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The Garden? Calvary? Tomb? Just where did the LDS atonement take place?

By Eric Johnson

Viewpoint on Mormonism shows on this article aired March 31-April 2, 2021. Listen to them here: Part 1  Part 2  Part 3 

Over the years, leaders from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have stressed the importance of the Garden of Gethsemane as the place where Jesus atoned for sins. In earlier times, Gethsemane was not stressed like was later in the 20th century and the cross was a respectable symbol in Mormonism. For instance, the Salt Lake City Council was asked in 1916 if a huge cross could be built on Ensign Peak overlooking the city. “We would like to construct it of cement, re-enforced with steel, of sufficient dimensions that it can be readily seen from every part of the city,” the request read, adding that this cross would honor Mormon pioneers.

Just who made such a request in the LDS Church-controlled state of Utah? Would you believe it was the leadership of the LDS Church? Regardless, the monument was never built. (Michael DeGroote, “Mormons and the cross,” Deseret News, September 10, 2009, Source).

In his book on 9th President David O. McKay, Michael G. Reed reported, “Indeed, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries many Latter-day Saints individually used and promoted the symbol of the cross in its visual and material form. The current taboo emerged among Mormons at the grass-roots level around the turn of the century, and became institutionalized mid-century under the direction of David O. McKay, president of the LDS Church 1951-1970” (Banishing the Cross, 3).

For decades now, the Garden of Gethsemane has been the focal point whenever the topic of the atonement is taught in official church capacities.

An April 2021 Liahona Article: Equating Gethsemane, Calvary, and the Tomb

An article written by John Hilton III, an associate professor of ancient scripture at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, appeared in the April 2021 Liahona magazine (United States and Canadian edition). His piece was titled “Jesus Suffered, Died, and Rose Again for Us,” with the subtitle stating, “The Savior’s atoning sacrifice began in Gethsemane but wasn’t complete without the events of Golgotha and the Garden Tomb.” Just by the title/subtitle, it can be seen that Hilton’s goal was to deemphasize Gethsemane while placing equal stress on the importance of what transpired on the cross and garden tomb. Mainly using the unique Standard Work Doctrine and Covenants, Hilton explained the three main events of Jesus’s final days in equal proportion: “Christ in Gethsemane,” “Christ at Golgotha,” and “Christ No Longer in the Garden Tomb.”

On page U10, Hilton begins his article, “What comes to mind when you think about the Atonement of Christ? Some members of the Church think primarily about what occurred in the Garden of Gethsemane. But what about the Crucifixion? Was that part of the Savior’s Atonement? And what about the Resurrection?”

Just by what he wrote, Hilton knows very well that his leaders over the past eight or more decades have stressed the Garden of Gethsemane to the detriment of the cross and tomb, relegating these events as an afterthought. The LDS membership has been instructed that the Garden of Gethsemane is where their sins were paid, as attested by a scholarly book edited by two LDS scholars. “It is probably the case that if one hundred Protestants were asked where the atonement of Christ took place, those one hundred persons would answer: At Golgotha, on the cross. It is also no doubt true that if one hundred Latter-day Saints were asked the same question, a large percentage would respond: In Gethsemane, in the garden” (Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate, Jr., eds., Third Nephi 9-30: This Is My Gospel, 14).

It is not difficult to find any number of citations to show how the leaders have placed primary (sometimes even solitary) focus on the garden. For instance, 10th President Joseph Fielding Smith wrote the following the mid-20th century:

“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. Italics mine).

A 21st century church manual in 2013 repeats Smith’s thoughts many years later:

“It was in the Garden of Gethsemane, so the scriptures tell us, that blood oozed from every pore of his body; and in the extreme agony of his soul, he cried to his Father. It was not the nails driven into his hands and feet. Now do not ask me how that was done because I do not know. Nobody knows. All we know is that in some way he took upon himself that extreme penalty. He took upon him our transgressions, and paid a price, a price of torment” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith, 2013, 63. Italics mine).

