By Eric Johnson
Note: The following was originally printed in the March/April 2023 edition of Mormonism Researched, sent bimonthly to financial supporters of MRM. To request a free subscription to Mormonism Researched, please visit here.
Jeffrey R. Holland, the fourth highest ranking LDS Church leader based on seniority, gave a talk at the October 2022 general conference titled “Lifted Up Upon the Cross” (Liahona, November 2022, 77-80). In his 13-minute address, Holland diminished those who believe the cross should be a cherished Christian symbol. As we approach Holy Week during the first week of April, let’s consider some of his criticism.
The diminishing of the cross in Mormonism
In the past, Holland has had a propensity to disparage biblical Christianity. This trait certainly came across in his talk.
He spent more than a third of his presentation explaining how a graduate student asked him why the “Latter-day Saints [have] not adopted the cross that other Christians use as a symbol of their faith.” Holland proceeded to explain how “the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ” is “the central fact . . . and the ultimate expression of divine love in God’s grand plan for the salvation of His children.” He also referenced 1 Nephi 11:32-33 in the Book of Mormon that refers to “the Lamb of God who was lifted up upon the cross and slain for the sins of the world.”
Just as he was about to quote the apostle Paul, Holland claimed that “my friend’s eyes were starting to glaze over.” The student then looked at his watch and said he needed to be somewhere. Holland said the young man then “dashed off to his fictitious appointment. Thus ended our conversation.” (How did he know if this student really didn’t have to be somewhere?)
In the general conference talk, Holland said, “As I attempt to explain why we generally do not use the iconography of the cross, I wish to make abundantly clear our deep respect and profound admiration for the faith-filled motives and devoted lives of those who do.”
“Deep respect” and “profound admiration”? Is this the attitude that tenth President Joseph Fielding Smith had? Using a straw man logical fallacy, Smith wrote,
“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.
It seems that the Mormon leaders who criticize the symbol of the cross must be a natural reaction to maintain Mormonism’s teaching that the atonement took place in the Garden of Gethsemane, not at Calvary. As BYU professor Robert J. Matthews put it, “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).
Holland’s argument against the cross
The high-ranking apostle makes faulty assumptions in his case against the use of the cross by insisting that:
· The cross was not used in the first three centuries of the Christian church.
· The cross was created out of “councils, creeds, and iconography.” He said “the absence of a symbol that was late in coming into common use is yet another evidence that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a restoration of true Christian beginnings.”
· The LDS Church would rather focus on Jesus’s resurrection rather than His death.
· Mormons would rather show their faith by their “rock-ribbed integrity and stiff moral backbone” than a symbol on their “pendants or jewelry, with steeples and signposts.” In what was obviously meant to be a cute pull-quote, he boldly stated, “This speaks of the crosses we bear rather than the ones we wear.” This makes for a cute quip but horrible application.
Holland even makes assumptions that are just not true. For one, the symbol of the cross was used by Christians well before the fourth century when there were any councils or creeds.
A popular early symbol of Christianity was the Ikthus (ἸΧΘΥϹ), symbolized as a fish. The letters are an acrostic for “Iēsoûs Khrīstós, Theoû Huiós, Sōtḗr,” which translates to “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.” This symbol began in the 2nd century as a way for Christians to identify with each other; this faith symbol is still used by believers today.
But the cross was also a popular symbol known to early Christians. The Jewish Encyclopedia explains that “the cross as a Christian symbol or ‘seal’ came into use at least as early as the second century . . . Accordingly the Christian Fathers had to defend themselves, as early as the second century, against the charge of being worshipers of the cross. . . . Christians used to swear by the power of the cross.”
According to the New World Encyclopedia, the cross had become so closely associated with Christ that Clement of Alexandria, who died between 211 and 216, used the phrase “the Lord’s sign” to mean the cross. Tertullian, a contemporary of Clement, called believers “crucis religiosi,” or “devotees of the cross.” He also wrote in his book De Corona dated 204 that it was already common for Christians to trace the sign of the cross on their foreheads.
The use of the cross can be found in catacombs found near Rome that were used in the first century as the Christians went underground; the symbol was also placed on more than a hundred ossuaries (bone boxes) from the first century that were found on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. It is very clear that most of these markings were meant as crosses associated with Jesus.
Twentieth century archaeologist Jack Finegan explained, “[In these tombs] there are signs that can be [considered] Christian, and names that are frequent or prominent in the New Testament. . . It surely comes within the realm of possibility that at least this area in particular is a burial place of families, some of whose members had become [the very first] Christians.”
The use of the cross for early Christians makes perfect sense. After all, it was the apostle Paul himself who declared that “the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Philippians 3:18 says, “For many walk, of whom I have told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ.” And Jesus said in Matthew 16:24, “If anyone desires to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.”
Holland said his church doesn’t use the symbol of the cross because the resurrection, not the death, of Jesus, should be emphasized. He apparently does not understand that the empty cross is symbolic of the resurrection since the grave could not contain the Savior!
Pastor John Piper explains why the cross is important to Christians:
“Life is wasted if we do not grasp the glory of the cross, cherish it for the treasure that it is, and cleave to it as the highest price of every pleasure and the deepest comfort in every pain. What was once foolishness to us—a crucified God—must become our wisdom and our power and our only boast in this world.”Don’t Waste Your Life, 2018, 46.
First Peter 2:24 says Jesus “Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed.” Colossians 2:14 explains that Jesus “wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.”
Unless the meaning behind the cross is understood, false teachers like Mr. Holland will continue to misunderstand why Christians “cling to the old rugged cross.” What took place on that torture instrument leading to death every time is the basis for the forgiveness of sins.
While this apostle tries to be cute (“crosses we bear rather than the ones we wear”), his talk comes across as a means to diminish a symbol used by Christians for centuries as he attempted to make his church look more spiritual. What’s interesting is that his own church cherishes a symbol like Moroni whose image as a statue towers over most LDS temples. Latter-day Saints will even proudly wear pins of this angel on their lapels, dresses, or ties. Mormon temple garments include marks representing Masonic imagery, such as the V-shaped symbol on the left breast called the compasses and the L-shaped symbol on the right breast representing the square.
In addition, imagery such as the Masonic handshake or heavenly planets adorn the outside of the Salt Lake City temple. Faithful members also place paintings or pictures of Joseph Smith and the general authorities on their walls at home as a reminder of the importance of, as Holland put it, “the restored New Testament church.” How are these things any different than Christians wearing a cross around their necks or putting crosses on their walls?
Instead of minimizing the symbolism of the cross, Holland and other Mormons ought to understand its importance and not remain “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:18).