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Review of Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Howard W. Hunter, Chapter 6: The Atonement and Resurrection of Jesus Christ

During 2016, LDS members will be studying the latest manual published by their church, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Howard W. Hunter We will evaluate this book regularly, chapter by chapter, by showing interesting quotes and providing an Evangelical Christian take on this manual. The text that is boldfaced is from the manual, with our comments following.

Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Howard W. Hunter, 2015

Teachings of Howard W. Hunter

The Atonement was a supreme act of love by our Heavenly Father and His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ.

The Atonement of Jesus Christ was a foreordained assignment by our Heavenly Father to redeem his children after their fallen state. It was an act of love by our Heavenly Father to permit his Only Begotten to make an atoning sacrifice. And it was a supreme act of love by his beloved Son to carry out the Atonement.

I have stood in the garden of Gethsemane on many occasions. I’ve contemplated in my mind the suffering, the agony of the Savior—that agony that was experienced when our Heavenly Father permitted him, in a way our minds cannot even comprehend, to take upon himself the pain and sins of all mankind. My soul was filled with sorrow as I’ve thought of his great sacrifice for mankind.

This chapter is being studied by Latter-day Saints all over the world on the Sunday before Easter, so this special season is the focus for this chapter. I always find it interesting how the Garden of Gethsemane is so emphasized by LDS leaders. Let me give you some quotes to show you what I mean:

“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” (Gerald N. Lund (Second Quorum), “Salvation: By Grace or By Works?” Ensign, April 1981, p. 22).

“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” (Ezra Taft Benson, Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, p.14

“When the time came to take upon himself the sins of all men on conditions of repentance, our Lord, dwelling in mortality, retired to Gethsemane to undergo the greatest suffering ever borne by man or God” (Bruce R. McConkie, The Promised Messiah: The First Coming of Christ, p. 253).

“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” (M. Russell Ballard, “The Atonement and the Value of One Soul,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2004, p. 85).

“In Gethsemane, Christ took upon himself the burden of the sins of the world and suffered for them in a way that is incomprehensible to mortals” (Encyclopedia of Mormonism 3:1090).

“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, p. 14).

“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” (BYU Professor Robert J. Matthews, A Bible! A Bible! p. 282).

“Jesus paid for all our sins when He suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane” (Laurel Rohlfing, “Sharing Time: The Atonement,” Friend magazine, March 1989, p. 39).

“In Gethsemane the Savior took upon Himself the sins of the world and the weight of the world’s sorrows” (“Finding Hope in Christ,” Ensign, December 2002, p. 8).

“In Gethsemane, Jesus suffered for the sins of all mankind, as if they were His own. His suffering for all these sins were greater than any of us can understand. …On the cross, He finished suffering the penalty for Adam’s disobedience and for our own sins” (Gospel Fundamentals, 2002, p. 57. Ellipsis mine).

“The Savior atoned for our sins by suffering in Gethsemane and by giving His life on the cross. It is impossible for us to fully understand how He suffered for all of our sins. In the Garden of Gethsemane, the weight of our sins caused Him to feel such agony that He bled from every pore (see D&C 19:18–19)” (Gospel Principles, 2009, p. 61).

I could produce many other quotes similar to these. The point? According to Mormonism, the atonement took place in the Garden.

I’ve stood beneath Golgotha, the place of the skull, and contemplated the humiliation of the crucifixion which led to our Savior’s mortal death, but which brought to pass his and all mankind’s immortality. And again my soul has been subdued.

The cross and Jesus’s death is talked about here, but it certainly is not the main focus of the Mormon leadership. Consider what Joseph Fielding Smith said about the cross:

“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” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation 1:130).

And I’ve stood in front of the garden tomb and imagined that glorious day of resurrection when the Savior emerged from the tomb alive, resurrected, immortal. In that contemplation my heart has swelled with joy.

Through these experiences I’ve felt to pour out my soul in thanksgiving and appreciation to our Heavenly Father for the love which he and his Son have given to us through the glorious atoning sacrifice. In the words of Charles Gabriel, “I stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers me, confused at the grace that so fully he proffers me. I tremble to know that for me he was crucified, that for me, a sinner, he suffered, he bled and died. Oh, it is wonderful that he should care for me enough to die for me. Oh, it is wonderful, wonderful to me.” …

I bear you my testimony, my brethren and sisters, that our Heavenly Father sent his beloved Son, Jesus Christ, into the world to fulfill the conditions upon which the plan of salvation would be operated. The Atonement represents his great love for us.

In Christianity, the resurrection of Jesus means everything. As Paul talks about it, the historical resurrection is vital to the entire case made by Christians. (See 10 reasons to support the story of the Resurrection.) The atonement—what Jesus did on the cross—is all sufficient and allows the believer the opportunity to have a relationship with the living God of the Bible.

For Mormonism, the death and resurrection of Jesus—known as the Atonement—does nothing more than just provide all people an opportunity at one of three kingdoms of heaven. It does not guarantee all people immortality, which is nothing more than a resurrection from the dead. Apostle Dallin Oaks stated,

His atonement paid for the sin of Adam and won victory over death, assuring resurrection and immortality for all men” (“What Think Ye of Christ?” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 1988, p. 65).

Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland described it this way:

Some gifts coming from the Atonement are universal, infinite, and unconditional. These include His ransom for Adam’s original transgression so that no member of the human family is held responsible for that sin (“The Atonement of Jesus Christ,” Ensign, March 2008, p. 35).

Tenth President Joseph Fielding Smith said that, by itself, the atonement was not enough. Instead, full obedience is required if a person hopes to attain the celestial kingdom:

TWOFOLD NATURE OF ATONEMENT. The atonement of Jesus Christ is of a twofold nature. Because of it, all men are redeemed from mortal death and the grave, and will rise in the resurrection to immortality of the soul. Then again, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel, man will receive remission of individual sins, through the blood of Christ, and will inherit exaltation in the kingdom of God, which is eternal life” (Doctrines of Salvation 1:123).

Russell M. Nelson, president of the Twelve Apostles, stated,

Thanks to the Atonement, the gift of immortality is unconditional. The greater gift of eternal life, however, is conditional. In order to qualify, one must deny oneself of ungodliness and honor the ordinances and covenants of the temple (“Divine Love,” Ensign, February 2003, p. 24).

And Holland also said that obedience, in addition to the Atonement, is a requirement for complete salvation:

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, p. 106).

The church manual Gospel Principles agrees, saying,

The Savior satisfied the demands of justice for those who repent of their sins and endeavor to keep all of His commandments when He stood in our place and suffered the penalty for our sins. This act is called the Atonement… However, Jesus did not eliminate our personal responsibility. He forgives our sins when we accept Him, repent, and obey His commandments. Through the Atonement and living the gospel we become worthy to enter the presence of our Heavenly Father permanently (Preach My Gospel, 2004, p. 61. Ellipsis mine).

Think of it! When his body was taken from the cross and hastily placed in a borrowed tomb, he, the sinless Son of God, had already taken upon him not only the sins and temptations of every human soul who will repent, but all of our sickness and grief and pain of every kind. He suffered these afflictions as we suffer them, according to the flesh. He suffered them all. He did this to perfect his mercy and his ability to lift us above every earthly trial.

Think of it! According to Mormonism, the atonement is not fully efficacious to everyone, but only to those who repent. As the quotes from above point out, there is a great obligation on the individual. There is no real mercy or grace provided, but rather a contract provided whereby the individual is required to earn God’s favor and “to perfect his mercy.”

