Saturday, June 19, 2010

Is "The Atonement" Different Than "Blood Atonement?"

On June 17, 2010, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released this statement:

"In the mid-19th century, when rhetorical, emotional oratory was common, some church members and leaders used strong language that included notions of people making restitution for their sins by giving up their own lives.
"However, so-called 'blood atonement,' by which individuals would be required to shed their own blood to pay for their sins, is not a doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We believe in and teach the infinite and all-encompassing atonement of Jesus Christ, which makes forgiveness of sin and salvation possible for all people."  (Italics mine).

Why the need for the Church to make such a simple statement?  Because whenever the subject of capital punishment by firing squad arises in Utah, the knives of the enemies of the Church come out in full force to embarrass the former leaders who are quoted has having been advocates for the so-called "doctrine."  Pitting the dead prophets against the living prophets is such fun for them.  On February 26, 1980, at BYU in his classic exegesis on the topic, President Ezra Taft Benson warned:  "Beware of those who would pit the dead prophets against the living prophets, for the living prophets always take precedence." 

Were Brigham Young and others misquoted?  Did they really teach the things ascribed to them?  What if they taught a false doctrine?  Worse yet, what if it's true?  How does one reconcile the difficulty?

On February 19, 1981, Elder Bruce R. McConkie addressed a private letter to Eugene England, then a professor at BYU, dealing with the so-called "Adam-God Theory."  The letter was later published to the world by those indefatigable critics of the Church, Sandra and Jerald Tanner.  In part, Elder McConkie wrote:

". . . As it happens, I am a great admirer of Brigham Young and a great believer in his doctrinal presentations.  He was called of God.  He was guided by the Holy Spirit in his teachings in general.  He was a mighty prophet.  He led Israel the way the Lord wanted his people led.  He built on the foundation laid by the Prophet Joseph.  He completed his work and has gone on to eternal exaltation
"Nonetheless, as Joseph Smith so pointedly taught, a prophet is not always a prophet, only when he is acting as such.  Prophets are men and they make mistakes.  Sometimes they err in doctrine.  This is one of the reasons the Lord has given us the Standard Works.  They become the standards and rules that govern where doctrine and philosophy are concerned.  If this were not so, we would believe one thing when one man was president of the Church and another thing in the days of his successors.  Truth is eternal and does not vary.  Sometimes even wise and good men fall short in the accurate presentation of what is truth.  Sometimes a prophet gives personal views which are not endorsed and approved by the Lord.
"Yes, President Brigham Young did teach that Adam was the father of our spirits, and all the related things that the cultists ascribe to him.  [He could have added blood atonement too.]  This, however, is not true.  He expressed views that are out of harmony with the gospel.  But, be it known, Brigham Young also taught accurately and correctly, the status and position of Adam in the eternal scheme of things.  What I am saying is, that Brigham Young contradicted Brigham Young, and the issue becomes one of which Brigham Young we will believe.  The answer is we will believe the expressions that accord with the teachings in the Standard Works. . .
"I repeat:  Brigham Young erred in some of his statements. . . but Brigham Young also taught the truth in these fields on other occasions.  And, I repeat, that in his instance he was a great prophet and has gone on to eternal reward.  What he did is not a pattern for any of us.  If we choose to believe and teach the false portions of his doctrines, we are making an election that will damn us. . .
"Wise gospel students do not build their philosophies of life on quotations of individuals, even though those quotations come from presidents of the Church.  Wise people anchor their doctrine on the Standard Works. . .
"We do not solve our problems by getting a statement from the president of the Church or from someone else on a subject.  We have been introduced to the gospel; we have the gift of the Holy Ghost; we have the Standard Works and it is our responsibility to get in tune and understand properly what the Lord has revealed and has had us canonize.  The end result of this course of personally and individually pursuing light and truth is to reach that millennial state of which the scriptures say it will no longer be necessary for every man to say to his neighbor, 'know the Lord,' for all shall know him from the greatest to the least.  Joseph Smith says this will be by the spirit of revelation."  (Italics mine).

