As I’ve listened to and participated in conversations on “after death, what?” with students and family in various areas in the Church, I’ve nearly always found two feelings expressed: a great desire to know about the postearthly spirit world (hereafter referred to as the spirit world), and an apologetic feeling for having questions, as though the spirit world were a subject that we should not discuss.
My feeling is that caution in discussing a sacred subject is always proper, especially when much popular “information” in contemporary society about the spirit world involves sensational ghost stories, devil worship, and other problem areas. However, the desire to know is, in itself, a good one. Our beloved relatives who have passed on inhabit that world, and we will soon join them there. It is a healthy, holy subject and should be discussed in that tone.
Furthermore, the Prophet Joseph Smith declared that the Saints should study the purpose of life and death, in fact should study it “more than any other” subject—“study it day and night.” He observed that “if we have any claim on our Heavenly Father for anything, it is for knowledge on this important subject.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 324; italics added.)
We have a right, then, to understand the true nature of our existence. We also have a responsibility to search it out, for the more aware we become that the spirit world is a real extension of our mortal existence, the less likely we are to fasten our hearts on the treasures of this world.
One of the most beautiful stories in our heritage, an experience of President Heber J. Grant’s, bears witness that a testimony about the right relationship between life, death, and the spirit world can comfort us in times of sorrow, help us understand God’s purposes, and teach us the true nature of our existence. President Grant writes:
“I have been blessed with only two sons. One of them died at five years of age and the other at seven. My last son died of a hip disease. I had built great hopes that he would live to spread the Gospel at home and abroad and be an honor to me. About an hour before he died I had a dream that his mother, who was dead, came for him, and that she brought with her a messenger, and she told this messenger to take the boy while I was asleep; and in the dream I thought I awoke and I seized my son and fought for him and finally succeeded in getting him away from the messenger who had come to take him, and in so doing I dreamed that I stumbled and fell upon him.
“I dreamed that I fell upon his sore hip, and the terrible cries and anguish of the child drove me nearly wild. I could not stand it and I jumped up and ran out of the house so as not to hear his distress. I dreamed that after running out of the house I met Brother Joseph E. Taylor and told him of these things.
“He said: ‘Well, Heber, do you know what I would do if my wife came for one of her children—I would not struggle for that child; I would not oppose her taking that child away. If a mother who had been faithful had passed beyond the veil, she would know of the suffering and the anguish her child may have to suffer; she would know whether that child might go through life as a cripple and whether it would be better or wiser for that child to be relieved from the torture of life; and when you stop to think, Brother Grant, that the mother of that boy went down into the shadow of death to give him life, she is the one who ought to have the right to take him or keep him.’
“I said, ‘I believe you are right, Brother Taylor, and if she comes again, she shall have the boy without any protest on my part.’
“After coming to that conclusion, I was waked by my brother, B. F. Grant, who was staying that night with us, helping to watch over the sick boy. He called me into the room and told me that my child was dying. I went in the front room and sat down. There was a vacant chair between me and my wife who is now living, and I felt the presence of that boy’s deceased mother, sitting in that chair. I did not tell anybody what I felt, but I turned to my living wife and said: ‘Do you feel anything strange?’ She said: ‘Yes, I feel assured that Heber’s mother is sitting between us, waiting to take him away.’
“Now, I am naturally, I believe, a sympathetic man. I was raised as an only child, with all the affection that a mother could lavish upon a boy. I believe that I am naturally affectionate and sympathetic and that I shed tears for my friends—tears of joy for their success and tears of sorrow for their misfortunes. But I sat by the deathbed of my little boy and saw him die, without shedding a tear. My living wife, my brother, and I, upon that occasion experienced a sweet, peaceful, and heavenly influence in my home, as great as I have ever experienced in my life.” (Improvement Era, June 1940, pp. 330, 383.)
According to Latter-day Saint doctrine, the postearthly spirit world is the place of residence for all those who have died and are awaiting the resurrection’s inseparable connection of their spirits and bodies. Thus, it is not the place where God the Father, the resurrected Lord, and other resurrected beings dwell. Rather, it is an intermediate condition or state where people await the resurrection—a tangible sphere where disembodied spirits live in one of several conditions according to what their mortal lives have merited.
Speaking of those conditions, Alma declared to his son Corianton that an angel had made known to him “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.” (Alma 40:11.) Not that they are taken to the literal presence of God or the planet upon which he resides (see Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, Deseret Book Company, 1958, 2:84–87), but rather into the spirit world. Alma continues: “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.) Shortly before his death, Moroni contemplated entering this same blessed condition in the spirit world. He wrote: “I soon go to rest in the paradise of God, until my spirit and body shall again reunite, and I am brought forth triumphant through the air, to meet you before the pleasing bar of the great Jehovah, the Eternal Judge of both quick and dead.” (Moro. 10:34.)
