RS/MP Lesson 41: “The Postmortal Spirit World” (Gospel Principles Manual)
Posted by joespencer on September 6, 2011
Let me begin with two notes about how this lesson has changed in the preparation of the present edition. They’re important, I think, because they relate to a confession that I simply have to make before I venture to say anything about the spirit world.
This lesson was lesson 45 in the old manual, but now it is lesson 41. Let me explain this by providing the old arrangement in general, and then put it side by side with the current arrangement. The old manual was divided not only into chapters, but into units. The manual ended with three units: “Family Salvation,” “The Second Coming of Jesus Christ,” and “Life after Death.” The first of these units was made up of what are still chapters 36-40 (eternal families, family responsibilities, eternal marriage, the law of chastity, and temple work/family history). The second, though, was different: it consisted of “Signs of the Second Coming” (then chapter 41, now chapter 43), “The Gathering of Israel” (then chapter 42, now chapter 42), “The Second Coming of Jesus Christ” (then chapter 43, now chapter 44), and “The Millennium” (then chapter 44, now chapter 45). It is clear that the logic of this unit in the previous manual was as follows: the larger event of the second coming can be made sense of by first looking at the signs of the event, then at one of those signs in particular (the gathering), then at the event itself, and finally at what follows. Now, with the idea of the units gone, these have been juggled, obviously with the idea that the gathering happens before the signs of the immediate signs of the second coming. Finally, the third unit, since it was focused on the afterlife, consisted of what are now chapter 41 (spirit world) and chapters 46-47 (final judgment and exaltation).
Note that with the loss of the units, the lesson on the spirit world has lost its immediate connection with the afterlife, and gained a connection with temple work and family history. Whereas before its position emphasized its place in a kind of systematic understanding of the afterlife (a larger topic that has more or less been dismantled in the present edition), its position now emphasizes its place as an explanatory footnote to temple work. Perhaps too frankly, I think this is a good shift. But before I explain why—that is, make my confession—let me take up the second change that I think is important.
The second change is actually a set of changes. Going through the minor changes to this lesson in detail is quite instructive. The part of the lesson that is built on a close reading of Alma 40, as well as the part that is built on a more cursory reading of 1 Peter 3, has gone more or less unaltered. But the remainder of the lesson has been adjusted in many little ways that mark an increased lack of surety about the doctrine of the spirit world. Quotations from Joseph Smith and Brigham Young have been removed. Speculations from McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine have disappeared. References to the Journal of Discourses have been replaced with much more difficult-to-track-down references to the Deseret News. The role of the atonement has been emphasized more strongly. All of these, it seems to me, add up to a kind of backing off, to an indication that we are not as sure about the spirit world as we have sometimes pretended to be. We’re not sure exactly what to make of statements from Joseph and Brigham; we’re less sure that McConkie knew what he was talking about; we’re not sure we understand the nature of punishment, etc., in the spirit world.
Here again I think these changes are very good ones. And that leads into my promised confession. It goes like this:
I have, relatively speaking, no idea what to make of the spirit world. I very much like the double gesture the changes in this lesson collectively make: (1) we should recognize that the very idea of the spirit world is doctrinally necessitated by the doctrine of vicarious ordinance work, but we know little about it apart from that; (2) we should rely on the very, very few scriptures we have about the spirit world more than we should rely on historical statements made by authorities, because we know far too little about what we’re dealing with. Taking these two points together, we can set forth what I’d call a minimalist doctrine of the spirit world, one that refuses to pretend to know a great deal about it. We are mostly ignorant here, and we should be happy to be so. What little we can say about it should be indexed either to Alma’s very brief discussion of it in Alma 40 (which we need to read much more carefully) or to the idea of vicarious ordinance work (in which situation it functions as little more than something necessary to establish the possibility of something else).
All that said, then, I want to focus these notes exclusively on the discussion in Alma 40:11-14, most of which is quoted at length on page 242 of the manual. Here is the passage in full (with two minor corrections drawn from Skousen’s Earliest Text, namely, the “etc.” at the end of verse 12 and the “of” added to “looking for of”):
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. 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, etc. 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. Now this is the state of the souls of the wicked, yea, in darkness, and a state of awful, fearful looking for of the fiery indignation of the wrath of God upon them; thus they remain in this state, as well as the righteous in paradise, until the time of their resurrection.
What’s going on here?
First things first, it is crucial to recognize that Alma saw his knowledge concerning what we call the spirit world as remarkably privileged information, something given him only after a good deal of work, and then specifically by an angelic messenger. Though we as Latter-day Saints tend to think that Alma sounds a bit retrograde here doctrinally, barely grasping what to us is simply established doctrine, I think it is important to recognize that the one clear text we have about the spirit world presents it as forming the very extreme of doctrinal understanding. This is a murky unknown, about which a few things have been revealed (Alma will even say that he can only guess about parts of it).
Second, it should be noted that Alma was not inquiring about the nature of the spirit world, but about “the state of the soul between death and the resurrection.” His concern, in other words, was not to know about a place, not to know something concerning the whereabouts of the soul—indeed, it isn’t clear whether Alma actually believed that the soul takes up space or inhabits a place. This whole passage is rather an explanation of the state of the soul in that between-time. It seems most likely that Alma’s question was intended to come to understand whether there is any sort of conscious existence between bodily experiences, or whether it is only in the body that one experiences or knows anything.
