According to Mormon beliefs, at death the spirit is separated from the body and enters what we call the spirit world–a place where disembodied spirits await the resurrection and God’s final judgment. The Book of Mormon prophet Alma explains,
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. And then shall it come to pass, that the spirits of the wicked, yea, who are…these shall be cast out into outer darkness; there shall be weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth… thus they remain in this state, as well as the righteous in paradise, until the time of their resurrection. (Alma 40:11-14).
Afterlife, i.e. Spirit World
The LDS doctrine of the spirit world is similar to the Jewish concept of Hades (NT Greek; see “Hades in Christianity” at Wikipedia) or Sheol (Hebrew). In the New Testament the word hell should, in most cases, be understood to mean Hades, the world of the spirits. Most modern translations are careful to make the distinction. Jewish historian Josephus described Hades this way.
Now as to Hades, wherein the souls of the righteous and unrighteous are detained…Hades is a subterraneous region…This region is allowed as a place of custody for souls, in which angels are appointed as guardians to them, who distribute to them temporary punishments, agreeable to every one’s behaviour and manners….
…the just are guided to the right hand…unto a region of light, in which the just have dwelt from the beginning of the world…[for them] there is no place of toil, no burning heat, no piercing cold, nor are any briers…[there] they wait for that rest and eternal new life in heaven…this place we call The Bosom of Abraham.
But as to the unjust, they are dragged by force to the left hand…into the neighbourhood of hell itself…[they] continually hear the noise of it…[and] when they are struck with a fearful expectation of a future judgment, and in effect punished thereby…[they also] see the place of the fathers and of the just, even hereby are they punished; for a chaos deep and large is fixed between them…[such that] a just man cannot be admitted, nor can one that is unjust…pass over it.
This is the discourse concerning Hades, wherein the souls of all men are confined until…[God] will make a resurrection of all men from the dead. (“An Excerpt from Josephus’ Discourse to the Greeks Concerning Hades“)
Hence the Psalm, “Do not drag me away with the wicked, with the evildoers” (HCSB, Ps. 28:3); “you have brought up my soul from Sheol; you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit” (HCSB, Ps. 30:3); “In the middle of my days I must depart; I am consigned to the gates of Sheol for the rest of my years” (HCSB, Isa. 38:10); and Jacob, when he was told his son Joseph was dead, lamented, “I will go down to Sheol to my son, mourning” (HCSB, Gen. 37:35).
A description of Hades is found in Jesus’ teaching about Lazarus and the rich man.
One day the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s side. [KJV reads Abraham’s bosom] The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torment in Hades, he looked up and saw Abraham a long way off, with Lazarus at his side. ‘Father Abraham!’ he called out, ‘Have mercy on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this flame!’ ‘Son,’ Abraham said, ‘remember that during your life you received your good things, just as Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here, while you are in agony. Besides all this, a great chasm has been fixed between us and you, so that those who want to pass over from here to you cannot; neither can those from there cross over to us.’ (HCSB, Luke 16:22-26).
Abraham, Lazarus, and the rich man were not in heaven or in eternal hell. They were in the world of the spirits, a temporary holding place for the spirits of men to await their resurrection and final judgment.
Thus Paul says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will go up to heaven?’ that is, to bring Christ down or, ‘Who will go down into the abyss?’ that is, to bring Christ up from the dead” (HCSB, Rom. 10:6-7); and “this expression, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, so that He might fill all things” (Eph. 4:9-10).
The gate that Josephus refers to is also mentioned by Jesus in relation to His church: “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (NIV, Matt. 16:18). That is, the gate to the world of the spirits will not always be able to contain the righteous dead. And thus Jesus says, “I have the keys of Death and Hades” (ESV, Rev. 1:17-18). Jesus overcame the effects of physical death and gained the power to free the souls of men from the world of the spirits. This also explains what Paul means in reference to an Old Testament prophecy of Jesus, “For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption” (ESV, Act 2:27; compare Psa. 16:10).
One question that Mormonism claims to answer is this: Where was Jesus between his death and resurrection? To us the answer is obvious. He was in the spirit world. We read in the NT that just after his resurrection Jesus had not yet ascended to heaven: “Jesus saith unto [Mary], Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father” (John 20:17). And he was not in heaven during the three days of death: “he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption” (ESV, Act 2:31). According to the Mormon view Jesus spend his three days preaching to the spirits of men in the spirit world–sometimes called spirit prison. This also explains what Jesus meant when he said to the thief on the cross, “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43), paradise is the good part of Hades.
After Jesus visited the spirit world he made it possible for the souls there to repent of their sins. Peter taught, “for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit” (1 Pet. 4:6). Protestants usually interpret this passage to mean the gospel was preached to people while they were yet alive, but who are dead when Peter wrote his epistle. However I believe that passage, as well as 1 Peter 3:18-20, harmonizes better with the LDS view: “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient.”
