Jesus in the World of Spirits
|Fra Angelico, Christ in Limbo|
As Jesus was buried, Luke’s account notes that “the Sabbath drew on,” leading the women who had observed Jesus’ burial to rest through the course of the next day (Luke 23:54‒56). The only event recorded in the other Gospels for the Sabbath itself comes from Matthew, who describes how the Jewish leaders convinced Pilate to set a guard over the tomb where Jesus’ body lay. In the New World, the Book of Mormon records how darkness covered the face of the earth, graphically illustrating how the True Light of the World had been extinguished (see 3 Nephi 9‒10). A later New Testament text mentions that Jesus’ spirit preached to “the spirits in prison” after his body had been put to death in the flesh (see 1 Pet 3:19; 4:6). Similarly, Ephesians 4:9 describes how Christ, before he ascended on high, “descended first into the lower parts of the earth” (see also Rom 10:7).
Reflection on these passages, perhaps together with unwritten traditions about the activities of Jesus’ spirit between his death and resurrection, led to the later Christian tradition of the “the Harrowing of Hell,” in which Jesus descended into the Underworld, defeating the powers of Satan and bringing forth the spirits of all the righteous, beginning with Adam and Eve. Although revelations of Joseph Smith had used somewhat similar language when they taught that Jesus “descended below all things” (D&C 88:6; 122:8), a clearer understanding of the details of this ministry to the dead, particularly for its implications for those after Christ’s death and resurrection, needed to await the inspired vision of President Joseph F. Smith (1838‒1918), the sixth president of the Church. President Smith’s own life and experiences with death uniquely prepared him for this vision, which he received on October 3, 1918, not quite two months before his own death. Presented to the Church in General Conference the next day and accepted as a revelation by the First Presidency, and Patriarch to the Church on October 31 later that month, this vision was first published in the Pearl of Great Price and later as section 138 of the Doctrine and Covenants. The Saturday of Holy Week is thus a particularly appropriate time for Latter-day Saints to reflect upon the great saving work for the dead that we perform in our temples.
 For a variety of treatments of the topic, see J. A. MacCulloch, Harrowing of Hell: A Comparative Study of an Early Christian Doctrine (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1930), 217–39, 253–87; Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective (New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009) 43–101; Matthew Y. Emerson, “He Descended to the Dead”: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2019), 22–104. See also the historical review of Latter-day Saint scholar Terryl. Givens, Wrestling the Angel (New York: Oxford, 2015), 248‒50.
 Joseph Stuart, “Development of the Understanding of the Postmortal Spirit World,” Joseph F. Smith: Reflections on the Man and His Times, eds. Craig K. Manscill, Brian D. Reeves, Guy L. Dorius, and J. B. Haws (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 2013), 221–232.
 Joseph Fielding McConkie and Craig J. Ostler, Revelations of the Restoration: A Commentary on the Doctrine and Covenant and Other Modern Revelations (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2000), 1143‒44; Francis M. Gibbons, Joseph F. Smith: Patriarch and Preacher, Prophet of God (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1984), 323–27; Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, Joseph F. Smith: Portrait of a Prophet (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 2000), 258–62; Huntsman, God So Loved the World, 95‒96.
Scriptural Accounts: Luke 23:43; 1 Peter 3:18–19, 4:6; D&C 138; 3 Nephi 9 and 10
Episodes for Personal Study
- A Guard is Placed at the Tomb (Matthew 27:62–66)
- Darkness Prevails among the Nephites (3 Nephi 9–10)
- Jesus Goes to the Spirit World and Organizes His Work There (1 Peter 3:18–4:6; D&C 138)
Suggestions for Families
- If using an Easter
Wreath, leave the purple and red candles unlit.
James Tissot, Watch over the Tomb
- Read 3 Nephi 9:14‒22, in which Jesus testifies of his death and resurrection.
- Read Isaiah 52:7 and 53:10 and then Mosiah 15:10–18. What does it mean that after he has made an offering for sin “he shall see his seed?”
- Read portions of all or some of D&C 138 and discuss together the activities of Jesus’ spirit during the time that his body was in the tomb.
- Sing “How Beautiful Thy Temples, Lord” (hymn no. 288) or “Turn Your Hearts” (no. 291).
- Consider attending the temple or doing family history work.
- Return to the fact that during this time Jesus’ body was in the tomb. Perhaps using traditional customs, such as coloring Easter eggs, talk about how the egg has come to be a symbol of the tomb. To prepare for Easter morning, extend the discussion to talk about what happens when the egg hatches.
