Question: Are Latter-day Saints are not true Christians because they do not use the cross and believe that the atonement occurred in the Garden of Gethsemane?

Table of Contents

Question: Are Latter-day Saints are not true Christians because they do not use the cross and believe that the atonement occurred in the Garden of Gethsemane?

Latter-day Saints include Christ's suffering and death on the cross as part of his atonement for all humanity

Latter-day Saints teach that the atonement of Christ was carried out in Gethsemane, rather than on the cross. However, these statements from a variety of LDS sources are sufficient to show that the LDS include Christ's suffering and death on the cross as part of his atonement for all humanity. His suffering on the cross was preceded by suffering at Gethsemane.

Even Jesus' life had a part in His atonement, since only God, a perfect being, could perform this service. His mission thus also included being "in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15). It is therefore arbitrary and misleading to draw some type of "line" during Jesus' mortal life or death when He was not working for our salvation. This includes Gethsemane and the cross.

An anti-Mormon protester claims—falsely—that Latter-day Saints do not value the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross for all humanity.

There is a spectrum of belief in the Church, among both the leaders and the people in the pew, as in all religions. It is true that members of the Church have historically included the garden of Gethsemane as playing a role in Jesus' saving act. Some have emphasized it, perhaps in reaction to the emphasis on the cross alone in other Christian denominations.

The garden and the cross

However, even that emphasis, were it the sole message of the Church (and it is not) does not exclude the cross. Note, for example, this excerpt from the Christmas message of Gordon B. Hinckley, past President of the Church:

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. He was the resurrection and the life, "the firstfruits of them that slept" (1 Corinthians 15:20). Because of Him all men will be raised from the grave. [1]

Other statements by Elder Bruce McConkie, who is sometimes used as evidence for this criticism, show he was not as one-sided as critics imply:

And now, as pertaining to this perfect atonement, wrought by the shedding of the blood of God—I testify that it took place in Gethsemane and at Golgotha, and as pertaining to Jesus Christ, I testify that he is the Son of the Living God and was crucified for the sins of the world. He is our Lord, our God, and our King." [2]

The official training booklet sent out with missionaries includes this statement:

The Atonement included His suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane as well as His suffering and death on the cross. [3]

As a fourth example, consider something that recently came from the Church press:

Jesus' atoning sacrifice took place in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross at Calvary. In Gethsemane, He began to take upon himself the sins of the world…. The Savior continued to suffer for our sins when He allowed Himself to be crucified. [4]

The importance of Gethsemane in the scriptures

Gethsemane does present some interesting problems. Other Christians reject the Latter-day Saint view of the importance of Gethsemane in part because it is only mentioned twice in the New Testament (Matthew 26:36 and Mark 14:32). While this may be so, the events that transpired there are mentioned also in the other two gospels. In other words, all four gospel writers felt it important enough to include it in their 'memoirs.' In John 18:1 it is reported that Christ and His disciples "often resorted thither." Luke 22:39 tells us that He went there, "as he was wont" (compare Luke 19:29 and Luke 21:37, the latter of which says He spent the 'nights' on Mount Olive). This was apparently a special place for them to seek solitude, a private place to seek their Father in prayer. It is evident from the commentaries written on the various gospels that the exact purpose of the experience is not well understood. We don't need to go into the events verse by verse, but there are some things that need to be noted. Despite the importance the Lord places on prayer in general, there are only a few places where He is actually depicted as doing so; this prayer in Gethsemane is one of them. Furthermore, there are few places in the New Testament where He is depicted as being 'strengthened' by an angel (Matthew 4:11). The experience in the Garden is one of them (Luke 22:43, in which an angel is sent to strengthen Him during His prayer). There are others who have also commented on the singularity of this experience, and attributed it, at least in part, to the atonement.

