|"Crucifixion" by Carl Bloch|
More, we celebrate on Easter Sunday morning the miracle of his rising from the tomb in triumphant victory over death. Sin and shame nailed to the Cross and made a spectacle there and death disarmed and made impotent by life bursting forth from the tomb. “This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death, and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” (2 Timothy 1:10)
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.The Bible tells us that he suffered the judgement of God, judgement that should have been ours, on a Cross at Calvary. Peter writes, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24) Paul, writing to Christians in Collosae, in what is now modern Turkey, says that it is through Christ that God was pleased to reconcile all things to himself, bringing peace “through his blood, shed on the Cross.” (Colossians 1:19-20) Later in the same letter he writes:
“When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the written code, with it's 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 writer to Hebrews urges believers, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2) Again, Paul writes to Christians in the Greek city of Corinth, “but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24)
The picture of Jesus in the Bible is a picture of crucifixion, “Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified...” (Galatians 3:1) and the message preached in the first century was exclusively a message of Christ crucified, “When I came to you brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2)
Finally, it was Jesus himself who said, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” and John goes on to explain, “He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.” (John 12:32-33)
The Cross where Christ bore our sins;
The Cross where Christ's shed blood brings peace and reconciliation;
The Cross where Christ triumphed over powers and authorities;
The Cross that Christ endured for the joy set before him;
The Cross which, alone, is preached and which is the power and wisdom of God;
The Cross which is the clear message of Scripture;
The Cross to which all men will be drawn when Christ is lifted up on it.
Artful MormonismThe artwork in a typical Mormon Ensign magazine is rarely less than splendid and the Easter issue is no exception. The cover features a painting of the Last Supper by LDS artist Walter Rane, while the inside front cover features the famous Ecce Homo (Behold the Man) by Antonio Ciseri.
The first article, an Easter message from Mormon Church president Thomas S Monson, features paintings of the empty tomb and of Mary Magdalene encountering the risen Christ. The on-going series What we Believe addresses the subject of the atonement, illustrated with paintings of Gethsemane and of a post-resurrection Christ appearing in the Americas.
An article by Mormon apostle Todd Christofferson is about communion, called “the sacrament” by Mormons, and is illustrated with paintings of Christ in Gethsemane, the risen Christ and Jesus healing a blind man. Then an article by the late Mormon apostle Bruce R McConkie addresses The Purifying Power of Gethsemane and is illustrated with paintings of Christ in Gethsemane and the resurrected Christ appearing to his disciples.
The magazine's inside back cover is a painting entitled Resurrection Morn by Steven Edwards and features a view from inside the empty tomb looking out past the stone that is rolled away into the morning sun.
But the pièce de rèsistance is a wonderful photo journal of an exhibition of some of the magnificent altar pieces by the 19th century Dutch artist Carl Bloch. It features a piece based on Christ's encounter with doubting Thomas (John 20:25) , Christ healing the sick at Bethesda (John 5:8), Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane (comforted by an angel), The daughter of Jairus (Mark5: 36-42), Christus Consolator (Christ our consolation) and Christ blessing a little child.
Anyone perusing this magazine might be carried away in rapture with the fine artwork and the fine words. Familiar words of resurrection, repentance and healing, atonement, prayer, sacrament and commemoration. So carried away they might easily fail to notice the absence of the one thing that defines Easter for Christians, the one thing central to the message of the Bible.
Where is the Cross?
To be sure, the Cross is not entirely overlooked. In Thomas Monson's contribution the Cross is seen as the instrument of Jesus' death, but he is strangely silent about what the Bible clearly teaches was achieved on the Cross. Passing quickly over Golgotha he writes, “No words in Christendom mean more to me than those spoken by the angel to the weeping Mary Magdalene and the other Mary as they approached the tomb to care for the body of their Lord, 'Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen.'” (Luke 24:5-6)
Certainly, these are thrilling words but consider for a moment words more thrilling still, words more treasured by Christians even than those spoken by the angel at the empty tomb - “It is finished.” (John 19:30) These words spoken by Christ from the Cross indicating the completion of a task, the discharging of a debt. As someone has said, my debt, paid in full, on the nail! This Cross is absent from the Mormon prophet's thoughts and words.
