These article originally ran in Brigham Young University’s Religious Educator in 2013.
In 1990, I attended the annual conference of the International Association of Near-Death Studies, held that year in Washington, DC with Robert Millet. We didn’t quite know what to expect. Was the conference going to be comprised of “UFO chasers,” people with aluminum foil hats, and the like?
But it wasn’t like that at all. There were scientists, medical doctors, scholars from many academic disciplines, theologians and clerics from diverse faiths, and many good women and men who had experienced some sort of encounter with the spirit world and sought to make sense of it all. As impressive as this gathering was, what had a greater impact on me was that most of these people were generally unfamiliar with Latter-day Saint beliefs about the afterlife. It made me realize that we possess unique, profound doctrines concerning the role of the spirit that perhaps we take for granted.
Recently I read a statement in a book published by Yale University that confirms the distinct nature of our beliefs. Said authors Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang:
“While most contemporary Christian groups neglect afterlife beliefs, what happens to people after they die is crucial to LDS teachings and rituals. Heavenly theology is the result not of mere speculation, but of revelation given to past and present church leaders. …
There has been … no alteration of the LDS understanding of the afterlife since its articulation by Joseph Smith. If anything, the Latter-day Saints in the twentieth century have become even bolder in their assertion of the importance of their heavenly theology. … In the light of what they perceive as a Christian world which has given up belief in heaven, many Latter-day Saints feel even more of a responsibility to define the meaning of death and eternal life” (Heaven: A History, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988, 312–13).
Here are just a few of these profound principles about the after-life that are unique to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
1. Understanding the Afterlife Brings Consolation
Clearly ancient prophets had some understanding of the spirit world. In the Old Testament, the author of Ecclesiastes wrote that after we die we “return unto God” (Ecclesiastes 12:7). Jesus, speaking to the thief on the cross, said, “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Peter clearly taught that Christ went to preach the gospel in the spirit world (see 1 Peter 3:18–20; 4:6). But these ancient prophets don’t give us any description of what the spirit world is like or where it is.
As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we are blessed to have the additional insight of modern revelation. I am amazed at how much and how often the early prophets and apostles taught about the spirit world. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught a great deal about death and spirit world, what he called the “principles of consolation.” In fact, some of the Prophet’s greatest doctrinal discourses were at funerals. Virtually every family in Nauvoo had been touched by death—particularly deaths of children. So of course the Saints were worried about what was going to become of their deceased ancestors and loved ones. They wondered if their predecessors would be able to gain exaltation as the Prophet Joseph had taught—and he taught about it a great deal. Through these teachings, we can know that our loved ones are at peace, that they are near us and engaged in a profound work, and that they have a never-ending reserve of hope provided through the Savior’s Atonement.
2. The Afterlife Is a Place of Rest
I love this statement from the Prophet Joseph Smith. It’s recounted by Benjamin F. Johnson, who said that the Prophet, “with a deep-drawn breath, as a sigh of weariness, … sank down heavily in his chair, and said, ‘Oh! I am so tired—so tired that I often feel to long for my day of rest. For what has there been in this life but tribulation for me?’”
When you think about what the Saints had gone through, particularly in Missouri—and how after they came to what they assumed would be a place of peace and rest in Nauvoo, the storm clouds began to gather again—you know they must have wondered, “When will we ever find rest?” It reminds me of the words of “Come, Come, Ye Saints” that state, “And should we die before our journey’s through, / Happy day! All is well.”
This promise of eventual peace and rest is at the very heart of the Prophet’s teachings on death, the spirit world, and consolation. He repeatedly testified that to the faithful, “all is well” at death—or, as an earlier revelation declared, “Those that die in me shall not taste of death, for it shall be sweet unto them” (Doctrine and Covenants 42:46).
3. The Spirit World Is Right Here on Earth
In Joseph Smith’s visit to the Johnson farm mentioned earlier, he told Benjamin F. Johnson, “From a boy I have been persecuted … Why should I not wish for my time of rest?” And then he said, “I would not be far away from you, and if on the other side of the veil I would still be working with you, and with a power greatly increased, to roll on this kingdom.”
This story highlights another important doctrine of the restored gospel: the spirit world is right here on earth and the spirits of our departed loved ones are in reality among us. This doctrine is as comforting to the Saints as it is unique among Christian beliefs of the afterlife. Our deceased family and friends are not gone, neither are they far, far away in some distant “heaven.” The Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “They are not far from us, and know and understand our thoughts, feelings, and motions, and are often pained therewith.”
I think it is the unique doctrine of salvation for the dead that really gives personal meaning to the doctrine of the spirit world. The teachings of the early Brethren emphasized the nearness of our family, the nearness of the spirit world, the relationship between the two realms, and the fact that spirits continue to be interested and intimately involved in the Lord’s work on both sides of the veil.
