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.
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!
(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.
(For those picking up here, you may want to read the overview first.)
The LDS view of mortality is not nearly as unique as our teachings on our existence prior to and following it, but is, perhaps, more clearly defined than most other religions’ teachings in terms of purpose.
As I noted in the previous post on the pre-mortal existence, the long-view purpose of mortality is to gain a physical body, and to learn how to independently use our agency. Inasmuch as we learn to do these things in ways that are in harmony with God and His plan of happiness, God will help us. He has provided a way for us to return to His presence.
Many of the events traditional Christianity consider tragedies of God’s plan having been derailed by people, we consider to have been part of His plan all along. From the Fall of Adam & Eve to the Crucifixion of Christ to the Martyrdom of the prophets, we see God using the agency of people to provide conditions that He could not directly produce as they would be contrary to His nature. Though the Fall and Crucifixion were central to the plan, the various martyrs throughout the Bible were necessary to testify of the Gospel and were allowed because His plan was really more about agency than anything else. To punish or prevent wickedness overtly would have been to diminish agency. His justice is delayed to allow us to make our own mistakes in order to learn from them.
These major events in Christianity were central in making his plan work, but the plan is ultimately meant to be applied individually. Each of us is responsible for our own salvation. We must all choose to follow the path Christ provided for us. We can and should try to help others come to Christ, but we cannot force them. We are responsible for our positive and negative influences on others, but only as this is part of our individual responsibility for our own actions given our individual circumstances.
Inasmuch as God wants us to become like him, and becoming like Him will bring joy and happiness to our lives, He has provided teachings and ordinances to guide and help us. As we follow the teachings, we develop attributes that bring us closer to God. It is the development of our character to be in harmony with God that is the true purpose of this life and is also what brings us the greatest joy.
This is made difficult both by temptation and by what Mormons refer to as the “natural man.” “The natural man is an enemy to God.” (Mosiah 3:19) To develop godlike attributes usually means overcoming our natural tendencies and instinctive desires. It is not easy to follow God’s teachings, and it is not enough to be better than someone else, or good at only one thing. We must improve ourselves constantly. This is at the core of what the Church calls “eternal progression”. We are instructed to be perfect (Matt. 5:48), which is ultimately impossible in this life, but, used as the goal, provides the target for our daily improvement.
Humility is an essential attribute as we strive to become closer to our Savior. Through it, not only do we recognize our need for our Redeemer’s assistance, but we also increase our compassion for others. Recognizing our own mistakes and character flaws is not always as easy as it perhaps should be. Sometimes it is easier to see these things others. However, when we truly have a desire to become better, and to repent of our mistakes and imperfections, we begin not only to become better through that process, but are also able to understand the illusion of perfection — that is at once unattainable and required by so much of our society — and gain an appreciation of the difficulties others go through in reconciling behavior to that standard.
Another trait that is essential in finding peace and happiness in this life is gratitude. The modern world runs on generating discontent for the purposes of enticing people to buy things in an attempt to satisfy that discontent. By design, this does not work. The only way to find contentment is to choose it. When we are grateful for the things we have to the extent that we do not feel the need for anything else, we are by definition, content. Gratitude is a matter of discipline. To increase our gratitude, all we need to do is consider the things we have that we appreciate. Our discipline can become powerful enough that we can even be substantially content when real needs (food, shelter, safety) are not met.
Above all, the attribute most important to our progression is love. Not just the love of a partner or within a family, but the true love of Christ, or as the scriptures call it, charity. It is a love that extends to every living thing: our friends, colleagues, strangers, enemies, even animals and plants. It is manifested in respect, compassion, care-taking, courtesy, honesty, responsibility, gratitude, acceptance, forgiveness, sharing, service, and kindness. It is through love that we will find the greatest happiness in this life. Without love, we will never find true happiness.
Though those attributes are the most important in terms of what to develop, through faith we can learn how to develop these characteristics. It’s our faith in Christ that keeps us going and motivates our progress. It is so very easy to get discouraged and become cynical. Faith helps us maintain our optimism about both the future and our own capabilities. It motivates us to develop Christlike attributes, and gives us access to His help to do that.
Through our faith we are able to access the power of the atonement. This is what changes us to the core. When we have truly experienced the change of heart associated with a conversion to follow Jesus Christ, “we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.” (Mosiah 5:2) This does not mean that we are perfect or that we do not make mistakes, it just means that we truly and deeply desire to do what God would have us do. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily a permanent state. As Mormons, we do not believe that people so converted are “saved” in the same sense that many other Evangelical churches teach. We believe that after conversion we must also “endure to the end.”
(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.
One of the very unique doctrinal points in the LDS church is known as “The Plan of Salvation.” It is sometimes referred to as “The Plan of Happiness” or “The Plan of Redemption.” Essentially, it is an explanation of the purpose of life according to the Gospel as we teach it. Usually, it is taught with the help of a diagram like the one below:
We started as spirits in the pre-mortal existence, were born into this mortal life, will eventually die, be resurrected and will be judged and allowed to enter a “kingdom of glory,” hopefully. As you can see, it’s a much broader view than that provided by most religions, who mostly teach of this life, a judgement, heaven and hell.
I find that having a broader view of how it all fits together explains a lot of the common challenges put to religion:
- Q: How is it fair that God would allow people to be born into such different conditions?
A: God provided our challenges and situations in this life based on who we were in the pre-mortal existence.
- Q: Why would good people who don’t learn about Christ go to hell?
A: They will have a chance to learn about him in the spirit world.
- Q: What’s the point of Heaven if you’re just sitting around on a cloud playing a harp?
A: Heaven is much more than an eternity of praise. It is the opportunity to become like God.
I realize that I am alluding to a lot of different details here that may be confusing if you haven’t already been taught this stuff. I will get to all of this eventually. My point here is to illustrate that the big picture view, provided by the Plan of Salvation, allows us to tie a lot of things together into a context where they make sense, when without that context they don’t seem to make sense in a world with a just and loving God.
This plan was laid out for us before the Earth was formed. God essentially said, “I have a plan to help you all become like me. It will be extremely difficult, will take eons and will result in many of you failing to attain that goal.” We are God’s children, and he wanted to provide us with the best opportunities he could provide. He also desires our happiness. This is why the plan is also sometimes called the great plan of happiness. Even for most of those who fail, the reward is the greatest degree of happiness He can provide.
Ultimately, the main question the plan of salvation answers is, “what is the purpose of life?” The answer is, to learn how to gain true happiness.
Posts in this series: