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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?

28 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 41: “The Postmortal Spirit World” (Gospel Principles Manual)”

  1. Roberta said


    First, although I know your post is about the shift in the Gospel Principles manual, may I say that your comments about Alma 40 are almost too uncanny for me to read today only because my sister and I had this EXACT conversation two or three weeks ago. As we dissected Alma 40 and what we understood Alma to be saying, we came to the conclusion that we understood Alma 40 much, much differently than what is commonly taught in the church and, to be honest, that left us feeling a little “anxious.” We felt a bit rogue, and didn’t like that feeling but Alma seemed too clear to us. Thanks for helping the two of us achieve more confidence in our own scripture study! Great post!

  2. Rob Osborn said

    For one reason or another, the prophets in Book of Mormon times did not understand or know that the gospel would be preached in the world of the dead and that repentance would be made possible to them at that time. All they knew and apparently taught was that if one died in their sins, they must remain in torment forever having no more chance or space for repentance.

    It is expedient for us to realize that God himself never taught doctrine from his mouth that stated hell and it’s anguish would last forever for those who died in their sins. God’s message is and always has been one of hope and mercy coupled with justice.

    • Holly said

      Could it be possible that the reason Alma did not go into the idea of the gospel being preached in the world of the dead and the concept of repentance being made possible at that time is that the angel showed him the state of spirits in Alma’s present time? Christ had not come to earth yet and had not yet made his ultimate sacrifice. He had therefore not yet opened the doors to the preaching of the gospel to those who were in tormented state in the spirit world

  3. ks (Karen) said

    Hmm. I like what you are doing here, aiming for a “minimalist” doctrine as a starting place for thinking. Something like pruning back a tree so that the root stays healthy and can grow more strongly. I think you’ve got some good points here about what Alma is doing. I think there may still be place for the outer darkness of D&C 78; certainly the words “cast out” in Alma 40 are significant words. Perhaps it is simply that only a few who have outright rejected God in full knowledge will go there, and these can’t or wouldn’t repent even in the presence of God, so they are already “cast out”? (I also like the way Alma says this state of happiness is “called paradise.” It sounds like the word paradise has been used for some time and Alma is clarifying the term for his son.) This “state of rest” seems like it would apply to nearly everyone – we are resting from labor, sorrow, etc., while we wait for the judgement. (And if we go with the idea that some are cast out, then it sounds like everyone waiting will attain to some degree of glory, so these are resting and aren’t worrying or gnashing their teeth while waiting in paradise!)

    But, perhaps I am trying again to make the newly-pruned tree grow before its ready again. As you pointed out, Alma himself was on the very edge of what he felt comfortable teaching, why should I feel like I can take such grand guesses? Back to Alma 40, to do some more reading…

    Thanks for the post!

    • Roberta said

      Karen, I agree with you, the words “cast out” are significant here and not to be dismissed or reduced in their significance, and I, too, think such words have a place in this picture. Although I’m just not sure what that greater picture is or even if we are supposed to see it…

  4. Roberta said

    My apologies for the repeat commenting, but I’ve been studying Alma 40 and have had several thoughts touched on here. It seems to me that the state of the wicked (or not-so-righteous) soul in the presence of God could also be an issue of extreme discomfort rather than a fear of being punished or lashed out. I think of my non-church-going relatives who become extremely uncomfortable when in the presence of a discussion about God or religion, regardless how slight, and they do whatever they can to remove themselves from the situation. They aren’t afraid, they just don’t want to be near it. They squirm and fidget and can’t leave quickly enough. After watching Brad Wilcox’s recent BYU Devotional titled “His Grace is Sufficient” which parallels with this part of Alma very nicely, it seems the *desire* to be in God’s presence is the key to whether that *state* is Paradise or Prison for that soul.

  5. Sally said

    The idea of it being a state rather than a place makes more sense to me in the context of missionary work. I had always had it in my mind (like the circles in the plan of salvation) that the people in paradise would visit the people in spirit prison, teach them, then go home for dinner. But if it is a state, then the righteous would mingle with the wicked – teaching, living by example, helping those trying to repent to come unto Christ on a continual basis.

