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Cover image: Scot Proctor
Easter celebrates the essence of the plan of salvation and the purpose of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. The Savior told Pilate, “To this end was I born.” We can spend hours studying what happened on each day of the Passion Week, and that is valuable. As we “view the death” of Jesus Christ, our hearts are stirred with compassion as we realize the depths of the love of the Savior for each one of us. We rejoice in the joy of the resurrection and the immortality of all men. But, to me, the essence of the beauty of the Easter story is not only what happened on Calvary and in Gethsemane, but what happened in the “world of spirits, when Christ visited the dead and “liberated the captives,” as Isaiah promised. To me, this is one of the most exquisite beauties of the restored gospel.
When I sit on a plane next to someone reading the Bible, I tell them about this truth. A few years ago, a friend and I took a girl trip to Europe. On the way to Munich, we were on a “red eye” flight, which wasn’t totally full, so there were lots of seats empty where people stretched out and slept. At one point, about 4 a.m., I left my seat to visit to the “facilities” at the font of the plane. When I came out, I noticed a young woman sitting on the front row, with all her lights on, and an open Bible next to her. I said, “Is that a Bible? I love people who love the Bible!” That started the conversation, which lasted for almost two hours.
Courtney and I hit it off immediately! I told her that I loved to read the Bible in the original languages, and that I taught religion. She said she also was taking Hebrew and studying the Bible in some kind of seminary. She had a boyfriend, and she was using the Bible to add scriptures to a long letter that she was writing to him. They were both devout Christians, and since they were going to be away from each other for two weeks, they decided to study the Bible individually and then share the insights they had gained.
She told me what she believed about Christ and in His redeeming power. She believed fervently in His resurrection. She listed all the tenets of her faith and I told her that I agreed with everything single thing that she said, and that I believed the same truths! Then, she asked me what was different about the church I believed in and mainstream Christianity. I told her that the main difference was that our church was a restored church, which brought back the original aspects of the church organized by Jesus Christ.
I read her 1 Corinthians 15:29, about baptism for the dead. I told her about the plan of salvation and that I believed that the spirit of each person was not conceived with the physical body, but that it had existed eternally before our birth, just like Jesus’s spirit had existed before he was born. She had never heard that concept before! We read a few scriptures, including Jeremiah 1:5 which states that God knew Jeremiah while he was yet in the womb. She was very surprised to hear about this new doctrine and see that it was corroborated by her Bible!
I talked to her about the necessity of baptism, and she agreed that yes, everyone needs to be baptized, and by immersion. I asked her what she thought the Lord had in mind for people who lived in Tibet or other places where they would not have the opportunity hear about the Lord. She said that we needed to work hard to bring His Word to everyone on the planet. I asked her if she thought that we might miss someone, even if we worked very hard. She said, “It pains me to think that we might.”
I told her that the Lord that I believe in has a plan that would not prohibit anyone from receiving His love and His kingdom of glory. I said that according to 1 Peter 3:16-18 and 1 Peter 4:6, Jesus visited the spirit world during the time He was in the tomb, and preached the gospel to the spirits there. Then, if they accepted the truth, vicarious baptism on their behalf would qualify them for entrance into God’s kingdom. She said, “I would like to believe that!” She repeated that phrase about ten times during our conversation!
The spirit was strong as we shared the scriptures together. She brought up the parable in Luke 16 about the rich man and Lazarus together in the world of spirits after they died. She said, “What about the ‘great gulf’ that exists between those two men?” I answered, “That is what missionary work in the spirit world is all about. Bridging that ‘great gulf.’ The Lord likes to make sure everyone has a chance to hear the gospel and accept it.” Again, she said, “I would like to believe that!” She asked me if I would like to pray together. I said yes, and there, in the front row of the airplane, we each prayed.
When we first talked about what we liked to do, a few hours before, I told her that I liked to write, and had published a couple of books about women in the scriptures. When she asked to see them, I said that I was inspired to bring a copy of my books with me on the trip, but that I had ignored the prompting, thinking of my limited carry-on baggage space. So, in her prayer, she said, “Please Lord, help Diana heed your promptings, and not ignore the ones that you give her in the future.”
It was an incredible experience!
