This is one of a series of reviews from a Christian perspective on the weekly lessons found in the Come, Follow Me (New Testament, 2023) for Individuals and Families published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To find the index of these reviews, visit here.
Bold face type in this article comes from the Church’s curriculum. (Note: Not every sentence in the church’s curriculum is being reviewed.)
During the last week of the Savior’s life, many Jews around Him were participating in the traditions of Passover. They prepared meals, sang songs, and gathered together to remember the deliverance of the house of Israel from slavery to the Egyptians. Families listened to the story of the destroying angel passing over the homes of their ancestors who had marked their doors with lamb’s blood. Amid all these celebrations so rich with the symbolism of deliverance, relatively few were aware that Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, was about to deliver them from the slavery of sin and death—through His suffering, His death, and His Resurrection. Even so, there were those who recognized Jesus as their promised Messiah, their eternal Deliverer. From that time onward, disciples of Jesus Christ have borne witness to all the world “that Christ died for our sins … ; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day” (1 Corinthians 15:3–4).
Easter is an important holiday for Christians all over the year. It’s the time where believers can point to how death was overcome through the work of our Lord. Mormons also claim this as a special day they celebrate as well. But the question is, what exactly does Easter mean to Latter-day Saints as compared to Bible-believing Christians?
In the April 2023 Liahona magazine, the First Presidency gave a short introduction to that issue in an “Easter message.” At the end of the first paragraph, it said, “During this Easter season, we invite all to ponder this glorious promise. Because He broke the bands of death, we each have the assurance of immortality and the hope of life eternal.”
According to Mormonism, there are two aspects of salvation that continue to be taught today by the church leaders. For one, there is the concept of what has been called “general salvation.” This is supposed to provide all humans with resurrection to one of three kingdoms of glory provided through the atonement of Jesus. The second aspect of salvation is called individual salvation, also known as exaltation or eternal life. This is what the leaders cited above described as “the hope of life eternal.”
Perhaps Neal Maxwell, who was once a member of the First Presidency, explained it best when he said,
“Christ gave us freely an enormous and unconditional gift, the universal resurrection. However, Christ’s proffer of the further gift of eternal life is conditional. As our lawgiver, He sets the terms for receiving this great gift. Therefore our individual progress toward eternal life requires us to be willing to submit to Christ. Then if we are truly faithful and endure to the end, our wills can finally be swallowed up in the will of the Father.”“Sharing testimony about the Atonement,” Church News, September 4, 1999, 5
Let’s be quite honest about Easter. Through Jesus’s death and the atonement that is celebrated at Easter, Mormonism teaches that everyone receives a resurrection from the grave and is provided an opportunity to go to resurrection in one of the three kingdoms. Yet this does not mean that a person is qualified to secure the glory of the celestial kingdom.
With this as a background, let’s take a look at the rest of the article and see what has been taught that contradicts biblical Christianity.
Ideas for Personal Scripture Study
Jesus Christ delivers me from sin and death, strengthens me in my weaknesses, and comforts me in my trials.
One way to focus on the blessings of the Savior’s Atonement this week is to spend time each day reading about the last week of Jesus’s life (a possible reading schedule follows). What do you find in these chapters that helps you feel the Savior’s love? Ponder what these chapters teach you about how He can deliver you from sin, death, trials, and weaknesses. How are you exercising faith in His power of deliverance?
Sunday: Triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:6–11)
Monday: Cleansing the temple (Matthew 21:12–16)
Tuesday: Teaching in Jerusalem (Matthew 21–23)
Wednesday: Continued teaching (Matthew 24–25)
Thursday: The Passover and Christ’s suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26)
Friday: Trial, Crucifixion, and burial (Matthew 27:1–61)
Saturday: Christ’s body lies in the tomb (Matthew 27:62–66) while He ministers in the spirit world (Doctrine and Covenants 138)
Sunday: Jesus Christ’s Resurrection and appearance to His disciples (Matthew 28:1–10)
The events during Passion week as described here are accurate. Yet what do these events mean to the Bible-believing Christian compared to the Latter-day Saint?
Without going into too much detail, let’s consider the events from Thursday. This was the “Last Supper” and “Christ’s suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane.” Mormon leaders have typically pointed to Jesus’s suffering in the garden as taking the sins of the world upon His shoulders. In the April 2023 Liahona magazine, two BYU professors explained how “in the Garden of Gethsemane, He prayed earnestly to the Father, submitting to His will and taking upon Himself our sins, infirmities, heartaches, pains, and sorrows.”
Traditionally, a case has been made for the atonement taking place at Gethsemane. For instance, tenth President Joseph Fielding Smith wrote,
“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.”“The Wearing of the Cross,” Answers to Gospel Questions 4:17
Yet the Garden of Gethsemane is not about Jesus “taking upon Himself our sins.” This was not just “Part 1” of a two-episode drama. In the Old Testament, atonement for sins did not take place without the death of the sacrificial victim. As difficult as Gethsemane was for Jesus, we must not mistakenly believe that this event had anything to do with the atonement.
Rather than at Gethsemane, it was on the cross that Jesus paid for sins, which Christians describe this as “Good Friday.” Even 1 Nephi 11:33 in the Book of Mormon agrees with the idea that the cross is central to the atonement when it says, “And I, Nephi, saw that he was lifted up upon the cross and slain for the sins of the world.” So we ask the question, Why Are There No Crosses in the LDS Church?
