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