Gethsemane as viewed by non-Latter-day Saint Christians

Christian theologian Leon Morris is quoted frequently by Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson, the authors of the book Mormonism 101 (a book critical of Mormonism). It is not without significance, therefore, that Morris quotes Lesslie Newbigin as follows:

The Son of God, the Word of God made flesh, kneels in the garden of Gethsemane. He wrestles in prayer. His sweat falls like great drops of blood. He cries out in an agony: "not my will, but thine be done." That is what it costs God to deal with man's sin. To create the heavens and the earth costs Him no labor, no anguish; to take away the sin of the world costs Him His own life-blood. [5]

Elsewhere, Leon Morris himself admits that, at least for Matthew, "what took place in the Garden was very important." [6]

In a recent commentary, Donald A. Hagner of Fuller Theological Seminary writes:

The thought of what he will have to undergo in the near future fills Jesus with dread and anguish. A real struggle within the soul of Jesus takes place in Gethsemane, and he craves the support of those who have been closest to him during his ministry. The mystery of the agony of God's unique Son cannot be fully penetrated. That it has to do with bearing the penalty of sin for the world to make salvation possible seems clear. [7]

In a commentary on Matthew 26, first published in 1864, German scholar John Peter Lange refers to several interpretations offered by earlier commentators. He quotes a scholar named Ebrard: "His trembling in Gethsemane was not dread of His sufferings, but was part of His passion itself; it was not a transcendental and external assumption of a foreign guilt, but a concrete experience of the full and concentrated power of the world's sin." [8] At the same place Lange refers to the reformer Melanchthon as teaching that in the Garden Christ "suffered the wrath of God in our stead and our behalf."

Another recent commentary quotes favorably a statement to the effect that Matthew 26:37 ("And he took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be sorrowful and very heavy") indicates that "at this point the Passion, in its full sense, began." [9]

J.M. Ford writes, "the theological importance, however, is that for Luke the blood that redeems humankind begins to flow in the garden." [10] Popular evangelical scholar Thomas C. Oden paraphrases Catherine of Siena this way:

[Christ] was not externally compelled to be baptized with the baptism of sinners, to set his face steadfastly toward Jerusalem or go to Gethsemane, or drink the cup of suffering. Rather he received and drank that cup not because he liked to suffer—the very thought cause him to sweat profusely—but rather because it was an intrinsic part of the purpose of his mission to humanity. [11]

B.H. Roberts quotes the following from the International Commentary on Matthew:

This conflict presents our Lord in the reality of His manhood, in weakness and humiliation, but it is impossible to account for it unless we admit His Divine nature. Had He been a mere man, His knowledge of the sufferings before Him could not have been sufficient to cause such sorrow. The human fear of death will not explain it. As a real man, He was capable of such a conflict. But it took place after the serenity of the Last Supper and sacerdotal prayers, and before the sublime submission in the palace and judgment hall. The conflict, therefore, was a specific agony of itself. He felt the whole burden and mystery of the world's sin, and encountered the fiercest assaults of Satan. Otherwise, in this hour this Person, so powerful, so holy, seems to fall below the heroism of martyrs in His own cause. His sorrow did not spring from His own life, His memory of His fears, but from the vicarious nature of the conflict. The agony was a bearing of the weight and sorrow of our sins, in loneliness, in anguish of soul threatening to crush His body, yet borne triumphantly, because in submission to His Father's will. Three times our Lord appeals to that will, as purposing His anguish; that purpose of God in regard to the loveliest, best of men, can be reconciled with justice and goodness in God in but one way; that it was necessary for our redemption. Mercy forced its way through justice to the sinner. Our Lord suffered anguish of soul for sin, that it might never rest on us. To deny this is in effect not only to charge our Lord with undue weakness, but to charge God with needless cruelty. "Surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows…. He was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed" [Isaiah 53.4-5]" [12]

David B. Haight, of the Quorum of the Twelve, quotes the following from the Reverend Frederic Farrar:

