Alma now moves onto Corianton’s doctrinal concerns, beginning first with his worries about the resurrection of the dead (Alma 40:1). In doing so, Alma decides to explain one thing that has puzzled him:
Behold, he bringeth to pass the resurrection of the dead. But behold, my son, the resurrection is not yet. Now, I unfold unto you a mystery; nevertheless, there are many mysteries which are kept, that no one knoweth them save God himself. But I show unto you one thing which I have inquired diligently of God that I might know—that is concerning the resurrection.
Before getting onto that “mystery” itself, I wonder if one reason Alma mentions this here is to also demonstrate a model to Corianton: there’s things Alma had questions about too. But rather than troubling him and even providing an occasion for sin, as they did Corianton, Alma sought answers and “inquired diligently of God” for those answers. Having questions is okay; but we are then meant to use those questions and seek answers.
This doesn’t necessarily mean our answers will come quickly, or indeed even in mortality. Some mysteries are “kept”. But the key thing is our attitude and response to such questions, to know that God can answer such questions if we approach them in the right way and it be his will, and to always remember that the point of questions is that they have answers, that they can and are to be solved. I’m reminded of what the friend attempted to teach the episcopal spirit (in vain) in C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce:
“Listen!” said the White Spirit. “Once you were a child. Once you knew what inquiry was for. There was a time when you asked questions because you wanted answers, and were glad when you had found them. Become that child again: even now.”
Onto that answer itself. Alma explains by reasoning that there’s a time appointed for the resurrection of the dead, and so there must be period in between the time of death and the resurrection:
Behold, there is a time appointed that all shall come forth from the dead. Now when this time cometh no one knows; but God knoweth the time which is appointed.
Now, whether there shall be one time, or a second time, or a third time, that men shall come forth from the dead, it mattereth not; for God knoweth all these things; and it sufficeth me to know that this is the case—that there is a time appointed that all shall rise from the dead.
Now there must needs be a space betwixt the time of death and the time of the resurrection.
And now I would inquire what becometh of the souls of men from this time of death to the time appointed for the resurrection?
Now whether there is more than oneappointed for men to rise it mattereth not; for all do not die at once, and this mattereth not; all is as one day with God, and time only is measured unto men.
Therefore, there is a time appointed unto men that they shall rise from the dead; and there is a space between the time of death and the resurrection. And now, concerning this space of time, what becometh of the souls of men is the thing which I have inquired diligently of the Lord to know; and this is the thing of which I do know.
Fortunately in this case he has been blessed with an answer, by an angel no less:
Now, concerning the state of the soul between death and the resurrection—Behold, it has been made known unto me by an angel, that the spirits of all men, as soon as they are departed from this mortal body, yea, the spirits of all men, whether they be good or evil, are taken home to that God who gave them life.
And then shall it come to pass, that the spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness, which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care, and sorrow.
And then shall it come to pass, that the spirits of the wicked, yea, who are evil—for behold, they have no part nor portion of the Spirit of the Lord; for behold, they chose evil works rather than good; therefore the spirit of the devil did enter into them, and take possession of their house—and these shall be cast out into outer darkness; there shall be weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth, and this because of their own iniquity, being led captive by the will of the devil.
I have my own questions (and cannot claim any answers yet) about “the spirits of all men” being “taken home to that God who gave them life”. Does that mean there is an immediate encounter with God himself post-mortality? Or is this speaking in a broader and more general sense? This is a question I one day hope to know the answer to.
The two verses after that of 12 and 13, concerning the different halves of the spirit world, seem self-explanatory, and yet I believe I’ve seen some confusion over this (especially verse 13), even if people are not aware of it. I’ve seen people shy away from Alma’s description of the resting place of the wicked as “outer darkness”, even claiming we “know” what is “really” meant by such a term, so that Alma’s description isn’t quite right (this is despite the fact that of the six times the term is used in scripture – Matthew 8:12, Matthew 22:13, Matthew 25:30, Alma 40:13, D&C 101:91, D&C 133:7 – not once it is solely associated with the sons of perdition). Such an attitude, of course, prevents us from learning from Alma’s words by assuming we already know what is “really” meant, and projecting what we think we understand onto the words we are reading. This is an opposite – and equally damaging – attitude to one we discussed earlier to questions. One mistake is to not to seek for answers (or assume there aren’t any) to questions, and either indulge in endless questions without answers or to become vexed by such questions. The other is to assume we already have the answers, and so prevent ourselves from learning: to fail to find answers because we stop ourselves from posing questions.
