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Mormonism, the Garden, the Cross, and the Atonement

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Mormonism, the Garden, the Cross, and the Atonement

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

According to LDS doctrine, Jesus Christ suffered in Gethsemane for our sins as part of his atonement, which was completed when he died on the cross:

“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, 61).

"The Gospels do not explain Jesus’ agony in the garden as part of the atonement. Rather, Jesus’ prayer was precisely an expression of his quite understandable desire to be spared from undergoing the atoning sacrifice on the cross that was just hours away."

Gospel Principles discusses this point in more detail in chapter 11, but we will discuss it here. The idea that Jesus “bled from every pore” is mentioned in a couple of places in LDS scripture:

“And lo, he shall suffer temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death; for behold, blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people” (Mosiah 3:7).

“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” (Doctrine and Covenants 19:18).

On the basis of these passages, LDS leaders and teachers have repeatedly taught that Jesus Christ suffered in Gethsemane for our sins. Here is a recent example:

Near the end of His earthly ministry, the Savior went with His disciples to the Mount of Olives, to the Garden of Gethsemane…. It was there that the Savior paid the price for all the sorrows, sins, and transgressions of every human being who ever lived or ever will live. There He drank the bitter cup and suffered so that all who repent may not suffer” (Wolfgang H. Paul, “Gratitude for the Atonement,” Ensign, June 2007, 15).

LDS authorities have even made this idea the basis for criticizing the significance that Bible-believing Christians attach to Christ’s death on the cross:

“The sectarian world falsely suppose that the climax of his torture and suffering was on the cross (Matt. 27:26-50; Mark 15:1-38; Luke 23:1-46; John 18; 19:1-18)—a view which they keep ever before them by the constant use of the cross as a religious symbol. The fact is that intense and severe as the suffering was on the cross, yet the great pains were endured in the Garden of Gethsemane” (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. [Bookcraft, 1966], 555).

There are several problems with this teaching we should consider here. The first is that the Bible does not teach it. There is one passage in the Gospels that has popularly been interpreted to mean that Jesus literally had blood coming from his pores, but even this passage says no such thing:

“And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44 KJV).

The King James Version has the meaning exactly right here: Jesus was sweating, and his sweat looked like (“as it were”) large drops of blood falling from his forehead rather than the more usual small beads of sweat. The text does not mean that Jesus literally had blood oozing from his pores—let alone “at every pore.” Admittedly, some Christians over the years have thought that Luke was describing blood literally coming from Jesus’ skin, but this is not what Luke says.

Second, to make matters worse, verses 43 and 44 might not be part of the original, inspired text of the Gospel of Luke. An important early papyrus and many of the other major, early manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke do not include these verses. Biblical scholars are fairly evenly divided as to whether these verses belong in the passage or not. Again, though, even if we assume that these verses are part of the Gospel of Luke, they do not say that Jesus had blood coming from his pores.

Third, neither this passage nor any other passage in the Bible says that Jesus suffered in the garden of Gethsemane for our sins. Jesus Christ did agonize in prayer in Gethsemane, but he did not bleed from every pore, and he atoned for our sins on the cross, not in Gethsemane (for example, Acts 20:28; Romans 5:6-10; 6:3-10; Hebrews 9:12-22; 1 Peter 2:24; 3:18). The Gospels do not explain Jesus’ agony in the garden as part of the atonement. Rather, Jesus’ prayer was precisely an expression of his quite understandable desire to be spared from undergoing the atoning sacrifice on the cross that was just hours away.

Mormons sometimes argue that the New Testament does not place as much emphasis on the death of Jesus on the cross as do modern evangelicals. This claim is easily refuted:

  • All four Gospels, of course, give a great deal of attention to Christ’s death, even reporting various statements that Jesus made beforehand that anticipated that event (for example, Matthew 12:39-40; 16:21-28; 17:22-23; 20:17-19, 28; 26:6-13; Mark 8:31-9:1, 30-32; 10:32-34, 45; 14:3-9; Luke 9:22-27, 44-45; 11:29-32; 18:31-33; John 2:19-22; 6:51-71; 10:17-18; 12:3-8).

  • The Lord’s Supper (Communion), instituted by Christ as a rite of remembrance of his death, is reported in three of the Gospels and in Paul (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-20; 1 Corinthians 11:20, 23-29).

  • Christ’s death is mentioned repeatedly in the Book of Acts (2:23-24, 36; 3:15; 4:10; 5:30; 10:39; 13:28-29; 20:28).

  • Paul’s emphasis on Christ’s death is too well known to be debatable (for example, Romans 5:6-10; 6:3-10; 8:34; 14:9; 1 Corinthians 2:2; 15:3; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15; Galatians 2:20-21; 5:24; 6:12, 14; Ephesians 2:16; Philippians 2:8; 3:10; Colossians 1:20, 22; 2:14; 1 Thessalonians 2:15; 4:14; 1 Timothy 2:6; 2 Timothy 2:11; Titus 2:13-14).

  • The Book of Hebrews also refers to Jesus’ shedding of blood in his death (Hebrews 2:9, 14-15; 9:12-22; 12:2), as does the First Epistle of Peter (1 Peter 1:2, 19; 2:24; 3:18) and the First Epistle of John (1 John 1:7; 5:6, 8).

  • The Book of Revelation also emphasizes Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross by picturing Jesus as the Lamb of God that was slain and yet is standing (Revelation 1:5, 18; 5:6-13; 7:14; 12:11; 13:8).

Thus, all but three of the New Testament writings longer than a single chapter (2 Thessalonians, James, and 2 Peter are the exceptions)—Matthew, Mark, Luke and Acts, John’s Gospel and First Epistle, eleven of Paul’s thirteen epistles, Hebrews, First Peter, and Revelation—refer to the death of Christ on the cross. Most of these books make repeated references to Christ’s death. The New Testament clearly does emphasize the death of Jesus Christ.

By contrast, there are four brief references in the New Testament to Jesus’ agonizing experience in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-44; Mark 14:32-39; Luke 22:39-44; Hebrews 5:7). While no Bible-believing Christian would ever dismiss Jesus’ experience in the garden as unimportant, it is not itself part of the atonement, nor is it even close to the focal point of the Christian faith. The focal event of the gospel is the death of Jesus Christ on the cross.

For Further Reflection 

  •  Did Jesus suffer for our sins in Gethsemane?
  • Do evangelical Christians really place too much emphasis on the cross?
For Further Study
Salvation God’s Way. Resources on salvation, including brief studies examining the LDS doctrines concerning salvation, faith, and works.