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How Long Was Jesus Dead?

Descent from the Cross, Workshop of Rembrandt (1606–1669), The New Hermitage, room 254, Saint Petersburg

Where Science Meets Religion by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD, for the Come Follow Me lesson June 19–25: Matthew 27; Mark 15; Luke 23; John 19

This week’s blog is taken from my book, The Immortal Messiah, the Physiology of Resurrected Beings, Cedar Fort, 2022.

Chapter 7 How Long Was Jesus Dead?

During His ministry, Jesus healed a man “possessed with a devil” who was blind and dumb, “…insomuch that the blind and dumb both spake and saw.”1 “But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, This fellow doth not cast out devils, but by Beelzebub the prince of the devils. And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand:”2 The dialog continued,

Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee. But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas: For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.3

John’s account of what appears to be the same conversation, or a nearly identical conversation after Christ had driven the money changers from the temple, added an additional twist,

Then answered the Jews and said unto him, What sign shewest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things? Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days? But he spake of the temple of his body.4

This conversation concerning the temple became the major point of blasphemy, for which Christ was tried and crucified:

Now the chief priests, and elders, and all the council, sought false witness against Jesus, to put him to death; But found none: yea, though many false witnesses came, yet found they none. At the last came two false witnesses, And said, This fellow said, I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days. And the high priest arose, and said unto him, Answerest thou nothing? what is it which these witness against thee? But Jesus held his peace. And the high priest answered and said unto him, I adjure thee by the living God, that thou tell us whether thou be the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus saith unto him, Thou hast said: nevertheless I say unto you, Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven. Then the high priest rent his clothes, saying, He hath spoken blasphemy; what further need have we of witnesses? behold, now ye have heard his blasphemy. What think ye? They answered and said, He is guilty of death.5

Christ’s statement about the temple apparently also became the main point made by the people who were mocking Him while He hung on the cross: “And they that passed by reviled him, wagging their heads, And saying, Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself. If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross.”6

Some time after this conversation with the scribes and of the Pharisees, and before Christ went to Jerusalem for the last time, “From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day.”7 This prophecy is repeated in the next chapter of Matthew (chapter 17): “And while they abode in Galilee, Jesus said unto them, The Son of man shall be betrayed into the hands of men: And they shall kill him, and the third day he shall be raised again. And they were exceeding sorry.”8

Christ also made a point of teaching His apostles privately about His pending death and resurrection:

And Jesus going up to Jerusalem took the twelve disciples apart in the way, and said unto them, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be betrayed unto the chief priests and unto the scribes, and they shall condemn him to death, And shall deliver him to the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify him: and the third day he shall rise again.9

Luke said of this private conversation(s) between Christ and the apostles, “And they understood none of these things: and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things which were spoken.”10

Concerning Christ’s death on the cross, we are told in John chapter 19:

When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost. The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day, (for that sabbath day was an high day,) besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. Then came the soldiers, and brake the legs of the first, and of the other which was crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs: But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water. And he that saw it bare record, and his record is true: and he knoweth that he saith true, that ye might believe. For these things were done, that the scripture should be fulfilled, A bone of him shall not be broken. And again another scripture saith, They shall look on him whom they pierced.11

Mark tells us that Pilate was surprised that Christ was already, and so quickly, dead. He even called his centurion to confirm that Christ was actually dead.12 It usually took three or four days for someone to die from crucifixion. Of course, even though centurions dealt with death on a regular basis, they were not physicians, and as was discussed in the previous chapter, not even physicians could distinguish between death and a coma. For all intents and purposes, it really didn’t matter much, because whether on the battlefield or on a cross, if a comatose person was simply neglected, they would be dead soon enough. Furthermore, again, even in our modern era, we recognize that death is “often” preceded by coma.13

Stephen Huff and Prasanna Tadi have stated, “Though coma is a common clinical presentation to the emergency department (ED), the actual frequency of coma at ED presentation is difficult to determine.”14 Because only 0.03% of people die in such a way that their organs are useful for transplant, the strict clinical and biological criteria of death, described in the previous chapter for transplants, are not applied to all people who die.15 Therefore, even in a modern emergency room, it is not easy to distinguish comatose from dead cases.

