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Chapter 55: Doctrine and Covenants 137–38
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“Chapter 55: Doctrine and Covenants 137–38,” Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual (2017)

“Chapter 55,” Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual

Chapter 55

Doctrine and Covenants 137–38

Introduction and Timeline

On January 21, 1836, the Prophet Joseph Smith and other Church leaders held a special meeting in the nearly completed Kirtland Temple. On this occasion the Prophet saw a vision of the celestial kingdom, during which the Lord explained how He will judge those “who [die] without a knowledge of this gospel” (D&C 137:7). This revelation is recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 137.

On October 3, 1918, President Joseph F. Smith received the vision recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 138, which further clarified the doctrine of salvation for the dead. In this vision President Smith learned that between the Savior’s death and Resurrection, He ministered to the righteous in paradise who had been waiting for “redemption from the bands of death” (D&C 138:16). President Smith also witnessed the organization of missionary work in the spirit world.

November 19, 1823

Alvin Smith died in Palmyra, New York.

January 1836

The Kirtland Temple was almost completed.

January 21, 1836

Doctrine and Covenants 137 was received.

1918

A global influenza pandemic killed millions of people worldwide. In November, World War I ended, in which more than 17 million people died.

October 3, 1918

Doctrine and Covenants 138 was received.

April 3, 1976

Church members sustained and approved the Prophet Joseph Smith’s vision of the celestial kingdom and President Joseph F. Smith’s vision of the redemption of the dead as part of the standard works of the Church. They were added to the Pearl of Great Price.

June 1979

The First Presidency announced that Joseph Smith’s vision of the celestial kingdom (now Doctrine and Covenants 137) and Joseph F. Smith’s vision of the redemption of the dead (now Doctrine and Covenants 138) would be included in the 1981 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants.

Doctrine and Covenants 137: Additional Historical Background

“On the afternoon of 21 January 1836, [Joseph Smith] and the church presidency met in the council room above the printing office to take another step in preparation for the endowment. Following biblical precedent, these church leaders washed their bodies with water and perfumed themselves with a sweet-smelling wash.” That evening Joseph Smith, his Counselors in the First Presidency, and other Church leaders gathered in an upper room of the nearly finished Kirtland Temple. “According to Oliver Cowdery, the members of the church presidency were ‘annointed with the same kind of oil and in the man[ner] that were Moses and Aaron, and those who stood before the Lord in ancient days’ [see Exodus 40:9–15]. The presidency first anointed church patriarch Joseph Smith Sr.’s head with consecrated oil and gave him a blessing. The patriarch then anointed the church’s presidents in the order of their ages. When Joseph Smith Sr. anointed the head of [Joseph Smith], he ‘sealed upon [him], the blessings, of Moses, to lead Israel in the latter days.’

“After the patriarch blessed his son, [Joseph Smith] received blessings and prophecies under the hands of ‘all the presidency’” (in The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 5: October 1835–January 1838, ed. Brent M. Rogers and others [2017], 157).

After the Prophet Joseph Smith was blessed, “the heavens were opened” and the Prophet and several of those present had visions and revelations. Joseph Smith recorded: “Many of my brethren who received this ordinance with me, saw glorious visions also,—angels ministered unto them, as well as my self, and the power of the highest rested upon us. The house was filled with the glory of God, and we shouted Hosanah to God and the Lamb.” (In The Joseph Smith Papers, Journals, Volume 1: 1832–1839, ed. Dean C. Jesse and others [2008], 167–68, 170; punctuation and capitalization standardized.) On that occasion the Prophet had a vision of the celestial kingdom.

The Prophet Joseph Smith’s vision of the celestial kingdom, which is now recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 137, was not part of the standard works until 1976. During the April general conference of that year, the Church voted to accept this vision as scripture. While this revelation was originally placed in the Pearl of Great Price, it was determined in 1979 that it would become section 137 in the 1981 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. (See N. Eldon Tanner, “The Sustaining of Church Officers,” Ensign, May 1976, 19; “Scriptural Text for Visions Added to Pearl of Great Price,” Ensign, May 1976, 127; “Additions to D&C Approved,” Church News, June 2, 1979, 3; “Three Additions to Be in Doctrine and Covenants,” Ensign, Aug. 1979, 75.)

Church History Maps: Kirtland, Ohio, 1830-1838

Doctrine and Covenants 137

The Prophet Joseph Smith has a vision of the celestial kingdom

Doctrine and Covenants 137:1–4. “I beheld the celestial kingdom of God, and the glory thereof”

The Prophet Joseph Smith described the glory and beauty of the celestial kingdom, saying that “the gate through which the heirs of [the celestial] kingdom will enter … was like unto circling flames of fire” and “the beautiful streets of that kingdom … had the appearance of being paved with gold” (D&C 137:2, 4). In the scriptures, fire is “a symbol for cleansing, purifying, or sanctifying. Fire can also serve as a symbol of God’s presence” (Guide to the Scriptures, “Fire,” scriptures.lds.org). The color gold and the metal gold are often associated with royalty, wealth, and power.

While these images can help describe the celestial kingdom, we cannot begin to comprehend its glory. On another occasion the Prophet Joseph Smith learned that even “the glory of the telestial [kingdom] … surpasses all understanding” and “the glory of the celestial [kingdom] … excels in all things” (D&C 76:89, 92).

Doctrine and Covenants 137:1. “Whether in the body or out I cannot tell”

When the Prophet Joseph Smith described his vision of the celestial kingdom and said that he did not know “whether [he was] in the body or out” (D&C 137:1), he echoed the words the Apostle Paul used when he described being “caught up to the third heaven”: “Whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth” (2 Corinthians 12:2–3). When the Lord gives revelation to mortal men and women, He reveals truths by his Spirit to their spirits (see 1 Corinthians 2:9–14), and they become enveloped in the Spirit and filled with His glory to such an extent that they become oblivious to the things of the natural world. The Prophet Joseph Smith (1805–1844) explained this process of receiving spiritual communication: “All things whatsoever God in his infinite wisdom has seen fit and proper to reveal to us, while we are dwelling in mortality, in regard to our mortal bodies, are revealed to us in the abstract, and independent of affinity of [connection to] this mortal tabernacle, but are revealed to our spirits precisely as though we had no bodies at all” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith [2007], 475).

Doctrine and Covenants 137:5–6. “I saw … my father and my mother; my brother Alvin”

In addition to seeing God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ, the Prophet Joseph mentioned five specific individuals he saw in his vision of the celestial kingdom: “I saw Father Adam and Abraham; and my father and my mother; my brother Alvin, that has long since slept” (D&C 137:5). At the time of this vision, the Prophet’s father and mother were living and his father was present in the room. Alvin had passed away 12 years earlier, on November 19, 1823, after he became ill with painful stomach cramps. He was the oldest of the Smith children and had believed Joseph’s account of the angel Moroni’s visit and of the existence of the Book of Mormon plates. Before he died he encouraged Joseph to be obedient and faithful and to “do everything that [lay] in [his] power to obtain the [Book of Mormon] records” (in Teachings: Joseph Smith, 401).

Family History

Joseph Smith’s older brother Alvin died in November 1823 and was buried here, in Palmyra, New York.

Alvin’s death was “a great affliction” to the family (Joseph Smith—History 1:56), particularly to 17-year-old Joseph, who later wrote, “I remember well the pangs of sorrow that swelled my youthful bosom and almost burst my tender heart, when he died” (in The Joseph Smith Papers, Journals, Volume 2: December 1841–April 1843, ed. Andrew H. Hedges and others [2011], 116). “When Alvin died, the family asked a Presbyterian minister in Palmyra, New York, to officiate at his funeral. As Alvin had not been a member of the minister’s congregation, the clergyman asserted in his sermon that Alvin could not be saved. William Smith, Joseph’s younger brother, recalled: ‘[The minister] … intimated very strongly that [Alvin] had gone to hell, for Alvin was not a church member, but he was a good boy and my father did not like it’” (Teachings: Joseph Smith, 401, 403).

When the Prophet Joseph Smith saw Alvin in the celestial kingdom in the vision he received on January 21, 1836, he “marveled how it was that [Alvin] had obtained an inheritance in that kingdom, seeing that he had departed this life before the Lord had set his hand to gather Israel the second time, and had not been baptized for the remission of sins” (D&C 137:6). The Prophet had learned through translating the Book of Mormon and through other revelations that “this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God” by accepting the gospel, repenting, and being baptized (see Alma 34:32–33; see also D&C 76:51). When the Prophet received the vision recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 137, he did not yet understand vicarious work for the dead. However, four years later, on August 15, 1840, the Prophet Joseph Smith publicly taught the doctrine of baptism for the dead at a funeral. “One month after the funeral address, the Prophet visited his father, who was very ill and near death. The Prophet discussed with his father the doctrine of baptism for the dead, and Father Smith’s thoughts turned to his beloved son Alvin. Father Smith asked that the work be done for Alvin ‘immediately.’ Just minutes before he died, he declared that he saw Alvin. In the latter part of 1840, the Smith family rejoiced as Hyrum received the ordinance of baptism for his brother Alvin” (Teachings: Joseph Smith, 403).

Doctrine and Covenants 137:7–9. “All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel”

The Prophet’s vision in the Kirtland Temple in 1836, recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 137, revealed that Heavenly Father’s plan makes the blessings of salvation available to all of His children. Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explained that the plan of salvation applies to every one of God’s children: “At the time Joseph Smith received revelations and organized the Church, the vast majority of churches taught that the Savior’s Atonement would not bring about the salvation of most of mankind. The common precept was that a few would be saved and the overwhelming majority would be doomed to endless tortures of the most awful and unspeakable intensity. The marvelous doctrine revealed to the Prophet Joseph unveiled to us a plan of salvation that is applicable to all mankind, including those who do not hear of Christ in this life, children who die before the age of accountability, and those who have no understanding [see D&C 29:46–50; 137:7–10]” (“Our Father’s Plan—Big Enough for All His Children,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2009, 36–37).

While the revelation recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 137 did not explain how salvation would be available to those who die without a knowledge of the gospel or its essential saving ordinances, later revelations helped clarify this doctrine (see D&C 127; 128; 138).

Doctrine and Covenants 137:9. “I, the Lord, will judge all men … according to the desire of their hearts”

The Prophet Joseph Smith learned in the revelation recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 137 that Heavenly Father’s plan of salvation is fair and merciful to all His children. For Alvin Smith and others like him who “[die] without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry” (D&C 137:7), there is hope of obtaining the celestial kingdom. This hope centers on the doctrine that God will judge all people “according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts” (D&C 137:9).

Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles provided additional understanding of this doctrine and explained how a person’s righteous desires will allow him or her to receive the blessings of the gospel if that opportunity is not available in mortality:

“The desires of our hearts will be an important consideration in the final judgment. Alma taught that God ‘granteth unto men according to their desire, whether it be unto death or unto life; … according to their wills, whether they be unto salvation or unto destruction. Yea, … he that knoweth good and evil, to him it is given according to his desires.’ (Alma 29:4–5.)

“That is a sobering teaching, but it is also a gratifying one. It means that when we have done all that we can, our desires will carry us the rest of the way. It also means that if our desires are right, we can be forgiven for the mistakes we will inevitably make as we try to carry those desires into effect. What a comfort for our feelings of inadequacy! …

“… We should not assume that the desires of our hearts can serve as a substitute for an ordinance of the gospel. Consider the words of the Lord in commanding two gospel ordinances: ‘Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.’ (John 3:5.) And in respect to the three degrees in the celestial glory, modern revelation states, ‘In order to obtain the highest, a man must enter into this order of the priesthood [meaning the new and everlasting covenant of marriage].’ (D&C 131:2.) No exception is implied in these commands or authorized elsewhere in the scriptures.

“In the justice and mercy of God, these rigid commands pertaining to essential ordinances are tempered by divine authorization to perform those ordinances by proxy for those who did not have them performed in this life. Thus, a person in the spirit world who so desires is credited with participating in the ordinance just as if he or she had done so personally. In this manner, through the loving service of living proxies, departed spirits are also rewarded for the desires of their hearts” (“The Desires of Our Hearts,” Ensign, June 1986, 67).

Elder Neal A. Maxwell (1926–2004) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles emphasized the importance of learning to develop righteous desires:

“What we insistently desire, over time, is what we will eventually become and what we will receive in eternity. …

“… Only by educating and training our desires can they become our allies instead of our enemies!” (“According to the Desire of [Our] Hearts,” Ensign, Nov. 1996, 21–22).

