Your Sunday Brunch Special #7. The Garden and The Cross. Cultural “Over-belief”? And a Poll.

Stephen Webb (professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College — and someone who is clearly up on his Mormonism), in his thoughtful piece at First Things writes (ht: sidebar):

“Mormons connect the atonement more with the Garden of Gethsemane than with the cross, since they think that is where his greatest agony took place”

Detail of Guido di Pietro's "The Crucifixtion."

This is an assertion that bothers me some. I wonder if what we see here is now cultural over-belief on the part of Mormons who espouse it. Perhaps it is an attempt at boundary maintenance, but if so, it is neither justified by scripture nor much of current rhetoric (there is plenty of mid-twentieth century speech to the point though). And of course there are differing views about the nature of Christ’s atonement not only among Christians in general but among Latter-day Saints in particular. However, I won’t taint your opinions with too much information. What I want to know is what *you* think or perhaps, what you think the Church currently teaches.


And what the heck. Here’s a poll.

Carl Bloch's "Gethsemane."

If you have a different view, explain.


  1. Cynthia M says:

    Maybe I’m wrong but for me it feels like the spiritual atoning for all of our sins occurred in the Garden of Gethsemane whilst the physical suffering (which is the shorter lived part) occurred on the cross. I also feel that our Savior’s suffering is likely ongoing and was not a finite experience limited to the Garden or the cross. How very blessed we are that He was then and still is willing to Atone for our human frailties and sins.

  2. I’ve been led to believe that the suffering in Gethsemane was repeated while on the cross and, just as with faith and works, the two go hand-in-hand. There would have been no Atonement without both.

    But I also agree with Cynthia that Christ’s suffering is ongoing.

  3. StillConfused says:

    I thought Jesus’ death was necessary for the atonement. Is that not the LDS belief?

  4. Well, the Atonement “began” with Christ’s foreordination to be the Messiah, which happened before the world was even created, and it involved His suffering in Gethsemane and on Golgotha, culminating with His resurrection a couple of days later. But even then, the Atonement won’t be complete until every fallen thing is brought back into the presence of God.

    So no, the Atonement was not just the Garden and the cross. It’s more complicated than this. :)

  5. I always thought over coming spiritual death occurred in the Garden while conquering death occurred with his resurrection. But there are parts of both that took place elsewhere. The cross is mostly incidental. I’m mean, anyone can get on a cross and die. It’s the other stuff that is amazing and incomprehensible.

  6. Raymond Takashi Swenson says:

    Most traditional Christians think of the agony in the garden, including sweating blood, as anticipation of the suffering during torture and crucifuxion. The testimony of LDS scripture is that the garden was whete Christ assumed the burden of all of our sins, as well as the suffering of mankind that is a consequence of the necessary conditions of mortality. He became united with humanity in a total comprehension of everything we have and will go through. On the cross he suffered the penalty deserved by all of us whose sins he had assumed. This second aspect is part of much traditional Christian understanding of the Atonement, but they don’t understand the empathic suffering in the garden that was the necessary preparation for the expiation on the cross. In D&C 19, the Savior himself appears to emphasize his agony in the garden, when nothing was restraining him but his own obedience to the Father and love for mankind,

  7. All the pre-event scriptures point to the cross, not to the garden. And the post-event scriptures seem to point to the cross, too — take up your cross and follow me, rather than work in your garden and follow me.

    Both are important — we really understand neither — we appreciate both and sing all hail to Jesus’ name.

  8. I wish Professor Webb had written something like, “Some Mormons connect the atonement…” or “Some 19th Century Mormons…” It is very presumptuous for someone to describe how ALL Mormons feel about matters of theology and doctrine.

  9. I’m a cross man, though I recognize that the suffering in Gethsemane was clearly connected to what culminated in the death of God upon the cross. But finally, in the end, God suffered, He was passive, the world had its way with Him. To take our eyes off the culmination, the final and conclusive giving up of the ghost at His moment of death, misunderstands the enormity of His grace, I think. (More at an older By Common Consent post of mine here.)

