The Book of Mormon teaches extensively about life after death. For example, multiple Book of Mormon prophets testify that we will be resurrected—that our spirit will be reunited with a perfect version of our body, never again to die.
The prophet Alma understood this doctrine. But, as he shared with his son Corianton, he wanted to know more. Specifically, he wondered what happens to us between death and the resurrection. In other words, what happens to us immediately after we die?
Alma “inquired diligently of the Lord” to learn the answer to his question. This is what he learned:
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,… shall be cast out into outer darkness….
Now this is the state of the souls of the wicked, yea, in darkness, and a state of awful, fearful looking for 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 (Alma 40:11-14).
So there is a division that occurs immediately after we die. We briefly return to God’s presence and are then assigned to one of two locations or conditions. The righteous enter paradise, while the wicked enter a place characterized by darkness and fear. Alma called it “outer darkness,” but we generally refer to it as “spirit prison.” (See Gospel Topics, “Spirit World.”) According to Alma, all of us will remain in one of those two states until the resurrection.
In the year 1918, Joseph F. Smith received additional insights about the spirit world. He had lost twenty close family members before that time. During that year, he lost three more: his son Hyrum, his son-in-law Alonzo Kesler, and his daughter-in-law Ida Bowman Smith. He was also distraught about the global death toll—in the tens of millions—from the First World War and a global flu pandemic.
On Thursday, October 3, 1918, as President Smith sat pondering the scriptures, he felt prompted to read two passages in the New Testament:
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, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water (1 Peter 3:18-20).
For 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 Peter 4:6).
Both of these passages speak of people in spirit prison, who had been disobedient to God during their mortal lives and were suffering the consequences of their disobedience. In both passages, the apostle Peter testified that the Savior had taught them the gospel.
Knowing that the Savior was resurrected only a few days after His crucifixion, President Smith wondered how it was possible for Him to preach to so many spirits. As he pondered this question, he received his answer:
My eyes were opened, and my understanding quickened, and I perceived that 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, clothed with power and authority, 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 (Doctrine and Covenants 138:29-30).
So the spirits in paradise are not just waiting for the resurrection, they are actively engaged in the Savior’s work: preaching the gospel to the spirits of men and women who are not yet in paradise.
President Smith saw many individuals participating in this effort, including Father Adam, Mother Eve, and many of the ancient prophets. He also saw his own father, Hyrum Smith, as well as his uncle, Joseph Smith, both of whom had died when he was very young (Doctrine and Covenants 138:38-39, 53).
As his great-grandson, M. Russell Ballard, observed:
We can only imagine his joy at seeing his beloved father and uncle. He must have been inspired and comforted to know that all spirits retain the likeness of their mortal body and that they are anxiously awaiting the day of their promised resurrection. The vision revealed more fully the depth and breadth of Heavenly Father’s plan for His children and Christ’s redeeming love and the matchless power of His Atonement (“The Vision of the Redemption of the Dead,” General Conference, October 2018).
President Russell M. Nelson has repeatedly defined the work of the church in an expansive way, which includes both those who are living and those who are in the spirit world:
Our message to the world is simple and sincere: we invite all of God’s children on both sides of the veil to come unto their Savior, receive the blessings of the holy temple, have enduring joy, and qualify for eternal life (“Let Us All Press On,” General Conference, April 2018).
Today, I will be grateful for the diligent efforts of prophets, including Alma and Joseph F. Smith, which have enhanced my understanding of the postmortal life. I will remember that our efforts to share the gospel are not limited to this life. The work of salvation continues beyond the grave.