Doctrine and Covenants 137:10. “All children who die before they arrive at the years of accountability are saved in the celestial kingdom”

The revelation 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) no doubt brought comfort to many Church members, including Emma and Joseph Smith, who had lost infant children to death. By the time this revelation was received, Joseph and Emma Smith had already lost four of their first six children. Of Joseph and Emma’s eleven children—nine born to them and two adopted—only five lived to adulthood (see The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 1: July 1828–June 1831, ed. Michael Hubbard McKay and others [2013], 464).

Joseph & Emma with baby Alvin - Ensign July 2012

Joseph and Emma with Baby Alvin, by Liz Lemon Swindle. Joseph and Emma Smith had eleven children (of whom two were adopted). Only five of their children lived to adulthood.

At the time of this revelation, many churches taught that children who died before they were baptized were damned, meaning that they could not be saved by God. Several latter-day scriptures, including this revelation recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 137, reveal God’s mercy to children who die before the age of accountability, which is eight years old (see Moroni 8:8–22; D&C 29:46–47; 68:25, 27).

President Thomas S. Monson provided comfort to those whose children have died before reaching the age of accountability:

“There is only one source of true peace. I am certain that the Lord, who notes the fall of a sparrow, looks with compassion upon those who have been called upon to part—even temporarily—from their precious children. The gifts of healing and of peace are desperately needed, and Jesus, through His Atonement, has provided them for one and all.

“The Prophet Joseph Smith spoke inspired words of revelation and comfort:

“‘All children who die before they arrive at the years of accountability are saved in the celestial kingdom of heaven’ [D&C 137:10].

“‘The mother [and father] who laid down [their] little child[ren], being deprived of the privilege, the joy, and the satisfaction of bringing [them] up to manhood or womanhood in this world, would, after the resurrection, have all the joy, satisfaction and pleasure, and even more than it would have been possible to have had in mortality, in seeing [their] child[ren] grow to the full measure of the stature of [their] spirit[s]’ [quoted in Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed. (1939), 453]. This is as the balm of Gilead to those who grieve, to those who have loved and lost precious children” (“Think to Thank,” Ensign, Nov. 1998, 20).

President Joseph Fielding Smith (1876–1972) taught that children who die before the age of accountability will not only be “saved in the celestial kingdom of heaven” (D&C 137:10) but will also enjoy “the privilege of all the sealing blessings which pertain to … exaltation. …

“Children who die in childhood will not be deprived of any blessing. When they grow, after the resurrection, to the full maturity of the spirit, they will be entitled to all the blessings which they would have been entitled to had they been privileged to tarry here and receive them” (Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie [1955], 2:54; see also Mosiah 15:25).

Doctrine and Covenants 138: Additional Historical Background

On October 3, 1918, President Joseph F. Smith experienced a vision of the spirit world that revealed important truths about “the redemption of the dead” (D&C 138:54, 60). He received this revelation while “pondering over the scriptures; and reflecting upon the great atoning sacrifice that was made by the Son of God” (D&C 138:1–2). The death of Joseph F. Smith’s father, Hyrum Smith, in 1844, when Joseph F. was only 5 years old, and the death of his mother, Mary Fielding Smith, in 1852, when Joseph F. was only 13 years old, aquainted him with loss at a young age. In addition, President Smith had also lost several of his own children and other family members throughout his life. This caused him significant pain and may have led to his pondering on the subject of the dead.

Hyrum Mack Smith portrait collection [ca. 1872-1910]

Hyrum Mack Smith was an Apostle and a son of President Joseph F. Smith. He died on January 23, 1918, at age 45.

The year 1918 had been an especially difficult one for President Joseph F. Smith. “In January his beloved eldest son, Elder Hyrum Mack Smith, had died suddenly of a ruptured appendix. … In February a young son-in-law died after an accidental fall. And in September, Hyrum’s wife, Ida, died just a few days after giving birth, leaving five orphaned children.” At the time of this revelation, the devastation of World War I and a worldwide flu epidemic had taken millions of lives. President Smith’s own poor health may have also been on his mind. (Lisa Olsen Tait, “Susa Young Gates and the Vision of the Redemption of the Dead,” in Revelations in Context, ed. Matthew McBride and James Goldberg [2016], 318.)

