By Eric Johnson
Mormonism’s definition of the atonement is unique when compared to what has been historically taught in biblical Christianity.
For Mormons, the symbol of the cross is a negative symbol because it is taught that the atonement took place in the Garden of Gethsemane. Tenth President Joseph Fielding Smith explained,
GREATEST SUFFERING WAS IN GETHSEMANE. We speak of the passion of Jesus Christ. A great many people have an idea that when he was on the cross, and nails were driven into his hands and feet, that was his great suffering. His great suffering was before he ever was placed upon the cross. It was in the Garden of Gethsemane that the blood oozed from the pores of his body: “Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit-and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink.” That was not when he was on the cross; that was in the garden. That is where he bled from every pore in his body (Doctrines of Salvation 1:130)
BYU professor Robert J. Matthews wrote, “It was in Gethsemane, on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, that Jesus made his perfect atonement by the shedding of his blood more so than on the cross” (A Bible! A Bible! p. 282). Explaining that Latter-day Saints don’t wear crosses around their necks or decorate their buildings with this symbol, 15th President Gordon B. Hinckley stated, “But for us, the cross is the symbol of the dying Christ, while our message is a declaration of a Living Christ” (Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Symbol of Our Faith,” Ensign, April 2005, p. 3).
The Effects of the Atonement
Mormon leaders have been very clear to differentiate between the two results of the atonement. For one, all humans–because of their past obedience in the Preexistence–will be resurrected to one of three kingdoms of glory. A church manual explains,
Through the Atonement, Jesus Christ redeems all people from the effects of the Fall. All people who have ever lived on the earth and who ever will live on the earth will be resurrected and brought back into the presence of God to be judged (see 2 Nephi 2:5–10; Helaman 14:15–17). Through the Savior’s gift of mercy and redeeming grace, we will all receive the gift of immortality and live forever in glorified, resurrected bodies (True to the Faith: A Gospel Reference, 2004, p. 18).
At the same time, the atonement is not able to cleanse sins for those who are not qualified through their righteous lives. While saying that “the gift of immortality is unconditional,” Seventeenth President Russell M. Nelson wrote, “The greater gift of eternal life, however, is conditional. In order to qualify, one must deny oneself of ungodliness and honor the ordinances and covenants of the temple” (“Divine Love,” Ensign, February 2003, p. 24). Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland distinguished between the two results:
That Atonement would achieve complete victory over physical death, unconditionally granting resurrection to every person who has been born or ever will be born into this world. Mercifully it would also provide forgiveness for the personal sins of all, from Adam to the end of the world, conditioned upon repentance and obedience to divine commandments (“Where Justice, Love, and Mercy Meet,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2015, p. 106).
The demands of justice for broken law can be satisfied through mercy, earned by your continual repentance and obedience to the laws of God. Such repentance and obedience are absolutely essential for the Atonement to work its complete miracle in your life (Richard G. Scott, “The Atonement Can Secure Your Peace and Happiness,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 2006, p. 42).
Still, no matter how hard the Mormon can work, there is never assurance that eternal life has been granted. Henry B. Eyring, a member of the First Presidency, told a general conference audience, “It is hard to know when we have done enough for the Atonement to change our natures and so qualify us for eternal life” (Henry B. Eyring, “This Day,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2007, p. 90).
What Does Christianity Teach
Christianity teaches that expiation, not perspiration (i.e. sweating blood), that is required for a sacrifice to be valid. In other words, all Old Testament sacrificial victims (bulls and rams) were killed and only then was their blood considered efficacious. Hebrews 9:15-18 says,
For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant. In the case of a will, it is necessary to prove the death of the one who made it, because a will is in force only when somebody has died; it never takes effect while the one who made it is living. This is why even the first covenant was not put into effect without blood.
Verse 22 says there can be no forgiveness without the shedding of blood As Hebrews 10:10 puts it, “And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
To understand that there are two parts to atonement (i.e., 1) universal resurrection provided to all humans; 2) celestial kingdom provided to the obedient)–as LDS leaders have taught–is something that must be read into the biblical text. The Bible states in 2 Corinthians 5:21 that “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The power of the atonement is not bestowed on all humans, but is only provided to believers through faith. The apostle Paul said in Romans 3:28, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” As Paul told the Philippian jailer in Acts 16:31, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Once a person has received the atonement through faith, there is no taking this away (1 John 5:13). Therefore, Christians would reject the definition of atonement given in Mormonism.