Does the Bible Teach Salvation for the Dead?
What happens to those who die without a knowledge of Jesus Christ and the Bible? Will they have an opportunity to hear the gospel and repent after death? Would it be unfair of God to deny them such an opportunity? Because the Bible declares that people must hear and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ in order to receive forgiveness of sins and escape the judgment of God (John 3:36; Romans 10:13-17), it is sometimes assumed that those who die without hearing the gospel are thereby blameless. How can they be held accountable, it is argued, when they died in ignorance of Christ? Isn't God obligated in fairness to give them an opportunity to hear the gospel and repent in the spirit world?
Are Some Blameless Before God?
These questions seem compelling, at least in part. Certainly we intuitively feel that God must do what is right and fair. However, the view that those who die without a knowledge of the gospel are thereby blameless, rests on several questionable assumptions.
For instance, it assumes that Scripture is the only source of knowledge about God; that God cannot judge fairly unless all have the same opportunity; and, that those without the gospel desire to worship and obey God, but are prevented from doing so by a lack of knowledge. However, these assumptions conflict with biblical teaching. In the first two chapters of his Epistle to the Romans, the apostle Paul shows that humankind's deepest spiritual problem is not a lack of knowledge about God, but a rebellious heart attitude. Those who do not have the written Word of God (special revelation) are nevertheless without excuse, according to Paul, because they have rejected God's revelation of Himself through creation and the human conscience (general revelation):
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold [suppress] the truth in unrighteousness. Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead: so that they are without excuse (Rom. 1:19-20; see also Psalm 19:1-3).
In addition to the revelation of God's existence and power in creation, the pagan world also has the voice of conscience. Paul describes conscience as "the work of the law written in their hearts" (Rom. 2:15). Those with only the light of creation and conscience will be judged by this lesser standard, though they will still be without excuse:
For as many as have sinned without law [biblical revelation] shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in [under] the law shall be judged by the law .... For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another (Rom. 2:12,14-15).
Those who die in ignorance of the gospel will have to give an account for their failure to respond to the light they did have. However, the Bible assures us that where there are truly searching hearts, God providentially provides the light necessary for salvation (for example, the Ethiopian official, Acts 8:26-40, and the centurion, Cornelius, Acts 10:1-48). (Those who die in infancy present a special case, since they are not capable of understanding their need before God.*)
Our Eternal Destiny Is Fixed At Death
A major obstacle to accepting the doctrine of salvation for the dead is the biblical teaching that our eternal destiny is fixed at death. The New Testament book of Hebrews declares that "it is appointed unto man once to die, but after this the judgment" (Hebrews 9:27). Likewise, Jesus' story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31, makes it clear that there is no opportunity to repent after death. In this parable, the unbelieving rich man dies and goes to "hell" (Greek: hades) — described as a place of conscious torment. By contrast, the godly Lazarus goes to a place of blessedness, called "Abraham's bosom." These two places are described as separated by an impassable gulf:
And in hell he [the unbelieving rich man] lift[ed] up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence. Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father's house: For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment (Luke 16:23-28).
Everything here points to the fact that our eternal destiny is fixed at death, which excludes the possibility of repentance in the spirit world.
Christ's Proclamation To The Spirits
The general teaching of the Bible clearly excludes the possibility of repentance after death (as does the Book of Mormon — Alma 34:31-35; 42:4,13,28; Helaman 13:38). Yet, some point to 1 Peter 3:19ff which speaks of Christ "preaching to spirits in prison." Does this passage offer biblical support for salvation for the dead? Certainly it deserves careful study. As with all biblical interpretation, it is important that we examine these verses in their context, so that our interpretation truly comes out of the sacred text (exegesis), in contrast to reading preconceived ideas into it (eisegesis). 1 Peter 3:19 is sometimes understood to teach that Jesus' spirit descended to Hades, the place where deceased human beings await final judgment. Christ's journey to the spirit world is supposed to have taken place during the time between his death on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday morning. The purpose of the journey, according to Mormon scripture (Doctrine and Covenants 138), was to offer the gospel both to those who died in ignorance of it, as well as to those who heard but rejected it in mortality. 1 Peter 3:18-20 speaks of Christ being,
... put to death in the flesh but quickened [raised] 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 ...
Three key questions arise from this text:
(1) When and where did Christ make this proclamation?
(2) To whom did he make it?
(3) What was the purpose of his proclamation?
When And Where Did The "Preaching" Take Place?