I remind you of a verse found in D&C 132:26, as it applies to Brigham Young.  I am confident it is the doctine Elder McConkie was applying in this case.  To have to stumble and trip over the statements of the dead prophets while taking counsel from the living prophets is all part and parcel of our grand test in mortality. 

In the pursuit of diamond pure truth encouraged by Elder McConkie, there are always contradictions, ironies and paradoxes aplenty.  As one example, there is an expression connected with the ordinances that seems strangely paradoxical and counter-intuitive, but the symbolism is breathtaking and sweet if understood.  It is "having one's garments washed white with the blood of the Lamb."  In the literal sense, of course, one could not expect to wash a shirt in blood and have it come out sparkling white.  On its face, this expression defies logical thinking.

It is the The Book of Mormon that clarifies the apparent contradiction.  Alma tells us "there can no man be saved except his garments are washed white; yea, his garments must be purified until they are cleansed from all stain, through the blood of him of whom it has been spoken by our fathers, who should come to redeem his people from their sins.  And now I ask of you, my brethren, how will any of you feel, if ye shall stand before the bar of God, having your garments stained with blood and all manner of filthiness?  Behold, what will these things testify against you?  Behold will they not testify that ye are murderers, . . . guilty of all manner of wickedness?"  (Alma 5:21-23, italics mine).

Being guilty of "the blood and sins of your generation," you may not "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."  (Alma 5:24).  Such purity is what is required for "sitting down" in the presence of God.

There are two kinds of blood-stained garments I have discerned in the scriptures.  One shows the blood and sins of this world, while the other blood stains are the purifying sacrifice of the Lamb cleansing the people and the prophets of their sins.  Their garments are white when stained with His blood.

The Savior's blood washing garments clean is not the blood that defiles them.  We learn from the story of the suffering among the children of Israel in the wilderness that a serpent raised on a staff healed the people, but it was not a serpent that killed (see Numbers 21:9).  Another paradoxical symbol.

Mortality is filled with paradoxes, and we all know it.  Opposition in all things is mandated by the plan of salvation (see 2 Nephi 2).  On one hand we can be "encircled about eternally in the arms of [God's] love" (2 Nephi 1:15), but we can also be "encircled about by the bands of death, and the chains of hell, and an everlasting destruction."  (Alma 5:7).

We can be perfectly united in the "at-one-ment," but we can also be "cast out" forever (Alma 5:25) having "[our] names. . . blotted out. . . the names of the wicked shall not be mingled with the names of my people."  (Alma 5:57).

We are admonished by Lehi:  Do "not choose eternal death, according to the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein, which giveth the spirit of the devil power to captivate, to bring you down to hell, that he may reign over you in his own kingdom."  (2 Nephi 2:29; see also 1 Nephi 13:29; 2 Nephi 28:19; Alma 8:9). Once you yield to this powerful opposite force for evil we learn he will hold you in his strong embrace, having a great hold over you.  (Alma 10:25; 12:17; 27:12; Helaman 16:23).

Irony of ironies, contradiction of contradictions, on his first encounter with the forces in the universe, the fourteen-year-old boy Joseph Smith felt and experienced that evil power before he was enveloped and consumed in the light.  He reported it was not an imaginary power at all.  Rather, it was a power many have felt since.  (JS-H 1:16).

The son of Helaman, Nephi, reports when you yield to him Satan "get[s] possession" of your heart.  (3 Nephi 2:2).  The Savior counseled the Nephites to beware of Satan's wiles "for Satan desireth to have you."  (3 Nephi 18:18). 

Who else wants us?  The Lord.

So while on the one hand, God "inviteth and enticeth to do good" and be one with him, so on the other hand Satan "inviteth and enticeth to sin."  (Moroni 7:12-13).

