the Bible Teach
Salvation for the Dead?
Copyright © 1995 Institute for Religious Research. All
Salvation for the dead is one of the distinctive doctrines of Mormonism
that separates it from historic Christianity. Yet, interestingly, the Book of Mormon is
silent about salvation for the dead and baptism for the
dead, and the Latter-day scriptures that explicitly mention these subjects
are largely interpretations of a handful of Bible passages (two in particular 1
Peter 3:19ff and 1 Corinthians 15:29). Thus, the real foundation for the LDS Church's
doctrine of salvation for the dead, is its own unique interpretation of these passages.
This article begins with an introduction to the basic biblical teaching regarding
humanity's eternal destiny, and then examines in some detail the interpretation of
Christ's preaching to the spirits in prison as described in 1Peter 3:19ff.
What happens to those who die without a knowledge of Jesus Christ and the Bible? Will
they have an opportunity to hear the gospel and repent after death? Would it be unfair of
God to deny them such an opportunity? Because the Bible declares that people must hear and
believe the gospel of Jesus Christ in order to receive forgiveness of sins and escape the
judgment of God (John 3:36; Romans 10:13-17), it is sometimes assumed that those who die
without hearing the gospel are thereby blameless. How can they be held accountable, it is
argued, when they died in ignorance of Christ? Isn't God obligated in fairness to give
them an opportunity to hear the gospel and repent in the spirit world?
Are Some Blameless Before God?
These questions seem compelling, at least in part. Certainly we intuitively feel that
God must do what is right and fair. However, the view that those who die without a
knowledge of the gospel are thereby blameless, rests on several questionable assumptions.
For instance, it assumes that Scripture is the only source of knowledge about God; that
God cannot judge fairly unless all have the same opportunity; and, that those without the
gospel desire to worship and obey God, but are prevented from doing so by a lack of
knowledge. However, these assumptions conflict with biblical teaching. In the first two
chapters of his Epistle to the Romans, the apostle Paul shows that humankind's deepest
spiritual problem is not a lack of knowledge about God, but a rebellious heart attitude.
Those who do not have the written Word of God (special revelation) are nevertheless
without excuse, according to Paul, because they have rejected God's revelation of Himself
through creation and the human conscience (general revelation):
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and
unrighteousness of men, who hold [suppress] the truth in unrighteousness. Because that
which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the
invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood
by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead: so that they are without
excuse (Rom. 1:19-20; see also Psalm 19:1-3).
In addition to the revelation of God's existence and power in creation, the pagan world
also has the voice of conscience. Paul describes conscience as "the work of the law
written in their hearts" (Rom. 2:15). Those with only the light of creation and
conscience will be judged by this lesser standard, though they will still be without
For as many as have sinned without law [biblical revelation] shall also perish without
law: and as many as have sinned in [under] the law shall be judged by the law . . . . For
when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law,
these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law
written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the
mean while accusing or else excusing one another (Rom. 2:12,14-15).
Those who die in ignorance of the gospel will have to give an account for their failure
to respond to the light they did have. However, the Bible assures us that where there are
truly searching hearts, God providentially provides the light necessary for salvation (for
example, the Ethiopian official, Acts 8:26-40, and the centurion, Cornelius, Acts
10:1-48). (Those who die in infancy present a special case, since they are not capable of
understanding their need before God. A helpful article that provides biblical answers on
this subject is available on request from the Institute for Religious Research.)
Our Eternal Destiny Is Fixed At Death
A major obstacle to accepting the doctrine of salvation for the dead is the biblical
teaching that our eternal destiny is fixed at death. The New Testament book of Hebrews
declares that "it is appointed unto man once to die, but after this the
judgment" (Hebrews 9:27). Likewise, Jesus' story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke
16:19-31, makes it clear that there is no opportunity to repent after death. In this
parable, the unbelieving rich man dies and goes to "hell" (Greek:
described as a place of conscious torment. By contrast, the godly Lazarus goes to a place
of blessedness, called "Abraham's bosom." These two places are described as
separated by an impassable gulf:
And in hell he [the unbelieving rich man] lift[ed] up his eyes, being in torments, and
seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham,
have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and
cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said, Son, remember that
thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now
he is comforted and thou art tormented. 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. Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that
thou wouldest send him to my father's house: For I have five brethren; that he may testify
unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment (Luke 16:23-28).
