Mormonism and Early Christianity:

The Nature of the Spirit World

by Barry Bickmore

©1997. All Rights Reserved.

Reference Info - glossary of ancient Christian writers and documents, guide to abbreviations, bibliography.

If one were to ask a mainstream Christian what happens to the spirit in man at death, most would probably say that it goes directly either to heaven or hell, even though the Bible clearly teaches the final judgement will not occur until after the millennial reign of Christ.1 However, Christ taught that there is an intermediate state of the soul between death and the resurrection. In this stage of action there are two main divisions, which He called Paradise, or Abraham's bosom, and hell. For example, "Jesus said unto [the thief], Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise."2 The parable of Lazarus and the rich man makes clear that the gulf between the two divisions was impassable:

    And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.... [Abraham says to the rich man] And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.3

But paradise, or "Abraham's bosom", cannot be equated with the kingdom of God, for at his resurrection Jesus told Mary: "Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father."4

Joseph Smith not only restored this simple distinction, but added many other bits of knowledge about the world of spirits, which are not clearly taught in the Bible. The Book of Mormon teaches that the world of spirits is divided into two parts: paradise, which is where the righteous dwell, and hell, which is where the wicked receive punishment.5 And yet, it is all one world of spirits: "Hades, sheol, paradise, spirits in prison, are all one: it is a world of spirits. The righteous and the wicked all go to the same world of spirits until the resurrection."6 Those who enter the spirit world are capable of being instructed, and great progress may be made there toward perfection.7 The punishment the wicked receive in hell, by which they may be purified of their sins, will have an end8, though not until the wicked have "paid the uttermost farthing"9, as Jesus said. This world is located right here on the earth, according to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.10 The "great gulf" between hell and paradise was destroyed by Jesus Christ, who made it possible for the gospel to be preached to the spirits in hell, so that they may advance to paradise.11 Finally, when Christ was resurrected, the bodies of many of the righteous dead who had gone before were resurrected as well.12

Several early Christian writers preached strikingly similar doctrines to the Prophet's. For example, Justin Martyr held to the belief in the two-fold division of the world of spirits:

    The souls of the pious remain in a better place, while those of the unjust and wicked are in a worse, waiting for the time of judgment. Thus some which have appeared worthy of God never die; but others are punished so long as God wills them to exist and to be punished.13

Irenaeus was emphatic that even believers must be taken to the underworld:

    For as the Lord "went away in the midst of the shadow of death," where the souls of the dead were, yet afterwards arose in the body, and after the resurrection was taken up [into heaven], it is manifest that the souls of His disciples also, upon whose account the Lord underwent these things, shall go away into the invisible place allotted to them by God, and there remain until the resurrection, awaiting that event.14

Tertullian not only preached that everyone must serve a term in the underworld, but he also taught that the spirit world is under the earth, and the fact that the souls of the wicked are punished there proves that the soul is material. He taught that the punishments in spirit hell will have an end, as well:

    By ourselves the lower regions (of Hades) are not supposed to be a bare cavity, nor some subterranean sewer of the world, but a vast deep space in the interior of the earth, and a concealed recess in its very bowels; inasmuch as we read that Christ in His death spent three days in the heart of the earth.... Now although Christ is God, yet, being also man, "He died according to the Scriptures," and "according to the same Scriptures was buried." With the same law of His being He fully complied, by remaining in Hades in the form and condition of a dead man; nor did He ascend into the heights of heaven before descending into the lower parts of the earth, that He might there make the patriarchs and prophets partakers of Himself. (This being the case), you must suppose Hades to be a subterranean region, and keep at arm's length those who are too proud to believe that the souls of the faithful deserve a place in the lower regions.15

    Therefore, whatever amount of punishment or refreshment the soul tastes in Hades, in its prison or lodging, in the fire or in Abraham's bosom, it gives proof thereby of its own corporeality. For an incorporeal thing suffers nothing, not having that which makes it capable of suffering; else, if it has such capacity, it must be a bodily substance. For in as far as every corporeal thing is capable of suffering, in so far is that which is capable of suffering also corporeal.16

    All souls, therefore; are shut up within Hades: do you admit this? (It is true, whether) you say yes or no.... Why, then, cannot you suppose that the soul undergoes punishment and consolation in Hades in the interval, while it awaits its alternative of judgment, in a certain anticipation either of gloom or of glory?... What, then, is to take place in that interval? Shall we sleep? But souls do not sleep.... Or will you have it, that nothing is there done whither the whole human race is attracted, and whither all man's expectation is postponed for safe keeping?... Now really, would it not be the highest possible injustice, even in Hades, if all were to be still well with the guilty even there, and not well with the righteous even yet?... In short, inasmuch as we understand "the prison" pointed out in the Gospel to be Hades, and as we also interpret "the uttermost farthing" to mean the very smallest offence which has to be recompensed there before the resurrection, no one will hesitate to believe that the soul undergoes in Hades some compensatory discipline, without prejudice to the full process of the resurrection, when the recompense will be administered through the flesh besides.17

Origen not only taught about the division in the spirit world, but called it both a place of learning and of punishment, and indicated that it was located on the earth. The inhabitants of Paradise will receive instruction, while the inmates of hell will be punished to purify them from their sins. And if their souls can be purified, this punishment must have an end, just as Joseph Smith said.

