Calvary or Gethsemane? The Atonement According to Mormonism

Hear a three-part Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast series that originally aired in August 2011:  Part 1   Part 2   Part 3  

Each spring millions of Christians celebrate the death and resurrection of their Lord. In light of the fact that this is one of the most important events within the Christian tradition, it is important for us to examine and understand the spiritual significance of Christ’s sacrifice in light of the teachings of past LDS leaders.

Philippians 2:7 tells us that Christ made Himself of no reputation and took “the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men.” Hebrews 2:17 tells us this was done in order that He might make “reconciliation for the sins of the people.” Given the fact that God would come to earth to die for the sins of mankind, we are led to no other conclusion than man’s sinful condition was so serious that only God’s personal intervention would suffice. If man’s personal merit could satisfy the penalty of sin, such an act would not be necessary (Galatians 2:21). This reconciliation is known as the atonement, or the bringing together of rebellious man with his all-holy Creator.

In the Old Testament redemption was made through the ceremonial sacrifice. God made it clear that the atonement could only result from the death of an innocent substitute. This substitute would pay, with its life, the penalty of sin. Sacrifices were made in the Jerusalem temple on a daily basis for the sins of individuals. However, once a year the people of Israel celebrated the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur. On this special day the High Priest would offer sacrifice for Israel as a nation, a nation which sought reconciliation with the God whom they had sinned against.

Still, the mere act of killing an animal for one’s sins was not what God found favor in. The Bible makes it clear through numerous examples that redemption was based on an individual’s faith in what that sacrifice stood for. This faith would lead to the obvious act of repentance, thereby making the sacrifice efficacious. God had no pleasure in sacrifice without these two very important elements.

Since the wages of sin is death (both physical and spiritual), the sinner saw the sacrifice as a vicarious substitute. The animal was taking upon itself the penalty due sinful man. The animal sacrifice was a type of Christ who would one day come and voluntarily pay the price of sin through His own death. Unfortunately, as time went on, many Jews offered sacrifice out of mere protocol and not by faith. To many, the faith in what the sacrifice represented was lost to repetitious ritual and legal attitudes.

Both Christians and Mormons speak of Christ’s atonement, but the atonement means different things to both parties. Christians have looked to the cross of Calvary as the place where this grand act of reconciliation took place; Mormonism, on the other hand, has emphasized the Garden of Gethsemane.

On page fourteen of his book, “Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson,” the thirteenth president of the LDS Church stated it was in the Garden of Gethsemane that Christ “suffered as only as God would suffer, bearing our griefs, carrying our sorrows, being wounded for our transgressions, voluntarily submitting Himself to the iniquity of us all, just as Isaiah prophesied.”

He further stated on that same page: “It was in Gethsemane that Jesus took on Himself the sins of the world, in Gethsemane that His pain was equivalent to the cumulative burden of all men, in Gethsemane that He descended below all things so that all could repent and come to Him” (Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, pg.15).

In his book “The Promised Messiah,” Mormon Apostle Bruce R. McConkie wrote, “Forgiveness is available because Christ the Lord sweat great drops of blood in Gethsemane as he bore the incalculable weight of the sins of all who ever had or ever would repent” (pg. 337). On page 552 of the same book McConkie continues by saying, “In a garden called Gethsemane, outside Jerusalem’s walls, in agony beyond compare, he took upon himself the sins of all men on condition of repentance.”

On pages 127-128 of McConkie’s “The Mortal Messiah,” he wrote, “And as he came out of the Garden, delivering himself voluntarily into the hands of wicked men, the victory had been won. There remained yet the shame and the pain of his attest, his trials, and his cross. But all these were overshadowed by the agonies and sufferings in Gethsemane. It was on the cross that he ‘suffered death in the flesh,’ even as many have suffered agonizing deaths, but it was in Gethsemane that “he suffered the pain of all men, that all men might repent and come unto him.”