Everything here points to the fact that our eternal destiny is fixed at death, which
excludes the possibility of repentance in the spirit world.
Christ's Proclamation To The Spirits
The general teaching of the Bible clearly excludes the possibility of repentance after
death (as does the Book of Mormon Alma 34:31-35; 42:4,13,28; Helaman 13:38). Yet,
some point to 1 Peter 3:19ff which speaks of Christ "preaching to spirits in
prison." Does this passage offer biblical support for salvation for the dead?
Certainly it deserves careful study. As with all biblical interpretation, it is important
that we examine these verses in their context, so that our interpretation truly comes out
of the sacred text (exegesis), in contrast to reading preconceived ideas into it
(eisegesis). 1 Peter 3:19 is sometimes understood to teach that Jesus' spirit descended to
Hades, the place where deceased human beings await final judgment. Christ's journey to the
spirit world is supposed to have taken place during the time between his death on Good
Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday morning. The purpose of the journey,
according to Mormon scripture (Doctrine and Covenants 138), was to offer the gospel both
to those who died in ignorance of it, as well as to those who heard but rejected it in
mortality. 1 Peter 3:18-20 speaks of Christ being,
. . . put to death in the flesh but quickened [raised] 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 . . .
Three key questions arise from this text:
(1) When and where did Christ make this proclamation?
(2) To whom did he make it?
(3) What was the purpose of his proclamation?
When And Where Did The "Preaching" Take Place?
In considering the first question, When and where did Christ make this proclamation?
notice the sequence of events in verses 18-19: (1) Christ was put to death, (2) He
was made alive (resurrected), and (3) He went and preached to the spirits in prison.
Christ's "preaching" to the spirits did not take place between His death and
resurrection, but after His resurrection, evidently as a part of his ascension. This rules
out the view that it is a reference to Jesus descending to the abode of deceased human
beings during the time His body lay in the tomb.
Notice also that the text actually says nothing about a descent. It says simply that
Christ "went" and preached to the spirits. This same word translated here as
"went" (Greek: poreutheis) appears again in verse 22, where, speaking of
Christ's ascension, it says Who is gone into heaven . . ." Verses 19-22
evidently describe the journey of Christ's spirit back to heaven (his ascension) after his
resurrection, and his proclamation to the spirits took place as part of this journey.
Who Were The Spirits?
This brings us to the second question, Who were the spirits to whom Christ made
proclamation?" They are described in verse 20 as "sometime
disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah." From
this description, some conclude that the reference is to human beings of Noah's day who
refused his preaching and were subsequently destroyed in the flood. However, even if one
accepts this interpretation, it is not very useful as support for salvation for the dead.
The text speaks only of a specific group Noah's generation not all the dead,
or even all who died in ignorance of the gospel. Furthermore, if Christ's proclamation
here was an offer of the gospel, a natural question is: Why would Noah's contemporaries be
singled out for an opportunity to repent in the spirit world? Arguably, they were less
deserving of a second chance than others, since they had the godly example and preaching
of Noah, which they ignored or rejected.1
Indeed, since on LDS terms they did not die in ignorance of the gospel (see Pearl of Great
Price/book of Moses 8:19-24, which explicitly describes how the people of Noah's day
rejected his preaching of the gospel), why would they even be eligible for a second chance
in the spirit world?
Furthermore, in his Second Epistle, Peter uses the people destroyed in the flood as an
example of those being reserved for eternal punishment:
For if God spared not the angels that sinned .... And spared not the old world, but
saved Noah the eighth person, bringing in the flood upon the world of the ungodly ....
The Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of temptations, and to reserve the unjust unto
the day of judgment to be punished (2 Peter 2:4,5,9).
The fact that 2 Peter 2:4ff uses Noah's contemporaries as an example of those who are
being reserved for eternal punishment, poses a major obstacle to interpreting 1 Peter
3:19ff as an offer of the gospel to those in spirit world. Why? Because it would mean
there is an outright contradiction between 1 Peter and 2 Peter.