We may, in fact, make wrong choices, bad choices, hurtful choices. And sometimes we do just that, but that is where the mission and mercy of Jesus Christ comes into full force and glory. … He has provided a mediating atonement for the wrong choices we make. He is our advocate with the Father and has paid, in advance, for the faults and foolishness we often see in the exercise of our freedom. We must accept his gift, repent of those mistakes, and follow his commandments in order to take full advantage of this redemption. The offer is always there; the way is always open. We can always, even in our darkest hour and most disastrous errors, look to the Son of God and live.

What does it mean that there is “a mediating atonement for the wrong choices we make” and “we must accept his gift”? What type of person puts restrictions on a “gift”? Is it even possible to set requirements when one gives a “gift”? Could it even possible for someone to say, “Here’s your birthday present. Now go mow my grass.” It is mere rhetoric to say that it is possible to “look to the Son of God and live” when much more than “looking” is required.

No doctrine in the Christian canon is more important to all mankind than the doctrine of the resurrection of the Son of God. Through him came the resurrection of all men, women, and children who have ever been—or ever will be—born into the world.

This is general salvation, which provides a resurrection to all people. But once more, in Mormonism, this is not adequate to provide for individual salvation, or exaltation or eternal life. As tenth President Joseph Fielding Smith explained,

Salvation is twofold: General – that which comes to all men irrespective of a belief (in this life) in Christ- and, Individual – that which man merits through his own acts through life and by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel (Doctrines of Salvation 1:134).

While some might consider this an adequate gift because all people get resurrected and thus are saved from the fire of hell, we must understand that not getting individual salvation is damnation. Joseph Fielding Smith stated,

What is damnation? It is being barred, or denied privileges of progression, because of failure to comply with law. All who fail to enter into the celestial kingdom are damned, or stopped in their progression, but they will enter into some other glory which they are entitled to receive (Doctrines of Salvation 2:227).

Eleventh President Harold B. Lee explained,

Men will be judged according to the records that have been kept of our lives. (See D&C 128:6-7.) Now, when we fail of that highest degree of glory and realize what we’ve lost, there will be a burning of the conscience that will be worse than any physical kind of fire that I assume one could suffer (The Teachings of Harold B. Lee, p. 67).

It could even be a single sin that keeps a person from entering the Celestial kingdom. Apostle Bruce R. McConkie wrote,

Salvation comes by obedience to the whole law of the whole gospel. Joseph Smith said: “Any person who is exalted to the highest mansion has to abide a celestial law, and the whole law too.” (Teachings, p. 331.) Thus, a man may be damned for a single sin (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary 3:256).

He also said,

Eternal damnation is the opposite of eternal life, and all those who do not gain eternal life, or exaltation in the highest heaven within the celestial kingdom, are partakers of eternal damnation. Their eternal condemnation is to have limitations imposed upon them so that they cannot progress to the state of godhood and gain a fullness of all things (Mormon Doctrine, 1966, p. 234).

Surely the resurrection is the center of every Christian’s faith; it is the greatest of all of the miracles performed by the Savior of the world. Without it, we are indeed left hopeless. Let me borrow the words of Paul: “If there be no resurrection of the dead, … then is our preaching vain, … and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ. … If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:13–15, 17).

Christians believe in the resurrection of the body, the most vital of all doctrines. Take away the historicity of the resurrection and Christianity fades away.

Without the Resurrection, the gospel of Jesus Christ becomes a litany of wise sayings and seemingly unexplainable miracles—but sayings and miracles with no ultimate triumph. No, the ultimate triumph is in the ultimate miracle: for the first time in the history of mankind, one who was dead raised himself into living immortality. He was the Son of God, the Son of our immortal Father in Heaven, and his triumph over physical and spiritual death is the good news every Christian tongue should speak.

The eternal truth is that Jesus Christ arose from the grave and was the firstfruits of the Resurrection. (See 1 Cor. 15:23.) The witnesses of this wonderful occurrence cannot be impeached.