In light of all the importance LDS leaders leader give Gethsemane, it should be mentioned that the Bible mentions this landmark only twice. To conclude that the atonement took place there is to certainly read something into these passages which is not there. While Mormon commentators point to the sweating of “great drops of blood,” the New Testament says nothing about this phenomenon having a part in the atonement.

Leaders such as Benson and McConkie both claim Jesus’ greatest agony took place in the garden. However, fifth President Lorenzo Snow stated Jesus’ suffering in the garden was a result of knowing He was about to face the cross. Said Snow, “… the time approached that He was to pass through the severest affliction that any mortal ever did pass through. He undoubtedly had seen persons nailed to the cross, because that method of execution was common at that time, and He understood the torture that such persons experienced for hours. We went by Himself in the garden and prayed to His Father, if it were possible, that that cup might pass from Him; and His feelings were such that He sweat great drops of blood, and in agony there was an angel sent to give Him comfort and strength” (Collected Discourses, Lorenzo Snow, 10/6/1893). The “cup” He was praying could, if at all possible, be passed was the greater pain and suffering awaiting Him at Golgotha.

By emphasizing the Garden of Gethsemane, Mormon leaders miss a very significant point regarding the atonement. The expiation of sin was not based on the substitute’s perspiration, it was based on the fact that the substitute died. Christ’s atonement for the sins of man was accomplished in his death, not his short time spent in the garden.

In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul stresses that Christ’s death was of primary importance in the atonement. In 1 Corinthians 15:1-3 he wrote, “I delivered unto you first of all …that Christ died for our sins.”

Throughout the New Testament it is the death of Christ that is stressed. Consider the following passages which refer to the reconciliation of Christ:

Romans 5:8- “But God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

Romans 5:10- For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.”

Hebrews 9:22 states that without the shedding (not sweating) of blood, there is no remission of sins.

Never is the Garden of Gethsemane mentioned as playing a role in the atonement. Instead, it is the cross that is emphasized.

Galatians 6:14- “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.”

Philippians 2:8- “And being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”

To many Mormon leaders, the cross seemed to play only a secondary role. While LDS leaders do sometimes mention that Christ did die on the cross, this method of execution was only a necessary evil in order for the resurrection to take place. During a conference speech in 1953, Marion Romney, a member of the LDS First Presidency, stated, “Jesus then went into the Garden of Gethsemane. There he suffered most. He suffered greatly on the cross, of course, but other men had died by crucifixion; in fact, a man hung on either side of him as he died on the cross. But no man, nor set of men, nor all men put together, ever suffered what the Redeemer suffered in the garden. He went there to pray and suffer'” (Conference Report, October 1953, Pg.35).

Perhaps it is for these reasons that you will not find crosses on Mormon buildings. Certainly in the mind of the Latter-day Saint its significance is not equal to that of the Bible-believing Christian. We who hold the Bible dear have no choice but to concur with the Apostle Paul and declare without reservation, “That the preaching of the cross (not the garden) is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

Additional Thoughts

After the Gospel of Matthew tells of Jesus praying the final time in submission to the Father’s will (26:44), Matthew then writes, “Then he came to the disciples and said to them, ‘Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.'” (26:45-46) Notice that Jesus says that the “hour is at hand”, and identifies the beginning of this “hour” as when “the Son of Man is betrayed into the hand of sinners.”

Then we turn to Mark. Again, after Mark tells us of Jesus praying the final time in the garden, he writes of Jesus finding the disciples saying, “It is enough; the hour has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.” (14:41-42) Again, Mark identifies the beginning of his “hour” as his forthcoming betrayal.

The KJV of Mark 14:33 reads, “And he [Jesus] taketh with him Peter and James and John, and began to be sore amazed, and to be very heavy.” Joseph Smith changed this in the JST to read, “the disciples began to be sore amazed, and to be very heavy, and to complain in their hearts, wondering if this be the Messiah.” Whereas the KJV speaks of Jesus being “sore amazed” and “very heavy”, the JST speaks of the disciples this way. While this isn’t a bona fide contradiction, at the very least it shows that Joseph Smith did not see the sufferings of Jesus in the garden as the focal point of the atonement, nor a time of infinite intensity of physical and emotional pain. It also makes it awkward when LDS authors use the KJV Mark 14:33 to support the modern Mormon view of the atonement.

