Reviewed by Aaron Shafovaloff
According to BYU professor Andrew Skinner, the centerpiece of Heavenly Father’s plan was a
“singular moment in a specific time and place on this earth in a garden called Gethsemane… The events that occurred in Gethsemane were part of the atonement of Jesus Christ—not preparatory to it, nor secondary to it, but at the very heart of it… All that the Atonement was and is, all that it put into effect or operation, all that it set in motion, all that it touches in the vastness of space for time and eternity centers on a moment in this earth’s temporal history at the spot called Gethsemane… Gethsemane was the ultimate torture, the darkest hour, the starkest terror… the bitterest anguish, the greatest contradiction, the gravest injustice, the bitterest of cups to drink” (ch. 1).
This comes from his book, Gethsemane, published in 2002, part of a trilogy of books which includes Golgotha and The Garden Tomb. He argues for the centrality and infinite value of the sacrifice of Jesus in Gethsemane.
Skinner claims that Jesus prepared for the atonement not in the garden, but at Passover: “the Savior’s own preparation for Gethsemane culminated in the ‘cup after supper,’ the sacrament, which involved the ordinance of the washing of the feet” (ch. 2). After this, Jesus “shed his blood for us twice: in the garden and on the cross” (ch. 4). But the suffering of Jesus in the former is by no means seen as equivalent to the suffering of Jesus on the latter, for “the Savior’s greatest suffering was in Gethsemane” (ch. 1). Skinner piles on the weight of the atonement to reinforce its infinite physical and emotional intensity. “The spiritual and physical feelings brought about by these transgressions, as well as the full effects of all sins and violent acts ever committed, were literally placed upon the Savior and suffered by him” (ch. 3). Our particular world is allegedly special among others, since it is here that Jesus has suffered for all other worlds which are under the dominion of our Heavenly Father: “In Gethsemane Jesus took upon himself… all the suffering, sorrows, and sins of every being who will ever live on any of the millions and millions of earths in the vast universe which he helped to create under the direction of our Father in Heaven” (ch. 3).
According to Skinner, the only way Jesus was able to withstand such infinite intensity of physical and emotional pain was by directly inheriting a special power in his body, “genetically passed on to him by his Father in Heaven” (ch. 1). This made him “a different kind of being from any of us” (ch. 5). The suffering “was an experience that only a God could withstand and not succumb to death” (ch. 3).
“the Savior consistently and repeatedly in scripture referred to the events in Gethsemane as ‘the bitter cup.’ The events of Gethsemane are a focal point of Latter-day Saint scripture, which testifies of its profundity.” (ch. 1).
This grossly overstates the evidence. The only passages which might support his case are Mosiah 3:7 and D&C 19:18-19, but even these passages can be read another way, and indeed were read another way by early Mormon leaders. Furthermore, all four gospels point to the cross as the focal point of the atonement event, and the New Testament epistles consistently point back to the cross (1 Corinthians 1:17-18; Galatians 6:14; Ephesians 2:16; Colossians 1:20; 2:14).
But Skinner is insistent: “Gethsemane was the bitterest anguish… the bitterest of cups to drink” (ch. 1); “ ‘bitter cup,’ as he himself called his experience in Gethsemane” (ch. 2); “He finished praying for the third time that his Father would remove the bitter cup, but coming to know with absolute certainty that his Father’s will was otherwise, he drank the cup he was given and then returned to his apostles, who were sound asleep…” (ch. 5); “By consuming the bitter cup in Gethsemane, Jesus shrank into a state of misery and torment” (ch. 7).
By so plainly identifying the bitter cup as the suffering Jesus experienced in the garden and by simply stating that Jesus drank this cup in the garden, Skinner sets himself up for a hard fall. John 18:11 is perhaps the most devastating passage to his entire book. After the experience of Jesus in Gethsemane, a group came to arrest Jesus. Peter drew his sword and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. Jesus rebuked Peter, saying, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” In the context of the Gospel of John, this shows that Jesus considered the “cup” as something still to come. In fact, the Gospel of John breezes over the story of Gethsemane, mentioning his entrance in 18:1, but then immediately speaking of Judas and his procurement of soldiers and officers in the next verses. That John fails to even mention the alleged sacrificial suffering of Jesus in Gethsemane makes for an awkward silence, particularly since the event is supposed to be the focal point of all salvation history. John repeatedly refers to the sacrificial “lifting up” of Jesus to come (3:14; 8:28; 12:32), even as his very hour of glorification (12:23). The cross-oriented passion narrative in the book spans multiple chapters.
But Skinner isn’t persuaded by such evidence. He deflects the simplicity of John 18:11: “Jesus rebuked them by reminding them that the bitter cup had not yet been completely consumed” (ch. 5). Given that he has attributed infinite physical and emotional suffering to Jesus in Gethsemane (not at all attributing this kind of intensity to the cross), this essentially reduces the cross to the last few finite (albeit essential) drops of suffering left in an infinitely large cup.
Andrew Skinner fails to see the infinite value of the atonement at the cross, and thus goes looking for it in Gethsemane. He fails to see the sufficiency of Jesus shedding his blood once, so he teaches of a savior who shed his blood twice. For Christians, the infinite value of the atonement, which provides a basis for free forgiveness of sins and eternal life, is in the infinite value of the person who was shamed, flogged, and put to death. While in one sense the whole obedient life of Jesus is a part of the atonement, the definitive, focal point of it all is the cross. “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13-14).
What struck me afresh while reading Skinner’s book was the importance of viewing religions like Mormonism as worldviews with interconnected teachings. The popular Mormon view of the atonement relates to many other issues, issues that relate to core doctrines of historic Christianity. The belief that Jesus inherited the Father’s nature in his mortal body violates the traditional Christian doctrine of the two natures of Christ, one 100% human, the other 100% divine. It mixes the two, and denies the important Creator/creature distinction. This relates also to the issue of the virgin birth, which Mormonism essentially denies by positing that God the Father literally, physically contributed his own humanoid DNA. This consequently changes the view of the “incarnation” from God becoming a man, to a pre-mortal spirit child of a God taking on the body of a demigod. This further necessitates a redefinition of the “condescension” into Christ cumulatively experiencing something no human can: infinite physical and emotional suffering. And all this redefines the historic Christian view of the unique “sonship” of Jesus into a matter of genetics and divine sperm contribution. It twists the authentic human suffering servant into a suffering superman, which in turn affects ones view of what it means for Jesus to be a sympathetic high priest. Skinner’s view of Gethsemane as the focal point of the atonement is borne not merely out of statements made by Mormon leaders, but a whole web of Mormon theology.
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