The Resurrection is one of the most sacred, transcendent events in human history. To portray the Resurrection in its fulness of glory and effulgence of hope is, I believe, beyond the ability of mortal man. “No man can describe it to you—no man can write it,” said the Prophet Joseph Smith (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 368). We cannot explain the Resurrection intellectually; it is beyond our human experience and comprehension. We glimpse it—this truth of truths—as “through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12), discerning only its dim outlines.
I begin by reminding you of an ancient story—a story so old that it predates the earliest existing writings we have of the Old Testament by a millennium or more. It is the story of an ancient king named Gilgamesh (see N. K. Sanders, ed., The Epic of Gilgamesh: An English Version with an Introduction, New York, New York: Penguin Books, 1972).
The Epic of Gilgamesh poses questions about the human search for authentic reality even more ancient than the story itself. What we know of the tale is preserved on clay tablets dating from the seventh century B.C., written in the Akkadian language and found in the royal library of Ashurbanipal, an Assyrian king. It seems clear, however, that the story itself is even more ancient, dating to a time perhaps nearly twenty-five hundred years before Jesus’ mortal ministry. Its origins lie, therefore, not in Assyria or Babylon but in the even more ancient kingdom of Sumeria, a land found in Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers.
The epic speaks of many themes, but I will deal only with Gilgamesh’s search for the greatest of all prizes: immortality. Gilgamesh began his search after the death of his beloved friend Enkidu. He struggled to find a meaning for his life and sought—through adventure, a return to nature, the pursuit of pleasure—to find immortality. His attempts were in vain. Immortality could not be found. Gilgamesh came, finally, to the conclusion that immortality, though ever so desirable, was not available to mankind. Life, he concluded, is bounded by the cradle and the grave. Man is as the grass of the field that “withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away” (1 Pet. 1:24).
The doleful conclusion of Gilgamesh—shared by so many millions of modern men and women separated from his ancient world by the mists of forty-five centuries—must, I think, have been in the minds of the Zoramites to whom Alma and Amulek preached. Amulek perceived their puzzlement over “the great question … whether the word be in the Son of God, or whether there shall be no Christ” (Alma 34:5).
Our answer to Amulek’s question—shall there be a Christ?—provides a ringing rebuttal to those who are the spiritual heirs of Gilgamesh of Sumeria. To those who, like Gilgamesh, long to learn of immortality but know not where to find it, we proclaim that Jesus of Nazareth, who lived on earth about twenty-five centuries after Gilgamesh, brought immortality to humankind. He, the literal Son of God, offspring of a virgin mother and the mighty Father-God Elohim, preached his wondrous gospel of love, was betrayed by one of his closest associates, was subjected to the cruel mockery of a farcical trial, and died on a cross between two thieves on Golgotha’s hill. His lifeless body was buried in a borrowed tomb, its entrance sealed by a great stone, and Roman soldiers were placed to guard the sepulchre. Yet when faithful women came that first Easter Sabbath morning to dress the body of their beloved Master with spices and ointments, they were greeted by an empty tomb and angels who spake these wondrous words, the most sublime in any language: “Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen” (Luke 24:5–6).
Luke, who in the view of some scholars may have heard the account from eyewitnesses, perhaps even from the mother of Jesus, records that the women returned from the sepulchre and told all these things to the eleven Apostles and others. They were not believed at first. Their words seemed to the Apostles “as idle tales, and they believed them not” (Luke 24:11).
There are many possible reasons why the ancient Apostles did not at first believe Jesus had risen from the dead, and most are rooted in human experience. To the human race, death is universal. Everyone we know—our grandparents, parents, and, if we live long enough, our adult friends—will die. Eventually, of course, each of us will die. To die is as uniform an experience as to be born. We all do it, and it is a one-way journey: death is irreversible. So it was perhaps natural that the Apostles did not at first believe Jesus had indeed risen from the dead.
It is true the Apostles knew for a certainty that Jesus had restored life to the son of the widow of Nain (see Luke 7:11–15); to the daughter of Jairus, the ruler of a synagogue (see Mark 5:35–43); and to Jesus’ beloved friend Lazarus (see John 11:43–44). But that was restoration to live a mortal life and to die when that life was finished. The Apostles likely had heard Jesus proclaim himself as the “resurrection, and the life” (John 11:25). Said Jesus: “He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die” (John 11:25–26). But they failed to understand the literal truth of his words (see Mark 9:31–32). Jesus’ experience was qualitatively different from all other human experiences. It was a resurrection—arising from death not to finish a mortal life and then die, but to live eternally. It changed mankind’s destiny forever.
The Apostle Paul understood the meaning and breadth of application of the Resurrection. To the Saints at Corinth, he wrote: “As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22). As the ancient Apostles came to understand, the Resurrection means that one of the gifts of the atonement of Jesus is that all humankind will rise from the dead, that immortality is given to all, that the bars and bands of death have been broken, and that the enemy called death is destroyed. Amulek declared:
“The spirit and the body shall be reunited again in its perfect form; both limb and joint shall be restored to its proper frame, even as we now are at this time. …
“Now, this restoration shall come to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, both the wicked and the righteous” (Alma 11:43–44).
The Bible indicates that Jesus provided “many infallible proofs” of his resurrection (see Acts 1:3), appearing to many during the forty days before his final ascension. The first mortal known to have seen the resurrected Christ was Mary Magdalene (see John 20:1, 16–17). Other women also saw him, including Mary the mother of James; Salome (who may also be Joanna), the mother of James and John; and others (see Matt. 28:1, 9; Mark 16:1, 7). Jesus appeared also to two disciples on the road to Emmaus (see Luke 24:13–32); several times to the remaining Apostles (see Luke 24:36–41; John 20:26–28; Matt. 28:16–19), including at the time of his ascension (Acts 1:11; Acts 14–24); to seven of the Apostles as they fished (see John 21); to Peter (see 1 Cor. 15:5); to James (1 Cor. 15:7); to five hundred brethren at once (see 1 Cor. 15:6); and “last of all” to Paul, who counted himself the “least of the apostles” (1 Cor. 15:8–9).
Perhaps the most glorious message of the Book of Mormon is that the resurrected Savior also appeared at numerous times to the faithful Nephites on this American continent. The first occasion is portrayed poignantly in Mormon’s abridgement of Nephi’s account:
“And it came to pass, as they understood they cast their eyes up again towards heaven; and behold, they saw a Man descending out of heaven; and he was clothed in a white robe; and he came down and stood in the midst of them; and the eyes of the whole multitude were turned upon him, and they durst not open their mouths, even one to another, and wist not what it meant, for they thought it was an angel that had appeared unto them.
“And it came to pass that he stretched forth his hand and spake unto the people saying:
Abinadi, the Nephite prophet who lived a century and a half before Jesus’ mortal ministry, spoke as if the Savior had already come:
“And now if Christ had not come into the world, … there could have been no redemption.
“And if Christ had not risen from the dead, or have broken the bands of death that the grave should have no victory, and that death should have no sting, there could have been no resurrection.
“But there is a resurrection, therefore the grave hath no victory, and the sting of death is swallowed up in Christ” (Mosiah 16:6–8).
How fortunate we are that the testimonies and revelations of the resurrected Christ in both the Old and New Worlds have been added upon in our day. In Joseph Smith’s account of the First Vision, the Prophet recalled that he saw “a pillar of light exactly over [his] head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon [him].”
In the light were “two Personages … standing above [Joseph] in the air. One of them [spoke] unto [him], calling [him] by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” (JS—H 1:16–17). Recall, too, that glorious visitation to Joseph the Prophet and Sidney Rigdon at Hiram, Ohio, on 16 February 1832:
“And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him: That he lives!
“For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father—
“That by him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God” (D&C 76:22–24).
An equally wondrous vision was given to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in the Kirtland Temple on 3 April 1836:
“The veil was taken from our minds, and the eyes of our understanding were opened.
“We saw the Lord standing upon the breastwork of the pulpit, before us; and under his feet was a paved work of pure gold, in color like amber.