There are also other reasons for rejecting the view that it was
human spirits to whom Christ made proclamation:
- The Bible nowhere else uses the word "spirit" (Greek:
pneuma) by itself to
refer to human beings. Angels and demons are spirits (Matthew 8:16;10:1;12:45; Acts
5:16;19:12; Hebrews 1:7,14; 1 John 4:1), whereas human beings have spirits (Luke 23:46;
Acts 7:59).2 If Peter had
wanted to say that Christ preached to deceased humans, we would expect him to have written
something like "the spirits of those which sometime were disobedient . . ." (as,
for example, in Hebrews 12:23).
- The idea that salvation is being offered in the spirit world is out of sync with the
development of the argument in 1 Peter 3:17-22. The purpose of this passage is to
encourage suffering Christians with the example of Christ' vindication: He was put to
death in flesh but was raised up to life and victory, a victory whose extent included the
realm of fallen angels (verse 22 says that Christ is "gone into heaven, and is on the
right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him").
To say that verse 19 is describing the offer of the gospel to deceased humans implies that
Peter veered off into an unrelated topic that does not serve this purpose (and is nowhere
else mentioned in the Bible). How would it encourage suffering Christians to know that God
will give unbelievers (including their persecutors) an opportunity to repent in the spirit
world? In that case, why suffer in the flesh?
- LDS apostle Bruce R. McConkie acknowledges in his Doctrinal New
Testament Commentary that according to the Mormon interpretation, verse 19 is an
interruption of Peter's line of argument. McConkie describes Peter as introducing the
doctrine of salvation for the dead "in an almost casual and offhand way," and he
recognizes the disjunction that results: "[Peter] is counseling the members of
the Church to bear up under these unjust burdens; and he uses Christ and his suffering as
the crowning illustration . . . Then, almost incidentally, he adds that this suffering of
the Just One resulted in his death and subsequent ministry among the departed souls . .
The fact that the Mormon interpretation results in such a disjunction counts heavily
against its validity.
The Powers Of Darkness Defeated
If Christ's proclamation was not made to deceased humans, then to whom was it directed?
The evidence indicates that it was actually made to fallen angels. This would not have
seemed unusual to Peter's original readers, for Jews and early Christians commonly
associated fallen angels with the intense wickedness of Noah's day for which God brought
the flood. This association was based in part on the description in Genesis 6:1-4 of
"sons of God marrying daughters of men" in the period leading up to the flood.
Many understood this to mean that fallen angels "left their first estate" and
took human wives with whom they procreated rebellious offspring.4
While Peter does not endorse the details of this interpretation, in his Second Epistle he
does describe fallen angels imprisoned by God because of their disobedience (2 Peter 2:4).
These may be the same "spirits in prison" to whom he makes reference in 1 Peter
As noted, 1 Peter 3:22 concludes the section (3:17-22) by declaring
that the realm of fallen angelic powers has been made subject to Christ. It makes sense
that these are the same spirit beings referred to in verse 19 in light of Peter's motive
in this passage. He is encouraging suffering Christians with the message that they will
share in Christ's victory. The terms used for these beings in verse 22 angels [angelon]
and authorities [exusion] and powers [dunameon] are used
elsewhere in the New Testament of the fallen angelic beings who are the enemies of God's
people. For instance, in Romans 8:38 the apostle Paul assures Christians that "I am
persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels [angeloi], or principalities,
nor powers [dunameis] . . . shall be able to separate us from the love of God,
which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (see also Ephesians 6:12; Colossians 2:15). How
encouraging for Peter's persecuted readers (as for Christians of all ages) to know that
Christ has defeated these powers of darkness. An alternate interpretation is that the
pre-incarnate Christ preached in the Spirit through Noah to his contemporaries.5 In any case, according to this
interpretation, the gospel was preached to people while they were alive, not in the spirit
What Was The Purpose Of Christ's Proclamation?