Those are, I think, the preliminaries. Now for Alma’s first “doctrinal” statement: “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.” Unfortunately, Latter-day Saints have a hard time reading this passage for what it actually says, allowing the apparently established doctrine of the spirit world to suggest that Alma must mean something other than what he says. But what he says is quite straightforward: all spirits, after death, are taken to God—good or evil. As the rest of the passage will make clear, this “return” is a first step in a kind of preliminary to judgment. Remember that throughout the Book of Mormon, the resurrection takes the shape of the body and spirit coming back together precisely in the presence of God in order there to be judged. Here it seems that Alma understands the spirit’s return to the presence of God at death to be a first step in that direction: the individual spirit arrives there immediately, and there, in the presence of God, it awaits the resurrection and associated judgment. I think that all this will become clear as I work through the rest of the text. For the moment, it is clear that when Alma says “taken home to that God who gave them life,” he means it: spirits, at the death of the mortal body, appear before God.
And then what? “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, etc.” Coming into the presence of God, those “who are righteous” find themselves in “a state of happiness.” Note that while we tend to speak here of a place, an identifiable place we call paradise, Alma here speaks of a state called paradise. Righteous individuals, brought in the spirit into the presence of God, find themselves in a state of happiness—find themselves happy. There in the presence of God they “rest from all their troubles, and from all care and sorrow, etc.” It is interesting that this state is something into which one is received. There is, the words imply, a kind of reception, a formal recognition of one’s coming into that state, whatever that may mean.
Then the other half: “And then shall it come to pass that the spirits of the wicked—yea, who are evil (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.” The wicked, interestingly, are not received into anything, but instead are cast out. Note the shift from passivity on the part of the state (the state of happiness receives the righteous) to activity (the state of happiness [?] casts out the wicked into their state of misery). While the righteous actively present themselves and are received by something passive, the wicked passively present themselves and are cast out by something active. And then it becomes clear that whereas the righteous, received into a state of happiness, have the opportunity to rest, the wicked, in their state of misery, have no such opportunity: “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.” The wicked find that they cannot rest (which will be clarified in the next part of the passage).
In both cases—in that of the righteous and in that of the wicked—we are dealing with a state. It does almost sound like the wicked are put in a specific place, since they have to be “cast out” of somewhere and into somewhere else, but one has to wonder what “outer darkness” really means here. It is quite clear that it doesn’t mean anything like the “outer darkness” of which D&C 76 speaks: this is not the absolute misery of those who attain no degree of glory, at least in part because Alma shows no knowledge at all of the degrees of glory. Rather, “outer darkness” here seems just to mean something like a state of misery or a state of torment. If God represents light, then the wicked move as far from God as they can, looking for shadows in which to hide. (This also becomes clearer in the last part of the passage.) I’m inclined to see in this less the occupation of a certain kind of place than a particular constitutive relationship to God: the wicked, faced with the goodness of God, respond by shrouding themselves in darkness, in which state they weep and wail and gnash their teeth.
But let’s clarify the details by coming to the last part of the passage: “Now this is the state of the souls of the wicked, yea, in darkness and a state of awful, fearful looking for of the fiery indignation of the wrath of God upon them.” Here it is finally stated straightforwardly that this “outer darkness” business is a state, “the state of the souls of the wicked.” But we also have a further clarification of what it entails: “a state of awful, fearful looking for of the fiery indignation of the wrath of God.” The picture here, I think, is giving us to understand what a wicked person feels in the presence of God. To be in the presence of God in one’s wickedness is to encounter what one takes to be a source of infinite wrath—such that one spends all of one’s time waiting for the “enemy” to lash out in violence (in “fiery indignation”). The state of the wicked, then, is not one of rest precisely because one is always afraid, always in fear of what is coming.
The picture I think we’re getting here is something like this: at the moment of death, individual spirits are brought back into the presence of God, and they respond to that presence in two distinct ways. Those who are righteous respond by resting in happiness, and those who are wicked respond by cowering in fear of what is to come. When the last part of the passage says “Thus they remain in this state, as well as the righteous in paradise, until the time of their resurrection,” I think Alma is telling us that the spirits simply remain in the presence of God, suspended in their subjective relationship to God (rest or fear), until the resurrection brings about the judgment. To come into the presence of God is to force the individual to decide her or his relationship to God, anticipating the judgment to come—and there one remains until the judgment actually takes place.
Now, if my reading is not terribly misguided, Alma has a rather different understanding of the spirit world than we tend to have as Latter-day Saints. For one, I’m not sure it’s fair to speak, with reference to this text, of a spirit world. It seems to me that Alma is more concerned with the spiritual state one enters into when the presence of God forces one to manifest one’s disposition toward Him. Rather than being a place of interpersonal contact, or even a place where one can be taught and thus prepared to receive vicarious ordinances, the spiritual state between death and resurrection for Alma is a kind of self-realization, a sustained recognition of what one has done or has intended to do in response to God.
This, it seems to me, is the scriptural foundation on which any theology of the spirit world would have to be built. How does this picture work with the idea of vicarious ordinances? How does this picture work with the idea of interpersonal relations in the spirit world? How does this picture work with the idea of place? I don’t know the answers to these questions (though I have some ideas in embryo), but I think they deserve attention. At any rate, this is, I think, the beginnings of a minimalist doctrine of the spirit world.
Whether it’s worth anything will have to be decided in the give and take of scriptural interpretation. How else might this text be read?