Furthermore, even in our modern hospital settings, a person may be dead but not remain dead. Christof Koch, chief scientist of the MindScope program at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, described two such conditions: “…cardiac arrest, in which the heart stops beating (the patient is ‘coding,’ in hospital jargon). The patient has not died, because the heart can be jump-started via cardiopulmonary resuscitation [CPR].” Without CPR, however, when the heart stops beating the person is considered to be dead. Koch continued, “Modern death requires irreversible loss of brain function…his or her electroencephalogram, or EEG, becomes isoelectric – in other words, flat.” But even this isoelectric, flatline state is reversible. “When the entire brain has shut down because of complete power loss, the mind is extinguished, along with consciousness. If and when oxygen and blood flow are restored, the brain boots up, and the narrative flow of experience resumes.”16

Given the distance between Golgotha and Pilate’s palace on the opposite side of Jerusalem, one or two hours are likely to have expired by the time the soldiers had obtained permission to remove Christ from the cross. After He had apparently “given up the ghost” (but how did John determine this?) Christ had hung on the cross, slumped over, completely unresponsive. The soldiers did not break his legs, as they did the two malefactors, to speed up their apparent deaths, so they could be removed from the cross before sunset. However, one of the soldiers jabbed Christ in the side with his pilum and out poured a combination of blood and water. Such an action would not be uncommon under military conditions. On a battlefield of the time, soldiers very likely kicked, prodded, or jabbed the bodies of dead enemies to ascertain if any were still alive and responsive. Jabbing Christ in the side with a spear may likely have been for a similar reason. Such an action, however, could not determine if Christ was dead or comatose and not responsive.

A spear thrust to the side, into the abdominal cavity, may not necessarily be immediately fatal. I used to home teach an elderly gentleman who told me the story of his being severely wounded during the Korean War. He had a terrible abdominal injury to the extent that his intestines were hanging out. He slid under a building to hide from the enemy and spent the night holding in his bowels with his hand until he was rescued the next day.

We now know that dead people don’t bleed fresh blood,17 but, under conditions of internal hemorrhaging before death, there may be old, dark blood in the peritoneal cavity (the space within the abdomen) when opened after death. Over my forty-year career as an anatomist, I have seen dark blood mixed with fluid in the pleural cavity (around the lungs) and/or the peritoneal cavity many times. Whether Christ was dead or comatose would depend on the nature of the blood coming out of the wound in his side. Water, or clear fluid, may be a sign of edema and such fluid can empty from any body cavity of a cadaver.

Elder James E. Talmage proposed that such fluid came from Christ’s pericardial cavity and indicated that He had died of a “broken heart.”18 However, fluid can also drain from the peritoneal cavity in the abdomen, especially if the body has been subjected to trauma, such as flogging and crucifixion. If a person dies of internal hemorrhage, which may not have occurred in Christ’s case, unless He was also kicked in the abdomen during his flogging, then the fluid draining from the body cavity might be mixed with very dark blood. If the blood was lighter in color, however, such would indicate that the heart was still pumping aerated blood, however feebly, throughout the body. The nature of the blood exiting Christ’s side wound was not distinguished in John’s account.

None-the-less, the composition of Christ’s blood is critical to understand, because had it been quite dark, that sign would have indicated that His tissues were already beginning to decompose and putrefy, and even when revived, would not be functional at the cellular level (see the discussion below). At this point, therefore, I argue that Christ’s body was not dead in the biological sense, but was cataleptic, torpid, or comatose. Of course, everyone attending the crucifixion, including the centurion, believed Him to be dead dead. If Christ had lapsed into catalepsis or coma on the cross, he likely would have remained in that condition while he was taken from the cross and carried to the garden tomb.