According to Hebrews 2:14-17, Jesus came to redeem human beings, not angels. Therefore,
if Christ's "preaching" in 1 Peter 3:19 was to fallen angelic spirits, as the
evidence suggests, it would not have been an offer of the Gospel, but a declaration of His
victory and their sure defeat. This interpretation is supported by the word Peter uses for
"preaching" here it is a different word (kerusso) than in the three other
places where "preaching" is mentioned in this epistle (euangelizomai is used in
1:12, 25; 4:6). The word kerusso means literally "announce, make known,
proclaim." Although it is often used with reference to the preaching of the gospel,
it is sometimes also used of proclamation in a general sense (Luke 12:3; Romans 2:21;
Revelation 5:2). On the other hand, euangelizomai which means literally "bring,
announce good news," is always used in the New Testament in connection with God's
plan of redemption. Thus, Peter's use of the more general term (kerusso) in 3:19 is
consistent with the evidence that Christ's message there was not an offer of salvation,
but a proclamation of victory over demonic spirits.
What About 1 Peter 4:6?
Doctrine and Covenants 138 is the most detailed explanation of salvation for the dead
in Latter-day scripture. It is supposed to be an inspired commentary on 1 Peter 3:19-20
and 4:6, given to LDS President Joseph F. Smith in 1918 (though not added to the D&C
until 20 years ago). It assumes there is a direct link between Christ's proclamation to
the spirits in 3:19 and the mention of preaching in 4:6: "For this cause was the
gospel preached also to them that are [now] dead, that they might be judged according to
men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit."
However, there are major differences between the "preaching" in 4:6 and
Christ's proclamation to the spirits in 3:19. For instance, in 4:6 there is no mention of
"spirits" it simply describes those who receive the preaching as
"them that are dead" (Greek: nekrois, literally, "dead ones").
Furthermore, it does not say that Christ preached the gospel, only that "the gospel
was preached." In fact, verse 6 can only be understood as a reference to Christ
preaching in the spirit world if we already know about such a mission from 3:19. But as we
have seen, 3:19 in fact says nothing about a descent of Christ to the abode of disembodied
Then what does 1 Peter 4:6 mean? Read in context, it is in essence a footnote to 4:5.
The whole argument from 4:1-5 is that God will vindicate believers who suffer for Christ,
and will hold their persecutors accountable on the day of judgment. Verse 5 declares that
the wicked will have to "give account to him that is ready to judge the quick and the
dead." The phrase "the quick [alive] and the dead" is a way of saying the
whole human race throughout history. By the statement that follows in verse 6
"for this cause was the gospel also preached to them that are dead" Peter
evidently means Christians who are now deceased, but who were alive when they heard and
believed the gospel.
This interpretation fits the passage's theme of comforting Christians who are suffering
for Christ. We know from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 that the early Christians lived in
expectancy of Christ's imminent return, and needed assurance that their loved ones who had
died in the faith would not by virtue of not being alive when Christ returns
miss out on the promise of resurrection and eternal life with Christ. On the other hand,
the view of D&C 138 that 1 Peter 4:6 is teaching salvation for the
dead, including those who rejected the gospel in mortality (D&C 138:21, 32), does not
fit Peter's motive. How would persecuted Christians be encouraged to suffer in the flesh
by the knowledge that unbelievers (including their persecutors) who have heard but
rejected the gospel will be given an opportunity to repent in the spirit world? In that
case, why endure abuse for Christ in this life?
Even if it is granted for the sake of argument that 1 Peter 4:6 is an allusion to 3:19,
the text still does not support a general doctrine of salvation for the dead. Note that it
does not say "for this cause is the gospel preached," but "for this
cause was the gospel preached (past tense, completed action) to them that are [now]
dead." There is no basis here for the idea of on-going preaching of the gospel in the
A Faulty Interpretation
Doctrine and Covenants 138 (the most detailed explanation of salvation for the dead in
Latter-day scripture) attempts to supply a basis for the on-going preaching of the gospel
in the spirit world. It teaches that, "the Lord went not among the wicked and the
disobedient who had rejected the truth" (D&C 138:29), but
rather, that he appointed messengers from among the righteous spirits who carry the gospel
to the disobedient spirits on an on-going basis (138:57). In other words, Christ himself
only preached to the righteous dead in the spirit world, but he set in motion the ongoing
preaching among the disobedient dead.
