Latter-day Saint Life

The Scripture We've Been Getting All Wrong + How It Helps Us Understand Spirit Prison and Hell


After teaching his son Corianton concerning the journey of spirits—righteous and wicked—into the spirit world, Alma continued: "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 40:12; italics added). We thus see that paradise is the abode of the righteous in the world of spirits, a "state of happiness," a place hereafter where the spirits of the faithful "expand in wisdom, where they have respite from all their troubles, and where care and sorrow do not annoy." 12

The Meaning of "Spirit Prison"

One of the marvelous contributions of President Joseph F. Smith's Vision of the Redemption of the Dead is the heightened realization that the whole spirit world—paradise included—is a "spirit prison." The dead, having "looked upon the long absence of their spirits from their bodies as a Bondage," are, in a sense, in prison; they seek redemption and "deliverance" from the "chains of death"; the Master thus came to declare "liberty to the captives who had been faithful." (D&C 138:50, 15, 18.) 13 "When our spirits leave these bodies, will they be happy?" Orson Pratt asked. "Not perfectly so," he responded. "Why? Because the spirit is absent from the body; it cannot be perfectly happy while a part of the man is lying in the earth .... You will be happy, you will be at ease in paradise; but still you will be looking for a house where your spirit can enter and act as you did in former times." 14Brigham Young was most emphatic on this matter: "I know it is a startling idea to say that the Prophet [Joseph Smith] and the persecutor of the Prophet, all go to prison together... but they have not got their bodies yet, consequently they are in prison.15 The doctrine that the entire spirit world is a spirit prison is evident in a marvelous vision given to Enoch. Enoch "looked and beheld the Son of Man lifted up on the cross, after the manner of men; and he heard a loud voice; and the heavens were veiled; and all the creations of God mourned; and the earth groaned; and the rocks were rent; and the saints arose, and were crowned at the right hand of the Son of Man, with crowns of glory; and as many of the spirits as were in prison came forth, and stood on the right band of God; and the remainder were reserved in chains of darkness until the judgment of the great day" (Moses 7:55-57; italics added). We note from Enoch's words that the Saints were the ones who came forth from the grave. This was the beginning of the first resurrection, the resurrection of the prophets and those who gave heed to the warnings of the prophets (see Mosiah 15:22). These came forth from prison-in this instance, from paradise, the abode of the righteous. 16

Jesus and the Thief on the Cross

One of the most misunderstood biblical passages in Christian history is the account of the Savior's discussion with the thief on the cross during the closing moments of our Lord's mortal existence. Luke records: "And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on [Jesus], saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:39-43; italics added.) This account has spawned a whole host of incorrect doctrinal perceptions, which in turn have resulted in questionable and perverse practices on the part of Christians over the centuries.

One of the most prevalent misperceptions of the above New Testament dialogue is a belief in a type of "deathbed repentance," a notion that one can postpone his confession of the Lord, an acknowledgment of his divine Sonship, and the outward fruits of one's conversion until the time just before death. Though we must never de-emphasize or denigrate the value of sincere repentance—no matter how late in one's earthly career (see Matt. 20:1-16)-yet the word of the Lord is clear that "he that repents and does the commandments of the Lord shall be forgiven" (D&C 1:32; italics added). "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven," the Master taught in time's meridian, "but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven" (Matt. 7:21). Confession and repentance coerced by the threat of death hardly prepare one's soul for a place with the sanctified.

There is yet a deeper insight to be had in grasping the Savior's intended message to the thief on the cross. In discoursing upon the subject, the Prophet Joseph Smith observed:

"I will say something about the spirits in prison. 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 [the Greek word hades] 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. 17

In confirming these truths, Joseph Smith said: "Hades, the Greek, Sheol, the Hebrew, these two significations mean a world of spirits. Hades, Sheol, spirits in prison, are all one: it is a world of spirits. " R18 Not discounting in any way, therefore, what feelings of contrition may have existed in the heart of the thief on the cross, Parley P. Pratt thus explained that until man went into the world of spirits "in a state of ignorance, and sin, Being uncultivated, unimproved, and unprepared for salvation. He went there to be taught, and to complete that repentance, which in a dying moment he commenced on the earth." 18

A Place of Instruction

Without doubt, the most important work in the world of spirits is the teaching of the gospel. Before the final day of judgment, all must Be extended an opportunity to hear the message of salvation from a legal administrator. It is this work of gospel instruction Beyond the grave which allows all men to "be judged according to men in the flesh, but live in the spirit according to the will of God" (JST 1 Pet. 4:6). .