The day after President Smith received his vision of the spirit world, he spoke during the opening session of the October 1918 general conference: “I will not, I dare not, attempt to enter upon many things that are resting upon my mind this morning, and I shall postpone until some future time, the Lord being willing, my attempt to tell you some of the things that are in my mind, and that dwell in my heart. I have not lived alone these five months. I have dwelt in the spirit of prayer, of supplication, of faith and of determination; and I have had my communications with the Spirit of the Lord continuously” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1918, 2).

Beehive House

President Joseph F. Smith received a vision of the spirit world in October 1918, while he was living in the Beehive House in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Ten days after the conference, President Smith dictated his vision of the spirit world to his son Joseph Fielding Smith, who was then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. President Smith’s counselors in the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and the Patriarch to the Church approved the vision as revelation on October 31, 1918. (See Tait, “Susa Young Gates,” 319; D&C 138, section heading.) The written account of the vision was added to the Pearl of Great Price in 1976. In 1979 the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles announced that the vision would be added to the Doctrine and Covenants as section 138 in the 1981 edition of the scriptures (see “Additions to D&C Approved,” Church News, June 2, 1979, 3).

Church History Maps: The Westward Movement of the Church

Doctrine and Covenants 138:1–11

President Joseph F. Smith “ponder[s] over the scriptures” and has a vision of the spirit world

Doctrine and Covenants 138:1–11. “As I pondered over these things”

President Joseph F. Smith’s experience while “pondering over the scriptures; and reflecting upon the great atoning sacrifice that was made by the Son of God, for the redemption of the world” (D&C 138:1–2) illustrates that the Lord blesses those who seek to study and learn by pondering the scriptures. To ponder means “to meditate and think deeply, often upon the scriptures or other things of God. When combined with prayer, pondering the things of God may bring revelation and understanding” (Guide to the Scriptures, “Ponder,” scriptures.lds.org).

Addressing the youth during general conference, Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles described how to incorporate pondering during scripture study: “It is a good thing sometimes to read a book of scripture within a set period of time to get an overall sense of its message, but for conversion, you should care more about the amount of time you spend in the scriptures than about the amount you read in that time. I see you sometimes reading a few verses, stopping to ponder them, carefully reading the verses again, and as you think about what they mean, praying for understanding, asking questions in your mind, waiting for spiritual impressions, and writing down the impressions and insights that come so you can remember and learn more. Studying in this way, you may not read a lot of chapters or verses in a half hour, but you will be giving place in your heart for the word of God, and He will be speaking to you” (“When Thou Art Converted,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2004, 11).

Doctrine and Covenants 138:3–4. “Through his atonement … mankind might be saved”

In describing what led to his vision of the spirit world, President Joseph F. Smith taught that “the great and wonderful love” of “the Father and the Son” was “made manifest … in the coming of the Redeemer into the world” (D&C 138:3). He also taught that “through [the Savior’s] atonement, and by obedience to the principles of the gospel, mankind might be saved” (D&C 138:4). This doctrine is a major message of President Smith’s vision and applies to both the living and the dead.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explained that the Atonement of Jesus Christ offers Heavenly Father’s children unconditional and conditional gifts, which both the living and the dead have access to:

“Some gifts coming from the Atonement [of Jesus Christ] are universal, infinite, and unconditional. These include His ransom for Adam’s original transgression … [see Articles of Faith 1:2]. Another universal gift is the Resurrection from the dead of every man, woman, and child who lives, has ever lived, or ever will live on earth.

“Other aspects of Christ’s atoning gift are conditional. They depend on one’s diligence in keeping God’s commandments. For example, while all members of the human family are freely given a reprieve from Adam’s sin through no effort of their own, they are not given a reprieve from their own sins unless they pledge faith in Christ, repent of those sins, are baptized in His name, receive the gift of the Holy Ghost and confirmation into Christ’s Church, and press forward in faithful endurance the remainder of life’s journey. …

“Of course neither the unconditional nor the conditional blessings of the Atonement are available except through the grace of Christ. Obviously the unconditional blessings of the Atonement are unearned, but the conditional ones are not fully merited either. By living faithfully and keeping the commandments of God, one can receive additional privileges; but they are still given freely, not technically earned. The Book of Mormon declares emphatically that ‘there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah’ [2 Nephi 2:8].