But not all people will be entitled to rest and paradise. Alma clarified: “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.)
Just as paradise is not the eternal abode of the righteous, hell in the spirit world is not the eternal abode of the wicked. Reporting his vision of the telestial world, the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote: “These are they who shall not be redeemed from the devil until the last resurrection, until the Lord, even Christ the Lamb, shall have finished his work.” (D&C 76:85.) He added: “These are they who are cast down to hell and suffer the wrath of Almighty God, until the fulness of times, when Christ shall have subdued all enemies under his feet, and shall have perfected his work.” (D&C 76:106. See also Rev. 20:13.) Hell in the spirit world will end when all people have been resurrected. Because of the atonement of Christ, there is an eventual release. (See 2 Ne. 9:6–12.) Those who remain “filthy still” (the sons of perdition) will remain in hell, but it will be a place separate from the hell of the spirit world. (See D&C 76:43–49.) After the sons of perdition are resurrected, the spirit world will have no inhabitants. (Bruce. R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed., p. 762.)
Peter refers to the spirit world as “prison,” and it is for some. (1 Pet. 3:18–20, 1 Pet. 4:6.) However, it is chiefly a place of learning and waiting, not a place of suffering. Here those who did not have an opportunity in mortality to receive the gospel, and those who had a partial opportunity but rejected it will be taught. In 1893, President Lorenzo Snow, then president of the Quorum of the Twelve, declared in general conference his strong belief “that when the Gospel is preached to the spirits in prison, the success attending that preaching will be far greater than that attending the preaching of our Elders in this life. I believe there will be very few indeed of those spirits who will not gladly receive the Gospel when it is carried to them. The circumstances there will be a thousand times more favorable.” (Millennial Star 56:50.)
In short, the spirit world is the temporary home of the spirits of all mankind, be they good or evil. Thus Joseph Smith could declare that “the righteous and the wicked all go to the same world of spirits until the resurrection.” (Teachings, p. 310.) Yet some have wondered why Jesus promised the dying thief that after his death he would join the Savior in paradise. The Prophet Joseph taught: “King James’ translators make it 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: then I will teach you all about it and answer your inquiries. And Peter says [Jesus] went and preached to the world of spirits (spirits in prison, 1 Peter, 3rd chap. 19th verse [1 Pet. 3:19]), so that they who would receive it could have it answered by proxy by those who live on the earth, etc.” (Teachings, p. 309.) Moreover, the Prophet added: “Hades, the Greek, or Sheol, the Hebrew, these two significations mean a world of spirits. Hades, Sheol, paradise, spirits in prison, are all one; it is a world of spirits.” (Teachings, p. 310.) This clarification by the Prophet helps us understand the words of the Savior.
Latter-day revelation also helps us understand the nature of existence in the spirit world. For one thing, spirits are tangible entities. President Brigham Young said: “Spirits are just as familiar with spirits as bodies are with bodies, though spirits are composed of matter so refined as not to be tangible to this coarser organization.” (Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 379. See also D&C 131:7–8.)
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, p. 326.)
One sister who visited the spirit world and was recalled to mortality by President Lorenzo Snow had personal experience with what the Prophet taught: “Some inquired about their friends and relatives on the earth. Among the number was my cousin. He asked me how the folks were getting along and said it grieved him to hear that some of the boys were using tobacco, liquor and many things that were injurious to them.” (LeRoi C. Snow, “Raised from the Dead,” story of Ella Jensen, Improvement Era, October 1929, p. 974.) Indeed, our deceased loved ones are greatly concerned about our well-being and happiness and can be appointed, when there is need, to bring messages of warning, reproof, or instruction to us. (See Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, p. 436.)
President Young confirmed that the spirit world “is on this earth.” (Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 376.) In a recent general conference, President Ezra Taft Benson declared that “the spirit world is not far away. Sometimes the veil between this life and the life beyond becomes very thin. Our loved ones who have passed on are not far from us.” (Ensign, June 1971, p. 33.)
Apparently the spirit world is incorporated with the physical world. The earth has a spirit in it just as our physical bodies have spirits in them. Elder Parley P. Pratt wrote that the spirit world “is here on the very planet where we were born; or in other words, the earth and other planets of like sphere, have their inward or spiritual spheres, as well as their outward, or temporal. The one is peopled by temporal tabernacles, and the other by spirits. A veil is drawn between the one sphere and the other, whereby all the objects in the spiritual sphere are rendered invisible to those in the temporal.” (Key to Theology, 9th ed., Deseret Book, 1965, pp. 126–27.)