The one gospel that mentions actual sweating, Luke, probably did not mention it originally. Modern Bible translations include a footnote after Luke 22:43-44 , like “Some manuscripts omit verses 43 and 44”, and for good reason. The NET Bible explains:

“Several important Greek mss (Ì75 ?1 A B N T W 579 1071*) along with diverse and widespread versional witnesses lack 22:43-44. In addition, the verses are placed after Matt 26:39 by Ë13. Floating texts typically suggest both spuriousness and early scribal impulses to regard the verses as historically authentic. These verses are included in ?*,2 D L T ? 0171 Ë1 Ï lat Ju Ir Hipp Eus. However, a number of mss mark the text with an asterisk or obelisk, indicating the scribe’s assessment of the verses as inauthentic. At the same time, these verses generally fit Luke’s style. Arguments can be given on both sides about whether scribes would tend to include or omit such comments about Jesus’ humanity and an angel’s help. But even if the verses are not literarily authentic, they are probably historically authentic. This is due to the fact that this text was well known in several different locales from a very early period. Since there are no synoptic parallels to this account and since there is no obvious reason for adding these words here, it is very likely that such verses recount a part of the actual suffering of our Lord.”

The significance here is that Luke obviously didn’t see Gethsemane as the focal point of the entire narrative, nor a significant part of the atonement itself.

These observations make BYU professor Andrew Skinner’s prioritization of Gethsemane more than awkward: “All of our Heavenly Father’s planning and preparation, all of his interest in his children and all of his desires for them, all of his aims and goals for the entire universe came down to a singular moment in a specific time and place on this earth in a garden called Gethsemane.” (Gethsemane  [2002], ch. 1)

For more information on this topic, listen to a three-part radio series (Viewpoint on Mormonism) on Gethsemane. Part 1  Part 2  Part 3

For more on the topic of God and the nature of the Godhead, click here.