In an article on repentance much is made of relying on Christ's atoning work, “He suffered in His body and spirit to pay the penalty for our sins if we repent.” But what follows is not the familiar account of Calvary pressed on us by the Bible but a quote from the Mormon book of Doctrine and Covenants:
For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I; Which suffering cause 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...” (D&C 19:16-20) This is not Golgotha but Gethsemane; where is the Cross?
As though to confirm our rising suspicions, the What we Believe article explains, “As part of his Atonement, Jesus suffered for our sins in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross of Calvary.” This is illustrated with a painting of Jesus in Gethsemane and contains again text from D&C 19:16-20. Once again we are in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Todd Christofferson, in his article on communion, refers to “His suffering and death on Gethsemane and on Golgotha.” Perhaps here we have a clue to the order and place of each element of Christ's work; suffering in Gethsemane and death on Golgotha.
Bruce R McConkie's article, originally a general conference address given on April 6, 1985, two weeks before his death, might throw further light on this question. The title is telling, The Purifying Power of Gethsemane; a strange thing to the ears of a Christian used to looking to the Cross on which the atoning and purifying blood of Christ was shed.
McConkie declared, “this holy ground (Gethsemane) is where the sinless Son of the Everlasting Father took upon himself the sins of all men...” He goes on to describe how “He sweat great gouts of blood from every pore as he drained the dregs of that bitter cup His Father had given Him.” Again and again we find ourselves in Gethsemane as we consider the Mormon message.
The Cross is there as he declares, “while He was hanging on the cross for another three hours...all the infinite agonies and merciless pains of Gethsemane recurred” and he says of the atonement, “I testify that it took place in Gethsemane and at Golgotha” but the emphasis throughout is Gethsemane.
He draws parallels between Eden, Gethsemane and the empty tomb, saying, “We must cast aside the philosophies of men and the wisdom of the wise and hearken to that Spirit which is given to us to guide us into all truth...As we read, ponder, and pray, there will come into our minds a view of the three gardens of God – the Garden of Eden, the Garden of Gethsemane, and the Garden of the Empty Tomb...” Where is the Cross and what are these philosophies of men we must cast aside as we seek truth?
These seem almost the words of a double-minded man and I take no pleasure in saying this given the portentous circumstances in which this address was given. But Christian Scripture is clear, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24)
Yet McConkie keeps returning to Gethsemane while looking back almost in a token gesture to Golgotha, as indeed does the whole magazine. It is as though Golgotha is an official stance presented to the world while Gethsemane is where the heart is. Maybe something he wrote earlier can shed some light on this:
"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)
mere death on the cross
There you have it, the way Mormons think about the atonement. Here is atonement in the garden but mere death on the Cross. Here, I believe, is the explanation for the absence of the Cross in this Easter Ensign. It is not there because it is not at the forefront of Mormon thinking as it has been in the thinking of Christians down the ages.
It seems almost perverse, certainly confusing, when the Bible is so clear and unequivocal on the subject. But then this is one of the marks of a counterfeit of Christianity. Paul warns of those who “are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ”, and where better to pervert the gospel than to strike at the heart of the message, the Cross?
Everything we know and understand about the atonement, its means, purpose and ends, rests at the Cross. The message of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone is given breath and life at the Cross. Take away the Cross and you take away grace, take away grace and you end up with “a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all.” (Galatians 1:6-7)
We should heed the warning of Paul, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you let him be eternally condemned! (Galatians 1:8)
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood. (Isaac Newton)
You can read more about what Mormon leaders have to say about the Cross in an article entitled Special Witnesses or Enemies of the Cross of Christ?