With no scriptural support, thirteenth President Ezra Taft Benson claimed that the sins of the world were atoned for in Gethsemane. He said, “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, 14). Meanwhile, Apostle Bruce R. McConkie claimed,

“The sectarian world falsely suppose that the climax of his torture and suffering was on the cross (Matt. 27:26-50; Mark 15:1-38; Luke 23:1-46; John 18; 19:1-18) — a view which they keep ever before them by the constant use of the cross as a religious symbol. The fact is that intense and severe as the suffering was on the cross, yet the great pains were endured in the Garden of Gethsemane. (Matt. 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46; John 18:1.) It was there that he trembled because of pain, bled at every pore, and suffered both in body and in spirit, and would that he ‘might not drink the bitter cup.’ (D. & C. 19:15-19; Mosiah 3:7.) It was there he underwent his greatest suffering for men, taking upon himself, as he did, their sins on conditions of repentance. (D. & C. 18:10- 15.)” (Mormon Doctrine, 1966, 555).

McConkie also explained how Christians and Mormons differ on the place they emphasize:

“Where and under what circumstances was the atoning sacrifice of the Son of God made? Was it on the Cross of Calvary or in the Garden of Gethsemane? It is to the Cross of Christ that most Christians look when centering their attention upon the infinite and eternal atonement. And certainly the sacrifice of our Lord was completed when he was lifted up by men; also, that part of his life and suffering is more dramatic and, perhaps, more soul stirring. But in reality the pain and suffering, the triumph and grandeur, of the atonement took place primarily in Gethsemane” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary 1:774. Italics mine).

He also wrote,

“That which began in Gethsemane was finished on the cross and crowned in the resurrection. Jesus took upon himself the sins of all men when he suffered and sweat great drops of blood from every pore in Gethsemane. It was then that his suffering caused himself, even God, to suffer both body and spirit in a way which is totally beyond mortal comprehension. Then again on the cross—in addition to all the physical pain of that horrifying ordeal—he felt the spiritual agonies of the sins of others, as we shall see” (The Mortal Messiah: From Bethlehem to Calvary 4:224. Italics mine).

Church writer Laurel Rohlfing placed full emphasis on the atonement being accomplished in the garden when she wrote in a magazine aimed at children: “Jesus paid for all our sins when He suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane” (Laurel Rohlfing, “Sharing Time: The Atonement,” Friend, March 1989, 39. Italics mine). This idea continues to be stressed into the 21st century. Church magazine write Joseph C. Winther wrote, “As terrible as Christ’s suffering on the cross was, perhaps it was not as great as His suffering in Gethsemane. When he sweat drops of blood as He bore the weight of all the sins of mankind, the great agony of the Atonement took place” (“Because of His Love,” Ensign, April 2002, 19. Italics mine). Notice, Jesus is said to have taken on “the weight of all the sins of mankind.” That concept was stressed by Seventy Wolfgang H. Paul wrote in 2007:

“Near the end of His earthly ministry, the Savior went with His disciples to the Mount of Olives, to the Garden of Gethsemane.  . . . It was there that the Savior paid the price for all the sorrows, sins, and transgressions of every human being who ever lived or ever will live. There He drank the bitter cup and suffered so that all who repent may not suffer” (“Gratitude for the Atonement,” Ensign, June 2007, 15. Ellipsis and italics mine).

During a general conference message given in 2008, Seventy Lawrence E. Corbridge spoke about the atonement without mentioning the cross:

“Jesus Christ entered a garden called Gethsemane, where He overcame sin for us. He took upon Himself our sins. He suffered the penalty of our wrongs. He paid the price of our education. I don’t know how He did what He did. I only know that He did and that because He did, you and I may be forgiven of our sins that we may be endowed with His power. Everything depends on that. What then shall we do? We will ‘take upon [us] the name of [the] Son, and always remember him and keep his commandments which he has given [us]; that [we] may always have his Spirit to be with [us]’ (D&C 20:77). Everything depends on that” (“The Way,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 2008, 35. Brackets in original. Italics mine).

