The apostle Peter wrote, "For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit" (1 Peter 4:6).
As Latter-day Saints, we believe that when we die our spirit leaves the physical body and goes to a world of spirits which is divided into two main categories known as paradise and prison (often referred to as hell). We further believe that the righteous Saints who inhabit paradise are actively working to bring Christ's message of salvation to those who did not have the opportunity to receive it while on earth.
Because of such a belief, we therefore perform work for the dead in our temples to provide our deceased relatives, who might accept the gospel in the spirit world, the same opportunity we have in this life to receive all the ordinances necessary to gain salvation and exaltation.
The Lord explained the importance of one of these ordinances to Joseph Smith in the 131st section of the Doctrine and Covenants. He said, "In the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees; and in order to obtain the highest, a man must enter into this order of the priesthood (meaning the new and everlasting covenant of marriage); and if he does not, he cannot obtain it" (D&C 131:1-3).
The ordinance of sealing a man and woman together as husband and wife for time and all eternity is absolutely essential for exaltation. However, this ordinance can only be performed in the temples of the Lord. Therefore, if someone has died who has not had an opportunity to accept the gospel, they also haven't been baptized and had the chance to live righteously enough to be worthy of going to a temple for their sealing.
The Lord showed Joseph F. Smith a vision of how this inequity has been corrected by the death of the Savior. He was told, "Thus the gospel was preached to those who had died in their sins, without a knowledge of the truth, or in transgression, having rejected the prophets. These were taught faith in God, repentance from sin, vicarious baptism for the remission of sins, the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, and all other principles of the gospel that were necessary for them to know in order to qualify themselves that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit. And so it was made known among the dead, both small and great, the unrighteous as well as the faithful, that redemption had been wrought through the sacrifice of the Son of God upon the cross" (D&C 138:32-35).
When men have not had the opportunity to hear the gospel message while living in mortality, their spirits will have the chance to hear it in the spirit world. There they will have the same opportunity as those on earth to accept the true message of Jesus Christ. And when they accept the true gospel, they also then have the opportunity to be baptized, receive their endowments and be sealed to a spouse for all eternity through the vicarious work that is done in temples. Thus, they can be judged according to the same set of standards, rules, and commandments as we the living must obey.
But there is another essential part of the gospel that we must keep in order to receive salvation. When Jesus walked the earth, He told His early disciples, "But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved" (Matthew 24:13).
On fourteen separate occasions the scriptures declare that in order to gain eternal life or salvation we must endure to the end. But the question can be asked, "The end of what?"
Nephi answered it this way: "But behold, for none of these [the Jews or the Gentiles] can I hope [for them to receive salvation] except they shall be reconciled unto Christ, and enter into the narrow gate, and walk in the strait path which leads to life, and continue in the path until the end of the day of probation" (2 Nephi 33:9).
According to Nephi, we must endure in keeping the commandments of God to the end of the days of our probation. If that is the case, then it becomes important for us to know when our probation ends.
Speaking about the posterity of Adam and Eve, Nephi taught, "And the days of the children of men were prolonged, according to the will of God, that they might repent while in the flesh; wherefore, their state became a state of probation and their time was lengthened, according to the commandments which the Lord God gave unto the children of men... I have spoken these few words unto you all, my sons, in the last days of my probation" (2 Nephi 2:21,30).
From this passage of scripture it would appear that the time we live here in mortality comprises the days of our probation. In fact, it appears the Lord confirmed this to Joseph Smith when He said, "And thus did I, the Lord God, appoint unto man the days of his probation - that by his natural death he might be raised in immortality unto eternal life, even as many as would believe" (D&C 29:43).
If this is true, then what about the spirits of those who have died without a knowledge of the gospel? The apostle Peter wrote, "For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit" (1 Peter 4:6, italics added). In other words, those who have left mortality must still live in the spirit world according to the same commandments of God we have to live by in the mortal world. But if we are required to endure to the end of our probation - which is assumed to end when we die - then how are those in the spirit world suppose to endure to the end if death is the end of our probation? If the dead are to be judged according to men in the flesh, then it stands to reason that they too must be required to endure to the end the same as we are.
