Mormonism, Salvation, and the Spirit World
According to current LDS doctrine, there are “two divisions or states in the spirit world” to which the spirits of human beings go upon death. The first is a blessed paradise for the righteous who have sufficiently prepared themselves in faith, obedience, and purity to obtain access to it. The second is spirit prison, which is for “those who have not yet received the gospel of Jesus Christ” (Gospel Principles, 242, 244), that is, who have not been duly baptized into the true church (which today is the LDS Church alone) and lived faithfully to their commitments as members. Those in paradise are organized as the Church, and priesthood holders (men) from paradise are sent to the spirit prison to preach the gospel there:
“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” (Doctrine and Covenants 138:30).
The Bible also divides the state of the dead into two realms or conditions, one for the righteous (the redeemed) and one for the unrepentant wicked, most famously and colorfully in Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). However, as Jesus’ parable illustrates, in the Bible these two realms are not places of spiritual growth or advancement, nor is the abode of the wicked a place of repentance. To the contrary, the wicked are under condemnation awaiting their resurrection to final judgment while the righteous are in a blessed state of awaiting their resurrection to final glorification (John 5:28-29). As we will show in more detail below, the Bible teaches that this life is the only time for repentance and reconciliation to God.
A. Mormon doctrine falsely limits paradise to baptized, faithful members of the true (LDS) church.
As we have seen in previous chapters, the LDS Church denies that human beings are saved by grace alone through simple trusting acceptance of God’s mercy and forgiveness based solely on Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The LDS Church does claim to teach salvation by grace. However, LDS doctrine maintains that full, individual salvation, including the hope of living with God the Father forever in his kingdom, depends on persons being baptized into the right church by the right people, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost by the right people laying their hands on them, and living according to all the commandments. A sincere individual who believes in Jesus Christ as his Savior has not met these requirements.
Since, according to the LDS Church, paradise is only for those who lived faithful lives in mortality, believers in Christ who do not meet this standard cannot go to paradise when they die. This conclusion leads to the question about what happened to the repentant thief who was crucified alongside Jesus.
"One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise’” (Luke 23:39-43 ESV).
This man clearly did not have the opportunity to get baptized, have hands laid on him, obey various commandments, or live for any length of time as a serious follower of Christ. Yet Christ assured him that he would go that very day to paradise. How is this to be explained?
In 1843, Joseph Smith sought to explain away the verse by denying that it referred to paradise at all! Here is what he said:
"There has been much said by modern divines about the words of Jesus (when on the cross) to the thief, saying, This day shalt thou be with me in paradise. King James translators make it out to say paradise. But what is paradise? It is a modern word: it does not answer at all to the original word that Jesus made use of. Find the original of the word paradise. You may as easily find a needle in a haymow. Here is a chance for battle, ye learned men. There is nothing in the original word in Greek from which this was taken that signifies paradise; but it was This day thou shalt be with me in the world of spirits: then I will teach you all about it and answer your inquiries" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 310; History of the Church 5:424-25).
How can we understand Joseph’s remarks here to be anything but mistaken? Here is a transliteration of the Greek text of Luke 23:43, followed by a literal (word for word) rendering in English:
kai eipen autō, amēn soi legō, sēmeron met’ emou esē en tō paradeisō.
“And he said to him, Amen to you I say, today with me you shall be in the paradise.”
Paradise is simply an Anglicized form of a transliteration of the Greek word paradeisō. It answers to the original word as much as any English word possibly could do so. Technically, it is not even a “translation” of the Greek word at all; it is the Greek word, transliterated for English readers (that is, represented using English letters and grammatical form).
The point here is not merely that Joseph made a mistake on a picayune issue about the Greek text of the New Testament. The point is that his theology—and the current theology of the LDS Church—does not hold up when biblical texts like Luke 23:43 are taken fairly into consideration. In the New Testament, paradise is not a staging ground for evangelizing the rest of the spirit world. It is a heavenly realm (2 Corinthians 12:2-4) and an abode of eternal life for all God’s redeemed people (Revelation 2:7). Even the Encyclopedia of Mormonism acknowledges that in these two texts “paradise” appears to refer to what Mormons call the celestial kingdom (3:1062). There is no reason, other than doctrinal assumption, for thinking it means anything different in Luke 23:43.
B. “Spirit prison” in the Bible is a place of judgment for wicked angels, not for a place for non-Mormon human beings to seek salvation.
There is only one explicit reference in the Bible to spirits in prison, namely, Peter’s statement that in the spirit Christ
“…went and made proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water” (1 Peter 3:19-20 NRSV).
