Gospel Principles 41: The Postmortal Spirit World
This seems to me like it would be a very hard lesson to teach for several reasons. First, consider this question from the manual:
What comfort do you receive from your knowledge that there is life after death? How can we use our understanding of the postmortal spirit world to comfort others ?
This question communicates to me (and my personal experience concurs with it) that the beliefs we hold about the postmortal spirit world are primarily for our own comfort; they do very little to change or shape our behavior on earth (as compared to our beliefs about, say, the Celestial kingdom, or resurrection). Furthermore the scriptures, and the teachings of the prophets and other church leaders on this subject can be wildly divergent . I know many people who are generally very reluctant to accept or tolerate other church member’s non-orthodox beliefs who themselves hold beliefs about the spirit world that are not in the manual, and often even contradicted by the manual . So not only are we dealing with a wide assortment of divergent individual beliefs, but those beliefs can be very very close to the heart due to the comfort and peace the beliefs provide at difficult times of one’s life.
In other words this seemingly innocuous lesson is full of landmines that can lead to heated disagreements, and very hurt feelings. My advice is to tread carefully and be mindful of those in your class who have dealt with unexpected and difficult deaths. (May I recommend looking through our series of posts on death.)
With that said, I would ordinarily move on to my lesson outline. However, I haven’t been able to think of any overarching theme, or narrative for this lesson to follow. So all I can really offer are few disjointed thoughts based off of the manual and the scriptures it references.
The manual suggests the following activity:
For teachers: To help class members or family members understand the differences between paradise and spirit prison, consider drawing a vertical line in the middle of the board or on a large piece of paper, making two columns. At the top of one column, write State of the Righteous. At the top of the other column, write State of the Wicked. Ask members to describe each state in the spirit world, based on their reading in this section. Summarize their comments in the appropriate columns.
I imagine the results would look something like this;
Paradise / Prison
Rest from cares / suffering
missionary work / hearing the gospel
family connections maintained / separateness or loneliness
In my experience the teacher almost always draws an arrow from the prison side to the paradise side to illustrate that repentance is an option and people are free to leave their sufferings behind them and enter paradise.
The manual then asks “How are conditions in the spirit world similar to conditions in this life?” I have sat through many many lessons on the spirit world, and done this list-making activity nearly every time, but not once has anyone asked that followup question (and sure enough, it isn’t in the old manual). Reading this I immediately thought of this comment from this recent post. It said:
The whole world shifted for me when I realized that “eternity” is all time. It is not something in the future, it includes the past and even more importantly “now”. I think about that with my “eternal family” or my “eternal marriage”. It is now. Do I have a happy family now, or a happy marriage now? Because if I don’t now – it’s not going to happen later.
This gets at an underlying truth, which is that living the gospel isn’t something we make ourselves suffer through now so that we can be happy later. Living the gospel is supposed to bring us joy now, and that the same way we experience that joy now we will continue to experience it after our death. And conversely, those who are unhappy and suffering because of their poor choices or sins will continue to suffer
From our point of view death appears to be a very clean break. That once someone is dead they are ‘gone’ and only rarely do people get to connect with loved ones who have passed on. A few things in the manual such as:
President Brigham Young taught that the postmortal spirit world is on the earth, around us (see Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young , 279).
They have the same appetites and desires that they had when they lived on earth.
Indicate to me that perhaps it isn’t quite as clean a break when viewed from the other side . There may be reason to believe that life just kind of keeps on going the same way it always did for people who have passed on. Which brings me to my next thought.
Often when the idea that we keep all our same appetites and desires from mortality is mentioned someone will bring up the idea that this is another good reason to live the Word of Wisdom. The idea is that when you are addicted to cigarettes, say, and then die, after your death your spirit will still be addicted, but will no longer have a body with which to sate that addiction. Why doesn’t that same logic apply to food? I can imagine really really wanting a sandwich, but I wouldn’t have a body to eat it with. Does this mean that fasting might be practice for the time when we will want to eat food but no longer have a body to do it with?
I have, on occasion, run into church members who derive some satisfaction out of the idea that those who are wicked will suffer in spirit prison. I understand the appeal of that thought, it can be gratifying to imagine that those who have done us wrong, or hurt us or others in some way will ultimately be victims of their own poor choices- that they will get what is coming to them. It feels fair- like justice is being done. While it can be an appealing thought, it is one we should try to move beyond. One of the additional scriptures listed at the end of the lesson is Moses 7:37-40 which is, I think, one of the most beautiful bits of scripture. Way back in verse 28 of that same chapter it says:
“… [T]he God of heaven looked upon the residue of the people, and he wept; and Enoch bore record of it, saying: How is it that the heavens weep, and shed forth their tears as the rain upon the mountains?” So Enoch asks the Lord: “How is it that thou canst weep, seeing thou art holy, and from all eternity to all eternity?” He’s basically saying, “You are God! What do you have to cry about?” God then describes the people and their wickedness and their suffering. Then at the end of verse 37 he answers Enoch and says “wherefore should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer?”
God derives no pleasure from the suffering of any, even the most wicked, of His children. Those of us who would call ourselves His disciples should strive to make that true of ourselves as well.
So, that’s all I’ve got. If anyone else has an overarching theme, or narrative to use for this lesson please feel free to share it in the comments.
 In discussing this question “How can we use our understanding of the postmortal spirit world to comfort others?” I would highly recommend reading Whoa-man’s Guide to Giving to Comfort from our death series a few months ago.
“Professor Binns had been very old indeed when he had fallen asleep in front of the staff room fire and got up next morning to teach, leaving his body behind him.”
Note: This lesson was originally written for the Relief Society audience in 2010-2011, when the Gospel Principles manual was temporarily used as curriculum for Relief Society, Elders Quorum and High Priest classes. The lesson may require adaptation for Gospel Principles classes, which are mixed gender and primarily serve new members and investigators of the church.