My favorite section of the Doctrine and Covenants is Section 128. This section provides a wonderful outline of the necessity of vicarious work for the dead so that they may receive the necessary ordinances of salvation. We learn many insights into the nature of the work beyond the veil in D&C 138. The history of this section is fascinating.
On January 23, 1918, Hyrum M. Smith, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve and the eldest son of President Joseph F. Smith, died. His death was a blow to his father, who was in poor health himself. In his grief he cried: ‘My soul is rent asunder. My heart is broken, and flutters for life! O my sweet son, my joy, my hope! And now, what can I do! O what can I do! My soul is rent, my heart is broken! O God, help me!’” (I thought of the Absalom scriptures…)
Eight months later a glorious revelation was given to President Joseph F. Smith concerning the labors of the righteous in the world of spirits. In October Conference he said, “As most of you, I suppose, are aware, I have been undergoing a siege of very serious illness for the last five months. I will not, I dare not, attempt to enter upon many things that are resting upon my mind this morning, and I shall postpone until some future time, the Lord being willing, my attempt to tell you some of the things that are in my mind, and that dwell in my heart. I have not lived alone these five months. I have dwelt in the spirit of prayer, of supplication, of faith and of determination; and I have had my communication with the Spirit of the Lord continuously.” (See Conference Report, Oct. 1918, p. 2)
History of Doctrine and Covenants 138
In October 1918, while President Smith was pondering the atonement of Jesus Christ, he opened his Bible and read in 1 Peter 3:18‑20 and 4:6 about the Savior’s preaching to the spirits in prison. While he was meditating on these passages, the Spirit of the Lord rested upon him, and he saw in vision the “hosts of the dead” who were gathered in the spirit world. He saw the Savior appear among them and preach the gospel to the righteous. He was shown that the Lord had commissioned others to continue this work of preaching, and that the faithful elders in the present dispensation would also preach to the dead after leaving mortality. Thus, all of the dead may be redeemed.
This “Vision of the Redemption of the Dead” was presented by President Smith to the First Presidency and the Twelve, who unanimously accepted it as revelation. In 1976 this revelation was officially added to the standard works of the Church and soon afterward designated as section 138 in the Doctrine and Covenants.
New Doctrine Revealed
As President Joseph F. Smith read and pondered these verses in Peter, “the eyes of his understanding were opened” (D&C 138:11).
6 I opened the Bible and read the third and fourth chapters of the first epistle of Peter, and as I read I was greatly impressed, more than I had ever been before, with the following passages:
7 “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:
8 “By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;
9 “Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.” (1 Peter 3:18–20.)
10 “For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.” (1 Peter 4:6.)
He records, “The Spirit of the Lord rested upon me , and I saw the hosts of the dead, both small and great.” D&C 138:11 teaches the concept that pondering and reflecting over the scriptures is the best catalyst for receiving revelations. In fact, pondering invites revelation. Revelations come to those who are prepared spiritually and mentally. (See Harold B. Lee’s address delivered to seminary and institute faculty, Brigham Young University [Provo, 6 July 1956], pp. 14‑16.)
In D&C 138:12, President Smith elaborates on the hosts of the dead which he saw. This great group of the spirits of the just were gathered together in one place. He describes them as “innumerable.” In verse 14, we learn that these spirits were “firm in a hope of a glorious resurrection.” They had been faithful in their testimonies of the Savior.
What does this have to do with Easter, you might ask. I want to paint a picture for you here. It is pure irony! While Mary and others wept at the foot of the cross on Calvary, as the spirits in the spirit world viewed Christ hanging on the cross, they began to rejoice! We might ask, “Why were they so insensitive to this heartbreaking situation?”
When we look a little closer, we see that they were rejoicing because soon they would be delivered from prison!
138:15 “I beheld that they were filled with joy and gladness, and were rejoicing together because the day of their deliverance was at hand.”
These righteous spirits were filled with joy and gladness as Christ was going through the atonement, because they knew they were going to be resurrected.
18 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;
19 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.
I think that these faithful spirits already knew these foundational doctrines. Probably much of his preaching to them involved His instructing them as to what they were to take to the spirits in prison. President Smith records his thoughts about Christ’s limited ministry to the dead being confined to the time between the crucifixion and the resurrection.