However private the earlier discussion might have been between Christ and His apostles concerning His death and resurrection, and as little as the apostles appeared to understand at that time, the chief priests and Pharisees were apparently well aware of Christ’s prediction of His resurrection, and to which temple He was actually referring, for:

Now the next day [after Christ’s crucifixion], that followed the day of the preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees came together unto Pilate, Saying, Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again. Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say unto the people, He is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worse than the first. Pilate said unto them, Ye have a watch: go your way, make it as sure as ye can. So they went, and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch.19

The sequence of events that actually played out between Christ’s apparent death on the cross and His resurrection the third day was as follows: “…about the ninth hour [3 pm]…Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.” (Matthew’s account)20 John’s account adds this detail: Jesus “…said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.”21 Luke’s account adds yet another detail: “And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost.”22

There is not much information in the Scriptures concerning what happened to Jesus’ body for the next four hours. Then,

When the even was come [probably around sundown, about 7 pm], there came a rich man of Arimathæa, named Joseph, who also himself was Jesus’ disciple: He went to Pilate, and begged the body of Jesus. Then Pilate commanded the body to be delivered. And when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, And laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock: and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.23

So Christ’s body apparently remained hanging on the cross from about 3 pm until sometime after 7 pm. Luke’s account adds that, “And the women also, which came with him [Jesus] from Galilee, followed after, and beheld the sepulchre, and how his body was laid. And they returned, and prepared spices and ointments; and rested the sabbath day [Saturday] according to the commandment.”24

Luke’s account than continues,

Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them. And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre. And they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus. And it came to pass, as they were much perplexed thereabout, behold, two men stood by them in shining garments: And as they were afraid, and bowed down their faces to the earth, they said unto them, Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen: remember how he spake unto you when he was yet in Galilee, Saying, The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.25

Matthew’s account adds that “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” came to the sepulcher, “In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week…”26 Matthew’s account differs from that of Luke in stating that, rather than “two men” standing by them, the women beheld an “angel of the Lord… [whose] countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow” sitting upon the stone, which he had rolled back from the sepulcher entrance.27 The angel “said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay.”28

Mark’s account of the angel differed yet more, “And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted. And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him.”29

John’s account adds the detail that “it was yet dark” when Mary Magdalene came to the sepulcher.30 If sunrise in Jerusalem was around 6:30 am in early April, then Christ had been “dead” from around 3 pm on Friday until sometime before 6:30 am Sunday – a maximum of 39 ½ hours. We do not know, however, how long before the women came to the sepulcher, Jesus had actually risen. Christ prophesied that He would die and then rise on the third day, which would have begun, according to Jewish tradition, at sunrise Sunday. He did not state, however, how long He would be dead. Therefore, an estimate of 40 hours should be about correct for the period of Christ’s morbidity, if He was dead that entire time. He was in the sepulcher for somewhere around 35 hours.

Modern transplant protocol indicates that after the heart stops beating, vital organs become unusable for whole organ transplant very quickly. For example, hearts should be harvested for transplant within thirty minutes of death by exsanguination.31 “But…tissues – such as bone, skin, heart valves and corneas – can be donated within the first 24 hours of death.”32

Therefore, if a person is dead for an extended period of time – i.e. perhaps as much as 40 hours as in Jesus’ case – permanent tissue and organ damage is almost certain upon revival. But resurrection is certainly much different from simple medical revival. We are promised that “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”33

Therefore, everyone born on earth will be resurrected because of Christ’s resurrection. However, for the vast majority of humans who have ever lived, complete, or nearly complete deterioration of all tissues will have occurred before our resurrection.

There are two scriptural “accounts” of resurrected beings. The first is when Ezekiel, being carried “out in the spirit,” was shown a valley full of dry bones and was commanded to prophesy that “…the Lord God [will say] unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live: And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the Lord.” And Ezekiel saw the bones come together, and “…the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above…” And the four winds, breathed “…upon these slain, that they may live.”34 It is my opinion that Ezekiel saw metaphorically in vision what will happen at the resurrection. For most people, there will be no actual bones to come together because they will have been completely deteriorated. Therefore, the resurrection must be a de novo event, which will be discussed in detail in a later chapter.

The second account is that after Christ was resurrected, “…the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.”35 Whereas it is quite certain that many people in Jerusalem saw resurrected beings after Christ’s resurrection, the concept that “…graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose,” in my opinion is also metaphorical – as will be discussed later.

It is my opinion that Christ’s resurrection was unique – orchestrated specifically to show His disciples that the resurrection was genuine. He was resurrected within 40 hours of His death, and it was apparently, literally His actual, intact mortal body that was resurrected, which will certainly not be the case for most people who have lived and died. For most people, our physical bodies will decay back into the earth from which they were made.36 Except that after Christ’s second coming, “In that day an infant shall not die until he is old; and his life shall be as the age of a tree; And when he dies he shall not sleep, that is to say in the earth, but shall be changed in the twinkling of an eye, and shall be caught up, and his rest shall be glorious.”37 In Christ’s case, His tomb was empty, His physical body was gone, He had apparently walked out of the tomb with the same body that had been laid in the tomb.