In considering the first question, When and where did Christ make this proclamation? — notice the sequence of events in verses 18-19: (1) Christ was put to death, (2) He was made alive (resurrected), and (3) He went and preached to the spirits in prison. Christ's "preaching" to the spirits did not take place between His death and resurrection, but after His resurrection, evidently as a part of his ascension. This rules out the view that it is a reference to Jesus descending to the abode of deceased human beings during the time His body lay in the tomb.
Notice also that the text actually says nothing about a descent. It says simply that Christ "went" and preached to the spirits. This same word translated here as "went" (Greek: poreutheis) appears again in verse 22, where, speaking of Christ's ascension, it says — Who is gone into heaven ..." Verses 19-22 evidently describe the journey of Christ's spirit back to heaven (his ascension) after his resurrection, and his proclamation to the spirits took place as part of this journey.
Who Were The Spirits?
This brings us to the second question, Who were the spirits to whom Christ made proclamation?" They are described in verse 20 as "sometime disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah." From this description, some conclude that the reference is to human beings of Noah's day who refused his preaching and were subsequently destroyed in the flood. However, even if one accepts this interpretation, it is not very useful as support for salvation for the dead. The text speaks only of a specific group — Noah's generation — not all the dead, or even all who died in ignorance of the gospel. Furthermore, if Christ's proclamation here was an offer of the gospel, a natural question is: Why would Noah's contemporaries be singled out for an opportunity to repent in the spirit world? Arguably, they were less deserving of a second chance than others, since they had the godly example and preaching of Noah, which they ignored or rejected. 1 Indeed, since on LDS terms they did not die in ignorance of the gospel (see Pearl of Great Price/book of Moses 8:19-24, which explicitly describes how the people of Noah's day rejected his preaching of the gospel), why would they even be eligible for a second chance in the spirit world?
Furthermore, in his Second Epistle, Peter uses the people destroyed in the flood as an example of those being reserved for eternal punishment:
For if God spared not the angels that sinned .... And spared not the old world, but saved Noah the eighth person, bringing in the flood upon the world of the ungodly .... The Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of temptations, and to reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished (2 Peter 2:4,5,9).
The fact that 2 Peter 2:4ff uses Noah's contemporaries as an example of those who are being reserved for eternal punishment, poses a major obstacle to interpreting 1 Peter 3:19ff as an offer of the gospel to those in spirit world. Why? Because it would mean there is an outright contradiction between 1 Peter and 2 Peter.
There are also other reasons for rejecting the view that it was human spirits to whom Christ made proclamation:
- The Bible nowhere else uses the word "spirit" (Greek: pneuma) by itself to refer to human beings. Angels and demons are spirits (Matthew 8:16;10:1;12:45; Acts 5:16;19:12; Hebrews 1:7,14; 1 John 4:1), whereas human beings have spirits (Luke 23:46; Acts 7:59).2 If Peter had wanted to say that Christ preached to deceased humans, we would expect him to have written something like "the spirits of those which sometime were disobedient ..." (as, for example, in Hebrews 12:23).
- The idea that salvation is being offered in the spirit world is out of sync with the development of the argument in 1 Peter 3:17-22. The purpose of this passage is to encourage suffering Christians with the example of Christ' vindication: He was put to death in flesh but was raised up to life and victory, a victory whose extent included the realm of fallen angels (verse 22 says that Christ is "gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him"). To say that verse 19 is describing the offer of the gospel to deceased humans implies that Peter veered off into an unrelated topic that does not serve this purpose (and is nowhere else mentioned in the Bible). How would it encourage suffering Christians to know that God will give unbelievers (including their persecutors) an opportunity to repent in the spirit world? In that case, why suffer in the flesh?
- LDS apostle Bruce R. McConkie acknowledges in his Doctrinal New Testament Commentary that according to the Mormon interpretation, verse 19 is an interruption of Peter's line of argument. McConkie describes Peter as introducing the doctrine of salvation for the dead "in an almost casual and offhand way," and he recognizes the disjunction that results: "[Peter] is counseling the members of the Church to bear up under these unjust burdens; and he uses Christ and his suffering as the crowning illustration . . . Then, almost incidentally, he adds that this suffering of the Just One resulted in his death and subsequent ministry among the departed souls ..."3
The fact that the Mormon interpretation results in such a disjunction counts heavily against its validity.
The Powers Of Darkness Defeated
If Christ's proclamation was not made to deceased humans, then to whom was it directed? The evidence indicates that it was actually made to fallen angels. This would not have seemed unusual to Peter's original readers, for Jews and early Christians commonly associated fallen angels with the intense wickedness of Noah's day for which God brought the flood. This association was based in part on the description in Genesis 6:1-4 of "sons of God marrying daughters of men" in the period leading up to the flood. Many understood this to mean that fallen angels "left their first estate" and took human wives with whom they procreated rebellious offspring.4 While Peter does not endorse the details of this interpretation, in his Second Epistle he does describe fallen angels imprisoned by God because of their disobedience (2 Peter 2:4). These may be the same "spirits in prison" to whom he makes reference in 1 Peter 3:19.
