You are here
Why Did Jesus Preach to the Dead?
1 Peter 4:6
On October 3, 1918, President Joseph F. Smith received a profound revelation as he was reading the New Testament.1 According to President Smith, “the Spirit of the Lord rested upon me, and I saw the hosts of the dead, both small and great … awaiting the advent of the Son of God into the spirit world, to declare their redemption from the bands of death” (Doctrine and Covenants 138:11, 16). As this vision continued, President Smith saw the Savior appear to the faithful spirits, declaring the everlasting gospel and organizing a missionary force to preach to those who had been unable to accept the gospel in their mortal lives (see D&C 138:18, 30). This vision established firmly what had been preached by other apostles and prophets in earlier years.2
The scriptures that President Smith had prayerfully been reading at the time were 1 Peter 3:18–20 and 1 Peter 4:6, which declare that “the gospel [was] 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.” Although these verses are the most explicit reference to this event in the New Testament, other New Testament authors shared this same belief and occasionally referenced it.3 Likewise, this idea appears to be closely connected to early Christian beliefs about proxy baptisms for the dead and the different levels of heaven and salvation.4
In the early centuries AD, multiple early Christian texts discussed this event as an impactful and important aspect of Jesus’s identity and mission. Indeed, as those early Christians drew upon these New Testament references to Jesus’s post-mortal ministry, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev explains, this event offered three themes that were “fundamental to all early Christian literature”—namely, (1) Christ actually preached to the dead, (2) baptism is reminiscent of this event, and (3) by descending into Hades, Christ conquered death and hell forever.5
For example, the most detailed account of this event in Christian literature could be found in a text known as the Gospel of Nicodemus. While this text likely found its final form in the fifth century AD, some scholars have observed how it contains tradition “that at least partially dates to apostolic times” and that many portions of this text were known to Christians of the second and third centuries.6 According to this text, Jesus descended into the world of spirits (Hades in Greek), dramatically threw down the gates of death, and raised the righteous up from the dead: “The King of Glory stretched out his right hand, and took hold of our forefather Adam and raised him up. Then he turned to the rest and said, ‘Come with me, all you who have died through the tree which this man touched. For behold, I raise you all up again through the tree of the cross.’”7
Another early Christian text known as the Gospel of Peter recounts the Resurrection with a clear reference to Jesus’s descent to the world of spirits. After Jesus left the tomb with two angels, “they heard a voice out of the heavens crying, ‘Have you preached to those who sleep?’ And from the cross there was heard the answer, ‘Yes.’”8 Other Christian hymns known as the Odes of Solomon recount this preaching from Christ’s perspective: “Sheol saw me and was shattered, and Death ejected me and many with me. I have been vinegar and bitterness to it, and I went down with it as far as its depth.”9
Other texts make it clear that righteous Saints likewise took part in the redemption of the dead. A famous Christian text from the late first century called the Shepherd of Hermas, for example, described how “apostles and teachers who preached the name of the Son of God” taught the dead who had been unable to hear the gospel in their lives. Shortly after this, living Apostles and teachers would then be baptized on their behalf.10 Similarly, the Apocalypse of Zephaniah describes how the righteous dead prayed to the Lord on behalf of those suffering in Hades for mercy. As noted by David L. Paulsen and his coauthors, “as the exalted righteous pray on behalf of all of the inhabitants of hades, it is understood that all … have a possibility of either some sort of escape from hades or relief from its torments.”11
The emphasis in these texts on the righteous dead taking an active part in the salvation of the dead is reflected in President Joseph F. Smith’s revelation: “Behold, from among the righteous, he [Jesus] organized his forces and appointed messengers, clothed with power and authority, and commissioned them to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness, even to all the spirits of men; and thus was the gospel preached to the dead” (D&C 138:30). Through the ministry of Jesus’s appointed messengers, all mankind—on both sides of the veil—can accept His gospel and make covenants with Him.