“By this same grace, God provides for the salvation of little children, the mentally impaired, those who lived without hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ, and so forth: these are redeemed by the universal power of the Atonement of Christ and will have the opportunity to receive the fulness of the gospel after death, in the spirit world, where spirits reside while awaiting the Resurrection [see Alma 40:11; D&C 138; compare Luke 23:43; John 5:25]” (“The Atonement of Jesus Christ,” Ensign, Mar. 2008, 35–37).

Doctrine and Covenants 138:5–11. “I … read the third and fourth chapters of the first epistle of Peter”

President Joseph F. Smith’s vision recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 138 clarified the meaning of Peter’s words that Christ “suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us unto God” and that he “went and preached unto the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:18–19). “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). Additionally, President Joseph Fielding Smith, President Joseph F. Smith’s son, provided the following interpretation of Peter’s teachings: “The Savior inaugurated this great work [of the redemption of the dead] when he went and preached to the spirits held in prison, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh (or in other words, according to the principles of the gospel) and then live according to God in the spirit, through their repentance and acceptance of the mission of Jesus Christ who died for them” (Doctrines of Salvation, 2:132–33).

Doctrine and Covenants 138:12–24

President Joseph F. Smith sees the righteous in the spirit world waiting for the Savior to appear

Doctrine and Covenants 138:12–19, 23–24. “Firm in the hope of a glorious resurrection”

President Joseph F. Smith saw “an innumerable company” and a “vast multitude” of righteous souls who had lived from the time of Adam to the time of Jesus Christ’s death, who were gathered to meet the Savior (D&C 138:12, 18). These righteous men and women were “faithful in the testimony of Jesus while they lived in mortality” and “had departed the mortal life, firm in the hope of a glorious resurrection” (D&C 138:12, 14). Nevertheless, these righteous spirits viewed themselves as bound by “the bands of death” or the “chains of death” and as “captives” (D&C 138:16, 18). These spirits “looked upon the long absence of their spirits from their bodies as a bondage” (D&C 138:50). Therefore, they viewed the moment when “the Son of God appeared” in the spirit world as “the hour of their deliverance” (D&C 138:18). As promised by the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, the Redeemer would “[declare] liberty to the captives who had been faithful” (D&C 138:18; see also Isaiah 61:1). This deliverance was made possible when Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead, opening the way for all of Heavenly Father’s children to also be resurrected.

Elder Paul V. Johnson of the Seventy explained: “After resurrection, the spirit will never again be separated from the body because the Savior’s Resurrection brought total victory over death. In order to obtain our eternal destiny, we need to have this immortal soul—a spirit and body—united forever. With spirit and immortal body inseparably connected, we can ‘receive a fulness of joy’ [D&C 93:33; 138:17]. In fact, without the Resurrection we could never receive a fulness of joy but would be miserable forever [see 2 Nephi 9:8–9; D&C 93:34]. Even faithful, righteous people view the separation of their bodies from their spirits as captivity. We are released from this captivity through the Resurrection, which is redemption from the bands or chains of death [see D&C 138:14–19]. There is no salvation without both our spirit and our body” (“And There Shall Be No More Death,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2016, 122).

Doctrine and Covenants 138:12–17. “The spirit and the body to be united never again to be divided”

Jesus Christ. The Empty Tomb

Jesus Christ visited the spirit world while His body lay in a tomb (see D&C 138:16–18).

While Jesus Christ’s followers in Jerusalem experienced sorrow and confusion as they observed His Crucifixion (see Matthew 27:55–58; Mark 15:40–43; Luke 23:49; John 19:25–27), the Savior’s appearance in the spirit world following His death was met with “rejoicing” (D&C 138:18). The spirits of the faithful Saints who were “awaiting the advent of the Son of God into the spirit world” knew that they would receive “redemption from the bands of death,” which would bring about a reuniting of their physical bodies with their spirits, “never again to be divided” (D&C 138:16–17). The Prophet Joseph Smith stated: “We came to this earth that we might have a body and present it pure before God in the celestial kingdom. The great principle of happiness consists of having a body” (Teachings: Joseph Smith, 211).

President Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explained: “Eventually the time will come when each ‘spirit and … body shall be reunited again in … perfect form; both limb and joint shall be restored to its proper frame’ [Alma 11:43; see also Ecclesiastes 12:7; Alma 40:23; D&C 138:17], never to be separated again” (“Thanks Be to God,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2012, 79).

