I came across a post on IFLScience the other day, about the likelihood that we will very soon be identifying extra-terrestrial planets that have life of one form or another on them. The author then went on to pose the philosophical and theological question of how our human religions might react to the information. I read through the first part of the article with a bit of smugness, as I am confident the Mormon perspective here is rather unique and robust in the face of this particular “disruption.” I was then rather surprised to see the Mormon beliefs called out in particular, in a section with several examples. I guess that’s progress – people know something about us besides the fact that we used to condone polygamy.
Anyhow, the doctrine about other worlds is not really central to our perspective of the Gospel, so it’s not talked about much, nor are there many details laid out specifically. So, it’s not surprising that IFLScience’s summary of our belief does not appear to be fully inline with my understanding of the doctrine. I do admit, however, that much of my explanation that will follow will be an extrapolation from the revealed word, and so, may also not match explanations other Mormons might give. Nevertheless, as this is probably one of those things that people might classify as cult-ish, I will endeavor to explain how the doctrine fits in with the rest of the Mormon belief system, and how it therefore makes sense.
The doctrine of many worlds is tied to the concept of people as the literal children of God. I went into this doctrine in detail in my series on the “Plan of Salvation.” The key points are that as children of God, we have the potential to become gods ourselves, to continue the life-cycle (so to speak) and create our own progeny and worlds for them. God Himself, as an eternal being, has done this before, and will continue to do it after this world ends. As such, the greatness of His creations is truly unfathomable. It is this superlative greatness that Moses glimpsed, according to LDS scripture, when God told him, “worlds without number have I created… there are many worlds that have passed away by the word of my power. And there are many that now stand, and innumerable are they unto man; but all things are numbered unto me, for they are mine and I know them.” (Moses 1:33-35)
There are many supplementary non-canonical discussions about this doctrine that have been documented between early Mormon leaders – the nature of the eternities and of godliness seemed to be a favorite topic among them. There are some perspectives from these discussions that are in-line with the gist of what was summarized in the IFLScience post – that among God’s creations, this world is “special” because His Only Begotten was born on this world. However, I am not fully convinced of that perspective. It seems consistent with God’s established patterns that He would have a “Firstborn” of every “generation” of His descendants, and that each generation might get its own world. It might also be the case that God was trying something new with this world, and that other worlds had previously been handled differently. The doctrine of the “war in Heaven” (Lucifer’s rebellion – also mentioned in my Plan of Salvation posts) seems like it would have only have happened if the plan for this world was unexpected. In which case, other worlds would have developed in dramatically different ways.
Suffice it to say, there are many ways one could look at this doctrine to see different relationships and perspectives about how other worlds might have been organized. The point is that it is not a central point of doctrine, is not entirely clear, and that there are, have been and will be many more worlds of one form or another created for people like ourselves. There may also be other worlds created with other forms of life on them. One could even start to postulate about other universes in relation to this doctrine. The wonderful thing about this in my mind, is that these questions were being discussed and considered long before a definitive scientific answer was even dreamed as possible, and that the answers provided by science will not require any change to LDS theology to bring it in-line.
Note: This post is primarily targeting members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Please pardon my use of the Mormon jargon.
“I know this church is true.” You might be able to go a week without hearing that string of words in a Mormon congregation, but certainly not a month. Every Fast Sunday that comes along is almost guaranteed to have at least a handful of members proclaiming this as part of their testimony. By itself, however, this phrase has little meaning. What it really is is shorthand for a concept that is not easily put into a sound bite.
“I know the church is true” more explicitly means that the speaker has a conviction that the LDS Church is the one and only church of Jesus Christ in that it is run by His authority through His priesthood with leaders who follow Him to the best of their ability and who receive inspiration and revelation to facilitate that leadership. Moreover, that any errors or imperfections in the church are there because of man, but that Christ will compensate and justify honest mistakes to continue the work of His church. That through the ordinances provided by the church that we are able to make binding covenants with Christ, and through service in the church and to our fellowmen that we show ourselves worthy of His grace. And finally, that through the scriptures and prophets of the church that true doctrines of the Gospel can be most effectively learned.
You may have noticed a few points in that last paragraph where human error might come into play. We also believe in human error – even in leaders of the church. The church may be true, but is not perfect.
Before I get into too much trouble with those statements, let me quote a couple of scriptures. First, Article of Faith 9 says, “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” (emphasis added) This is not just referring to the concept of continuing revelation for the guiding of the church through modern challenges, but to new and important information (dare I say doctrine?) to add to our understanding of the Kingdom of God. If we are missing important information, how can we consider it perfect?
Second is from Wilford Woodruff in the first Official Declaration, “The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.” Yet we know that the Lord allowed imperfect practices (born of good intentions or ignorance?) in the form of denying the priesthood to blacks. Due to this apparent contradiction, the only way to reconcile this is through the principle of agency. We are expected to do our best and seek guidance from the Lord. Our state as imperfect mortals means that we will not always do the best thing, even if we’re trying our best. Hence the initiation and propagation of imperfections.
So, this is awkward. This is how we end up with situations that give rise to organizations like the Ordain Women movement in the church, for instance. We have conflict between the current practice of the church, which some see as needing correction, and our responsibility as members to sustain the leaders of the church.
