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.
The Day of Crucifixion
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).
These clarifications are helpful indeed when pondering the state of the departed spirit. It also helps us understand the pattern the Savior must have followed once His spirit left His body. We know through modern revelation (see Doctrine and Covenants 138) that His spirit did indeed go to the Spirit World, where he commenced the preaching of the gospel by righteous spirits in spirit paradise to the spirits of the wicked or unlearned in spirit prison. Until this time, the spirits in prison and paradise had been separated by a great gulf and many were anxiously awaiting Christ’s arrival. Skinner teaches that this doctrine also helps explain the Savior’s statement to Mary on the morning of His resurrection. “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father” (John 20:17). “There was now a special divine dignity attached to the Savior that discouraged too much familiarity. But more important, no human hand was to be permitted to touch the Lord’s resurrected and immortalized body until after He had presented Himself to the Father’ (Talmage, Jesus the Christ, 682). Jesus had entered the spirit world as the disembodied Son of God, but he did not then enjoy the personal company and physical presence of his Father, our Father in Heaven. That came after he was resurrected” (41).
Other wonderful truths are discussed by Skinner in this chapter about the nearness of the spirit world, its boundaries and the interactions mortals may have with spirits on the other side of the veil. These teachings are tender and emotive, reminding us of the thinness of the veil and the continuation of life beyond death.
Resurrection ? To Rise Again
Skinner takes readers on the journey of the Savior’s spirit ? a unique way of looking at the tomb experience. He writes, “To bring to pass the resurrection, Jesus left the spirit world and went back to the dark, sealed tomb where his lifeless body had been interred since Friday. It was very early Sunday morning, at sunrise” (81).
With this introduction, Skinner teaches the reality of Christ’s resurrection and the principle of resurrection itself. The English word resurrection derives from the Latin terms re (again) and surgere (to rise). It literally means, “to rise again,” and with power. The word surgere is the basis of our English word surge, which conveys a sense of power. Skinner explains this powerful and perfect reuniting of body and spirit. What joy, gladness and rejoicing this moment must have brought to the spirits in the spirit world.
“The scriptures impress us with the thought that there are no mortal words sufficient to express what the Savior’s resurrection meant to those in the spirit world, as well as countless unborn spirits. In fact, when we contemplate the magnitude of what the Savior accomplished as he left the spirit world and reentered his physical body, which had been lying in the Garden Tomb … we marvel at the awesome power held uniquely by Jesus of Nazareth. Of all who have lived or will live on the earth, Jesus stands alone in his genetic makeup and powers. He is the only one who possessed life in himself and power over death inherently. Christ was never subject unto death, even on the cross, but death was ever subject unto him’ (Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 1:31)” (83-84).
It is remarkable, Skinner points out, that this most dramatic and momentous event in the history of the world ? the Resurrection of Jesus Christ ? is not described by any authoritative sacred text. “We do not know what it was like for the Savior, who in one moment had been a conscious, thinking entity in the spirit world and in the next moment was opening his eyes, clothed again in a physical body” (84). Skinner concludes ? the fact that we have no account is perhaps witness enough that the actual moment of resurrection is intensely sacred and private. In this chapter, Skinner also discusses the nature of resurrected beings, and the law of restoration.
Witnesses of the Resurrected Lord
The remaining chapters of the book focus on the many individuals who were privy to witnessing, touching and conversing with the resurrected Lord, Jesus Christ. Much time is given to discussing Mary of Magdalene and her interaction with the Savior as the very first witness of the resurrection. Skinner takes us running to the tomb with Peter and John. He takes us on the road to Emmaus with two other disciples and then to a closed room where eleven of the Twelve were present to feel the nail marks in the Savior’s hands and feet. Skinner places us in the hearts and minds of the men and women who so dearly loved the Savior but needed his patient teaching to dispel their disbelief. A forty-day ministry was required for the Savior to teach His disciples about the reality of the resurrection, to bestow upon them the Holy Ghost, to train and prepare them individually for the work that lay ahead of them in spreading His gospel. Skinner also teaches that during this time they were endowed with power from on high through temple ordinances (See Luke 24:49, 53).
A list of individuals to whom the resurrected Savior made visits is provided in the last chapter. Included are the faithful women and men mentioned in the Gospels, The Nephites of the Book of Mormon, Saul of Tarsus (Paul), John the Revelator, The Lost Tribes of Israel, Mormon, Moroni and finally, Joseph Smith in 1820.
The beauty of this list is that it does not end there. Skinner writes, “Many of these witnesses were visited by the resurrected Lord more than once. But … the chain of witnesses to the Lord’s resurrection and living reality continues. Many are the accounts and testimonies that tell of individuals since 1820 who have come to know that Jesus of Nazareth lives as a resurrected Being” (200-201). This is the joy of knowing the restored gospel, of modern revelation and belonging to the living church of Jesus Christ. We positively believe that He does live!
An Empty Garden Tomb
While studying in Israel ten years ago, I remember with fondness Easter Sunday morning. A group of us arose early to visit the Garden Tomb and participate in a Christian sunrise service. We had been to that place previously on many occasions. But that beautiful spring morning, the small wooden sign on the door of the hollow tomb penetrated my spirit in an unforgettable way. Its undeniable proclamation reads, “He is not here ? For He is risen!”
That is the glorious truth ? yet, we do not need to see the empty tomb to receive a witness of Christ’s living reality. The Holy Ghost will confirm this truth in any open and searching heart.
The story of the Garden Tomb is for every soul who has lived or will live.
As Skinner states, “Its effect is powerful …It describes the foundation of our future. It is a story for all humanity. For every soul who carries a burden, for every soul who faces a challenge, for every soul who harbors a heartache, for every soul who perseveres through pain, for every soul who is plagued by fear, for every soul who seeks comfort, for every soul who has faced death, for every soul who has lost a loved one, for every soul who has seen horror, for every soul ? the message of the Garden Tomb is intended … Jesus is alive today; he is the literal Son of God …When all is said and done, there has never been nor ever will be anything so powerful, so majestic, so wondrous, so merciful as the atonement of Jesus Christ” (204).
This is just part of the heartfelt testimony with which Skinner concludes his book. The Garden Tomb is a wonderful treatise on the culmination of Christ’s atonement. I found it to be a timely read, considering recent world events. It was uplifting in every way, full of increased understanding and greater knowledge. I highly recommend it, for it draws us closer to our Savior and His priceless gift of eternal life.