On the Mormon Idea of "Postmortem Evangelism"
[Introduction: Not "Second Chance" Salvation] [Scripture Cites] [Conclusion]

Hebrews 9:27 Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment...

Historically a question that has been the subject of speculation in Christendom is that of "What about those who never hear the Gospel? Are they condemned to eternal damnation?" Skeptics ask the question as a way of trying to find an reason not to believe; new converts ask the question trying to resolve a burning issue. Some in the early church believed that there would be another chance to accept the gospel for such people; others believed what was stated in 2 Clement 8:3 -- "(A)fter we have gone out of the world, no further power of confessing or repenting will belong to us." [Nas.WAT, 132] We will certainly not resolve the issue in this space; those that are interested may read one of the books I have listed in the bibliography.

Our concern here is with a specific LDS doctrine of post-mortem evangelization, often designated for convenience with the acronym PME, but also known as future probation, second probation, or eschatological evangelism.

Popular "counter-cult" literature sometimes accuses the Latter-day Saints of violating the common interpretation of the above verse and offering what is said to be a "second chance" at salvation. It is best to head off this argument at once and clarify that this is (apparently) not what LDS theology teaches.

We will allow Hopkins, through several statements, to explain the LDS point of view: [Hop.BM, 214, 224; see also Rich.MWW, 170]

Evangelicals say the cut-off time (for salvation) is physical death, but there is no explanation for the delay between death and Man's ultimate judgment, other than this: to give Men more time after death to repent and accept Christ in preparation for that last and final audit.

Read alone, this may sound like "second chance" soteriology. But he goes on to say:

...the living who are exposed to the truth have no business waiting for a "second chance" after death. Mormon theology contains no reassurances for those who foolishly procrastinate the day of their repentance (Book of Mormon, Alma 34:33-35).

Thus, the claim is that each person who never heard the gospel (and here, this means what Mormonism teaches to be their own "restored" gospel, not, apparently, the current, Christian gospel of "apostasy") will get a chance to hear it after death and make up their minds. Indeed, Hopkins frames his answers in terms of the question, "But what of those who never had the privilege of hearing the Gospel during their lives, or have only been confronted with a false gospel?" [ibid., 211] And he thinks the answer that "many Evangelicals" give is that "these people are lost, condemned forever to the lake of fire and brimstone without so much as a chance to obtain eternal life" [ibid., 211-2].

So it is; but I wonder where he got the survey information that told him that "many" Evangelicals believe this, and I wonder how he can imply that it is a majority view by listing it and no other teaching. The same basic teaching that those never hearing the Gospel (that is, the Christian Gospel) will hear it after death and be allowed to make a choice is found in Christianity as a teaching that has been labeled divine perseverance, and it is defended by Gabriel Fackre in a book we have reviewed elsewhere, What About Those Who Have Never Heard? [Nas.WAT, 73], with this mission statement: "...the Word will also be declared to those we can't reach, even if it takes an eternity." I suspect the LDS believer would not phrase the mission any differently.

Thus the matter actually breaks down into two basic questions. The first is, "Whose gospel is the true Gospel which is 'never heard'?" (A question we are in the process of deciding!) The second, for our purposes, is, "Can the doctrine of divine perseverance be deduced from the Bible, thus providing support for the LDS teaching?"

Fackre set out to answer that question; but he had opposition, as we noted, in the persons of Ronald Nash and John Sanders. Needless to say, their own discussion will be able to greatly influence ours as we consider the Biblical proof-texts used by LDS authors in support of this doctrine. We will consider the texts in their order of appearance in the Bible.

Is. 42:6-7 I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.

This passage is read by Hopkins [Hop.BM, 218] as a prophecy that tells "of Christ's mission to the spirits in prison...the reference in verse 7 is not simply to occupants of a physical prison. 'The dungeon' mentioned there is that portion of the Spirit World which constitutes a prison, and those who 'dwell in darkness' include the spirits waiting in spiritual darkness for an opportunity to hear the Gospel. Isaiah here foretells the day when these unfortunates would be brought out of that darkness by the hand of the Lord."

This passage was of course also used by Christ (Luke 4:18-21) to state his mission. But is this really a case of Christ proclaiming a "breakout" from the Spirit Prison, with himself as the lead?

It depends on whose theology you start with. Given the regular association in Judaism and in the Bible of sin, trouble and ignorance with darkness (i.e., Job 12:25, 15:22-3; Ps. 107:10; Prov. 4:19, 20:20; Eccl. 2:14; Is. 59:9; Lam. 3:2; Ezek. 18:12; Matt. 4:16; Luke 1:79, 11:34; John 1:5, 3:19, 8:12; Rom. 13:12; 2 Cor. 6:14; Eph. 5:8; 1 Thess. 5:4) and captivity, slavery or bondage (Job 36:8; Ps. 107:10, 116:16; Acts 8:23; Rom. 6:19; 7:23, 8:21; Gal. 3:22, 4:3), the Christian can just as effectively argue that the reference is to the "prison" of spiritual exile.

Here especially, according to Green [Gree.GL, 212], Jesus' language should be read in light of the Jubilee legislation of Leviticus 15, in which freedom from debts and slavery were proclaimed.

This is a case of a passage that is less specific that needs to be interpreted in light of those more specific. There are indeed several verses used by Hopkins that fall into this category: Is. 49:9, 61:1; Zech. 9:11. The OT really isn't much use for Hopkins or advocates of divine perseverance.

Matt. 5:25-6 Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.