  6. NathanG said

    I recall a lesson where the teacher used the experience of Helaman 5 with Nephi and Lehi in prison and the Lamanite conversion as an illustration of the condition of the spirits in prison and the change over from spirit prison into a state of paradise or misery into peace. It doesn’t perfectly address where temple work fits in, but I think it goes quite well with your discussion of “state”, which is all that has made sense to me about the subject for some time. We paid particular attention to when the Lamanites were surrounded by darkness, when they couldn’t move, when they could move, when they heard the voice, and when they finally seemed to be in a peaceful state.

    Reading through the original post made me think of the next part of the discourse, particularly verse 15 where he makes a comment that seems to come from out of nowhere:
    “Now, there are some that have understood that this state of happiness and this state of misery of the soul, before the resurrection, was a first resurrection. Yea, I admit it may be termed a resurrection, the raising of the spirit or the soul and their consignation to happiness or misery, according to the words which have been spoken.”
    The part he leaves out in this statement is the cause of people receiving a state of happiness or misery, returning to the presence of God (which you pointed out in the original post. So, in a way, this is a time when spiritual death is overcome (temporarily for some). Resurrection, more broadly speaking, is overcoming death, leading some to consider this a first resurrection.

    • joespencer said

      I think the emphasis in Alma’s allowing that this can be called a resurrection is less on coming back into God’s presence than on “raising” and “consignation.” A major aspect of the resurrection for Book of Mormon authors is its inextricable relation to the judgment….

  7. kirkcaudle said

    Great comments all around on this thread.

    “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.”-Joe

    Amen Brother Spencer!

    With that said, there are only two things that I (think) I know for sure when I now read Alma 40:11-14:

    1. We are received into the “state” of paradise by grace.

    2. We keep whatever spirit/heart/self that we bring into the afterlife.

    And one thought on Outer Darkness:

    Perhaps Outer Darkness is a “place” (I like Joe’s idea of shadows) where evil hides because those spirits feels naked in their sin, as Adam and Eve did after the fall? The only difference is that they have nothing to make “fig leafs” out of. They live in anxiety having no covering.

  8. Lois said

    The analysis, while clever, is wasted unless we include revelations given in modern day scripture, e.g., D&C. Why should we only rely on Alma’s account in the B of M? I sense that without using all of the information given to us, we enter into priestcraft. Why?


    • joespencer said

      Hi Lois,

      I’m not sure why this approach would lead to priestcraft, but I think you’ve missed my point more generally here. I’m not rejecting other revelations; I’m trying to begin from one point in order to make it possible to approach other revelations more rigorously. So far as I can find, the only revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants that deals with the spirit world is D&C 138, and that’s where a second post on this would have to go (among other directions)—as the questions at the end of my post would indicate.

      So I don’t at all mean to suggest that we should “only rely on Alma’s account,” but that we should begin there, and read it on its own terms, and then begin to look at other scripture, other prophetic comments, etc. If we begin with those other sources and then force Alma to say what those other things say, we’ve likely wrested scripture to say what we think it has to say.

      In short, let me agree with you: “The analysis . . . is wasted unless we include revelations given in modern day scripture.” Nothing I’ve written is meant to suggest that we should never move on from Alma, only that we should begin at the beginning rather than at the end.

  9. kirkcaudle said

    Lois, I am in interested in your definition for priestcraft. Are you saying that reading the BOM this way ignorantly leads us away from the truth or are you saying that is an apostate reading? Some else perhaps? I am just wondering because it seemed like a strong word to use in this context.

  10. Lois said

    Thanks for your kind replies. I thought you were saying that we should ignore modern scripture. My interpretation of priestcraft in this context is when a person puts a personal spin on the scriptures that really isn’t supported. Somehow I thought that was where this was going. Perhaps I was a little too defensive. Sorry.

  11. Julie said

    Paradise and Prison being states of being makes much more sense to me. However, the manual still refers to them as places.