“His eyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun; and his voice was as the sound of the rushing of great waters, even the voice of Jehovah, saying:
“I am the first and the last; I am he who liveth, I am he who was slain; I am your advocate with the Father” (D&C 110:1–4).
Questioning, doubt, and cynicism about the role and significance of Jesus, the reality of his resurrection, and even of his historicity increasingly have become the hallmark of our age. We observe with sorrow and sadness learned scholars who, in their cynical disbelief, make a mockery of Christ, denying his virgin birth and resurrection, deriding his laws and commandments, substituting pale and pallid situational ethics for the thundering, eternally relevant certainties of the Sermon on the Mount. With no hope of Christ’s return, with faith in his divine Sonship long since dissipated, the ultimate destination of their views is the trash heap of history, for God will not be mocked. Of such the Savior proclaimed, “They draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof” (JS—H 1:19).
The adversary and his legions of dupes and devils have attempted, from the very beginning, to have people believe Jesus was not resurrected at all. That should not surprise us; we should expect nothing else. What a great victory Satan would win if he could persuade men there is no Christ! Matthew recorded that the chief priests gave “large money” to the soldiers guarding Jesus’ tomb to have them spread the tale that “His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept” (Matt. 28:12–13). It is sad to report that the soldiers “took the money, and did as they were taught” (Matt. 28:15). In a recent, highly publicized book, a former lecturer of theology at Oxford University, speaks of Jesus’ resurrection as a “whopping lie” (A. N. Wilson, Jesus: A Life, New York and London: W. W. Norton and Co., 1992, p. 66).
To many of the honorable men and women of the world, including increasing numbers of those who call themselves Christian, Christ’s resurrection and longed-for return to the earth to reign as King of Kings and Lord of Lords are not taken literally. To many, Christ’s gospel is primarily a social gospel, concerned almost entirely with righting the wrongs of poverty, ignorance, and injustice. Some say Jesus was a great teacher, an inspired moralist, an outstanding philosopher, a healer, and miracle worker. But his unique role as the atoning, resurrected Savior receives increasingly less attention. Yet, as Paul said, “If Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. … If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (1 Cor. 15:14, 19).
The Prophet Joseph Smith’s views on the Resurrection stand in stark contrast to the cynical disbelief of the world. To those who deny the existence of the spirit and its eternal nature, Joseph’s words ring out: “[The spirit] existed before the body, can exist in the body; and will exist separate from the body, when the body will be mouldering in the dust; and will in the resurrection, be again united with it” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 207).
The faith of the Latter-day Saints is a different faith from that of the world. Ours is a faith anchored in the holy scriptures and in the words of living prophets who proclaim Christ’s resurrection and unique role as the pioneer of resurrected life for this world. With Jacob, the Nephite prophet, we proclaim to all the world, in words of solemn testimony, that “death and hell must deliver up their dead, and hell must deliver up its captive spirits, and the grave must deliver up its captive bodies, and the bodies and the spirits of men will be restored one to the other; and it is by the power of the resurrection of the Holy One of Israel” (2 Ne. 9:12).
We preach that Christ came among the children of men to take upon himself the transgressions of his people, that his was the greatest and last sacrifice, one that is infinite and eternal and will bring salvation to all who believe on the name of the Son of God (see Alma 34:8–15). Indeed, we go even further, declaring that “save Christ should come all men must perish” (2 Ne. 11:6).
Through his resurrection, Jesus opened for us a new chapter in cosmic history. He is the one who appears at the center and end of our history. Indeed, “all things which have been given of God from the beginning of the world, unto man, are the typifying of [Christ]” (2 Ne. 11:4). All of history, all of science, all of nature, all divinely revealed knowledge, both spiritual and temporal, testify of him. When we learn to read the “signs, and wonders, and types, and shadows” (Mosiah 3:15) properly, with the eyes of faith, we will realize that all truth testifies of him.
Jesus Christ is the very personification of truth and light, of life and love, of beauty and goodness. Ultimately, he is beyond human description; yet if there is one word that perhaps best describes him and his life, works, and death, it would be love. All that he did, including his death on the cross, was done out of love. He suffered and died for us because he loves us. He calls us to come unto him, knowing that in doing so we will learn of the Father who sent him. In Nephi’s words, “He doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world; for he loveth the world, even that he layeth down his own life that he may draw all men unto him” (2 Ne. 26:24). The gift of his life extends to all, for he “inviteth … all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; … and all are alike unto God” (2 Ne. 26:33).