Why did God interject the devil into the program of salvation?  Why were mortals not simply stripped of the possibiility of doing evil?  It's pretty simple, really.  Without some kind of a test we could not prove ourselves either good or bad.  We'd never have to choose between the two.  (See Hugh Nibley, The World and the Prophets, 166-68, also in CWHN 3:182-84, for an interesting treatise on this topic). 

If a probationary experience on earth is to have true meaning, then it "must needs be that there is an opposition in all things."  (2 Nephi 2:11, 15).  So, says Lehi, we must all take a turn at resisting various enticements.  (2 Nephi 2:16, 21).  Lehi knew too well:  "That an angel . . . had fallen from heaven; wherefore, he became a devil, having sought that which was evil before God" and then proceeded to administer temptation, deception, and misery to the human race.  (2 Nephi 2:17-18).

Do you observe any evidence for a tangible, real, more-than-theoretical devil in our midst?  Is the world full of misery?  Who wants a world like that?  But we are consumed with wickedness all around, which leads many to conclude there is no god because of evil's very presence.  Satan's system works like a fine-oiled machine, and that's why he's so smug about his boasts that he rules here (see 1 Nephi 13:29; John 12:31; 14:30).

We don't have to play with him, however.  We can overcome our own weaknesses through repentance.  The invitation is extended to ALL, not just a few who are chosen:  "God commandeth all men, everywhere, to repent and believe in me."  (3 Nephi 11:32). 

We all have golden opportunities to repent every Sunday as we partake the emblems in token of his death at the sacrament table.  "The days of the children of men were prolonged, according to will of God, that they might repent while in the flesh," all living in "a state of probation, and their time was lengthened," to give them every possible chance, for otherwise "they were lost."  (2 Nephi 2:21, italics mine).  So the task before us is simple:  "All men must repent" and then keep repenting as long as we live.

Would anyone discount the need?  We see each other's sins with such perfect 20-20 vision, don't we?

"Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy."  (2 Nephi 2:25).  Humans, "redeemed from the fall, . . . have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, . . . free according to the flesh; . . . free to choose liberty and eternal life, . . . or to choose captivity and [eternal] death" in the power of one who "seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself."  (2 Nephi 2:26-27).  He has that "power to captivate" because we give it to him.  (2 Nephi 2:29).

The plan of salvation (it should be obvious) compels participation.  We're supposed to get involved.  It's more than theological, theoretical gas.  To think otherwise would be like Heavenly Father instructing us to come down here, play in the gutter and then command us never to get mud on our pants and our skirts.  Of course we get muddy, and the commandment is to clean up in the blood of His Son!

We are "invited and enticed" from both sides.  We are compelled to declare ourselves.  Unlike the legislative bodies among men, it is not enough to vote "present."  We choose one side or the other and we are all accountable for those choices every day.

King Benjamin offers counsel on how to "play" best in mortality.  He says there is no other salvation to look for and no other conditions for achieving it.  (Mosiah 4:8).  First, "believe in God; believe that he is, and that he created all things."  He suggests we are naturally inclined (because of our noble parentage) to "believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend."  (Mosiah 4:9). 

Further:  "Always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own nothingness, and his goodness and long-suffering towards you, unworthy creatures, and humble yourselves even in the depths of humility, calling on the name of the Lord daily."  (Mosiah 4:11, italics mine).

Too tall an order?  He promises:  "If ye do this ye shall always rejoice."  (Mosiah 4:12, italics mine). 

I've always thought if "nothingness" seems a rather low estimate of the human race, we have lots of evidence from the most honest and enlightened ones (the General Authorities) who confirm it routinely at Conference time, and the rebellious and wicked ones (political hacks, liars, cheats and thieves and all their ilk) who are the most cynical and disparaging of all.

