down, and prayed,
42 Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.
43 And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him.
44 And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.


I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that most Christians see this moment as simply Christ’s emotional struggle in the face of his own execution. That's certainly how it was explained to me in my childhood associations with several non-denominational churches, long before I joined the LDS church. If we examine traditional Christendom, their Crucifix stands as the representative symbol of the Lord’s sacrifice, his voluntary forfeiture of his life for our sins.

Yet, this is simply an incomplete knowledge, for his death on the cross is a mere glance at the giant picture. What we’re witnessing, in those brief few verses of Luke 22, is an act of love, a sacrifice unparalleled in human history. (Or known biophysics.) The Atonement is the process by which the Savior took the pains, sufferings, and most importantly the evil and misdeeds committed by every son and daughter of Heavenly Father, and endured its pain on our behalf.

To help us understand the issue of justice and mercy, in so far as Heavenly Father is concerned, let’s go to Alma 34:

8 And now, behold, I [Alma] will testify unto you of myself that these things are true. Behold, I say unto you, that I do know that Christ shall come among the children of men, to take upon him the transgressions of his people, and that he shall atone for the sins of the world; for the Lord God hath spoken it.
9 For it is expedient that an atonement should be made; for according to the great plan of the Eternal God there must be an atonement made, or else all mankind must unavoidably perish; yea, all are hardened; yea, all are fallen and are lost, and must perish except it be through the atonement which it is expedient should be made.
10 For it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice; yea, not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast, neither of any manner of fowl; for it shall not be a human sacrifice; but it must be an infinite and eternal sacrifice


Why must such a sacrifice be necessary? Let’s look at 1 Nephi 15:

32 …for the day should come that they [we] must be judged of their works, yea, even the works which were done by the temporal body in their days of probation.
33 Wherefore, if they should die in their wickedness they must be cast off also, as to the things which are spiritual, which are pertaining to righteousness; wherefore, they must be brought to stand before God, to be judged of their works; and if their works have been filthiness they must needs be filthy; and if they be filthy it must needs be that they cannot dwell in the kingdom of God; if so, the kingdom of God must be filthy also.
34 But behold, I say unto you, the kingdom of God is not filthy, and there cannot any unclean thing enter into the kingdom of God


Because sin leaves us out of our Heavenly father’s presence forever, we need someone capable of rendering the demands of justice for us, an unparalleled act of mercy. To further polish this notion of Justice v. Mercy, let’s go back to Alma 34:

14 And behold, this is the whole meaning of the law, every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice; and that great and last sacrifice will be the Son of God, yea, infinite and eternal.
15 And thus he shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance.
16 And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety…


Dying on the cross simply isn't the big picture. The pain and suffering of crucifixion, while immense, was a common method of execution in the Roman Empire for tens of thousands.

However, the word common isn’t an adjective best describing the Atonement. Only the pain and suffering for the billions upon billions of souls who have and will inhabit this planet (who came here of their own volition to take up a physical body, to traverse this life in the hopes of obtaining the right and honor of returning to Heavenly Father, knowing full well they would make mistakes and commit sins of varying degrees that would instantly put them out of Heavenly Father’s reach) could satisfy the demands of justice.

And yet...The Atonement goes beyond those who have or will walk this planet. Remember, only Christ could make this sacrifice, for it has to be an infinite and eternal sacrifice. That’s the key. Infinite and eternal encompasses not only this world, but all of Heavenly Father's worlds.

Moses 1:
33 And worlds without number have I created; and I also created them for mine own purpose; and by the Son I created them, which is mine Only Begotten.


Worlds without number? Consider the scope of Heavenly Father's creations. In our galaxy it's estimated to be populated with 200 to 400 billion stars. Our closest galactic neighbor, Andromeda, has one trillion stars. In the known universe there are hundreds upon hundreds of billions of galaxies. Even if you allow for the possibility that only one earth-like planet holds human life in each galaxy, that's hundreds of billions of planets with intelligent life in the detectable universe. (Consider that each of those planets holds a mere billion souls. Now multiply.)

This is what Christ did in the Garden. He took upon himself the vast incomprehensible volume of imperfection that we create (because we're fools, idiots, rash, and often just plain evil) and he suffered it. How great was this agony? Beyond measure. But let's return to Luke 22. Read carefully, and let's hit a few observations:

39 And [Jesus] came out, and went, as he was wont, to the mount of Olives; and his disciples also followed him.
40 And when he was at the place, he said unto them, Pray that ye enter not into temptation.
41 And he was withdrawn from them about a stone’s cast, and kneeled down, and prayed,
42 Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.


This isn't you or I asking or begging for an alternative, for a way out. This is Christ. The Great Jehovah. I AM. Alpha and Omega. He knows full well what horrors are about to descend upon himself. However, he defers to the will of Heavenly Father without hesitation.



43 And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him.


So terrible was the burden that Heavenly Father allowed an angel to attend to The Savior and strengthen him as infinite agony enveloped him.

44 And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.


This isn't a printing error, or a fifteen-hundred year old mistranslation. At that moment the very weight of sin from hundreds of trillions of souls transformed his spiritual agony into a physical torment that boggles the mind. So violent is the volume of his agony, the Savior at that very moment was literally sweating great drops of blood.

D&C 19:
16 For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;
17 But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I;
18 Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—
19 Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.


It's a magnanimous gift. And yet, I'm barely scratching the surface on The Savior's role in all our lives. Let this suffice for now.

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