95984_000_005An abridged version of a presentation to the Quorums of the Seventy, 17 March 1994.
No one can adequately portray the greatness of the Holy One of Israel, who died for us and rose again to become the “firstfruits of them that slept” (1 Cor. 15:20). To portray the Resurrection in its fulness of glory and effulgence of hope is, I believe, beyond the ability of mortal man. We cannot explain the Resurrection intellectually; it defies the rest of human experience. We can only glimpse it—the Truth of Truths—as though through a glass darkly, discerning only its dim outlines.
I begin by reminding you of an ancient story—a story so old that it even predates the writings of Moses. It is the story of an ancient king named Gilgamesh, whose search for authentic reality is even more ancient than the story itself. What we know of the tale is preserved in a handful of clay tablets dating from the seventh century B.C. found in the royal library of Ashurbanipal, an Assyrian king. The story itself, however, dates from a millennium or more before Moses and comes from the ancient kingdom of Sumeria.
The epic tells of the search by Gilgamesh for the greatest of all prizes: immortality. After the death of his beloved friend Enkidu, Gilgamesh struggled to find meaning for his life and sought—through adventure, travel, the pursuit of pleasure—to find immortality. His attempts were in vain. Life, he concluded, is bounded by the cradle and the grave.
That same doleful conclusion—shared by millions of modern men and women separated from the ancient world of Gilgamesh by the mists of 45 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 provides a ringing rebuttal to those who are the spiritual heirs of Gilgamesh of Sumeria. To all who long to learn of immortality but know not where to find it, we proclaim that Jesus of Nazareth, who lived on earth 25 centuries after Gilgamesh, brought immortality to humankind. He, the literal Son of God, offspring of a virgin mother and the mighty Father, 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 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 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 disciples “as idle tales, and they believed them not” (Luke 24:11).
There are many reasons why the ancient Apostles did not at first believe Jesus had risen from the dead, and most were rooted in human experience. Death is universal. It is as uniform an experience as being born. Everyone does it, and it is irreversible. So it was perhaps natural that the disciples did not at first believe Jesus had risen from the dead. It is true they had seen restoration of the life of the son of the widow of Nain (see Luke 7:11–15); the daughter of Jairus, the ruler of a synagogue (see Mark 5:35–43); and Jesus’ beloved friend Lazarus (see John 11:43–44). But that was restoration to mortal life, to die again when that life was finished. Christ’s resurrection was different from all other human experiences. It was a rising from the dead, not to finish a mortal life, but to live eternally. It changed mankind’s destiny forever.
One of the gifts of the Lord’s atonement is that all humankind will rise from the dead, that immortality is given to all, that the enemy called death is destroyed forever. 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. … 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; emphasis added).
The Bible indicates that Jesus provided “many infallible proofs” of His resurrection (see Acts 1:3), appearing to many during the 40 days before His final ascension. The first mortal to see the resurrected Christ was Mary Magdalene (see John 20:16–17). Other women also saw Him, including Mary, mother of James; Salome, mother of James and John; Joanna; Susanna; and others (see Matt. 28:1–9; Mark 16:1; Luke 8:3; Luke 23:55–24:10). Jesus appeared also to two disciples on the road to Emmaus (see Luke 24:13–32); several times to the remaining Apostles (see Luke 24:36–43; John 20:26–28; Matt. 28:16–19), including at the time of His ascension (see Acts 1:11); to several of the Apostles as they fished (see John 21); to Peter (see 1 Cor. 15:5); to James (see 1 Cor. 15:7); to more than 500 brethren at once (see 1 Cor. 15:6); and to Paul, who counted himself the “least of the apostles” (1 Cor. 15:9).
Perhaps the most glorious message of the Book of Mormon is that the resurrected Savior also appeared at numerous times to the faithful Nephites. The first occasion is portrayed poignantly in Mormon’s abridgement of Nephi’s account:
“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.
In our day, the Prophet Joseph Smith saw the resurrected Savior on several occasions, beginning in 1820 with the First Vision (see JS—H 1:16–17). Later, he and Sidney Rigdon received that glorious visitation at Hiram, Ohio, on 16 February 1832, when they saw Him “on the right hand of God” and learned that “by him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created” (see D&C 76:22–24). Equally wondrous was the vision given to Joseph 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).
Doubt and cynicism about Jesus, about the reality of His resurrection, and even about His historical reality, increasingly have become the hallmark of our age. We observe with sorrow learned scholars who make a mockery of Christ, denying His virgin birth and resurrection, deriding His commandments, substituting pallid situational ethics for the eternally relevant certainties of the Sermon on the Mount.
What a great victory Satan would win if he could persuade men there is no Christ! Indeed, he has waged that war from the beginning. 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).
Increasingly today, even many who call themselves Christian do not take Christ’s resurrection and longed-for return to the earth literally. For them, Christ’s gospel is primarily a social agenda, concerned almost entirely with righting the wrongs of poverty, ignorance, and injustice. Some say Jesus was a great teacher, an inspired moralist, 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: “It [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, page 207).
The faith of the Latter-day Saints is different from that of the world. Ours is a faith anchored in the holy scriptures and in the words of the living prophets, which proclaim Christ as the pioneer of life. With Jacob, 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).
Jesus, by His resurrection, opened a new chapter in cosmic history. He is the one who appears at the beginning, the center, and the end of all history. When we learn to read the “signs, and wonders, and types, and shadows” (Mosiah 3:15) with the eyes of faith, we will realize that all truth testifies of Him (see 2 Ne. 11:4). He is the very personification of truth and light, of beauty and goodness, but supremely of life and love. All that He did, including His death on the cross, was done out of love. 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).
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 into 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, New York City: Macmillan Paperbacks, 1960, page 160).
The command “be ye … perfect” (Matt. 5:48) cannot be executed overnight, or even by the end of mortality. It takes much, much longer to overcome all our weaknesses and qualify ourselves for godhood. Christ’s resurrection, which assured our immortality, provides the time necessary for us to at least seriously attempt to pursue the goal of perfection.
The promise of life beyond the grave gives us a different perspective as well on the other boundary of our mortal existence. 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 are creatures of the stars, time travelers, who come from afar and, if we are true and faithful, may return to celestial halls and 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).
As the Son of an Eternal Father and a mortal mother, Christ inherited the power to die and rise again in resurrected glory. His resurrection 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 Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, page 297). He controls matter, and it obeys Him. He commands, and the 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. With the dimming of faith, fewer can answer positively the question posed by Job: “If a man die, shall he live again?” (Job 14:14). To that query 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 ultimate truth? It is 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 which grips mankind in its icy embrace. Only Christ’s resurrection provides that escape, by breaking the seal of the grave, by revealing death as the door not to extinction but to immortality and eternal life.
How great is the Holy One of Israel, how wondrous His sacrifice, 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. The Resurrection is profound evidence of God’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:
(Hymns, 1985, number 136)