One critical element of misunderstanding seems resolve itself in an attempt to soften Alma’s description here, and likewise descriptions of “hell” and spirit “prison” elsewhere when referring to the abode of the spirits of the wicked. I’ve heard – at widely separated times and places – almost identical descriptions of spirit prison as being “places of learning”, not places of punishment. These were so similar, in fact, that I wonder how they’re being communicated, considering neither scriptures nor missionary manuals say any such thing. Alma himself follows his description in verse 13 with a further vivid depiction in verse 14 that is very different from such well-meaning depictions:
Now this is the state of the souls of the wicked, yea, in darkness, and a state of awful, fearful looking for the fiery indignation of the wrath of God upon them; thus they remain in this state, as well as the righteous in paradise, until the time of their resurrection.
That being said, I think I can understand where the desire to “soften” descriptions of such a place come from, and it is well-intentioned if rooted in a further misunderstanding. Were the spirit word divided into two halves, with Church members going one place and all others going another – including those who hadn’t even been exposed to the gospel – it would be inconsistent with the justice and mercy and God – not to mention horrifying – for the abode of all the others to be the sort of place that Alma describes.
But this is a misunderstanding. Alma doesn’t say that only Church members go to paradise, and all others elsewhere. He simply divides between the righteous and the wicked, with no reference to membership in the Church or to baptism. He gives no indication that those who are simply ignorant of the gospel, or good people who are not baptized, go to the “bad” half rather than paradise. Quite the opposite: that’s the destination of the “the spirits of the wicked, yea, who are evil”.
I’ve written a bit about this before when writing about hell (in reaction to what might be deemed an extreme variant of the “softening” impulse, in which a Church member wrote a news article claiming that The Church didn’t believe in the existence of hell. They were very wrong). It seems there’s an impulse the soften the destination of the spirits of the wicked in part because we mentally include far too many other people in alongside the wicked. But we should not conclude that this is the case. Alma 40 is not the only indicator of this either. Thus President Joseph F. Smith, in his vision of the spirit world, describes the inhabitants of that part to which Christ did not go in person (i.e. Spirit prison) as being “the wicked”, “the ungodly and the unrepentant who had defiled themselves while in the flesh” and “the rebellious who rejected the testimonies and the warnings of the ancient prophets” (D&C 138:20-21, see also v. 29). There’s the example of the thief on the cross – which we often use as a proof-text for the existence of “paradise” as separate from Heaven on the grounds that the thief hadn’t been baptized yet – who Christ told “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). The thief undoubtedly had more learning to do to be made ready for heaven, but he could do such learning in paradise.
There’s also what we know about the future inhabitants of the kingdoms of glory. It is those who ultimately inherit the telestial glory – which includes the “, and , and , and , and whosoever loves and makes a lie” – who as a category end up spending some time in hell, until “the fulness of times” (D&C 76:81, 84, 106). While those who inherit the terrestial glory include those “who are the spirits of men kept in prison, whom the Son visited, and preached the gospel unto them” (D&C 76:73), it also includes “those who died without law” (v. 72) and those “who are honorable men of the earth, who were blinded by the craftiness of men” (v. 75), of whom there is no indication of a spell in what Alma terms “outer darkness”. It can reasonably inferred that – since it is a distinguishing mark of those who inherit telestial glory – one can inherit terrestial glory without spending time in hell. And at the same time, baptism is to qualify one for inheritance of the celestial glory (v. 51). The inference here aligns with what we know of the thief on the cross: one does not need to have been baptized to enter paradise.
Thus the situation is both more and less severe (or perhaps more just and more merciful) than we often depict it. The alternative to paradise is as terrible as Alma says it is, and we should take him (and the angel who taught him) at his word. And at the same time, there are fewer people who are going there, and many more going to paradise than we have recognised or hoped.