Doctrine and Covenants 138:20–22. “But unto the wicked he did not go”

Relating his vision of Jesus Christ’s visit to the spirit world, President Joseph F. Smith noted that the Savior “did not go … among the ungodly and the unrepentant who had defiled themselves while in the flesh” (D&C 138:20). Nor did He visit “the rebellious who rejected the testimonies and the warnings of the ancient prophets” (D&C 138:21). According to Doctrine and Covenants 138:37, the Savior “could not go personally” to the wicked “because of their rebellion and transgression.”

President Smith also described the differences between the state of the wicked and that of the righteous in the spirit world: “Where [the wicked] were, darkness reigned, but among the righteous there was peace” (D&C 138:22; see also Alma 40:12–14). Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1915–1985) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught that before the Savior’s visit to the spirit world, there was a “gulf” between the righteous and wicked spirits:

“Before Christ bridged the gulf between paradise and hell—so that the righteous could mingle with the wicked and preach them the gospel—the wicked in hell were confined to locations which precluded them from contact with the righteous in paradise. …

“Now that the righteous spirits in paradise have been commissioned to carry the message of salvation to the wicked spirits in hell, there is a certain amount of mingling together of the good and bad spirits. Repentance opens the prison doors to the spirits in hell; it enables those bound with the chains of hell to free themselves from darkness, unbelief, ignorance, and sin. As rapidly as they can overcome these obstacles—gain light, believe truth, acquire intelligence, cast off sin, and break the chains of hell—they can leave the hell that imprisons them and dwell with the righteous in the peace of paradise” (Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. [1966], 755).

Doctrine and Covenants 138:25–60

President Joseph F. Smith learns how the Savior organized the preaching of the gospel in the spirit world

Doctrine and Covenants 138:30–37. “That they might be judged according to men in the flesh”

In his vision of the Savior’s visit to the spirit world, President Joseph F. Smith learned that to fulfill God’s plan to bring about the redemption of the dead, “messengers clothed with power and authority” were “commissioned … to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness, even to all the spirits of men” and “to those who had died in their sins, without a knowledge of the truth, or in transgression, having rejected the prophets” (D&C 138:30, 32). The message taught to these spirits is centered on the doctrine of Jesus Christ and is the same message taught to Heavenly Father’s children who are living (see D&C 138:33–34). All people—both living and dead—who desire entrance into Heavenly Father’s kingdom must receive the principles and ordinances of the gospel. In our dispensation this was made possible for the dead beginning on August 15, 1840, when the Prophet Joseph Smith introduced the doctrine of vicarious baptism for the dead (see Teachings: Joseph Smith, 403). Whether individuals hear the gospel in mortality or in the spirit world, Heavenly Father ensures that all will have the opportunity to accept or reject the gospel so that all of His children can be judged according to the same standard.

Doctrine and Covenants 138:38–52. “Among the great and mighty ones”

In describing his vision of the spirit world, President Joseph F. Smith listed the names of a number of ancient prophets and other individuals, including “our glorious Mother Eve, with many of her faithful daughters” (D&C 138:39), who were among the righteous spirits whom the Savior instructed. These persons were given “power to come forth, after [Jesus Christ’s] resurrection from the dead, to enter into his Father’s kingdom, there to be crowned with immortality and eternal life, and … be partakers of all blessings which were held in reserve for those that love him” (D&C 138:51–52), which blessings are made possible through the ordinances and power of the priesthood.

Doctrine and Covenants 138:53–56. “Received their first lessons in the world of spirits”

The Old Testament prophet Abraham was given a vision in which he saw the premortal world. He saw that among all of God’s spirit children, some, like Abraham himself, were “noble and great” and were “chosen” to become “rulers” in God’s kingdom on earth (Abraham 3:22–23). President Joseph F. Smith also saw many “noble and great ones” in his vision of the spirit world (D&C 138:55), and these “noble and great ones” included his father, Hyrum Smith; his uncle the Prophet Joseph Smith; and other early Church leaders (D&C 138:53). President Smith also observed that, in addition to these leaders, there were “many others” who “received their first lessons in the world of spirits and were prepared to come forth in the due time of the Lord to labor in his vineyard for the salvation of the souls of men” (D&C 138:56). This refers to the doctrine of foreordination, which teaches that “in the premortal spirit world, God appointed certain spirits to fulfill specific missions during their mortal lives. … Foreordination does not guarantee that individuals will receive certain callings or responsibilities. Such opportunities come in this life as a result of the righteous exercise of agency, just as foreordination came as a result of righteousness in the premortal existence” (“Foreordination,” topics.lds.org).

