In church meetings I have at times heard people cast about for analogies to further explain the atonement. Ironically, the one analogy I have never heard someone use in a Sunday school or quorum meeting to explain the atonement is Lehi’s dream, or one of the other scriptural variants of it. This is ironic because when people ask for an analogy for the atonement, they are not looking for an analogy for the agony Christ suffered performing the atonement. They are looking for an analogy explaining how the atonement actually provides redemption to fallen man. They want to understand how it actually helps them. They want to make sure they are taking advantage of it and realizing all its blessings. That is precisely the sort of question revelations such as Lehi’s dream are meant to answer. So when people are grasping about for an analogy to understand the atonement it seems the Lord’s own revealed parables of the atonement should first be carefully scrutinized for all that they teach about the atonement. No one understands it better than Him.
Lehi’s dream makes clear some of the great and less commonly understood aspects of the atonement. While there is a gate made up of repentance and baptism (2nd Nephi 31), the gate is not the end. There is more to be done as one must tread the path the gate puts one’s feet on. Lehi’s dream cleanly disposes of the idea that one can be saved in ones sins. Rather the atonement saves us from our sins, by providing us with a path which we progress along by conquering our sins through the atonement of Christ. Clearly it is a path, rather than just a doorway, or a gate that is provided because in order to return to the tree of life found in the garden of Eden, we will need to be changed so that the fruit is no longer a great danger to us, as it would have been to Adam and Even if they had immediately partaken of it after the fall. Thus we must seek to rid ourselves of all our sins. What a better proposition this is than all the worldly doctrines which all amount to some variant of the idea that Christ saves us in our sins, rather than from them.
In fact, a correct idea that Christ will save us from our sins rather than in them is implicit in the whole idea of a path as a proper explanation of the atonement as one see’s in Lehi’s dream. If the atonement is only a gate, with no subsequent path, maybe we would feel we can be saved in our sins, because we know that we all still sin in small ways from day to day even after entering the gate. By way of contrast, using a path shows us that while we still have sins, we must press forward along a path in order to progress. And we cannot push forward without repenting and divesting ourselves of our sins. Other aspects of the dream further enforce this idea. One example is that the mists of darkness are temptations which divert us from the path. Also the fact that we can only stay on the path by holding firmly onto the word of God also emphasizes the idea that we not saved in our sins, but from them. All combine together to show that the atonement doesn’t save us in our sins, rather, it pays the price and offers a path that allows us to be saved from them, and we are saved from them by overcoming them so that we no longer commit them. We know ourselves and so we know overcoming our sins is going to take some serious time, hence it is a path, not just an entryway.
It is also not a short path. We know that in part just because we know ourselves. It’s going to take us a good while before we can stand like Adam and Eve did before the fall and partake of the tree of life. The scriptures teach this. After the fall, Adam is given commandments, and was obedient to the commandments of the Lord, but it was only after “many days” of that obedience that Adam appears to reap the fruits of that obedience.
Joseph Smith also warned the early saints that the given route wasn’t short.
Brother Joseph Smith, Jr. said: That he intended to do his duty before the Lord and hoped that the brethren would be patient as they had a considerable distance (to go). (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith - Section One 1830-34, p.9)
A few interesting points can be made on the basis that Lehi’s vision of redemption is a route to the same tree that stands in Eden. It suggests that redemption is to overcome the effects of the fall. And since it is the same tree it was before. It is presumably still in the garden of Eden. That would mean it is a place where the Lord can come and go freely. At the Tree of Life, like in the Garden of Eden, man can commune with God, as we are redeemed from the fall.
Ether 3:13 And when he had said these words, behold, the Lord showed himself unto him, and said: Because thou knowest these things ye are redeemed from the fall; therefore ye are brought back into my presence; therefore I show myself unto you.
Thus we find the Brother of Jared back in the garden of Eden as it were. He passes through the veil, and the Lord comes to him and teaches him.
Once again, if it is the atonement that provides redemption from the fall, then a parable or vision about how one is returned to the tree of life is, in fact, a parable about the atonement. It may not include Christ’s sufferings and death. Instead it focuses on the practicalities of how we actually partake of the gifts the atonement opens up to us. We will look at other such accounts after making some brief observations about the role of covenants and ordinances in partaking of the gifts of the atonement.