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Confusion over Gethsemane and the Atonement

By Eric Johnson

Posted 7/2021

Traditionally most LDS leaders have stressed the importance of what took place in the Garden of Gethsemane for the atonement. Some leaders in recent years are attempting to include what took place at the cross as part of the narrative.

This issue was discussed in the April 2021 Liahona magazine, an official LDS Church publication of for English-speaking adults. John Hilton III, an associate professor of ancient scripture at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, suggested that Mormonism gives equal importance to events in the Garden of Gethsemane, Golgotha, and the Garden tomb. Titled “Jesus Suffered, Died, and Rose Again for Us,” a pull quote on page U10 reads, “The Savior’s atoning sacrifice began in Gethsemane but wasn’t complete without the events of Golgotha and The Garden Tomb.”

Hilton writes in the introduction,

What comes to mind when you think about the Atonement of Jesus 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?

Two LDS scholars made a similar comment back in 1993:

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. In fact, the sufferings of Jesus Christ that began in the Garden of Gethsemane were consummated on the cross (Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate, Jr., eds., Third Nephi 9-30: This Is My Gospel, 14).

In his conclusion, Hilton writes, “Because of the Savior’s perfect Atonement in Gethsemane, Golgotha, and the Garden Tomb, each of us can find joy, peace, and assurance–today and every day.”

I agree that LDS leaders have generally mentioned the cross when discussing the events at the Garden of Gethsemane. For instance, consider 15th President Gordon B. Hinckley’s words: “We honor His birth. But without His death that birth would have been but one more birth. It was the redemption which He worked out in the Garden of Gethsemane and upon the cross of Calvary which made His gift immortal, universal, and everlasting. His was a great atonement for the sins of all mankind” (Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, 281). In a general conference talk in 2008, Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency explained, “The Savior was born in mortal life, was tempted but never sinned, and then in Gethsemane and on Golgotha paid the price of our sins so that we could be cleansed.” (“O Ye That Embark,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 2008, 57).

Despite Hilton’s optimistic assessment given at the beginning of his article, it is apparent that the Garden of Gethsemane is the primary understanding for where the majority of the atonement took place by the vast majority of LDS leaders.

Glorifying the Events of the Garden

Generally, it can be shown that LDS leaders have emphasized the events in the Garden of Gethsemane as the main place where the atonement took place. (Hilton says the Garden was just the “beginning.”) Could this be why so many Latter-day Saints have been led to emphasize the importance of the Garden? For instance, 10th President Joseph Fielding Smith stated,

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).

Unlike Hilton, Smith seemed to revel in what took place in Gethsemane, not on the cross. This idea was firmly planted the mind of Smith’s son-in-law, Bruce R. McConkie:

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).

Notice how McConkie said that it was in the Garden where Jesus took “upon himself . . . their sins.” It is not the only time he glorified the events in the Garden and even said that “the atonement took place primarily in Gethsemane”:

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).

This idea is magnified in this citation by McConkie:

And the most transcendent event in his entire eternal existence, the most glorious single happening from creation’s dawn to eternity’s endless continuance, the crowning work of his infinite goodness—such took place in a garden called Gethsemane, outside a city called Jerusalem, when he, tabernacled in the flesh, bore the weight of the sins of all those who believe in his name and obey his gospel (The Promised Messiah: The First Coming of Christ, 2).

Thirteenth LDS President Ezra Taft Benson had no problem with McConkie’s emphasis on the Garden, as he taught, “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). Even BYU professor Robert J. Matthews agreed, writing, “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! 282). Meanwhile, writing in a church magazine aimed at the church’s teens, Laurel Rohlfling wrote, “Jesus paid for all our sins when He suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane” (“Sharing Time: The Atonement,” Friend, March 1989, 39).

Even contemporary church leaders continue to relegate the cross to a secondary status. One example is 17th President Russell M. Nelson whose general conference address from October 2018 was cited in Hilton’s article. He said, “In the Garden of Gethsemane, our Savior took upon Himself every pain, every pain, every sin, and all of the anguish and suffering ever experienced by you and me and by everyone who has ever lived or will ever lived . . . . All of this suffering was intensified as He was cruelly crucified on Calvary’s cross” (“The Covenant Name of the Church,” Ensign, Nov. 2018, 88).

Two decades earlier Nelson minimized the power of what took place on the cross while uplifting the Garden for where sins were atoned for:

Because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, all mankind, even as many as will, shall be redeemed. The Savior began shedding His blood for all mankind, not on the cross but in the Garden of Gethsemane. There He took upon Himself the weight of the sins of all who would ever live. Under that heavy load, He bled at every pore (“The Message: His Mission and Ministry,” New Era, December 1999, 4, 6. Also see “The Mission and Ministry of Jesus Christ,” Ensign, April 2013, 35).

After writing this, Nelson then said, “The agony of the Atonement was completed at Calvary.” Completed? By making the cross nothing more than an afterthought, Nelson does a disservice to a doctrine that has been historically emphasized by Christians for the past 2,000 years. Jesus said in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus did this when he died on the cross, not when He just bled in the Garden. This is what Christians call the substitutionary atonement, as Jesus is the “Lamb of God” who did not just suffer for sins but died for sins. This is the difference between “expiation” (death) and “perpetration” (sweating blood)!

Consider the words of Paul  in 1 Corinthians 15:3: For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures . . .”  Colossians 1:21-22 says, “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, . . .” In the next chapter (2:13-14), Paul added, 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.” Romans 5:6 says that “Christ died for the ungodly,” allowing believers to be “justified by his blood” (v, 9).

The following are a number of 21st century citations from LDS leaders and writers to show how the Garden continues to be the main point of emphasis when the doctrine of atonement is discussed:

Apostle M. Russell Ballard: “Thankfully, Jesus Christ courageously fulfilled this sacrifice in ancient Jerusalem. 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” (“The Atonement and the Value of One Soul,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2004, 85).

Seventy Wolfgang H. Paul: “It was there [Gethsemane] 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. Brackets mine).

Max Molgard (church correlation department): “In the greatest act of humility and submissiveness, including suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane as depicted in painting by Harry Anderson, the Savior willingly and without reward offered himself a sacrifice for sin” (“Acknowledge God,” Church News, December 29, 2007, 11).

Seventy Lawrence E. Corbridge: “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” (“The Way,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 2008, p. 35. Brackets in original).

Seventy Carlos H. Amado: “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).

Is it no wonder that the average Latter-day Saint would think (as Hilton has admitted) that the most important part of the atonement took place in the Garden of Gethsemane?

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