Signs of Christ’s Death and Resurrection

Signs of Christ’s Death and Resurrection

Speaking to the Nephites in the land of Zarahemla, the Lamanite prophet Samuel detailed the signs that would accompany the death of Christ:

Samuel Lamanite Wall Mormon“in that day that he shall suffer death the sun shall be darkened and refuse to give his light unto you; and also the moon and the stars; and there shall be no light upon the face of this land . . . for the space of three days . . . Yea, at the time that he shall yield up the ghost there shall be thunderings and lightnings for the space of many hours, and the earth shall shake and tremble; and the rocks which are upon the face of this earth . . . shall be broken up . . . And behold, there shall be great tempests, and there shall be many mountains laid low, like unto a valley, and there shall be many places which are now called valleys which shall become mountains, whose height is great. And many highways shall be broken up, and many cities shall become desolate. And many graves shall be opened, and shall yield up many of their dead; and many saints shall appear unto many . . . there should be thunderings and lightnings for the space of many hours . . . while the thunder and the lightning lasted, and the tempest, that these things should be, and that darkness should cover the face of the whole earth for the space of three days” (Helaman 14:20-27).[1]

Book of the Rolls f.100b has Adam declaring that the premortal Christ told him, “I will come down to thee, and in thy house will I dwell and with thy body will I be clothed . . . I will fast forty days . . . I will receive baptism . . . I will be lifted up on the cross . . . I will endure lies . . . I will be beaten with the whip . . . I will taste vinegar . . . my hands will be nailed . . . I will be pierced with a spear . . . I will thunder in the height . . . I will darken the sun . . . I will cleave the rocks . . . I will frighten the powers of heaven . . . I will cause heaven to rain on the desert . . . I will open the graves . . . I will cause all creation to tremble . . . and after three days, which I have spent in the grave, I will raise up the body which I took from thee, and will make it go up with me without any separation from me, and cause it to sit at the right hand of my Godhead” (Book of the Rolls f.100b).[2]

The prophet Zenos foresaw the cataclysmic events that would take place at the time of the Savior’s crucifixion. “And all these things must surely come, saith the prophet Zenos. And the rocks of the earth must rend; and because of the groanings of the earth, many of the kings of the isles of the sea shall be wrought upon by the Spirit of God, to exclaim: The God of nature suffers” (1 Nephi 19:12). The description is similar to the one given by Melito the Philosopher, who served as bishop of Sardis during the latter part of the second century AD. In his Discourse on Soul and Body, he wrote, “The earth shook, and its foundations trembled; the sun fled away, and the elements turned back, and the day was changed into night: for they could not endure the sight of their Lord hanging on a tree. The whole creation was amazed, marveling.” He further wrote that “The Lord was exposed with naked body: He was not deemed worthy even of covering; and, in order that He might not be seen, the luminaries turned away, and the day became darkened because they slew God, who hung naked on the tree. It was not the body of our Lord that the luminaries covered with darkness when they set, but the eyes of men. For, because the people quaked not, the earth quaked; because they were not affrighted, the earth was affrighted.”[3]

The story of Jesus’ appearance to the Nephites after his resurrection, told in 3 Nephi, has parallels in a Coptic document thought to date to the second or third century.[4] According to this document, the Pistis Sophia, there was, at the time of Jesus’ ascension into heaven, a great earthquake that lasted for three hours (I.3). An alternate view given in the manuscript is that the quake lasted from the third hour on the fifteenth day of the month Tybi until the ninth hour the following day. This accords with the statement in 3 Nephi 8:19 that “the quakings of the earth . . . did last for about the space of three hours; and it was said by some that the time was greater.”

According to the Book of Mormon, the Nephites were “howling and weeping” in the darkness and lamenting the destruction of the people in a number of cities for three days after the earthquake and other agitations of nature (3 Nephi 8:23-25; 10:8). In the Pistis Sophis, we read that “the disciples sat together in fear and were in exceedingly great agitation and were afraid because of the great earthquake which took place, and they wept together, saying ‘What will then be? Peradventure the Saviour will destroy all regions?’ Thus saying, they wept together” (I.4). During this time, the heavenly host “all sang praises . . . so that the whole world heard their voices” (I.3). Among the Nephites, after the quaking had stopped, “all the people of the land” heard the voice of Christ (1 Nephi 9:1-10:8).

