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Prison as a Place of Learning, Preparation, and Waiting
Most of those who have died in the history of the world did not have access to the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. After they die, they are taught the gospel in the spirit world. Jesus Christ himself taught spirits in the spirit world, as is explained by Peter in the New Testament: "By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison" (1 Peter 3:18-21). When people die, they keep their ability to learn and grow. These people are taught faith in Jesus Christ and repentance. They are also taught about baptism for the dead and receiving the Holy Ghost (see Doctrine and Covenants 138:33). As the Savior Himself said, "The truth shall make you free" (John 8:32). Mormons rejoice to think that doing baptisms for the dead can help those who have passed on, if they accept it. Everyone keeps their free will (or agency) in the spirit world.
Doctrine and Covenants, section 138, is a record of Prophet Joseph F. Smith's vision of the spirit world. He saw that Christ visited and ministered to the spirits of the dead in spirit paradise, where the spirits of the righteous dwell until resurrection and judgment. There is a "great gulf" between spirit paradise and spirit prison, and Christ did not go to the spirits in prison, but instead called ministers to do so. Among these ministering angels were/are many of the greatest prophets who ever lived upon the earth. This shows the importance of the work to reclaim every last soul who will hear the words of Christ. It demonstrates how great is the Lord's love for His children, that although earth life, or mortality, is meant to be a time of testing, the Lord still works with those who stumbled during their mortal probation, by ministering to them in the spirit world.
Prison as Hell
Now, people also keep their character when they enter the spirit world. Realistically, someone who spent their entire life rejecting Jesus Christ and His gospel will probably not accept His gospel in the spirit world. Death does not change our natures. When a wicked person like this enters the spirit world, the guilt and pain of recognizing his or her own distance from God is tremendous. As the Book of Mormon says, "The demands of divine justice do awaken his immortal soul to a lively sense of his own guilt, which doth cause him to shrink from the presence of the Lord, and doth fill his breast with guilt, and pain, and anguish, which is like an unquenchable fire, whose flame ascendeth up forever and ever" (Mosiah 2:38). "Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis, that I will repent, that I will return to my God. Nay, ye cannot say this; for that same spirit which doth 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" (Alma 34:34).
Therefore, while we can always hope for others who have died, since we do not know their hearts, it is foolish for us to reject the gospel now and plan to accept it in the spirit world. The message of prophets is and always has been to repent and turn to Jesus Christ now. President Henry B. Eyring, one of the apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church) wrote a wonderful talk on the subject called "This Day." Click here to read it.
Christ has said that those who refuse to repent and come unto Him are as if there were no atonement made. Therefore, they must suffer for their own sins:
- For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;
- But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I;
- Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink (Doctrine and Covenants 19:16-18).