O how great the goodness of our God, who prepareth a way for our escape from the grasp of this awful monster; yea, that monster, death and hell.
In this lesson, we consider one of the greatest discourses ever given on the subject of the Atonement of Christ. The speaker is Jacob, Nephi’s younger brother, who at Nephi’s invitation interprets certain passages of Isaiah that speak of Christ.
The purpose of Jacob’s discourse is to help us understand what the Savior has done for us, to “bring us to a knowledge of the Redeemer.” Jacob introduces to us the concept of the “infinite atonement”—the central concept of the Gospel and the keystone of the great plan of God.
The phrase “infinite atonement” does not occur in the Bible; therefore, this concept is unique to the teaching of the Book of Mormon. The book of Job in the Bible does teach, however, that man’s iniquities are infinite. In this passage, the word “infinite” is a translation of a Hebrew phrase meaning something like “without limits.”
The word “infinite” also appears in the Psalms in describing the understanding of God, and with much the same meaning: “immeasurable, without borders, unlimited, innumerable.”
Therefore, when Jacob speaks of an infinite atonement, he probably means that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ has limitless, immeasurable scope. The Atonement is absolutely unlimited in its effectiveness for those who are righteous.
Elder Spencer J. Condie explains:
The Book of Mormon teaches us of an infinite atonement, an atoning sacrifice by Christ that is unbounded by time, ethnicity, geography, or even kinds of sins, save for the unpardonable sin of denying the Holy Ghost. The Resurrection includes all people “from the days of Adam down” to the end of time, those “both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female.”
The Atonement is also infinite in the sense that the Savior not only overcame death and sin, but he also took upon himself “the pains and the sicknesses” and the “infirmities” of his people (Alma 7:11–12). The Atonement is infinite, too, in that because of the redemption made possible by his beloved Son, our Heavenly Father is able to forgive us “as often as [we] repent” (Mosiah 26:30–31; see also Moro. 6:8).
With his phrase “infinite atonement,” the prophet Jacob thus emphasizes the universal nature of the Atonement: with the exception of deniers of the Holy Ghost, it applies to everyone, everywhere, regardless of what they have done.
Escape from Death of Body and Spirit
To begin with, the Atonement provides “escape 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.” Without the Atonement, there would be no escape from the grave. “This flesh must have laid down to rot and to crumble to its mother earth, to rise no more.”
Physical death, which is infinite in its scope — “death hath passed upon all” — can only be reversed by an Atonement which is likewise infinite in scope.
The Atonement also provides a way to escape from “the death of the spirit,” which Jacob describes in wintry terms:
If the flesh should rise no more our spirits must become subject to that angel who fell from before the presence of the Eternal God, and became the devil, to rise no more. And our spirits must have become like unto him, and we become devils, angels to a devil, to be shut out from the presence of our God, and to remain with the father of lies, in misery, like unto himself.
The infinite Atonement provides much more than escape: it also provides for infinite restoration. “The grave must deliver up its captive bodies, and the bodies and the spirits of men will be restored one to the other ... and all men become incorruptible, and immortal.” Elsewhere in the Book of Mormon, the prophet Alma explains what this infinite restoration consists of: “The soul shall be restored to the body, and the body to the soul; yea, and every limb and joint shall be restored to its body; yea; even a hair of the head shall not be lost; but all things shall be restored to their proper and perfect frame.”
Restoration to a Perfect Knowledge
Along with this restoration to a perfect and incorruptible body, we will also be restored to a “perfect knowledge.” If we have been wicked, we will be restored to a “perfect knowledge of all our guilt, and our uncleanness, and our nakedness.” Those who have been righteous will be restored to a “perfect knowledge of their enjoyment, and their righteousness, being clothed with purity, yea even with the robe of righteousness.”
Obviously, to have a perfect recollection of every sin, every thoughtless remark, every hurtful action we have ever done would be excruciating. The problem with sin is its infinite effects. Some scientists theorize that the flapping of a butterfly’s wing in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas: they call this phenomenon “sensitivity to initial conditions.”
Our sins have the same effect. A harsh word to a child can echo in that child’s heart for a lifetime. A home-teaching visit omitted can lead a lonely soul to believe no one cares. A simple lie can lead to unending deception and pain.
Forty years ago when I was a Boy Scout, I watched a Church leader scold quite harshly one of the other Scouts for some thoughtless but minor thing he had done. His feelings hurt, that young boy ran from the meeting and swore he would never come back. Today that boy is a man who has been out of the Church for decades. The mission he never served, the family he never had, the good he never did — who is responsible for the virtually infinite consequences of those few cruel words so long ago?
I don’t absolve the boy of his responsibility for his situation; still, this action of a thoughtless Church leader has haunted me for a long time and helped me understand that a single sinful act can echo through eternity.