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It is only natural for us to wonder about what happens when we die. This is especially true when we face our own death or the death of a loved one. Although there are many theories and stories about this topic, our best and most trustworthy source of information is the scriptures. The Book of Mormon and the Doctrine & Covenants provide comforting instruction on this important doctrinal topic.
1. We do not go immediately to heaven when we die, but first go to the spirit world to await the resurrection.
Although it is common in obituaries and funerals to speak of loved ones being in heaven with the Lord, these statements are best interpreted as a hope for the future reunion with God that will happen at the resurrection. Until that time, all spirits go to the spirit world.
The Book of Mormon prophet Alma explained, “there is a space between the time of death and the resurrection. And now, concerning this space of time … Behold, it has been made known unto me by an angel, that the spirits of all men, as soon as they are departed from this mortal body, yea, the spirits of all men, whether they be good or evil, are taken home to that God who gave them life” (Alma 40:9,11). In other words, they are taken to the spirit world.
The phrase “taken home to … God” sometimes causes confusion and has led some to assume that we see God and are judged when we die. However, Alma later clarifies that it is not until the resurrection that we are “brought to stand before God and be judged” (Alma 40:21). President George Q. Cannon confirmed this by explaining that Alma “does not intend to convey the idea that [spirits] are immediately ushered into the personal presence of God” (President George Q. Cannon, Gospel Truth 1:73). Apparently, Alma is using the phrase “taken home” in a loose sense to describe our return to a spirit existence.
As Alma explained, the spirit world is a place of waiting “between death and the resurrection” (Alma 40:11). This means that the only way into the spirit world is death and the only way out is through the resurrection. As a result, premortal spirits who have not yet been born and angels who have already been resurrected are not in the spirit world. It is strictly the world of the dead. President Joseph F. Smith, who was privileged to see the spirit world in vision, described it saying, “I saw the hosts of the dead, both small and great … in the great world of the spirits of the dead” (D&C 138:11, 57).
2. We continue our lives in the spirit world with the same spirit, attitudes, and beliefs that we had in mortality.
Some wonder if our loved ones still think about us in the spirit world or if they have drastically changed their attitudes about the Church now that they have died. The Book of Mormon prophet Amulek explained an important principle that responds to many of these types of questions. He taught that “when ye are brought to that awful crisis [of death] … that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in the eternal world” (Alma 34:34). Because we continue with the “same spirit” we can be confident that we maintain the same character, the same attitudes, and the same beliefs when we pass on to the next life.
When we understand this doctrine, it becomes clear that death is merely a doorway. It is a transition into a new life as a spirit. Although we lose our bodies, nothing fundamentally changes about who we are when we die. As a result, we should not assume that everyone automatically and immediately decides to repent and join the Church after they die. Although people can still change in the spirit world, we would expect that change of heart to take some time there, just as it does here.
The doctrine of “same spirit” (Alma 34:34) also implies that our loved ones continue to care about and pray for us in the spirit world. As the Prophet Joseph Smith explained, “the spirits of the just … are not far from us, and know and understand our thoughts, feelings, and motions, and are often pained therewith” (Teachings, p. 326). Although there is a veil between us and them, they are still aware of us just as we are still aware of them. President Ezra Taft Benson explained, “Sometimes the veil between this life and the life beyond becomes very thin. Our loved ones who have passed on are not far from us” (Ensign, June 1971). In fact, President Brigham Young taught the spirit world “is on this earth” (Discourses of Brigham Young p. 376).
3. Baptized and faithful members of the Church rest in paradise knowing they will be saved in the celestial kingdom.
Alma explained that “the spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness which is called paradise … where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care and sorrow” (Alma 40:12). Because the term “righteous” can sometimes be used in a vague way, Church teachings have clarified that paradise is “reserved for those who have been baptized and who have remained faithful” (Paradise, True to the Faith p. 111, see also Doctrines of Salvation 2:230).
President Joseph F. Smith learned much about paradise in his remarkable vision (D&C 138). In it, he saw that there were “an innumerable company of the spirits of the just” in paradise and that they “were gathered together in one place” separate from those in spirit prison (D&C 138:12, 20-23). He confirmed that those in paradise were baptized and faithful members of the Church from Old Testament times by referring to them as “saints” and describing them as being “faithful in the testimony of Jesus,” performing priesthood ordinances like animal sacrifice, and having been persecuted for taking upon themselves “their Redeemer’s name” presumably through baptism (D&C 138:12-13).
In addition to learning of paradise as a place, President Joseph F. Smith also learned about paradise as a state or condition. The reason why paradise is called a “state of rest” even for those who are working hard as missionaries is that they “had departed the mortal life, firm in the hope of a glorious resurrection” (D&C 138:14). A glorious resurrection is a “celestial resurrection” (Elder D. Todd Christofferson, BYU address March 26, 2005). Because those in paradise have died as baptized and faithful saints, their probation is over. They have endured “until the end of the day of probation” (2 Nephi 33:9) and are therefore guaranteed celestial salvation. They can rest in peace knowing that they will go to the celestial kingdom at the resurrection.
