The April 2006 edition of the Ensign magazine features the latest in a series entitled Gospel Classics, a series that reproduces key statements from different generations of Mormon leaders on specific themes. You can read it here.
The theme is, appropriately, the sacrifice of Jesus. The main heading is itself a clue to where the emphasis of the Mormon Easter lies, From the Garden to the Empty Tomb, and the words of the current Mormon president, Gordon B Hinckley, confirm that, for Mormons, it is not the cross that will get their attention this, or any other Easter:
“Because our Saviour lives, we do not use the symbol of His death as the symbol of our faith.”
Note that the cross is no more than “the symbol of His death”. This is because, in Mormon soteriology the focus is the Garden, not the cross. Looking through the article one gets the sense of a message devoid of meaning because it is devoid of the cross. This is strange when you consider that the focus of all four gospels, as well as the bulk of the message of the rest of the New Testament, is the cross. There are only two references to Gethsemane in the New Testament (Matthew 26:36; Mark 14:32), and one reference to the Mount of Olives in relation to the same incident in the gospel of Luke (Luke 21:39). By contrast, there are twenty-eight references to the cross in the New Testament. One might object that the frequency of a word is not, in itself, an indication of its importance in a text but, given the weight and emphasis placed on Gethsemane in Mormonism, one would expect more to be made of Gethsemane in the Gospels if that is truly where, as Mormons claim, the atonement occurred. If Paul, the great apostle to the Gentiles, could write:
“When I came to you brothers…I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2)
To those same Corinthian saints he wrote:
“Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:22-24)
The message of the Gospel is the message of the cross. The following is an article we produced some time ago to address this question of Gethsemane or Golgotha. It is good to be reminded again this Easter where our eyes should be.
Many Live as Enemies of the Cross of Christ (Philip.3: 18)
The April 2002 Ensign magazine of the Mormon Church carried a small piece in which a bishop told of the insight he gained into the depth of the Saviour’s love (p.19). It struck me as an eloquent illustration of the subtlety of Mormon deception. It is a moving story of a man bravely bearing the weight of responsibility for his erring flock but who is aware of his own shortcomings. Reflecting on this predicament he asks himself,
“If I feel pain when someone commits sin, I cannot imagine the pain the Saviour must have experienced”.
The whole tone is Christian, the caring bishop, the repentant church members, thoughtful reflection on the suffering Saviour, the atonement in Gethsemane. Yes, you read that right, Gethsemane. In his reflections the bishop declares,
“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 the sins of mankind, the great agony of the Atonement took place.”
Does it matter? Gethsemane or Calvary? After all there is faith in the atonement and that is what counts. It does matter because if you look to the wrong place you may be looking to the wrong event and the wrong Saviour. If you do not understand where, Calvary, and why the cross then you will not understand the atonement of which you bear witness, be it ever so eloquently. Bear in mind Paul’s warning to the Corinthian church, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith”(2 Cor.13:5). Remember also that there are false Christs, a false spirit, a false gospel and false apostles (2 Cor. 11:3-5) and so we should be careful in whom we put our trust, where we look for our help, Gethsemane or Calvary. Consider the following. The Biblical Apostle Peter first publicly declared the Good News of Christ’s triumph at Pentecost saying,
Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. (Acts 2:22-25)
From that time the theme of the cross has been another constant in the Christian faith. The Biblical Apostle Paul wrote,
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him (Christ), and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Colossians 1:19-20)
When you were dead in your sins and in the circumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. (Colossians 2:13-15)
The Mormon Apostle Jeffrey R Holland, speaking from the Mount of Olives, declared,
“It was here in the Garden of Gethsemane, on that last night in mortality, that Jesus left His Apostles and descended alone into the depth of agony that would be His atoning sacrifice for the sins of mankind.” (p.14)
Lest anyone misunderstand the place of the cross in Mormon thinking let me quote thirteenth Mormon president, Ezra Taft Benson,
“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, p.14)
The cross is merely an afterthought, a fact clearly illustrated in the words of Mormon Apostle Bruce R McConkie,
“As He came out of the Garden, delivering himself voluntarily into the hands of wicked men, the victory had been won. There remained yet the shame and the pain of his arrest, his trials, and his cross. But all these were overshadowed by the agonies and sufferings in Gethsemane. It was on the cross that he ‘suffered death in the flesh’, even as many have suffered agonising deaths, but it was in Gethsemane that ‘he suffered the pain of all men, that all men might repent and come to him'” (The Mortal Messiah, McConkie, pp 127-28)
What more subtle way could there be to empty the cross of its power with words of human wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:17) than to empty it into Gethsemane? While Biblical Apostles look to the cross (John 3:14) Mormon Apostles dismiss the cross declaring “he ‘suffered death in the flesh’ even as many have suffered agonising deaths”. But it is the cross not the garden – oh, yes, the cross not the garden. If they could but grasp the significance of the cross, the total loss and abandonment he suffered, the weight he bore, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Not the comforted and strengthened Jesus of the garden (Luke 22:43), but the abandoned and desolate Saviour of the cross. Not the garden where, in exquisite anguish, he anticipated his sacrifice in intimate association with heaven, but the cross where heaven looked away for the sin he bore. As far away as a man is from the cross, so far is he from Christ (Galatians 6:14).