Quotes

  • “But He did not fail, though the trial was so severe that He sweat great drops of blood. When He knelt there in the Garden of Gethsemane, what agony He must have experienced in contemplating His sufferings on the cross!” (The Teachings of Lorenzo Snow, 98).
  • “Draw a priority chart with 1st, 2nd, 3rd across the top and A (cross), B (garden), and C (washing) down the side….Let A represent Christ hanging on the cross, B his suffering in the garden of Gethsemane, and C Christ washing the feet of the apostles….have the students rank the events first, second and third in order of their feelings for Christ’s greatest act of love. Have them show their decision by raising their hands. Count the number of hands raised and write it in the correct box on the priority chart. It is important that the students understand that Christ’s greatest act of love was shown when he suffered for the sins of the world in the garden of Gethsemane.” (Introduction to the Scriptures, Part B [Sunday School Course 13 teacher’s manual] (Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1980), p. 56).
  • “‘For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent’ ( D&C 19:16). He died willingly, alone, for this was how it must be. There had to be a propitiation, by one of his unique qualifications, for the sins of men—our sins—payment for which, through the love of God and the love of his Son, was made on Calvary’s hill.” (Marion D. Hanks, Conference Report, April 1969, pp. 23-25)
  • “In the final hours of His mortal life, He went into the Garden of Gethsemane and took upon Himself the sins of all mankind, from Adam until the last person born on earth.” (Jerald L. Taylor, “Gratitude,” Ensign, May 1997 [April Conference issue], 33)
  • “To possess a testimony of Jesus is to know that He voluntarily took upon Himself the sins of all mankind in the Garden of Gethsemane, which caused Him to suffer in both body and spirit and to bleed from every pore. All this He did so that we would not have to suffer if we would repent. (See D&C 19:16, 18.)” (Ezra Taft Benson, “Valiant in the Testimony of Jesus,” Ensign, May 1982 [April Conference issue], 62)
  • “He closed his mortal probation by enduring that great suffering which was necessary for him to go through in order for him to take upon himself the sins of the world. So intense was his pain that it caused him to sweat blood from every pore of his body; and this he did that we might not suffer if we will keep his commandments. In modern revelation he declared [D&C 19:16-18].” (Milton R. Hunter, Conference Report, October 1952, pp. 36-39)
  • “His excruciating agony in the Garden of Gethsemane was not only physical and mental anguish, but also a spiritual agony that only a god was capable of experiencing. In that hour of tremendous anguish the Savior took upon himself the burden of the sins of the world from Adam down to the end of the world. Then they hanged him on the cross and crucified him in the most inhumane and cruel method of execution. A spike was driven through his hands and feet as was the method at that time.” (George P. Lee, “‘Behold My Beloved Son, in Whom I Am Well Pleased’,” Ensign, Nov 1982, 73)
  • “We get into the habit of thinking, I suppose, that his great suffering was when he was nailed to the cross by his hands and his feet and was left there to suffer until he died. As excruciating as that pain was, that was not the greatest suffering that he had to undergo, for in some way which I cannot understand, but which I accept on faith, and which you must accept on faith, he carried on his back the burden of the sins of the whole world. It is hard enough for me to carry my own sins. How is it with you? And yet he had to carry the sins of the whole world, as our Savior and the Redeemer of a fallen world, and so great was his suffering before he ever went to the cross, we are informed, that blood oozed from the pores of his body ( Mosiah 3:7;  Luke 22:44), and he prayed to his Father that the cup might pass if it were possible, but not being possible he was willing to drink ( Matt. 26:39,42).” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Conference Report, October 1947, pp. 145-149)
  • “In the Garden of Gethsemane when he took upon himself the sins of the world, conditioned upon the repentance of men, his agony and suffering were so great that he sweat drops of blood from every pore (Mosiah 3:7).” (Bruce R. McConkie, Conference Report, October 1948, pp. 23-28)
  • “Out of love for His Father and for us, He allowed Himself to suffer beyond the capacity of mortal man. He told us some of what that infinite sacrifice required of Him. You remember the words: [D&C 19:16-19].” (Henry B. Eyring, “Act in All Diligence,” Ensign, May 2010 [April Conference issue], 60–63)
  • “I think it is understood by many that the great suffering of Jesus Christ came through the driving of nails in His hands and in His feet, and in being suspended upon a cross, until death mercifully released Him. That is not the case. As excruciating, as severe as was that punishment, coming from the driving of nails through His hands and through His feet, and being suspended, until relieved by death, yet still greater was the suffering which He endured in carrying the burden of the sins of the world—my sins, and your sins, and the sins of every living creature. This suffering came before He ever got to the cross, and it caused the blood to come forth from the pores of his body, so great was that anguish of His soul, the torment of His spirit that He was called upon to undergo ( D&C 19:18).” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Conference Report, April 1944, pp. 48-53)