4. The Spirit World Will Be Familiar
Section 77 in the Doctrine and Covenants provides profound understanding on what the spirit world is like and how it compares to our mortal existence. The Lord told the Prophet Joseph, “That which is spiritual [is] in the likeness of that which is temporal; and that which is temporal in the likeness of that which is spiritual.” This important principle teaches us not only that we have within our earthly tabernacle an immortal spirit that generally looks like our bodies, but also that, to a large degree, the spirit world looks and is organized like the earthly world.
Brigham Young taught, “When you are in the spirit world, everything there will appear as natural as things now do. Spirits will be as familiar with spirits in the spirit world—will converse, behold, and exercise every variety of communication one with 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.”
This, to me, is another “principle of consolation.” Some may think that all spirits do in the spirit world is float around on clouds, playing harps. Others may think that the only thing that goes on there is missionary work. But we know that that isn’t true. We will be teaching and being taught, serving and being served—just like here. There we will converse, laugh and cry, and engage ourselves in meaningful and productive activities—just like here.
5. The Atonement Covers Those in the Spirit World
In the spirit world, the law of restoration is an absolutely perfect and just return for our actions in life. We get what we gave. We experience all the effects of our own choices.
The first question that pops up in response to this is, what about repentance? And will I still have to have that life review if I have repented? The answer is that when we repent, the Atonement of Jesus Christ cleanses and purifies us; we are made new creatures. So, yes we will have a life review, but the life review will be of the new creature, or the new life that Christ has created in us.
Another doctrine that inspires hope is that of the incredible work of salvation that goes on in the spirit world. It has a direct application to all of us, for we will all be involved in some way in that work. President Wilford Woodruff taught that the priesthood and offices we hold in this life go with us into the spirit world. We engage in the same types of service and ministry there that we use our priesthood for here.
I like to think of the temple as a perfect model of how the work of the Lord operates in the spirit world. Think of the order and the organization there—men and women engaged in the work of the Lord, blessing lives and bringing people closer to our Father in Heaven, serving together in the House of the Lord in complementary and vitally important roles. Elder Neal A. Maxwell made this interesting observation, “Though we miss the departed righteous so much here, hundreds may feel their touch [in the afterlife]. One day, those hundreds will thank the bereaved for gracefully forgoing the extended association with choice individuals here, in order that they could help hundreds there. In God’s ecology, talent and love are never wasted.”
6. We Will Obtain Inexpressible Glory in the Afterlife
Though the spirit world will, as Brigham Young taught, appear just as natural as do things here on earth, it will be suffused with “inexpressible glory.” I jokingly say that earthly life might be compared to regular television as it was first invented, and the spirit world is more like high-definition television, enhanced with incredible resolution and beautiful detail.
That spiritual power and glory enables spirits, at least righteous spirits, to possess capacities and experience conditions that we cannot have in the quite same way in this fallen world with mortal bodies. That explains some of the most remarkable teachings of the early Brethren.
For example, Brigham Young taught that when enter into paradise we will be “free to travel with lightning speed.” He compared this spiritual movement, including what we today call “time travel,” to lightning or electricity (or perhaps we could add fiber optics, satellites, and internet). These, Brigham said, “furnish a fine illustration of the ability and power of the Almighty. … When we pass into the spirit world we shall possess a measure of this power.” Perhaps this is what the Prophet Joseph meant when he said of described the righteous spirits as being “enveloped in flaming fire.” Here is another example of enhanced capacities of the spirit bodies.
Elder Orson Pratt spoke extensively of the mode of communication in the spirit world. There, he said, communication isn’t dependent upon sound waves and auditory nerves in our ears. Instead, we communicate mind to mind, spirit to spirit. In my research I came across many accounts of non-Latter-day Saint near-death experiencers who spoke of this telepathic communication. That may sound like something out of Star Trek, but in reality the scriptures and prophets describe it as the “spirit of revelation”—that is, God speaks to our minds and hearts (see Doctrine and Covenants 8:2–3). That is perfect communication.
There is another aspect of this enhanced capacity of righteous spirits in the spirit world that I really look forward to—increased ability to learn and retain knowledge. President Brigham Young stated, “I shall not cease learning while I live, nor when I arrive in the spirit- world; but shall there learn with greater facility.” Orson Pratt explained this ability by declaring: “Instead of thinking in one channel, knowledge will rush in from all quarters; it will come in light like the light which flows from the sun, penetrating every part, informing the spirit, and giving understanding concerning ten thousand things at the same time; and the mind will be capable of receiving and retaining all.”
Wow! How truly amazing the other side must be!
These are but of a few of the teachings of prophets and apostles about the spirit world. They are like snowflakes on the tip-top of the iceberg. The more I study and learn about the spirit world, the more it enriches my life. Our knowledge of what it will be like then and there helps us to know what we should be like here and now. Gospel insights about dying teach us a great deal about living.