The spirit world, the place inhabited by those who’ve departed this life, was very much on the mind of President Joseph F. Smith in early October 1918, and understandably so.
The First World War, which killed more than 16 million people and wounded 20 million more, still had more than a month to go. The 1918 flu pandemic, which would infect 500 million people and kill somewhere between 50 and 100 million of them — 3 to 5 percent of the world’s population at the time — was well underway. Moreover, his son Hyrum Mack Smith, named after the father President Smith had lost at Carthage Jail when he was not yet 6 years old, had died suddenly several months before, at the age of only 45. President Smith himself had less than two months to live and may well have known it.
Thus, on Oct. 3, 1918, President Smith was pondering the scriptures, particularly 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 4:6, which speak of a visit of Christ, between his crucifixion and his resurrection, to the spirits of those who had died. And, as he pondered, he was granted a marvelous vision of the redemption of the dead, now canonized as Doctrine and Covenants 138, which must surely rank as one of the greatest revelations ever given to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Drawing principally on those two passages in 1 Peter, the notion that Christ visited the spirits of the dead while his body lay in the tomb has long been taught in Christianity, though it is seldom emphasized today and is altogether rejected by a number of modern scholars and theologians.
“I believe in Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord,” reads one rendition of the ancient Apostle’s Creed, “who ... suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again.” According to the late fifth- or early sixth-century Athanasian Creed, Christ “suffered for our salvation; descended into hell; rose again the third day from the dead.”
Known as the “Descensus” or “descent” and also sometimes, in English, as “the harrowing of hell,” the concept is clearly present in an apocryphal early sixth-century document known as “The Gospel of Nicodemus” or “The Acts of Pilate.”
Scenes from the Descensus were common among Byzantine or Eastern Christians. Christ is often shown, as at the early 12th-century Chora Church, a small artistic jewel in ancient Constantinople (modern Istanbul), having smashed the gates of hell and pinned Satan beneath them at his triumphant entry.
Christ’s visit to the dead seems also to have been a major theme of the seventh-century Anglo-Saxon poet Caedmon, who composed most of his work at beautiful Whitby Abbey, spectacularly located on the northeastern coast of England. It was an important element, too, in the verse of the ninth-century poet Cynewulf, who probably lived even further up the coast on the famous “Holy Island of Lindisfarne.”
Later, the chronicler and homilist Aelfric, based around the year A.D. 1000 far to the south-southwest near Oxford, tells the story of Christ’s descent to the world of spirits, and it becomes a popular subject in Middle English drama and in manuscript illuminations.
In the “Inferno,” the first of the three books of the early 14th-century “Divine Comedy” of Dante, Christ’s descent into the underworld is mentioned by the poet Virgil in the fourth “canto” or chapter. In Dante’s version, in accordance with Catholic doctrine of the time, Virgil was in hell because he had lived and died a pagan, never having been exposed to the preaching of Christianity.
Unfortunately for Virgil, when Christ came into the world of spirits, he rescued the biblical forerunners of Christianity (among them Adam and Eve) from their captivity there but left unbaptized pagans, including such notables as Homer, Plato, Aristotle and Virgil himself, to remain in Limbo. Good men, they are spared the tortures to which the other residents of hell are subjected, but they are nonetheless tormented forever by unfulfilled yearning. They know of heaven, but they can never enjoy it.
Dante venerated these names of the classical tradition, and he did for them as much at his medieval theology allowed. But, as a 19th-century Protestant hymn testified, “There's a wideness in God's mercy like the wideness of the sea,” and Joseph F. Smith was privileged to have a glimpse of it.
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs http://www.mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.