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:

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:

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

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:

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.

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:

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:

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:

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.