The Atonement of Jesus Christ, Part 2


In Part 1 (July), Brother Nibley discussed the meaning of the word atonement and described how the Day of Atonement was observed in ancient Israel. This month he discusses how religious ceremonies involving atonement are found throughout the world.

Borrowed Ordinances?

Mention of an Egyptian endowment raises the question of whether the Hebrew rites are original. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries, wide-ranging comparative studies in philosophy and religion made it look as if the Hebrew ceremonies of atonement were just one series of rites among many found throughout the ancient world by which societies—primitive or civilized—practiced purification and expiation, individual and collective, to enter the new year with a clean slate, their collective and individual sins having been transferred to and carried by a pharmakon—a scapegoat, a rex saturnalicus, a Lord of Misrule, a Year-King, and so on. 1 Some of these are attested in pre-Hebraic times, and it was assumed that the Mosaic rites were not original but derivative.

It must be admitted that other societies seem to share the tradition. The most notable is the grasp of the situation by the Greek dramatists, whose plays in fact were religious presentations, the main theme of the tragedies being the purging of guilt. No one ever stated the problem of man’s condition more clearly than the great Greek dramatists. They show us what life is without the Atonement, for their view of life, like that of all the ancients, is a profoundly tragic one.

The standard tragedy begins with something gone very wrong. After all, that is the way the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants also begin—in the one case, that “great city Jerusalem [is about to] be destroyed” (1 Ne. 1:4); in the other, “peace [is about to] be taken from the earth, and the devil shall have power over his own dominion” (D&C 1:35). Things are not as they should be in the world; nothing short of immediate destruction is in the offing. Someone must be responsible. Why? Because things don’t just happen; therefore, appeal must be made to the oracle. Long before Aeschylus’s The Suppliant Maidens (the earliest Greek tragedy), in which Danaus seeks favor at the altars of the Pelasgian gods as an enemy approaches, we find the same dramatic scene as Moses stands before the people and cries out, “Ye have sinned a great sin: and now I will go up unto the Lord; peradventure I shall make an atonement for your sin.” (Ex. 32:30.) For the people had turned to the golden calf and were smitten with the plague.

But who is guilty? Not just one person, certainly; society has its part to play in making us what we are and do. Should all the society be punished, then? How do we apportion the blame when all share in it? We cannot. The law of Moses insists with great strictness that every individual man, woman, and child above age twenty, rich and poor, shall pay “ransom for his soul” of exactly the same amount—one-half shekel, no more, no less. (See Ex. 30:11–16.) Just as sweeping is the provision that God “commandeth all men, everywhere, to repent” (3 Ne. 11:32) and to keep repenting as long as our days are extended for that express purpose. We are all in it together.

To satisfy both offended justice and offended Deity, something must be done. Appeasement, payment, settlement—call it what you will—it must restore the old unity of the heavenly and the human order; it must bring about at-one-ment of the two. And what payment or sacrifice is sufficient to do that? The usual practice throughout the ancient world was to sacrifice the king, who after all took credit for victory and prosperity and was answerable when they failed. 2

This Egyptian theme is introduced in the first chapter of the book of Abraham, with Abraham about to be sacrificed “after the manner of the Egyptians.” (Abr. 1:11–12.) But the Egyptians had no word for sin; though the Egyptian language was rich in words for folly, mischief, and misfortune, one was considered guilty only if caught. 3 Even the Hebrew word khãtã properly means “to fail or miss, not to hit the mark,” exactly like the Greek hamartanein (translated as “sinning” in Gen. 20:6). The Egyptian idea of atonement appears in the regulation that if Pharaoh has knowingly or unknowingly taken life by the shedding of blood he must atone for it (entsühnen) by making a sacrifice, “by which sacrifice he is purified of the Serpent which has defiled him before the Gods.” 4 That is a long way from the Hebrew atonement.

As to the resemblances that have beguiled the scholars, one hundred years ago President Joseph F. Smith gave the most rational and still the most acceptable explanation for them. To quote him:

“Undoubtedly the knowledge of this law and of other rites and ceremonies was carried by the posterity of Adam into all lands, and continued with them, more or less pure, to the flood, and through Noah, who was a ‘preacher of righteousness,’ to those who succeeded him, spreading out into all nations and countries. … What wonder, then, that we should find relics of Christianity, so to speak, among the heathens and nations who know not Christ, and whose histories date back beyond the days of Moses, and even beyond the flood, independent of and apart from the records of the Bible.”