In order for Christ’s body to be resurrected intact, so that it could walk out of the tomb, it needed to be preserved in pristine condition for those 40 hours. The average temperatures in Jerusalem for early April, at the time of Christ’s death, would have varied from a low of 40-55o F (an ideal refrigerator temperature is 40oF) to a high of 55-75o F. A cave tomb would have preserved the body at a much more constant, cool temperature. But even under those conditions, deterioration would have occurred over a forty-hour period.

In my opinion, the most likely scenario is that Christ was not actually dead for that entire 40 hour period. It is possible that he was not yet dead when placed into the tomb but was initially in a state of catalepsy, torpidity, or coma, which, as discussed in the previous chapter, may be characterized by a person being in a trance-like state, with complete immobility, no perceptible heart rate or respiration, and no apparent response to outside stimulation. These states may last from several minutes to several weeks or even months. Perhaps Lazarus was indeed a type of Jesus’ resurrection, pointing not only toward the event but also the higher law applying to both events. Not even the medical experts of the time could have distinguish catalepsy from death.

In the case of Lazarus, we have no information as to whether his spirit remained in his body during his comatose state or whether it separated from his body for part or all of the four days he was considered to be dead. My opinion is that the latter was the case for at least part of that time. Historically and traditionally, it has been thought that the spirit actually provided the life of the body. However, there are no scriptural or scientific data to substantiate such a belief. This idea that the spirit is equivalent to life probably originates from the mistaken notion, which will be discussed in a later chapter, that breath and spirit are synonymous. Indeed, modern biochemistry and physiology suggest that life is a chemical process, which continues without any separate force, such as a vital spirit being present. Whereas some people might believe that this scientific evidence renders belief in a spirit archaic, it is my opinion that the only thing rendered archaic is the false belief that the spirit is equivalent to life, is equivalent to breath. I believe that the relationship between the body and the spirit is far more complex, far more arcane, and far more interesting than the simplistic relationship hitherto believed.

Despite the fact that we have no information about Lazarus’ spirit during his four-day confinement, we do have such information about Christ’s three day entombment. Jesus taught, while yet alive that:

Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live. For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself; And hath given him authority to execute judgment also, because he is the Son of man. Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.38

We also read in 1 Peter chapter 3,

For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.39

Further, we read in 1 Peter 4:6 “For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.”40 Paul challenged the Corinthians, who were doubting a literal resurrection, “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?”41 Clearly the early saints understood that part of being “judged according to men in the flesh” included the saving ordinances, such as baptism, and that these ordinances could be performed by the living for the dead.

On 3 October 1918, in Salt Lake City, Utah, President Joseph F. Smith sat in his room, “…pondering over the scriptures; And reflecting upon the great atoning sacrifice that was made by the Son of God, for the redemption of the world…”42 On that occasion, President Smith stated that he, “…opened the Bible and read the third and fourth chapters of the first epistle of Peter, and as I read I was greatly impressed, more than I had ever been before…” especially with the verses quoted in the previous two paragraphs.43

"As I pondered over these things which are written, the eyes of my understanding were opened, and the Spirit of the Lord rested upon me, and I saw the hosts of the dead, both small and great. And there were gathered together in one place an innumerable company of the spirits of the just, who had been faithful in the testimony of Jesus while they lived in mortality; And who had offered sacrifice in the similitude of the great sacrifice of the Son of God, and had suffered tribulation in their Redeemer’s name. All these had departed the mortal life, firm in the hope of a glorious resurrection, through the grace of God the Father and his Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ. I beheld that they were filled with joy and gladness, and were rejoicing together because the day of their deliverance was at hand. They were assembled awaiting the advent of the Son of God into the spirit world, to declare their redemption from the bands of death. Their sleeping dust was to be restored unto its perfect frame, bone to his bone, and the sinews and the flesh upon them, the spirit and the body to be united never again to be divided, that they might receive a fulness of joy. While this vast multitude waited and conversed, rejoicing in the hour of their deliverance from the chains of death, the Son of God appeared, declaring liberty to the captives who had been faithful; And there he preached to them the everlasting gospel, the doctrine of the resurrection and the redemption of mankind from the fall, and from individual sins on conditions of repentance. But unto the wicked he did not go, and among the ungodly and the unrepentant who had defiled themselves while in the flesh, his voice was not raised; Neither did the rebellious who rejected the testimonies and the warnings of the ancient prophets behold his presence, nor look upon his face."44