Apparently, righteous people in the spirit world are organized just as they are here, arranged in families and quorums. Priesthood operates there as it operates here. President Brigham Young declared: “When the faithful Elders, holding this Priesthood, go into the spirit world they carry with them the same power and Priesthood that they had while in the mortal tabernacle.” (Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 132. See also D&C 124:130.) The blessings of the priesthood are thus present in the spirit world. One elder who passed beyond the veil and returned spoke of the order he saw there:
“While I was in the spirit world I observed that the people there were busy, and that they were perfectly organized for the work they were doing. It seemed to me a continuation of the work we are doing here,—something like going from one stake to another. There was nothing there that seemed particularly strange to me, everything being natural.” (Peter E. Johnson, Relief Society Magazine, Aug. 1920, p. 455.) Ella Jensen had a similar experience when she visited the spirit world. Elder Rudger Clawson, a late member of the Council of the Twelve who spoke of her experience, said that a “guide was there to meet her and by him she was conducted into a very large building where there were many people, all of whom appeared to be extremely busy, no evidence of idleness whatever.” (LeRoi C. Snow, Improvement Era, Oct. 1929, p. 977.) But it is possible that not all people in the spirit world are thus organized, since all have not received the ordinances necessary for exaltation.
President George Albert Smith, after an experience with the spirit world, described the part of that world he saw:
“One day … I lost consciousness of my surroundings and thought I had passed to the Other Side. I found my self standing with my back to a large and beautiful lake, facing a great forest of trees. There was no one in sight, and there was no boat upon the lake or any other visible means to indicate how I might have arrived there. I realized, or seemed to realize, that I had finished my work in mortality and had gone home. I began to look around, to see if I could not find someone. There was no evidence of anyone’s living there, just those great, beautiful trees in front of me and the wonderful lake behind me.
“I began to explore, and soon I found a trail through the woods which seemed to have been used very little, and which was almost obscured by grass.” President Smith followed the trail and after some time met his grandfather, with whom he conversed. (Improvement Era, March 1947, p. 139.)
Apparently, there are no infants or children in the spirit world. All who reside there possess the stature of adult men and women, the same appearance they possessed prior to mortal birth. If infants or children die, their spirits immediately resume their former adult stature while in the spirit world. However, when they regain their bodies during the resurrection, they naturally come forth as children to be raised to maturity by righteous and worthy parents. President Joseph F. Smith explained this concept:
“The spirits of our children are immortal before they come to us, and their spirits, after bodily death, are like they were before they came. They are as they would have appeared if they had lived in the flesh, to grow to maturity, or to develop their physical bodies to the full stature of their spirits. If you see one of your children that has passed away it may appear to you in the form in which you would recognize it, the form of childhood; but if it came to you as a messenger bearing some important truth, it would perhaps come as the spirit of Bishop Edward Hunter’s son (who died when a little child) came to him, in the stature of full-grown manhood, and revealed himself to his father, and said: ‘I am your son.’
“Bishop Hunter did not understand it. He went to my father and said: ‘Hyrum, what does that mean? I buried my son when he was only a little boy, but he has come to me as a full-grown man—a noble, glorious, young man, and declared himself my son. What does it mean?’
“Father (Hyrum Smith, the Patriarch) told him that the Spirit of Jesus Christ was full-grown before he was born into the world; and so our children were full-grown and possessed their full stature in the Spirit, before they entered mortality, the same stature that they will possess after they have passed away from mortality, and as they will also appear after the resurrection, when they shall have completed their mission.” (Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed., Deseret Book Company, 1939, p. 455.)
Some worry because departed children have apparently lost the privilege of courtship, marriage, and other opportunities. But revelations concerning the spirit world assure us that normal relationships leading to eternal sealings are an ongoing part of that life. Elder Melvin J. Ballard observed:
“You mothers worry about your little children [who have died]. We do not perform sealings for them. I lost a son six years of age, and I saw him a man in the spirit world after his death, and I saw how he had exercised his own freedom of choice and would obtain of his own will and volition a companionship, and in due time to him, and all those who are worthy of it, shall come all of the blessings and sealing privileges of the house of the Lord. Do not worry over it. They are safe; they are all right.
“Now, then, what of your daughters who have died and have not been sealed to some man? … The sealing power shall be forever and ever with this Church, and provisions will be made for them. We cannot run faster than the Lord has provided the way. Their blessings and privileges will come to them in due time. In the meantime, they are safe.” (Bryant S. Hinckley, Sermons and Missionary Services of Melvin J. Ballard, Deseret Book Company, 1949, p. 260.)
