We have some funny misconceptions about the spirit world. Trying to correct them in a moment because what I really wanted to write about was something else other than these misconceptions is a hassle, but oh well. We think that division between the spirit prison and spirit paradise is a physical separation, rather than exactly the same separation between the righteous and the wicked that we see here in mortality. Nephi saw a vision about mortality and saw a great gulf dividing the wicked from the righteous. That is true here in mortality, and the same gulf divides the wicked and the righteous from each other in the spirit world. The wicked and the righteous are not physically segregated there, only insofar as they choose to segregate themselves.
The spirit world is here on earth, as both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young plainly taught.
We also don’t realize that the scriptures plainly teach that God does not live in the spirit world. When we die and go to the spirit world, we don’t go to heaven. Christ visited the spirit world, but that was a big, special event in the spirit world just as a visit from Christ would be here in the mortal world. It was clearly unusual for him to do so, for as the scriptures declare, the place where God dwells is not a planet like this earth.
When Alma says that people go home to that God who gave them life, he means they go into the care of God. It does not mean they see God at death. Brigham Young explained that Alma doesn’t mean they return into the direct physical presence of God, but rather that they remain in his presence just as we are here. Actually, Brigham Young taught a great deal about the spirit world, and it is too bad we have lost track of that.
So no, there is no grand spiritual experience at death. That is why there is missionary work done in the spirit world. Seriously, if everyone saw God at death, there would hardly be a need to go around in the spirit world teaching which church was true. If everyone had Joseph Smith’s first vision at death, we would hope that God would at least state the name of his church and tell them were to find it.
One thing we learn from Brigham Young is that those who opposed the church in this life continue to oppose it in the next life. They go about doing the same thing they did in mortality. They go about preaching against Joseph Smith and against Mormonism. They still don’t know any better. We are not the only ones with missionaries in the spirit world.
So now (finally!) to the actual point I wanted to make with this post, which should have been very short.
When does hell begin, and how?
As things stand, while the spirit world doesn’t have the worries of hunger, sickness, disease, etc… that we have here, it is still a place where the war of heaven continues by the righteous preaching the gospel to those who will listen. Meanwhile, there are still many opposing churches that preach against the true church.
So how will a world of spirits that is in many ways like our own world turn into a hell for the wicked? Well, let us understand what pain the wicked feel first.
Joseph Smith stated
“There is no pain so awful as that of suspense. This is the punishment of the wicked; their doubt, anxiety and suspense cause weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth.”
he also said
“The great misery of departed spirits in the world of spirits, where they go after death, is to know that they come short of the glory that others enjoy and that they might have enjoyed themselves, and they are their own accusers.”
So the pain like a lake of fire and brimstone is not physical pain. It is mental anguish so intense it is like a lake of fire and brimstone.
So how does hell begin?
Easy. Hell begins in the spirit world when heaven begins to reign on earth. And here is why.
Take a spirit that was wicked on earth. It lives on in the spirit world as the events of the millennium unfold. It may be that it will observe that the righteous are resurrected and they walk the earth in the flesh once more. But this spirit will not be resurrected. Certainly this spirit will hear about Christ coming down and reigning personally upon the earth.
When it was just a war of words between spirits believing in competing religions it was easy enough to rationalize. But when the righteous Mormon spirits are returned to their bodies, or when the Telestial are resurrected, or when Zion returns to earth from heaven, or when Christ is reigning on the earth, this spirit is going to know, with certainty, that it rejected God, and that he, in turn, has rejected it.
And that is when we will see Joseph Smith’s words kick in: “There is no pain so awful as that of suspense. This is the punishment of the wicked; their doubt, anxiety and suspense cause weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth.”
The point is that it is no grand coincidence that the spirits of the wicked are in hell during the millennium. The spirits of the wicked are in hell BECAUSE OF the millennium. When all others are resurrected and God reigns on the earth, such spirits will find the true meaning of anguish as they come to terms with their sins, their rebellion, and the overwhelming eternal cost of it all to themselves. It will be fully as poignant for them as Christ described. It will be as if they were cast into a lake of fire and brimstone.