As previously mentioned, preaching to the dead in the spirit world would only make sense if the dead could be forgiven of their sins. Jesus does hint at such a doctrine: “And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come” (Matt. 12:32). Jesus is specific, for those who blaspheme against the Holy Ghost there is no forgiveness in the spirit world. A peculiar thing to say if none of the dead could be forgiven of their sins.
For those who are in paradise, and therefore guilty only of minor sins, the possibility of repentance is easy to justify. But on the other hand, did Christ’s visit to Hades make it possible for the wicked in torment to repent and enter into paradise? For more serious sins the Book of Mormon teaches:
The Lord redeemeth none such that rebel against him and die in their sins; yea, even all those that have perished in their sins ever since the world began, that have wilfully rebelled against God, that have known the commandments of God, and would not keep them. (Mosiah 15:26)
The converse statement would be that the Lord redeems those who have not known the commandments of God and would have obeyed them. This is what Mormonism teaches: “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” (D&C 137:7). The possibility of repentance in the spirit world seems to be available only to those who did not willfully rebel against God. According to the teachings of Mormonism sins committed in ignorance are forgiven by the atonement of Christ: “his blood atoneth for the sins of those who have fallen by the transgression of Adam, who have died not knowing the will of God concerning them, or who have ignorantly sinned” (Mosiah 3:11). This forgiveness is extended to both Christians and non-Christians.
But where exactly is the dividing line? Can those in spirit prison repent and move into paradise? Mosiah 15:26 suggests it is not possible for the most extreme cases of rebellion against God. But common LDS sensibilities are such that most believe it is possible, though there is no clear official church statement on where the dividing line is, or if one even exists. Since we believe the gospel was preached to all the dead (see below) it would make sense that they all may repent and enter into paradise. Latter-day Saints typically believe that going from paradise to prison is possible for all the dead who repent of their sins. Though I do believe repentance is possible for the dead, I question some aspects of that interpretation. The Book of Mormon says, “they remain in this state…until the time of their resurrection” (Alma 40:14). Though a universal opportunity for salvation is expressed in the Book of Mormon–“The way is prepared for all men from the foundation of the world” (1 Nephi 10:18)–the question I have is this. Is the door forever open to the wicked who have rebelled against God? Is there a point of no return?
In 1918 Church president Joseph F. Smith received a revelation about the two passages from Peter quoted above.
…the Lord went not in person among the wicked and the disobedient who had rejected the truth, to teach them; But behold, from among the righteous, he organized his forces and appointed messengers…and commissioned them to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness, even to all the spirits of men; and thus was the gospel preached to the dead…Thus was the gospel preached to those who had died in their sins, without a knowledge of the truth, or in transgression, having rejected the prophets. These were taught faith in God, repentance from sin, vicarious baptism for the remission of sins, the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands…in order to qualify themselves that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit. (D&C 138:28-35)
Since baptism is necessary for salvation–“He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16)–we believe there must therefore be some kind of vicarious ordinance that permits the living to be baptized on behalf of the dead. In chapter 15 of first Corinthians Paul makes a series of arguments to prove the reality of resurrection. One of them is, “if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised” (ESV, 1 Cor. 15:13). Another is: “what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?” (ESV, 1 Cor. 15:21). Apparently the Corinthians were familiar with baptism for the dead, and Paul used it to prove the reality of the resurrection. Though Paul speaks of it obliquely–“what do people mean”–he clearly doesn’t disapprove of the practice. Consequently, neither should our Christian cousins.
One non-Mormon view
There are verses which suggest that after death the spirits of the righteous do not go to the spirit world but ascend to heaven: “while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord…yet we are confident and satisfied to be out of the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:6-7); and “I have the desire to depart and be with Christ” (Php. 1:23).
One non-LDS interpretation of the doctrine of Hades is that before the resurrection of Christ it was divided into two halves–one for the righteous and one for the wicked. But after Christ came and freed the righteous, Hades then became the abode of the wicked. The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary reads, “However, with regard to the state of the righteous and the location of paradise, Christ’s ascension has evidently worked a drastic change. The apostle Paul was ‘caught up to the third heaven…into Paradise’ (2 Cor. 12:1-4). Paradise, therefore, now denotes the immediate presence of God. When Christ ‘ascended on high’ He ‘led captive a host of captives’ (Eph. 4:8-10). Since it is immediately added that He ‘descended into the lower parts of the earth,’ evidently the paradise division of hades, He set free the saved spirit denizens of the underworld…The wicked, by contrast, are in hades.” (“Hades”). In this light some would view the following passage: “I will ransom them from the power of Sheol. I will redeem them from death. Death, where are your barbs? Sheol, where is your sting?” (HCSB, Hos. 13:14).
The Book of Mormon prophet Enos wrote (just before his death), “I soon go to the place of my rest, which is with my Redeemer; for I know that in him I shall rest” (Enos 1:27). But for Enos “with my redeemer” was an expression meaning “in him I shall rest,” and does not point to the immediate presence of God.
