Today is Easter Sunday, when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ and remember His Atonement, carried out in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the Cross. But there is another important event that took place on that Easter weekend in the meridian of time.
When the resurrected Savior met Mary Magdalene in the garden near His empty tomb, He told her, “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go unto the brethren and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God” (John 20:17). Why had He not yet ascended to the Father? Why did He wait until Sunday morning to claim His resurrection? Where had He been while His body lay in the tomb?
According to Elder Bruce R. McConkie, after Jesus proclaimed His work finished and voluntarily died on the cross, “He was as other men in that his spirit went to live in a spirit world to await the day of his resurrection … . When Jesus died—that very moment—his mortal ministry ended and his ministry among the spirits in prison began” (Bruce R. McConkie, The Mortal Messiah: From Bethlehem to Calvary, Book 4, Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1981, 240–41).
As part of His mission here on earth, our Redeemer experienced all the things that human beings experience. In this way, He is able to comfort us and understand all our experiences (see Hebrews 4:14–16). Perhaps as part of understanding human experience, Jesus experienced death as we do, going from mortality to the world of spirits (1 Peter 3:18–20; 4:6; Alma 40:12). This visit had been prophesied by Isaiah (see Isaiah 24:22; 42:7; 61:1).
There in the spirit world were the spirits of all the people who had lived up to that point, except those who had been translated without tasting death, such as Enoch (Genesis 5:24; Hebrews 11:5; Doctrine & Covenants 107:48–49); Enoch’s City of Zion (Moses 7:21, 31, 69; Doctrine & Covenants 38:4); and the prophets Moses (Deuteronomy 5:24; Alma 45:19); and Elijah (2 Kings 2:11; see 3 Nephi 28:38).
As the prophet Joseph F. Smith recorded in his “Vision of the Redemption of the Dead” (Doctrine & Covenants 138), the righteous among the “hosts of the dead” were eagerly awaiting this event, when the Lord would come to them and His anticipated resurrection would free them to take up their own glorified bodies, the separation from which they considered to be “bondage” (Doctrine & Covenants 138:50; see 138:11–16). The great moment came, and Jesus Christ came to the righteous spirits and “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” (Doctrine & Covenants 138:19). Then He organized missionary work in the world of spirits, so the righteous could take to their brothers and sisters who were in darkness the gospel of Jesus Christ,
31 … 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.
32 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.
33 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,
34 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.
35 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.
After this intense time of teaching by the Savior in the spirit world, Christ spoke as a spirit to the Nephites in the Americas (3 Nephi 9:1–22; 10:1–8; McConkie, The Mortal Messiah, 245–48).
At last the hour was come, and Jesus took up His perfected, glorified body on that Sunday morning at dawn:
Beginning in the spiritual anguish of the Garden of Gethsemane, moving to the Crucifixion on a cross at Calvary, and concluding on a beautiful Sunday morning inside a donated tomb, a sinless, pure, and holy man, the very Son of God Himself, did what no other deceased person had ever done nor ever could do. Under His own power, He rose from death, never to have His body separated from His spirit again. Of His own volition, He shed the burial linen with which He had been bound, carefully putting the burial napkin that had been placed over His face “in a place by itself,” the scripture says.
That first Easter sequence of Atonement and Resurrection constitutes the most consequential moment, the most generous gift, the most excruciating pain, and the most majestic manifestation of pure love ever to be demonstrated in the history of this world. Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, suffered, died, and rose from death in order that He could … grasp us as we fall, hold us with His might, and through our obedience to His commandments, lift us to eternal life.
This Easter I thank Him and the Father, who gave Him to us, that Jesus still stands triumphant over death, although He stands on wounded feet. This Easter I thank Him and the Father, who gave Him to us, that He still extends unending grace, although He extends it with pierced palms and scarred wrists. This Easter I thank Him and the Father, who gave Him to us, that we can sing before a sweat-stained garden, a nail-driven cross, and a gloriously empty tomb:
How great, how glorious, how complete
Redemption’s grand design,
Where justice, love, and mercy meet
In harmony divine!
Jeffrey R. Holland, “Where Justice, Love, and Mercy Meet,” Ensign, May 2015. After Christ’s resurrection, the spirits of others who had died (and had been present during His visit to the spirit world) “rose and appeared unto many” (Matthew 27:52–53; 3 Nephi 23:8-13). The stone of death had been rolled away, and the work of the Lord entered into a new light from that time forward. Only then, when all the elements of His mortal ministry were complete, did Jesus take up his perfected and glorified body, appear to Mary Magdalene, and then ascend to His Father for the reunion that They both, undoubtedly, had anticipated and longed to experience. Even after that, Jesus did not remain in glory with the Father, but returned to his disciples in Palestine to teach and bless them (Matthew 28:9–10; Mark 16:12–14; Luke 24:13–49; John 20:19–29; 21:1–25; Acts 1:2–9). And then He went to His “other sheep” in the Americas and elsewhere (3 Nephi 11–26).
As we remember the heartbreaking, yet necessary, events of Gethsemane and Calvary, and rejoice in the glory of resurrection morning, we also can remember the merciful and generous visit of the Lord Jesus Christ to the spirits of those who had lived and died on the earth until that time. He declared their redemption from the bonds of death, along with redemption for all who would live and die in time to come, and the opportunity for all who had or would ever live to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. This can be another remembrance that inspires our gratitude toward and love for the Savior at Easter.