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.