Seventy Carlos H. Amado did the same thing at the spring 2014 general conference:

“After that, in the most sublime show of His love for humankind, and in the full exercise of His will, He walked bravely and determinedly to face His most demanding trial. In the Garden of Gethsemane, in utter loneliness, He suffered the most intense agony,  bleeding from each pore. In total submission before His Father, He atoned for our sins and also took upon Him our illnesses and afflictions in order to know how to succor us (see Alma 7:11-13)” (Carlos H. Amado, “Christ the Redeemer,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2014, 12-13. Italics mine).

The Biblical Evidence of Gethsemane

I do not know of any early church father or, for that matter, current Christian theologian who emphasizes Gethsemane in conjunction with the atonement. There is a reason for this, as there is no evidence that the atonement has ever been associated with the Garden of Gethsemane! To show this is the case, let’s consider the two biblical passages that talk about the events in Gethsemane. Matthew 26:36-44 states:

36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” 37 And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch[with me.” 39 And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” 40 And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? 41 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42 Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” 43 And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again.

It is true that Jesus was troubled and was suffering emotional turmoil. Notice carefully, though, that He was only praying for Himself. The same is true for the parallel passage found in the shorter version in Luke 22:

39 And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. 40 And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” 41 And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, 42 saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” 43 And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. 44 And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. 45 And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, 46 and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”

In the prayers recorded by Matthew and Luke, Jesus is concerned about Himself as He prays for His own needs. However, nowhere does He pray for the believers. If He were taking the sins for people upon Himself at this location, not praying for those whom He was atoning would be a strange omission that must  be explained. (I should note that a third passage of prayer found in John 17 takes place before Jesus enters Gethsemane, which is obvious from John 18:1.)

I believe fifth LDS President Lorenzo Snow had it right when he said how the agony Jesus suffered in Gethsemane came about by understanding what awaited Him on the cross. He said,

It was difficult for Jesus to accomplish the Atonement. Jesus, the Son of God, was sent into the world to make it possible for you and me to receive these extraordinary blessings. . . . 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. Ellipsis mine. Italics in original).

Thus, the suffering in Gethsemane is a result of Jesus looking ahead to what awaiting Him on the cross. With this, I can agree.

The Evidence of the Unique Standard Works

When unique LDS scripture is considered, there is no support for the idea that the atonement took place at Gethsemane. One verse found in Mosiah 3:7 states, “And lo, he shall suffer temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death; for behold, blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people.”

Bleeding “from every pore” is found in Mormonism but not in the Bible. Matthew 26:44 merely says that “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” If blood came “from every pore,” this seems peculiar. Did Jesus bleed in His arms as well? His legs? His feet? Again, such a concept is found neither in the Gospels nor in the Epistles. 

There is one passage in the Doctrine and Covenants that does refer to Gethsemane, as cited by Hilton on page U11. DUC 19:16-19 states:

“I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I; 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–Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.”

While this passage does talk about the suffering of Jesus, it does not intimate that atonement for all sins was paid in Gethsemane, as LDS leaders have taught. There is something else in that passage that most Mormons may overlook: “But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I.” This is not something that Hilton brings up in his April 2021 Liahona article.

Just what is required for a person to receive the benefits of the atonement according to to Mormonism? James E. Faust, a member of the First Presidency, provides a good overview:

”Our salvation depends on believing in and accepting the Atonement (Mosiah 4:6-7). Such acceptance requires a continual effort to understand it more fully. The Atonement advances our mortal course of learning by making it possible for our natures to become perfect. All of us have sinned and need to repent to fully pay our
part of the debt. When we sincerely repent, the Savior’s magnificent Atonement pays the rest of that debt” (“The Atonement: Our Greatest Hope,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 2001, 18. Italics mine).

This is an amazing statement, as Faust is saying that a faithful Mormon must pay his/her share of the debt, with the rest to be covered by Jesus. On the next page, he provides more information about what is required by the individual desiring the forgiveness of sins: “The Atonement cleanses us of sin on condition of our repentance. Repentance is the condition on which mercy is extended. After all we can do to pay to the uttermost farthing and make right our wrongs, the Savior’s grace is activated in our lives through the Atonement, which purifies us and can perfect us.”