A Place of Sorrow and Repentance


In speaking to Corianton of the second division within the spirit world—that which the scriptures designate as hell or "outer darkness" 19—Alma said: "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). Joseph Smith explained: "The great misery of departed spirits in the world of spirits, where they go after death, is to know that they come short of the glory that others enjoy and that they might have enjoyed themselves, and they are their own accusers." 20On another occasion, Joseph taught: "A man is his own tormenter and his own condemner. Hence the saying, They shall go into the lake that burns with fire and brimstone. The torment of disappointment in the mind of man is as exquisite as a lake burning with fire and brimstone. I say, so is the torment of man." 21Thus hell is both a place—a part of the world of spirits where suffering and sorrow take place—and a state—a condition of the mind associated with remorseful realization. King Benjamin explained that if a man does not repent, "and remaineth and dieth an enemy to God, the demands of divine justice do awaken his immortal soul to a lively sense of his own guilt, which doth cause him to shrink from the presence of the Lord, and doth fill his breast with guilt, and pain, and anguish, which is like an unquenchable fire, whose flame ascendeth up forever and ever" (Mosiah 2:38; of. Alma 36:12-16). 

Nephi foretold the time when people would doubt the reality of the devil as well as the reality of hell. After describing how Satan in the last days would rage in the hearts of some men while pacifying others, he noted: "And behold, others he flattereth away, and telleth them there is no hell; and he saith unto them: I am no devil, for there is none—and thus he whispereth in their ears, until he grasps them with his awful chains, from whence there is no deliverance" (2 Ne. 28:22). 22

A Place of Waiting

The Great Gulf

From the days of Adam until the ministry of the disembodied Savior, there was no link between paradise and hell. Persons who had chosen to follow the ways of the world remained without gospel light for those centuries, and a "great gulf" separated the wicked from the righteous in the world of spirits. "Oh! the weariness, the tardy movement of time!" said Parley P. Pratt, "the lingering ages for a people to dwell in condemnation, darkness, ignorance, and despondency, as a punishment for their sins. For," he noted, "they had been filled with violence while on the earth in the flesh, and had rejected the preachings of... the prophets. 24

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus has often been cited as evidence of such a division in the spirit world. The rich man, finding himself in hell and seeing Lazarus some distance away in the Bosom of Abraham—in paradise—cried out for Abraham to send Lazarus, "that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame." Abraham explained that the law of restoration was in full operation—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," Abraham continued, "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." (Luke 16:19-26; italics added.) In commenting specifically upon this parable, Elder Bruce R. McConkie observed that these two men "knew each other in mortality, so they remember their former acquaintanceship. But no longer are they accessible to each other so that one might minister to the needs of the other. Christ [had/ not bridged the gulf between the prison and the palace, and there [was] as yet no communion between the righteous in paradise and the wicked in hell." 25

Nephi, six hundred years earlier, in speaking to his brothers of their father's dream, and particularly of the "fountain of filthy waters," said, "It [the fountain] was an awful gulf, which separated the wicked from the tree of life, and also from the saints of God." Nephi further explained that "it was a representation of that awful hell, which the angel said unto me was prepared for the wicked." (1 Ne. 15:28-29; italics added.)

Jesus Christ bridged the gulf between the righteous and the wicked in the spirit world when he visited that realm between the time of his death and resurrection. According to the vision given to Joseph F. Smith, our Lord's ministry to the disembodied was as much organizational as instructional: he preached the gospel to the righteous in paradise and organized them into a force sufficient to carry the message of peace to the wicked, "unto whom he could not go personally, because of their rebellion and transgression" (D&C 138:20-37). After the visit of the Savior to those in this segment of spirit prison, the righteous could deliver the soothing waters of eternal life to those in the desert of darkness. 26

The Ministry of Translated Beings

Because the gospel was not taken to those outside paradise until the meridian of time, the Lord chose periodically to utilize the services of the ancients elsewhere. Many of the righteous were translated—prolonged in life, raised to a terrestrial level of existence, and given assignments to continue their labors in behalf of the children of men. In speaking of Enoch and his city, the Prophet Joseph Smith stated, "Their place of habitation is that of the terrestrial order, and a place prepared for such characters He held in reserve to be ministering angels unto many planets." 27 When the gulf was bridged in the postmortal world, this practice changed. "Occasionally in the overall perspective someone came along who so lived that he was translated, but that's not particularly for our day and generation. When we die our obligation is to go into the spirit world and to continue to preach the gospel there. 28

Lead image from Getty Images

For ages poets and philosophers have tried to explain death, to give comfort, to soften despair. The Life Beyond shows how the Restoration changed despair to understanding, opening our eyes to the majesty of the plan of salvation. Included in this book are insights to the three degrees of glory, the spirit world, missionary work here and hereafter, and temple work. The authors also explore questions all of us have pondered: What do spirits know? What it is the purpose of ministering angels? How will those of less than normal mental powers be judged? Here is clear evidence of our eternal nature and our glorious potential in that life beyond mortality.


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