Ideas, Traditions, and Activities for Younger Children
- Charles Colson et al., “In the Tomb,” Christ in Easter, [49‒52].
- Janet and Joe Hales, A Christ Centered Easter, 11, 24‒25.
- Wendee Wilcox Rosborough, The Holy Week for Latter-day Saint Families, 49‒55.
Some Inspiring Art
- Fra Angelico, “Christ in Limbo.”
- Tissot, “The Watch over the Tomb.”
- Robert T. Barrett, “Jesus Teaching in the Spirit World.”
- Brahms, German Requiem.
- Robert Cundick, The Redeemer.
- Mack Wilberg, Requiem.
Because of the insights of Restoration scriptures and teaching—about Christ’s mission and atonement in general, but about his work for the dead in particular—I am moved by listening on the Saturday before Easter to great, full-length works by recent Latter-day Saint composers. Knowing that these artists share not only a testimony of the saving work of Jesus, but also a testimony of the restored gospel, adds to my aesthetic appreciation of their music.
We are fortunate, therefore, to have a composition of this type done by an LDS composer. Mack Wilberg’s Requiem grew out of two pieces, Requiem aeternam, or “Eternal Peace,” and its restatement, that Brother Wilberg originally composed to frame a performance of Vaughan Williams’ Dona nobis pacem at Carnegie Hall in March 2006. Encouraged to compose a full-length requiem by his friend and colleague, Craig Jessop, then conductor of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Brother Wilberg completed the score that summer, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Orchestra at Temple Square premiered it in April 2007. According to the published recording notes, “Recognizing the weight of tradition that accompanies the writing of a Requiem, Wilberg has incorporated several archaic features into this work. All of the texts are at least a thousand years old, and in several of the movements the melodies are decidedly chant-like. In many ways Wilberg’s Requiem represents and summarizes centuries of the lamenting tradition in music.” While every movement of this work is musically powerful, the final movement, “I Am the Resurrection and the Life,” fits the anticipation of the Saturday before Easter perfectly.
Jesus and the Spirit World
See the longer discussion in God So Loved the World, 95–105.
"As I pondered over these things which are written, the eyes of my understanding were opened, and the Spirit of the Lord rested upon me, and I saw the hosts of the dead, both small and great. And there were gathered together in one place an innumerable company of the spirits of the just, who had been faithful in the testimony of Jesus while they lived in mortality; And who had offered sacrifice in the similitude of the great sacrifice of the Son of God, and had suffered tribulation in their Redeemer's name.
"All these had departed the mortal life, firm in the hope of a glorious resurrection, through the grace of God the Father and his Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ. I beheld that they were filled with joy and gladness, and were rejoicing together because the day of their deliverance was at hand. They were assembled awaiting the advent of the Son of God into the spirit world, to declare their redemption from the bands of death. Their sleeping dust was to be restored unto its perfect frame, bone to his bone, and the sinews and the flesh upon them, the spirit and the body to be united never again to be divided, that they might receive a fulness of joy.
"While this vast multitude waited and conversed, rejoicing in the hour of their deliverance from the chains of death, the Son of God appeared, declaring liberty to the captives who had been faithful; And there he preached to them the everlasting gospel, the doctrine of the resurrection and the redemption of mankind from the fall, and from individual sins on conditions of repentance.
"But unto the wicked he did not go, and among the ungodly and the unrepentant who had defiled themselves while in the flesh, his voice was not raised; Neither did the rebellious who rejected the testimonies and the warnings of the ancient prophets behold his presence, nor look upon his face. Where these were, darkness reigned, but among the righteous there was peace; And the saints rejoiced in their redemption, and bowed the knee and acknowledged the Son of God as their Redeemer and Deliverer from death and the chains of hell." (D&C 138:11-23, emphasis added)
"But behold, from among the righteous, he organized his forces and appointed messengers, clothed with power and authority, and commissioned them to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness, even to all the spirits of men; and thus was the gospel preached to the dead. And the chosen messengers went forth to declare the acceptable day of the Lord and proclaim liberty to the captives who were bound, even unto all who would repent of their sins and receive the gospel. Thus was the gospel preached to those who had died in their sins, without a knowledge of the truth, or in transgression, having rejected the prophets. These were taught faith in God, repentance from sin, vicarious baptism for the remission of sins, the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, And all other principles of the gospel that were necessary for them to know in order to qualify themselves that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit. And so it was made known among the dead, both small and great, the unrighteous as well as the faithful, that redemption had been wrought through the sacrifice of the Son of God upon the cross." (D&C 138:30-35, emphasis added)
"Yea, verily I say unto you, if ye will come unto me ye shall have eternal life. Behold, mine arm of mercy is extended towards you, and whosoever will come, him will I receive; and blessed are those who come unto me. Behold, I am Jesus Christ the Son of God. I created the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are. I was with the Father from the beginning. I am in the Father, and the Father in me; and in me hath the Father glorified his name. I came unto my own, and my own received me not. And the scriptures concerning my coming are fulfilled. And as many as have received me, to them have I given to become the sons of God; and even so will I to as many as shall believe on my name, for behold, by me redemption cometh, and in me is the law of Moses fulfilled. I am the light and the life of the world. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.