28 And I wondered at the words of Peter – wherein he said that the Son of God preached unto to the spirits in prison, who sometime were disobedient, when once the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah – and how it was possible for him to preach to those spirits and perform the necessary labor among them in so short a time;
29 And as I wondered, my eyes were opened, and my understanding quickened, and I perceived that the Lord went not in person among the wicked and the disobedient who had rejected the truth to teach them;
30 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.
Christ organizes the preaching of the gospel to the dead.
It was revealed to President Joseph F. Smith that Christ did not accomplish the massive work of preaching the gospel to the spirits of the dead in that short three-day period while he was in the tomb. Rather, he “organized his forces” and “appointed messengers” to bring the “light of the gospel” to those that sat in darkness. These messengers, he “clothed with power and authority,” and thus was the gospel preached to the dead.
Who were these “messengers” and what did they teach? We are told that they include Adam and other ancient prophets who had testified of Him in the flesh, as well as “our glorious Mother Eve” with many of her faithful daughters. (See D&C 138:36, 38-47) In addition to these, he also mentions many of the prophets who ministered to the Nephites, Joseph Smith and his associates, the “noble and great ones” from the premortal realm, as well as many of the faithful of this dispensation. These were “prepared to come forth in the due time of the Lord to labor in his vineyard for the salvation of the souls of men.” (See D&C 138:48-56)
These spirits were taught “faith in God, repentance from sin, vicarious baptism for the remission of sins, and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands. (See D&C 138:33) Not much different from what the missionaries teach today. Finally, the revelation declares that “the dead who repent will be redeemed, through obedience to the ordinances of the house of God (D&C 138:58). Baptism for the dead was preached by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:29. The ancient saints in The Church of Jesus Christ practiced this ordinance. In this dispensation, the practice has been joyfully been restored. Vicarious baptism for the dead was practiced in the early days of the Church, and it is practiced in temples today.
A good friend and Institute colleague shared his experience while attending Harvard Divinity School:
I was in my class, The Life and Teachings of Paul the Apostle, a class taught in the Episcopal Divinity School where I took a fourth of my classes. The professor characterized himself as a Christian who felt more like a Jew than most Jews. We came to I Cor. 15:29. The teacher said, “It is clear that Paul knew of and approved of this doctrine. Believe me, if Paul didn’t agree with this practice, he would have said so and not used it in his teaching. Nobody knows anything about this doctrine.” He then paused, smiled and looked at me and said, “Except for one faith.” After class, he gave me a copy of an article that he had published on I Cor. 15:29.
The Lord loves all his children. “He remembereth every creature of his creating (Mosiah 27:30). Those who seek answers through righteous prayer receive answers. James 5:16 is one of my favorite scriptures. “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” I would like to tell you about one such man.
One of my husband’s great grandfathers was William Webb. He lived in England from 1675 until 1745. He left a will which details the disposition of his possessions, his outbuildings, his land, and so forth. At the end, he shares an admonition for his descendants, based on a revelation received by his father John.
The Will of William Webb (1675 – 1745)
My father John, a righteous just forgiving man, was told in a dream that the time was nearing when Jesus Christ would return to set up his Kingdom. It will not happen during my lifetime nor that of my children and perhaps not my grandchildren.
But the time will come soon when believers may become members in the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. Having grieved over not being here when that time comes because I will have layed this body to rest long since, I prayed enquiring after the believers and followers of Jesus who have gone to their Eternal Rest.
As I prayed a calm peace surrounded me and I felt his Presence. I was assured that there will be a way for the dead to enter the Kingdom. Because of the Spirit that thrilled me while in the Presence I am sure it will be so. Therefore, I am not afraid to die and my Heirs should not feel fear. We will be together in that Kingdom because of God’s great Son. I admonish my heirs and descendants to live according to the law and to follow diligently the teaching of Jesus and you will be blessed. When Judgment Day comes, I want that we shall all stand together to receive the happy reward of being together throughout Eternity.
Par Reg Harlton, Cambs., Eng. corres with Vicar. Boyd’s Marriage Index Vol.7.
