(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.