"And ye shall offer up unto me no more the shedding of blood; yea, your sacrifices and your burnt offerings shall be done away, for I will accept none of your sacrifices and your burnt offerings. And ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit. And whoso cometh unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, him will I baptize with fire and with the Holy Ghost, even as the Lamanites, because of their faith in me at the time of their conversion, were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not. Behold, I have come unto the world to bring redemption unto the world, to save the world from sin. Therefore, whoso repenteth and cometh unto me as a little child, him will I receive, for of such is the kingdom of God. Behold, for such I have laid down my life, and have taken it up again; therefore repent, and come unto me ye ends of the earth, and be saved." (3 Nephi 9:14-22, emphasis added)
This post held particular meaning for me in 2019, because that year Holy Saturday falls on the fifteenth anniversary of the death of my father, Dennis C. Huntsman (1936-2004)
My mother, Marilyn Halversen Huntsman, died on September 1, 2014. I was wracked by grief in the days between her death and her funeral six days later, though I was comforted in that period by two passages of Restoration scripture, that assured my our relationship continued and that she was in Paradise, awaiting the resurrection with my grandparents and other friends and relatives.
Thou shalt alive together in love, insomuch that thou shalt weep for the loss of them that die . . . And it shall come to pass that those that die in me shall not taste of death, for it shall be sweet unto them (D&C 42:45–46).
Now, concerning the state of the soul between death and the resurrection—Behold, it has been made known unto me by an angel, that the spirits of all men, as soon as they are departed from this mortal body, yea, the spirits of all men, whether they be good or evil, are taken home to that God who gave them life (Alma 40:11–12).
Holy Saturday is a liminal period, a time "in between" Jesus' death and resurrection. It is fitting that we sit in that measured sadness for two reasons. First, it will place in greater contrast the joy we will feel Easter morning. Second, it reminds us not only of our deceased loved ones who are "in between" but also of many in this life who find themselves outside familiar circumstances and definitions. We all look forward to being brought together in happiness and peace in Christ Jesus.
Marking the Saturday of Holy Week
Reflecting on Jesus’ ministry to the spirit world and how it opened the doors for the redemption of the dead expands his atoning sacrifice to all the human family, including those who did not have the fulness of the gospel in this life. Additionally, participating in family history and temple work provides us opportunities to share in this great work, becoming “saviors on Mount Zion” (Obad 1:21). Regarding this, President Hinckley taught, “That which goes on in the House of the Lord, … comes nearer to the spirit of the sacrifice of the Lord than any other activity of which I know. Why? Because it is done by those who give freely of time and substance, without any expectation of thanks or reward, to do for others that which they cannot do for themselves.” Indeed, being in the temple on Good Friday or the Saturday before Easter can become an essential part of our Easter preparations.
 Gordon B. Hinckley, “A Century of Family History Service,” Ensign (March 1995), 62–63.
 Huntsman, God So Loved the World, 105.
For Further ReadingBorg and Crossan, The Last Week, 165–188
Eric D. Huntsman, God So Loved the World, 95–106.
Andrew C. Skinner, “The Savior’s Ministry to the Spirit World” With Healing in His Wings, eds. Camille Fronk Olson and Thomas A. Wayment (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2013), 81–107.
Mark A. Matthews, “‘Between the Time of Death and the Resurrection’: A Doctrinal Examination of the Spirit World,” Religious Educator 21.1 (2020): 105–127.
Joseph Stuart, “Development of the Understanding of the Postmortal Spirit World,” Joseph F. Smith: Reflections on the Man and His Times, eds. Craig K. Manscill, Brian D. Reeves, Guy L. Dorius, and J. B. Haws (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 2013), 221–232.
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