One side effect of serving a mission is that all of your habits, your routines, are thrown out the window and replaced. This is quite literally painful. You feel it when a nice evening drizzle settles in after dinner and you have to jump back on your bike instead of curling up with a good book. When you run out of milk but it’s not P-day and you can’t shop for more. Or when your credit card gets eaten by the ATM and you can’t get it sorted out without permission from your mission president to call the credit card company. And perhaps the worst of it comes when you miss family events. Christmas, family vacations, birthdays, deaths and births, not just because you can’t be there with them, but because you can’t even take a break.
In the newness of these emotions I began to wonder about the spirit world. I asked myself, “is this what it will be like to die and be separated from life for a time? Will my habits cause my spirit pain?”
We know that when we die our spirits and our bodies will be divided, and that our spirits will look like our bodies, in their perfect, adult form. (Ether 3:16, and Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith 1998, 131-32) After that separation occurs, then what?
Alma says, “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”. (Alma 40:11)
President Joseph Fielding Smith further clarified this scripture, “These words of Alma as I understand them, do not intend to convey the thought that all spirits go back into the presence of God… For instance: a man spends a stated time in some foreign mission field. When he is released and returns to the United States, he may say, ‘It is wonderful to be back home’; yet his home may be somewhere in Utah or Idaho or some other part of the West” (Answers to Gospel Questions, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith Jr., 5 vols. [1957–66], 2:85).
So, although I will be separated from the life I’ve loved here on earth, I will also be returning home, or at least returning to something familiar.
There is another joy I have to look forward to in the spirit world. In the words of President Russell M. Nelson, “Our limited perspective would be enlarged if we could witness the reunion on the other side of the veil, when doors of death open to those returning home. Such was the vision of the psalmist who wrote, ‘Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.’ (Ps. 116:15.)”
We will not spend the time between death and resurrection alone. In the words of President Brigham Young, “The spirits that dwell in these tabernacles on this earth, when they leave them go directly into this world of spirits. What! A congregated mass of inhabitants there in spirit, mingling with each other, as they do here? Yes, brethren, they are there together, and if they associate together, and collect together, in clans and in societies as they do here, it is their privilege. No doubt they yet, more or less, see, hear, converse and have to do with each other, both good and bad.”
President Young’s counselor Jedediah M. Grant saw the spirit world in vision and the people he saw were still organized in family groups. … He warned, however, that, ‘When I looked at families, there was a deficiency in some, … for I saw families that would not be permitted to come and dwell together, because they had not honored their calling here’” (Deseret News, Dec. 10, 1856, 316–17).
Surprisingly, the spirits of the deceased do not seem to be limited to mingling with others who have passed away. Mingling even happens between the living world and the dead. Speaking about Joseph Smith, President Taylor once remarked, “If you were to ask Joseph what sort of a looking man Adam was, he would tell you at once; he would tell you his size and appearance and all about him. You might have asked him what sort of men Peter, James and John were, and he could have told you. Why? Because he had seen them.” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith
President Wilford Woodruff seems to have enjoyed a similar gift. We have record of him visiting with Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, George A. Smith, Jedediah M. Grant. George Washington, Christopher Columbus, Abraham Lincoln, and many other men of great distinction following their deaths. In fact, Section 107 of the Doctrine and Covenants lists one of the privileges of holding the Melchezidek Priesthood as “to have the heavens opened… to commune with the general assembly and church of the Firstborn” (D&C 107:19) which Truman G. Madsen explained to mean the righteous men and women who fulfilled their missions upon the Earth and are serving in the Spirit World or from within Celestial Glory. These people are not limited to the very famous of their day. Wilford Woodruff, upon greeting a man whose father had recently passed away, commented, “You know, I don’t think I’ve seen your father since he died.” Leaving the impression that it was remarkably common for him to see all sorts of people he knew following death.
Many people have reported dreams and visions of loved ones who have died. Heber J Grant, who lost his first wife and then both of his sons before adolescence, shared a story from the last night of Heber (his last son’s) life. He said he had a dream that his first wife sent a messenger to take his son while President Grant was sleeping. Soon he was awakened because his son was about to die. He told no one of his dream, but joined his second wife and son. He felt that his first wife was sitting in one of the empty chairs near his, and he turned to his second wife to ask if she felt anything strange. She said she felt certain that Heber’s mother was sitting in the chair between them to take Heber home. 1977 Ensign article
There are even accounts of the deceased guiding and defending their living family members. In May 1986 100+ school children and teachers were taken hostage in Cokeville, Wyoming by a man and his wife and a large bomb. Although the bomb detonated in the midst of the crowded classroom, only the instigators were killed. Multiple children claimed to have received help from adults they hadn’t ever seen before, dressed in white. Some said they were instructed to stand by the windows, or to hide in specific places. Some said that a stranger led them out of the room after the bomb went off and told them not to go back. One boy claimed there were angels for everyone in the room and that they eventually held hands in a ring around the bomb, flying up into the sky with the explosion, providing an unconventional answer for why a bomb that should have leveled the whole wing exploded almost entirely upward. Many of the children later identified their helpers from family photo albums as grandparents, great-grandparents, or aunts that had died. LDS Living Magazine article
Jesus Christ in the World of Spirits
The spirit world we will find when we die operates significantly different now than it did 2000 years ago, and for that we thank the Savior. According to Bruce R. McConkie, “Until the death of Christ these two spirit abodes, paradise and hell, were separated by a great gulf, with the intermingling of their respective inhabitants strictly forbidden (Luke 16:19-31). After our Lord bridged the gulf between the two (1 Pet. 3:18-21 Moses 7:37-39), the affairs of his kingdom in the spirit world were so arranged that righteous spirits began teaching the gospel to wicked ones”
According to D&C 138, in the three days between his death and resurrection Jesus Christ organized a mission and authorized the teaching of the gospel to the dead in spirit prison. Those who are true to our covenants in this life will participate in that work. Our activity in the church will influence our role.
We also know that the level of priesthood authority we attain in this life will matter in the Spirit World. President Harold B. Lee told a story about extending a calling to a stake president who died soon after being sustained. President Joseph Fielding Smith counseled him, “Don’t you let that bother you. If you have called a man to a position in this church and he dies the next day, that position would have a bearing on what he will be called to do when he leaves this earth.” Conference Report, Oct. 1972, 129-30; or Ensign, Jan. 1973, 107
Though death is a difficult and frightening thing from this side of the veil, it seems that the spirit world is a place teaming with life! I suppose that the righteous will find it to be a familiar place, full of familiar people who love them, and busy with important and exciting work to be done. I can’t say I’m anxious to get there quite yet, but maybe it won’t be so bad after all.