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.
(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.
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.