Most LDS commentaries on “Behold, these are they who died without law” (D&C 76:72) assume the verse refers to those who died without having the chance to hear the law. Understood thus, this verse in the context of Doctrine and Covenants 76:71–80 would seem to say that the people who never had the chance in mortality to hear the gospel will inherit the terrestrial kingdom. This reading would seem to contradict Doctrine and Covenants 137:7, which explicitly states that “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.”Doctrine and Covenants commentaries must then explain why 76:72 cannot be understood to mean that those who die “without law” receive the terrestrial kingdom. Perhaps a different understanding of “without law” in that verse would remove the seeming inconsistency between Doctrine and Covenants 76:72 and 137:7. The following brief study will demonstrate this point.
In addition to Doctrine and Covenants 76:72, “law” is the object of “without” in six other passages in Latter-day Saint scriptures. Four of these passages occur in the New Testament. (These four will prove pivotal in the discussion.) The fifth passage, Moroni 8:22, will prove to conform to New Testament usage. The sixth passage, 2 Chronicles 15:3, will not factor into the discussion because the content and the unusual construction in Hebrew do not contribute to the present investigation.
The four passages that occur in the New Testament can be divided into two categories, according to whether the phrase in the King James Version is “without law” (Romans 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 9:21), or “without the law” (Romans 7:8-9 and 3:21, italics added).ἄνομος, and means “without law, lawless, impious,” that is, “outside law.” “Without the law” in Romans 7:8–9 (and the similar phrase in Romans 3:21) is translated from the Greek words χωρὶϛ νόμου, χωρὶϛ meaning “separately, asunder, apart by oneself,” and νόμοϛ meaning (among other things) “law, ordinance,” “especially of the Mosaic law,” and “can almost come to mean (Jewish) religion.” Together, χωρὶϛ νόμου means not having received or been subject to the law or rule of religion, including principles and ordinances.In English the difference between “without law” and “without the law” is not readily apparent, which is one reason why Doctrine and Covenants 76:72 can easily be misunderstood. On the other hand, these two phrases in the King James Version are translations from the Greek text; and in the Greek text these two phrases cannot be confused. “Without law” in Romans 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 9:21 is translated from a single Greek word,
When these Greek distinctions are read into the English text, it becomes readily apparent that the phrases express different theological concepts. For example, Romans 2:12 would read, “For as many as have sinned without law [ἀνόμως, that is, having placed themselves outside of law] shall also perish without law [outside of law]: and as many as have sinned [with]in the law shall be judged by the law.” In like manner, 1 Corinthians 9:20–21 would state,
And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law [outside of law], as without law [outside of law], (being not without law [not outside of law] to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law [outside of law].
On the other hand, Romans 7:7-9 would read, “I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law [χωρὶϛ νόμου, in other words, because I did not have the law], sin was dead. For I was alive without the law once [For I was alive before the law was given to me]: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.” Similarly, Romans 3:21 would read, “But now the righteousness of God without the law [i.e., when the law had not yet been given] is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets.”
These four New Testament examples strongly suggest that the very similar King James Version phrases “without law” and “without the law” express very different theological concepts. “[Those] without law” seems to denote those who have chosen to reject law and live outside of it. The phrase “without the law” would appear to refer to those who do not have a law or ordinance given to them.
The only passage in the Book of Mormon where “law” is the object of “without,” Moroni 8:22, also seems to conform to the usage just demonstrated for the King James Version. There the phrase “they that are without the law” is defined within the verse itself as meaning those “that have no law.” Thus, while this verse was not translated from a Greek original, it clearly appears to be consistent in both meaning and form with the English usage established in the King James Version of the New Testament.
With this understanding of the difference between “without law” and “without the law,” a fresh look at Doctrine and Covenants 76:72 is in order. “Behold, these are they who died without law,” then, would not appear to refer to those who died not knowing the law. Rather, the verse probably refers to those who died outside law, that is, died having rejected the law of the gospel with its various rules and covenants. This reading, contrary to the understanding most commentaries give to the passage, does not create a conflict with Doctrine and Covenants 137:7. Within the context of Doctrine and Covenants 76:71–80, verse 72 would then refer to the good and honorable people of this earth who live lives free of gross sin, but who in this life reject the gospel of Jesus Christ and choose to live outside the laws and ordinances thereof.