President Smith went on the explain,

"But his [the Savior’s] ministry among those who were dead was limited to the brief time intervening between the crucifixion and his resurrection; And I wondered at the words of Peter—wherein he said that the Son of God preached unto the spirits in prison, who sometime were disobedient, when once the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah—and how it was possible for him to preach to those spirits and perform the necessary labor among them in so short a time. And as I wondered, my eyes were opened, and my understanding quickened, and I perceived that the Lord went not in person among the wicked and the disobedient who had rejected the truth, to teach them; But behold, from among the righteous, he organized his forces and appointed messengers, clothed with power and authority, and commissioned them to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness, even to all the spirits of men; and thus was the gospel preached to the dead. And the chosen messengers went forth to declare the acceptable day of the Lord and proclaim liberty to the captives who were bound, even unto all who would repent of their sins and receive the gospel. Thus was the gospel preached to those who had died in their sins, without a knowledge of the truth, or in transgression, having rejected the prophets. These were taught faith in God, repentance from sin, vicarious baptism for the remission of sins, the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, And all other principles of the gospel that were necessary for them to know in order to qualify themselves that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit. And so it was made known among the dead, both small and great, the unrighteous as well as the faithful, that redemption had been wrought through the sacrifice of the Son of God upon the cross. Thus was it made known that our Redeemer spent his time during his sojourn in the world of spirits, instructing and preparing the faithful spirits of the prophets who had testified of him in the flesh; That they might carry the message of redemption unto all the dead, unto whom he could not go personally, because of their rebellion and transgression, that they through the ministration of his servants might also hear his words."45

These scriptures make it very clear that for at least part, if not all the time that Christ’s body was on the cross (around four hours after he had “given up the ghost”) and/or laid in the tomb (some 35 hours), His spirit was preparing the work of redemption in the spirit world. His condition during at least the first four hours – before His body was placed into the tomb – would seem to imply that he was dead and that his spirit was not with His body. However, there is no scriptural or scientific evidence that the spirit cannot leave the body of a comatose person. Once His body was laid into the tomb and the entrance was covered with a stone, however, we know nothing of what happened to His body until the stone was removed some time before sunrise on Sunday. Furthermore, in some way during that entire 40 hours, His body was preserved in such a manner that it did not decompose. Perhaps His body was in a state of catalepsy for most of that time, and then it was resurrected in the twinkling of an eye.46

As difficult as it is to determine when a person is actually dead, it is far more difficult, if not impossible, to determine when a person’s spirit may leave from or return to a dead, or even a comatose body. Perhaps the most famous life after death, out-of-body experience, at least my favorite, is that of George G. Ritchie, Jr. In 1943, Ritchie, a twenty-year-old US Army private, stationed at Camp Barkeley, Texas, was awaiting transfer on December 18th to Virginia where, “On December 22 [he]… was going to start classes at the Medical College of Virginia, in [his]… home-town of Richmond, to become a doctor under the Army Specialized Training Program.” He had completed his undergraduate pre-med training at the University of Richmond “…at nineteen, doing the four-year course in two, as many were doing during the war,” and had been accepted to medical school, but on December 11th he developed symptoms of pneumonia and was transferred to the isolation unit of the five-thousand-bed base barracks-hospital, where he died on December 21st. He had no detectable respiration, pulse, or blood pressure; and was declared dead. Nine minutes later the “ward boy” returned to the small room into which his body had been placed and noticed that his hand moved.47

During his nine-minute out-of-body experience, Ritchie found himself running through the air toward Richmond, and medical school. Finally, he stopped on the east bank of the Mississippi River – in front of a small, white, frame café – after wondering if he was going the right direction and deciding to stop and ask where he was. He floated down some fifty feet to the sidewalk, but a man he tried to ask acted like Ritchie wasn’t even there. He realized that perhaps nobody could see him and decided that he must have left his “solidness,” the “material, concrete” part of himself back at the base hospital and returned as quickly as he had left.