So, let’s say you’re someone who believes a practice of the church is wrong or imperfect. Say you feel you even received personal revelation to the effect that the practice would be changed some day — which is something a person may be entitled to receive, depending on their circumstances. What, then, are you obliged to do with that belief? Do you hold it sacred and keep it a secret? Do you use it to help alleviate someone else’s suffering? Do you share it publicly, with the caveat that you intend to follow current practices until it is changed? Do you question whether you were given the personal revelation to help prepare the membership for a coming change? I would argue that all of these are at least forgivable if not reasonable courses of action to this kind of belief.
I would draw the line at publicly questioning the leadership of the church. I don’t think we can intentionally suggest publicly that the General Authorities are not doing what they should be doing without risking our salvation. If we as members feel that the General Authorities are in error, and are willfully ignoring that error, it is our responsibility to either find a way to reconcile our beliefs to the church or leave it. Either this church is true, and the Lord will not allow it to be lead astray, or it is not, in which case, our belief in the church has been the straying. This is a weighty decision to make. To cause others to have to make this decision because of my choices and public statements is not a responsibility I would want to take upon myself.
The Lord uses the agency and transgressions of men for his own purposes. Consider Adam & Eve and the Crucifixion. These terrible events had to take place to allow the greater work of the Plan of Salvation to proceed. Is it that impossible to consider that the Lord uses the imperfections of his prophets to teach His flock and provide for us?
I believe that the leaders of the church are, in fact, lead by Christ. I trust them to follow the Lord. If they are aware of a potential error in the practices of the church, they are being lead in regard to it. A change will come, or it won’t. I will pray for understanding and unity.
Having questions and concerns about the church is normal, and in many ways part of the learning and faith-building process. Discussing concerns and even advocating for change can be a very good thing. However, if we truly believe that the church is lead by Jesus Christ, and is not just some other man-made institution, we need to stop short of criticizing the leaders. We need to have sufficient faith that the Lord will make all things right in His time frame. The imperfections of the church will not prevent our eternal progression unless we choose to dwell on those imperfections.
I love the church. I love my brothers and sisters. I love the discourse among passionate members. I hope we, as a church, can work through this period of turbulence, and find ways to disagree without causing others to lose faith. Dialogue and discourse are extremely healthy, conflict is not.
I know the church is not perfect. Despite that, it is still true.
Repentance has a bad reputation. For a long time, thinking of repentance brought up images of crazy people insisting the world was ending imminently, confessions of sins, guilt and other extremely negative ideas. Add on top of this that Christ explicitly tells his followers to call people to repentance as one of his final acts in the New Testament, and you get to add guilt for not telling people to repent to the list of negatives.
However, lately I’ve begun to think of repentance differently, all thanks to one simple idea. That idea was the realization that the importance of repentance comes not from the guilt nor even the forgiveness, but rather from it’s utility in promoting positive changes in our lives. This leads one to conclude that the main process for accomplishing repentance is to choose to make positive changes — to try to be a better person. When I changed my perspective in this way, the negativity associated with guilt was swept away, replaced by the recognition that we are always falling short of our divine potential, and can make incremental changes constantly in an effort to become better people. The awesome part about this is that whenever we are trying to do what we believe is right, and are trying to become better, His forgiveness makes it possible for us to push forward without the baggage of guilt for the past.
As I began thinking of repentance this way, I realized that although there may be occasions when a more formal confession-forgiveness type of repentance event is necessary, more often than not, what is required is an attitude of repentance — a penitent perspective. Again, though, it is important to slough the the negative connotations from those words and our attitudes. We might regret or be frustrated by our blunders and imperfections, but the key purpose of those emotions should be motivation to continue to try to be better.
The Atonement provided by our Savior makes it possible for us to be forgiven of our sins if we repent. That doesn’t mean we have to be perfect after repenting. That means if we are constantly repenting and trying to be more perfect, even while knowing that we will never be perfect through our own efforts, that brief periods of perfection can be attainable, as the history of our mistakes is washed clean through the grace of the Atonement. Perhaps rather than aiming to be perfect, we should aim to repent faster than we sin.
The peace available through the Gospel comes from knowing that we are reconciled to God and that all will be well in the end. Learning to live habitually repentant can help us have this peace more often, regardless of the chaos swirling around us.
Repent! It’s awesome!
(This is the 5th and final part of my series on the Plan of Salvation. If you haven’t read the previous posts, you may want to start with the overview.)
I ended part 4 with a discussion of the resurrection. In LDS theology the resurrected soul (spirit and body, united) is eternal. I once heard some of my Christian friends of other denominations say they believed we’d be resurrected and then at a later date, we’d ditch the bodies. This is certainly not the case with Mormon beliefs, and in fact, we believe the physical aspect of our eternal souls is central to our eternal purpose and happiness.
The Final Judgement
Once we are resurrected, before we attain our eternal reward, we need to go through the Final Judgement. There are a lot of different references to this judgement in the scriptures. Much of it is symbolism and abstract. What it boils down to is this:
- We will come before the Father
- We will remember with perfect clarity our entire lives
- Christ will stand with us and mediate for us
- There may or may not be actual records involved
- The proceedings will be public – at least to those interested
- We might know the outcome before it is told to us
- We will be admitted to one of several “Kingdoms of Glory”
Prior to the resurrection I do not believe we will have a perfect remembrance of our lives. I’m extrapolating a little from scripture on this point, but it makes sense to me that it is the process of being resurrected to immortality that perfects our minds and makes this recall possible. This is also important for the Judgement, as we will be just as interested in finding a place where we are happy as we will be in “passing” the test of the Judgement. Yes, that is doctrine. The point of the Judgement is not to punish, but to reward, and more specifically, to reward us with as much happiness and glory as we are able to bear.