  10. I was born and raised in the church and I’ve definitely been taught what Prof. Webb states. I saw his excellent piece a few days ago and a couple things he said were not in line with current mainstream LDS teachings (he’s been reading Journal of Discourses!), but that one didn’t give me pause at all. However we got the teaching, and whether or not it’s correct, it makes sense to me. Like dc (#5) said, many people died on crosses, so as horrible as that suffering is, you can hardly call it uniquely horrible. You have to either insert additional invisible suffering into his time on the cross to make it a unique agony, or say that that additional suffering took place at a different time/place. And as Raymond (#6) says, there’s an added dimension of strength and love when the suffering is happening in a context in which Christ clearly has the ability to run away–and with his apostles asleep, no one but God would have been the wiser. If the greater suffering happened in the garden, then the cross becomes that much more remarkable because even after getting a taste of the real pain involved he stays and allows himself to be taken–one might say if a lesser pain happened in the garden that God was hiding the truth from Christ until the nails were driven and he had no way to change his mind sans miraculous intervention. As to ji’s point (#7), the cross is the place he actually died and where his suffering was manifested to the world–the garden was his private suffering. It makes sense for the cross to be the symbol of his suffering because it was the public aspect of his suffering and the gruesomeness of it is something we physical beings can all acknowledge represents real and intense pain, since we will never and can never experience anything like his spiritual pain. The other (sitting in a garden feeling spiritual pain so great it causes physical agony) is something much harder for many to conceive of.

  11. I see the Atonement as encompassing everything from his acceptance of his role as Savior and Redeemer, since it was that acceptance that allowed the entire Plan of Salvation to occur with the understanding that the Garden and the Cross both would save all who would be born (2 Nephi 2:26, one of the most overlooked verses in our scriptural canon) – thus providing a foundation for faith even before Jesus was born – to the example of the life he lived as our example of how to live in order to be made “at one with God” – to the moment the Atonement was “finished” on the cross and he voluntarily died (John 19:30). It’s easy to stretch the Atonement until the final judgment of the last child of God, since we posit that Jesus will be the advocate before the Father until that final judgment of that final child.

    So, it’s more complicated than that.

  12. What Ray said. I would definitely extend it through at least the resurrection.

  13. Agree with the sentiment that we’ve moved away from the strictly Gethsemane-focused view, but I’ve wondered if that was emphasized in the past as a way to set ourselves apart – the Garden Atonement was a piece of Special Knowledge revealed to us that base Christianity was unaware of (see how great we are!), even if the theological implications are pretty irrelevant as long as the atonement, you know, happened in some way.

  14. I had this argument with an EV once, who claimed that Mormons went so far as to “reject” the cross or associate any atonement with it. Among other things I found was this from p.32 of the current missionary discussions.
    “The Atonement included His suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane as well as His suffering and death on the cross.”

  15. Joseph S. says:

    I was raised to believe that the Garden and the Cross were equally meaningful in the Atonement. However, I do divide the two in my mind, where the Garden experience is more connected to the spiritual atonement–the suffering for our sins–while the Cross is more connected to the physical atonement–the dying for our bodies and overcoming physical pain.

  16. I was once in an LDS choir and we were singing the beautiful “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” Our director, a career CES teacher and administrator, noted how he wished we could change the words to “When I Survey the Wondrous Garden.”

    Douglas Davies has written how Mormonism’s focus on the Garden rather than the Cross is meant to present more as the triumphant and proactive savior who brought the suffering upon himself, rather than it being thrust upon him by the Roman guards on the cross. This fits, Davies argues, the works and action emphasis of our gospel. I think this explanation carries some weight.

  17. Personally, I think that the experience was repeated in both places. In the garden, he was strengthened by an angel, as perhaps a preview. Notwithstanding that, he suffered on the cross as well, and did it alone. Heavens closed, no help, no support.

    I also believe that his suffering is atemporal, and that by remaining in relationships with us, he continues to suffer, willingly, until the final judgement, whatever that may look like.

    Ya, complicated.

  18. Ugly Mahana says:

    If I recall correctly, Talmage said that the pains in the garden were repeated at the cross.

    With Paul, I hope that we preach the Christ, and Him crucified. The rest is just details.

  19. I like to think of Jesus as having a Chuck Norris mindset to the atonement — “Everyone goes home.” (or is that Satan…?)

    Anyway, when you build a house, you can’t really call it finished until you move in. And the atonement isn’t finished until Michael sounds his trump and declares, “It is finished; it is finished! The Lamb of God hath overcome and trodden the wine-press alone, even the wine-press of the fierceness of the wrath of Almighty God. And then shall the angels be crowned with the glory of his might, and the saints shall be filled with his glory, and receive their inheritance and be made equal with him.”