This verse ranks alongside 1 Corinthians 15:29 as one of the most widely discussed and controversial verses in the New Testament. However, the best interpretation of 1 Peter 3:19 is that these “spirits” are the “sons of God” who sinned with the “daughters of men” in the time immediately preceding Noah’s flood (Genesis 6:1-4). That is, these spirits were not the departed spirits of human beings, but fallen, wicked spirits who corrupted the human race, contributing to its eventual judgment in the flood in which only Noah and his family were spared (Genesis 6:5-8). The apostle Peter refers to this same incident in his other epistle:
“For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell [Greek Tartarus] and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly…” (2 Peter 2:4-5 ESV).
In this passage, as in 1 Peter 3:19-20, the apostle refers to wicked beings that were consigned to some sort of spiritual realm of confinement and judgment (called a “prison” in 1 Peter and “Tartarus” in 2 Peter). In both passages these wicked beings are mentioned in association with or close proximity to Noah and the flood. Both passages also make a point of mentioning how many people were saved in the flood (1 Peter 3:20 says eight; 2 Peter 2:5 says Noah and seven others). The wicked beings are called “spirits” in 1 Peter and “angels” in 2 Peter. Both passages in 1 and 2 Peter are drawing on interpretations of Genesis 6 already circulating within Judaism in the first century (see also Jude 6). This makes it reasonably certain that “the spirits in prison” in 1 Peter 3:19 refers to demonic spirits or fallen angels, not to the departed spirits of non-Christian or non-Mormon human beings.
Once this point is recognized, we can see that 1 Peter 3:19 gives no support to the idea that the billions of departed human beings who never heard the LDS gospel will have departed Mormon missionaries from paradise come to them in “spirit prison” to preach the gospel to them. The spirits in prison were not innocent people that had never had an opportunity to obey God, but were fallen angels who had been “disobedient” (as verse 20 states explicitly) to God and therefore were deserving of their judgment. The proclamation that Christ made to those wicked angelic spirits was not a message of hope and salvation for them, but of hope and salvation for those whom such wicked angels had been deceiving for millennia. That is, Christ made a proclamation of victory over those spirits, announcing his triumph over the devil and his minions through Christ’s own resurrection. This is precisely the climactic truth that Peter affirms at the end of the passage: “…an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him” (1 Peter 3:21-22 NRSV).
In addition to 1 Peter 3:19, Mormons view 4:6 as teaching such an opportunity for salvation after death: “For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God” (1 Peter 4:6 NASB). Mormons commonly understand this passage to refer to a preaching of the gospel in the afterlife to departed human beings who did not get an opportunity to hear the gospel in this life. But this is definitely a misunderstanding of Peter’s statement.
Notice the verb in the first part of the verse: “the gospel has for this purpose been preached.” Peter does not say that the gospel is being preached or that it will be preached, but that it “has been preached” or “was preached.” The verb is a simple past-tense verb and indicates that the preaching to which Peter refers is from his point in time, when he was writing, a thing of the past. Whatever this verse means, it is not referring to an ongoing ministry of preaching the gospel to the departed in the afterlife. The postmortem salvation interpretation would have us understand that these people first died and then had the gospel preached to them. However, the correct understanding is the reverse: they had the gospel preached to them, and then they died. That is, Peter does not say, “The gospel will be preached to those who die,” but rather, “The gospel has been preached to those who are dead.” Peter is here addressing a common concern among Christians in the first century, namely, the salvation of departed Christians. He is assuring the living Christians that those who died after the gospel was preached to them may have been killed physically but they were alive spiritually and secure in God’s care.
C. The Bible consistently teaches that eternal salvation depends on a person’s relationship with God in this mortal life, not on decisions we make in the afterlife.
In many different ways, the Bible teaches that this mortal life is when people must be reconciled to God if they are to be assured of eternal life. The general rule is stated forcefully: “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27 ESV). That judgment will be based on the works that people do in this life. Thus, the Bible states repeatedly that God judges and will judge people according to their works (Psalm 28:4; 62:12; Proverbs 24:12; Isaiah 59:18; Jeremiah 25:14; Ezekiel 36:19; Matthew 16:27; Romans 2:6; 2 Corinthians 5:9; 11:15; 2 Timothy 4:14; 1 Peter 1:17; Revelation 2:23; 20:12-13). That is why the apostles urgently pleaded with people, “be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20)—because this life is the time to do so. It is why Paul was so “eager to preach the gospel” to the Romans, “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:15-16).
According to Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man, those who are wicked and unrepentant in this life have no reprieve in the next (Luke 16:19-31). Jesus warned that many people were in this life on a broad road that leads to destruction while a few were on the narrow road that leads to life (Matthew 7:13-14; Luke 13:23-24). Even many people who claim to be Jesus’ followers will find when they appear before him on Judgment Day that he will say to them, “Depart from me” (Matthew 7:21-23).
D. Although we do not know everything about what happens to those who have not heard the gospel, we know that God will be just with them and that this mortal life is the time for sinners to hear the gospel and repent.
