The Plan of Salvation Part IV: Life after Death
(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.
The Plan of Salvation Part II: Our Pre-Mortal Existence
(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.
The Plan of Salvation: Mortality
Spirits and Dark Matter
Ever since it was postulated in the early 1930’s, dark matter has been a mystery of physics and cosmology. Scientists have proposed countless theories and have done nearly as many experiments trying to detect and explain the phenomenon.
In a nutshell, scientists discovered that everywhere they looked in the universe, gravitational laws indicated that the observable motion of celestial bodies (stars and such) behaved as though there was more mass out there than we could see – a lot more. This invisible matter was dubbed “dark matter.”
As the measurements and calculations have been refined – assuming our understanding of the law of gravity is accurate on the scale of galaxies – the estimates of the amounts of dark matter and dark energy in the universe have been calculated to far outweigh the amount of visible matter and “normal” energy. See the graph (from Wikipedia) below:
While science has not been able to come up with much in terms of explanation or even detection of dark matter and dark energy, in 1843, Joseph Smith recorded a revelation that at least partially explains dark matter:
“There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.” (D&C 131:7-8)
That spirits were matter at all was a revolutionary concept at that time, but if we consider spirits to be made of dark matter, this becomes a key intersection between religion and science as to what can be real.
Although there are a lot of forms of invisible matter, the attributes of spirits indicate that they are made of a type of matter not yet understood by science, hence my classification of it as a form of dark matter. There is also some anecdotal evidence of spirits having a measurable weight in the experiments of Duncan MacDougall, which would support this theory.
While this is a mildly interesting thing to contemplate by itself, when we start considering the ramifications of this assertion, we find a number of potentially useful insights that could lead to greater understanding of dark matter.
First, let’s consider the nature of spirits. A spirit is the essence of the consciousness. To be complex enough to contain a consciousness, we need to have matter with properties that both allow aggregation and binding together, as atoms and molecules do with regular matter, with substantial complexity. To attain such a level of complexity requires particles which can be combined in many different ways. This would be further enabled by the existence of different types of particles. So, there are likely at least several different kinds of dark particles with different properties, which may be able to be combined into many different dark elements, and dark molecules.
Dark matter is affected by gravity, as that is how we know of its existence. We also know that spirits animate the physical body, so there is likely some potential for these dark particles to interact with the other forces (electromagnetic, strong force, weak force) that govern the behavior of regular particles. Alternatively, there could be some other force between dark particles and regular particles that allows them to affect each other – perhaps dark particles could affect quantum spin, for instance.
Considering these points and the fact that spirits are animate, it should be no wonder that the scientific community has had little luck detecting this kind of dark matter. The tests typical of the general scientific community look for as-yet-undiscovered particles consists of breaking apart or fusing known particles or waiting for stray particles to pass through their detection devices by chance.
I don’t know how to best to detect particles that may or may not be affected by the forces we currently understand and which may or may not be collected together in regular patterns. However, much of scientific progress starts with a hypothesis.
On the religious side, the quantity of dark matter in the universe indicates that there could be a lot more to the spirit world than we might guess.
Ultimately, the key point here is that spirits are real. Despite the inability of modern science to detect them, we have very good, logical explanations for how they can exist that fits the observed facts.
The term “fundamentalist” is not one used in the Mormon church. As a result of this and growing up in Utah, I never heard it applied to churches or believers until high school or college. In figuring out what it meant, I have felt that there are definitely ways in which it applies to the LDS Church, albeit with caveats.
We believe in miracles, angels, revelations, the Creation and that God the Father was the literal father of Christ. So, what is it that makes us different from other fundamentalist religions? In one word, science. We believe in all truth, whether revealed to prophets or discovered by scientists. Fundamentalism, on the other hand, generally refuses to acknowledge science unless it agrees with established belief.
So, I’ve come to think of our kind of beliefs as “enlightened fundamentalism.” Meaning that we believe in the power of God, but also believe that God is limited (as we all are) by reality — laws of physics. We do not pretend to understand HOW God does what he does, but we believe that he does it through a perfect understanding and ability to manipulate (as scientists do) an environment.
Here are some of the doctrines that enable this kind of enlightened fundamentalist view:
- “In the Church, we embrace all truth, whether it comes from the scientific laboratory or from the revealed word of the Lord. We accept all truth as being part of the gospel.” – Russell M. Nelson, Apostle
- God, angels and spirits are all composed of some form of matter. “There is no such thing as immaterial matter.” D&C 131:7
- We strongly support education. “Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom, seek learning even by study and also by faith.” D&C 109:7
- God can inspire us to help us learn non-religious truths. “And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.” Moroni 10:5
Now, the challenge is that no matter how much we learn (time machines excepted), we will never be able to go back in time and use whatever new-fangled scientific tools we might have to detect the actual processes whereby miracles were wrought. So, even if we get to the point where we can explain miracles or detect the presence of spirits scientifically, there will always be at least some amount of uncertainty that requires a leap of faith.
Therefore, for me, the purpose of science in enlightened fundamentalism is not to provide proof or repeatable results, but rather to link together enough information to be able to hypothesize a feasible process that meets our understanding of reality and religion, and that allows a glimpse of the power required to work miracles.
The simplest example is that of how God might cause a person to have a vision. We know from science that all perception is processed through electrical activity in the brain. Because spirits work in the physical world, and people are composed of a body and a spirit, it would be expected that spirits would have some way to affect the electrical signals in the brain. We also know from science that matter is mostly empty space, so there would be no reason why a second spirit could not manipulate the brain concurrently with another through direct contact, in order to “send a message.” (Hence the importance of Enmity, by the way.)
Do we know that this is how it works? Absolutely not. It is, however, a reasonable hypothesis in harmony with both science and the doctrines of the church. It also illustrates the point that science and religion can be used together in the search for truth. We need not assume (as seems to be the popular wisdom these days) that they are contradictory by nature.
When we believe miracles are impossible, its very hard to have faith. When we can imagine processes that would produce miracles, it allows our faith and our understanding to flourish.