Doctrine and Covenants section 138, the last section in the book, is my favorite revelation in all the scriptures. I hope that by the time you are finished reading this it will be one of your favorites as well. This vision on the redemption of the dead was given to Joseph F. Smith as he sat reading and pondering the scriptures while in his study one evening.
While President Smith was pondering over the crucifixion and atonement of Christ, he thought of something the apostle Paul said of Christ, referring to the time that Christ spent in the spirit world between his death and resurrection (D&C 138:7 – 10).
“For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:
“By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;
“Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water” (1 Peter 3:18–20).
“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).
The Great Unity of the Gospel
There are a number of parts here which all weave together into one blissful union at a key moment in time. Let’s look at some of these key elements at play in this section of the Doctrine and Covenants.
- There is the need for the dead to be judged with the same judgment as that which is had for the living. There is only one standard of judgment. But how can those who have already passed through mortality be judged in the same way as those who are here? They have no body with which to be baptized. Most of them had no knowledge of the Savior, nor of His plan during their time on earth. How could Christ expect them to be judged the same as those who learned of the gospel, were baptized, were sealed to a companion in eternal marriage and died faithful to their covenants? It hardly seems like a fair comparison.
- In verse 22 we learn that where the wicked dwell, which includes the ignorant, there is darkness. Darkness refers to the lack of spiritual light or truth. For many of these spirits their time in this spiritual prison had lasted for thousands of years, especially those who lived before the flood, the earliest to come to earth. And it wasn’t just those who had never heard the message of salvation, but also those who had heard it preached to them, but had rejected the message for whatever reason. These also lived in the darkness of the spirit prison. Though they lived in ignorance and darkness, at some point they had to have the gospel preached to them, if not for the first time, for the last time. But for thousands of years they languished in this holding state, unable to progress.
- The righteous, on the other hand, had seen this time as a prison as well. The exact wording in verse 50 is – “For the dead had looked upon the long absence of their spirits from their bodies as a bondage.” Though they had been faithful in all things during mortality, they longed for the day they could be reunited with their bodies so they could experience that grandest of all prizes, fulness of joy (D&C 138:17).
What held them back from being able to receive a fulness of joy now that their earthly labors were complete? It was the Savior. He was to be the first to be resurrected. Until He was resurrected, everyone else had to just wait their turn. After thousands of years, the wait was about to end.
The anticipation was high. The Savior was on earth, and they were monitoring events very closely. They knew it was only a matter of a short time now, and everything that they had preached, everything they believed in, everything they hoped for, everything they had exercised their faith in, would become a glorious reality. The central act in all of creation was about to be completed, the Atonement. With the advent of Christ into the spirit world they would know that He had, at last completed the great and last sacrifice, the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. The completion of this one act on behalf of humanity is what allowed them all to be forgiven of their sins, to receive revelation, and ultimately would allow them to be resurrected with a glorified body, to return to their Father in Heaven, and continue their progression into the eternities. What a sense of anticipation they must have had as they waited impatiently for Christ’s appearance on their side of the veil.
As they gathered together to talk about what this would mean for them, this great throng of prophets from every dispensation of time up to that moment, with all the faithful saints from Adam’s day down to Christ’s day, they could talk of nothing else but this glorious sacrifice that was even at that moment being made. All of eternity hung in the balance as Christ completed his preparations to return to the Father.
Imagine having spent hundreds, if not thousands of years awaiting this singular moment. As you are talking to those around you about how exciting this will be to finally get to move on to the next step in your progression, suddenly Christ himself is in your midst. The atonement is now complete. The victory over death has been won. Billions of years of preparation, the creation of the universe, the raising of the whole family of God, the creation of the earth, and the time of mortality has all led up to this moment of completion. Christ is officially the victor. Death is about to be conquered, and the eternal debt that enables our repentance has been paid by our Savior. Such joy, such rejoicing. So many tears of inexplicable happiness shed by those who had sacrificed so much in His name.
To these Christ came to declare their freedom from the bonds of death. In verse 19 it says,
And there he preached to them the everlasting gospel, the doctrine of the resurrection and the redemption of mankind from the fall, and from individual sins on conditions of repentance.
To these faithful saints (verses 51, 52) the Lord prepared them in all things to be resurrected and continue their work.
These the Lord taught, and gave them power to come forth, after his resurrection from the dead, to enter into his Father’s kingdom, there to be crowned with immortality and eternal life, and continue thenceforth their labor as had been promised by the Lord, and be partakers of all blessings which were held in reserve for them that love him.
The doctrine of the salvation and redemption of the dead was preached to them. They were organized into a missionary force and taught what they were to do for those who were languishing in spirit prison. Up to this time there had not been any missionary work done in the prison. Now the doors were flung wide and the missionaries went in to preach the message of deliverance through the atonement of Christ, and obedience to His commandments.
What a glorious moment in time. So many faithful saints could now begin the process of being resurrected. They only had to wait another couple of days and they would be granted their hearts’ desire, a glorified body, one they could have forever and ever that would allow them to live with their Father and their Savior for all eternity.
This was the fulfillment of their hopes and dreams, their faith confirmed, their hopes gloriously accomplished. What joy to see the Savior’s face and to know that everything you had put your faith in here in mortality had finally come to fruition. You would now get your rewards and be able to be with your loved ones for eternity.
There is more to this section of the Doctrine and covenants, but the fulfillment of every prophet’s hopes and dreams, all that they had lived their lives and sacrificed for, is the focus for me of the revelation on the redemption of the dead. This is a revelation of ultimate victory and joy. Even the wicked who rejected the message of salvation in mortality get a second chance. What is not to love about this revelation?
Kelly P. Merrill
Kelly Merrill is semi retired and writes for https://gospelstudy.us. He lives with his wife in Idaho. His strength is being able to take difficult to understand subjects and break them down into understandable parts. He delights in writing about the gospel of Christ. Writing about the gospel is his personal missionary work to the members of the Church and to those of other faiths who are wanting to know more about Christ's gospel and His Church.