The Three Pillars of Eternity

Blog post by Nathan Richardson on December 16, 2010
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Nathan Richardson

How would you summarize the plan of salvation as concisely as possible? How did ancient prophets do it?

There are several ways of explaining the gospel, of introducing the basic teachings of the restored Church. For example, the old discussions used by the missionaries consisted of six free-standing lessons that, while they built on each other, were designed so that any of the six lessons could be used as a a first discussion. They’re actually a pretty impressive feat of organization and distillation once you look closely at them.

The first discussion took an epistemological approach, focusing on how God reveals truth (through prophets, scriptures, and the Holy Ghost). The second discussion took a problem-solution approach, explaining physical and spiritual death and how the atonement overcomes them. The third discussion took a historical approach, narrating the establishment of Christ’s Church anciently, the apostasy, and the Restoration through Joseph Smith. The fourth discussion took a sequential approach, beginning with the premortal life and moving through earth life, the spirit world, and the degrees of glory. The fifth discussion took a pragmatic approach, focusing on the covenants and commandments one needed to keep in order to return to God’s presence.

Any of these approaches can work very well as a starting point to the basic gospel message. They have their basis in scripture and are used by prophets in various settings depending on the needs of the audience. I want to focus on one particular approach that I believe is key to fully understanding the plan of salvation and appreciating the Lord’s atonement.

The Three Pillars

Bruce R. McConkie used the phrase “three pillars of eternity” in several of his writings to refer to the most crucial elements of the plan of salvation:

The three greatest events that ever have occurred or ever will occur in all eternity are these:

  1. The creationof the heavens and the earth, of man, and of all forms of life;
  2. The fallof man, of all forms of life, and of the earth itself from their … paradisiacal state to their present mortal state; and
  3. The … atonement, which ransoms man, all living things, and the earth also from their fallen state. …

These three divine events—the three pillars of eternity—are inseparably woven together into … [the] plan of salvation.1

Elder McConkie then goes on to explain how these three events are related and why they are intrinsic to the plan of salvation:

We view the atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ as the center … of revealed religion. It brings to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. …

But had there been no fall, there could have been no atonement. The fall of Adam brought temporal and spiritual death into the world, and it is from these deaths that man and all forms of life are ransomed through the atonement. … Adam brought mortality; Christ brought immortality. …

But if the earth and man and all living things had not been created in their … paradisiacal state, in a state of deathlessness, there could have been no fall.

The fall, with its resultant probationary estate, is the child of the original and primeval creation, and the atonement is the child of the fall. … Salvation comes because of the creation, the fall, and the atonement; these three are each part of one divine plan.1

Thus, Elder McConkie suggests a starting place from which to form a model of the plan of salvation.

Creation, Fall, Atonement

Usage in the Scriptures

Once Elder McConkie drew this model to my attention, I began to find it all over the place in the scriptures. For example, when Ammon begins to teach King Lamoni the gospel, what does he start with?

When Ammon had said these words, he began at the creation of the world, and also the creation of Adam, and told him all the things concerning the fall of man. … But this is not all; for he expounded unto them the plan of redemption, which was prepared from the foundation of the world. (Alma 18:36, 39)

Later when Ammon’s brother Aaron is teaching Lamoni’s father, he uses the same outline (kind of makes you wonder if the brothers had collaborated in Middoni):

Aaron did expound unto him the scriptures from the creation of Adam, laying the fall of man before him, and their carnal state and also the plan of redemption, which was prepared from the foundation of the world, through Christ, for all whosoever would believe on his name. (Alma 22:13)

Near the end of the Book of Mormon, when Moroni is writing what he believed to be his final closing thoughts, he summarized the plan by placing the three pillars in poetic parallelisms:

Behold, he created Adam,
and by Adam
came the fall of man.
And because of the fall of man
came Jesus Christ, even the Father and the Son;
and because of Jesus Christ
came the redemption of man. (Morm. 9:12)

Even modern prophets have used this pattern. For example, it is hinted at in the first three articles of faith, which start by mentioning the Creator, the Father of heaven and earth:

  1. We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.
  2. We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.
  3. We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel. (A of F 1–3)

Likewise, on the day the Church was organized, the revelation received begins with a formulation of the plan of salvation which clearly follows this same structure:

17By these things we know that there is a God in heaven, … the framer of heaven and earth, and all things which are in them; 18And that he created man, male and female, after his own image and in his own likeness, created he them. …

20But by the transgression of these holy laws man became sensual and devilish, and became fallen man.

21Wherefore, the Almighty God gave his Only Begotten Son. … 22He suffered temptations but gave no heed unto them. 23He was crucified, died, and rose again the third day; 24And ascended into heaven, … 25That as many as would believe … should be saved. (D&C 20:17–18, 20–25)

Thus we can see that this particular approach to explaining the plan of salvation is used throughout the scriptures, which should draw our attention to its importance.