They then rose from the table, united their voices in a hymn, and left the room together to walk to the Garden of Gethsemane and all that awaited them there "The awful hour of His deepest [suffering] had arrived…. Nothing remained…but the torture of physical pain and the poignancy of mental anguish…. He…[calmed] His spirit by prayer and solitude to meet that hour in which all that is evil in the Power of [Satan] should wreak its worst upon the Innocent and Holy [One]. And He must face that hour alone…. 'My soul,' He said, 'is full of anguish, even unto death.'" It was not the anguish and fear of pain and death but 'the burden…of the world's sin which lay heavy on His heart. [13]

Evangelical scholar Klaas Runia has recently drawn our attention to a prayer which was formerly read at the beginning of the Lord's Supper service in the Reformed Churches in Holland. The prayer said in part: "We remember that all the time he lived on earth he was burdened by our sin and God's judgment upon it; that in his agony in the garden he sweated drops of blood under the weight of our sins." [14]

Alfred Edersheim referred to the Garden as "the other Eden, in which the Second Adam, the Lord from heaven, bore the penalty of the first, and in obeying gained life.'" [15] Adam Clarke is quoted as having once said that "Jesus paid more in the Garden than on the Cross." [16] S. Lewis Johnson, from whose article these previous two quotations derive, concluded, "Gethsemane sets forth for us the passion of our Lord for the souls of men. The voice of Gethsemane sounds forth, 'I am willing,' while the voice from Calvary cries, 'It is finished.' Both illustrate how much He cared." [17]

This is the one thing which seemingly all commentators, LDS or otherwise, agree: He loved us and He manifested that love by His life and by His death. As the above quotations indicate, there is a fair amount of non-LDS support for the idea that the experience of our Savior in the Garden of Gethsemane is also related to the atoning sacrifice which He made for us. There is also enough material by non-LDS scholars to indicate that the exact mechanics of the Atonement are not known.

Latter-day Saint scripture contains some clear references to the cross

Further, uniquely LDS scripture contains some clear references:

1 Nephi 11:33
Jesus was "was lifted up upon the cross and slain for the sins of the world."
3 Nephi 27:14
"My Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross"

Latter-day Saint Sacrament hymns refer to the cross

An anti-Mormon protester at October 2004 LDS General Conference claims that members of the Church are "enemies" of the cross. He apparently knows little of LDS scripture, doctrine, hymns, or belief.

It is worthwhile to note that Latter-day Saints make frequent reference to Christ's sacrifice on the cross in their Sacrament hymns:

  • Hymn 171, With Humble Heart: "Help me remember, I implore, Thou gavst thy life on Calvary."
  • Hymn 172, In Humility Our Savior: "Let me not forget, O Savior, Thou didst bleed and die for me when Thy heart was stilled and broken on the cross at Calvary."
  • Hymn 174, While of these Emblems We Partake: "For us the blood of Christ was shed; For us on Calvary's cross He bled..."
  • Hymn 177, Tis Sweet To Sing the Matchless Love: "For Jesus died on Calvary, that all through him might ransomed be."
  • Hymn 178, O Lord of Hosts: "salvation purchased on that tree for all who seek thy face."
  • Hymn 181, Jesus of Nazareth, Savior and King: "Jesus of Nazareth, Savior and King, Our thoughts to thee are led, in reverence sweet. Bruised, broken, torn for us, on Calvary's hill."
  • Hymn 182, We'll Sing All Hail to Jesus' Name: "We'll sing all hail to Jesus name...to him that bled on Calvary's hill, And died that we might live."
  • Hymn 184, Upon the Cross at Calvary: "Upon the cross at Calvary, they crucified our Lord, and sealed with blood the sacrifice that sanctified his word. Upon the cross he meekly died, for all mankind to see that death unlocks the passageway into eternity. Upon the cross our Savior died, but, dying brought new birth through resurrection's miracle to all the sons of earth."
  • Hymn 185, Reverently and Meekly Now: "With my blood that dripped like rain, sweat in agony of pain, with my body on the tree, I have ransomed even thee...Oh remember what was done, that the sinner might be won. On the cross of Calvary, I have suffered death for thee."
  • Hymn 190, In Memory of the Crucified: "Our Savior in Gethsemane shrank not to drink the bitter cup. And then, for us, on Calvary, upon the cross was lifted up."
  • Hymn 191, Behold the Great Redeemer Die: "Behold the great Redeemer die... They pierce his hands and feet and side; And with insulting scoffs and scorns, they crown his head with plaited thorns. Although in agony he hung... his high commission to fulfill, He magnified his Father's will."
  • Hymn 193, I Stand All Amazed: "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...I think of his hands pierced and bleeding to pay the debt! Such mercy, such love, and devotion can I forget? No, no, I will praise and adore at the mercy seat, until at the glorified throne I kneel at his feet...Oh it is wonderful that he should care for me, enough to die for me. Oh it is wonderful... wonderful to me."
  • Hymn 196, Jesus, Once of Humble Birth: "Jesus once of humble birth, now in glory comes to earth...Once upon the cross he bowed, Now his chariot is the cloud. Once he groaned in blood and tears, now in glory he appears."
  • Hymn 197, O Savior, Thou Wearest a Crown.: "O Savior, thou who wearest a crown of piercing thorn, the pain thou meekly bearest, weighed down by grief and scorn. The soldiers mock and flail thee; for drink they give thee gall; Upon the cross they nail thee to die, O king of all."