    To attempt to reduce the infinite atonement to the mere moments of time of the suffering and declare the atonement something that was “Accomplished” within that time frame (on either the cross or in the garden) decries the eternal nature of Christ’s experience and the far reaching effects of that sacrifice. So ironically, while the professor is no doubt (in)sincere in his deep studies of Mormon theology, he doesn’t really even grasp the eternal nature of the atonement at all. As Rocky says, “It’s Not Over Till It’s Over.”

  20. More complicated gets my vote, for reasons already ably explained.

  21. Was the suffering of Jesus on the cross greater or of a different quality than the suffering of the thieves crucified next to him? The ultimate difference there was that the Romans and Jews couldn’t take Christ’s life away from him; only he could lay it down. Even if all the rest of the atonement was worked out in the Garden (and I don’t know that it was, but even if), it was on the cross that he gave his life, which was the necessary precursor to his resurrection, which was the necessary precursor to conquering death for the rest of us.

  22. To me, the atonement was a process that began in the garden and finished on the cross. I believe that taking on the sins of the world came over time, not all at once. As the sins compiled, Christ was taken further and further away from the presence of the Father, going from complete closeness with the Father at the start, to only being able to have angelic aid, to being only able to feel His Spirit, to ultimately being completely cut off (made pointed in the expression “Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?”. I don’t believe these words to be literal, but the best way to express that cutting off that Christ knew would happen (and would have instructed His apostles more fully on afterward, if they didn’t understand before). The cross was superfluous, as it was not the cause of His death, but fulfillment of prophecy and a trial for His believers. Christ died when His work, the atonement, was complete – “It is finished” – and only then giving up the ghost.

  23. StillConfused says:

    I never heard that the atonement took place in the garden rather than the cross. But that is what I use you guys for. My husband just asked me “Where did you learn about religion?” (Probably because I am pretty clueless about this kind of stuff) and my response was “Well as a kid, it was at the Southern Baptist Bible School and now it is” He responded, “, that is the smart people blog right?” “Right.”

    So thank you guys for teaching me new stuff.

  24. Had a bishop once who chastised me for thinking it happened anywhere else BUT the Garden. That’s a huge long drahmah.

    I have issues with the idea that the poll doesn’t mention the resurrection. The atonement stopped at the cross? Really?

    Garden (ritual of the sacrificial lamb)
    Cross (sacrificing the lamb)
    Tomb (feasting on the lamb with reverence)

    All of them work symbiotically to effect the atonement. You can’t have one without the other two. (And for the more superstitious amongst us, lookie, it’s a set of 3.)

  25. The author of Luke-Acts portrayed a very saintly Jesus who never lost his cool, and seemingly out of nowhere, in Lk 22:43-44 we have him needing the help of an angel and sweating blood. IMHO, the f13 group of manuscripts place these 2 verses, as well as the pericope adulterae, in much more logical places within the gospels. Even then, we still deal with the possibility of a fraudulent insertion.

    Outside of that scripture, other NT references to Christ’s blood atonement seem to refer directly to the cross. And the meaning of said atonement seems to vary from author to author. Luke seems to indicate that God will vindicate us after we feel guilt for our sins (recognizing our guilt via Christ’s innocent death), and seek forgiveness, are baptized, and live a saintly life thereafter. Christ’s death only “atones” with the likely late addition of Lk 22:19b-20. (Elsewhere, Luke seems to intentionally rewrite or remove references to Christ “atoning” with his death: Lk 23:47 vs Mk 15:39, Lk 22:26-27 vs Mk 10:43-45. Seems like Luke prefers the perspective that God had the power to forgive all along). Paul indicates that all are guilty, and Christ’s atonement reconciles us to God if we believe in his resurrection / participate with him in the resurrection through baptism.

