This past Sunday, we covered chapter 6 of the Howard W. Hunter manual titled “The Atonement and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.” The lesson quotes President Hunter as saying that the Atonement “was an act of love by our Heavenly Father to permit his Only Begotten to make an atoning sacrifice. And it was a supreme act of love by his beloved Son to carry out the Atonement.” We lingered on this section for a while, which prompted me to comment. I recalled how I had been asked before, “What does the Atonement mean to you personally?” (Or something along those lines.) This is obviously a deep and rather broad question, but for me, the Atonement sends at least one major message: I’m worth something. I rest this largely on the evangelical favorite John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” In an ancient world full of mischievous, flawed, and often indifferent gods, the idea of deity sacrificing on behalf of mortals (not the other way around) could be seen as somewhat jarring. As New Testament scholar Craig Keener explains,
Although John’s portrait of divine love expressed self-sacrificially is a distinctly Christian concept, it would not have been completely unintelligible to his non-Christian contemporaries. Traditional Platonism associated love with desire, hence would not associate it with deity. Most Greek religion was based more on barter and obligation than on a personal concern of deities for human welfare. Homer’s epic tradition had long provided a picture of mortals specially loved by various deities, but these were particular mortals and not humanity as a whole or all individual suppliants to the deity. Further, deities in the Iliad have favorite mortals, debating back and forth who should be allowed to kill whom. But they do not knowingly, willingly sacrifice themselves (though some like Ares and Artemis are wounded against their will); Hera and others back down when threatened by Zeus, and even limit their battles with one another on account of mortals (cf. Il. 21.377–380). Achilles complains that the deities have destined sorrow for mortals yet have no sorrow of their own (Il. 24.525–526). By this period, however, popular Hellenistic religion was shifting away from traditional cults toward personal experience, bringing more to the fore a deity’s patronal concern for his or her clients. Thus a few deities, especially the motherly Demeter and Isis, are portrayed as loving deities. Jewish tradition often stresses God’s abundant, special love toward the righteous or Israel…John, however, emphasizes not only God’s special love for the chosen community (e.g., 17:23), but for the world (cf. 1 John 2:2; 1 Tim 2:4; 2 Pet 3:9)…[I]n Johannine theology God’s love for the “world” represents his love for all humanity…[T]hat God gave his Son for the world indicates the value he placed on the world.
The idea that a Being of immense power, knowledge, and perfection thinks I’m worth sacrificing for is staggering. Me. Me in all my non-glory. Me with all my idiosyncratic quirks and faults, from the slightly irritating to the anti-social and hurtful. Me with my contradictory coupling of quick judgments of others and constant seeking of their approval. Me with my ever-present anxiety of not being enough. A god thinks seemingly worthless me is in fact worth something.
According to Eastern Orthodox philosopher David B. Hart, the salvation in and through Christ made every human personality “capable of exceeding even its own nature in order to embrace another, ever more glorious nature. This immense dignity–this infinite capacity–inheres in every person, no matter what circumstances might for now seem to limit him or her to one destiny or another. No previous Western vision of the human being remotely resembles this one, and no other so fruitfully succeeded in embracing at once the entire range of finite human nature, in all the intricacy of its inner and outer dimensions, while simultaneously affirming the transcendent possibility and strange grandeur present within each person.” Christianity “provided an unimaginably exalted picture of the human person–made in the divine image and destined to partake of the divine nature…In short, the rise of Christianity produced consequences so immense that it can almost be said to have begun the world anew: to have “invented” the human, to have bequeathed us our most basic concept of nature, to have determined our vision of the cosmos and our place in it, and to have shaped all of us…in the deepest reaches of consciousness.” That people are “not only something of worth but indeed something potentially godlike, to be cherished and adored, is the rarest and most ennoblingly unrealistic capacity ever bred within human souls.”
Such a change in human dignity can be seen in the Gospels’ description of Peter, a Galilean peasant, weeping over Jesus, which would “have seemed an aesthetic mistake” to its audience and more at home in the “comic literature” of the day (such as “the self-pitying expostulations of a witless peon”). Thus, the inclusion was “not merely a violation of good taste,” but “an act of rebellion.” The ancients would have been scandalized by “the bizarre prodigality with which the early Christians were willing to grant fully humanity to persons of every class and condition, and of either sex.” In the case of Jesus himself, God “entirely reverses [the] judgment” of “his alleged earthly representatives…and in fact vindicates and restores to life the very man they have “justly” condemned in the interest of public tranquility. This is an astonishing realignment of every perspective, an epochal reversal of all values, a rebellion against reality.”
It is not merely a future peace or salvation that is being taught when one preaches Jesus: it is an identity; a recognition that “the worth of souls is great in the sight of God” (D&C 18:10). While this take on the Atonement may seem a bit too individualistic and even overly therapeutic (cue “so you’re saying the Atonement is about self-esteem?”), it is important to point out that the individual brain is the social brain and therapy largely works because it nurtures our need for connection, understanding, and belonging.
And it is difficult to find something that nurtures my need for connection, understanding, and belonging quite like the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it. – Joseph Smith 
1. Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 568-569.
2. Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 211.
3. Ibid., 213.
4. Ibid., 214.
5. Ibid., 167.
6. Ibid., 169.
7. Ibid., 173-174.
8. Elders’ Journal, July 1838, pg. 44.