When we come before the Father for the Judgement, we will be basking in His full glory. We will understand His greatness and our relative childishness. We will similarly be in the full glory of Jesus Christ, the Son. Part of the essence of that glory is love for each of us. We will feel that love and desire to be with them, but will also have a full understanding of all of our sins, guilt, unworthiness, personality flaws, etc. To be with them will require us to become like them. The Judgement will help us determine whether or not we are ready to make that commitment. It will be an eternal commitment.
With the Father and Son, we will review our lives, the choices we made and the people we have become. All of our thoughts, words and deeds will be on the table, but most important will be the cumulative result that is the person we have become. If we have repented of our sins, and have accepted and upheld the covenants and ordinances required for taking advantage of Christ’s atonement, our sins will be wiped away and removed entirely from the process. This is key. It is only through the application of the atonement that we will be free from sin and pure and therefore able to bear the presence and glory of the Father.
I suspect we will also be given an understanding of the true impact of many of our choices. We will be shown how our acts of kindness and sacrifice brought others joy and helped them become better people. For those who have not repented, they will also understand how their selfishness and neglect hurt others. This, to my understanding is a key difference between “heaven” and “hell.”
The Kingdoms of Glory
The results of the Judgement will be obvious to each individual as they are judged, nearly immediately, I expect. There are essentially three “Kingdoms of Glory” where nearly all people will end up. From least to greatest, we have the Telestial Kingdom, the Terrestrial Kingdom and the Celestial Kingdom. They are each presided over by a different member of the Godhead, the Father presides in the Celestial, the Son in the Terrestrial and the Holy Spirit in the Telestial. We will be allowed to enter the highest level of glory we can tolerate. To be in the glory of the Father while still remaining unrepented of our sins will be unbearable.
There is also “Outer Darkness” where only those few who have had a perfect knowledge given to them through the Holy Spirit, and who have then chosen to reject God’s teachings. Precious few have received such knowledge, and even fewer have chosen to reject God after receiving it. Cain is one identified specifically in this category. Judas Iscariot may be another, though I have heard some suggest that he had not been given a perfect knowledge. So, you really don’t have to worry about this one.
Entry into the Celestial Kingdom requires absolute purity, and the glory thereof is likened unto the brightness of the sun. The only way to achieve this purity is through the Atonement of Christ. He graciously atoned for all who died before becoming mentally accountable. Usually, children reach accountability at the age of 8. All children who die before that get a free pass. Anyone else who desires to accept the offered Atonement, must have both received baptism through the proper authority, and must have lived up to the covenants made at baptism. (Remember that this baptism can be accepted posthumously, prior to the final Judgement, as described in part IV of this series.)
The Terrestrial Kingdom will be where good people who have refused baptism and the associated covenants will go. Its glory is likened unto the brightness of the moon. It’s not clear to me exactly how knowledgeable you have to be to become ineligible for vicarious baptism, but I suspect there will be many stubborn and proud people here who were either deceived by Satan’s lies or who simply did not want to be responsible for upholding the covenants. Regardless of that decision, only people who are basically good go to this kingdom. I suspect if the amount of good you have done outweighs the bad, you’ll end up here.
The Telestial Kingdom is “hell” from the perspective of those who end up here. Its glory is likened unto the brightness of the stars. It’s populated with all the bad people – murderers, child abusers, rapists, antichrists, etc. There might also be some not-that-bad people here, such as adulterers, corrupt leaders, and possibly those who accepted covenants in this life, but did not live up to them. Remember, again that the Judgement is based partly on your knowledge of what is right, so those who could have done a lot of good but chose not to will be accountable for the lack of good that they might have done.
The weird thing about Mormons, though, is that we believe that ALL of these “Kingdoms of Glory” are better than this world. Essentially, everyone is rewarded with a heaven that is as good as it can possibly be with them in it. That is not to say that there are no differences between them, nor that there will not be pain and suffering for sins. Our eternal progress does not end after the Judgement. Those who were admitted to the Celestial Kingdom continue their progress to become like God the Father. Those in the lower kingdoms must suffer for their own sins if they decide they want to work their way up.
So, “why would you want to get into the Celestial Kingdom, anyway?,” you might ask. Well, there are certain benefits (power and/or knowledge?) granted to those who attain the highest kingdom. For instance, those in the lower kingdoms will be separated from Father (and Mother – this needs another post). Not only from Father, but from others in the Celestial Kingdom. Friends and family may visit individuals in lower kingdoms, but not vice versa. The sealing power, which we believe allows married couples to be bound together and to their children for all eternity cannot be fully in-force except in the Celestial Kingdom.
But the greatest reward offered in the Celestial Kingdom is Exaltation. A man and woman who have been sealed together for time and all eternity, who have lived up to their covenants and gain entrance to the Celestial Kingdom will continue their eternal progression until they eventually become like the Father. They will be able to have spirit children, and can create worlds for those children to live on as we live on Earth now. Those exalted couples will become a new generation of gods.
Some would call this blasphemous. Others might call it pretentious. To me, it just makes sense. Of all the titles God could ask us to use when we address Him, why would He want to be called “Father” unless it was true? In nature, all creatures have the potential to become like their parents. If you believe in any form of the Creation, you might think there would be some symbolism there, if not a natural law. That is the great purpose of our life here on Earth. It is one required step in our life-cycle as children of God. We have the potential to become like God, but can only achieve that end by learning to become godly.
My wife, who is not a Mormon, sometimes thinks I’m crazy when I talk about this stuff. I understand that thinking. It’s similar to my thoughts on M-string theory and the Multiverse. There are just so many possible ways it could be absolutely wrong, though it may be right, how can we possibly judge? The answer is similar, too. We can trust people who know more about it than we do, and we can find out if it answers any big questions.
The Plan of Salvation elegantly answers some of the most difficult questions posed to Christianity.
- If God is so good, why do bad things happen to good people? God will not interfere with our agency, and we are here to learn to be good and faithful in the face of evil. All will be made right in the end. All evil will be paid for, and all good will be rewarded.
- If God is so merciful, why would He require rites like baptism that essentially exclude the vast majority of humanity from the possibility of salvation? That is what vicarious works are for, and why those who are not accountable are saved automatically.
- Why are we here on this world which is so full of evil anyway? We needed to gain physical bodies and the experience of living away from Father to become like him and learn to use our agency.
Additionally, the Plan is consistent with scripture; it is logically sound; it makes sense. The revelation of the Kingdoms of Glory to Joseph Smith tied together disparate, vague doctrines given elsewhere in scripture into a cohesive whole. This is beautiful and wonderful to me. It exemplifies God’s love for us and gives us hope in things to come. I can think of no other heaven better than one in which I can be with my family and loved ones forever.
Holy Week is a time to reflect on the life and mission of Jesus the Christ, shared by all who call themselves Christian. This week celebrates the pinnacle achievement of His time on Earth and the purpose of His condescension. Many might think it was His resurrection that was most important, but according to LDS theology, His resurrection was only the last step of His much greater work, the Atonement.
The Atonement encompasses everything our Savior did as part of the miracle that allows us to be forgiven of our sins, reconciled to God and gain immortality, Eternal Life and Exaltation. It was an excruciating trial for Jesus that would have killed any ordinary mortal, even before the Crucifixion. It was His capacity as the Son of God that allowed Him to endure the burden He took upon Himself as the Son of Man; His dual parentage was critical. As the two-part nature of the Last Supper foreshadowed, and the Sacrament (Communion) reminds us, the Atonement itself had two parts — the physical resurrection of the body and the redemption of the spirit.
Key to understanding the LDS perspective on the Atonement is a general understanding of the “Plan of Salvation,” which I have explained in a separate series of posts. The salient point being that God’s purpose in sending us to this Earth was to provide us the experiences that would allow us to return to His presence and eventually to become like Him. We cannot endure the presence of the Father unless we are completely without sin. As all have sinned, we all have need of a savior, to redeem us from our sins. We also believe that God has a perfect, immortal body. (D&C 130:22) So, we need to be resurrected to become like Him.
Although one could argue that Jesus’s whole life was part of the atoning process, as He experienced mortality in its fullness — the joys, the sorrows, the excitement, and the mundane — I consider this preparation. From my perspective the Atonement started in Gethsemane.
It is my understanding that most Christians consider Jesus’s plea to the Father to “take this cup from me” in Gethsemane is referring to the Crucifixion. The LDS reading of this plea is more immediate and is in reference to the unrecorded prayer He gave immediately thereafter before he was betrayed by Judas.
Were it not for Luke 22:44 in which He sweat blood, that prayer given in Gethsemane would be completely unremarkable going solely from New Testament writings. LDS doctrine states that it is through that prayer in Gethsemane that He literally took upon Himself the “pains of all men … both men, women, and children” (2 Ne. 9:21) and bore the consequences of sin for all. There have been documented cases of people sweating a few drops of blood from the forehead when under extreme physical and mental stress. We understand it to be the same principle, magnified, that caused Him in Gethsemane to bleed from every pore. (D&C 19:16-19)
For many Mormons, the prayer given in Gethsemane during which He shed blood is considered The Atonement, and everything after is epilogue. However, I believe the Atonement only started there and only ended with His crucifixion.
It is at this point that I need to reference the Old Testament practice of animal sacrifices, and the doctrine behind them. Generally speaking, the purpose of Sacrifice prior to Christ was to serve as a symbol of what the Messiah would do for the people. The animal would bear the people’s sins and be killed to reconcile them to God. It is because of the directions and tradition surrounding these sacrifices, that I believe that Jesus continued to bear the burden of our sins through his final hours. In this way he would have experienced living with guilt, proxy guilt though it was. If that is truly the case, He was probably also deeply ashamed.
I do not suggest this with any intent to demean. On the contrary, this makes His sacrifice so much more amazing to me. We believe that in the Atonement, Christ descended below all, in part that He might know how to “succor his people according to their infirmities.” (Alma 7:12) For Him to have experienced those emotions with which we are so familiar, yet were probably previously unfamiliar to Him while going through the interrogations and torture of the next day fills me with awe. To even consider that the Savior may have felt that He deserved that punishment while knowing He did not is heart-wrenching.
I take little solace in the thought that with all of this going on inside Him, the pain of the physical trials which He bore leading up to and including the Crucifixion must have been overshadowed and dulled by the emotional and mental anguish He carried. Is it any wonder He stumbled and could not carry His own cross (perhaps also partly because of exhaustion from the loss of blood)? While the men He was crucified between likely fought and struggled as they were nailed to their crosses, Jesus, king of the Jews, was likely limp, with little more than a twitch and a moan.
Did He also more fully and explicitly understand the hearts of those around him during that process? He said of the guards, “they know not what they do,” and to one of his fellow prisoners, “today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23) So, perhaps the experience also gave Him more knowledge and understanding, as well as the obvious sympathy.
Finally, as He concluded the Atonement by dying on the cross, LDS doctrine is that He chose death, when, as the Son of God, He could have chosen to step down off the cross and live. However, His role in the Plan of Salvation was to die in order to redeem us all. He followed the will of the Father, and allowed His death to seem normal, as His purpose was not to prove His godliness at that time, nor to that audience.
Before Jesus “gave up the ghost”, He said something very important to understanding the Atonement. “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Because He carried the sins of the world, He was separated from the Father just as all of us who sin are. The Father could not be with His Son during Jesus’s time of greatest suffering, as much as they both wanted to be together. Similarly, both Jesus and the Father want us to return to their presence. That is why Christ suffered.
Through the Atonement, Jesus the Christ became our Savior, Redeemer and Mediator with the Father. He became the Way by which we can receive both forgiveness of our sins and relief from the trials and burdens in this life. By accepting the covenant He offers, we receive these benefits in exchange for our efforts to be better people and to help those around us. But that is not all.
On the third day, Jesus was resurrected. He was the Son of God. He alone had the power to take up His body, glorify it, and become immortal. By doing so, He unlocked the gates of death, and allowed those saints who had died before to be likewise resurrected and proceed with their eternal progression. (Matthew 27:52-53) Eventually, everyone who has ever lived will be resurrected to a perfect, immortal and glorified body.
I understand that many people think this either far-fetched or delusional. The only evidence we have for resurrection is based in scriptures. This interpretation is consistent with all the scriptures I am aware of, and is beautiful to me. For the Atonement, though, my evidence is first hand.
I have felt my guilt swept away through repentance. I have felt my burdens become so light that I have laughed with joy. I enjoy peace amid turmoil around me. All of this because of the Atonement. I know of my Savior’s love for me because I have felt it. I have received the Comforter and the blessings associated with that Holy Spirit. I believe in miracles because I have experienced the miracle of the Atonement.
Because I can think of no better way to end this, I will end with the words of the hymn, I Stand All Amazed.
I stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers me,
Confused at the grace that so fully he proffers me.
I tremble to know that for me he was crucified,
That for me, a sinner, he suffered, he bled and died.
Oh, it is wonderful that he should care for me
Enough to die for me!
Oh, it is wonderful, wonderful to me!
I marvel that he would descend from his throne divine
To rescue a soul so rebellious and proud as mine,
That he should extend his great love unto such as I,
Sufficient to own, to redeem, and to justify.
Oh, it is wonderful that he should care for me
Enough to die for me!
Oh, it is wonderful, wonderful to me!
I think of his hands pierced and bleeding to pay the debt!
Such mercy, such love and devotion can I forget?
No, no, I will praise and adore at the mercy seat,
Until at the glorified throne I kneel at his feet.
Oh, it is wonderful that he should care for me
Enough to die for me!
Oh, it is wonderful, wonderful to me!
The word “discipline” has many slightly different meanings, but they all stem from the same concept – that of learning to follow a prescribed path or set of rules. It can refer to the punishment delivered for not following the rules, or the mastery of a field of study, but ultimately the core of the definition, and what I am interested in here, is the building of self-control in order to make ones actions consistent with ones values.
This kind of discipline is central to the purpose of religion, in general. In fact, I would argue that discipline is a defining characteristic of religions, in that the degree to which they embrace or eschew discipline and the object of the discipline provides substantial insight into the nature of nearly any religion. This is certainly true for the LDS Church.
The LDS Church embraces a high ideal when it comes to discipline. There are several scriptures that set this ideal. First, there is the command to be perfect, as stated in Matt. 5:48 and reiterated in 3 Nephi 12:48. On top of that, we believe that we will be judged by our thoughts, words and deeds. (Mosiah 4:30) So, not only should our behavior be perfect, but also our speech and even our thoughts!
Obviously, that’s not technically possible — at least not for an entire lifetime, and for most of us, even a perfect day is far fetched. Nevertheless, I am grateful for that standard. It means that we will always be able to be a little better, constantly improving ourselves. He wants us to be perfect. More importantly, God promises to help us achieve the things he commands us. (See 1 Cor 10:13 and 1 Nephi 3:7) In this pursuit, of utmost importance is the Atonement that makes up for all of the mistakes along the way, and makes true progress possible. Close behind in importance is the guidance, structure and assistance He provides for us to gain that discipline of body and mind.
That’s what perfection is: discipline. It is being entirely consistent with a perfect model: God and Christ.
When we desire to gain discipline in anything, we start by first learning the rules, often selecting a model or teacher to guide your progress. When it comes to Christianity, the model is obvious, but unfortunately, we don’t have the ability to directly observe Christ. So, we must resort to the scriptures and other religious teachers. As most religious teachers gained their knowledge the same way, the words of Christ and his prophets in the scriptures are the best way to learn His will for us. And so, from an early age, young members of the LDS Church are encouraged to read the scriptures daily.
Of course, discipline can’t be said truly to begin until you do something with what you’ve learned. We start out following the rules because they are the rules, in other words, through obedience. We try to follow the rules we’re given and the examples of our models and teachers (remember, I’m talking about those who desire to learn discipline).
As we make a regular practice of following rules, we often gain an appreciation for and an understanding of the rules. We also start to form habits. From an outside perspective, this may achieve a primary goal of the discipline, but there is a danger in stopping here.
Ultimately if we wish to master a disipline, we need to fully understand the reasons for the rules, so that we can extrapolate necessary or desired behavior in situations where the rules may be ambiguous or insufficient. In order to make this extrapolation a clear understanding of both the model and the rules is necessary. With this understanding, we are able to act in a way that effectively aligns us with the model, but where our adherence to the rules happens not because they are rules but because we understand how they help us to obtain the perfection we desire.
As human beings, our capacity for error is literally infinite. We cannot say that even mastery is the end of the road in terms of progression. We must continue to do one thing that we need to do throughout this process — constantly guard against and correct deviations from the model as we discover them or they are pointed out to us. We must both accept correction, and self-correct every step of the way.
When we apply this processes to attain a certain level of discipline within a religion we call it discipleship. Religions generally aim to make all of their followers disciples. This is certainly true in the LDS Church. Many of the teachings and practices recommended by the Church serve to foster such discipline. The teachings are certainly not unique to the LDS Church, and using them in any religion or even outside any religion at all, will also result in increased discipline.
The first is daily prayer. We are encouraged from a young age to pray over all parts of our lives. In the morning, at night, at meals, before and after meetings, even before and after sporting or cultural events. In fact, we are encouraged to pray always. One benefit of prayer, is that it serves to re-focus us on what is important, and provides a time for us to examine our lives and identify where we need to make corrections.
We are also encouraged to study the scriptures daily. We must know Christ in order to use him as our model, and there is no better way to know him than through scripture study and prayer.
Every week at church, we take the sacrament. For us, this is a time to renew our covenants (entered at baptism) to try to live as He taught and to take His name upon us – to be true Christians. We need these weekly opportunities to re-commit ourselves, to move past last weeks failings and focus on the good we can do in the coming week.
The Church has also designated the first Sunday of every month (though it is moved on occasion) as “Fast Sunday,” and encourages us to fast for 24 hours (or as much as we are able), and to give the money we would have spent to the fund the Church uses to provide food, clothing, housing and other critical assistance to members of the Church (and community, at times) in need. Fasting itself is one of the best ways to learn discipline. Through it, we learn that our spirits/minds can be more powerful than our bodies. That is the key to true discipline. If we allow our human impulses and urges to govern our behavior, or worse, believe that we have no power to control those impulses, discipline will always be beyond our grasp.
These tools are the basics for putting us on a path to discipline and discipleship. They allow us to tackle the more advanced, abstract concepts of self-control, integrity and sacrifice — all of which are ways in which we practice discipline.
We know we will always be imperfect. The great thing about discipline is that you CAN be perfect for short periods of time in some things. We are not required to be perfect to attain salvation. We are required to work on becoming more perfect. We call it “eternal progression.” When we are making progress, we are on the path. When we are helping others, we are on the path. When we are learning, we are on the path. If we get off the path, Christ is always there to help us back onto the path.
Discipline is an interesting thing. No matter how disciplined or skilled we are in a discipline, maintaining that level of discipline is a daily effort. Daily effort + daily discipline + eternal progression = perfection.
(This is part 4 of my series on the Plan of Salvation. If you haven’t read the previous posts, you may want to start with the overview.)
I suspect one of the reasons religion has maintained a powerful influence on humankind over the past several millenia is that it usually comes with some answer to the question, “what happens when we die?” This age-old question is always there, nagging. As human beings, we like being prepared. Not knowing what will happen makes that preparation extremely difficult. In many ways, the lack of a sufficient answer is a driver of civilization – motivating activities from the planting of crops to the purchase of insurance. There is nothing that is both so universally influential and poorly understood as our passing from this life.
The answer to this question, according to most religions, is some kind of existence after death. Many non-religous people would claim this is wishful thinking. Some people have claimed “near-death” experiences. At least one scientist has tried to detect spirits leaving the dying. Ultimately, there is little convincing proof of what happens, leading most to act according to their hopes and fears of what might be. Many a philanthropist, for instance, has been motivated by a fear that only the influence they have on others will last beyond death. Specific beliefs about the afterlife are rare.
In contrast, LDS doctrine surrounding our continued existence after death is quite specific on many points. Not only do we believe that our spirits continue to exist, but we have some very specific beliefs about the nature of “heaven” and “hell” as well as the overarching trajectory and substance of how we continue to exist.
Within the context of the Plan of Salvation, death is merely a transition from one part of our existence to another. Our spirits, which are eternal, depart from our bodies at death. Our consciousness, our individual personalities and psyches are contained within our spirit. So, in essence, we are the same people after death as we are in life, only without a body. We will retain our identities, our knowledge, our preferences, and even our senses of humor.
As spirits are made up of matter, we also continue to have a form and location. Immediately after death, we return to the spirit world which we left to come to this mortal life. There we will be met by our loved ones who have passed before us, and more importantly, by our Savior. This initial meeting is a homecoming — a loving welcome.
After this there is a period of waiting. That is to say that this is not our end state. While we are waiting, we’ll have time to contemplate the lives we lived and interact with some of those we may have affected with our choices in life, for good or ill. Some might consider this period heaven, and others might consider it hell. In LDS terminology, this is Paradise and Spirit Prison.
Those who have an understanding of the Gospel will use this time to teach those who do not, in order to prepare them for what is to come. This effort is led and organized by Christ, himself. All who have died without the opportunity to learn of the Gospel will have a chance to hear it and accept the covenants and redemption it provides at that point. For those who choose this path, baptism is still a requirement. Because this is a physical ordinance requiring a body, living members of the LDS Church perform proxy baptisms for the dead.
Some might wonder why, if one could accept Jesus after we die, someone wouldn’t just opt to live their life as they please and repent in the afterlife. There are several ways to answer that question. In my mind, the most compelling reason is that the end goal isn’t simple salvation, but rather becoming like God. This requires dramatic improvement from our current state. Every choice that we make, either in this life or the next, either brings us closer to God or further from Him and shapes our personality accordingly. The farther we are from God, the harder it will be to return to Him when we decide to make that change. Those who delay their repentance hurt themselves more than anyone else.
The next event is resurrection. Every person who has ever lived will eventually be resurrected. According to LDS doctrine, this means that the spirit will be rejoined to a physical body. Only this time, it will be a perfect, immortal body — we will appear similar to the way we looked in our mortal prime. “Every limb and joint shall be restored to its body; yea, even a hair of the head shall not be lost; but all things shall be restored to their proper and perfect frame.” (Alma 40:23)
Although all will be resurrected, it will happen at different times for different people. Those who were righteous in this life will be resurrected as part of the “first” resurrection. This began with the Resurrection of Christ, after which “the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose.” (Matt. 27:52) Righteous people who died before Jesus were resurrected at that time. The next wave of this first resurrection will occur at Christ’s Second Coming, and will continue through His millennial reign. The “second” resurrection will happen at the end of that reign, and all remaining people will be resurrected at that time.
After we are resurrected, the next step in the Plan is the Final Judgement. I will leave this, and a discussion of the results of that judgement for a separate final post.
I feel it’s important to point out here that while I believe all of this partly because it is what is taught by the Church, I would not likely believe such detail if it weren’t all consistent with what the scriptures teach about the character of God and with the direct teachings related to the afterlife. I choose to believe in this because it makes sense with the other religious truths I embrace. It shows the love of God for us and His desire for all of His children who will to return to Him. There may be little to no support from the body of scientific truth to support this belief, but ultimately that doesn’t matter, as there’s little that science could add one way or the other. I choose to have hope in this outcome. I hope some of you also find it comforting to imagine that it could be this way.
In theory, there should be a very clear-cut distinction between the doctrine and the practice of a church. Doctrine comprises the core beliefs that are typically considered to be religious truth, and therefore unchangeable. How a church operates and practices those beliefs often changes with interpretation and the shifting moral norms. This is very easy to pick out when dealing with historical changes. The challenge is in separating current practices from the doctrine they are founded upon.
While doctrine is usually considered unchangeable, changes in practice can re-cast doctrines in a different light, or otherwise change the interpretation of the doctrine, which can sometimes lead to doctrinal shifts over time. This can make it even trickier to separate the two.
An additional way in which things get obfuscated is people making up pseudo-doctrine to account for a particular practice. This regularly happens when trying to justify current practices that don’t necessarily stem directly from doctrine, and such false doctrines often persist long after the practice they were invented to justify is discontinued.
For example, prior to 1978, black men were not ordained to the priesthood in the LDS Church. While there is at least one documented case that I know of where the founder of the Church, Joseph Smith, ordained a black man to the priesthood, it was determined that this should not happen early in the history of the Church. For many years afterwards, particularly as the modern civil rights era came along, members often felt they had to justify this practice. They often turned to non-doctrinal statements made by Church leaders assuming and promoting it as doctrine. Pseudo-doctrinal justification that was widely circulated include:
- Blacks were “fence-sitters” in the pre-mortal war in heaven
- Black skin marks the posterity of Cain and so, those who are spiritually cursed or inferior
Both of these are false doctrines twisted from true ones in order to justify a racist practice. When the practice was changed in 1978 by an official declaration, it was made clear that these justifications were false. The declaration re-emphasized the doctrine that “all are alike unto God” who has no “regard for race or color.” Another true doctrine that could be read between the lines as responsible for the practice in the first place is that this is an imperfect church in an imperfect world with imperfect men to guide it. There will occasionally be practices either corrupted by or adapted to this environment. My personal belief is that there is great significance in this period of discrimination as having coincided with the years leading up to the Civil War and ending not long after the height of the Civil Rights era. Admittedly, that still doesn’t make the discrimination right.
This is just one illustration of why it is so important to be able to recognize the difference between doctrine the practices; so that when we are faced with an imperfect practice supported by pseudo-doctrine, we will be able to find the obscured truth that will guide us closer to God while still accepting the imperfect. Changes to practices are an important part of progress.
There are two other LDS practices with associated doctrine that I wish to discuss. The first is relatively easy to accept, the second might be harder for some people. I will first discuss the Word of Wisdom, and then polygamy.
The Word of Wisdom (see D&C 89) was introduced in 1833 as a “principle with a promise”. It was a code of health given to the Church advising against tobacco, alcohol and “hot drinks” (clarified as coffee and tea), and encouraging the consumption of grains and vegetables. It was originally given specifically NOT as a commandment. As such, it is fairly straightforward to separate the current practice of the Church, requiring compliance with key points as prerequisites for both baptism and temple attendance, from the doctrine, which is simply that of blessings promised for compliance and the principle that God cares about what we do to our bodies.