    ... those who, departing this world in virtue of that death which is common to all, are arranged, in conformity with their actions and deserts - according as they shall be deemed worthy - some in the place which is called "hell," others in the bosom of Abraham, and in diferent localities or mansions.18

    I think, therefore, that all the saints who depart form this life will remain in some place situated on the earth, which holy Scripture calls paradise, as in some place of instruction, and, so to speak, class-room or school of souls, in which they are to be instructed regarding all the things which they had seen on earth, and are to receive also some information respecting things that are to follow in the future....19

    ... we find a certain confirmation of what is said regarding the place of punishment, intended for the purification of such souls as are to be purified by torments, agreeably to the saying: "The Lord cometh like a refiner's fire, and like fullers' soap: and He shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver and of gold."20

Ignatius taught that when Christ descended to the spirit world, he tore down the wall separating its two regions and arose from the dead accompanied by a multitude:

    "Many bodies of the saints that slept arose," their graves being opened. He descended, indeed, into Hades alone, but He arose accompanied by a multitude and rent asunder that means [lit. "fence" or "hedge'] of separation which had existed from the beginning of the world, and cast down its partition wall.21

This type of imagery is common in early Christian descriptions of Christ's descent into the spirit world. The descent is always represented as an utter sacking of the place where Christ rips apart the gates, throws down the partition walls, and leaves with the righteous dead. Thus Athanasius:

    He burst open the gates of brass, He broke through the bolts of iron, and He took the souls which were in Amente [the Egyptian name for the underworld] and carried them to His Father....Now the souls He brought out of Amente, but the bodies He raised up on the earth....And the Lord died on behalf of every one, in order that every one should rise from the dead with Him.22

A Coptic apocryphal document attributed to Bartholomew, as well as the apocryphal Gospel of Bartholomew , the Letter of Jesus to King Abgar, and the Gospel of Nicodemus describe the descent in nearly identical terms:

    He broke in pieces the doors, and smashed their bolts, and dragged away and destroyed the door-posts and frames. He overthrew the blazing furnaces of brass and extinguished their fires, and, removing everything from Amente, left it like a desert....So Jesus went down [into Amente, and] scattered [the fiends], and cast chains on the Devil, and redeemed Adam and all his sons; He delivered man, and He shewed compassion upon His own image; He set free all creation, and all the world, and He treated with healing medicine the wound which the Enemy had inflicted on His Son. He brought back into His fold the sheep which had gone astray - He the holy and faithful Shepherd.23

    Then did I enter in and scourged [Hades] and bound him with chains that cannot be loosed, and brought forth thence all the patriarchs....24

    ... he humbled himself, and died and debased his divinity and was crucified, and descended into Hades, and burst the bars which from eternity had not been broken, and raised the dead; for he descended alone, but rose with many, and thus ascended to his Father.25

    There came, then, again a voice saying: Lift up the gates. Hades, hearing the voice the second time, answered as if forsooth he did not know, and says: Who is this King of glory? The angels of the Lord say: The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle. And immediately with these words the brazen gates were shattered, and the iron bars broken, and all the dead who had been bound came out of the prisons, and we with them. And the King of glory came in in the form of a man, and all the dark places of Hades were lighted up.26

And we shall see that Joseph Smith's doctrine that the gospel is now being preached to the spirits in hell was widespread in early Christianity, as well.


1 See Revelation 20:7-13.

2 Luke 23:43.

3 Luke 16:22,23,26.

4 John 20:17.

5 Alma 40:11-14.

6 Smith, ed., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 310.

7 Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, vol. 2, p. 18.

8 D&C 19.

9 Matthew 5:26.

10 McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, p. 762.

11 1 Peter 3:18-20; 4:6; D&C 138.

12 Matthew 27:52, Alma 40:20.

13 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 5, in ANF 1:197. cf. Davies, The Early Christian Church, p. 100.

14 Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5:31, in ANF 1:560-561.

15 Tertullian, On the Soul 55, in ANF 3:231.

16 Tertullian, On the Soul 7, in ANF 3:187.

17 Tertullian, On the Soul 58, in ANF 3:234-235.

18 Origen, De Principiis 4:1:23, in ANF 4:372.

19 Origen, De Principiis 2:11:6, in ANF 4:299.

20 Origen, Against Celsus 6:25, in ANF 4:584.

21 Ignatius, Trallians 9, in ANF 1:70.

22 Discourse of Apa Athanasius Concerning the Soul and the Body, in Budge, Coptic Homilies, pp. 271-272.

23 Book of the Resurrection of Christ by Bartholomew the Apostle, in Budge, Coptic Apocrypha, p. 184.

24 The Gospel of Bartholomew, in ANT, p. 169.

25 From a Syriac appendage to a letter from Jesus to King Abgar, in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 1:13, in NPNF Series 2, 1:102.

26 The Gospel of Nicodemus, in ANF 8:438.