I just had an investigator ask me if the pre earth life and the spirit world are the same place. Are they are both supposed to be in the presence of God?
Congratulations on having an investigator confide his or her question to you. You must be someone he respects and knows you will answer honestly. In that light, I’ll try to answer as best as I can.
This question may stem from a misunderstanding of 1 Corinthians 5:3 and 2 Corinthians 5:8, which is an argument that sectarians use regarding the work for the dead. They believe that as soon as you die, you are with the Lord in your final spiritual state. They forget that Paul taught doctrines that Peter characterized as “hard to be understood” (2 Peter 3:16). Many new converts bring these mistaken beliefs into the Church with them and it takes them time to unlearn them.
Brigham Young saw the spirit world and understood much about it. He said:
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 (Discourses of Brigham Young, 378).
Brother Brigham also stated:
When you are in the spirit world, everything there will appear as natural as things now do. Spirits will be familiar with spirits in the spirit world—will converse, behold, and exercise every variety of communication with one another as familiarly and naturally as while here in tabernacles. There, as here, all things will be natural, and you will understand them as you now understand natural things. You will there see that those spirits we are speaking of are active; they sleep not. And you will learn that they are striving with all their might—laboring and toiling diligently as any individual would to accomplish an act in this world (DBY, 380).
I mention these two citations because they describe that the spirits in the spirit world have, for the most part, the same type of communion with each other as we do here. It feels natural to them, because all of us have been spirits much longer than we were in mortal bodies.
One difference between the unrepentant and a saint in the spirit world will be the level of spiritual communion. Even as some mortal saints have been privileged to have visions, revelations, spiritual gifts, up to and including angelic visitations and even visions of the Lord, that can continue all the more easily on the other side.
When we pass into the spirit world we shall possess a measure of his power. Here, we are continually troubled with ills and ailments of various kinds. In the spirit world we are free from all this and enjoy life, glory, and intelligence; and we have the Father to speak to us, Jesus to speak to us, and angels to speak to us, and we shall enjoy the society of the just and the pure who are in the spirit world until the resurrection (DBY,380–81).
For the unrepentant, this is not the case. President Young indicated:
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).
Thus, the repentant saint is freed from the devil’s ability to tempt him in the spirit world. This is not the case for the unrepentant. However, if you think of it, a righteous saint enjoys a measure of this blessing even while he is alive. Obedient saints enjoy the communion of the Holy Ghost and its attendant gifts and grace. The wicked do not. We have an advantage here, too.
The Prophet Joseph taught:
In terms of location, the Prophet Joseph Smith taught that the spirit world is very close to us. During a funeral sermon, he declared that the righteous spirits “are exalted to a greater and more glorious work; hence they are blessed in their departure to the world of spirits. Enveloped in flaming fire, they are not far from us.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 326.)
According to what I have read, the spirit world is on or very near to the earth. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case with the pre-mortal state. The spirit world isn’t in the presence of God. Righteous spirits may enjoy occasional communion with the Lord there, but not the wicked, exactly as occurs here on earth. The righteous gather together there and the wicked gather together as they do on earth. Nevertheless, since the Lord bridged the “gulf” between the paradise and the prison, the spirits are free to gather with whom they choose. The wicked who repent likely seek out the likeminded and await the time that their temple work is done. The righteous may associate with the unrepentant to win their souls to Christ. If all of the spirit world was in God’s presence, there would be no motivation for the wicked there to exercise faith and repent. They do not have an unfair advantage on the living in that regard. God’s plan is always fair, just, and equitable in his sight.