Knocking Doors in the Afterlife

I’ve been thinking about this passage from D&C 137: “All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God.”

This scripture is a hallmark of what mormonism offers to the world: a reasonable Deity, who affords to all the chance to listen and choose the Gospel. It sets us apart from religions that cannot offer anything to those who die without a knowledge of God, or who damn those who could not receive God’s sacraments. It’s also a challenge to members, I think, in that it suggests an afterlife of teaching and proselytizing that is very unconventional. But the scripture leaves me with a couple of questions, which maybe you can help me answer:

1. What constitutes “a knowledge of this gospel”? It seems to refer to some common-sense notion of a turn at bat, but it’s fairly ambiguous. If I knocked on someone’s door in France, and they slammed it in my face, did they reject the gospel? Alternatively, if someone has received the missionary discussions but dies uncertain in their convictions, have their had their chance? At what point do we have the knowledge requisite to damn or save us?

2. What’s the purpose of this life’s “probationary period” if we can get multiple bites at the gospel apple? Doesn’t this idea of the unrighteous dead getting saved devalue the efforts of the people who have had to endure to the end?

I realize we know very little about what happens when we die, and this is largely speculative stuff. But I’d appreciate your insights.


  1. “it is we who judge ourselves at judgment day, right?”

    Well, that’s a good notion, but the scriptures make it pretty clear that there are outside judges involved in the process too. Plus, so many of us are self-deluded, we’d make poor judges of ourselves…

  2. “the Lord (properly) will judge each person individually”

    So Kevin, what do you think of CTK’s earlier statement that we judge ourselves? Who’s the judge, anyways?

  3. “we must believe that we not only get two bites at the apple”

    I guess that’s an interesting point, because D&C 137 leaves the implication that those who do have the knowledge of the gospel in this life, but for some reason don’t receive it, are damned. Mortals then get only one shot once they have that knowledge. How do you reconcile infinite opportunities to learn and grow with the idea of a final judgment, punishment, and damnation?

  4. A somewhat unrelated question, but one that’s always left me smiling. So you’re dead. You’re enjoying the afterlife (which from all accounts is apparently more pleasant than this one) and the Mormon missionaries knock on your door. Wouldn’t you at that point pretty much just KNOW that you had better listen, given your position and theirs? Is there really practically any free agency any more?

  5. As someone wholly dependent on God’s mercy, I’d be a little wary to found out exactly where that line is that goes too far. I’d rather just stay as far away from it as possible, wherever it is.

    This isn’t like antitrust law or something where some fine distinction makes a difference. Sorry for the analogy- that’s the exam I just took…

    As someone wholly dependent on God’s mercy, I think it might be contrary to expecting that mercy to find out exactly how much he is “obliged” to forgive before I don’t get another chance.

    I’ll admit that it’s interesting. But I don’t think it’s important.

  6. Hey KMB, good to see you out here!

    I like the Holy Ghost’s witness as a litmus test for knowledge; but again, that leads (potentially) to people who have already been baptized being included in that group, doesn’t it? In mean, in my experience plenty of people get baptized who have no idea of what the Holy Ghost has told them.

  7. I agree that there are a lot of Church members who haven’t been ‘converted’ (i.e. received a witness) and thus might get a second chance. I say ‘might’ because being in the Church provides the atmosphere and the opportunity by which to receive a witness and I believe there are some for whom the reason they haven’t received a true witness of the Holy Ghost isn’t because they haven’t had the opportunity but because they haven’t tried nor been receptive to the Spirit.

    Of course, being a perfect judge means you can’t make generalizations for groups of people since everyone’s different. That’s why issues like this are hard to discuss in general terms because the Lord (properly) will judge each person individually.

  8. I don’t think it’s possible to err in being merciful. People like to bring up justice (as I did) because it justifies their super-righteousness, but there’s no sin in being merciful.

  9. Gary Cooper says:

    I have never contributed here before, having heard about this post from another LDS blog. Let me add my two cents worth here; maybe it can be helpful to some.

    This is actually one of my favorite aspects of the Gospel, the idea that no one is “written off”. With regard to what constitutes someone having sufficient knowledge of the Gospel in this life to be judged, when I was on my mission in Italy in 1984-85, we had a General Authority come (can’t remember who), who spoke to the missionaries and specifically addressed this issue. He asked us to answer this question. After several gave their opinions, he said, as near as I can recollect:

    “For the Brethren, this issue is a clear as day, and it needs to be for you as missionaries. It is not sufficient to just heear about the Church on TV or the radio, or to read a magazine article, etc. Three things have to take place, in mortality, for someone to be judged in mortality as having “had a chance” to be saved. First, they must hear the restored Gospel message. Second, they must hear it in person from someone who has authority to preach it to them. Third, they must feel the power of the Holy Ghost bearing witness that it is true. Where these three things have not taken place, a person cannot reasonably be judged.” He then added, “So, elders and sisters, do NOT judge the people who reject you at the door, or who even hear the discussions and don’t accept your message. DON’T judge your family members and friends who are not members or who are inactive members. You do not know what their experiences have been, only God does.”

    Needless to say, this has always been a great comfort to me, as also Bruce R. McKonkie’s statement that both he and his father-in-law, Joseph Fielding Smith, were convinced that the vast majority of God’s spirit children would be exalted. (That’s a no-brainer; just look at how many children historically have died before age 8, and you get more than half of all the people who have ever lived.)

    Finally, I would point out that the spirit world, or “paradise”, refutes the doctrinal beliefs of every pagan tradition, and will be hard to reconcile for every non-LDS Christian and Jewish perspective as well. Just what does a person do there, when all the people he has always looked up to in his tradition are converted “Mormons”? I don’t think this denies Agency, but it would seem to make missionary work a lot easier.

  10. It’s not just a question of when the consequences come and their form, it’s also (for me) a question of thresholds of responsibility. At what point are we going to hold people responsible for a knowledge of the gospel? When do people know enough to become accountable for their actions?

  11. Jordan, as someone wholly dependent on God’s mercy I’d like to figure out how far that mercy goes.

    If you don’t find that interesting or important, that’s fine. I don’t think that makes you plebian.

  12. Karen,
    I’ve always found the issue you raise interesting. Will my grandparents, who raised hell when my dad joined the church 35 years ago, and have continued to believe we are seriously misguided in our religious ways, eventually die, get handed a Book of Mormon and realize the error of their ways? If we believe the will is an essential part of the soul, and I do, then it can’t possibly be that simple.

    One way to understand that is to concede that the gospel of Jesus Christ is much broader in scope than Mormonism is. Even if Mormon doctrine is the truest form of doctrine on the earth today, that leaves two big holes- “on the earth” and “today” – so the sweep and majesty of God’s plan for us must still require some element of agency to recognize and accept.

    You raise an interesting point about the tipping point at which we can be held accountable. Although I don’t think this tricky issue is necessarily any different in the next life than it is in this one. We are presented with all kinds of legal and ethical quandaries in our lives concerning when someone has the requisite knowledge and/or intent to be held accountable. Perhaps only the individual knows – it is we who judge ourselves at judgment day, right?

  13. Like I said, Jordan, if you don’t think that it’s important, that’s fine.

  14. Logan, we’re in agreement.

    I’m curious exactly how far God can go before he robs justice, I guess.

  15. My perspective of salvation and eternal progression is obviously different than Steve’s, but I believe that thinking of one “at bat” then you’re out is not very realistic, especially if street contacting counts as your at bat. Keep in mind that God’s “work and glory is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” It’s His whole program to help people return to Him and become more like Him. From the missionaries I’ve known (and I’ve known a lot), I can’t even fathom that each of them has the power to condemn others to damnation because their tracting door approach isn’t very good. The Spirit would have to be strong enough to overcome all (with this much at stake, it would have to be all not some) of the weird things missionaries do. That’s quite the spiritual knock over the head, and I just can’t believe that that would be someone’s “one chance”.

  16. no, I’m serious — I think it’s a good idea to extend as much forgiveness and mercy as we can. God can dispense judgment, but not us. I’m glad your comment reminded me of that.

  17. Our fate may be far simpler than what’s been discussed so far. I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t end up in some celestial cul de sac, living on the same block with people just like we are.

