During the crucifixion of Christ as portrayed in 3rd Nephi, the devastation seems like it is beyond our understanding. Certainly the descriptions portray devastation on a level that no one today has experienced. The very earth reacts to the death of the Savior, and continues that reaction, apparently until his resurrection on the third day. May we never experience anything like that.
But the portrayal raises an interesting theological issue, one that Parley P. Pratt picked up on in his earliest Mormon poetry.
In 1835, soon after the second Church periodical, the Messenger and Advocate, began publication, Pratt gathered the poetry he had written and published The Millennium, the first independent Mormon literary work and one of the first works not published by the Church itself. And in the poetry, Pratt sometimes explored the implications of Mormon theology. In one of the poems in The Millennium, Pratt talks specifically of what happened to the Nephites during the crucifixion:
Christ’s Ministry to the Nephites
by Parley P. Pratt
- The solid rocks were rent in twain,
- When Christ the Lamb of God was slain;
- The sun in darkness veiled his face,
- The mountains moved and left their place.
- And all creation groaned in pain
- Till the Messiah rose again;
- When earth did cease her dreadful groans.
- The sun unveiled his face and shone;
- The righteous that were spared alive,
- With joy and wonder did believe,
- And soon together they convened
- Conversing on the things they’d seen;
- Which had been given for a sign,
- When lo, they heard a voice divine,
- And as the heavenly voice they heard
- The Lord of glory soon appeared.
The Millennium (1835)
Perhaps when Pratt said “And all creation groaned in pain” and then “When earth did cease her dreadful groans” he was merely anthropomorphizing the earth, and not suggesting, as later Mormon theology did, that all matter had some degree of intelligence, the same intelligence that was the raw material for the spirits that were born of heavenly parents. Still, Pratt eventually taught those ideas, as did his brother Orson Pratt. And, to me at least, the description of the reaction of the earth to the crucifixion in the Nephite’s world is, perhaps, the best argument for this doctrine. How could such devastation occur if the earth wasn’t “groaning in pain?”
Wow! Interesting thought! I agree, suggesting that all matter has some intelligence in it that would respond with empathy to the suffering of its esteemed Brother is probably the best interpretation of this poem. At any rate, it’s certainly the most interesting!
I’ll have to track down the reference, but I’m pretty sure it was Joseph Fielding Smith who suggested a related, but slightly different idea: the ‘personhood’ of the earth. In that sense, the earth itself is actually some kind of living being in the same sense that humans and animals are living beings (very similar to the Gaia hypothesis of James Lovelock). According to him, the flood was essentially the earth’s Baptism, and when it is burned at the second coming, that will be some kind of Confirmation for it. Finally, having been redeemed from its fallen state by the Atonement, the earth will be celestialised and experience something akin to exaltation.
In that sense, perhaps it wasn’t just the material matter that made up the Earth, but actually the ‘being’ or spiritual entity that is the Earth itself that was responding in sorrow to the suffering of our Lord.