As noted, 1 Peter 3:22 concludes the section (3:17-22) by declaring that the realm of fallen angelic powers has been made subject to Christ. It makes sense that these are the same spirit beings referred to in verse 19 in light of Peter's motive in this passage. He is encouraging suffering Christians with the message that they will share in Christ's victory. The terms used for these beings in verse 22 — angels [angelon] and authorities [exusion] and powers [dunameon] — are used elsewhere in the New Testament of the fallen angelic beings who are the enemies of God's people. For instance, in Romans 8:38 the apostle Paul assures Christians that "I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels [angeloi], or principalities, nor powers [dunameis] ... shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (see also Ephesians 6:12; Colossians 2:15). How encouraging for Peter's persecuted readers (as for Christians of all ages) to know that Christ has defeated these powers of darkness. An alternate interpretation is that the pre-incarnate Christ preached in the Spirit through Noah to his contemporaries.5 In any case, according to this interpretation, the gospel was preached to people while they were alive, not in the spirit world.
What Was The Purpose Of Christ's Proclamation?
According to Hebrews 2:14-17, Jesus came to redeem human beings, not angels. Therefore, if Christ's "preaching" in 1 Peter 3:19 was to fallen angelic spirits, as the evidence suggests, it would not have been an offer of the Gospel, but a declaration of His victory and their sure defeat. This interpretation is supported by the word Peter uses for "preaching" here — it is a different word (kerusso) than in the three other places where "preaching" is mentioned in this epistle (euangelizomai is used in 1:12, 25; 4:6). The word kerusso means literally "announce, make known, proclaim." Although it is often used with reference to the preaching of the gospel, it is sometimes also used of proclamation in a general sense (Luke 12:3; Romans 2:21; Revelation 5:2). On the other hand, euangelizomai which means literally "bring, announce good news," is always used in the New Testament in connection with God's plan of redemption. Thus, Peter's use of the more general term (kerusso) in 3:19 is consistent with the evidence that Christ's message there was not an offer of salvation, but a proclamation of victory over demonic spirits.
What About 1 Peter 4:6?
Doctrine and Covenants 138 is the most detailed explanation of salvation for the dead in Latter-day scripture. It is supposed to be an inspired commentary on 1 Peter 3:19-20 and 4:6, given to LDS President Joseph F. Smith in 1918 (though not added to the D&C until 20 years ago). It assumes there is a direct link between Christ's proclamation to the spirits in 3:19 and the mention of preaching in 4:6: "For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are [now] dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit."
However, there are major differences between the "preaching" in 4:6 and Christ's proclamation to the spirits in 3:19. For instance, in 4:6 there is no mention of "spirits" — it simply describes those who receive the preaching as "them that are dead" (Greek: nekrois, literally, "dead ones"). Furthermore, it does not say that Christ preached the gospel, only that "the gospel was preached." In fact, verse 6 can only be understood as a reference to Christ preaching in the spirit world if we already know about such a mission from 3:19. But as we have seen, 3:19 in fact says nothing about a descent of Christ to the abode of disembodied human spirits.
Then what does 1 Peter 4:6 mean? Read in context, it is in essence a footnote to 4:5. The whole argument from 4:1-5 is that God will vindicate believers who suffer for Christ, and will hold their persecutors accountable on the day of judgment. Verse 5 declares that the wicked will have to "give account to him that is ready to judge the quick and the dead." The phrase "the quick [alive] and the dead" is a way of saying the whole human race throughout history. By the statement that follows in verse 6 — "for this cause was the gospel also preached to them that are dead" — Peter evidently means Christians who are now deceased, but who were alive when they heard and believed the gospel.
This interpretation fits the passage's theme of comforting Christians who are suffering for Christ. We know from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 that the early Christians lived in expectancy of Christ's imminent return, and needed assurance that their loved ones who had died in the faith would not — by virtue of not being alive when Christ returns — miss out on the promise of resurrection and eternal life with Christ. On the other hand, the view of D&C 138 that 1 Peter 4:6 is teaching salvation for the dead, including those who rejected the gospel in mortality (D&C 138:21, 32), does not fit Peter's motive. How would persecuted Christians be encouraged to suffer in the flesh by the knowledge that unbelievers (including their persecutors) who have heard but rejected the gospel will be given an opportunity to repent in the spirit world? In that case, why endure abuse for Christ in this life?