These hymns are sung every Sunday as the Sacrament is being prepared. It is clear that Jesus' sacrifice on the cross is a central focus of Latter-day Saint worship services.

Statements regarding the atonement

These statements are not cited in order to devalue in any way the importance of the cross. It is important to realize however that the cross is not necessarily as significant a concept in the scriptures as some might think. Leon Morris agrees with Murphy-O'Connor that aside from the writings of Paul, there are not many references in the New Testament to the 'death' of Jesus; indeed: "We would imagine that there are many New Testament references to the death of Christ. But, outside of Paul, there are not." [18] And in this context it is important to remember that Paul's writings comprise less than one-fourth of the New Testament writings. Father Murphy-O'Connor also writes "during the first Christian centuries, the cross was a thing accursed. No one professed allegiance to Christ by wearing a cross." He indicates that it was only after Constantine lifted the ban against Christianity in general, and forbade crucifixion in particular, that a "new, more pleasant meaning for the cross was facilitated." But, he concludes, "even after the cross had been widely accepted as a symbol, there was a consistent refusal to accept its reality. Only two crucifixion scenes survive from the fifth century… The situation remains unchanged until the twelfth century." [19] These comments are not intended to devalue the cross or the blood shed there, only to place these events in their proper context within sacred scripture. Despite the fact that Gethsemane is mentioned only twice in the scriptures, it has nevertheless engendered an enormous amount of secondary literature. A study on the study of the passion narratives published in 1989 identified seven books dealing specifically with Gethsemane during the previous 100 years and more than 100 articles. That represents a significant amount of discussion on something seemingly of no account! [20]

