These last two sections were added to the current version of the Doctrine and Covenants in 1981. Previous to that, these revelations were accepted as scripture and added to the Pearl of Great Price in April 1976. (Information from wikipedia). D&C 137 was a revelation received by Joseph Smith in Kirtland Ohio on January 21, 1836 just prior to the dedication of the Kirtland temple. D&C 138 happened much later, received by Joseph F. Smith (Joseph Smith’s nephew) on October 4, 1918. Both were revelations providing more light and knowledge about life after death.
The Come Follow Me lesson that introduces these sections reference a recent General Conference talk given by Dallin H. Oaks where he reminds us how little has actually been revealed about the after life. These revelations are glimpses only, revealing important and helpful principles and insights. As we feel tempted to wonder or worry about the details, we should, to use Elder Oaks’ words, “trust in the Lord“.
D&C 137 (January 21, 1836)
This revelation centers on and was triggered by Joseph Smith’s thoughts, feelings and relationship for and with his older brother Alvin Smith. Alvin had previously passed away on Nov. 19, 1823 at the age of 25. During his funeral service, the minister presiding over the funeral service had taught that Alvin’s soul was in jeapardy because he had not been baptized in any church before his death. Thirteen years later, Joseph received this revelation about the celestial kingdom after both giving and receiving a blessing from his father.
The Vision of the Celestial Kingdom
Verses 1-4, Joseph Smith describes his vision, “whether in the body or out I cannot tell.” He described the “transcendent beauty of the gate” “like unto circling flames of fire”. “The blazing throne of God”, the “beautiful streets of the kingdom” with the “appearance of being paved with gold.”
Next he describes who he sees, starting first with two significant Old Testament prophets, Adam and Abraham, followed by his still alive father and more significantly, his brother Alvin. (verse 5). Joseph Smith had long dismissed the authority of the minister who presided over Alvin’s funeral, but the preeminent importance of baptism stayed with him. Seeing this vision caused him to question and then receive an assurance.
And amarveled how it was that he had obtained an binheritance in that kingdom, seeing that he had departed this life before the Lord had set his hand to cgather Israel the second time, and had not been dbaptized for the remission of sins.
Thus came the avoice of the Lord unto me, saying: All who have died bwithout a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be cheirs of the celestial kingdom of God;
Also all that shall die henceforth without a knowledge of it, who awould have received it with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom;verses 6-8
That the Lord will “judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts.” (verse 9).
We should be careful to interpret these words too narrowly. As a general rule, imagine a kind, loving God who loves and cares for every single one of God’s children. Thinking too about the capricious, uneven, wildly unjust nature of this world, we’re called into love, compassion, care and forgiveness. There is an accountability. We do need to adopt a sense of urgency. We need to avoid complacency. But God wants us with Him. Heaven is not Harvard. The bar for Heaven is far higher and more essentially important than Harvard’s admissions, but God desires a 100% admission rates, US News & World Report rankings be damned.
D&C 138 (October 3, 1918)
This revelation came to Joseph F. Smith just as WW1 was ending, a war that resulted in an estimated 40 million lives lost. It was also the start of the first outbreak of deadly 1918 flu epidemic in Utah. One week after this revelation, there would be a ban on all public meetings in Utah. Moreover, president’s life was also nearing his end, his death would be a couple of months later, in December of that year. Joseph F. Smith’s life was filled with tragedy and death. He was only six years old when his father, Hyrum and his uncle Joseph were killed in Carthage Jail. When he was only 13, his mother died in Salt Lake City of pneumonia. He also had 13 children precede him in death.
The Nature of this Revelation
Joseph F. Smith before getting into the revelation describes the manner in which the revelation comes. He’s pondering over the scriptures, reflecting on God’s great love and mercy. While engaged, he remembers the writings of Peter.
While I was thus engaged, my mind reverted to the writings of the apostle Peter, to the aprimitive saints scattered abroad throughout bPontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, and other parts of Asia, where the gospel had been cpreached after the crucifixion of the Lord.
I opened the Bible and read the athird and fourth chapters of the first epistle of Peter, and as I read I was greatly bimpressed, more than I had ever been before, with the following passages:5-6
He proceeds to quote several verses in Peter culminating in 1 Peter 4:6
For 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 he reads these passages, the spirit rests upon him and the eyes of his understanding are opened, and he sees the “hosts of the dead”.
Christ First Teaches to the Just
His vision first focuses on the just. The scriptures often talk in binary, the just and the unjust, when in reality, this binary is not well representative as we all fall within some complicated continuum. What’s interesting here is the specific attributes that qualify someone as just.
