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Cover image: “In Remembrance of Me” by Greg Olsen.
Many Latter-day Saints assume that the main reason we need a Savior is for our personal sins, but this limited understanding may cause us to under appreciate what Jesus Christ has really done for us and the greater obstacle that he saved us from.
Several years ago, a student of mine was asked why he needed a Savior. His response was well-intended but left me deeply concerned about the understanding of all my students. He said that the reason he needed a Savior was because “I’m not perfect.” He then elaborated on Christ’s role to help him overcome his imperfections. It was as if he were saying that he was pretty close to being what he needed to be but wasn’t quite there yet and just needed Jesus Christ to come and polish him up a little bit. Such an understanding may be common among some Latter-day Saints, but it woefully understates our need for a Savior.
President Ezra Taft Benson taught, “Just as a man does not really desire food until he is hungry, so he does not desire the salvation of Christ until he knows why he needs Christ. No one adequately and properly knows why he needs Christ until he understands and accepts the doctrine of the Fall and its effect upon all mankind. And no other book in the world explains this vital doctrine nearly as well as the Book of Mormon (Ensign, May 1987).
The Fall’s Effects upon All Mankind
We need a Savior first and foremost because of the Fall of Adam and Eve. When our first parents partook of the forbidden fruit they symbolically made a choice that brought necessary but very harmful consequences upon all mankind. That is the root of our problem. Our individual sins are merely the fruits that grow from the roots of our fallen condition. As President Benson explained, it is difficult to appreciate our Savior if we do not understand the Fall that Christ saved us from. To understand this, we must turn to the Book of Mormon which always teaches the Atonement of Jesus Christ in connection with the Fall of Adam (for examples, see 1 Nephi 10:6; 2 Nephi 2:4-8; Mosiah 3:11-19; Alma 22:12-14).
The prophet Jacob, Nephi’s younger brother, explained clearly and powerfully the consequences of the Fall and how they would have eternally affected us without a Savior. He taught, “For as death hath passed upon all men, to fulfil the merciful plan of the great Creator, there must needs be a power of resurrection, and the resurrection must needs come unto man by reason of the fall; and because man became fallen they were cut off from the presence of the Lord (2 Nephi 9:6). That is, because of the universal Fall (and through no personal act of our own) we are all born to inevitably and eventually experience the death of our physical bodies and the spiritual death of being cut off from the presence of God. These eternal consequences would be devastating without a Savior.
Jacob continued to explain: “Wherefore, it must needs be an infinite atonement—save it should be an infinite atonement this corruption could not put on incorruption. Wherefore, the first judgment [meaning the Fall of Adam] which came upon man must needs have remained to an endless duration. And if so, this flesh must have laid down to rot and to crumble to its mother earth, to rise no more” (2 Nephi 9:7). Without an atonement as infinite and universal as the fall, everyone born on this earth would eventually die and their bodies would rot in the ground forever, never to be restored to their spirits. As bad as that is, the consequence to our spirit is much worse!
Jacob explained, “O the wisdom of God, his mercy and grace! For behold, 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” (2 Nephi 9:8-9). Without a Savior, eventually everyone born would die and everyone who died would be cut off from God in spirit prison. As spirits completely cut off from God and from all righteousness, we would all fall under Satan’s power and ultimately degenerate into devils. That would be the unavoidable fate of every man, woman, and child. Without Christ, there would be no spirit paradise, no resurrection, no judgment, and no degrees of glory. In short, there would be no salvation in any form without our Savior.
Sometimes in our desire to help people understand that the Fall was an essential part of God’s plan, a “fortunate fall,” we might unwittingly downplay the seriousness of its consequences and thereby undervalue Christ’s role as our Savior. Jacob does not want us to do this, so at the risk of sounding harsh and gloomy, he emphasized that without Christ we are not just “imperfect,” we would become devils—damned to suffer with Satan for all eternity. The fact that he refers to what happened to Satan as a “fall” (2 Nephi 9:8) should help us appreciate the seriousness of the “fall” of Adam and Eve and our own inherited fallen condition. Without a Savior we would all become “fallen angels” like the devil and his premortal followers of perdition. Truly, we needed a Savior to deliver us!
The Way of Deliverance
Having laid the foundation of our fate, Jacob then shared the good news. There is a “way of deliverance” and it is through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. “And because of the way of deliverance of our God, the Holy One of Israel, this death, of which I have spoken, which is the temporal, shall deliver up its dead; which death is the grave. And this death of which I have spoken, which is the spiritual death, shall deliver up its dead; which spiritual death is hell; wherefore … hell must deliver up its captive spirits, and the grave must deliver up its captive bodies, and the bodies and the spirits of men will be restored one to the other; and it is by the power of the resurrection of the Holy One of Israel” (2 Nephi 9:11-12).
By the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ we are not just saved from physical death, as we are accustomed to thinking of it, we are universally saved from spiritual death as well. That is, just as the resurrection releases all of our bodies from the grave, so the resurrection releases all of our spirits from hell in the spirit world. Having been freed from death and hell, we are thereby released from the captivity and torment of Satan and restored to the presence of God to be judged and receive a degree of glory according to our works. Thus, by the power of the resurrection alone “all [mankind] are saved from death, hell, the devil, and endless torment” (Elder Bruce R. McConkie, Ensign May 1985).