Lehi explains if we approach the Lord with "a broken heart and contrite spirit," we can make a case for our own salvation, "and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered."  (2 Nephi 2:7).  This puts an end to legalisms and endless litigation between the parties in the debate about who shall obtain salvation, doesn't it?  It's hard to fake "a broken heart and a contrite spirit," as any bishop will tell you.  You cannot discuss dispassionately that condition of heart and spirit.  My bishop's desk was always was well-equipped with Kleenex.  Our calling as missionaries:  "How great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth."  (2 Nephi 2:8).  After all, it's really, really good news!!

Some dread thoughts of the final judgment, but that is not its purpose.  Our expectations must be anchored in joy, expecting that "happiness which is affixed" to the law and which is the final purpose or end "of the atonement."  (2 Nephi 2:10).

Who doesn't want to be "one with the Father," which obviously is completely beyond our present capacity?  Only the Son, our Savior and Redeemer, can help.  So Lehi tells us:  "Look to the great Mediator, and hearken unto his great commandments."  (2 Nephi 2:28).  He will tell us just what to do, for he is anxious to help us.  He wants us.  He loves us.  "Be faithful unto his words, and choose eternal life, according to the will of his Holy Spirit."  (2 Nephi 2:28, italics mine).  The Holy Ghost, that other Mediator and the other Comforter, who comes to take over when the Lord is absent, sends assurances in all of this. 

"Redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah," Lehi tells his son, "for he is full of grace and truth."  (2 Nephi 2:6).  Is there anything greater than that hope and that knowledge?

Think about it.  To be full of grace is everything good that you can possibly conceive of.  It is a perfect combination -- the total sum of love, charity, cheer, hope and joy.  It is everything there is to be cheerful about and grateful for, and it is boundless love without any mental reservation, self-interest, or ulterior motive.  It is NOTHING that is false or untrue.  It is all real, tangible, knowable and discernable -- all possible because Christ is full of grace and truth.

Perhaps one of our most useful segments in the Standard Works attesting to the power of the atonement is found in John:14-17.  John advocates for a literal atonement.  It is real.

It is worthy of note that John is the only New Testament character besides the Lord who is named in The Book of Mormon.  Bible scholars uniformly concur that John is the most "spiritual" book in the Bible, instructing us in things that are true, but they would insert one proviso -- without it being real.  It is true that John is the most "other-worldly" of books, but it is also the most literal.

John himself testifies to "that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life."  (1 John 1:1).  And it is John who reports what the Lord said on the subject: "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness."  (John 3:11).  "And what he hath seen and heard, that he testifieth; and no man receiveth his testimony."  (John 3:32, italics mine above).

John expects us to take literally what he says.  He saw, he heard, he touched, he testified.

In his matchless intercessory prayer, "Jesus raised his eyes to the sky and said, Father, the hour has come.  Glorify thy Son that the Son may glorify thee; . . . thou hast given him authority over all flesh so that everything thou gavest him, he can give to them, namely, eternal life."  (John 17:1-2).  "So now Father, glorify me in thy presence [or by your side] with the glory I had in your presence before the world existed."  (John 17:5).

Where were we then?  We were there:  "They were thine, and thou hast given them to me; . . . now they know that all that thou hast given me comes from thee."  (John 17:6-7).  I've had a front row seat to many of the world's most stunning developments during my lifetime in mortality, but I suspect none stunned me more than as an eyewitness to the literal atonement, even though I was participating from the vantage point of the spirit world.  Is that any less real because it is in the spirit? 

"I am asking for their sake: I do not plead for the world [those who refuse to repent and acknowledge the atonement], but for those whom thou gavest me, because they are thine, and everything that is thine is also mine, and I am glorified in them."  (John 17:9-10, italics mine).  "Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me."  (John 17:11).  That's the way it reads 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."  (Regarding tereo, see Liddell and Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, 1789).