Richards [Rich.MWW, 171] cites this passage as an indication that some will get a chance to pay the last penny and get out of Hades. But not only is it questionable whether we can read this as applying to Hades rather than just earthly matters; we have answered this one before, in our article on annihilationism: "Such an argument fails to account for the reality of debtor's prison. In such cases, barring intervention, the person never pays the last penny, because they can't get out of prison to make money to pay the debt."

Matthew 16:17-19 Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."

The venerated LDS scholar Hugh Nibley [Nib.BFD] is responsible for an extensive article attempting to link this passage to a doctrine of PME. The connection is attempted thusly [ibid., 106]:

It is a proper function of a gate to shut creatures out of a place; when a gate "prevails," it succeeds in this purpose; when it does not "prevail," someone succeeds in getting past it. But prevail is a rather free English rendering of the far more specific Greek katischyo, meaning to overpower in the sense of holding back, holding down, detaining, suppressing, etc. Moreover, the thing which is held back, is not the church, for the object is not in the accusative but in the partitive genitive: it is "hers," part of her, that which belongs to herm that the gates will not be able to contain. Since all have fallen, all are confined in death which it is the Savior's mission to overcome; their release is to be accomplished through the work of the church, to which the Lord promises that at some future time he will give the apostles the keys.

The perceptive reader will of course recognize the inevitable connection Nibley will make: This is a reference to hell's gates being broken down and hell being evangelized. And admittedly, as Nibley shows, this was indeed an interpretation of the passages held by two early writers (the Odes of Solomon, Ignatius).

However, Nibley's interpretation, based in part on the Greek grammar, flounders upon the same rock which it uses as its foundation. Marcus [Marc.GH, 444; see also Gund.Mt, 335] finds an "insurmountable problem" in that, as Jeremias observed, in Jewish Greek, the verb katischyo plus a genitive "is always active in meaning ('to vanquish'), never passive ( = 'to resist successfully'). The gates, therefore, would seem to be attacking the church."

The LDS apologist is therefore obliged to either not use this verse as support or else hypothesize that Matthew, a Jew writing in Greek, here offers an exception to the rule, with nothing but a begged question as the reason for support.

In light, then, of the "active" meaning of this passage, the "gates of hell" must be understood in some other way, and our first clue is found in understanding the phrase as a metonymy, that is, as "a pars-pro-toto term for the city itself" [Marc.GH, 445] and also as "a metaphor for the experience of death" [Lew.GH, 349], as indeed the phrase is used in pagan literature, and also in Jewish literature, as in this quote from the Wisdom of Solomon 16:13 --

For you have power over life and death; you lead mortals down to the gates of Hades and back again...

And, another from the Psalms of Solomon 16:2 --

For a moment my soul was poured out to death; [I was] near the gates of Hades.

Elsewhere, in the OT, the term "gate" is used as a metonymy for an entire city (Gen. 22:17, 24:60; Deut. 16:16, 17:2) as well. So we are not dealing with only gates, but an entire city; and this city is synonymous with death. From this derives the usual Christian interpretation, as accounted by Hagner [Hag.Mt, 472]:

...(T)he church as God's eschatological community will never die or come to end -- this despite the eventual martyrdom of the apostles and even, more immediately, the death of its founder...

Nibley is aware of this interpretation, but rejects it, saying [Nib.BFD, 107]:

Those who fondly suppose that [this passage] is a guarantee of the security of this church on this earth are inventing a doctrine diametrically opposed to the belief of the early church. If there was one point on which the primitive saints and their Jewish contemporaries saw eye to eye, it was the belief that Satan is "the prince of this world," nay, "the god of this world." It is here that man are under his power, and here that he overcomes the Kingdom of God by violence.

This latter statement, which the Christian might well nigh regard as blasphemous, Nibley footnotes with cites (not quotes) of John 12:31 and 16:11 -- neither of which carries any such meaning or support for his argument at all:

Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.
...and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.

If anything, these verses proclaim the opposite point from Nibley's -- they show the powerlessness of Satan before Christ the head of the church. Beyond that, how does it follow that Satan's status as "god of this world" somehow makes it impossible to guarantee that the church (which has behind it not only Christ, but the omnipotent Father) will endure?

One strongly suspects that what is behind Nibley's argument is the LDS presumption that the church did not endure, but apostasized. Nor can Nibley find any quote from the primitive saints or the Jews that indicate that whatever power Satan has is enough to erase God's community on earth. (This will relate to another subject, that of the alleged apostasy, which will be covered in another essay.)

Moreover, Nibley apparently makes nothing of the allusion by Jesus to his own resurrection in Matt. 16:21. The church perseveres not only on earth, but in the eternal life granted to the believer. And how can Nibley possibly read this passage with reference to the "rock" without the context of the earlier passage in Matt. 7:24-5?

John 5:25-29 I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man. Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out--those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.

Hopkins [Hop.BM, 218-9; see also Nas.WAT, 85] tells us that in this passage, Christ "made the nature and intent of His mission to the Spirit World very clear", and, noting the common interpretation that "Christ was speaking in verse 25 of the spiritually dead among the Jews to whom He was sent," disagrees by arguing that "it is clear from verse 28 that he was referring to the physically dead in this passage. The promise given is that those who have physically died may yet obtain eternal life if they 'hear His voice'."

The problem with this interpretation is a verse that Hopkins does not include in his quote -- John 5:24. Let's pair it now with John 5:25 --

I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.