However, notice that here D&C 138 directly contradicts 1 Peter. For, laying aside
the question of whether the spirits to whom Christ "preached" were human or
angelic, Peter clearly describes them as disobedient (1 Pet. 3:20).7 Latter-day scripture, in
order to establish a basis for the on-going preaching of the gospel in the spirit world,
is forced to contradict this basic fact. By so doing, it completely alters the meaning of
1 Peter 3:19ff.
There are also two additional reasons for concluding that D&C 138 is a faulty
interpretation of 1 Peter 3:19ff:
- The claim that righteous human spirits carry the gospel to the abode of the disobedient
(human) spirits directly contradicts Jesus' teaching in Luke 16:26. There, in the story of
the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus said that it is not possible for the spirits of the
righteous dead to cross over to the place of the unrighteous dead: "between us and
you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot.
- The teaching that those who reject the truth in mortality can repent in the spirit world
(D&C 138:32) is at odds not only with the Bible (Luke 16:19-31; Hebrew 9:27), but even
with other Latter-day scripture. The Book of Mormon forcefully and repeatedly teaches that
the eternal destiny of those who hear and reject the truth in mortality is fixed at death:
For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day
of this life is the day for men to perform their labors . . . I beseech of you that ye do
not procrastinate the day of your repentance . . . if we do not improve our time while in
this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed. Ye
cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis, that I will repent . . . for that
same spirit which doeth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that
same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world. For behold, if ye
have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death, behold, ye have become
subjected to the spirit of the devil, and he doth seal you his . . . the devil hath all
power over you; and this is the final state of the wicked. (Alma 34:31-35; see also 2 Ne.
9:24-25,27; Mos. 2:36,39)
Is D&C 138 compatible with the Bible? The preceeding survey of general biblical
teaching and of 1 Peter 3:19ff has raised fundamental reasons for answering "No"
to this question. The evidence indicates that it was not to human spirits but to fallen
angels that Christ "preached," and his message was not an offer of salvation but
a declaration of victory over these wicked spirits. It is clear that 1 Peter 3:19ff
without the unwaranted additions and erroneous interpretation of D&C 138 does
not support the doctrine of salvation for the dead.
Luke P. Wilson
1 2 Peter 2:5 describes Noah as a "preacher
of righteousness." [Return to
2 Peter speaks of those in the ark as "eight
souls" (psuchai). However, while the word "soul(s)" is often used in the
sense of embodied "person(s)," the word "spirit(s)" is never used this
way. [Return to text]
3 Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3
vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1973), 3:307.
4 1 Enoch, a late, non-biblical Jewish work popular in
the early Christian period, is an example of this interpretation of Gen. 6:1-4.
[Return to text]
5 Though it may seem unusual for the proclamation of a
human preacher to be attributed to Christ, it is not unprecedented. For example, 1 Peter
1:11 describes the "Spirit of Christ" speaking through the Old Testament
prophets. Likewise, Ephesians 2:17 speaks of Christ, "preach[ing] peace to you
[Gentiles] which were afar off, and to them that were nigh [Jews]." This cannot mean
that Jesus himself literally preached to the Gentiles, for his ministry was limited to the
Jewish people in Israel (Matt. 15:24; Rom. 15:8). Rather, his apostles, under his
direction and empowered by the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8), carried the gospel to the Gentile
world. [Return to text]
6 Joseph Smith evidently recognized this as a
weakness in using this text to support salvation for the dead, for in his so-called
"Inspired Version" of the Bible (also known as the Joseph Smith Translation, or
JST), he changed the verse to read, "Because of this, is the gospel preached to them
who are dead." However, there is absolutely no manuscript evidence to support this
change. [Return to text]
7 Joseph Smith tried to resolve this conflict in
his "Inspired Version" (JST) of the Bible by changing the text of 1 Peter 3:20
to read "some of whom were disobedient in the days of Noah . . ." Once again,
however, there is absolutely no manuscript evidence to support this change.
[Return to text]