The scholars of his time, he notes, took the position that “‘Christianity’ sprang from the heathen, it being found that they have many rites similar to those recorded in the Bible, &c.” This jumping to conclusions was premature, to say the least, “for if the heathen have doctrines and ceremonies resembling … those … in the Scriptures, it only proves … that these are the traditions of the fathers handed down, … and that they will cleave to the children to the latest generation, though they may wander into darkness and perversion, until but a slight resemblance to their origin, which was divine, can be seen.”

Which came first—the pagan or the Hebrew version? As Joseph F. Smith observes, “The Bible account, being the most rational and indeed [the] only historical one, … we cannot but come to the conclusion that this is not the work of chance.” 5

The Competitors

The biblical account is not a work of chance, to be sure, but were there others? Is the Bible account indeed the only rational, historical one? These are questions that must be asked, and the vast amount of work on the subject that has almost all been done since Joseph F. Smith made his remarks more than one hundred years ago calls for a word of comment.

In the nineteenth century a string of scholars with monosyllabic names—Jones, Bopp, Rask, Grimm, Pott, Diez, Zeuss—discovered unexpected relationships between all sorts of languages. In the early twentieth century their studies were followed up by grand, sweeping surveys of comparative literature, revealing a wealth of religious parallels that set the experts to their favorite game of arguing about where which rite or expression began, and who borrowed what when from whom.

It was more than a matter of general resemblances between doctrines and cults; the Hellenistic mystery religions, the Gnostics, the Mandaeans, the early Christians, the Cabalists—all seemed to be speaking the same language. Looking back in time, the scholars saw the strong influence of Plato almost everywhere, but where did he get his ideas? At first, the consensus was for Egypt, but in the 1920s there was a strong swing toward Iran’s Zarathustra. The fad wore off, but still the argument goes on.

What were the teachings in question? The basic ideas of all of them are the yearning for return to God and eternal life, which the learned scholar Eduard Meyer maintained came from Moses to Philo. 6 With this went the conviction expressed by Plato that this world is a place of evil from which we are liberated to return to God, this world being in a state of decline toward inevitable catastrophe and ultimate restoration by God. 7 The escape of the individual to eternal bliss is anticipated by such things as baptism, sacred meals, prophecy, and visions or dreams of ascension to the seventh heaven. Eschatology and cosmology are conspicuous, and great importance is laid on the office and calling of the First Man.

With such things in common, it is not surprising that the mystery religions recognized and copied each other; 8 but human vanity also seems to have led each religion to claim for itself the right to be the one and only exclusive original, given to the first man. Indeed, in studying this material one can hardly avoid the impulse, as Reitzenstein puts it, “to view all religions as one great unity.” 9 “The isolating of separate religions as we present them in our textbooks … breaks down completely if we trace the history of a religious idea or concept. … What may originally have been Babylonian can become Iranian or even Persian, just as we may trace a Persian doctrine in the end back to China.” 10

But Eduard Meyer sees an exception to this in Christianity as a revealed religion. Of course, he was challenged; how was it possible for a religion resembling so many others to appear out of nothing? For proof of his point, Meyer produced the case of Joseph Smith and Mormonism. Knowing nothing whatever of the immense background material brought forth long after his time, Joseph Smith nonetheless put together the most complete and comprehensible exposition of those same abundant motifs in eminently reasonable form. 11

The Prophet’s nephew, Joseph F. Smith, was right.

The evidence that excited the debates of the early twentieth century was almost exclusively of a literary nature, so that the experts concluded that the cults themselves that came from Egypt, Greece, or the East confined their activities largely to the intellectual and literary exercises of individual practitioners and their followers. The Atonement for them was simply a scenario in which all the biblical terms became lofty abstractions.

Most scholars attributed this to Philo. The unio mystica of the cults and mysteries was a form of atonement, indeed, but only an abstract form. To the devotee impatient for the promised glory, eager for the great experience, waiting until the Resurrection and the Last Judgment was out of the question. And so they were not kept waiting. From the first, theatrical effects were provided to meet the demand—lights, incense, processions, chants, mystifying formulas, even narcotics provided the experience of another world. There was immediate seating, no waiting. The biblical terms do not apply here; being born again was a matter of a few days or hours. And then there was that irresistible appeal to the vanity of the average man, suddenly rid of all of his dull mediocrity to become an exalted spirit overnight, like the Marcosians, immune to the weaknesses and vices of the flesh, infinitely superior to all who had not received the enlightenment.