- Verse 12: “Offered sacrifice in the similitude of the great sacrifice of the Son of God”
- Verse 13: “Departed the mortal life, firm in the hope of a glorious resurrection, through the grace of God”
- Verse 14: Those “filled with joy and gladness”, rejoicing because the “day of their deliverance was at hand.”
There’s something within the just that has a general knowledge and relationship with God that calls them into an enduring effort to love and serve others. It was them that Christ preached the everlasting gospel. Unto the wicked he did not go (verse 20).
Death is described here as bondage that all endured. The difference is that the righteous had knowledge of God’s grace having experienced it while in the flesh, striving to live as Jesus lived. They had a gut-level hope of an eventual resurrection and with that, hope for deliverance. I’m sure there were degrees and continuums here, but it speaks to the importance of living well here, while embodied, to ease the burdens while there, disembodied.
Constrast With the Unjust
The unjust were those who “defiled themselves”, were rebellious and “rejected the testimonies and the warnings of the ancient prophets”. Who can this be? How can we recognize when it’s happening within us? I believe that the spirit of prophecy can come from all kinds of sources and that we need to be willing to listen to their testimonies and warnings with an open heart, willing to repent and change our minds and our hearts. There’s too much of stubbornness in this world.
Verse 22 describes their state and then compares them with those who have light.
Where these were, adarkness reigned, but among the righteous there was bpeace;
And the saints rejoiced in their aredemption, and bowed the bknee and acknowledged the Son of God as their Redeemer and Deliverer from death and the cchains of dhell.
Their countenances ashone, and the bradiance from the presence of the Lord rested upon them, and they csang praises unto his holy name.verse 22-24
The Vastness of the Mission
In the middle of this remarkable vision, Smith begins to wonder and marvel, beginning in verse 25, that Christ’s ministry was so short (three years), converting only a smattering of followers and his ministry among the dead was even shorter. How could he reach so many people in so short of time.
I marveled, for I understood that the Savior spent about three years in his aministry among the Jews and those of the house of Israel, endeavoring to bteach them the everlasting gospel and call them unto repentance;
And yet, notwithstanding his mighty works, and miracles, and proclamation of the truth, in great apower and authority, there were but bfew who hearkened to his voice, and rejoiced in his presence, and received salvation at his hands.
But his ministry among those who were dead was limited to the abrief time intervening between the crucifixion and his resurrection;verses 25-27
The Mission – Continual Preaching and Teaching After Death
The answer came through a quickened understanding (verse 29), that Christ organized the mission among the just to teach the gospel to the unjust (verse 30). The gospel would be taught to those who died in their sins, “faith in God, repentance for sins, vicarious baptism, the gift of the Holy Gost” (verse 33). The idea here to entrance to God’s kingdom, that through God’s judgment they might live with God in the Spirit.
Thus was it made known that our Redeemer spent his time during his sojourn in the world of aspirits, instructing and preparing the faithful spirits of the bprophets who had testified of him in the flesh;
That they might carry the message of redemption unto all the dead, unto whom he could not go personally, because of their arebellion and transgression, that they through the ministration of his servants might also hear his words.Verse 36-37
The Mighty and Great ones
Similar to Joseph Smith’s revelation in D&C 137, President Smith sees Old Testament prophets among those present in this revelation, but it’s far more expansive, spanning the dispensations, Adam, Eve, Abel, Seth, Noah, Shem, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Elias, Malachi, Elijah, and so many more. Righteous daughters of Eve, though many are sadly left out of scripture are referenced as well as the Book of Mormon prophets. This teaching spans from the very unique and narrow perspective of a prophet of this modern Christian church, but I think with a broader lens, one could see the need to teach and be taught from all prophets who ever lived everywhere, representing all traditions, cultures and people. This was a mission to shine light in dark places.
The Eternal Mission
The point of this mission was life:
For the adead had looked upon the long absence of their bspirits from their bodies as a cbondage.verse 50
The spirits of the faithful were eternal, forever learning and expanding.
Even before they were born, they, with many others, received their first alessons in the world of spirits and were bprepared to come forth in the due ctime of the Lord to labor in his dvineyard for the salvation of the souls of men.verse 56
And so concludes the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants. This book of scripture was intended, originally to contain Joseph Smith’s revelations as the church was just beginning while Joseph Smith was trying to figure things out and largely that is what this book is. The final two sections are appropriate exclamation marks on the ultimate mission and vision of this church. One from Joseph Smith, the other given by his nephew, both describing visions of the afterlife. Joseph Smith’s describes the Celestial glory with God and the real possibilities to be at one not just with God but our loved ones as well – our brothers, sisters and parents. Joseph F. Smith describes an afterlife filled with teaching and preaching, shining light where there was darkness and the proposition that repentance is still possible after death. Most emphatically, the revelation describes the need for the resurrection and that a core part of salvation is this intuitive longing for life.