In Joseph Smith’s Vision of the Celestial Kingdom he saw “that all children who die before they arrive at the years of accountability are saved in the celestial kingdom of heaven.” (D&C 137:10) Moreover, President Joseph F. Smith made the following explanation:
“Joseph Smith taught the doctrine that the infant child that was laid away in death would come up in the resurrection as a child; and, pointing to the mother of a lifeless child, he said to her: ‘You will have the joy, the pleasure, and satisfaction of nurturing this child, after its resurrection, until it reaches the full stature of its spirit.’ There is restitution, there is growth, there is development, after the resurrection from death. I love this truth. It speaks volumes of happiness, of joy and gratitude to my soul. Thank the Lord he has revealed these principles to us.” (Gospel Doctrine, pp. 455–56. See also Teachings, pp. 196–97, 200, 368.) And so we should understand, in the words of Joseph Smith, that “the only difference between the old and young dying is, one lives longer in heaven [the spirit world] and eternal light and glory than the other, and is freed a little sooner from this miserable wicked world. Notwithstanding all this glory, we for a moment lose sight of it, and mourn the loss, but we do not mourn as those without hope.” (Teachings, p. 197.)
This does not imply that people should be anxious to leave mortality, but it does suggest that parents who have lost children can be comforted by the truths of the gospel. Indeed, we should be anxiously engaged in successfully completing life’s mission. For example, after Wilford Woodruff’s young wife Phoebe passed away, he was inspired to administer to her and rebuke the power of death. He wrote of the incident:
“Her spirit returned to her body, and from that hour she was made whole; and we all felt to praise the name of God, and to trust in Him and to keep His commandments.
“While this operation was going on with me (as my wife related afterwards) her spirit left her body, and she saw it lying upon the bed, and the sisters weeping. She looked at them and at me, and upon her babe, and, while gazing upon this scene, two personages came into the room. … One of these messengers informed her that she could have her choice: she might go to rest in the spirit world, or, on one condition she could have the privilege of returning to her tabernacle and continuing her labors upon the earth. The condition was, if she felt that she could stand by her husband, and with him pass through all the cares, trials, tribulations and afflictions of life which he would be called to pass through for the gospel’s sake unto the end. When she looked at the situation of her husband and child she said: ‘Yes, I will do it!’
“At the moment that decision was made the power of faith rested upon me, and when I administered unto her, her spirit entered her tabernacle. …” (Leaves From My Journal, 4th ed., The Deseret News, 1909, pp. 59–60.)
The Latter-day Saint view of the spirit world reveals that there is work being performed there. The most magnificent and extensive missionary program the mind can contemplate is centered in the spirit world. President Brigham Young declared: “Compare those inhabitants on the earth who have heard the Gospel in our day, with the millions who have never heard it, or had the keys of salvation presented to them, and you will conclude at once as I do, that there is an almighty work to perform in the spirit world.” (JD, 4:285.) How is this great work to be accomplished? Some sublime insights to this question are revealed in President Joseph F. Smith’s Vision of the Redemption of the Dead. (See especially D&C 138:29–37.)
Who will accept the message of this divine ministry? Joseph Smith’s Vision of the Celestial Kingdom provides the answer. Marveling how his dead brother Alvin could be entitled to celestial inheritance since he died before the restoration of the gospel, Joseph Smith heard the voice of the Lord saying:
“All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God;
“Also all that shall die henceforth without a knowledge of it, who would have received it with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom;
“For I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts.” (D&C 137:7–9.)
And yet this ministry in the spirit world is not sufficient to achieve the ultimate salvation of the noble dead. Why? Because it takes as much to save a dead man as it does a living man. Joseph Smith declared that the “ordinances instituted in the heavens before the foundation of the world, in the priesthood, for the salvation of men, are not to be altered or changed. All must be saved on the same principles.” (Teachings, p. 308.) Moreover, the Prophet declared that “if a man gets a fullness of the priesthood of God he has to get it in the same way that Jesus Christ obtained it, and that was by keeping all the commandments and obeying all the ordinances of the house of the Lord.” (Teachings, p. 308.) Dead men and women are not excepted. We can only do the ordinance work for them. They must believe, repent, and obey the gospel for themselves.
In summary, the spirit world is the place where disembodied spirits go. It is a tangible, substantial sphere incorporated with our earth, the focal point of a massive missionary effort in which we share. It is a world closer than we realize, and tied to us by the family lines of many dearly beloved relatives.