What is it in the religion revealed to Joseph Smith that is so different from the others that sound so much like it? The difference is the literal Atonement. The point that places the gospel of Jesus Christ worlds apart from the ideas of others is the concept of sin. Such a teaching as that of the Lord in 3 Nephi 11:32 (“And this is my doctrine, … that the Father commandeth all men, everywhere, to repent and believe in me” [3 Ne. 11:32]) is simply unthinkable to them. In the three degrees of Gnostic glory—the hylic, the psychic, and the pneumatic—those who had achieved the final degree were incapable of sin no matter what they did, just as a gold ring when plunged into filthy sewage in no wise becomes impure since it cannot possibly enter into reaction with such nasty stuff. 12

The Plan

Joseph Smith took the gospel of Christ back even before Abraham to Adam and beyond, revealing the Atonement as “the plan of redemption … prepared from the foundation of the world” (Alma 12:30)—that is, when it was approved at the Council in Heaven. This event is often mentioned in the earliest Christian and Jewish literature, 13 one of the most notable texts being the “Discourse on Abbaton” by Timothy, Archbishop of Alexandria (circa A.D. 380). 14 When the plan was voted on, according to this account and others, it was turned down. The earth herself complained, as in the Book of Moses and other Enoch literature, of the defilement it would bring upon her, knowing the kind of inhabitants to come (see Moses 7:48–49); and the heavenly host objected to a plan that would cause such a vast amount of sin and suffering.

The Only Begotten broke the deadlock by volunteering to go down and pay the price. This opened the way; the plan could go forward; and the sons of God and the morning stars all sang and shouted for joy (see Job 38:7) in a great creation hymn that has left an indelible mark in ancient literature and ritual. The Lord had made it all possible, leaving men their agency, and obeying the Father in all things. But Satan and his followers refused to accept the majority vote; for that, Satan was deprived of his glory in a reversal of the ritual endowment and was cast out of heaven, which was the reverse of at-one-ment. 15

Only in such a context does the Atonement, otherwise so baffling, take on its full significance. There is not a word among those translated as “atonement” which does not plainly indicate the return to a former state or condition; one rejoins the family, returns to the Father, becomes united, reconciled, embracing and sitting down happily with others after a sad separation. We want to get back, but to do that, we must resist the alternative: being taken into the community of “the prince of this world.” (John 12:31.)

Jacob, contemplating our possibilities here on earth both for dissolution and salvation, breaks out into an ecstatic cry of wonder and awe: “O the wisdom of God, his mercy and grace!” (2 Ne. 9:8.) For God has provided the resurrection as the first step to a physical at-one-ment, a resurrection which is indispensable to saving our spirits as well—they, too, must be atoned, for when Adam yielded to the adversary at the Fall (the common experience of all who become accountable), it was the spirit that committed the act of disobedience and independence, and the spirit could not undo that which was done. In the next verse Jacob gives a concise summary of the situation:

“And our spirits must have become like unto him [Satan], and we become devils, angels to a devil, to be shut out from the presence of our God [for no unclean thing can dwell in his presence, and being shut out is the utter reverse of at-one-ment], and to remain with the father of lies, in misery, like unto himself; yea, to that being who … transformeth himself nigh unto an angel of light, and stirreth up the children of men unto secret combinations of murder and all manner of secret works of darkness.” (2 Ne. 9:9.)

The part about the angel of light is important to let us know that Satan is with us as a regular member of the group; he does not show himself as a Halloween horror—that point is vital in establishing the reality of the scene.

What is the justification for Jacob’s alarming statement of total loss without atonement? For the answer, look around you! In the next verse Jacob describes our condition as Homer does that of his heroes—“all those noble spirits” caught like rats in a trap 16 —doomed ahead of time, but for the Atonement: “O how great the goodness of our God, who prepareth a way for our escape [we are caught!] from the grasp of this awful monster; yea, that monster, death and hell, which I call the death of the body, and also the death of the spirit.” By this atonement, “the temporal, shall deliver up its dead”—that is, from the grave—but more important, “the spiritual death, shall deliver up its dead.” That is the death that really is hell—“which spiritual death is hell.” So now we have them both, body and spirit, brought together—another at-one-ment, “restored one to the other.” (2 Ne. 9:10–12.)