There is one NT passage that speaks of Hades as the current abode for the righteous dead who will at some future time be freed from Hades by the resurrection:
Now when this corruptible is clothed with incorruptibility, and this mortal is clothed with immortality, then the saying that is written will take place: Death has been swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting? (HCSB, 1 Cor. 15:54-55)
A more literal translation is needed. The Analytical-Literal Translation reads,
Now when this corruptible shall put on incorruption, and this mortal shall put on immortality, then will happen the word, the one having been written, “Death was swallowed up into victory.” “O Death, where [is] your sting? O realm of the dead [Gr., hades], where [is] your victory?” (brackets original)
Because this is a fulfillment of OT prophesy (Hos. 13:14; Isa. 25:8) it cannot be taken as a figure of speech. It clearly says that in the future resurrection Hades has no victory over the dead. The implication being it has no victory over the righteous dead, for the unrighteous are not victorious.
That the righteous are in the spirit world even after Christ visited there is also expressed by the Book of Mormon prophet Moroni. The concluding verse of the Book of Mormon reads,
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. Amen. (Moroni 10:34)
After the Final Judgment death and Hades will be cast into the lake of fire and brimstone. That is, the lake near the bad region of Hades: “Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire” (ESV, Rev. 20:14).
What of the righteous non-Christian dead?
In 1836 Joseph Smith received the following revelation
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. And I also beheld that all children who die before they arrive at the years of accountability are saved in the celestial kingdom of heaven. (D&C 137:7-10)
Our belief in salvation for the dead speaks to our confidence in the love of God and the power of the atonement of Christ–that the opportunity for salvation extends beyond mortal life.
 Protestant Theologian William Barclay writes,
Immediately Jesus goes on to say of Abraham: “He saw it (my day) and was glad.” Some of the early Christians had a very fanciful interpretation of that. In 1 Peter 3:18-22 and 4:6 we have the two passages which are the bases of that doctrine which became imbedded in the creed in the phrase, “He descended into Hell.” It is to be noted that the word Hell gives the wrong idea; it ought to be Hades. The idea is not that Jesus went to the place of the tortured and the damned, as the word Hell suggests. Hades was the land of the shadows where all the dead, good and bad alike, went; in which the Jews believed before the full belief in immortality came to them. The apocryphal work called the Gospel of Nicodemus or the Acts of Pilate had a passage which runs: “O Lord Jesus Christ, the resurrection and the life of the world, give us grace that we may tell of thy resurrection and of thy marvellous works, which thou didst In Hades. We, then, were in Hades together with all them that have fallen asleep since the beginning. And at the hour of midnight there rose upon those dark places as it were the light of the sun, and shined, and all we were enlightened and beheld one another. And straightway our father Abraham, together with the patriarchs and the prophets, were at once filled with joy and said to one another: ‘This light cometh of the great lightening.’” The dead saw Jesus and were given a chance to believe and to repent.
To us these ideas are strange; to a Jew they were quite normal… (The Daily Study Bible Series: The Gospel of John, Vol. 2, pp. 35-36)
 This man was a thief (Matt. 27:38; Mark 15:27). Jesus said to him, “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise,” that is, the good part of Hades. Though the thief was guilty, he was also repentant: “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 23:41-43).
 Albert Barnes wrote,
others [believe] that it refers to the sinners of the old world, expressing a hope that some of them might be saved; and others, that it means that the Saviour went down and preached to those who are dead, in accordance with one of the interpretations given of 1 Peter 3:19. It seems to me that the most natural and obvious interpretation is to refer it to those who were then dead, to whom the gospel had been preached when living, and who had become true Christians. (Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible)
Matthew Henry wrote about 1 Peter 3:19–“By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison”:
Because they were dead and disembodied when the apostle speaks of them, therefore he properly calls them spirits now in prison; not that they were in prison when Christ preached to them. (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible)
 I once heard an evangelical radio preacher respond to a caller who mentioned that her LDS friend used the Corinthians passage to prove that baptism for the dead was real. After she read the passage–“ why are they then baptized for the dead?”–the preacher quickly responded, “Yes, exactly. Why were they baptizing for the dead?” He then went on to condemn the practice. He clearly didn’t have a good answer for her question. Matthew Henry wrote, “But whether this be the meaning, or whatever else be, doubtless the apostle’s argument was good and intelligible to the Corinthians” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible).
The 1915 International Bible Encyclopedia reads,
Whatever “baptism for the dead” meant, it was, in Paul’s opinion, as real, valid and legitimate a premise from which to conclude that the dead would rise as his own sufferings. The natural meaning of the words is obvious. Men in Corinth, and possibly elsewhere, were being continually baptized on behalf of others who were at the time dead, with a view to benefiting them in the resurrection, but if there be no resurrection, what shall they Thus accomplish, and why do they do it? (“Baptism for the Dead”)