When it comes to this point about the centrality of the resurrection, I offer no rebuttal. Only agreement. In Mormonism, there are two other historical events that are also just as important: the First Vision and the Book of Mormon.

Regarding the First Vision, President Gordon B. Hinckley said,

Our whole strength rests on the validity of that vision. It either occurred or it did not occur. If it did not, then this work is a fraud… upon that unique and wonderful experience stands the validity of this church (“The Marvelous Foundation of our Faith,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 2002, p. 80. Ellipsis mine).

He also said,

Every claim that we make concerning divine authority, every truth that we offer concerning the validity of this work, all finds its roots in the First Vision of the boy prophet (Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, p. 226).

And he said this:

I would like to say that this cause is either true or false. Either this is the kingdom of God, or it is a sham and a delusion. Either Joseph talked with the Father and the Son, or he did not. If he did not, we are engaged in blasphemy (Conference Reports, October 1961, p. 116).

The importance of the Book of Mormon has also been stressed. Joseph Smith said, “Take away the Book of Mormon and the revelations, and where is our religion? We have none” (History of the Church 2:52). President Ezra Taft Benson stretched his logic when he reported,

If the Book of Mormon is true, then Jesus is the Christ, Joseph Smith was His prophet, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is true, and it is being led today by a prophet receiving revelation (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson, 2014, p. 108).

Of course, even if the Book of Mormon is true, this doesn’t mean the Salt Lake City version of Mormonism is true. After all, one of the many splinter groups claiming Joseph Smith as their founder might be the correct prophet and all others are false! (For instance, perhaps Warren Jeffs and his FLDS Church is the one true church.) The point is, though, that Mormonism bases his truth claim on the historicity of this scripture. Apostle Orson Pratt described the importance of the Book of Mormon this way:

This book must be either true or false. If true, it is one of the most important messages ever sent from God to man, affecting both the temporal and eternal interests of every people under heaven to the same extent and in the same degree that the message of Noah affected the inhabitants of the old world. If false, it is one of the most cunning, wicked, bold, deep-laid impositions ever palmed upon the world, calculated to deceive and ruin millions who will sincerely receive it as the word of God, and will suppose themselves securely built upon the rock of truth until they are plunged with their families into hopeless despair. The nature of the message in the Book of Mormon is such, that if true, no one can possibly be saved and reject it; if false, no one can possibly be saved and receive it (Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon, 1:1, Liverpool, October 15, 1850. Italics in original).

Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland said,

To consider that everything of saving significance in the Church stands or falls on the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and, by implication, the Prophet Joseph Smith’s account of how it came forth is as sobering as it is true. It is a “sudden death” proposition. Either the Book of Mormon is what the Prophet Joseph said it is, or this Church and its founder are false, a deception from the first instance onward (Christ and the New Covenant, p. 334).

Yes, the resurrection as a historical event is vital to both Christianity and, according to Hunter, to Mormonism. A critic who holds to the efficacy of the resurrection will not aim barbs at this point. However, Mormonism has two soft underbellies that are just as important to this religion: the First Vision and the Book of Mormon. We have written plenty on the many problems these events have when it comes to history. If you are a Latter-day Saint, realize that your religion “stands or falls” on these two events. Do the research and determine if the facts support your case.

For more on the First Vision, go here.

For more on the Book of Mormon, go here.

In teaching his Apostles, Christ made known to them “that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31.) So it was. He was crucified and placed in the tomb. On the third day, he did arise to live again—the Savior of all mankind and the firstfruits of the Resurrection. Through this atoning sacrifice, all men shall be saved from the grave and shall live again. This always has been the testimony of the Apostles, to which I add my witness.

General salvation is all that is provided through the atonement of Mormonism. If that’s all that Easter is about, then is it really worthy of celebration? If attaining the celestial kingdom is all about what we do for God and the atonement merely gets us to the party, with no other favors, it would seem that our observance of Easter is tainted. This is far from the historical observance of Easter celebrated by Christians for centuries.

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