This article was adapted from John Hilton III from here.
The Bible Dictionary teaches that the Atonement of Jesus Christ isn’t just a single event. It took place in the premortal life, as well as through “His divine Sonship, His sinless life, the shedding of His blood in the garden of Gethsemane, His death on the cross and subsequent bodily resurrection from the grave.” But what do Latter-day Saints actually emphasize when asked about the Atonement?
In a recently published study, John Hilton III showed that when students at Brigham Young University were asked where Christ atoned for our sins, more than half responded to the free-response question by saying “In the Garden of Gethsemane” and no other location. When asked, “Where did the Atonement mostly take place? A. In the Garden of Gethsemane. B. On the Cross at Calvary” more than 85% selected “The Garden of Gethsemane.”
There can be no doubt that Gethsemane is a vital part of Christ’s Atonement. The belief that all of Christ’s atoning for our sins took place in Gethsemane, however, is not true. As Elder Gerald Lund taught, “[A] doctrinal error is the idea that the suffering and death on the cross covered only the effects of physical death and that the suffering in the Garden covered only the effects of spiritual death. Such an explanation is not justified by scripture either. The agony in the Garden and the suffering on the cross were both integral parts of the atoning sacrifice. Nowhere in the scriptures do we find indications that the cross alone overcame physical death or that the Garden alone overcame spiritual death.”
It may surprise some Latter-day Saints to know that the scriptures– including the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants–heavily emphasize the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ relative to Gethsemane. As this study shows, two scriptural passages speak of Christ suffering our sins, whereas more than fifty speak of him dying for our sins.
Among Christ’s first words when he visited the Nephites were “Come forth…that ye may know that I…have been slain for the sins of the world” (3 Nephi 11:14, emphasis added). When defining his gospel he said, “My Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross” (3 Nephi 27:14, see also 3 Nephi 9:21-22, 28:6, Doctrine and Covenants 6:37, 35:2, 45:52, 53:2, 110:4).
Ancient Apostles, such as Paul taught, “The preaching of the cross…is the power of God…We preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 22–23) and “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14).
Early prophets in the restored church likewise focus on Christ’s Crucifixion. Joseph Smith referred to Christ’s death as one of the “fundamental principles” of our religion and Brigham Young taught, “If you go on a mission to preach the gospel…not having your minds riveted—yes, I may say riveted—on the cross of Christ, you will go and return in vain.” Recent prophets have similarly taught of the importance of Christ’s Crucifixion. President Thomas S. Monson taught that Christ “died on the cross to atone for our sins” and President Russell M. Nelson referred to it as “the most excruciating experience ever endured on earth.” Literally hundreds of similar quotations from modern church leaders could be shared.
One thing should be made very clear, however–we believe in the atoning power of Gethsemane and are not trying to diminish or de-emphasize the importance of Christ’s suffering in Gethsemane. By highlighting the scriptural and prophetic emphasis on Christ’s Crucifixion, we can gain a stronger appreciation for both Christ’s suffering in Gethsemane and His death upon the cross. It is the hope that the emphasis on the atoning significance of the Crucifixion from both the scriptures and church leaders motivates us as Latter-Day Saints to want to study it more carefully–because doing so will bring us closer to Jesus Christ.
While this is an imperfect illustration, imagine that there is some maximum amount we can learn about both Gethsemane and Calvary in mortality (of course, Christ’s Atonement is infinite and so we can never fully comprehend it). Many of us have conceived Christ’s Atonement as occurring largely in Gethsemane and so we have diligently learned all we can about the events of that sacred evening.
In contrast, many of us have not carefully studied Christ’s Crucifixion. President James E. Faust taught, “Any increase in our understanding of His atoning sacrifice draws us closer to Him.” Thus learning more about Christ’s Crucifixion may represent low-hanging fruit–opportunities for us to “increase in our understanding of His atoning sacrifice” and therefore draw “closer to Him.” Perhaps now is the time for us to more diligently study the Savior’s Crucifixion and thus deepen our connection with Jesus Christ and his Atonement.
Of course, this does not mean that we should in any way de-emphasize Gethsemane, however, some of us may find that we can deepen our understanding of Christ’s Atonement by more actively studying about his Crucifixion. As Mormon wrote to his son Moroni, “May Christ lift thee up, and may his sufferings and death…rest in your mind forever” (Moroni 9:25). Pondering the Savior’s sacrifice on the cross can draw us closer to him.
There are many ways we can make both Christ’s suffering in Gethsemane and His Crucifixion a part of our study, and many of the resources mentioned on this website are a great place to start. Additionally, in our Church meetings, we can offer the insights we have gained from learning of Christ’s Crucifixion as important truths that Christ’s Atonement encompasses both His suffering in the Garden, as well as His suffering upon the cross. We can seek to uplift and educate many of our loved ones that Christ’s triumphant resurrection is made all the more inspiring because of His complete act of the Atonement in the Garden as well as upon the cross.