“It they would repent,” as D&C 19 puts it, are damning words. After all, what must a person do to fully repent of sins. D&C 58:42 explains, “Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more.” That sounds promising until the next verse (43) is considered: “By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins–behold, he will confess them and forsake them.”

In other words, a person who repents must not repeat those sins or there is no forgiveness.  A Latter-day Saint who may disagree with this assessment ought to consider how Spencer Kimball described repentance in his book The Miracle of Forgiveness:

“There is one crucial test of repentance. This is abandonment of the sin” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, 163. See also Doctrines of the Gospel Student Manual: Religion 231 and 232, 40. See also Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, 39).

“Repentance must involve an all-out, total surrender to the program of the Lord. That transgressor is not fully repentant who neglects his tithing, misses his meetings, breaks the Sabbath, fails in his family prayers, does not sustain the authorities of the Church, breaks the Word of Wisdom, does not love the Lord nor his fellowmen. A reforming adulterer who drinks or curses is not repentant. The repenting burglar who has sex play is not ready for forgiveness. God cannot forgive unless the transgressor shows a true repentance which spreads to all areas of his life” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, 203. See also Doctrines of the Gospel Student Manual: Religion 231 and 232, 41. See also Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, 43).

“Your Heavenly Father has promised forgiveness upon total repentance and meeting all the requirements, but that forgiveness is not granted merely for the asking. There must be works—many works—and an all-out, total surrender, with a great humility and ‘a broken heart and a contrite spirit.’ It depends upon you whether or not you are forgiven, and when. It could he weeks, it could he years, it could be centuries before that happy day when you have the positive assurance that the Lord has forgiven you. That depends on your humility your sincerity, your works, your attitudes” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, 324-325).

“Little reward can be expected for a tiny effort to repent, for the Lord has said that it must be a total repentance ‘with all his heart’ and the error must be forsaken fully and wholly, mentally as well as physically” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, 333)

Kimball is not the only one who spoke in such a fashion. Let’s consider several citations that can be found in church manuals. Quoting D&C 19:16, a student manual instructs:

D&C 58:42–43. The Lord Promises Complete Forgiveness to Those Who Truly Repent. The Lord forgives those who truly repent of their sins. This blessing comes through the Atonement of Christ, who ‘suffered . . . for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent’ (D&C 19:16). The Lord promises that He will no more remember the sins of those who repent (see Ezekiel 18:21–22). Repentance, however, requires that we forsake and turn completely from our sins and confess them” (Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual Religion 324 and 325, 2001, 120. Bold and ellipsis in original).

Another manual defines the meaning of the word “forsake”: “Forsaketh (v.1) – Repents of, gives up and never does again” (Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Seminary Student Guide, 2001, 106. Referring to D&C 93). Or, even more to the point, a 1961 manual states, “We repent by no longer sinning” (Uniform System for Teaching Investigators, 1961, 55).

It is clear that the ultimate decision-maker is the individual himself. As Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland put it, “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, 106).

Seventy Gerald Lund stated,

“The atonement of Christ overcame physical death through the Resurrection. This is salvation by grace because it comes to all men automatically and does not depend on what kinds of lives they have lived. But, if we wish to overcome spiritual death and enter back into God’s presence, we must be obedient to laws and principles. This is exaltation by works. Thus, according to this explanation, we are saved by grace and exalted by works” (Gerald N. Lund (Second Quorum), “Salvation: By Grace or by Works?” Ensign, April 1981, 18. Italics mine).

Unless a person keeps the commandments of God, Lund and other LDS leaders state, then neither the work done by Christ on the cross nor the empty tomb will make any difference in a person’s life. This is easy enough to accomplish, right? (And just which Mormon is successfully doing this? Please stand up!)