Notes

  1. Gordon B. Hinckley, "A Season for Gratitude," Ensign (December 1997), 2. (italics added)
  2. Bruce R. McConkie, "The Purifying Power of Gethsemane," Ensign (May 1995), 9. (italics added)
  3. Preach My Gospel: A Guide to Missionary Service (Intellectual Reserve, 2004), 32. ISBN 0402366174. LDS link (italics added) PDF link
  4. "Atonement of Jesus Christ," in True to the Faith (Intellectual Reserve, 2004), 17. [{{{1}}} LDS link] direct off-site (italics added)
  5. Morris, The Cross in the New Testament, 28, note 30, quoting Newbigin, Sin and Salvation (London: SCM, 1946), 32. As mentioned earlier, Morris is designated by Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson, the authors of Mormonism 101, as a Christian theologian from whom they elicit support.
  6. Leon Morris, New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing, 1985), 134.
  7. Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14–28: Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 33b (Dallas, Texas: Word Books, 1995), 785. Notice that Professor Hagner mentions the 'dread and anguish' which Jesus felt as He looked ahead to His death on the Cross; this is precisely what several of the LDS Church leaders have said.
  8. Ebrard, quoted in John Peter Lange, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical, Vol. 1, Matthew, translated by Philip Schaff (New York: Scribner, 1899), 481. No further details are given about this 'Ebrard.' However, it is probable that it could be Johannes Heinrich August Ebrard (1818–1888), who, about 1860, wrote a work translated in English as Apologetics; or the Scientific Vindication of Christianity. He was also the author of a Biblical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (1853); and another on the Epistles of St. John (1860). In 1858 was published the American version of his Biblical Commentary on the New Testament.
  9. W. D. Davies, Dale C. Allison, Jr., The International Critical Commentary. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Volume III: Matthew 19–28 (Edinburgh, T and T Clark Publisher 1997): 494, note 27, quoting A.H. McNeile, The Gospel according to St. Matthew. The Greek Text with Introduction and Notes (Grand Rapids 1980): 389. "Magisterial" is a word way overused with reference to others' studies, but it is used with reference to Davies and Allison's commentary by John Jefferson Davis, "'Teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.' The History of the Interpretation of the 'Great Commission' and Implications for Marketplace Ministries," Evangelical Review of Theology 25.1 (2001): 77.
  10. J. Massyngberde /Allen, this name is spelled 'Massyngbearde'; I checked it in the library; I have found her name spelt with and without the last 'a' in online discussions; she apparently has the 'a' in; her name is J. Massyngbearde Ford/Ford, My Enemy is my Guest. Jesus and Violence in Luke (Maryknoll, New York Orbis Books 1984): 118. Dr. Ford is a professor at the University of Notre Dame. She cites A. Feuillet, L'Agonie de Gethsemani (Paris 1977): 147–50.
  11. Oden, The Word of Life, Vol. 2, 323, citing The Prayers of Catherine of Siena (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 17–18, 174.
  12. B.H. Roberts, The Seventy's Course in Theology, 2:127–128, quoting International Commentary, Matthew, page 359.
  13. David B. Haight, A Light Unto the World (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1997), 16, quoting Frederick W. Farrar, Life of Christ (Hartford, Connecticut: S. S. Scranton Company, 1918), 575–576, 579.
  14. Klaas Runia, "The Preaching of the Cross Today," Evangelical Review of Theology 25:1 (2001), 57.
  15. Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1953), 534, partially quoted in Lewis Johnson, Jr., "The Agony of Christ," Bibliotheca Sacra 124 (October 1967), 306.
  16. Quoted in Johnson, "The Agony of Christ," 307. Clarke was a Methodist theologian and died in 1832.
  17. Johnson, Ibid., 313.
  18. Morris, The Cross in the New Testament, 217.
  19. Murphy-O'Connor, "Even Death On a Cross," 21-22. H.E.W. Turner wrote 50 years ago that "it still remains true that the monumental genius of St. Paul had little permanent influence on the theology of the early Church." [H.E.W. Turner, The Patristic Doctrine of Redemption. A Study of the Development of Doctrine during the Fist Five Centuries (London: A.R. Mobray, 1952), 24.] After his exhaustive study of 'grace' in the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers, Thomas Torrance had to conclude that Paul had had almost no influence on them: "The most astonishing feature was the failure to grasp the significance of the death of Christ." He further concludes that "failure to apprehend the meaning of the Cross and to make it a saving article of faith is surely the clearest indication that a genuine doctrine of grace is absent" in the Apostolic Fathers. [Thomas Torrance, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers (London: Oliver and Boyd, 1948), 137–138.]
  20. David D. Garland, One Hundred Years of Study on the Passion Narratives, National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion Bibliographic Series, Vol. 3 (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1989), 73–79. More recent commentaries on the relevant verses add significantly to that total.