Sunday, 24 April 2011

Mormonism’s Cross-less Easter

"Crucifixion" by Carl Bloch
As I write this the Christian world celebrates the great good news that on a Friday some two thousand years ago Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, betrayed by a friend, denied by another, abandoned by still more, rejected by a world he created, a people he came to save and to serve, died a terrible death on a Roman instrument of torture and execution, suffered and died to bear away our sins so that “whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)

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 Mormonism
The 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?

6 comments:

  1. I have seen this article posted several times on Facebook along with this header, "Mormons, Read your Bibles!" Since Mormons do read their Bibles one has to wonder what is being said about them behind their backs. Curious, I read the article and now wonder what the point is supposed to be -- since all evidence presented shows that Mormons truly revere the atonement of Christ and celebrate his resuurection.

    So I'm guessing that the point is supposed to be that Mormons are supposed to spend a greater amount of arbitrarily determined time focusing upon what occurred on the cross and a lesser amount of arbitrarily determined time focusing upon what occurred in Gethsemane and what occurred during his trial and scourging, and also spend a lesser amount of arbitrarily determined time celebrating the resurrection and the empty tomb...? That does seem to be the gist.

    It seems to me that if evangelical Christian's universally believe that one's primary focus must be what happened on the cross, then why has their cross become so sanitized...? It contains no Christ. Wouldn't they have to admit the Catholics have it right -- and fill their churches once again with a bloodied Jesus being tortured upon the cross, instead of their current stain-free version...?

    I wonder if Christians are all one the same page as to what amount of time deliberating upon each element of Christ's atonement is considered "acceptable" for a reader of the Bible...? And since the Bible does not state how much time should be spent focusing on the crucifixion as opposed to the Gethsemane and the Resurrection, I guess that these arbitrary determinations must be coming from some extra-Biblical source. And Mormons know all too well what Christians think about anything that doesn't come directly from the Bible itself.

    Maybe it would be better to focus on following the words of Jesus in one's own life instead of spending one's time counting the pictures of Jesus contained in another church's magazines....

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  2. I am joining the Mormon Church again if you have seen this article before because that would be proof of a prescience that is unearthly since I only wrote this - yesterday?

    Paul said that the Cross is an offence to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. You seem very upset about the Cross and I wonder why a biblical discussion of the Cross so offends you?

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  3. I suspect that the reason I have seen this article a few times is that at least one of your readers posted it on Facebook the same day I commented here (I went back and checked the dates), and then it got shared from there.

    One of the people that posted this article is an extended family member who is rabidly anti-Mormon. And, well, how can I put this...? We are all "at" where we are at in life, and unfortunately at the moment he is "at" a place in his life where he feels the need to fuel contention between his Mormon and Evangelical friends and neighbors. He had posted your article amongst a stream of hostile educational videos for Mormons, the gist of which were/are pretty much "Burn in Hell." Thus I may have been a little too primed to read it in a more confrontational tone than you intended. Apparently I misinterpreted your meaning, for which I apologize.

    You are joining the church again...? That does add an interesting perspective to this article and I will have to look at it again from an unprejudiced angle.

    I am not at all offended by a Biblical discussion of the cross, only by the idea that the symbol of Christ's crucifixion matters more than following Christ -- which I sometimes hear from some Christians. It seems to me that this is kinda like saying that wearing a wedding ring matters more than being faithful to your marriage covenants. That may not have been your intent at all though.

    I suppose that the cross has been employed as a wedge issue for so long that it triggers me into springing into defense mode. That is really a very unfortunate thing, one that I will have to be more cognizant of.

    I don't know that many churches really mean for the cross issue to come across the way it seems to come across to most Mormons -- or vice versa. Or that most churches intend their beliefs on grace, faith, works to get interpreted the way they get interpreted by most Mormons -- and vice versa.

    There is a lot of misunderstanding between differing faiths on these issues and not many people seem willing to hear each other. The philosophical hair-splitting between those that are sincerely willing to hear each other can get pretty interesting. What is even more interesting to me is that at the end of the philosophical hair-splitting the differences are miniscule -- hardly the stuff worthy of a religious war.

    Ufortunately, their conclusions don't seem to ever get heard by those who like to stir up contention, who continue to wax long and indignant about Mormons working their way into heaven, wearing magical underwear, and such. And also Mormons thinking Christians believe that they have a license to commit all manner of sin with their get out of jail free cards....

    As you know, Mormons do understand the need for grace in their lives and they understand where that came from -- but at the same time they don't think Christ just liked to hear himself talk. They think that he intended for us to actually do what he said, even though they know that they will need Christ to make up the difference.

    Nice chatting with you... :-)

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  4. Every critic of Mormonism is "rabid anti-Mormon" if you listen to Mormons.

    Show me where in Scripture (the Bible) it tells us that Christ "makes up the difference."

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  5. Oh heaven's no. There are some critics that are kind, respectful, and willing to have an honest, sincere, conversation -- who are even open to the idea that they might be mistaken in their interpretation of certain LDS points of doctrine, etc. Then there are those whose purpose in life centers around condemning anyone who doesn't think just like them to eternal hellfire. You can't even have a 2-way conversation with these people. They just cover their ears and say, "La la la la la la, I don't hear you."

    I think most Mormons are pretty good at distinguishing between the rabidly obsessed and honest, friendly critics.

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  6. Well Carol, I have addressed the troubling absence of the Cross from the Mormon Easter, troubling from a Christian perspective, surely a legitimate point to raise. Yet so far no real effort has been made to answer the points in the post. There has been name-calling - "rabid anti-Mormon" was offered by a Mormon as a description of a family member - and your own defense of a Mormon attitude to critics I don't recognise.

    The Cross is universally accepted as the central doctrine of the gospel yet Mormons who are pleased to call themselves Christians determinedly ignore it, even regarding any time pondering it as "arbitrary". Now this may seem nothing to you but any Christian reading these remarks would be horrified! The tragedy is that this fact leaves Mormons unmoved. Shouldn't Mormons be asking themselves why the Cross is so central to every other church yet seemingly periferral, even incidental to Mormons?

    Why is there no Cross in the Mormon Easter when the New Testament speaks of nothing else in teaching and representing the atonement? Surely this is an issue we can discuss and without any cause to complain that anyone is being unreasonable? My fingers are most certainly not in my ears, I am not singing La la la la and I am positively anxious to hear any Mormon who is open to dialogue.

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