    If we are selfish, greedy, nasty, mean, boring, abusive, gossiping cretins, guess who we get to spend eternity with for neighbors?

    Likewise, if we are kind, forgiving, loving, caring, generous, fun, interesting and witty, the block parties will be a happenin’ treat! Judgement’s a no-brainer, and I can’t imagine anyone thinking such a fate would be unfair. Such a view at least helps me rethink some of my priorities anyway…

  18. Perhaps the answer is something fairly simple. Since gospel ‘knowledge’ isn’t obtained through scientific means, but through the Holy Ghost, perhaps those who receive a witness from the Holy Ghost count as having a ‘knowledge of the Gospel’ thus allowing those who slam doors on missionaries (or who reject the missionaries due to the hearsay of someone else, etc…) without a true witness to get another chance to accept or reject the gospel, while those who have received a witness already (in whatever form) but don’t follow through will not get another ‘at-bat’…

  19. Steve asked me to post some of my thoughts here, after seeing my longer post at Let Us Reason. He had asked why it’s important to live the gospel here on earth if we get a “second chance” after this life. I think the answer is found in D&C 130:19: the more we progress in this life, the greater advantage we have in the life to come.

    And I think this can be sufficient motivation without all the “hellfire and damnation” stuff. But apparently lots of people need the hellfire and damnation rhetoric (cf. D&C 19).

    It seems to me that God is willing to give us another chance anytime we desire it. Why would God stand in the way of someone who desires to repent and change his life?

  20. Steve’s curious about exactly how far God can go before he robs justice.

    Like most intellectual gymnastics, I am not sure why this is important information to know.

    I guess my dire lack of intellectual curiousity (or perhaps the lack of time I have to do such mental gymnastics) is what separates the plebian members like me from the elite ones.

  21. Steve,
    You query why people might get “two bites” at the proverbial apple if they have some knowledge of the gospel in this life but are not certain before they die and then have further opportunities to accept Christ in the next life. But this question underscores one of the fundamental distinctions between the Mormon cycle of life and that of classical Christian doctrine. I think that, as little as we know about the afterlife, we do know that it is much more fluid than just heaven and hell. And if we truly believe in eternal progression, we must believe that we not only get two bites at the apple, but possibly infinite opportunities to reform and grow.

    I understand that there is something uniquely powerful about the strength of the atonement in this earthly life that perhaps we cannot fully harness in the life to come (otherwise, what purpose this life and that sacrifice), however, we know that atonement to be an eternal one, and I think it must extend to aiding our growth and understanding for eternity.

  22. Uh, a little more. I guess I worry that we sometimes have a tendency as a Church to judge people too quickly based on the teensiest bit of information we have about life after death. I may get overly zealous in resisting judging and condemning others, but I have a really hard time labelling any person — hypothetical or real — as someone for whom it’s just too late.

  23. Well hi Gary!

    I like what you point out in your post — no one is written off. The gospel is fundamentally a message of hope, I think.

  24. Well, we really don’t know – assuming final judgment, punishment and damnation are what we think they are – at what point in the continuum of time these things occur. Perhaps those only come after some additional billions of years with the accompanying opportunities. I agree that there are consequences to our actions. The question is when those consequences come and in what form.

  25. Why can’t members of the Church who have been baptized get a second chance? I think that some people get baptized without knowledge of the gospel, be it for social reasons or whatever. Again, I have a hard time believing that God will be very quick to pull the “too late for you” lever, and that someone who was a month behind on their tithing when they die in a tragic car accident is left out in the cold.

    I don’t know exactly what a “second chance” is, but I do think that God wants to do whatever He can to help as many of us as possible.

  26. Wow, Steve. That was a very diplomatic comment. I’m impressed (and I feel very not-judged).

  27. Wow, that was quick to sneak that comment in between mine, Steve.

    You’re right that there’s that problematic justice to worry about. ;)

    As I was getting at just barely, I think I tend to err on the side of mercy in my own judgment of others, but I suppose that could be dangerous if it leads to complacency on my part.

    What to do, what to do . . .

  28. You’re raising the bar pretty high here, Logan — sounds to me as if maybe even some members are going to get a second shot at things.

    That being said, I agree with you — tracting doesn’t count as the “at bat”.

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