At death, spirits are taken home to that God who created them. They are “prejudged” and sent to either paradise or spirit prison. Christ is the ultimate judge but who determines if a spirit is sent to paradise or spirit prison?
You pose an interesting question that challenges our understanding of what has been revealed about the nature of the spirit world. In our Sunday School classes and in our missionary discussions, we often teach of the plan of salvation. We teach that there is a veil through which we pass at death and that the unrepentant go to a spirit prison and that the righteous go to paradise.
We recall that Jesus told the unrepentant thief on the cross that He would be in paradise with him that very day (Luke 23:43). This passage is often cited by sectarian Christians to indicate that Jesus forgave the thief without his having undergone the process of repentance and baptism for the remission of his sins. When we understand the nature of the spirit world in the revelations, this passage makes a little more sense.
The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that the spirit world is one place. He stated:
“Hades, the Greek, or Sheol, the Hebrew, these two significations mean a world of spirits. Hades, Sheol, paradise, spirits in prison, are all one: it is a world of spirits” (Scriptural Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 310).
The unrepentant, the righteous, and those who die without knowledge of the gospel all go to the place we now call the spirit world. In the Book of Mormon, we read the words of Alma regarding the time between death and the resurrection:
“11 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.
“ 12 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” (Alma 40:11-12).
Note that Alma uses the word “state,” not “place.” The wicked and the righteous are in one place, but they are in different states of being. The righteous are in a state of peace, but the wicked are filled with fear and dread of the final judgment.
“13 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” (Alma 40:13).
We know that Jesus visited the Spirit world and prepared the conditions for the preaching of the gospel to the dead (John 5:25, 1 Peter 3:18, 4:6) and that gospel ordinances like baptism can be performed for those who died by living proxies (1 Corinthians 15:29). We also know that when Jesus ministered to the spirits in the spirit world, He went to the righteous and organized them into a missionary force. He gave them authority and a commission to preach the gospel of repentance to those who died without having received a remission of sins (D&C 138:29-31).
It appears, from one New Testament passage, in the parable of Lazarus recorded by Luke, that prior to the Savior’s ministry to the spirit world, that the preaching of the gospel to the dead was not possible. This was symbolized by the “great gulf” between the wicked and the righteous mentioned in Luke 16:26). The mission to the spirit world by the Crucified Lord bridged this gulf. Again, we are reminded that the spirit world is one place and that the wicked, the righteous, and the unlearned are all there together.
The lesson manual “Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young” has two fantastic lessons, one on the spirit world and another on the judgment, that are well worth reading in entirety. Brigham Young had a great deal of knowledge about the conditions in which the departed spirits reside. Here are some interesting highlights:
“The spirits that dwell in these tabernacles on this earth, when they leave them go directly into this world of spirits. What! A congregated mass of inhabitants there in spirit, mingling with each other, as they do here? Yes, brethren, they are there together, and if they associate together, and collect together, in clans and in societies as they do here, it is their privilege. No doubt they yet, more or less, see, hear, converse and have to do with each other, both good and bad. If the Elders of Israel in these latter times go and preach to the spirits in prison, they associate with them, precisely as our Elders associate with the wicked in the flesh, when they go to preach to them” (DBY, 378).
As on earth, the righteous tend to gather together in groups, congregations, and communities. Likewise, the wicked also do so, just as they do on earth. This is necessary because those who have not yet accepted the gospel must hear it and decide for themselves to repent and accept the ordinances. They must have no unfair advantage over their mortal counterparts. The wicked who repent and receive baptism are received, just as they are on earth, into the felicity and fellowship of the saints of God who abide among them. Brigham Young continued:
“Suppose, then, that a man is evil in his heart—wholly given up to wickedness, and in that condition dies, his spirit will enter into the spirit world intent upon evil. On the other hand, if we are striving with all the powers and faculties God has given us to improve upon our talents, to prepare ourselves to dwell in eternal life, and the grave receives our bodies while we are thus engaged, with what disposition will our spirits enter their next state? They will be still striving to do the things of God, only in a much greater degree—learning, increasing, growing in grace and in the knowledge of the truth” (DBY, 379).
Our nature upon entering the spirit world does not change. A wicked person will continue to strive to do evil in an even greater degree, even as the righteous strives to do God’s will to a greater degree. The righteous who tended to resist Satan’s temptations while in the body are freed from the Adversary’s influence in the spirit world. This is why it is paradise to them. They are in a state of peace. To those who died in their sins, it is a different story. They are still subject to temptation and Satan continues to have influence over them in the spirit world. Brother Brigham taught:
“If we are faithful to our religion, when we go into the spirit world, the fallen spirits—Lucifer and the third part of the heavenly hosts that came with him, and the spirits of wicked men who have dwelt upon this earth, the whole of them combined will have no influence over our spirits. Is not that an advantage? Yes. All the rest of the children of men are more or less subject to them, and they are subject to them as they were while here in the flesh” (DBY, 379).
When it comes to judgment, it is we who condemn ourselves. President Young stated:
“All who believe, have honest hearts, and bring forth fruits of righteousness, are the elect of God and heirs to all things. All who refuse to obey the holy commandments of the Lord and the ordinances of his house will be judged out of their own mouths, will condemn themselves as they do now, will be accounted unworthy and will have no part or lot with the righteous” (DBY, 383–84).
“The principles of eternal life that are set before us are calculated to exalt us to power and preserve us from decay. If we choose to take the opposite course and to imbibe and practice the principles that tend to death, the fault is with ourselves. If we fail to obtain the salvation we are seeking for, we shall acknowledge that we have secured to ourselves every reward that is due to us by our acts, and that we have acted in accordance with the independent agency given us, and we will be judged out of our own mouths, whether we are justified or condemned” (DNW, 17 Aug. 1859, 1).
In part, we will feel at peace among the righteous in eternal glory or we will feel so ashamed and filthy that we will be unable to endure their presence. An unrepentant soul finds the glorious light unbearable. Brigham Young described it in these terms:
“Were the wicked, in their sins, under the necessity of walking into the presence of the Father and Son, hand-in-hand with those who believe that all will be saved—that Jesus will leave none, their condition would be more excruciating and unendurable than to dwell in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone. The fatalist’s doctrine consigns to hell the infant not a span long, while the adulterer, whoremonger, thief, liar, false swearer, murderer, and every other abominable character, if they but repent on the gallows or their death-beds, are, by the same doctrine, forced into the presence of the Father and the Son, which, could they enter there, would be a hell to them” (DBY, 385).
In essence, we will rise or sink to the level where we are comfortable. I recall a story told about a young man who followed the ways of the world, whose parents sent him to a week-long religious convocation (like an Especially For Youth conference). After a couple of days, he called his parents saying, “Get me out of here!” He could not abide being in the presence of righteous people. He was more at ease among people of low standards. Perhaps that is the case in the kingdoms of glory as well.
In some measure, a partial judgment occurs at death when we are taken home to the God who gave us life. We either rejoice in His presence because we have repented of our sins and are confident in God’s grace, or we seek to escape from it because of our unworthiness. In the spirit world, we will gravitate to either communities of light and peace or darkness and uncertainty. The righteous await the resurrection with joyful assurance and the wicked dread the moment where they must again re-enter the Savior’s glorious presence in their sins. It is the joyful anticipation or awful dread that makes spirit prison either a paradise or a hellish state of existence.