The Garden Tomb is Andrew C. Skinner’s final volume in "Three Gardens," a trilogy about the Atonement. It is the culmination of two previous works, Gethsemane and Golgotha. Each of Skinner’s books discusses an event of Jesus Christ’s Atonement for mankind ― His prayerful suffering in Gethsemane, His death upon the cross, and finally as indicated by its title, His triumphant conquering of death by resurrection from the tomb.
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This is a timely read due to the nature of the season (our recent Easter celebration) but also in consideration of the latest media discussion that has revolved for several weeks now around issues of life and death. Death and its postponement, life and its preservation, have caused many individuals throughout the world, despite their religious affiliation, to contemplate death and the existence of a spirit world. How do we view death? What really happens when the spirit departs this life? Skinner offers one of the most helpful discussions I have read upon this topic. By using scripture, writings of latter-day prophets and personal journal experiences, The Garden Tomb confidently and reasonably answers these questions, all the while pointing us to the Savior of the world – He who made eternal life possible.
Skinner’s writing, in a sense, is simple and straightforward, but surprisingly thought provoking. His structure is coherent and logical, yet elevated by deep feeling and emotion. At the age of 14, right after Christmas, Skinner’s father suddenly died. He describes that time in one phrase ― “all things were empty and hollow” (2). Only the Atonement could fill such a void. It is this backdrop with which he writes about the death and resurrection of the Savior. Surely, the Apostles of Christ felt a similar emptiness and hollowness in the unjust taking of their teacher and beloved friend.
Although the book is largely doctrinal commentary, it is framed by the New Testament narratives of the Garden Tomb, as experienced by the Savior and those who were witness to the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Along with biblical accounts, insights from latter-day prophets are provided. Skinner elaborates on certain doctrinal points and then effortlessly returns to the telling of this magnificent story, beginning with the day of Crucifixion and the deep, inconsolable grief Christ’s disciples felt.
“To the faithful followers of Jesus who had been involved in one way or another in the wrenching and tragic drama of the previous twenty-four hours … the Crucifixion must have seemed a heart-sickening end to all their messianic hopes. After all, ‘a dead Messiah was no Messiah at all,’ in the contemporary Jewish view of things (Walker, Weekend that Changed the World, 38)” (11).
Skinner continues, “When there has been great love, death brings great sorrow. This I know from personal experience and believe it was true for those closest to Jesus. In addition, their grief was intensified because they had not yet comprehended the glorious promise of resurrection: ‘For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead’ (John 20:9)” (11). Skinner helps readers better comprehend the feelings of those who loved the Savior and mourned his death. This setting is crucial to understanding the reactions of those to whom the Resurrected Lord would show himself.
Holy Sepulchre vs. Garden Tomb
For Christians throughout the world, a debate continues over the true location of the interment of Christ’s body. Without going into laborious detail, let me say that Skinner tackles the debate in sound defense of the Garden Tomb. He offers research, historical fact and statements by prophets of God in modern times that shed wonderful light upon the importance of location. All things have order in God’s plan and kingdom. The site of crucifixion and burial for His Son would be no different.
“No site mentioned in scripture has received more attention in Christendom than the Savior’s Garden Tomb” (19). From the fact that sacrifices of a lamb in ancient practices called for the lamb always to be slaughtered “on the side of the altar northward before the Lord” (24) to intimations and declarations by Presidents Harold B. Lee, Spencer W. Kimball and Gordon B. Hinckley, Skinner leads the reader to understand why it is most likely that the Garden Tomb, or somewhere very near it, is the actual burial place.
Skinner quotes President Lee, “We followed the way of the cross supposedly to the place of crucifixion and the place of the holy sepulchre. But all this, according to tradition, we felt, was in the wrong place. We felt none of the spiritual significance which we had felt at other places …There was yet another place we had to visit, the garden tomb …The garden was right close by, or ‘in the hill,’ as John had said, and in it was a sepulchre hewn out of a rock, evidently done by someone who could afford the expense of excellent workmanship. Something seemed to impress us as we stood there that this was the holiest place of all, and we fancied we could have witnessed the dramatic scene that took place there (“I Walked Today Where Jesus Walked,” 6) “(25-26).
Most importantly, however, Skinner makes the crucial point that although such a debate is significant, it does not dictate our salvation. He quotes an instructor who once explained to him that if a loved one had died and then was resurrected, our first impulse would not be to look for the empty grave, it would be to run to that person and embrace him. “If, therefore, you do not find the exact location of the Garden Tomb, revel in the joy of having found Him who originally occupied the grave but now has left the tomb forevermore” (26-27). Our seeking after the living Christ far surpasses the need to seek after His empty tomb.
While His Body Lay in the Tomb
In the Book of Mormon, Alma writes “concerning the state of the soul between death and the resurrection,” that “the spirits of all men, whether they be good or evil, are taken home to that God who gave them life” (Alma 40:11). Skinner comments on this verse, stating that some misunderstandings have arisen over the phrase “taken home to that God who gave them life.” He explains, with the aid of prophetic clarity. “To be taken home to God does not mean that each spirit will be immediately ushered into God’s physical presence but rather that it will go into the spirit world, which is under His ultimate direction and control” (38).
He continues, “President Heber C. Kimball, counselor in the First Presidency in the nineteenth century, added the important insight that to enjoy the literal, physical presence of God the Father on a continuing basis, one must be a resurrected being, having one’s spirit and body eternally reunited” (39).