I was deeply touched when I discovered this will. I marveled that this man was so concerned for his own spiritual welfare after he had departed this life that he would offer such a fervent prayer. He had the hope of the Kingdom of God being restored because of the dream of his righteous father. He was assured that “a way” would be provided that the dead could enter the Kingdom. It would not be in his own day, nor in the days of his grandchildren. But he was assured that itwould happen.
This is the work that began during the first Easter by the Lord Himself. He mobilized the messengers to bring the gospel to the spirits in prison. Those messengers are still preaching to the spirits of the dead today. D&C 138:57 teaches that “the faithful elders of this dispensation, when they depart from mortal life, continue their labors in the preaching of the gospel of repentance and redemption . . . among those who are in darkness . . . in the great world of the spirits of the dead.” The ordinances of salvation can be performed in temples throughout the world. What a marvelous work and a wonder!
The Power of the Resurrection
The revelation to President Joseph F. Smith concludes with the joy the righteous spirits upon learning that they were about to be released from bondage. “For the dead had looked upon the long absence of their spirits from their bodies as a bondage” (D&C 138:50). The next verse continues, “These the Lord taught, and gave power to come forth, after his resurrection from the dead, to enter into his Father’s kingdom, there to be crowned with immortality and eternal life.”
If we read this verse carefully, we notice that it reads “The Lord . . . gave them powerto come forth.” (See D&C 138:51) Is this a power that can be conferred?
In a general conference of the Church, President Spencer W. Kimball cited President Brigham Young’s teaching about the power of resurrection:
“Brigham Young, the second president of this dispensation, said: ‘It is supposed by this people that we have all the ordinances in our possession for life and salvation, and exaltation, and that we are administering in those ordinances. This is not the case. We are in possession of all the ordinances that can be administered in the flesh; but there are other ordinances and administrations that must be administered beyond this world. I know you would like to ask what they are. I will mention one. We have not, neither can we receive here, the ordinance and keys of resurrection.’
“Do we have the keys of resurrection? Could you return to the earth as ones who would never again die — [could] your own parents, your grandparents, your ancestors? I buried my mother when I was eleven, my father when I was in my early twenties. I have missed my parents much. If I had the power of resurrection as did the Savior of the world, I would have been tempted to try to have kept them longer. I have been called to speak in numerous funerals for people whom I have known, people whom I have loved, and people whom I have served and helped in a limited way. We do not know of anyone who can resurrect the dead as did Jesus Christ when he came back to mortality.
“[The keys] will be given to those who have passed off this stage of action and have received their bodies again…. They will be ordained, by those who hold the keys of the resurrection, to go forth and resurrect the Saints, just as we receive the ordinance of baptism then receive the keys of authority to baptize others for the remission of their sins. This is one of the ordinances we cannot receive here [on the earth], and there are many more.” (Journal of Discourses, 15:137.)
(In Conference Report, Apr. 1977, p. 69; or Ensign, May 1977, p. 49.)
President Brigham Young also taught that “some person holding the keys of the resurrection, having previously passed through that ordeal, will be delegated to resurrect our bodies” (Journal of Discourses, 9:139).
Although President Spencer W. Kimball preached this principle in General Conference, many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have never heard of such a doctrine.
Easter – A Time of Rejoicing
Easter is indeed a time to celebrate the plan of salvation! Every element of this plan is spotlighted by each facet of this holy event.
We are moved by the passion of Christ in suffering not only for the sinsof each member of the human race, but for their painsas well. (See Alma 7:11-13)
We rejoice in the reality of the physical resurrection of allmankind.
We celebrate with the spirits in prison that the day of their deliverance is nigh.
We marvel at the perfection of the plan which provides means that even the dead may be partakers of the ordinances and covenants of the gospel. (See D&C 128)
We are amazed that we received assignments to assist in this great work while we were yet in the world of spirits.(See D&C 138) Now you can more fully understand why Easter is my favorite holiday. For me, Christ’s visit to the spirits in prison makes everything fair and just. God loves allof His children, and wants eachand everyone of them to dwell with him in his kingdom. Indeed, the restoration of vicarious ordinances performed for the dead is one of the most exquisite beauties of the restored gospel!