Meanwhile, there is a grave penalty in Mormonism for the person who sins after repenting. According to D&C 82:7, all former sins “return.” A seminary manual explains this troublesome verse:

Doctrine and Covenants 82:7. We are commanded to forsake sin. If we sin again after repenting, our former sins return. (5–10 minutes) Bring several rocks to class that are all labeled with the same sin (for example, breaking the Word of Wisdom). Tell students a story about an imaginary person who commits this sin. Invent details to embellish your story. Each time the imaginary person commits the sin, pick up a rock, until you are holding several of them. Set all the rocks you are holding aside and ask: • What might setting the rocks aside represent? (Repentance.) • What happens to our sins when we repent? (The Lord forgives them.) Read Doctrine and Covenants 82:7 and look for what happens when we sin again. Ask: • How many rocks would a person need to pick up if he sins after repenting? (All that you were previously holding plus a new one.) • Why do you think our former sins return? • What does that teach you about the importance of forsaking sin? • How can knowing this doctrine help you avoid sin?” (Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Seminary Teacher Resource Manual, 2001, 134. Bold in original).

Since the Book of Mormon has been called the “most correct book on earth,” we should expect this sacred LDS scripture would support the current LDS teaching. The hard fact is, however, that it does not. A perfect place to have discussed this issue would have been in 1 Nephi 11 where the prophet Nephi speaks about Jesus. In verse 33, he said, “And I, Nephi, saw that he was lifted up upon the cross and slain for the sins of the world.” Notice that it is at the cross, not Gethsemane, that is emphasized for where Jesus was “slain for the sins of the world.” To repeat, Gethsemane is never stressed as the place of the atonement in the Book of Mormon. How many Latter-day Saints even know that?

According to Mormonism, every person who was ever born will one day receive a bodily resurrection based on the atonement. However, this by itself does not guarantee an exaltation into godhood. Forgiveness is, as Apostle Holland put it, “conditioned upon repentance and obedience to divine commandments.” Since complete repentance and obedience” is an impossible task, then there is little benefit available for human beings who are incapable of keeping the commandments set out in Mormonism.

A doctrinal error?

In the second section of his article (“Christ at Golgotha”), Hilton writes, “While some people have supposed that Christ suffered for our sins only in Gethsemane, Gerald N. Lund, who later became a member of the Seventy, called this a ‘doctrinal error.’ In fact, more than 50 passages of scripture teach that Jesus Christ died for our sins; at least 12 such passages are in the Doctrine and Covenants.”

Lund’s quote came from his commentary titled The Book of Mormon: Second Nephi, the Doctrinal Structure published in 1989. However, that same general authority had previously said the following in a church magazine article in 1981: “And so, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ stood before the law and paid the price in suffering for every sin as though he himself had committed them . . . he generated sufficient payment to satisfy the debt of every other man. He met the demands of the law for himself through obedience, and for all others through suffering” (“Salvation: By Grace or By Works?” Ensign, April 1981, 22. Italics mine).

Lund went on to state, “Alma told his son Corianton that mercy could not rob justice, or else ‘God would cease to be God’ (Alma 42:25). And the merciful love of the Father and the Son did not rob justice of its rightful demands. Rather, it paid justice! Their Love said to Justice, by virtue of the price paid in the Garden, ‘Here is payment for the wrongs committed. You are paid in full. Now let the captives go free.’” It appears that Lund attributed the “price paid in the Garden” for paying Justice and “in full” to “let the captives go free.” The citation used by Hilton that was meant to minimize the emphasis placed on the Garden of Gethsemane seems to be undermined in this teaching given by the same general authority.

It seems Hilton wants his readers to believe that the work done on the cross means as much to Latter-day Saints as it does to Christians. Citing D&C 46:13, Hilton writes, “In addition to suffering for our sins in Gethsemane, the Savior died for them on the cross. Recognizing this can add new layers to our appreciation for Christ’s perfect Atonement.” Notice how Hilton says “in addition . . .” Emphasizing passages from the Doctrine and Covenants, he describes the importance of the cross, writing on page U12, “What is the evidence for our worth? Jesus died for us. As we deepen our understanding of Christ’s death, it increases our sense of worth and the worth of others.”