The doctrine of salvation for the dead did not arise out of a vacuum. Rather, early Christians recognized how this had been taught by ancient prophets and often drew upon earlier works to demonstrate that the gospel they preached was true. Justin Martyr and Irenaeus both cited a since-lost prophecy attributed to Jeremiah stating, “The Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, remembered his dead that slept in (the) earth of (the) grave, and he descended to preach to them his salvation.”12 Earlier Jewish texts have been noted by Paulsen and his coauthors as being precursors to the Christian elaboration of this event, including 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra, both of which briefly detail salvation for the repentant dead.13
Ultimately, it can be recognized that the ministry of Jesus Christ to the spirit world has been a matter of utmost importance to the ancient and restored Church of Jesus Christ.14 By descending to the spirit world and organizing this work, Jesus undertook and completed another crucial part of His Atonement, opening the way for all God’s children to learn of Him, repent of their sins, and make covenants with Him, even when they did not have the opportunity to do so while in the flesh.
According to Archbishop Alfeyev, Christ’s preaching to the dead is “an inseparable part of the dogmatic tradition of the church. It was shared by all members of the ancient church as reflected in the New Testament, the works of the early Christian apologists, fathers and teachers of the church, ancient and later writers of both the East and West, as well as in the baptismal creeds, eucharistic services, and liturgical texts.”15 Indeed, he argues that this event was one of universal significance whose effects extend “not only to past generations but also to all those who followed. … The teaching that Christ granted to all the possibility of salvation and opened for all the doors to paradise should also be considered general church doctrine.”16
Furthermore, as Hugh Nibley studied this important event, he concluded that early Christians “insist, in fact, that Christ’s mission below was simply a continuation of his earthly mission, which it resembles in detail. The spirits there join his church exactly like their mortal descendants, and by the same ordinances.”17 This doctrine also dramatically changes how we might understand the nature of God when compared with modern conceptions about Him and His plan. As Scott Peterson has noted, “the existence of a place where the good news is preached to those who never had a chance to accept Christ during mortality is evidence that the God of Christianity is entirely fair. … It is a testament to the fact that Christianity is a universal faith and that God has provided a means whereby all of His children may accept the truth.18
Ultimately, latter-day revelation has restored this key Christian doctrine, offering everyone hope for their loved ones who have passed away without a knowledge of the gospel. Because God is merciful and just, He has prepared a way for all of His children to hear the good news, ensuring that no one will be robbed of the opportunity to return to Him simply because no one had told them about Jesus.
Hugh Nibley, “Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times,” in Mormonism and Early Christianity (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies [FARMS]; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1987), 100–167.
Hugh Nibley, “Two Ways to Remember the Dead,” in The World and the Prophets (Provo, UT: FARMS; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1987), 163–171.
David L. Paulsen, Roger D. Cook, and Kendel J. Christensen, “The Harrowing of Hell: Salvation for the Dead in Early Christianity,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 19, no. 1 (2010): 56–77.
David L. Paulsen, Judson Burton, Kendel J. Christensen, and Martin Pulido, “Redemption of the Dead: Continuing Revelation after Joseph Smith,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 20, no. 2 (2011): 52–69.
Hans A. Pohlsander, review of Rescue for the Dead: The Posthumous Salvation of Non-Christians in Early Christianity, by Jeffrey A. Trumbower, BYU Studies Quarterly 41, no. 2 (2002): 187–191.
- 1. The historical background to this vision was recently discussed in honor of the hundredth anniversary of this revelation by the late President M. Russell Ballard. See M. Russell Ballard, “The Vision of the Redemption of the Dead,” October 2018 general conference; see also George S. Tate, “‘The Great World of the Spirits of the Dead’: Death, the Great War, and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic as Context for Doctrine and Covenants 138,” BYU Studies Quarterly 46, no. 1 (2007): 4–40.