While speaking of the importance of developing our spiritual natures, President Russell M. Nelson taught:

“Your spirit is an eternal entity. …

“Your Heavenly Father has known you for a very long time. You, as His son or daughter, were chosen by Him to come to earth at this precise time, to be a leader in His great work on earth [See Alma 13:2–3; D&C 138:38–57]. You were chosen not for your bodily characteristics but for your spiritual attributes, such as bravery, courage, integrity of heart, a thirst for truth, a hunger for wisdom, and a desire to serve others.

“You developed some of these attributes premortally. Others you can develop here on earth as you persistently seek them [see 1 Corinthians 12; 14:1–12; Moroni 10:8–19; D&C 46:10–29]” (“Decisions for Eternity,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2013, 107).

Doctrine and Covenants 138:54. “The building of the temples and the performance of ordinances therein for the redemption of the dead”

Cedar City Utah Temple

The performance of temple ordinances makes possible the redemption of the dead (see D&C 138:54).

President Joseph F. Smith emphasized the important role temples and vicarious ordinance work have in the salvation of the dead: “We will not finish our work until we have saved ourselves, and then not until we shall have saved all depending upon us; for we are to become saviors upon Mount Zion, as well as Christ. We are called to this mission. The dead are not perfect without us, neither are we without them [see D&C 128:18]. We have a mission to perform for and in their behalf; we have a certain work to do in order to liberate those who, because of their ignorance and the unfavorable circumstances in which they were placed while here, are unprepared for eternal life; we have to open the door for them, by performing ordinances which they cannot perform for themselves, and which are essential to their release from the ‘prison-house,’ to come forth and live according to God in the spirit, and be judged according to men in the flesh [see D&C 138:33–34]” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith [1998], 410).

Doctrine and Covenants 138:57. “The faithful … continue their labors … in the great world of the spirits of the dead”

“The spirits of the dead” (D&C 138:57) must hear the message of the gospel if they are to exercise faith in Jesus Christ, repent of their sins, and receive vicarious ordinances performed on their behalf (see D&C 138:33). President Joseph F. Smith saw in his vision “that the faithful elders of this dispensation, when they depart from mortal life, continue their labors in the preaching of the gospel … among those who are in darkness and under the bondage of sin in the great world of the spirits of the dead” (D&C 138:57). Years before President Smith had this vision, President Wilford Woodruff (1807–1898) taught the following about missionary work in the spirit world: “Every Apostle, every Seventy, every Elder, etc., that has died in the faith as soon as he passes to the other side of the v[e]il, enters into the work of the ministry, and there is a thousand times more to preach [to] there than there is here. … They have work on the other side of the v[e]il; and they want men, and they call them” (in “Discourse by Prest. Wilford Woodruff,” Deseret News, Jan. 25, 1882, 818).

President Joseph F. Smith taught that along with men, faithful women are also called to preach the gospel in the spirit world: “Now, among all these millions of spirits that have lived on the earth and have passed away, from generation to generation, since the beginning of the world, without the knowledge of the gospel—among them you may count that at least one-half are women. Who is going to preach the gospel to the women? Who is going to carry the testimony of Jesus Christ to the hearts of the women who have passed away without a knowledge of the gospel? Well, to my mind, it is a simple thing. These good sisters who have been set apart, ordained to the work, called to it, authorized by the authority of the holy Priesthood to minister for their sex, in the House of God for the living and for the dead, will be fully authorized and empowered to preach the gospel and minister to the women” (Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed. [1939], 461).

Doctrine and Covenants 138:58–60. “The dead who repent will be redeemed”

Just as Heavenly Father’s children living on earth are free to accept or reject the gospel message as taught to them, the dead are able to choose whether to accept the vicarious work performed on their behalf. President Lorenzo Snow (1814–1901) taught about how the gospel will be received by those in the spirit world: “I believe, strongly too, 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” (“Discourse by President Lorenzo Snow,” The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Jan. 22, 1894, 50).