On page 13, he states, “Both Gethsemane and Calvary are important parts of Christ’s atoning for our sins.”  Then, in the final section of his article, he writes, “Although the events of Gethsemane and Golgotha are of supreme importance, they would be meaningless without the Resurrection.” Hilton ends his article this way: “Because of the Savior’s perfect Atonement in Gethsemane, Gologotha, and the Garden Tomb, each of us can find joy, peace, and assurance—today and every day.”

Based on the teaching of the Bible, Hilton is mistaken in his teaching that the three places he cites have equal value in determining where atonement for sins took place. Let’s be clear. Christians do have high respect for the suffering that Jesus underwent at Gethsemane and treat this as a very important part of the Passion narrative. And they also uphold the empty tomb as proof that Jesus accomplished what had been prophesied and why He, as God, became man in the first place. At the same time, Christianity holds firm that it is what transpired on the cross at Calvary where the atonement of sins took place.

So what does the Bible have to say about the atonement?

Biblically speaking, the death of the sacrificial victim is necessary for God’s atoning work to be efficacious. This was clear throughout the Torah (Pentateuch) from Abraham through Moses and the times of the kings and prophets. As Leviticus 17:11 puts it, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.”

Jesus was prophesied to be the lamb who would die for the people’s sins. Referring to the atonement that would take place on the cross, Isaiah 53 states in part,

Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
    yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
    and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
    stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
    and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
    and there was no deceit in his mouth.

. . .

12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
    and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
    and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
    and makes intercession for the transgressors.

Jesus’s death was the payment for sins, as attested in abundant places throughout the New Testament. The apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:18, “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” First Corinthians 15:3 says, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures . . .” There are many other verses that can be used to support how the atonement was not paid for in Gethsemane but rather on the cross. Consider Hebrews 9:16-18, 22:

“For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood. . . .  Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”

A Mormon might want to point to the part of that passage that says “without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins,” as if this somehow would support the atonement that took place at Gethsemane. The context, however, shows it’s not just the “shedding of blood” but rather “the death of the one” who established the covenant. In other words, an acceptable sacrifice in the eyes of God requires expiation, not perspiration!

Other verses can be used to show how crucial it was that Jesus, as the sacrificial victim, had to die to bring atonement:

Acts 5:30—The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross.

Romans 5:9—The shedding of His blood on the cross makes justification before an all-holy God a present reality. Christians need not wonder whether they will be “good enough.”

Romans 8:34—Christ’s death resulted in Christians having One who intercedes on their behalf.

1 Corinthians 5:7–8—As the sacrificed Passover Lamb, Christ enables believers to rid themselves of the contamination of malice and wickedness and to embrace sincerity and truth.

Galatians 3:1: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.”

Galatians 3:13—Christ’s death on the cross redeemed believers from the curse of the law, a system by which no sinful human could ever be justified.

Galatians 6:14: But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

Colossians 1:21–22—Through the physical death of Christ, those who were at one time alienated and enemies of God are now reconciled and made holy in His sight.

Colossians 2:13–15—The written code of regulations that condemned all people was nailed to the cross, resulting in the forgiveness of all the believer’s sins.

Hebrews 2:14—By His death Jesus removes the sting of death and frees those who were once held in slavery by the fear of death.

Hebrews 9:13–14—Whereas the regular sacrifices of bulls and goats had no power to take away sins or clear a worshipper’s conscience, Christ’s once-for-all death cleanses the conscience of the believer and takes away sin, enabling the believer to serve the living God.

Hebrews 10:14—It is Christ, through His sacrifice, who perfects the believer, meaning that the anxiety of striving to be “good enough” has been taken away.

Disregarding the Symbol of the Cross

Latter-day Saint leaders have historically counseled their membership to not emphasize the symbol of the cross. Joseph Fielding Smith, for instance, equated the cross as an object of worship:

“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).