Elder Bruce R. McConkie has explained, “Everyone in the Church who is on the straight and narrow path, who is striving and struggling and desiring to do what is right, though is far from perfect in this life; if he passes out of this life while he’s on the straight and narrow, he’s going to go on to eternal reward in his Father’s kingdom. We don’t need to get a complex or get a feeling that you have to be perfect to be saved. You don’t. There’s only been one perfect person, and that’s the Lord Jesus … I’m not saying that you don’t have to keep the commandments. I’m saying you don’t have to be perfect to be saved. If you did, no one would be saved. The way it operates is this: You get on that path that’s named the ‘straight and narrow.’ You do it by entering at the gate of repentance and baptism …
“If you’re on that path and pressing forward, and you die, you’ll never get off the path. There is no such thing as falling off the straight and narrow path in the life to come … What you have to do is stay in the mainstream of the Church and live as upright and decent people live in the Church—keeping the commandments, paying your tithing, serving in the organizations of the Church, loving the Lord, staying on the straight and narrow path. If you’re on that path when death comes—because this is the time and the day appointed, this the probationary estate—you’ll never fall from it. (“The Probationary Test of Mortality,” address delivered at Institute of Religion, SLC, Utah, 10 Jan. 1982)
4. All who die in their sins go to spirit prison.
Alma explained that “the sprits of the wicked … shall be cast out into outer darkness … Now this is the state of the souls of the wicked, yea, in darkness … until the time of their resurrection” (Alma 40:13-14) President Joseph F. Smith similarly described spirit prison, as including the “wicked” or “unrepentant” and explained that “where these were, darkness reigned, but among the righteous there was peace” (D&C 138:20-22). As used in these verses, the term “darkness” or “outer darkness” refers to spirit prison, not the permanent place for sons of perdition, and the term “wicked” simply means “unrepentant.”
Although we typically think of the term “wicked” as describing awful and terrible people, in scriptural language it simply means those who are still in their sins. All of us sin, and without Jesus Christ we are all “wicked.” Thus, spirit prison is for those who have not had their sins washed away by Christ through repentance and baptism. As President Joseph F. Smith explained, “those who had died in their sins” include two main groups: Those “without a knowledge of the truth” and those “in transgression, having rejected the prophets” (DC 138:32). This means that spirit prison will even include those who will inherit the celestial kingdom but who died without a knowledge of the gospel.
Unlike those in paradise, those in spirit prison are still on probation and can be tempted and tried by Satan who temporarily has “possession” over them as his “captives” (Alma 40:13). What those in spirit prison experience is described by Alma as “weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth” (Alma 40:13). This description is alarming, especially when we recognize that spirit prison includes future inhabitants of the celestial kingdom. It is important to recognize though that the suffering experienced in spirit prison is not uniform and universal. Alma explained that they suffer “because of their own iniquity” a 40:13). If their suffering is because of their sins then it implies that if their sins are small then their suffering in spirit prison will also be small and if their sins are severe then their suffering will also be severe. Everyone in spirit prison will suffer to the degree and proportion of their own sins.
5. Saints in paradise serve as missionaries to teach the restored gospel to those in spirit prison.
As President Joseph F. Smith wondered about the fate of those unfortunate souls in spirit prison, the Lord showed him that “from among the righteous, [Christ] 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” (D&C 138:30). In other words, Jesus Christ called those in paradise to serve as missionaries! In beautiful metaphorical language, they are to take the light of the gospel to those in the spiritual darkness of spirit prison.
In fact, it is here that we learn that the prison they are in is not literal bars and chains, but the figurative chains of their own sins. As President Smith observed, those in prison are “under the bondage of sin” (D&C 138:57) and “the chosen messengers went forth to … proclaim liberty to the captives who were bound, even unto all who would repent of their sins and receive the gospel” (D&C 138:31). When they repent of their sins they can be forgiven and released from the prison of their sins into the restful state of paradise. They are then prepared to receive either a celestial (D&C 137:7) or terrestrial glory (D&C 76:74) in the resurrection, depending on their works and desires in mortality.
Although the same restored gospel is taught there as is taught here, there is one important difference. President Joseph F. Smith explained that they “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” (D&C 138:33). Unlike missionaries here who baptize their converts, missionaries in the spirit world must wait for us to perform baptisms for the dead in the temple before their converts can be redeemed from their spirit prison. It is inspiring to think of how many have “already been delivered from the prison house in the spirit world by this people” through temple work for the dead (Wilford Woodruff, Official Declaration 1 Excerpts), but it is sobering to think of how many are still waiting for us to do their vicarious work in the temple.
Although those in paradise were once described as being “gathered together in one place” (D&C 138:12) there is now a great intermingling of spirits from paradise to prison as they serve as missionaries. The saints who die no doubt still gather to paradise, but they are not there for long. Paradise today might be viewed like the temple or the MTC, a place to visit and prepare to serve but not a place to stay indefinitely. There is missionary work to do! And we may assume that their first priority is to find and teach their own ancestors who died without the gospel.
At the conclusion of his vision, President Joseph F. Smith made this important observation: “I beheld that the faithful elders of this dispensation, when they depart from mortal life, continue their labors in the preaching of the gospel … among those who are in darkness and under the bondage of sin in the great world of the spirits of the dead” (D&C 138:57). This was a comfort to Joseph F. Smith who died just one month after receiving this vision. But it continues to be a comfort to all faithful saints who face their own death or the death of a loved one. We know that the great work that we are engaged in here continues over there and that our faithful loved ones who die continue to serve the Lord there just as they did here. They continue to work with our other loved ones who have not yet embraced the gospel.
This beautiful doctrine gave my family comfort when my grandparents died. They were serving as missionaries in Washington when my grandfather was diagnosed with ALS. His health deteriorated so quickly that he had to return home early from his mission and died just a few months later. Then, after being in remission for years, my grandmother’s cancer returned and she died. Both of them died within the time frame that they could have still been on their mission. I have always interpreted that as a sign that because of their valiant service as missionaries they were called to serve in another sphere of labor. Such is the hope for all of us as we strive to faithfully endure to the end and one day reunite with our loved ones “in the great world of the spirits of the dead” (D&C 138:57).