Many people—by no means only Mormons—worry that if we deny that people in the afterlife will be given an opportunity to hear and accept the gospel, we are implying that absolutely everyone in history who does not hear the gospel is automatically damned. If Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation, as the Bible clearly teaches (Matthew 11:25-27; John 14:6; Acts 4:12), then what happens to those who have not heard of Christ? What about people who lived before Christ came, or before missionaries reached them with the gospel? What about children who die in the womb or as infants or young children?
Let’s start with that last question, as we can give a definite (and comforting) answer here. Recall all of those biblical texts that we just cited in which God says he will judge people according to their deeds or works—based on what they have done. Although that’s not good news for people who have committed acts of sin, it raises a question about those children who die in the womb or before they are old enough to know right from wrong. Will they be condemned to eternal separation from God? I believe we can confidently answer no to this question. The Bible clearly recognizes that such small children do not know right from wrong and are not yet capable of discerning or doing anything good or evil (Deuteronomy 1:39; Isaiah 7:15-16; Romans 9:11). If they cannot do anything deserving of condemnation, they will not be condemned, for the God of all the earth will do right (Genesis 18:25). It follows logically that such small children will be accepted into God’s eternal kingdom. We need not fear for their eternal future. By the same principle, the mentally retarded or disabled and any others of similar condition who are incapable of making morally responsible choices will not be in danger of eternal condemnation.
As for people who lived before the coming of Jesus Christ, the Bible clearly teaches that such people could and were saved if they had faith in the true God who had revealed himself to the patriarchs and to Israel. For example, Paul cites both Abraham and David as ancient figures from the Old Testament who were made right with God and assured of his forgiveness and of eternal life through their faith in God’s promised grace (Romans 4:1-8). Nothing in the Bible suggests that these men knew the name of Jesus or the details of how he would come and atone for their sins, but through their faith in God’s mercy they were reconciled to God on the basis of the sacrifice that Christ would later make for them (see Romans 3:24-26). This means that knowledge of the name of Jesus or the specific facts about how he redeemed us from sin and death is not an absolute prerequisite for all people for their salvation. God can and has saved many people who never heard of Jesus Christ per se but did hear about and trust in God (the same God who we know from the New Testament became incarnate as Jesus Christ) to be merciful to them.
Finally, then, what about people who not only never heard of Jesus but also never heard of the God who revealed himself to Abraham and his descendants? The Bible does not address this question as directly or fully as we might like, but it does establish certain parameters that should guide our thinking on this question:
- Jesus is the only source of salvation (Matthew 11:25-27; John 14:6; Acts 4:12). Again, Old Testament saints were saved without knowing Jesus’ name or exactly what he was going to do, but they were saved by Jesus.
- God will judge people based on what they do know, not what they don’t know. No one will be condemned for failing to believe in Jesus or God if they never heard of him. They will be condemned for their sins, according to their works (as explained above), unless God mercifully saves them by his grace.
- Jesus came into the world to bring salvation, not to bring condemnation (John 3:17). It would make no sense to think that most non-Christians will be saved by default unless they hear about Jesus and then fail to believe in him. In other words, the gospel is not a message of condemnation to people who were already saved, but a message of salvation to people who were otherwise condemned.
- All people (excluding infants, etc.) are able to know that there is one God who created the world and to whom we are all accountable. This is the clear teaching of Paul, for example, in Romans 1:18-2:16. The problem with most people isn’t that they don’t know anything about God, but that they suppress the truth about God they do know (Romans 1:18).
- Those who know about God’s revelation in Scripture and in the preaching of the gospel but reject it have a greater culpability than those who have never been exposed to that revelation. The eternal condemnation of the wicked is not the same for every individual; God is just, and some people will receive far more severe punishment than others (Luke 12:47-48). The worst position is that of the professing Christian who is not really trusting in Christ or who abandons faith in Christ (Hebrews 10:26-27; 2 Peter 2:20-22).
- The non-Christian world as a whole is in spiritual darkness and without genuine hope. That’s why Paul and the other apostles took the gospel to all the nations (Acts 26:18; Ephesians 2:12; Colossians 1:13-14).
- We do not know what is in people’s hearts and cannot pronounce judgment on them. Only God knows what is in people’s hearts (1 Kings 8:39; 2 Chronicles 6:30; Psalm 44:21; Acts 1:24), and he is the only eternal Judge (James 4:12). We know that many people are spiritually lost, but we do not know definitively who they are, much less what their final outcome will be.
- The church is responsible to preach the gospel to people of all nations so that they may be made right with God (Matthew 24:14; 28:18-20; Romans 1:16-17). It is not our responsibility to judge what is in people’s hearts, but it is our responsibility to share the gospel with people everywhere. Our working assumption must be that people who have not heard the gospel need it—that Christ came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).
For Further Study
Boa, Kenneth D., and Robert M. Bowman Jr. Sense and Nonsense about Heaven and Hell. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007. Available from IRR.
Wilson, Luke P. “Does the Bible Teach Salvation for the Dead?” An earlier IRR article that includes a good discussion of 1 Peter 3:19.