If that is true, then death cannot be the end of our probation.
In the Book of Mormon we learn that Nephi also taught his people, "Wherefore, if ye shall be obedient to the commandments, and endure to the end, ye shall be saved at the last day. And thus it is. Amen" (1 Nephi 22:31).
The scriptures are filled with references about "the last day". From them we're told that the resurrection will be on the last day (John 11:24) when we shall be raised (John 6:40), and lifted up (1 Nephi 13:37), to stand face to face before the bar of Christ (2 Nephi 25:18) where everyone will be judged according to their works (2 Nephi 9:44) and every tongue will confess that Jesus is the Christ (Mosiah 27:31). Then, on the last day, the righteous will be saved (1 Nephi 22:31) and be received into the kingdom of God (Alma 38:15) while the wicked will be damned (2 Nephi 9:24) and cast off (Alma 22:6).
Since death is not the end of our existence, that means we continue to live after our mortal body has ceased to function. If earth life is just a portion of the total number of days in which we live, is it not unreasonable to conclude that the end of our probation actually occurs on "the last day"?
As Latter-day Saints we also believe that we lived before our life on earth began. The Lord revealed to Abraham, "And there stood one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; and we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them; and they who keep their first estate shall be added upon; and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever.
"And the Lord said: Whom shall I send? And one answered like unto the Son of Man: Here am I, send me. And another answered and said: Here am I, send me. And the Lord said: I will send the first. And the second was angry and kept not his first estate, and at that day, many followed after him" (Abraham 3:24-28).
Our pre-mortal life was our first estate. In that estate, we progressed spiritually as far as we could. To progress further required us to encounter the knowledge of good and evil and other things which we could not experience in the perfect environment in which we then dwelt. To help us continue to progress, our Heavenly Father designed a plan that called for a savior to die for our sins. Two beings came forth to offer themselves for the position - Jehovah and Lucifer. The first was accepted, the second was not.
Because he was not accepted, Lucifer became angry and managed to persuade one-third of our Father's children to follow him. The scriptures tell us that Lucifer and those that followed after his ways didn't keep their first estate. As a result, they were not allowed to progress onto their second estate.
But what about those who didn't follow after Lucifer? The scriptures plainly teach that since they kept their first estate, they were given the opportunity to move onto their second estate. We are further told "they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever."
This raises two questions: What happens to those who don't keep their second estate, and when does the second estate end?
Before we answer these, let's reflect a moment on our first estate. In the pre-mortal world, we had the choice to follow either our Father's ways or the ways of Lucifer. Can we not therefore say that in our first estate we were on probation "to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them"? Those who endured to the end of the days of their probation in the first estate were allowed to receive greater glory by going onto the second estate, while those who did not endure to the end were cast off.
We often refer to earth life as the second estate, and once again we are given the choice of following either our Heavenly Father's ways or the ways of Satan (his name having been changed). But what about the time between death and the resurrection? What estate is that?
It can't be our third estate for two reasons. First of all, everyone goes to the spirit world, regardless of how they lived. No one is cast out, cut off or prevented from advancing to this stage of existence no matter what they did while in mortality. In fact, everyone is forced to undergo death, which is the entrance way into the next phase of our spiritual progression. Furthermore, everyone will be resurrected and all mankind will be saved (Alma 1:4) to one degree or another.
The second reason why the spirit world can't be our third estate is because of the atonement of Christ. In explaining the atonement, the apostle Peter said, "By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison which sometimes were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days Noah" (1 Peter 3:19-20).
If our mortal life is the end of our second estate then there would be no need or possibility for Christ to save those who had failed to endure to the end of mortality. But if our second estate probation extends all the way to "the last day", then it makes sense why Peter would teach, "For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit" (1 Peter 4:6).
Our life did not begin here on earth, neither will it end with the death of the physical body. The days of our lives began long before mortality and will continue on for the rest of eternity. However, the days of our probation began when we were born to our Heavenly parents and will continue until the "gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; then shall the end come" (Matthew 24:14).
The saving work of Christ will continue up to "the last day". Until then we will remain on probation. After that day we will enter into our third and final estate, where there will no longer be a need for us to endure the days of our probation.
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