- 2. For example, Orson Pratt, George Q. Canon, James E. Talmage, John Taylor, Parley P. Pratt, Wilford Woodruff, and Erastus Snow all preached about this event between Joseph Smith’s martyrdom and the reception of this grand vision in 1918. See David L. Paulsen, Judson Burton, Kendel J. Christensen, and Martin Pulido, “Redemption of the Dead: Continuing Revelation after Joseph Smith,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 20, no. 2 (2011): 54–57.
- 3. See Matthew 12:40; Romans 10:7; Acts 2:24–31; Ephesians 4:8–10.
- 4. For a discussion on early Christian beliefs about baptisms for the dead and multiple levels of heaven, see Book of Mormon Central, “Why Are People Baptized for the Dead? (1 Corinthians 15:29),” KnoWhy 687 (September 5, 2023), and Book of Mormon Central, “What Did Early Christians Teach about the Three Degrees of Glory? (2 Corinthians 12:2, 4),” KnoWhy 689 (September 19, 2023).
- 5. Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009), 20.
- 6. Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell, 30; also see generally G. C. O’Ceallaigh, “Dating the Commentaries of Nicodemus,” Harvard Theological Review 56 (1963): 21–58 for a discussion on the dating of this text.
- 7. Gospel of Nicodemus 24:1.
- 8. Gospel of Peter 41–42.
- 9. Ode of Solomon 42:11–12.
- 10. Shepherd of Hermas, Similitudes 9.16. This passage is discussed in Hugh Nibley, “Two Ways to Remember the Dead,” in The World and the Prophets (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies [FARMS]; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1987), 169–171.
- 11. David L. Paulsen, Roger D. Cook, and Kendel J. Christensen, “The Harrowing of Hell: Salvation for the Dead in Early Christianity,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 19, no. 1 (2010): 62.
- 12. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 72:4. Justin Martyr and Irenaeus both claimed that this prophecy had been “cut out” by scribes who did not want Christians to use it to support their theology. Both also attribute it to Jeremiah, although Irenaeus (who cites it five times) once claimed it was from Isaiah. See Darrell D. Hannah, “Jeremiah’s Prophecy to Pashhur,” in Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: More Noncanonical Scriptures, ed. Richard Bauckham, James R. Davila, and Alexander Panayotov (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013), 1:375. For an additional discussion on this prophecy and other prophecies about Jesus attributed to Jeremiah, see John A. Tvedtnes, The Most Correct Book: Insights from a Book of Mormon Scholar (Salt Lake City, UT: Cornerstone, 1999), 99–103.
- 13. See Paulsen et al., “Harrowing of Hell,” 58–60.
- 14. For another important study of this event, see Jeffrey A. Trumbower, Rescue for the Dead: The Posthumous Salvation of Non-Christians in Early Christianity (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001), 91–108. This book has been reviewed in the BYU Studies Quarterly by Hans A. Pohlsander, review of Rescue for the Dead: The Posthumous Salvation of Non-Christians in Early Christianity, by Jeffrey A. Trumbower, BYU Studies Quarterly 41, no. 2 (2002): 187–191.
- 15. Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell, 203.
- 16. Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell, 205, 208; italics in original. He also notes on page 205, “The idea that all the dead received the opportunity to be saved is quite widespread among Eastern Christian writers, and it was only in the West where some authors labeled it heretical.”
- 17. Hugh Nibley, “Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times,” in Mormonism and Early Christianity (Provo, UT: FARMS; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1987), 119.
- 18. Scott R. Peterson, Do the Mormons Have a Leg to Stand On? A Critical Look at LDS Doctrines in Light of the Bible and the Teachings of the Early Christian Church (Orem, UT: Millenial Press, 2014), 243. For a more general discussion of this doctrine by Peterson, see pages 231–244; see also Barry Robert Bickmore, Restoring the Ancient Church: Joseph Smith and Early Christianity, 2nd ed. (Ben Lomond, CA: FAIR, 2013), 148–158.
Get the latest updates on Book of Mormon topics and research for free