Several years later, he returned via automobile to the same location on the bank of the Mississippi.

I knew I had never been there before, and yet I knew exactly how the shoreline would look around the next curve. How the streets would intersect. There! Just as I’d known they would! And all at once I knew for sure that straight ahead on that very street we would come in a few blocks to a white frame building with a red roof and the word ‘Café’ in neon letters over the door.48

To me, the most compelling part of this story is the fact that Ritchie was able to direct the car in which he was riding back to that very same café, which he had never seen in the flesh, but which he had only visited in the spirit. This story is almost unique in providing solid evidence for an experience that had occurred while the person was out of his body.

Christof Koch, who cited Raymond Moody as the person who coined the term “near-death experience,” stated, “Unless there is extraordinary, compelling, objective evidence to the contrary, I see no reason to abandon this assumption…that all our thoughts, memories, percepts and experiences are an ineluctable consequence of the natural causal powers of our brain rather than of any supernatural ones.”49 Koch, however, failed to mention the “extraordinary, compelling, objective” story of George Ritchie, “…a respected physician…” who “…profoundly impressed…” Raymond Moody as “…one of the three or four most fantastic and well-documented ‘dying’ experiences known to me.”50 Indeed, Moody dedicated his own book, Life After Life, to George Ritchie.51

Moody posited, “Was George Ritchie…really dead?...In the clinical sense…the whole matter of the final criteria for diagnosing death is very much up in the air just now, very much unsettled among the medical profession itself.” To my knowledge, the veracity of Ritchie’s account has never been impugned – rather it has been mostly, if not entirely, simply ignored, and the extraordinary nature of the account has been neglected, let alone the compelling and objective nature of the experience. Moody also observed, “Admittedly, if one defines ‘death’ – as seems eminently reasonable – as that state of the body from which restoration of function is impossible, then none of these people [Ritchie and others with similar stories] were dead.” 52

If Moody’s assessment is correct, then the spirit of a cataleptic, torpid, or comatose person can leave the body and travel to distant sites before returning – and, at least in Ritchie’s case, remember details of the trip. What makes Ritchie’s experience so extraordinary is that his spirit left the immediate environs of his body. In all other near-death or out-of-body experiences of which I am aware the spirit remains near the body so that it is very difficult to distinguish spirit sensations from bodily sensations, or even memory bias.

Apparently, around ten percent of people claim to have had some sort of out-of-body experience (OBE). Spontaneous OBEs are most often reported by people as they are falling asleep or awakening, and appear to be exacerbated by stressful conditions that prevent restful sleep, such as noise, mental tension, or illness. OBEs have also been reported by people who are awake and have undergone extreme mental or physical exertion, or who are in possible life-threatening situations. One 36-year-old police officer reported that during her first night on duty, “When I and three other officers stopped the vehicle and started getting [to] the suspect [...] I was afraid. I promptly went out of my body and up into the air maybe 20 feet above the scene. I remained there, extremely calm, while I watched the entire procedure - including watching myself do exactly what I had been trained to do.”53

Christophe Lopez and Maya Elzière stated that, “Out-of-body experiences (OBEs) are states during which people experience their centre of awareness as located outside of their physical body, along with the sensation of seeing the environment from an elevated viewpoint.” After examining 210 patients with OBEs and dizziness, they concluded, “Altogether, our data indicate that OBE in patients with dizziness may arise from a combination of perceptual incoherence evoked by the vestibular dysfunction with psychological factors (depersonalization-derealization, depression and anxiety) and neurological factors (migraine).”54 Although Lopez and Elzière’s findings are very interesting concerning localization of many OBEs, they do not explain all ODEs or near-death experiences (NDEs). Certainly the vast majority of ODEs and even NDEs can be explained by our own neurological functions; however, there remains a tiny fraction, of which Ritchie is to my knowledge the most compelling, that cannot be so explained.