    The Book of Mormon says Christ will bleed from every pore (literalizing the “as it were” of Luke) because of “his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people” (Mosiah 3:7), not necessarily because of taking upon himself their sins at that point. It could reasonably fit the role of strong apprehension at what is about to take place, similar to the rest of Christendom. The anguish seems to come in large part due to knowing the true nature and consequences of wickedness — exactly the kind of which Christ is about to experience (and the Book of Mormon makes clear in Alma 28:14 and throughout, that needless death, destruction, and loss follow sin). Alma 7:11-12 jumps straight from His going “forth, suffering pains, and afflictions, and temptations of every kind” to his taking “upon him death”. It seems there that his sufferings were the experiences of mortality, experienced through his life as a mortal rather than something extra happening in Gethsemane. The big deal in this regard throughout the Book of Mormon seems to be that God Himself will choose to become mortal and experience the afflictions of mortality, whereas nowadays we take for granted that a God would become mortal (because after all, aren’t mortals gods in embryo?) and maybe thus interpret that God had to do something extra special, like suffer every last pain and wrong in the universe in Gethsemane, for it to be all that special. Alma 7:13, to me, indicates that in His role as a sacrificial substitute, He takes upon Himself our sins, as He dies in our place. The point is driven home in Alma 34:8ff, that since God Himself sacrifices His life ( = His atonement), the sacrifice is thus infinite and eternal, and thus accomplishes everything it needs to.

    Moving on, D&C 19 introduces some new ideas, and leaves plenty of room for some interesting interpretations. 19:16 leaves room for the possibility that God suffered “these things” once for all, and v.17 indicates to me that those who sin must suffer in the same way. Verse 18 indicates the type of suffering required of the unrepentant is the same kind of anguish Christ experienced in Gethsemane (it may be argued, not the physical side effects). It follows from above that this anguish is knowledge of what might have been versus what is, due to wickedness. As Joseph Smith later said, “A man is his own tormentor and his own condemner…. The torment of disappointment in the mind of man is as exquisite as a lake burning with fire and brimstone. I say, so is the torment of man.” (HC 6:314).

    I don’t think that such anguish really has to do with atonement per se. I don’t know why such anguish was so intense immediately before the atonement happened on the cross, but it certainly makes a few points clear. One is that it points to the importance of what Christ did for us, so that we need not feel such anguish. Instead, we can be forgiven of our sins and have things righted so that the gap between what is and what could have been no longer smarts. (I tend to think of the “cosmic” nature of atonement from Judaism wherein sin reverses God’s divine ordering of the cosmos, and leads to chaos, and the blood of the atonement, as applied to representations of heaven and earth in the temple, restores the divine order once more). Another is that suffering has its place, but so does joy. Christ was certainly capable of fully comprehending and mourning the effects of sin at any time of His life, but He chose to do so only at the end, in preparation for what was to come. It’s great to know that we need not dwell on the negative.

    I fear we mythologize sin, and suffering, in church culture. In turn the nature of the atonement has been complicated in a harmful way. We turn an infinite atonement into an incomprehensible one. Whereas, the only “incomprehensible” thing mentioned in the scriptures is the joy the sons of Mosiah experience in their missionary work (Alma 28:8). And it’s incomprehensible to me why we’ve done this. As if complicating God brings us nearer to Him (which is the approach *ahem* that classical Christianity seems to take).

  26. I used to think the atonement happened in the garden and that the cross was just incidental. Once I read the Book of Mormon all the way through, I changed my mind. I don’t quite go so far the other way as to say now that the garden is just incidental, but the Book of Mormon prophecies about the savior’s suffering and death all focus on the cross. I can’t remember any Book of Mormon scripture that even mentions the garden (not saying there isn’t one, but I don’t remember any sitting here), while there are scores of verses that teach that it was necessary that Christ would be “lifted up upon the cross.”

  27. Nothing brings me more Gospel heartburn than our doctrinal creep away from Calvary. Perhaps what bugs the most is when I hear the prominence of Gethsemane taught, like Casey said, as our LDS special knowledge. You know, like Mother in Heaven.

    Unfortunately, I disagree with those who assert that, whether “it” happened in Gethsemane or on the cross, it’s all the same. I hate to sound like some overzealous Evangelical, but we need to recognize that the theological implications of downplaying the cross are huge.

  28. I like to think of the atonement in two parts, both are equally important. The first the part brings immortality. Christ chose to die for us and then he broke out of the spirit world or spirit prison, resurrected himself somehow providing a way for us to escape also. He didn’t have to die he chose to die. Without the resurrection we are stuck in Hell without a body. Second he paid the price for our sins, he suffered and bled. This enables repentance and brings about eternal life. Both are needed to keep us out of hell. Both are needed to bring to pass immortality and eternal life. I like to also think of it as the bread and water, bread for immortality and water eternal life. For me the place isn’t very important it was the choice he made to both suffer and to die for us – more complicated.

%d bloggers like this: