The Cross in the Book of Mormon

The Cross in the Book of Mormon

Easter is approaching once more, and with it my thoughts turn once more to what we commemorate and celebrate at this time of year. Not spring, as nice as that can be (albeit with restricted access in our Covid-19 world!), nor chocolate (which – alas – I must restrict!), but the atoning work of our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. Just under 2000 years ago now, he performed that pivotal labour, that act which grants our existence hope, which means we have more to look forward to than the cold grave or endless aeons damned as demons in hell.

I exaggerate not, as Jacob taught:

O the wisdom of God, his mercy and grace! For behold, if the flesh should rise no more our spirits must become subject to that angel who fell from before the presence of the Eternal God, and became the devil, to rise no more.
And our spirits must have become like unto him, and we become devils, angels to a devil, to be shut out from the presence of our God, and to remain with the father of lies, in misery, like unto himself; yea, to that being who beguiled our first parents, who transformeth himself nigh unto an angel of light, and stirreth up the children of men unto secret combinations of murder and all manner of secret works of darkness.

(2 Nephi 9:8–9)

However, as I think about it this year, and especially in conjunction with what is taught about it in the Book of Mormon (since that is the Sunday School reading this year), I find my mind catching on the image of the cross. I think we don’t talk much about the cross on a popular level within the Church; that is, within our local meetings and so on. In fact it sometimes seems like Christ’s sufferings in the garden of Gethsemane are more prominent. On one hand this is partly understandable: due to a few passages of modern scripture (one in the Book of Mormon, mentioned below, the other Doctrine and Covenants 19), we understand that the trial that Christ faced there was not one of mere anticipation of sufferings to come, but that his more than mortal, vicarious suffering for the sins and pains of mankind began there. As such, we have more to work with than the biblical account alone, which describes the bloody sweat (Luke 22:44), but in terms which have left some in the rest of Christianity unsure as to whether this was mere metaphor.

On the other hand, however, sometimes there’s an overcorrection. When I hear some mistakenly teach that the atonement was completed in the garden, that his offering was done entirely there, and indeed teach misguided ideas about the atonement of Christ on that basis, then I know there has been some level of misunderstanding. This is a topic I’ve addressed before, writing about Easter last year. Christ’s atoning work was one whole, it is perhaps a human tendency to subdivide and categorise. As to why the popular misunderstanding errs in this direction, I’m not sure why. Perhaps there’s a natural tendency to emphasise what we teach differently from others, even where that detracts from true teachings that we share in common. The same perhaps happened with teaching on grace, a word and concept that was seemingly much avoided in some Latter-day circles in the mid-twentieth century. What happened there was that – perhaps as a consequence of President Benson prophetically re-emphasising the importance of the book – people began finding the teaching of grace all throughout the Book of Mormon, and as people turned to the teachings there (and as it was taught in conference), a greater understanding of grace returned.

Similarly, some readers of the Book of Mormon may be surprised at the prominence the Book of Mormon gives to the cross, especially in comparison to the garden. There are few specific references to Christ’s sufferings in the garden at all. In fact, indeed there is only one clear reference that I can find:

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)

This verse augments the witness of Luke concerning the bloody sweat, and directly ties it to his suffering for our wickedness and abominations. Note however that it also places it into a context of his suffering temptations, pain of body, hunger, thirst, fatigue and so on, all of which apparently encompasses earlier parts of his life (that this is “more than man can suffer, except it be unto death” is still surely true when we factor in, for instance, the 40 days Christ fasted in the wilderness). These are part and parcel too: the beginning of Christ experiencing the pains and sorrows we face in mortality was not in the Gethsemane, but in Bethlehem. I can find no other such references to the suffering in the garden; one could perhaps equate the “bitter cup” Christ announces he has drunk out of in 3 Nephi 11:11 with that he speaks about in Doctrine & Covenants 19:18 and the “cup” he wishes could “pass” from him in Matthew 26:39 & 42, but while the latter two verses take place in the garden, that term might rightly be judged to apply to the whole event.

In contrast, the cross and the crucifixion are specifically referred to on many occasions in the Book of Mormon (bold text is my emphasis):

And it came to pass that the angel spake unto me again, saying: Look! And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Son of the everlasting God was judged of the world; and I saw and bear record.
And I, Nephi, saw that he was lifted up upon the cross and slain for the sins of the world.

(1 Nephi 11:32-33)

And the God of our fathers, who were led out of Egypt, out of bondage, and also were preserved in the wilderness by him, yea, the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, yieldeth himself, according to the words of the angel, as a man, into the hands of wicked men, to be lifted up, according to the words of Zenock, and to be crucified, according to the words of Neum, and to be buried in a sepulchre, according to the words of Zenos, which he spake concerning the three days of darkness, which should be a sign given of his death unto those who should inhabit the isles of the sea, more especially given unto those who are of the house of Israel.

(1 Nephi 19:10)

And as for those who are at Jerusalem, saith the prophet, they shall be scourged by all people, because they crucify the God of Israel, and turn their hearts aside, rejecting signs and wonders, and the power and glory of the God of Israel.

(1 Nephi 19:13)

Nevertheless, the Lord has shown unto me that they should return again. And he also has shown unto me that the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, should manifest himself unto them in the flesh; and after he should manifest himself they should scourge him and crucify him, according to the words of the angel who spake it unto me.

(2 Nephi 6:9)

But, behold, the righteous, the saints of the Holy One of Israel, they who have believed in the Holy One of Israel, they who have endured the crosses of the world, and despised the shame of it, they shall inherit the kingdom of God, which was prepared for them from the foundation of the world, and their joy shall be full forever.

(2 Nephi 9:18)

Wherefore, as I said unto you, it must needs be expedient that Christ—for in the last night the angel spake unto me that this should be his name—should come among the Jews, among those who are the more wicked part of the world; and they shall crucify him—for thus it behooveth our God, and there is none other nation on earth that would crucify their God.
For should the mighty miracles be wrought among other nations they would repent, and know that he be their God.
But because of priestcrafts and iniquities, they at Jerusalem will stiffen their necks against him, that he be crucified.

(2 Nephi 10:3–5)

But, behold, they shall have wars, and rumors of wars; and when the day cometh that the Only Begotten of the Father, yea, even the Father of heaven and of earth, shall manifest himself unto them in the flesh, behold, they will reject him, because of their iniquities, and the hardness of their hearts, and the stiffness of their necks.
Behold, they will crucify him; and after he is laid in a sepulchre for the space of three days he shall rise from the dead, with healing in his wings; and all those who shall believe on his name shall be saved in the kingdom of God. Wherefore, my soul delighteth to prophesy concerning him, for I have seen his day, and my heart doth magnify his holy name.

(2 Nephi 25:12–13)

Wherefore, we would to God that we could persuade all men not to rebel against God, to provoke him to anger, but that all men would believe in Christ, and view his death, and suffer his cross and bear the shame of the world; wherefore, I, Jacob, take it upon me to fulfil the commandment of my brother Nephi.

(Jacob 1:8)

And lo, he cometh unto his own, that salvation might come unto the children of men even through faith on his name; and even after all this they shall consider him a man, and say that he hath a devil, and shall scourge him, and shall crucify him.

(Mosiah 3:9)

Yea, even so he shall be led, crucified, and slain, the flesh becoming subject even unto death, the will of the Son being swallowed up in the will of the Father.

(Mosiah 15:7)

Arise and come forth unto me, that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world.
And it came to pass that the multitude went forth, and thrust their hands into his side, and did feel the prints of the nails in his hands and in his feet; and this they did do, going forth one by one until they had all gone forth, and did see with their eyes and did feel with their hands, and did know of a surety and did bear record, that it was he, of whom it was written by the prophets, that should come.

(3 Nephi 11:14–15)

For it is better that ye should deny yourselves of these things, wherein ye will take up your cross, than that ye should be cast into hell.

(3 Nephi 12:30, note while a quotation of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:30 does not contain any reference to the cross. Of course, that predated the crucifixion, while in 3 Nephi 12 it is the risen Christ who is speaking)

And my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me, that as I have been lifted up by men even so should men be lifted up by the Father, to stand before me, to be judged of their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil—
And for this cause have I been lifted up; therefore, according to the power of the Father I will draw all men unto me, that they may be judged according to their works.

(3 Nephi 27:14–15)

And he said unto them: Behold, I know your thoughts, and ye have desired the thing which John, my beloved, who was with me in my ministry, before that I was lifted up by the Jews, desired of me.

(3 Nephi 28:6)

Of these, two verses (2 Nephi 9:18, 3 Nephi 12:30) are speaking of crosses in a metaphorical sense – that is, speaking of the “cross” all believers are to bear – but still must allude to the cross to be understood. The rest, to a greater or lesser degree, are clear and direct references to the crucifixion. There are 14 such specific references in total, when counting multiple references in one passage as a singular reference, and there are 9 uses of variations of the term “crucify” in the Book of Mormon alone (and 11 in the Doctrine and Covenants, lest anyone think that is also sparing). This is not including more general references to Christ being slain or his death, of which there are many (e.g. 2 Nephi 9:5, Alma 21:9 and many others).

I take it as a key in interpreting the scriptures, that whatever is mentioned most matters most. As such this repeated mention of the cross in the Book of Mormon suggests this particular episode was an important part of Christ’s atoning work. Of course, it is possible to overcorrect too far in the other direction, to obscure the rest of the atonement of Christ by focusing solely on the actual event of the crucifixion (and indeed, the Book of Mormon is hardly sparing in mentioning the resurrection either!). But we are hardly in danger of that at the moment, and the prominence the Book of Mormon affords the cross and the crucifixion suggest this should play a significant role whenever we reflect and remember what Christ has done for us.

So why the particular importance attached to this event? Why should this be a particular part of our own remembrance of Christ? Some thoughts:

1) In the garden, Christ began the process of vicariously suffering for the sin of Mankind, and taking upon himself our pains and sufferings. But it is the cross that that he most directly suffered at the hands of other human beings, the point at which he suffered most for the injustice of his trial, and so symbolically experienced judgment at the hands of all mankind (1 Nephi 11:32, 2 Nephi 9:5). It is because of this, according to Jacob, that he in turn has the power to judge mankind. The crucifixion also most signifies his own people’s then rejection of him (Mark 8:31, 2 Nephi 10:3–5, 2 Nephi 25:12, Mosiah 3:9). Thus Christ becomes just as the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement, which was driven into the wilderness, symbolically bearing the sins of the people (see Leviticus 16, especially verses 5, 8-10, 20-22).

2) Then there is the imagery of being “lifted up” (a phrase the Book of Mormon plays with): by being crucified, Christ was physically hoisted up, and made a public spectacle, subject to mockery and an execution that was considered shameful (Hebrews 12:2, Jacob 1:8). And yet it was through this that God wrought the greatest victory (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23-24), so that while nominally lifted up for mockery and shame, in eternal reality, his act on our behalf blesses us with victory over death, and inspires us to follow him (3 Nephi 27:14-15). Because he has been lifted up upon the cross, so too will all men be lifted up: not to instruments of execution, but in the resurrection to newness of life. But likewise, to follow him we too must endure “crosses” and bear the shame the world would cast at us (2 Ne 9:18).

3) Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this was the key moment of offering: one crucial aspect of the atonement of Christ is that it is a sacrifical offering on our behalf, much as on the Day of Atonement. However, in this offering Christ played all three roles: as High priest (as the offerer), as the sacrifice (as the offering himself), and as the scapegoat (bearing our sins away). It is why only he could do it: only a perfect and eternal high priest could offer a such an offering that would last forever (Hebrews 7:22-28), only an infinite and eternal sacrifice could suffice for the sins of the world and only a divine scapegoat could truly and justly bear another’s sins (see Alma 34:10-12, Alma 42:15)

But this sacrifice was not simply one of pain: it was an offering of life. Only by offering his infinite life – and thus his death – would suffice to atone for the sins of the world (Alma 22:14), and bring to pass the resurrection of mankind (Alma 11:42, Helaman 14:14-16). And while Christ began his more than natural sufferings in the garden, it was on the cross that he offered up his life and gave it up. It was on the cross too that he was cast out of the camp of this world, bearing the sins of the people into the wilderness without. And his offering not simply his physical life either, for it is on the cross that he experienced the withdrawal of the presence of the Father (“Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, Matthew 27:46). When we are separated from God, we call that spiritual death. Christ offered up his life, and so experienced death in every way that each of us does.

I’m sure there are perhaps more reasons, and perhaps this is as good a time as any to ponder them. In any case it seems appropriate that when thinking the Saviour’s sacrifice that we not neglect a dimension of which the scriptures amply teach, and let the episode of the cross take its proper place in our remembrance of his work for us.

The Good News


Almost two thousand years ago, in a minor province of the Roman empire and in the space of just a few days, the most important event in human history took place. More than history even, for the events of those days will have consequences beyond history and throughout eternity, when many “historical” events will seem mere footnotes. Moreover, those events matter not just two thousand years ago, nor just in eternities beyond the end of time itself, but I find myself reflecting on this Easter on the way they matter today.

It seems a human tendency to want to break things up, and subdivide them, perhaps so we can get our head around them. Thus some depictions of Christ’s redeeming work have focused on the Crucifixion. In Latter-day Saint culture, there’s been a tendency to focus on the suffering in the garden of Gethsemane (I specify culture; the Book of Mormon itself refers to the Cross more frequently than to the Garden). But in reality these are all part of one big redemptive work. It arguably began long before Gethsemane itself, as Christ’s experienced the sufferings endemic to mortal life throughout his mortal life (Alma 7:11). He faced hunger and thirst in the wilderness, being tempted by the devil, sorrow at the tomb of Lazarus, and abandonment by many of his former followers: such happenings and others like them were all part and parcel of him taking upon himself mortal pains so that he might help us in ours.

It is in the garden, however, that the more than natural sufferings clearly began. In addition to his sorrowing “unto death”, so much that he “fell on his face” (Matt. 26:38-39), in some way that we do not fully comprehend he began the process by which he took upon himself the sin of the world, suffering so much so that he sweat blood (Luke 22:44; Mosiah 3:7; D&C 19:18). He was then betrayed by Judas, abandoned by all, unjustly tried and condemned, abused, scourged and then sentenced to death on the Cross. Yet his spiritual sufferings did not end in the garden, for there was more to Christ’s pain on the Cross than the physical agony of crucifixion, and more to his atoning sacrifice that the suffering endured in the Garden beforehand.

Indeed, suffering alone wasn’t Christ’s offering. The penalty of sin is death (Romans 5:12;  6:23), death and hell, or death of the body and death of the spirit (2 Nephi 9:10). In the first our spirit is separated from our body, in the second it is separated from God. The price to redeem us from these deaths required an infinite offering: “not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast” (Alma 34:10), nor simply a discrete amount of suffering, no matter how multiplied. There is no straightforward arithmetic of atonement that allows trading off one life for another, and so only “an infinite atonement [would] suffice for the sins of the world” (v. 11-12). Thus Christ needed to offer up his own, infinite and eternal divine life as the offering: his sufferings alone would not suffice, but his death was required also (Alma 22:14). Not even his physical life could be taken from him without his will (John 19:11), as reflected in the curious phrasing by which Moses and Elijah discuss “his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31, my emphasis). But just like the death we face due to our sins is both physical and spiritual, so Christ’s offering likewise required both. Thus, while in Gethsemane he received strength from an angel (Luke 22:43), on the Cross he experienced the withdrawal of the Father’s presence, causing him to exclaim “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?”: “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46).

So Christ offered up every drop of his infinite and eternal life. And yet that is not the conclusion of his atonement, for the victory would yet be incomplete. That came several days later, on the day we commemorate with Easter itself. It is on that day that the bands of death and hell were broken, when Christ rose from his tomb. Notice how he tells Mary Magdalene, the first to see him, to not touch him “for I am not yet ascended to my Father”, but for her to go and specifically tell his brethren “I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God” (John 20:17 – the fact that those who saw him later could touch him suggest that said ascension took place swiftly). His rising was not just taking up his body again, even in perfect form, but a rising into a fullness of both physical and spiritual life, the ascension of his body from the tomb, and his ascension – body and spirit both – to the Father. Thus our redemption is “brought to pass through the power, and sufferings, and death of Christ, and his resurrection and ascension into heaven” (Mosiah 18:2).

There are those, both of Christ’s followers at the time and others since, who have had the opportunity to bear physical witness of his resurrection, to have “heard”, “seen” and “handled” (Ep. of John 1:1). For others, including myself, there is the witness of the Holy Ghost. In all such cases, however, we have the promise symbolised by the empty tomb, a promise that can bring power and peace into our lives now by assuring us of good things to come. It may be easy, looking around the world, to feel a measure of disquiet at the way things are and the way they’re heading. Even when things are good, no society lasts forever. And then in our personal lives, we may – indeed almost all do – experience loss, or grief, or failure, or feelings of failure. We may feel frustration or pain that life has gone in undesired directions, whether due to our mistakes or the vicissitudes of life. Sometimes life is just rubbish, and sometimes we may simply feel we’ve messed it up.

But the promise of that Easter Morning – the “good news” which is literally the meaning of the word gospel – is that this life is not it. There is more to come than the ephemeral things of this life, and no failure need be final. No matter what setbacks we face, what trials we experience or pain we go through in the present, that empty tomb is a promise that better things are in store if we look to the one who is risen and hold on faithful. It is a promise that we need not be forever defined by our sins nor our failures, nor any other imperfection, for Christ has conquered death and hell, and can put all enemies under his feet.

Alma 33

While part of the same sermon as Alma 32 and 34, Alma 33 often seems quite neglected in comparison. And while Alma 32 and 34 do have quite a few amazing things in them, this perhaps shouldn’t be the case, for if Alma 32 is where Alma encourages his audience to try an experiment by believing the word, and the process by which faith in that word can be built up, it’s in Alma 33 that he describes the content of that word. Thus this chapter probably deserves more attention than it gets, including the brief attention devoted to it in this post. Possible areas of attention include: Zenos’ and Zenock’s words (or indeed, their very existence, and Alma referring to their writings plainly as “scripture”); the way the Zenos quote addresses both questions held by Alma’s audience (namely – by mentioning all the places he prayed – where they can worship, and by reference to the Son, who they should trust in); and the type of the serpent staff in the wilderness, and how we might look upon Christ.

One thing stood out while reading it today, however, which was how Alma himself seems to condense the “word” he wishes the Zoramites to plant into one verse, which does indeed seem to condense the core of the Gospel into one sentence:

If so, wo shall come upon you; but if not so, then cast about your eyes and begin to believe in the Son of God, that he will come to redeem his people, and that he shall suffer and die to atone for their sins; and that he shall rise again from the dead, which shall bring to pass the resurrection, that all men shall stand before him, to be judged at the last and judgment day, according to their works.

(Alma 33:22)

This is the word that Alma desires they should “plant” in their hearts, and then nourish by their faith (v. 23), and presumably one we should too, and which will likewise lead us to eternal life. That we too should “cast about” our eyes, and begin to believe on the Son of God, that he came (and will come again) to redeem his people, that he has suffered and died to atone for our sins, and he rose again from the dead, which will bring to pass our resurrection, so that all of us will stand before him, to be judged. This is the very core, that Christ came down to Earth, that he is our redeemer from sin and from death, and that he is our judge and we are accountable to him. If we truly believe these things, I believe Alma to be saying, and exercise our faith in them, that is the message that will transform our lives, and indeed shape our eternal destiny. As I think upon this verse, it seems strange that such a powerful message can be condensed into such few words, and yet thinking upon it, it seems so obvious that nearly all our errors stem from forgetting one of these simple elements.


Helaman 14

Reading today a chapter which spent quite some time talking about the signs of Christ’s birth – and knowing what’s coming in the next few chapters – it suddenly dawned on me on how appropriate it is to be reading this section of scripture at this time of year. Especially since with my current pattern of reading (I’m reading mostly from the Bible at present, but am reading a chapter of the Book of Mormon each day), I should hit 3 Nephi 1 on Christmas day itself, which seems positively serendipitous.

Aside from this fortunate timing, two things from this chapter really stuck out to me today. Firstly this chapter discusses Christ’s role in saving us from spiritual and physical deaths, and speaks of the first and second deaths. Now a lot of the time at Church I’ve heard people use the terms first and second death as synonyms for physical and spiritual death. This is not how the terms are used in the Book of Mormon, however, and it is especially clear here:

Yea, behold, this death bringeth to pass the resurrection, and redeemeth all mankind from the first death—that spiritual death; for all mankind, by the fall of Adam being cut off from the presence of the Lord, are considered as dead, both as to things temporal and to things spiritual.
But behold, the resurrection of Christ redeemeth mankind, yea, even all mankind, and bringeth them back into the presence of the Lord.
Yea, and it bringeth to pass the condition of repentance, that whosoever repenteth the same is not hewn down and cast into the fire; but whosoever repenteth not is hewn down and cast into the fire; and there cometh upon them again a spiritual death, yea, a second death, for they are cut off again as to things pertaining to righteousness.

(Helaman 14:16–18)

Christ saves all from the first death, which includes being saved from physical death and from the spiritual death of the fall, and brings everyone back into the presence of God. However, those who do not repent will then experience spiritual death again, which is the second death. So both the first and second death are spiritual. The distinction between them is less about type, and more about timing.

The second thing that really popped into my mind while reading this chapter was the phrase used several times here, and also throughout the Book of Mormon and in the New Testament too, of believing on/in Christ’s name:

And behold, he said unto them: Behold, I give unto you a sign; for five years more cometh, and behold, then cometh the Son of God to redeem all those who shall believe on his name.

(Helaman 14:2)

And if ye believe on his name ye will repent of all your sins, that thereby ye may have a remission of them through his merits.

(Helaman 14:13)

This caused me to ponder what is the particular significance of believing on his name. I am sure that part of the significance is more than just the actual label, just like in the similar concept found in the Book of Mormon and expressed in the sacrament prayers of taking upon ourselves his name means so much more, including being part of his family, and being his disciples and seeking to emulate him in all things. His name may also connote his attributes, character, reputation, faithfulness and so on as well. At the same time, this did make me think of the actual names of Christ if we take this literally. There’s the title Christ, the Greek term for Messiah, or anointed one. There’s Immanuel, meaning God with us. Or there is the name Jesus himself, which must carry some significance because both Mary (Luke 1:31) and Joseph (Matthew 1:21) were commanded that that should be his name. Yeshua (Jesus comes from the Latin transliteration of the Greek rendition of the Hebrew name) is a fairly common Hebrew name, seen in figures like Joshua. But its meaning seems particularly applicable, since the name is closely connected to the Hebrew verb and noun for saving and salvation. This is seen in Matthew 1:21, where Joseph is commanded to call him Jesus “for he shall save his people from their sins”. Thus while I think that to believe on his name has a more than literal meaning, literally believing on the actual name of Jesus itself surely means to believe this: that he will save his people, and can save us, from our sins.