All this said, I will now return to Christ’s time in the tomb. He was apparently entombed for some 35 hours, during which time His spirit left His body and ministered to spirits in prison,55or more specifically, organized a mission to those prisoners.56 During most of those 35 hours He may not have been dead, but may have been in a state of catalepsy, torpidity, or coma. Some time during those 35 hours, however, it was apparently necessary for Him to actually die.57 But the time between His actual death and resurrection may have been extremely short, perhaps even as short as the twinkling of an eye,58 so that His cellular structure did not have time to break down between His death and resurrection. This conclusion in no way diminishes the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection or the impact His atonement has on our own resurrections.


1. Matthew 12:22

2. Matthew 12:24-25

3. Matthew 12:38-40

4. John 2:18-21

5. Matthew 26:59-66; see also Mark 14:55-58

6. Matthew 27:39-40; see also Mark 15:29-30

7. Matthew 16:21

8. Matthew 17:22-23

9. Matthew 20:17-19; see also Mark 9:30-31; Mark 10:32-34; Luke 9:18-22; Luke 18:31-34

10. Luke 18:34

11. John 19:30-37

12. Mark 15:44

13. Signs of Approaching Death;; retrieved 27 June 2020

14. Huff, J. Stephen, and Tadi, Prasanna, Coma, StatPearls, 2020, retrieved 27 June 2020

15., retrieved 28 June 2020

16. Koch, Christof, Tale of the Dying Brain, Scientific American, July 2020, p 74

17. Carattini, Jill, The Dead don’t Bleed,, retrieved 28 June 2020

18. Talmage, James E., Jesus the Christ, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, chapter 35, note 8, 2006

19. Matthew 27:62-66

20. Matthew 27:46, 50

21. John 19:30

22. Luke 23:46

23. Matthew 27:57-60; see also Mark 15:42-47; Luke 23:50-53; John 19:38-42

24. Luke 23:55-56

25. Luke 24:1-7

26. Matthew 28:1

27. Matthew 28:2-3

28. Matthew 28:5-6

29. Mark 16:5-6

30. John 20:1

31. Gundry, SR, de Begona, JA, Kawauchi, M, and Bailey, LL, Successful transplantation of hearts harvested 30 minutes after death from exsanguination, Ann Thorac Surg, 53:772-4, 1992

32., retrieved 29 November 2019

33. 1 Corinthians 15:22

34. Ezekiel 37:1-14

35. Matthew 27:52-53

36. Genesis 3:19

37. Doctrine and Covenants 101:30-31

38. John 5:25-29

39. 1 Peter 3:18-20

40. 1 Peter 4:6

41. 1 Corinthians 15:29

42. Doctrine and Covenants 138:1-2

43. Doctrine and Covenants 138:6-10

44. Doctrine and Covenants 138:11-21

45. Doctrine and Covenants 138:27-37

46. Doctrine and Covenants 101:30-31

47. Ritchie, George G. and Sherrill, Elizabeth, Return from Tomorrow, Revell, Old Tappan, NJ, 1978, p 18-79

48. Ritchie, George G. and Sherrill, Elizabeth, Return from Tomorrow, Revell, Old Tappan, NJ, 1978, pp 97-98

49. Koch, Christof, Tale of the Dying Brain, Scientific American, July 2020, p 73

50. Moody, Raymond, Forward to: Ritchie, George G. and Sherrill, Elizabeth, Return from Tomorrow, Revell, Old Tappan, NJ, 1978

51. Moody, Raymond A., Life After Life, Bantam, 1976

52. Moody, Raymond, Forward to: Ritchie, George G. and Sherrill, Elizabeth, Return from Tomorrow, Revell, Old Tappan, NJ, 1978

53. Newman, Tim, Out-of-body experiences: Neuroscience or the paranormal? Medical News Today, 19 July 2017,; retrieved 4 December 2019

54. Lopez, Christophe, and Elzière, Maya, Out-of-body Experience in Vestibular Disorders - A Prospective Study of 210 Patients With Dizziness, Cortex 104:193-206, 2018

55. 1 Peter 3:18-20

56. Doctrine and Covenants 138:27-37

57. 1 Thessalonians 4:14

58. Doctrine and Covenants 101:30-31

We will not meet for Where Science Meets Religion discussions during the summer, but will resume discussions the first Thursday in September. Please join us then.

Trent Dee Stephens

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Jun 18, 2023

We saw all these descent from the cross paintings by Rembrandt at the museum in Munich!

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