With the current practice being so obviously extrapolated from the original intent of the doctrine, it is subject to change. In fact, there is an indication that it will change to some degree in a prophecy related to the Second Coming. In Mark 14:25 it states that when the kingdom of God comes, Christ will drink with us from the “fruit of the vine.” As wine is currently forbidden by Church practice, an exception will eventually be made.
On the other side of things we have the doctrine of polygamy. Polygamy was formally introduced in 1843 and was a common practice, especially among the leadership of the Church, until 1890, when it was ended by “manifesto.” Polygamy had generally become embraced by the members of the Church at that time, partly because there were many widows as well as an overpopulation of women due to the persecutions the Church had endured before migrating West, and it was seen as an effective way of caring for them. The declaration discusses the political and legal pressure that the Church was under at that time as result of the practice. The Church was also lobbying for statehood. Wilford Woodruff, the President of the Church at the time, conclusively ended the practice. Existing marriages were left intact, but no new ones were allowed.
In subsequent addresses to the Church, President Woodruff expressed his ultimate willingness to submit to the will of the Lord in this matter. Significantly, he did not back down from or negate the doctrine upon which polygamy was allowed, to the contrary, he expressed the necessity only of stopping the practice, “that the Devil” — who was seen as the driver of the political pressure — “should not thwart [the work of the Church].”
This position on polygamy has not been changed to this day. We do not allow it, but we still teach that those who practiced it did so in accordance with the commandment of God. Additionally, the sealing ordinance, which is the Mormon version of marriage, is for “time and all eternity”, and was performed for polygamist unions. This is one of the most sacred ordinances of the Church; these unions can never be nullified by a change in practice. As such, the doctrine of polygamy as a God-sanctioned union will forever be a part of the Church.
There are some very important caveats to the doctrine of polygamy. A man cannot simply decide to take an additional wife; he must be directed through the proper line of authority to take one. (This is the reason the practice could be effectively stopped.) It was also required for the first wife to consent to all additional wives.
That being said, because the cessation of polygamy was a change in practice, not in doctrine, it could be reversed. As it is such a foreign concept to most people today, we members of the Church spend a great deal of effort distancing ourselves from our predecessors’ practice of it. To the extent that, if it were someday reinstated, I suspect this would be a dramatic trial of faith for many of us.
Change is a part of life, and enables progress. I believe these three examples effectively show how understanding the difference between doctrine and practice is not only important in understanding a church, but in understanding how change can occur. Moreover, as a member of a church, it is important to be able to recognize pseudo-doctrine to avoid being misled, to avoid passing it on, and to understand where change can be effected, that we might progress together.
(For those picking up here, you may want to read the overview first.)
There is very little in the Bible that mentions the existence of people as individuals before we were born. It is primarily through the LDS scriptures and prophets that we know of our existence as spirits before we were born, or as the church curriculum calls it, the “pre-mortal existence.” It’s an important point in LDS theology, and is key in understanding the Mormon perspective of the world.
Most of the references in the Bible to a pre-mortal existence are concerning Christ. So, it is easy to see how most other Christian religions would consider him an exception to the rule, and therefore understandable that most Christian religions don’t speak of any existence before our birth. However, despite the lack of detail in the Bible, there are several references that should make it clear that our spirits lived with God before being sent to Earth. One is in Jeremiah 1:5 when the Lord said to Jeremiah, “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.” Similarly, other individuals were also “foreordained” to their callings: Jesus, of course (1 Peter 1:20) and John the Baptist (Luke 1:17), for instance.
As the Bible provides only hints, it’s the LDS scriptures and modern prophets that have expressly defined the doctrine. What follows is my own retelling, informed by various specific sources and a lifetime in the church.
We believe that human beings are literally the spiritual children of God, which is why He loves us and why we call Him our “Father in Heaven,” or “Heavenly Father.” We lived with him as spirits before human beings ever set foot upon the Earth. Jesus Christ was our elder brother in that pre-mortal existence. He too, was only a spirit at that time. God, the Father, on the other hand, had a body of flesh and bone. (Interestingly, in none of our scriptures does it reference heavenly beings as having blood.)
As children of God, we learned from Him and progressed in our development. However, we were limited in our progression somewhat by our lack of a physical body, and, in a way, because we were with God. One of the critical elements for progression and development is agency. We needed to be able to make our own decisions and judgements without His pervasive influence. To give us the opportunity to gain physical bodies and exercise our agency, God presented a plan. If we followed His plan and were faithful to the knowledge given to us, we would be able to become like our Father.
Everything worthwhile is challenging. All would sin in this life, and in that state, we would be unworthy to return to God’s presence. So, he provided a Savior to provide an Atonement and provide a path back to Him. Jesus accepted the responsibility to be our Savior and to show us the way.
Lucifer thought he had a better idea. He proposed that we not be given our agency; he would make sure all people did what was needed to return to God. For his role, he thought he should also get the glory. He led others to rebel against the plan, and for this great sin of rebellion, he and his followers were cast from God’s presence. They would not be able to participate – at least in terms of gaining a body.
The Earth was created, and God sent His children to the families where they would have the opportunities they needed to progress as part of the plan. He foreordained prophets and other leaders to accomplish His work. We all had different talents and strengths that God considered when sending us to this life. His goal was to provide us, His children, with the best opportunities he could provide to help us learn the things that are most important and to develop godlike characteristics.