Both verses 24 and 25 begin with a double "Amen", and verse 26 begins with a new train of thought ("For.."),so that it is clear that if there is any link of verse 25 to another verse in the passage, it is more likely verse 24, not verse 28, and it is clear enough that verse 24 is referring to those who are spiritually dead (cf. 1 John 3:14). Thus, if verses 24 and 25 are intended to be parallel, the "dead" in verse 25 can only refer to those spiritually dead.

Note also that "life" in verses 24 and 26 is obviously meant in a figurative "eternal" sense, so that Hopkins' interpretation would involve a confusing flip-flop between concepts. Our interpretation, however, allows for consistent references first to the spiritually dead (vv. 24-6), and then to the physically dead (vv. 28-29), who for clarity are not identified as "the dead" but as those "in the graves", thereby making it clear that there is a change in subject. It should also be added that verses 28-9 refer to a definitive point in Jewish prophetic history: the resurrection of the just and unjust described in Daniel 12:2 which is associated with the final judgment (Dan. 12:1-3); and John 5:25 also refers to a time that is coming, and has now come. "The passage from death to life is not a future promise; it happens now" [Mol.GJ, 179]. This implies that men are hearing the voice even at the present time, which does not fit in with the idea of a Spirit Prison breakout at some point in the future.

Significantly, Hopkins says nothing about this present-tense indication.

In fairness, it should be noted that some commentators argue that the use of the word "dead" [nekros] in verse 25 commonly refers to actually dead bodies and should be thought of as such. -- Borc.J111, 240. However, even if a link is made to verse 28, the dead who "hear the voice" and live would then clearly have to be "coming to life" in the context of being alive again in the resurrection of final judgment. Perkins [Perk.R, 42, 312] discerns in this passage the last half of a "judgment scene pattern" in which the formulation of John 5:25 "recalls apocalyptic images of the dead rising at the trumpet call of the last day." The only way to read this passage as a trip to the Spirit Prison is to ignore the background of Daniel 12:1-3 and the clear reference to the resurrection.

Romans 10:14-18 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!" But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, "Lord, who has believed our message?" Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. But I ask: Did they not hear? Of course they did: "Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world."

Hopkins [Hop.BM, 211; see also Nas.WAT, 79] cites this passage in favor of a general argument for divine perseverance. "It is entirely unrealistic to suppose that every person who has ever lived on earth has heard a preacher tell of Christ. Thus, many, though they know to do good, have been without knowledge essential to their salvation."

The problem is that this passage must be read in light of Psalms 19:1-3, which supplies the background of the other "general revelation" passages in Romans 1:18-20 and 2:14-16 --

For the director of music. A psalm of David. The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.

Romans 10:14-18, like the other Romans passages, is only referring to general revelation. Despite what is implied by Hopkins' commentary, what has been told of Christ is not what is at issue. True, Paul uses the word "gospel" to refer to the message (10:15, 16), but we should not allow our acclimitization to the term as referring to a specific book of the Bible or only to the New Testament message of salvation allow us to commit an anachronism by assuming that it always meant this same thing when referred to in the New Testament.

The word "gospel" (euangelion) in this period meant not just the message of Christ, but any good news that was heralded. The word euangelion was used even in secular contexts to refer to all kinds of "good news":

The Greek term euangelion, was actually "used as a technical term for the good news of political victory and private messages that brought joy to someone" [Patz.MNT, 58] - it was used for news of victory or for the utterance of an oracle [Heib.Int, 19]. This, again, does not require that the news reported was false or misleading - it was simply good! (Nor is there any reason to assume copying - the common skeptical argument of "A looks like B, so A must be a copy of B" is just as false as it sounds!)
To demonstrate this, let us give some examples where euangelion was also used to refer to announcement of known or mundane historical events:
Plutarch, Pomp. 66.3: "A number of people sailed for Lesbos, wishing to announce to Cornelia the good news (the eu-word) that the war was over."
Heliodorus, Aeth 10.1.3 describes the mission of going to announce (eu) to those at Meroe the good news of victory.
Announcing that tyranny is overthrown and liberty recovered (Lucian, Tyr 9)
Two messengers announce to Marius his fifth election to the consulate and give him written notice thereof (Plutarch, Marius 22.4)
Announcement of a wedding ceremony (Menander Georg. 83; Longus Daph. 3.33.1)
The birth of a child "if someone brings the morose man the good news of the birth of a son, he replies, 'There goes half my property'" (Theophrastus Char. 17.7)
A midwife encourages a pregnant woman by announcing to her (eu) a lucky delivery (Soranus Gyn. 21)
Even an opportune death--"I begin by announcing this good news to you: Demaenetus is dead" (Heliodorus Aeth. 2.10.1)

Thus, when Paul here speaks of "gospel" he means not the message of Christ per se, but (as is made clear by his use of a quote from Isaiah indicating that not all have believed), but to the "gospel" of general revelation alluded to in Ps. 19:1-3.

At this point, some LDS apologists might bring in the idea that the Gospel of Christ was indeed preached to the OT saints. However, the link to Ps. 19 nevertheless precludes Hopkins' interpretation.

2 Cor. 5:8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

Most commentators read this verse as indicating that believers enter Heaven upon their death, although they await a time, as the remainder of the passage indicates, when they will also receive a resurrection body, living until then in a state of disembodied existence that Paul compares to nakedness (2 Cor. 5:1-7).

Seeking to support the concept of a Spirit Prison, Hopkins [Hopk.BM, 214] tells us: "...(T)he word 'with' here is the Greek pros which merely denotes locality, without identifying exactly where the Lord is waiting to receive believers after death. Since the Lord may be present outside of heaven (see, e.g., Joel 2:27; and John 1:14), one cannot assume that believers will go directly to his kingdom."

A simple logical progression composed of Scripture, however, handily refutes this contention, even granting the "locality" meaning. According to the NT, where is the Lord now? He is seated at the right hand of the Father, in heaven (Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3, 1:13, 8:1, 10:12, 12:2; 1 Peter 3:22). Therefore, to be "with the Lord" is clearly to be in Heaven. (That is, again, granting the "locality" interpretation at all.

Furnish [Furn.2C, 274] argues that "In consideration of its use with the ingressive aorist endemaeiai ("at home"), pros with the accusative (ton kyrion) should here he given its frequent meaning of "going" or "moving toward" something..." If this is correct, then neither our position nor that of Hopkins can be supported except by presumption.)

2 Cor. 6:2 For he says, "In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you." I tell you, now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation.

A word is in order about this verse, which is often used by Christians to support the idea that the decision for Christ must occur in this lifetime and cannot occur after death. We will see that this is shown in another verse, but here, the appeal is actually rather weak in the context of this issue. Paul is citing a passage from Is. 49:8 that speaks of the "day of salvation" when the Lord has supported His people, the word "day" being used for an indefinite period, not merely a single day, for of course God did not help his people for only one day. The Greek word here, hemera, can be used to refer to a much wider period: cf. Matt. 2:1.

Paul is saying that the present is likewise a time of support, in this context, referring to the work of Christ [Barn.2C]. "Salvation" here should not be read in a strictly soteriological context, nor should it be read in terms of a decision for Christ being demanded now, although common sense enough tells us that a quick decision is all the wiser.

LDS apologists at any rate will simply hypothesize that the "day of salvation" extends into the afterlife.

2 Cor. 12:2-4 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know--God knows. And I know that this man--whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows-- was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.

This passage is a key for Hopkins' suppositions about the nature of the afterlife, although it is in good measure reliant upon his interpretation of passages that we consider following. Within this passage, Hopkins attempts to refute the notion that "Paradise" is to be equated with Heaven. We must consider this analysis piecemeal, for it is rather extensive. To begin [Hopk.BM, 215, emphasis in original]:

Evangelicals, who assume that "heaven" and "paradise" are synonymous, are as confused as the Jews were at the time of Christ, when there were extensive arguments about the location of three paradises. In Jewish thought at that time, the first paradise was Eden, and the third was believed to be the abode of God. However, the Jews were uncertain as to the second paradise. Mormons believe the third Heaven, spoken of by Paul, is the abode of God, and that, aside from the paradise of Eden, there is but a single location referred to as "paradise" in the Bible and it is not Heaven.

Hopkins cites as his source of information concerning the Jewish thought of time an article in the Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, and I must be straightforward: Having had this article in my possession, I am astonished that he has reported his conclusions as he has. Here is what the article actually says about Jewish thought of the time following 200 B.C. [Int.P]:

While speculation flourished, there was a growing consensus that the abode of the righteous would be the Garden of Eden, or, as some called it, "Paradise." The corresponding place for the wicked was GEHENNA. Frequently the two were paired -- e.g., T. B. Sot. 22a: "Lord of the Universe! Thou hast created the Garden of Eden and Gehenna; Thou hast created the righteous and the wicked"; II Esd. 7:36: "The furnace of Gehenna shall be made manifest, and over against it the Paradise of delight."
But what of the dead between the moment of death and their final resurrection? This question was finding an answer at the beginning of the Christian era. The older view of a Sheol without distinctions was replaced by that of a segregated Sheol in which the righteous were separated from the wicked. Finally the righteous were moved out of Sheol into the Garden of Eden, or Paradise. At this point "Paradise" was used in three ways. It could refer to (a) the original Garden of Eden of Gen. 2-3; (b) that garden as the abode of the righteous dead prior to their resurrection; or (c) that garden as the eternal home of the righteous. This does not mean that there was more than one Paradise but rather that Paradise had three stages in its history. It fulfilled different functions in different periods. There was a notable lack of agreement as to the geographical location of Paradise during the second and third stages. For some it was on earth, for others in HEAVEN (cf. the "third heaven" of Apoc. Moses 40:2; III Bar. 4:8; II Cor. 12:2-3). (emphasis added)

Since there is nothing in either Hopkins' book or in my personal correspondence with him that leads me to believe that he would misrepresent what was written in his sources, I am compelled to conclude that Hopkins has misunderstood and confused what is written in the Interpreter's Dictionary entry. It is indicated here, by a non-Evangelical source citing Jewish sources, that the "third heaven" and "Paradise" are synonymous. Indeed, the Dictionary finds that it is "probable" that Paul's parallel phraseology indicates that they are synonymous, but Hopkins nevertheless somehow manages to conclude that Paul's "separate reference" indicates that they are not synonymous. (Hopk.BM, ibid.). The idea of "extensive" arguments is an exaggeration, and refers only to the geographical location of Paradise; there are not "three paradises" but one that was moved around through history. Hopkins' argument finds no support at all here.

Hopkins also attempts to confirm his argument by pitting John 20:17 (Jesus said, "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'") against Luke 23:43 (Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."), arguing that if Paradise and Heaven were synonymous, then Christ would have also been indicating a return to the Father in Heaven in Luke 23:43.

However, Hopkins makes the common mistake here of not understanding how terms are used. Brown [Brow.GAJ, 994] notes that the use of the present tense ["I am returning..."] indicates that Jesus is already in the process of his return to the Father, but "has not yet reached his destination." For John the return to the Father was a process, not a single event. Luke 23:43 offers no counter to this if Paradise is understood as the abode of the Father, for it would refer to what John would regard as a single event in the "returning" process.

Eph. 4:8-10 This is why it says: "When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men." (What does "he ascended" mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions ? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)

This passage is one of Hopkins' strongest attempts to discover a doctrine of PME and a differentiation between Paradise and Heaven. Here is how he reads the passage [Hop.BM, 216; see also Nas.WAT, 85]:

This passage relates to God's plan of salvation for the waiting spirits in prison. It is describing Christ's activities in the grave and indicates that he first descended into what is described as "the lower parts of the earth." That would have been on the day He died and took the thief with Him to Paradise (Luke 23:43). Obviously, the phrase "lower parts of the earth" does not describe the third heaven, or abode of God, but Spirit Prison.
Verse 8 indicates that He subsequently ascended "on high," leading with Him a "host of captives." Obviously, these captives were spirits who had been imprisoned in the "lower parts of the earth," the spirit prison. They were leaving with Christ to go "on high."

The interpretation Hopkins uses is indeed one that has been proposed by some commentators, but it involves serious problems. The reference to "lower parts" is in the comparative, not in the superlative, which does not accord with a reference to the underworld (as in the LXX version of Ps. 63:9 and 139:15, which does use the superlative -- Linc.Ep, 245). Rather, the "lower parts" is understood to refer to the earth itself (the word "of" is not in the original Greek), the descent being the Incarnation, and the ascent being the Ascension.

A couple of lines of evidence support this view. The interpretation requires that the phrase "the earth" be taken as being "a genitive of opposition which further defines the preceding noun" [Linc.Ep, 247], a procedure which is used elsewhere in Ephesians (2:14, 15, 20; 6:14, 16, 17). It also fits in with the theme of a descent/ascent or humiliation/exaltation Christology which first describes Jesus coming to earth, then ascending to Heaven (John 3:13, Phil. 2:6-11).

Finally, there is a problem in reading the passage as indicating a "breakout" from a Spirit Prison, since the indication both in the Psalms source that forms the background (Ps. 68:18) and in the language is that Christ has taken prisoners after some sort of campaign, not freed those who once were prisoners. Who was it that was taken prisoner? In all likelihood, this involves the "principalities and powers" defeated on the cross. (Eph. 1:21-2; Col. 2:15) The idea of a descent into the underworld must be read into this passage over and against a much more likely interpretation based on the internal clues of Ephesians and the Christology of other NT passages.

Finally, it should be noted that there is a strong parallel to this verse in a Targum commentary on Ps. 18 [Linc.Ep, 242-3]. Although from a later source than the NT, it undoubtedly has earlier roots, for it is inconceivable that the Targums should have borrowed it from the NT. Speaking of Moses, the passage reads:

You have ascended to heaven, that is, Moses the prophet; you have taken captivity captive, you have learnt the words of the Torah; you have given it as gifts to men.

Obviously there is nothing here to suggest that Moses went to Hades and freed a load of prisoners; he did ascend to Sinai (from the earth) and receive the covenant. Paul now takes over this language to express Christ's own fulfillment of Ps. 18, and there is no parallel idea of a descent into Hades for him to draw from. His readers would never have understood such a thing from this passage.

Our source above, Lincoln, offers a third view that sees this passage as referring to a descent of Christ in Spirit. Since this view would agree with neither our interpretation nor that of Hopkins, we will not discuss it here.

Phil. 2:10-11 ...that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Richards [Rich.MWW, 173] argues:

Departed spirits, of course, cannot do this until his name has been proclaimed to them...His worthy servants who have lived upon the earth, who have received his holy priesthood, and who have passed away are assigned to preach the gospel in the spirit world...

Richards is probably right about having Jesus' name proclaimed, but that means nothing in terms of whether they her that name and the result is love...or fear! This passage says nothing to the question of departed spirits -- that must be assumed and read into the text. (Moreover, note that Phil. 2:10-11 is a partial quote of a longer passage in Is. 45:23, which also says: "They will say of me, 'In the LORD alone are righteousness and strength. 'All who have raged against him will come to him and be put to shame. But in the LORD all the descendants of Israel will be found righteous and will exult." There is not much room for a chance to hear the gospel in this passage.

Heb. 9:27 Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment...

This verse is a common one used by Christian apologists to demonstrate that the eternal fate of men is determined in this life and not in any sense in the one beyond. Hopkins [Hop.BM, 214; see also Bick.RAC, 214] is critical of this interpretation, alleging that the phrase "comes judgment" is "not intended to imply immediacy, for Man's ultimate judgment does not come right after death," but rather, at the end of the millennial reign of Christ. Until then, Hopkins supposes, those who are not believers and are ignorant of the gospel will remain in the spirit prison, where, according to the premise of divine perseverance, they will experience PME and get a chance to repent.

However, one must read into this text (especially since the word comes is not in the Greek, so that the phrase is literally, "after this, judgment") a period of time between death and judgment. Indeed, what point would there be in highlighting death unless it were a crucial point for the matter of judgment? If some receive an extra chance after death for lack of hearing, then it must be speculated to be something extraneous to this verse, for as it reads it allows no exceptions.

Heb. 11:39-40 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

Bickmore [Bick.RAC, 226] briefly cites verse 40 as evidence that "the salvation of the dead must depend in some measure upon us." Once again, however, the idea of PME must be read into this verse: The "promise" of verse 39 refers indeed to that of ultimate salvation in terms of faith in the future Messiah, but each of the persons named is a Jew who had faith in the upcoming promise.

This in no way supports the notion of PME of those who never heard the gospel; indeed, since it is apparently alleged by some LDS that certain OT saints received a "sneak preview" of the gospel of Christ and were even baptized(!), this verse is certainly no use for support of PME. (Beyond that, it is a false equation to say that "perfection" for the author of Hebrews refers to salvation. The word here is teleioo, meaning to finish, fulfill, or make perfect." It is used in Hebrews several times to describe the "perfection" of Christ; another form of the word is used in Hebrews 6:1 -- "Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God..." Perfection is clearly not to be equated with salvation.

1 Peter 3:18-20 For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.

With this passage we come to perhaps the most important in the LDS (and overall) arsenal for a doctrine of divine perseverance. Hopkins [Hop.BM, 219; see also Nas.WAT, 81-4] explains this passage as describing the hour when "those who were in the tombs" heard Christ's voice (see John 5:25-9 above). and further explains that the group described in 1 Peter:

...was given the opportunity to be saved through the preaching of Christ on that fateful day when a ministry to the dead was opened up by Christ's addressing the lost who waited in the Spirit World.

And Bickmore, who says that this verse and the one following "have haunted the Christian world for centuries," [Bick.RAC, 213], adds:

Most commentators admit the plain meaning of these passages is that after Christ died, but before He was resurrected, He visited the spirits of the disobedient of Noah's day in hell and preached the gospel to them He did this so that they could be judged like other men who had heard the gospel, too, and be given a chance to lead a godly life in the spirit.

It must be indeed acknowledged that historically, the idea of a "descent into hell" by Christ has been a popular interpretation of this passage and the one we consider in our next entry, 1 Peter 4:6, by the Church Fathers (as noted by Bick.RAC, 216). Although, not by all of them: Augustine, for example, thought that it referred to the pre-existent Christ preaching salvation to the people through Noah [Kist.PJ, 144]; and all seem to indicate that it is only certain OT saints that were released from bondage -- there is no indication that there will be "repeat trips" for those who have never heard the gospel after the time of Christ.

Even today such a view is promulgated among Christians especially in the charismatic sector, though perhaps more under the influence of Dante than Scripture. But does the Biblical data actually support this conclusion?

The first problem to be faced is the exact timing of this supposed trip to the spirit prison. Hopkins tells us that this trip took place between Christ's death and resurrection, and that the thief on the cross was one of the people to whom Christ preached. However, verse 18 belies this chronology, for it tells us first that Christ was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.

This "made alive in the spirit" (possibly, though not necessarily, rendered best with a capital "S" to designate the Holy Spirit as God's person of action -- cf. Rom. 8:11), counterpointing as it is the putting to death in the flesh, is clearly understood to refer to Christ's resurrection (cf. Rom. 1:3-4, 8:11; 1 Cor. 15:45; 1 Tim. 3:16), so that Hopkins' timing is considerably off.

Whatever the mission of 3:18b-20 was, it took place after the resurrection, not before it, and only by reading something into they text completely out of context with the rest of the New Testament can it be said otherwise. Michaels [Mich.1P. 204-6] offers these points:

So there is already one problem for Hopkins even on an initial reading; here is a second. These "spirits" Christ went to are specified as being associated historically with the time of Noah (v. 20). Hopkins notes this distinction only briefly [Hop.BM, 173], but apparently fails to grasp the problem: His named example of the thief on the cross was obviously not from the time of Noah.

Did Christ not also preach to those who lived between Noah and his own time that had died? If so, why does the verse not say so? Why are those of Noah's time specifically mentioned if this was a message to all who had died prior to Christ? It will not do to say that Peter was simply specifying one group out of many that were preached to; this is merely begging the question, even if (as Marshall tells us -- Mars.1P, 126) that the generation of Noah was noted proverbially for its wickedness. Why just the generation of Noah, and not, for example, Sodom and Gomorrah's inhabitants? Was the generation of Noah randomly selected here by Peter?

We should try to find a more secure context for this passage, and this leads to the first important question:

Who are these "spirits"?

LDS apologists of course assume that these are the spirits of men, but the word "spirit" is also used in Jewish and Christian literature to refer to supernatural beings and especially evil spirits (e.g., Mark 1:23, 26, 27; Tobit 6:6; 2 Macc. 3:24). Note also that the passage refers to "the spirits who disobeyed," not to "the spirits of those who disobeyed," suggesting strongly that these critters are spirits by nature and always were. [Kist.PJ, 142]

Combined with the limitation to the days of Noah described above, it is possible to anchor this passage in another well-known account, this one from the apocryphal book of 1 Enoch.

1 Enoch includes an account of the "sons of God" who came among the daughters of men and corrupted the human race, based on Gen. 6:1-4 (cf. Jude 6, 2 Peter 2:4). These "sons of God" are variously named as angels, watchers, and in one place as "spirits" and Enoch is sent to tell them that they are out of luck (1 Enoch 12:4, 15:8):

And they said to me, "Enoch, son of righteousness, go and make known to the Watchers of heaven who have abandoned the high heaven, the holy eternal place, and have defiled themselves with women..."
But now the giants who are born from spirits and the flesh shall be called evil spirits upon the earth, because their dwelling shall be upon the earth and inside the earth.

This book also notes that certain angels were "bound" and thrown into a "prison house" (1 Enoch 10:4-6, 12-14, 13:1, etc.) Thus the "spirits in prison" are to be identified with these referred to in 1 Enoch, and Peter is either relating that Christ took up in reality what Enoch had done fictionally, or else is using this account typologically "to depict dramatically Christ's victory over evil." [Mars.1P, 129]

Michaels, it should be indicated, refers to these as "spirits in refuge" and believes that the reference is not to the sinning angels, but to their demonic offspring. His reasons for making this identification are not compelling, but this obviously no more agrees with the LDS view than ours does.

On the side, it would only be fair to note that some attempts have been made to dismiss this view. Grudem [Grud.1P, 203ff; see also Fein.1P], arguing on behalf of his own view which is similar to Augustine's, erects a strawman around the premise of the familiarity of Peter's readers and hearers with 1 Enoch. Using such descriptive phrases as "well known" [205] and "even if one grants for the sake of argument that all of Peter's readers had just finished reading 1 Enoch the night before Peter's letter arrived," [209], "so widely known that Peter could allude to a section of 1 Enoch without mentioning the work by name,"[220] etc. he sets up an extreme "all or nothing" condition that does not allow that Peter's readers (or enough of them) were simply sufficiently familiar with 1 Enoch to recognize the allusion, and if needed educate those who were less or not familiar with it.

Grudem's response is simply to narrow in consideration of the options. Moreover, the reference is sparse enough that even Grudem's interpretation is left to fill in blanks, and itself relies upon cites from literature like 1 Enoch, so that one must conclude that for Peter's reference to mean anything, he or someone else obviously had to have taught sufficient background for the allusion to have force.

Beyond that, although Grudem rightly notes that 1 Enoch does contain some references to imprisoned human spirits, these human spirits are given no special connection to the days of Noah but are human spirits awaiting final judgment, which obviously would not help the LDS view, since the fate of these is already decided. Grudem's attempt to support Augustine's view ultimately begs the question, argues from silence, and uses arguments that can easily be turned back on themselves in order to try to supersede the most likely connections. But in the context of this discussion, it hardly matters, for Grudem's view, which limits the "spirits in prison" merely to "human beings who sinned while building the ark" [223] is no more useful to the LDS apologist than ours.

Finally, I think it is worth noting that LDS apologists I have read so far seem singularly unaware of this connection to 1 Enoch, even in theory. Hopkins says nothing about it. Bickmore [Bick.RAC, 214] notes a related solution used by the Moffatt New Testament (written in 1922!) proposing that the name "Enoch" was originally in the text but was confused with or replaced by the Greek words en hoi kai during an early scribal blunder. This solution is attractive but has the disadvantage of being conjectural and without textual support; nevertheless, Bickmore's critique of it is far from useful, as he comments: "Moffatt also ignores the fact that Enoch wasn't even on the earth during Noah's lifetime, see Genesis 5:22-29, so his emendation not only is completely arbitrary and out of context, but it is demonstrably untrue."

It is amazing that Bickmore, who apparently spent hours scoruing through the works of the early Church Fathers looking for any quote that could be recognized as a semblance of LDS-like doctrine, apparently did not even bother to so much as glance at Jewish intertestamental and first-century literature, any one example of which is far more relevant in both social and literary terms for establishing a "context" for the New Testament than any given document from a church father many years later. It is more ironic that he then goes on to express regrets for "the pitifully small amount of information Peter gave" [ibid., 215]!

What was proclaimed to these spirits?

Richards [Rich.MMW, 170-1] stands for the LDS position when he writes that Jesus "had but one message: his gospel of faith, repentance, baptism by immersion for the remission of sins, and the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost." But does the text support this view?

A key here is that the word rendered often as "preach" (kerusso). The word kerusso is often used in the NT to refer to "either Jesus' proclamation of the Kingdom of God or his disciples' proclamation of the good news of his death and resurrection," [Mich.1P, 209], but in 1 Peter, the word euaggelion is used for the proclaiming of the message of redemption (1:12, 2:5; 4:6), so that here kerusso must mean something else. Michaels links this proclamation to the request of the unclean spirits of Mark 5 for a haven (Mark 5:10, 12) and their inquiry as to whether Jesus had come to torment them "before the time" (Matt. 8:29).

Thus Michaels concludes that the proclamation "may simply have been that their 'prison' or 'refuge' was no longer inviolate. They too, like all other powers in the universe, must now submit to his sovereignty (cf. v. 22, 'angels and authorities and powers being made subject to him')."

We have shown, therefore, that there are far too many problems with the LDS explanation of these verses, and a much more plausible interpretation is available that respects fully the literary/Jewish context of the passage. But there is yet one more verse from 1 Peter that LDS make use of that has a certain strength:

1 Peter 4:6 For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to men in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.

This verse is paired with the one above and seen as confirmation of it [Hop.BM, 219]. Some translations (like the NIV quoted above) insert the word "now" into the text before "dead" in order to clarify that this verse is believed to refer to people recently passed away. LDS apologists claim that this insertion is unjustified and instead interpret the verse in light of 1 Peter 3:18-20.

Standing against reading PME into this verse, however, is the clause of purpose that is included in it [Mich.1P, 238] which does not fare well with a PME interpretation, which must then be read into the verse over and against one that can be found within its literary and social context, as well as live without the vital connection to 3:18-20 which we have now severed.

Marshall [Mars.1P, 137n] comments of the "insuperable obstacle" to a view which reads this verse as a description of PME, that it:

...does not explain what the function of the verse is its context. The point of verse 5 is that persecutors will be condemned at the judgment. A statement that the dead will hear the gospel and live follows on most illogically from this.

The matter of "being judged according to men in the flesh" is not explained by any of the LDS apologists I have on hand, but it has reference to those in verses 4-5 who commit sin and wonder why it is that the Christians do not join them. These are, according to our interpretation, the ones who "condemned" others who had accepted the Gospel (but are now dead) while in the flesh; and yet, in spite of this, these who were condemned by their fellow men now are living far better and "live before God in the Spirit."

What is achieved here is a contrast between the condemnation received by believers who refused to play bingo, smoke cigars, and throw back tall ones with the boys (not to mention those who suffered persecution and slander of all types that they would endure, and possibly most relevant for this context, martyrdom -- for more on this, see Robert Wilken's The Christians as the Romans Saw Them), and the blessed life in the Spirit that they now have (and others later will have) before God.

The point is irony: God will judge these wicked people, so their own condemnation of the believer for not joining them in their vices is ironically counterpointed by the life the believers now passed away (as well as those now living, speaking from a future perspective) enjoy in the Spirit in the hope they have in the resurrection (note again the parallel between "the body" and "the spirit" as in the previous verse). Even though condemned by their evil peers, the goal for the believer will always be to live in the Spirit. (cf. John 5:24)

This is the only interpretation that does full justice to the context of 1 Peter 3-4; one may of course stretch the meaning further to justify reading in PME [as does Fackre: Nas.WAT, 152, who rather vaguely, but without detailed explanation, calls verses 3:18-20 and 4:6 "natural companions of the indications of hope for sufferers throughout the letter"], but the connection made by the interpretation above is far more cohesive.

Michaels adds to this the idea that these justified dead include those in Israel's past who were righteous before God. He also finds a significant parallel in Wisdom of Solomon 3:4-7 -- "For though in the sight of men they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them [cf. 1 Peter 1:7], and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them. In the time of their visitation [cf. 1 Peter 2:12] they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble."

1 Peter 4:6 is therefore an allusion to "certain well-known Jewish and Christian traditions about the suffering righteous and their ultimate vindication before God." Once again, the LDS interpretation is overturned by a much closer parallel within the historical and literary context.

The only objection I have seen to this interpretation is that using the word "dead" alone in this way seems quite strange, and Peter ought to have used the phrase "those who have fallen asleep" to refer to Christians. However, not only does this deny a writer the right to choose his own vocabulary, it also assumes that this phrase was a universal way to refer to dead Christians, when in fact it only appears in the works of Paul. There is no indication that at this time it was more than a unique phrase used by Paul, and there is no other explanation that does justice to the larger context of 1 Peter.

In conclusion: The Christian may agree with Bickmore that "God is merciful and just," [Bick.RAC, 218] and we may assume that whatever the fate of those who have never heard the Gospel might be, it will be completely fair and just. However, it is clear that the theories of divine perseverance and PME remain in the realm of speculation for the Christian and anyone else who depends upon the Bible for support.

LDS apologists have much more clear statements of divine perseverance in their own scriptural writings, but they may not legitimately use the Bible as confirmation.



  1. Barn.2C -- Barnett, Paul. The Second Epistle to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.
  2. Bick.RAC -- Bickmore, Robert Barry. Restoring the Ancient Church: Joseph Smith and Early Christianity. Ben Lomond, CA: Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, 1999.
  3. Borc.J111 -- Borchert, Gerlad L. John 1-11. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1996.
  4. Brow.GAL -- Brown, Raymond. The Gospel According to John. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1970.
  5. Fein.1P -- Feinberg, John S. "1 peter 3:18-20, Ancient Mythology, and the Intermediate State." Westminster Theological Journal 48, 1986, pp. 303-336.
  6. Furn.2C -- Furnish, Victor P. II Corinthians. New York: Doubleday, 1984.
  7. Gree.GL -- Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Co., 1997.
  8. Grud.1P -- Grudem, Wayne. 1 Peter. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988.
  9. Gund.Mt -- Gundry, Robert H. Matthew: A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church Under Persecution. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Co., 1994.
  10. Hag.Mt14 -- Hagner, Donald A. Matthew 14-28. Waco: Word Books, 1995.
  11. Hop.BM -- Hopkins, Richard R. Biblical Mormonism: Responding to Evangelical Criticism of LDS Theology. Bountiful, UT: Horizon Publishers, 1994.
  12. Int.P -- The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, "Paradise", vol. 3, pp. 636-7.
  13. Kist.PJ -- Kistemaker, Simon. Peter and Jude. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987.
  14. Lew.GH -- Lewis, Jack P. " 'The Gates of Hell Shall Not Prevail Against It' (Matt. 16:18): A Study of the History of Interpretation." Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 38/3 (September 1995), pp. 349-67.
  15. Linc.Ep -- Lincoln, Andrew T. Ephesians. Waco: Word Books.
  16. Marc.GH -- Marcus, Joel. "The Gates of Hades and the Keys to the Kingdom (Matt. 16:18-19)." Catholic Biblical Quarterly 50, 1988, pp. 443-55.
  17. Mars.1P -- Marshall, I. Howard. 1 Peter. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991.
  18. Mich.1P -- Michaels, J. Ramsey. 1 Peter. Waco: Word Books, 1988.
  19. Moh.GJ -- Mohoney, Francis J. The Gospel According to John. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1989.
  20. Nas.WAT -- Nash, Ronald; Gabriel Fackre, and John Sanders. What About Those Who Have Never Heard? Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995.
  21. Nib.BFD -- Nibley, Hugh. "Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times" in Mormonism and Early Christianity. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company and Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987.
  22. Perk.R -- Perkins, Pheme. Resurrection: New Testament Witness and Contemporary Reflection. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1984.
  23. Rich.MWW --Richards, LeGrand. A Marvelous Work and Wonder. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976.