As a missionary, explaining to investigators how the Atonement worked (the three that I taught in two years) was deceptively easy. Following the discussions of the Atonement found in the Book of Mormon, we would explain that the Atonement is the means of overcoming two deaths: physical death and spiritual death.
Physical death is a separation of the spirit and the body, and through the resurrection, Christ brings those two together again, never to be divided. Spiritual death is our separation from God, which Christ overcame through His suffering, bringing us together again, never to be divided (as long as we accept His sacrifice).
The concepts of physical and spiritual death, and how the Atonement defeats both of them, are scripturally and doctrinally sound. The reality of these aspects of the Atonement sits at the heart of what we believe as Latter-day Saints.
But I believe that the conversation shouldn’t end there when we discuss the saving power of the Atonement. There is a third death from which Christ redeems us.
The third death is despair. It may be defined as the separation of our hearts from hope.
I have known something of this third death. Despair has a destructive capacity unlike anything else I have experienced. It consumes us from the inside and so poisons our minds that we actually seek our own destruction. I have attended more funerals for suicides than I thought I ever would. (I anticipated something like “zero.”) I have talked with one of despair’s victims in the very moment he considered taking his own life. I desperately invoked the power of hope, endeavoring with no small degree of panic to inject some dim light into the darkness.
We learn in the seventh chapter of Alma that one of the principle reasons that the Plan of Salvation required Jehovah to descend to mortality as Jesus was to experience the sufferings that all of us feel as part of our own mortal sojourns. Alma explained that the Spirit “knoweth all things,” meaning that the Spirit can observe, understand, and sympathize with our plight, but Christ actually experienced all things “according to the flesh,” meaning that He knows perfectly our trials and therefore can perfectly empathize and perfectly succor us.
“Succor” is a fancy Latin-type word that means “the lifesaver thrown to someone drowning in despair.” The Savior demonstrated repeatedly during His ministry that He has power over the storms in our lives. Calming the tempest and walking on troubled waters are impressive miracles, but their utility is limited. The real miracle is His ability to calm the tortured tempests of our souls, and to teach us to walk calmly when all around us is madness.
The scriptures are replete with references to the Savior’s ability to overcome the third death. The first two words announcing the coming of the Christ child, as spoken to the shepherds, were “Fear not.” Christ was seen in vision by Isaiah as the Prince of Peace. He promised peace and comfort to his followers. He said that the the Holy Ghost would come as a Comforter, and that He, Christ, would be another Comforter. Paul referred to our Father in Heaven as the God of all Comfort.
Enduring mortality well requires striving, and our adversary understands that. He knows that if he can get us to give up, then he wins. Thus he spreads the gospel of despair. He exploits every addiction, every heartache, every personal disappointment. He seeks to drive wedges into every crack in our dreams and aspirations, hammering at them relentlessly until he has created a chasm between us and the hope promised through the Atonement.
As with the other two deaths, we cannot overcome the third without the intervention of Christ’s grace. Fortunately, the promise of such grace is undimmed. Every time Satan whispers in one ear, “You can’t,” the Savior whispers in the other, “But WE can.” When we are taunted with “You aren’t good enough,” our Elder Brother answers, “With my help, you are.” To the nefarious threat of “There is no way out of the darkness,” the Redeemer responds, “I am the Way. I am the Light.”
Our Heavenly Father’s plan is a Plan of Happiness. It is the means by which we defeat death, sin, and ultimately find hope in despair. It is the blueprint for joy here and now. As we invite Christ to take a more prominent place in our lives, His very presence drives out despair. We are redeemed from fear and hopelessness. We are restored to the companionship of hope, and as with the other two aspects of the Atonement, that reconciliation can be forever.