So now we see it, the literal sense in which we are one, the true "at-one-ment."  As to the ordinances on earth, paraphrasing slightly, "When I was with them I tested them in the name by which thou didst endow me, and they have kept the secret and not one of them has been destroyed except the son of perdition, that the scriptures may be fulfilled" (see John 17:12).  "I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am of the world."  (John 17:14).  "And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one:  I in them and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me."  (John 17:22-23

John cannot possibly be mistaken or misinterpreted, can he?  We are endowed ("initiated, completed") to make us one with the Father and the Son, "so have I also sent them into the world."  (John 17:18).  Our commission as disciples of Jesus Christ is to do as He has done with His name and in His name.  "Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me."  (John 17:20-21).

Was the world, then, to be universally converted?  No, says John, but they all have to be given a chance:  "Ye are of our father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do.  He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him.  When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.  And because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not.  Which of you convinceth me of sin?  And if I say the truth, why do ye not believe me?"  (John 8:44-46).

John reminds us of the premortal drama:  "If God were your Father, you would love me: for I proceedeth forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but he sent me."  (John 8:42, italics mine).  That word sent is very literal -- sent from somewhere to somewhere.  Time, space and place are involved here.

All the references to time, space and place are meant to convey precisely what they presuppose -- it's all real.  "These things have I spoken unto you, being yet present with you. . .  Ye have heard how I said unto you, I go away and come again unto you.  If ye loved me, ye would rejoice [they are sorrowing because they do not understand it], because I said, I go unto the Father: for my Father is greater than I. . . Hereafter I will not talk much with you: for the prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me."  (John 14:25, 28, 30, italics mine).

How are we to avoid seeing the whole atonement in the other world when we read, "Father, concerning what thou hast given me, what I want is that wherever I am they too might be with me that they might behold my glory which thou gavest me, because thou hast loved me before the foundation of the world."  (John 17:24). They are going back to that premortal glory.  "And I have made known to them thy name, and I shall make known that the love with which thou hast loved me may be in them as I also in them."  (John 17:26).

There are more than a dozen enlightening discourses on the atonement in The Book of Mormon, but the word atonement occurs only once in the New Testament.  (For example, see 2 Nephi 2; 9; Jacob 4; Mosiah 3-4; 12-16; Alma 5; 7:11-13; 34; 42; 3 Nephi 11:9-17; Ether 12; Moroni 7).  

Perhaps the most eloquent is also the shortest:  "I soon go to the place of my rest, which is with my Redeemer; for I know that in him I shall rest.  And I rejoice in the day when my mortal shall put on immortality; and shall stand before him; then shall I see his face with pleasure, and he will say unto me: Come unto me, ye blessed, there is a place prepared for you in the mansions of my Father.  Amen."  (Enos 1:27, italics mine).  It's literal.

Here's another witness to clear up the "mystery" of "blood atonement," this one from Amulek:

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.
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.
Now there is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of another. Now, if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother? I say unto you, Nay.
But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered; therefore there can be nothing which is short of an infinite atonement which will suffice for the sins of the world.
Therefore, it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice, and then shall there be, or it is expedient there should be, a stop to the shedding of blood; then shall the law of Moses be fulfilled; yea, it shall be all fulfilled, every jot and tittle, and none shall have passed away.
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.
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.
And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety, while he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice; therefore only unto him that has faith unto repentance is brought about the great and eternal plan of redemption.  (Alma 34:9-16, italics mine).

I am well aware of all the quotations about blood atonement made by early Church leaders.  A simple Google search on the term will yield a plethora if you are not yet educated on the topic.  However, the hypotheticals posited (and that's all they are) in those early statements revolve around such a small segment of possibilities it is hardly worth discussing.  What is required to qualify as a "son of perdition" is so egregious, extreme and extraordinary that one need never spend a fleeting moment considering the possibility.  (See TPJS, 358).  It's a discussion as pointless and ridiculous as estimating the number of angels that could perch on the head of a pin.

The statement cited at the top of this post summarizes the correct view of "blood atonement" as enunciated by today's living prophets. 

Let not your hearts be troubled about anything else.  Once understood, the true doctrines of salvation as taught in today's Church harmonize perfectly.

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