  • “God has suffered far more than man ever did or ever will, and is therefore the great source of sympathy and consolation.” (Improvement Era, Nov. 1918, p. 7.)
  • “In the sacrament we seal our covenant by partaking of the sacred emblems of the Crucifixion… What does the cup represent? His blood shed on the cross in the midst of suffering of infinite proportions, suffering which made himself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain and to bleed at every pore and suffer both in body and spirit (see D&C 19:18).” (Mark E. Petersen, “O America, America,” Ensign, Nov 1979 [October conference issue], 12)
  • “Devoted women stood with His mother at the foot of the cross on Calvary during His agony. She was His great concern in the midst of His suffering, which suffering, He said, ’caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain.’ ( D&C 19:18.)” (Mark E. Petersen, “‘Even As I Am’,” Ensign, May 1982 [April conference issue], 98)
  • “It is impossible for us, weak mortals as we are, to fully comprehend and appreciate the suffering he endured on the cross so that he might gain for us victory over death. And even less can we understand the suffering he endured in Gethsemane so that we might obtain forgiveness of our sins.” (Marion G. Romney, “Gratitude and Thanksgiving,” Ensign, Nov 1982 [October conference issue], 49)
  • “But notwithstanding this and the fact of his being the Only Begotten of the Father, yet, when he came to wrestle with the difficulties he had to cope with, he sweat great drops of blood, and said, ‘Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; I shrink to encounter the things I have to cope with, but nevertheless, not my will but thine be done.'” (John Taylor, “Sustaining the Authorities, Etc.”, Journal of Discourses, vol. 21, pp. 214, March 1, 1880)
  • “But sometimes when struggling with the powers of darkness, and environed with the corrupt and ungodly, he gazed upon and comprehended the gravity of the situation and things before him, it so operated upon him, that in mortal agony he sweat great drops of blood.” (John Taylor, “The Interest of Humanity, Etc.”, Journal of Discourses, vol. 20, pp. 258, March 2, 1879)
  • “There in the quiet isolation of the Garden of Gethsemane, He knelt among the gnarled olive trees, and in some incredible way that none of us can fully comprehend, the Savior took upon Himself the sins of the world. Even though His life was pure and free of sin, He paid the ultimate penalty for sin—yours, mine, and everyone who has ever lived. His mental, emotional, and spiritual anguish were so great they caused Him to bleed from every pore (see Luke 22:44; D&C 19:18). And yet Jesus suffered willingly so that we might all have the opportunity to be washed clean—through having faith in Him, repenting of our sins, being baptized by proper priesthood authority, receiving the purifying gift of the Holy Ghost by confirmation, and accepting all other essential ordinances. Without the Atonement of the Lord, none of these blessings would be available to us, and we could not become worthy and prepared to return to dwell in the presence of God.” (M. Russell Ballard, “The Atonement and the Value of One Soul,” Ensign, May 2004, 84)
  • “Christ’s suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane epitomizes the most magnificent of all the attributes of Christ, His perfect love. Here we see that He truly loved all of us.” (Earl C. Tingey, “The Great Plan of Happiness,” Ensign, May 2006, 72–74)
  • “I think of him in Gethsemane, when he suffered the pain of all men, that we might be forgiven of our sins on conditions of repentance.” (Marion G. Romney, Conference Report, April 1961, pp. 116-120)
  • “Were it not for the power that Jesus inherited from His Father, His great Atonement would not have been possible. You are all familiar with the facts. On the night Jesus was betrayed, He took three of the Twelve and went into the place called Gethsemane. It was there He suffered the pains of all men, which suffering, He said, ’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’ (D&C 19:18). In spite of that excruciating ordeal, He took the cup and drank! He suffered as only God could suffer, bearing our griefs, carrying our sorrows, being wounded for our transgressions, voluntarily submitting Himself to the iniquity of us all, just as Isaiah prophesied (see Isa. 53:4–6). It was in Gethsemane where Jesus took on Himself the sins of the world, in Gethsemane where His pain was equivalent to the cumulative burden of all men, in Gethsemane where He descended below all things so that all could repent and come to Him. The mortal mind fails to fathom, the tongue cannot express, the pen of man cannot describe the breadth, the depth, or height of the suffering of our Lord—nor His infinite love for us. Yet there are those who arrogantly declare the most pernicious heresy, that the blood which extruded from the physical body of our Lord on that night had no efficacy for the redemption of man. They would have you believe the only significance to Gethsemane was that Jesus made His decision there to go to the cross. They say that any suffering Jesus endured was only personal, not redemptive for the whole human race. I know of no heresy more destructive to faith than this, for the individual who so accepts this delusion is beguiled to believe that he can achieve exaltation on the basis of his own merit, intelligence, and personal effort. Never forget … that ‘it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do’ (2 Ne. 25:23).” – Ezra Taft Benson, “Five Marks of the Divinity of Jesus Christ,” Ensign, Dec 2001, 8