As we look into the future and realize that death awaits us all, it is natural for us to be concerned and a bit fearful. Let us focus our attention on the conditions we will experience after death, that we may understand the wisdom of God and receive comfort from knowing that he is watching over us.
The Spirit World
While on the cross, Jesus spoke with one of the thieves and promised he would be with the Savior after their death.
And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.
And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:42-43)
Many people assume Jesus and the thief were together in Heaven. However, the events that occurred after his resurrection help us realize they were not in Heaven. After he came forth from the tomb on Sunday morning, Jesus spoke with Mary and told her he had not yet been to his Father in Heaven.
Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God. (John 20:17)
To help us understand where Jesus and the thief went when they died, let us reflect for a moment about the resurrection. The scriptures teach that everyone will be resurrected. We will discuss this in detail subsequently, but for now let us be aware that the resurrection does not occur at death but at a later time. Thus, there must be a place for our spirits to go upon death to await the resurrection. We realize that Jesus and the thief went to this place.
The Nephite prophet Alma spoke with great clarity about this waiting place, explaining it is a place of happiness for the righteous and a place of sorrow for the wicked.
Now, concerning the state of the soul between death and the resurrection–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.
And then shall it come to pass, that the spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness, which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care, and sorrow.
And then shall it come to pass, that the spirits of the wicked, yea, who are evil–for behold, they have no part nor portion of the Spirit of the Lord; for behold, they chose evil works rather than good; therefore the spirit of the devil did enter into them, and take possession of their house–and these shall be cast out into outer darkness; there shall be weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth, and this because of their own iniquity, being led captive by the will of the devil.
Now this is the state of the souls of the wicked, yea, in darkness, and a state of awful, fearful looking for the fiery indignation of the wrath of God upon them; thus they remain in this state, as well as the righteous in paradise, until the time of their resurrection.
But whether it be at his resurrection or after, I do not say; but this much I say, that there is a space between death and the resurrection of the body, and a state of the soul in happiness or in misery until the time which is appointed of God that the dead shall come forth, and be reunited, both soul and body, and be brought to stand before God, and be judged according to their works. (Alma 40:11-14,21)
The Apostle Peter spoke of this time between death and the resurrection and explained it is a time of learning.
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. (1 Peter 3:18-20)
Jesus was put to death in the flesh, and then he went to a place referred to as a “prison” and preached to the spirits of the people who had been killed by the flood during Noah’s time. In the next chapter of Peter’s epistle, he said Christ visited and taught the spirits of the dead that they might have the same gospel as do the living.
Wherein they [the Gentiles] think it strange that ye run not with them to the same excess of riot, speaking evil of you.
Who [the Gentiles] shall give account to him that is ready to judge the quick and the dead.
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. (1 Peter 4:4-6)
Peter is saying that the Gentiles who rejected Christ would be accountable to God, and for that reason Christ taught the spirits of the dead, that they too would hear the Gospel and be accountable to Him.
Isaiah referred to this spirit “prison” as he prophesied of the events before the Second Coming.
And it shall come to pass in that day, that the LORD shall punish the host of the high ones that are on high, and the kings of the earth upon the earth.
And they shall be gathered together, as prisoners are gathered in the pit, and shall be shut up in the prison, and after many days shall they be visited. (Isaiah 24:21-22)
The context of those verses is the destruction that will occur in the earth prior to the beginning of the Millennium. Isaiah is saying that during that destruction, the wicked rulers of the earth will be shut up in a prison, and then, he said in the next verse, the Millennium would begin.
When the moon shall be confounded, and the sun ashamed, when the LORD of hosts shall reign in mount Zion, and in Jerusalem, and before his ancients gloriously. (Isaiah 24:23)
These verses are a beautiful prophecy that the spirits of the wicked will be in the spirit “prison” during the Millennium.
Salvation for the Dead
We have been discussing the condition of spirits after death, and we have seen they go to the spirit world, referred to in the scriptures as a “paradise” or a “prison”, where they await the resurrection. We have seen that during the time that Jesus’ body was in the tomb, he visited the spirits in “prison” and taught them. Through Latter-day revelation the Lord revealed additional information about the spirit world. He revealed that people who do not have a full opportunity to hear the gospel while in mortality will have that chance while in the spirit “prison”. The scriptures teach that our spirits are intelligent, and it seems reasonable that spirits in the “prison” could understand Jesus when he visited them and have faith in him. Because they have freedom of choice, the spirits could repent from their sins. The scriptures also teach that baptism by water is necessary before Jesus will allow his atonement to remove our sins. Now, from the viewpoint of the spirits in “prison” a problem exists. They can not be baptized, because baptism pertains to mortality; spirits have gone beyond the bounds of mortality. The problem is, “How can the spirits in ‘prison’ be baptized?”
The answer to that question can be best understood if we use the Savior’s life as an analogy. Jesus lived a perfect life and performed his atonement in which he took upon himself the effects of all our sins. In doing this, he did something for us that we can not do for ourselves; he acted as our proxy and performed a vicarious service for us. Through Latter-day revelation, the Lord revealed that this principle of vicarious service applies to the spirits in “prison”. We mortals who have been baptized can act as proxies for the spirits and can be baptized in their behalf. Through their freedom of choice, the spirits can accept or reject the baptism. This principle is referred to as Baptism for the Dead, meaning baptism in behalf of the dead. Members of the Church are baptized in our temples as proxies in behalf of persons who died without having full opportunities to hear of Jesus Christ and the restored Gospel.
This practice of vicarious baptism was known in the New Testament church, because Paul referred to it as part of his argument for the 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? (1 Corinthians 15:29)
Paul did not explain the practice, implying the Corinthians were familiar with it. He did not explicitly approve or disapprove of it, but the fact that he used it as part of his argument for the resurrection implies his approval since he was quick to disapprove of practices that were not of God.
Righteous Spirits Organized As Missionaries
Joseph F. Smith, the fifth President of the Church, received a glorious vision of the Savior’s visit to the spirits in “prison”. He saw that Jesus organized the spirits of the righteous to be missionaries to take the Gospel to the spirits of those who had not heard of Christ. The vision occurred while President Smith was reflecting upon the words of Peter about Christ going to the spirit “prison”. In the vision, he first saw the spirits of the righteous.
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;
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. (D & C 138:11-12,15-16)
President Smith then saw the Savior organize those spirits into a missionary force.
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. (D & C 138:30-32)
President Smith saw that the spirits in “prison” had the opportunity to fully hear of Christ.
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. (D & C 138:33-35)
Just as the Lord has thousands of missionaries who take the message of the Restoration of the Gospel to the world, so he has thousands of missionaries in the spirit world who carry the same message to those in the spirit “prison”. Through service in our Temples, we are able to bring to those spirits the ordinances of the Gospel. The Church sponsors a vast genealogical program to assist us in identifying our ancestors. The names obtained through genealogical research are submitted to our Temples, and the proxy ordinances are performed for those persons.