    “The righteous and the wicked are separated (see 1 Nephi 15:28–30), but the spirits may progress as they learn gospel principles and live in accordance with them. The spirits in paradise can teach the spirits in prison (see D&C 138).”

    “In the spirit prison are the spirits of those who have not yet received the gospel of Jesus Christ. These spirits have agency and may be enticed by both good and evil. If they accept the gospel and the ordinances performed for them in the temples, they may leave the spirit prison and dwell in paradise.”

    Also, I don’t see how 1 Nephi 15:38-30 is relevant there, as it refers to Lehi’s dream of the river separating righteous/unrighteous which represents hell, the final state of the wicked. I thought we were talking about the state between death and resurrection, not the final judgment. I’m confused by this scripture reference.

  12. Julie said

    Never mind about the place thing. I got clarification from the D&C institute manual, p. 445.

    But still confused about the 1 Nephi 15 reference.

    • joespencer said

      I think you should be confused by the 1 Nephi 15 reference. But that’s how the manual’s usually work—cross-referencing texts that have little to do with each other….

  13. Catherine said

    I believe the 1st Ne. Reference is just giving you another example of separation… The kind that will exist in the post mortal spirit world.
    As for everything else…. You guys are just dealing in a lot of confusion…& we all know who brings/deals in confusion?
    Pray about it if you must know for sure the doctrine, but realize that it’s not necessary for your salvation.

    • joespencer said

      I think I agree, Catherine, that this is mostly “a lot of confusion,” but that’s precisely why I’m trying to go straight back to the text itself just to see what it says in a straightforward reading. I don’t doubt that received doctrine is correct, but I’m trying to sort out its relationship to the scriptural texts. At any rate, if confusion always, as you intimate, comes from evil influence, then Satan has had a heyday with us a people! There is a great deal of confusion constantly among us. I wonder if you aren’t being a bit over-simplistic.

      At any rate, I’m not sure that God often—or even seldom—reveals doctrine to those who simply pray to know it. Alma 40 itself, interestingly, suggests that Alma came to know what he describes through the intervention of an angel, and then only after intense study, prayer, and even fasting. A quick prayer to settle accounts with the doctrine is not something the scriptures seem to point to, so whence this idea?

      Finally, I entirely agree that knowing “the doctrine” is “not necessary for . . . salvation”! Indeed, I couldn’t agree more on that one! But then we’ve got these lessons, filled with “doctrine,” and we’re supposed to be teaching them for some reason. Though knowing them perfectly is not necessary for our salvation, there is some reason the Brethren are interested in doctrine and such like. What for? In the meanwhile, in an attempt to make good on the request to work with the manual, I’m attempting to think through scripture. I’m not sure I understand the desire to find fault in that.

  14. James said

    Thanks for the well thought-out posting and comments. I always learn a lot from you.

    One thought I didn’t see expressed is how closely Alma’s description of the state of the wicked between death and the resurrection (40:13-14) matches his personal account of being racked “with the pains of a damned soul” (36:11-16). I think Alma knew exactly what he was saying when he described his own suffering in those terms.

    • joespencer said

      Thanks for this point, James. That idea did cross my mind (especially Alma’s desire to be annihilated, both soul and body), but I guess I never worked it in. I think it’s crucial.

  15. Greg said

    “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.”

    Actually D&C 76 doesn’t talk about outer darkness as the place of those who attain no degree of glory. In fact no scripture does. All the scriptures that speak of outer darkness speak of the same place or state that Alma is talking about – Hell the place/state where the wicked go. The only statement in D&C 76 about the place the sons of perdition go is “And the end thereof, neither the place thereof, nor their torment, no man knows; (D&C 76:45) The gospel principles manual is the only current church source that talks about outer darkness as where sons of perdition go. No prophet (that I can find) before Joseph Fielding Smith (including Joseph Smith nor his father Joseph F Smith) spoke of it this way and most after haven’t either or speak about it both ways yet it seems to be common understanding in the church.

  16. joespencer said

    Greg, many thanks for this. I’ve never looked systematically at the use of the phrase in scripture, and I’m ashamed. You’re absolutely right. It would be very interesting to look at the history of this. Again, thanks.

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