The figure above shows what Nathan Richardson calls the “location view” of the Plan of Salvation—or, as Alma calls it, the “great plan of happiness.” There is nothing factually wrong with the figure. It is a clear and easy to understand diagram of where we have been and where we are going. However, as Richardson observes, something essential is missing: there is no mention anywhere of Jesus Christ and His role as Savior and Redeemer.This is a way of thinking about the Plan that, regrettably, leaves out its very heart.
It was Elder Bruce R. McConkie who brought attention to the fact that there is a different, Christ-centered way of presenting this Plan that appears several places in scripture. It emphasizes what he called the “three pillars” of the Creation, the Fall, and the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
The Atonement of Jesus Christ is the basis for every essential element of our religion. Indeed, we might say that our religion is nothing more nor less than an application of the results of this Atonement to the lives of individuals and families. The Atonement is the means by which we are saved and exalted, and without it our Church would be nothing more than a social club. The Prophet Joseph Smith said it this way:
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.
And behold, this is the whole meaning of the law, every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice [of] the Son of God
As one would expect, the Atonement is also central to temple worship. However, sometimes people have a tendency to approach learning about the temple in a piecemeal fashion. For example, they focus their primary attention on understanding the meaning of specific symbols used in scripture and temple worship. While there is much that can be learned from this kind of study, most of us not only struggle with the meaning of individual concepts and symbols, but also—and perhaps more crucially—in understanding how these concepts and symbols fit together as a whole system. The symbols and concepts of the temple are best understood, not in isolation, but within the full context of the Plan of Happiness to which they belong.
G. K. Chesterton has compared our position as mortals struggling to apprehend the divine to that of a “sailor who awakens from a deep sleep and discovers treasure strewn about, relics from a civilization he can barely remember. One by one he picks up the relics—gold coins, a compass, fine clothing—and tries to discern their meaning.” Gradually, glimmers of recognition begin to emerge. However, the re-discovery of the significance of each item comes not so much through careful scrutiny of its outward features as it does through specific recollections of its former place as a natural part of the distant world where he once lived. The point of the illustration is that the answers to our most important questions about God cannot be found merely through piecemeal examination of the relics of religion. Specifically, we profit from careful scrutiny of individual religious symbols in proportion to our possession of knowledge about the overall order from which they derive their significance. To the degree we lack such knowledge, we may be easily led down blind alleys or, perhaps worse, we may be distracted by glittering details while failing to ascertain the “weightier matters” of God’s instruction. In short, the greatest benefits from temple worship will come, not to those who begin their learning by trying to comprehend the particulars of the ordinances, but rather to those who are prepared with an understanding of the Gospel as a whole—especially the all-embracing doctrines of the Creation, the Fall, and the Atonement.
The temple ordinances are designed to correct alternative methods of gospel teaching by showing us how the Atonement of Jesus Christ fits in the context of the Creation and the Fall. In the temple, we learn of the purpose of Creation and how Jesus Christ Himself was the one to carry out the Creation on behalf of the Father. We learn why the Fall was not a colossal mistake, as some have misunderstood, but rather was an essential part of the Father’s plan. Finally, by learning the Gospel and applying the Atonement of Jesus Christ in our individual lives, each participant in temple ordinances traces the footsteps of Adam and Eve in reverse direction of the Fall—from the telestial world back into the presence of the Father. Jesus Christ, in profound brevity, summarized His own mission in similar fashion, showing us the two-part path that we ourselves are to follow:
I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world: again, I leave the world, and go to the Father.
Firmly orienting our focus on the great purpose of the temple as the outfitter for our return journey, and poignantly underscoring the need for a more widespread appreciation of our supernal privileges in this regard, President David O. McKay said:
Brothers and sisters, I believe there are few, even temple workers, who comprehend the full meaning and power of the temple endowment. Seen for what it is, it is the step-by-step ascent into the Eternal Presence. If our young people could but glimpse it, it would be the most powerful spiritual motivation of their lives.
Links to all of the articles in this series-
Part 2 “A Christ-Centered View”
Part 5 “What is the Endowment?”
Part 7 “The Meaning of the Atonement”
Part 13: “Weary Him Until He Blesses You”