This attitude differed from a century ago when Latter-day Saints even wore the cross as a decoration. For instance, second LDS President Brigham Young’s family thought it was not wrong to wear crosses in their jewelry: “Many Mormons also wore crosses as jewelry, a practice that increased in popularity at the turn of the twentieth century. Brigham Young’s polygamous wife, Harriet Amelia Folsom Young, wore a cross brooch in more than one photograph (c. 1895), as did some of Brigham Young’s daughters” (Michael G. Reed, Banishing the Cross, 79).

In recent years, church leaders have regularly instructed the membership to refrain from displaying cross. For instance, 15th President Gordon B. Hinckley wrote, “I do not wish to give offense to any of my Christian colleagues who use the cross on the steeples of their cathedrals and at the altars of their chapels, who wear it on their vestments, and imprint it on their books and other literature. But for us, the cross is the symbol of the dying Christ, while our message is a declaration of a Living Christ” (“The Symbol of Our Faith,” Ensign, April 2005, 3). A church manual states, “The cross is used in many Christian churches as a symbol of the Savior’s death and Resurrection and as a sincere expression of faith. As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we also remember with reverence the suffering of the Savior. But because the Savior lives, we do not use the symbol of His death as the symbol of our faith” (True to the Faith: A Gospel Reference, 2004, pp. 45-46).

Hinckley’s citation doesn’t seem to make sense, as the empty cross used by Protestant Christians is a tangible reminder that Jesus indeed conquered death! Even though it was the instrument upon which He died, the cross is not a symbol of a “dying Christ.” Instead, it is a symbol of the “Living Christ” (“He is not here”) as worshiped by Christians from all over the world. And it’s “because the Savior lives” that Christians do use the cross as the symbol of their faith! Paul said that he took glory in the cross, according to Galatians 6:14a, which says, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . .”

Except for chaplains in the U.S. military, Mormons generally do not wear a cross or cherish its symbolism. For many years, those who produced the annual Mormon Miracle Pageant in Manti, Utah purposely mocked the hymn At the Cross penned by Isaac Watts. When a young Joseph Smith was portrayed in the pageant as going from one church to another during the time of revival, the hymn was sung at all three Christians denominational churches he visited. The actors moved their hands back and forth above their heads while the hymn was purposely sung out of tune. Here is the chorus that has held great meaning for Christians over the past two centuries:

At the cross, at the cross where I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart rolled away,
It was there by faith I received my sight,
And now I am happy all the day!

The way the song was butchered is another indication that many Mormons don’t think highly of the cross. Like President Hinckley, perhaps they think that Christians revere the cross to the point of worship. This is far from the truth. The reverence shown by Christians is no different than the respect Mormons might give to things they revere. For instance, Mormons wear symbols of temples on jewelry such as necklaces. And anybody who has visited Salt Lake City will quickly notice that Mormon symbolism is found throughout the downtown area. Probably the religion’s best-known symbol is the angel Moroni, represented on the top of the majority of LDS temples in the world. Beehives, moonstones, sun stones, the all-seeing eye, and Masonic “grips” are in abundance on the Salt Lake City temple.

Not all Christians choose to wear a cross, but is the wearing of a cross wrong? Christian theologian Paul Copan responds to this common question:

“Once a Muslim expressed to me his disbelief and even scorn at the idea of Christians wearing crosses: ‘How can Christians wear with pride the instrument of torture and humiliation? If your brother were killed in an electric chair, would you wear an electric chair around your neck?’ I replied that it depends: “If my brother happened to be Jesus of Nazareth and his death in an electric chair brought about my salvation and was the means by which evil was defeated and creation renewed, then he would have transformed a symbol of shame and punishment into something glorious” (Is God a Moral Monster, 33).


Unfortunately, Mormon leaders have not changed their thinking about the importance of what took place in Gethsemane while minimizing the event at the cross as a mere afterthought, despite what John Hilton might write. His complaint that “some members of the Church think primarily about what occurred in the Garden of Gethsemane” will not change in upcoming years unless the leadership decides that it was not “in Gethsemane that Jesus took on Himself the sins of the world,” as Ezra Taft Benson put it. An article written by a church history professor is not enough to convince me that the leadership has changed its way of thinking–or is even has the willingness to change.

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