On the day following the earthquake, according to the Pistis Sophia, as the disciples “wept together . . . the heavens opened, and they saw Jesus descend, shining most exceedingly . . . so that men in the world cannot describe the light which was on him” (I.4).[5] Joseph Smith used similar terminology to describe the brilliant light that surrounded the Father and the Son when they appeared to him in the sacred grove in the spring of 1820 (Joseph Smith-History 1:16-17). We are also reminded of Joseph Smith’s description of Moroni on the night of his first appearance, September 21/22, 1823: “his whole person was glorious beyond description, and his countenance truly like lightning. The room was exceedingly light, but not so very bright as immediately around his person” (Joseph Smith-History 1:32). The gradiants of light are features shared by both Jesus and Moroni. Of Moroni’s departure, Joseph Smith wrote, “I saw the light in the room begin to gather immediately around the person of him who had been speaking to me, and it continued to do so until the room was again left dark, except just around him; when, instantly, I saw, as it were, a conduit open right up into heaven, and he ascended until he entirely disappeared, and the room was left as it had been before this heavenly light had made its appearance” (Joseph Smith-History 1:43). In Pistis Sophis I.6, the apostles, unable to withstand the brilliant light, asked Jesus, “withdraw thy light-glory into thyself that we may be able to stand . . . Then Jesus drew to himself the glory of his light.” The opening of the heavens and the drawing of the light to the person of the heavenly visitor is a featured shared by both stories.

The Book of Mormon does not say that Jesus was surrounded by light when he descended from heaven to visit the Nephites after his resurrection, but it is significant that he introduced himself by saying “I am Jesus Christ . . . I am the light and the life of the world” (3 Nephi 11:10-11). The Book of Mormon text notes that Jesus appeared to the Nephites “after his ascension into heaven” (3 Nephi 11:12), while the Pistis Sophia (I.3-4) has the reappearance of Christ to his apostles occur the day following his ascension. The apostles were frightened, so Jesus reassured them by saying, “Take courage. It is I, be not afraid” (I.5). To the Nephites, who had fallen “to the earth” (3 Nephi 11:12), he said, “Arise and come forth unto me, that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet . . . And it came to pass that the multitude went forth, and thrust their hands into his side, and did feel the prints of the nails in his hands and in his feet” (3 Nephi 11:14-15). In the Pistis Sophia (I.6), “all the disciples took courage, stepped forward to Jesus, fell down all together, adored him, rejoicing in great joy.”

In both accounts, Jesus then teaches the people, though the contents of his teachings are not identical. To the Nephites, he delivered the sermon he had previously given to his disciples in the Old World. To the apostles, he told of the premortal world from which they had come and of his return to his Father after the resurrection to receive his heavenly garment (Pistis Sophia I.6-7). One passage of is particular importance because it, too, has a parallel in the Book of Mormon. Jesus told the twelve apostles, “when I set out for the world [from the premortal sphere], I brought from the beginning with me twelve powers, as I have told you from the beginning, which I have taken from the twelve saviours of the Treasury of the Light, according to the command of the First Mystery [i.e., God]. These I then cast into the womb of your mothers, when I came into the world, that is those which are in your bodies today” (I.7).

This scene is like one from Lehi’s vision, in which “he saw the heavens open, and . . . God sitting upon his throne,” then “he saw One descending out of the midst of heaven, and he beheld that his luster was above that of the sun at noon-day. And he also saw twelve others following him, and their brightness did exceed that of the stars in the firmament. And they came down and went forth upon the face of the earth” (1 Nephi 1:8-11). The brilliance of Christ and his twelve apostles, as described by Lehi, reminds us that, in the Pistis Sophia, they are said to have come forth from “the Treasury of light.”

Nephi, having asked to see what his father had seen in vision, was also shown Christ and his twelve apostles (1 Nephi 11:27-29). Like Lehi, he “saw the heavens open” and was shown Jesus’ mother, Mary “a virgin, most beautiful and fair above all other virgins” who became “the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh” (1 Nephi 11:14-21). Similarly, in the Pistis Sophia (I.7), Jesus, speaking of the premortal world, says, “I looked down on the world of mankind and found Mary, who is called ‘my mother’ according to the body of matter,” into whom his spirit was then placed when the spirits of the apostles were placed inside their mothers.

[1] For the fulfillment of Samuel’s prophecy, see 3 Nephi 8.

[2] Margaret Dunlop Wilson, Apocrypha Arabica (London: C. J. Clay, 1901), 16. Cf. Asatir 1:19, where we read that “the earth was in ferment and the seas were moved and the sun was dimmed and the moon darkened” when Cain slew Abel. Moses Gaster, The Asatir: The Samaritan Book of the “Secrets of Moses” (London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1927), 192; see also the Pitaron on pages 189 and 191.

[3] Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers (reprint Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 8:756-8.

[4] Though the British Museum acquired a manuscript of the text in 1785, by the time the Book of Mormon appeared, it had not yet been translated. The earliest French translation was in 1856. Several pages were translated into English in 1887, but the full text, translated by G. R. S. Mead, did not appear in English until 1896. In this study, I use Mead’s revised translation of 1921, reprinted in London by John M. Watkins in 1955. References are in the format I.2, where the Roman numeral denotes the book and the Arabic numeral the chapter in the Pistis Sophia.

[5] According to the text, there were three types of light-also called glories-that surrounded Jesus, each more brilliant than the other (I.4). These remind us of the three degrees of glory, with the terrestrial being more glorious than the telestial and the celestial being more glorious still (D&C 76:70-71, 78, 81, 89-92, 96-98; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:40o-43).