And how, pray, is this all done? Not by a syllogism or an argument or an allegory or even a ceremony; “it is by the power of the resurrection of the Holy One of Israel.” (2 Ne. 9:12.) Thus, another outburst from Jacob: “O how great [is] the plan of our God!” (2 Ne. 9:13; italics added.)

To know that everything is going according to plan is a vast relief. Yet the word plan is nowhere found in the English Bible! Why not? No doubt it was among the precious things removed. And what is left in its place? The muddled idea of predestination—St. Augustine’s praedestinatio ad damnationem and praedestinatio ad salvationem, the idea that everything that happens is the will of God, and there is nothing we can do about it, for the original sin makes mankind a massa perditionis, incapable of doing good.

For more than 1,500 years Christians have tried to mitigate or get rid of the bitter doctrine of predestination, but they have never been able to let it go, having nothing to put in its place. In particular, Augustine and his successors found the doctrine of infant damnation painful—no atonement for unbaptized babies stained by the original sin. But what could they do? The alternative to predestination is premortal existence, a firmly held tenet of the early church; 17 but Aristotle had declared that a false idea when he ruled out the existence of any other world than this or any other intelligent beings than ourselves.

Yet preachers today use the word plan freely—and no wonder, for what is of greater comfort than the assurance that what we are going through is all as it was planned, as it should be. What! This dismal routine? Planned this way? Yet the early Christian writers acknowledged that an essential part of life is that all things have their opposites—action and reaction are equal and opposite; and that is a good thing, for if we couldn’t be bad, we couldn’t really be good; and if nothing bad ever happened to us, we could never know how blessed we are. 18

To be continued.

[illustration] What Shall I Do Then with Christ? by Robert T. Barrett

[illustration] The Crucifixion, by Harry Anderson

[illustration] Behold My Hands and My Feet, by Harry Anderson

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

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    Regarding the “scape-goat,” or “Azazel,” see Yoma 67b; cf. “Noah,” 10–11 in Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, 7 vols. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1983), 5:170–71; Encyclopaedia Judaica, 3:1001–2.

  2.   2.

    For an entertaining discussion, read Mary Renault, The King Must Die (New York Pantheon, 1958).

  3.   3.

    The long catalogue of crimes in the famous 125th chapter of the Book of the Dead is rightly called “the Negative Confession,” because the speaker categorically and automatically always denies any wrongdoing whatever—no penitential psalms for him!

  4.   4.

    Siegfried Schott, “Die Reinigung Pharaohs” in Nachrichten der Akademie der Wissenschaften in Gottingen Philologisch-historische Klasse 3 (Jan. 1957):67.

  5.   5.

    In Journal of Discourses, 15:325–26.

  6.   6.

    Richard Reitzenstein, Studien zum antiken Synkretismus aus Iran und Griechenland (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1965), p. 23.

  7.   7.

    Plato, Republic, X.

  8.   8.

    Richard Reitzenstein, Die hellenistischen Mysterienreligionen (Stuttgart: Teubner, 1966), p. 28.

  9.   9.

    Reitzenstein, Studien zum antiken Synkretismus, p. 112.

  10.   10.

    Ibid., p. 65.

  11.   11.

    See Eduard Meyer, Ursprung und Geshichte der Mormonen (Halle: Max Niemeyer, 1912), pp. 1–2, 277–300.

  12.   12.

    Irenaeus, “Against Heresies,” Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdman’s, 1950), 1:324.

  13.   13.

    Hugh W. Nibley, “The Expanding Gospel,” BYU Studies, 7 (1965): 3–27.

  14.   14.

    E. A. Wallis Budge, tr., “Discourse on Abbaton by Timothy, Archbishop of Alexandria,” in Coptic Martyrdoms, 6 vols. (London: British Museum, 1914), 4:225–49 (English translation on pp. 474–96).

  15.   15.

    Ibid., pp. 480–84.

  16.   16.

    Homer, Iliad, I, line 3: pollas d’iphthimous psychas Aidi proiapsen. See Homer, Iliad, with an English translation by A. T. Murray (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971), pp. 2–3.

  17.   17.

    Nibley, “The Expanding Gospel,” pp. 11–12, 18–26.

  18.   18.

    Hugh W. Nibley, The World and the Prophets (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1987), pp. 183–85.