C. S. Lewis, who had such unusual insight into “things as they really are” (Jacob 4:13), had this to say about what we can do once we get the perspective of immortality clearly in our minds:
“The command Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He [Christ] is going to make us creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were ‘Gods’ and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him—for we can prevent Him, if we choose—He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said” (Mere Christianity, London: Fount Paperbacks, 1977, p. 172).
The command “Be ye … perfect” (Matt. 5:48) is not one that can be executed overnight, or even by the end of mortality. It takes much, much longer to overcome all our mortal weaknesses, doing “all we can do,” so that by grace we may be saved and attain (see 2 Ne. 25:23) godhood. Christ’s resurrection, which assures our own immortality, provides us time to at least seriously attempt to pursue the goal of perfection. Had he not been resurrected, or if the Resurrection had applied to him only and not to the rest of God’s offspring, there would be no hope for us mere mortals. Even if we subscribed to the possibility of becoming perfect in mortality, there would be nothing we could do about it. The pathway to perfection is just too long, the time to walk it exceeding whatever our allotted years in mortality may be.
The promise of life beyond the grave also gives us a different perspective on the other boundary of our mortal existence: our birth. As we learn we are immortal creatures, we realize that life, which does not end with the grave, does not begin with the cradle either. We lived before we came to this earth. We come from afar, and if we are true and faithful, we may return to celestial halls to live again with the mighty God who is the Father of our spirits. God’s Holy Son, our Savior, whose glorious resurrection makes it all possible, will be there to encircle us “in the arms of [his] love” (D&C 6:20).
Christ’s resurrection portrays him at the height of his powers of godliness. As the Son of an Eternal Father and a mortal mother, he inherited the power to lay down his life and take it up again. His decision to die and then return in resurrected glory showed his complete power over matter in all its manifestations and demonstrated his ability to put all enemies, even the enemy of death, under his feet (see Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 297). He controls matter, and it obeys him. He commands, and worlds are framed; at his word, the tomb is emptied.
The reality of the Resurrection is for us an object lesson in faith. Increasingly, as the world ripens in iniquity, faith in Christ wanes. And with that dimming of faith, fewer there are who can answer positively the question posed by Job: “If a man die, shall he live again?” (Job 14:14.) Christ’s reply rings down through time to this very hour: “Because I live, ye shall live also” (John 14:19).
I finish where I began, with the story of Gilgamesh, the ancient king who longed for immortality but could not find it. What is the meaning of his search for authentic reality, for ultimate truth? It is, I think, simply this: man, despite all his efforts and inventiveness, cannot find the true meaning of life using his own resources. He cannot, with his own power, escape the existential despair that grips mankind in its icy embrace. Try as he will, he cannot, without divine assistance, free himself from that captivity.
Christ’s resurrection opened the way for hope and immortality by breaking the seal of the grave and by revealing death as the door not to extinction but to immortality and eternal life. We reach for the ultimate prize of eternal life only as we find the light of the Spirit of truth (see D&C 93:9, 26), whose beams sweep away the darkness of the world and illuminate the face of the Holy One of Israel, whose work and glory is to bring to pass our immortality and eternal life (see Moses 1:39).
How great is his glory, how wondrous his sacrifice, and how indebted to him we are and ever will be. The miracle is that in spite of all our weaknesses, he loves us and will never forsake us. In the final analysis, the Resurrection is profound evidence of Heavenly Father’s love for his children and of the love of the sinless, sublime Savior, who died to save us all. Of him we sing in humble gratitude:
I know that my Redeemer lives.
What comfort this sweet sentence gives!
He lives, he lives, who once was dead.
He lives, my ever-living Head.
He lives to bless me with his love.
He lives to plead for me above.
He lives my hungry soul to feed.
He lives to bless in time of need.
(Hymns, 1985, no. 136)