Effects or Outcomes

Pondering on this model has led me to expand it. I noticed that this tripartite pattern is implied in yet another passage, wherein the Lord explains the plan of redemption to our first parents. However, in this case he explains what each event brings:

The fall … bringeth death, and inasmuch as ye were born into the world … even so ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven. (Moses 6:59)

Thus, while we are familiar with talking about being born, dying, and needing to be “born again,” a new way of looking at these events is to think of them as aspects of or effects brought on by the Creation, the Fall, and the Atonement

Creation, Fall, Atonement

However, our conception would be incomplete if we neglected to represent the fact that the scriptures frequently speak of two types of events: physical and spiritual. Before the Lord created our physical body (physical birth), he made our spirit body (spirit birth).2 Being that we are fallen mortals, not only do we inevitably lose our bodies (physical death), we also are separated from God’s presence (spiritual death). Christ’s atonement makes it possible for us to be reunited with our immortalized bodies (physical rebirth, or [lest we sound Hindu] the more common term, resurrection) and to return to God’s presence (spiritual rebirth). Thus we arrive at the six most important events in a person’s existence:

Six events

I believe these are the six most significant steps we take in our progression to become like our Heavenly Father. If the Creation, Fall, and Atonement are the “three pillars of eternity,” then these six events are the “six capitals of eternity” or the “six stepping stones of eternity,” or some other nifty masonry metaphor. I’ll take any suggestions you have. :-)

While this way of looking at the plan may not involve any radical new doctrines, it can give us a new perspective on familiar doctrines by helping us approach them in a new way. In my next post I will explain what I mean by giving three examples.



Notes

1. Bruce R. McConkie, A New Witness for the Articles of Faith, p. 81–82.

2. I have found it useful to call this event “spirit birth” instead of “spiritual birth,” since the latter term is frequently also used in a second sense, that of being “born again” through the process of repenting, being baptized, and receiving the Holy Ghost. Since “spiritual birth” can refer to both our premortal creation or to our redemptive new creation, I’ve found it lessens the potential for confusion to pick a different term for each (“spirit birth” and “spiritual rebirth,” respectively).

5
comments so far
  1. I’ve noticed those places in our scriptures as well. Since the headings are concise summaries of this material, you’ll also find the ‘three pillars’ noted in the headings to D&C 20, Alma 22, and to a lesser extent Alma 18.

    Whenever I read Alma 18 and 22, I’m reminded of the structure of the temple endowment (both the framework of the endowment instruction, and the layout of the rooms in the older buildings as well). The temple endowment uses the creation, fall, atonement pattern in its teaching method as do the chapters in the book of Moses which parallel the same material.

    1. 2 Nephi 2:22–23. Creation of Adam and his state before the fall.
    2. 2 Nephi 2:25. Fall of Adam.
    3. 2 Nephi 2:26+. Redemption through Christ.

    (It’s actually all over the chapter, but the above is a fairly compact section that covers the three ideas.)

    These are a few I could think of off the top of my head. There are many others that deal mainly with the fall and the atonement, but do not specifically focus on the creation as much.

    The last example I’ll share is from Moses 6:54–57. It follows the ‘three pillars’ pattern as well, but it does it from the point of view of each person in mortality (the children of Adam) rather than Adam himself; it applies it to each individual, and makes it more personal.

    1. We were each created, “whole from the foundation of the world” (v. 54).
    2. As we “begin to grow up, sin conceiveth in [our] hearts” and, like Adam, we “taste the bitter” and “know good from evil” (v. 55–56). We have each experienced our own personal fall.
    3. Therefore we “must repent” in order to “inherit the kingdom of God” (v.57).

    (Verse 59 includes more about transgression, fall, and the atonement through “the blood of mine Only Begotten.”)

  2. Awesome! Thanks for passing along those examples. I have a series of PowerPoint presentations that I give on this topic. I’ll have to add your examples to them. Matthew, you keep proving again and again to be a gold mine of further research. This kind of feedback is precisely why I love publishing in a blogging environment.

  3. Elder McConkie spoke about the three pillars of eternity: Creation, Fall, and Atonement. These seem to be three essential events in the history of mankind and the earth.

    If I were to name the three pillars of eternity, I would focus on three principles: Justice, Agency, and Mercy. Maybe they could be thought of as the three foundations/fundamentals/cornerstones upon which Elder McConkie’s three pillars rest.

    I think the three foundational principals (Justice, Agency, and Mercy) correspond fairly well with Elder McConkie’s three pillars (Creation, Fall, and Atonement).

  4. I was so moved by this article. I am sharing with an inmate that is in jail.

  5. I’m glad, Cherish. If I may ask, which part of it was the most meaningful for you?

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