Even if it is granted for the sake of argument that 1 Peter 4:6 is an allusion to 3:19, the text still does not support a general doctrine of salvation for the dead. Note that it does not say "for this cause is the gospel preached," but "for this cause was the gospel preached (past tense, completed action) to them that are [now] dead." There is no basis here for the idea of on-going preaching of the gospel in the spirit world.6
A Faulty Interpretation
Doctrine and Covenants 138 (the most detailed explanation of salvation for the dead in Latter-day scripture) attempts to supply a basis for the on-going preaching of the gospel in the spirit world. It teaches that, "the Lord went not among the wicked and the disobedient who had rejected the truth" (D&C 138:29), but rather, that he appointed messengers from among the righteous spirits who carry the gospel to the disobedient spirits on an on-going basis (138:57). In other words, Christ himself only preached to the righteous dead in the spirit world, but he set in motion the ongoing preaching among the disobedient dead.
However, notice that here D&C 138 directly contradicts 1 Peter. For, laying aside the question of whether the spirits to whom Christ "preached" were human or angelic, Peter clearly describes them as disobedient (1 Pet. 3:20).7 Latter-day scripture, in order to establish a basis for the on-going preaching of the gospel in the spirit world, is forced to contradict this basic fact. By so doing, it completely alters the meaning of 1 Peter 3:19ff.
There are also two additional reasons for concluding that D&C 138 is a faulty interpretation of 1 Peter 3:19ff:
- The claim that righteous human spirits carry the gospel to the abode of the disobedient (human) spirits directly contradicts Jesus' teaching in Luke 16:26. There, in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus said that it is not possible for the spirits of the righteous dead to cross over to the place of the unrighteous dead: "between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot.
- The teaching that those who reject the truth in mortality can repent in the spirit world (D&C 138:32) is at odds not only with the Bible (Luke 16:19-31; Hebrew 9:27), but even with other Latter-day scripture. The Book of Mormon forcefully and repeatedly teaches that the eternal destiny of those who hear and reject the truth in mortality is fixed at death:
For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors ... I beseech of you that ye do not procrastinate the day of your repentance ... if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed. Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis, that I will repent ... for that same spirit which doeth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world. For behold, if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death, behold, ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil, and he doth seal you his ... the devil hath all power over you; and this is the final state of the wicked. (Alma 34:31-35; see also 2 Ne. 9:24-25,27; Mos. 2:36,39)
Is D&C 138 compatible with the Bible? The preceding survey of general biblical teaching and of 1 Peter 3:19ff has raised fundamental reasons for answering "No" to this question. The evidence indicates that it was not to human spirits but to fallen angels that Christ "preached," and his message was not an offer of salvation but a declaration of victory over these wicked spirits. It is clear that 1 Peter 3:19ff — without the unwarranted additions and erroneous interpretation of D&C 138 — does not support the doctrine of salvation for the dead.
1. 2 Peter 2:5 describes Noah as a "preacher of righteousness."
2. Peter speaks of those in the ark as "eight souls" (psuchai). However, while the word "soul(s)" is often used in the sense of embodied "person(s)," the word "spirit(s)" is never used this way.
3. Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1973), 3:307.
4. 1 Enoch, a late, non-biblical Jewish work popular in the early Christian period, is an example of this interpretation of Gen. 6:1-4.
5. Though it may seem unusual for the proclamation of a human preacher to be attributed to Christ, it is not unprecedented. For example, 1 Peter 1:11 describes the "Spirit of Christ" speaking through the Old Testament prophets. Likewise, Ephesians 2:17 speaks of Christ, "preach[ing] peace to you [Gentiles] which were afar off, and to them that were nigh [Jews]." This cannot mean that Jesus himself literally preached to the Gentiles, for his ministry was limited to the Jewish people in Israel (Matt. 15:24; Rom. 15:8). Rather, his apostles, under his direction and empowered by the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8), carried the gospel to the Gentile world.
6. Joseph Smith evidently recognized this as a weakness in using this text to support salvation for the dead, for in his so-called "Inspired Version" of the Bible (also known as the Joseph Smith Translation, or JST), he changed the verse to read, "Because of this, is the gospel preached to them who are dead." However, there is absolutely no manuscript evidence to support this change.
7. Joseph Smith tried to resolve this conflict in his "Inspired Version" (JST) of the Bible by changing the text of 1 Peter 3:20 to read "some of whom were disobedient in the days of Noah ..." Once again, however, there is absolutely no manuscript evidence to support this change.
*For further reading regarding infancy and salvation, see the Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry's article on the subject. For another resource on this subject and many others, see Millard J. Erickson's Christian Theology, in his section on original sin.