Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Mormonism Researched, May-June 2005. To request your free subscription to this publication, please visit here.
Where Christ actually took upon Himself the sins of mankind has been a bone of contention between Mormons and Christians for decades.
In their book Third Nephi 9-30: This Is My Gospel, Mormon authors Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate correctly note,
“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” (p.14).
I have personally examined hundreds of LDS references to Gethsemane as it relates to the doctrine of the atonement, and I can attest that there are many confusing statements on this subject. Some Mormon leaders have insisted that Christ’s suffering was based on His knowledge that He would soon experience the cross. Others say it was in Gethsemane that Christ atoned for all of mankind’s sins, which is the view of many lay members. Others, like the authors mentioned above, insist “the sufferings of Jesus Christ that began in the Garden of Gethsemane were consummated on the cross.”
It is no secret that some LDS General Authorities firmly believed that Gethsemane was the primary place of the atonement. For example, Mormon Apostle Bruce McConkie, stated,
“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).
Minimizing the role of Calvary was also echoed by BYU professor Robert J. Matthews. On page 282 of his book A Bible! A Bible!, he writes,
“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.”
The emphasis on the Garden is also reflected in Mormon art. Examples of this can be seen in the April 2005 issue of Ensign magazine (as well as numerous other LDS publications). In the article titled “A Balanced Life,” a caption beneath a picture of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane reads, “The Atonement allows us to receive an outpouring of the Savior’s grace…” (p.29).
On page 54 of the same issue is a reprint of an article by Bruce R. McConkie titled “Once or Twice in a Thousand Years.” He states,
“The most transcendent of all events occurred in a garden called Gethsemane, outside Jerusalem’s walls, when the Chief Citizen of planet Earth sweat great drops of blood from every pore as He in agony took up Himself the sins of all men on condition of repentance.”
On the next page is a picture of Christ praying in the Garden. No cross is mentioned or seen.
This is also true in the Mormon missionary handbook, Preach My Gospel. Though page 53 mentions that the atonement included Christ’s suffering in both the Garden and on the cross, only a picture of Christ in the Garden is shown.
When it comes to the LDS doctrine of the atonement, I have noticed an interesting pattern. The Garden of Gethsemane is often mentioned alone, but the cross is rarely ever mentioned without it being in conjunction with Gethsemane. A case in point would be the McConkie quote cited in the April 2005 Ensign. In that article he insists that it was in Gethsemane that Christ “took upon [past tense] Himself the sins of all men…”(p. 54). The cross is never mentioned.
In April 2002, the Ensign published another article titled “Because of His Love.” In this piece, author Brent Top says,
“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 sins of mankind, the great agony of the Atonement took place” (Ensign, April 2002, p.19).
If Christ actually bore (past tense) “all” of the sins of mankind in Gethsemane, what would be left to bear on the cross?
There are several reasons why we as Christians must reject the notion that Christ’s work of atonement had anything to do with His agony in the Garden. One of them lies in the prophetic passages of the Old Testament. Whereas numerous verses from the OT speak directly to Christ’s suffering on the cross (e.g., Ps. 22:1, 6-8, 15, 16; Is 53), not one hints of the atonement taking place via perspiration.
Interestingly, we find this same pattern in the Book of Mormon. For instance, 1 Nephi 11:33 says that Christ “was lifted up upon the cross and slain for the sins of the world.” Third Nephi 27:14 states that because Christ was “lifted up upon the cross,” He is able to “draw all men” unto Himself. If the Book of Mormon is indeed the fullness of the gospel, and if McConkie is correct in saying that Gethsemane truly is “the most transcendent of all events,” why is the cross given preeminence and Gethsemane is completely ignored? It is entirely fair to say that if the Nephites were real people, they would have had no concept of an atonement taking place anywhere but on a cross.
One of the biggest reasons to reject the Gethsemane theory is what Christ Himself said. Based on Christ’s prayer, there seems to be no doubt that He was praying for Himself in light of the suffering He was about to endure. It could be easily summarized that Jesus agonized for Himself in the Garden, as opposed to the cross where He agonized for mankind.
Jesus prayed to the Father to “remove this cup” (Luke 22:42). Mormons are correct to note that the cup is a reference to suffering, but they read too much into the text when they insist that Jesus partook of this “bitter cup” in the Garden (D&C 19:18). Matthew 26 provides some interesting details that rule out the idea that Christ partook of this “cup” in the Garden. In verse 29, Matthew records how Jesus went to the Garden and began to ask the Father to take “this cup” from Him if it were His will. Later that evening Jesus stopped praying to find his disciples sleeping. He chides them for not being able to stay awake to pray for even one hour.
Jesus then went back a second time to once again ask God if it were possible to take away the cup. After praying some more, He again found His disciples sleeping. Leaving them alone, he went back a third time to repeat the prayer He had given before. Three times in a relatively short period of time, Jesus petitioned the Father to remove the cup. However, if we are to accept the Mormon interpretation, we must wonder why he was asking for something to be removed that had already been going on for about an hour! Jesus seemed to be oblivious to the fact that He was already partaking of the cup.
When Peter attempted to prevent Jesus’ arrest by cutting off the ear of the High Priest’s servant, Jesus rebuked him and said, “The cup which my Father has given me, shall I not drink it?” (John 18:11). Given the Mormon interpretation, this seems like strange language indeed. How could Peter’s act hinder this from happening if Jesus had already partaken of the cup? Let us not forget that Jesus was arrested immediately after he asked this question of Peter (John 18:12). His time in the garden was already over. It makes more sense to conclude that Jesus’ metaphoric drinking of the cup was a future event.
As Christians, we cannot simply dismiss the fact that the Bible plainly states how Christ’s payment for sins took place on the cross. In I Corinthians. 15:3-4, Paul insisted that “Christ died for our sins.” Since He didn’t die in Gethsemane, the Mormon notion must be rejected.
Peter left no room for doubt as to where Christ took upon our sins when he said that Christ bore them “in his own body on the tree.” (I Pet. 2:24). No scholar with whom I am aware denies that this was a reference to the cross.
If the Mormon Church is really a restoration of true Christianity, why doesn’t it emulate the apostolic emphasis of the New Testament? No New Testament author claims Gethsemane had anything to do with the atonement of mankind. Instead we find numerous references made to the cross and Christ’s death.
I admit that this is not a subject that carries salvific consequences, but it is just one more example of how the LDS Church forces its preconceived ideas on the Scriptures. We pray that Mormons everywhere will abandon this error, and trust what the Bible actually says.