Jacob is not alone in teaching the power of the resurrection in saving us universally from the Fall. It is a consistent but often overlooked theme of the Book of Mormon. For example, the Lamanite prophet Samuel similarly taught that Christ’s “death bringeth to pass the resurrection, and redeemeth all mankind from the first death—that spiritual death; for all mankind, by the fall of Adam being cut off from the presence of the Lord, are considered as dead, both as to things temporal and to things spiritual. But behold, the resurrection of Christ redeemeth mankind, yea, even all mankind, and bringeth them back into the presence of the Lord” (Helaman 14:16-17). Clearly, the resurrection redeems all mankind from the universal spiritual and physical death brought by the Fall of Adam.
Jesus Christ himself explained in the Doctrine and Covenants that “through the [Atonement] which is made for you is brought to pass the resurrection from the dead. And the spirit and the body are the soul of man. And the resurrection from the dead is the redemption of the soul” (D&C 88:14-16). As the Lord makes clear, the resurrection does not just redeem our bodies, it saves or redeems our whole soul, body and spirit, from both death and hell! The resurrection universally saves us spiritually and physically!
I imagine one reason why this aspect of the Atonement of Christ is overlooked is because we often focus so much on individual salvation from personal sin that we can unintentionally overlook this universal salvation from the Fall. For example, I wonder how many understand that the reason that “we believe that men will be punished for their own sins and not for Adam’s transgression” (A of F 2) is not because it is simply unfair for children to be punished for the decisions of their parents. It is because “the Son of God hath atoned for original guilt, wherein the sins of the parents cannot be answered upon the heads of the children” (Moses 6:54). In other words, the reason we will not be punished eternally for Adam’s transgression is because Christ atoned for it universally and unconditionally!
The Bible Dictionary explains this, stating that through Christ’s atonement “all are covered unconditionally as pertaining to the Fall of Adam. Hence, all shall rise from the dead with immortal bodies because of Jesus’ Atonement. ‘For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive’ (1 Cor. 15:22), and all little children are innocent at birth. The Atonement is conditional, however, so far as each person’s individual sins are concerned, and touches everyone to the degree that he has faith in Jesus Christ, repents of his sins, and obeys the gospel” (Atonement, Bible Dictionary).
Because the Atonement saves us unconditionally from the Fall, we don’t have to worry about it and tend to focus instead on that salvation from our own sins which is conditional. However, this narrow focus can cause us to lose sight of the full scope of what Christ did for us and what he has saved us from. We should remember, as Jesus Christ himself taught, that the Atonement primarily redeems all “mankind from the fall, and [secondarily] from individual sins on conditions of repentance” (DC 138:19).
Conclusion and Testimony
From all of this we can discern that the main reason we need a Savior is for the Fall of Adam. That is the heart and core of our problem, and our personal sins are only appendages to it. Because of the Fall, all of us would suffer eternal physical and spiritual death and ultimately become devils if not for the Savior Jesus Christ. Understanding that helps us better appreciate the Atonement that Christ accomplished for us. We should not assume that we have less need for a Savior just because we may have fewer sins than our neighbor or that we only need Christ to perfect a few imperfections or cover up a few blemishes. We need Christ because without Christ we are damned. Our bodies would rot in the grave and our spirits would suffer eternally in hell. That is why we need a Savior! That is what Christ saves us from! And as a bonus, his Atonement also allows us to repent of our personal sins.
I close with the testimony of a modern witness of Christ who powerfully taught why we need a Savior and what he saves us from:
“In our increasingly secular society, it is as uncommon as it is unfashionable to speak of Adam and Eve or the Garden of Eden or of a ‘fortunate fall’ into mortality. Nevertheless, the simple truth is that we cannot fully comprehend the Atonement and Resurrection of Christ and we will not adequately appreciate the unique purpose of His birth or His death—in other words, there is no way to truly celebrate Christmas or Easter—without understanding that there was an actual Adam and Eve who fell from an actual Eden, with all the consequences that fall carried with it.
“I do not know the details of what happened on this planet before that, but I do know these two were created under the divine hand of God, that for a time they lived alone in a paradisiacal setting where there was neither human death nor future family, and that through a sequence of choices they transgressed a commandment of God which required that they leave their garden setting but which allowed them to have children before facing physical death (2 Nephi 2:20-23). To add further sorrow and complexity to their circumstance, their transgression had spiritual consequences as well, cutting them off from the presence of God forever. Because we were then born into that fallen world and because we too would transgress the laws of God, we also were sentenced to the same penalties that Adam and Eve faced.
“What a plight! The entire human race in free fall—every man, woman, and child in it physically tumbling toward permanent death, spiritually plunging toward eternal anguish. …
“As one of His ordained witnesses, I declare this Easter morning that Jesus of Nazareth was and is that Savior of the world, the ‘last Adam’ (1 Cor 15:45), the Author and Finisher of our faith, the Alpha and Omega of eternal life. ‘For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive’ (1 Cor. 15:22), Paul declared. And from the prophet-patriarch Lehi: ‘Adam fell that men might be. … And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall’ (2 Nephi 2:25-26). Most thoroughly of all, the Book of Mormon prophet Jacob taught as part of a two-day sermon on the Atonement of Jesus Christ that ‘the resurrection must … come … by reason of the fall.’ (2 Nephi 9:6)” (Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, Ensign May 2017).