It is no secret that the symbol of the cross has been minimized for many years in the LDS Church. Consider the following written by Joseph Fielding Smith:
“To many, like the writer, such a custom is repugnant and contrary to the true worship of our Redeemer. Why should we bow down before a cross or use it as a symbol? Because our Savior died on the cross, the wearing of crosses is to most Latter-day Saints in very poor taste and inconsistent to our worship. Of all the ways ever invented for taking life and the execution of individuals, among the most cruel is likely the cross. This was a favorite method among the Romans who excelled in torture. We may be definitely sure that if our Lord had been killed with a dagger or with a sword, it would have been very strange indeed if religious people of this day would have graced such a weapon by wearing it and adoring it because it was by such a means that our Lord was put to death”“The Wearing of the Cross,” Answers to Gospel Questions 4:17
In their Liahona article, the professors want today’s Latter-day Saints to think that, somehow, using the symbol of the cross could be beneficial. Under the section on Good Friday, the authors wrote:
“How we remember the Savior’s Crucifixion does much to shape our experience with Easter. Much can be done to set the tone by the art that is displayed and the music that is played in our homes on this day. While Latter-day Saints do not normally display many images of the suffering or Crucifixion of Christ, this is a day when displaying such art might be appropriate. We don’t dwell on the Savior’s death or on the cruel manner in which He died. Instead, we celebrate His victory over death.”Liahona, April 2023, 14.
It seems that their analysis contradicts Smith’s assessment. Meanwhile, the professors make it appear that the atonement was universal and therefore efficacious for anyone who had ever been born. They wrote, “On the cross, Jesus completed His atoning sacrifice, laying down His life for us all.” This is just not the case. The Bible does not teach in universal atonement for all people but rather heaven and hell. (See here.)
Matthew 28:1–10; Luke 24:13–35; John 20:19–29; 1 Corinthians 15:1–8, 55
Many witnesses testify of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Imagine what it would have been like for the disciples to watch Jesus being mocked, mistreated, and crucified. They had witnessed His power, felt the truth of His teachings, and had faith that He was the Son of God. Witnessing His death must have caused His disciples to feel grief and confusion. But soon they became witnesses of the great miracle of His Resurrection.
What can you learn from the accounts of those who witnessed the Resurrected Savior? Mark or note each person’s experience in Matthew 28:1–10; Luke 24:13–35; John 20:19–29; and 1 Corinthians 15:1–8, 55. (Other witnesses of the resurrected Christ can be found in 3 Nephi 11; Mormon 1:15; Ether 12:38–39; Doctrine and Covenants 76:19–24; 110:1–10; and Joseph Smith—History 1:15–17.) What impresses you about the testimonies of these witnesses? After the Savior’s Resurrection, others were resurrected and appeared to many (see Matthew 27:52–53; 3 Nephi 23:9). How does your faith in the Savior and the promise of resurrection influence the way you live?
Notice how the emphasis on the resurrection of Jesus quickly shifted to the unique Standard Works passages dealing with Christ’s supposed resurrection in the Americas? Nothing in these passages ought to be considered good evidence for the resurrection. History does not support the Book of Mormon account. The evidence found in the Bible should be the main source for the resurrection of Jesus, not the Book of Mormon.
For more on the Christian view of the resurrection, see 10 Reasons to Support the Resurrection of Jesus
1 Peter 1:3–11
Jesus Christ gives me hope and joy.
What words or phrases in 1 Peter 1:3–11 give you hope because of Jesus Christ? When have you felt that hope?
Elder Gerrit W. Gong testified that the Resurrection “gives hope to those who have lost limbs; those who have lost ability to see, hear, or walk; or those thought lost to relentless disease, mental illness, or other diminished capacity. He finds us. He makes us whole. … [Also,] because ‘God himself atoneth for the sins of the world’ [Alma 42:15], … He can, with mercy, succor us according to our infirmities. … We repent and do all we can. He encircles us eternally ‘in the arms of his love’ [2 Nephi 1:15]” (“Hosanna and Hallelujah—The Living Jesus Christ: The Heart of Restoration and Easter,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2020, 54).
In this citation, Gong misses the forest for the trees. Colossians 2:14 says that “having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” It is what took place on the cross that cover the sin for the one who places faith in Jesus. This is a clear biblical teaching.
Notice how Gong talked about how “we repent and do all we can.” This is Mormonism’s central tenant based on 2 Nephi 25:23 in the Book of Mormon. This idea misses the central message of the doctrine of the cross and atonement. To “do all we can” means the payment must not have been made in full, contrary to what Paul said above in Colossians 2! In addition, Romans 5:1-2a says, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.”
It is only by grace, not by what anyone can do, that makes the atonement efficacious in a person’s life. For more on this teaching, see “Saved by grace ‘in spite of all we can do’?”
How a person views Easter week makes all the difference in the world. If we look at it as if the death and resurrection of Jesus is merely providing the opportunity to receive a resurrection to mortality, then how could that be exciting news if it’s possible to be resurrected to the terrestrial or telestial kingdoms? Rather, it’s the celestial kingdom most Latter-day Saints desire.
If a person has to do the impossible–that is, keep all the commandments all of the time–this scenario is a hopeless situation and one that can never be accomplished. Easter is much more than a celebration of humanity gaining its immortality. Rather, it is what is necessary for a person to gain eternal life and become a child of God (John 1:12; 1 John 3:1-2). My prayer is you will grasp the importance of Passion Week and the true meaning of the resurrection of Jesus., without which the apostle Paul explained in 1 Corinthians 15 the Christian has no hope.