The Mormon View of the Afterlife

The following essay is response to a response to a question that was asked about the Mormon view of the afterlife at The World Table.    

First, some background. The World Table is a bold new experiment in troll-free Internet dialog. It's worth your time to view the short video explaining the concept behind The World Table. It is a project I wish the best to, though I confess I am skeptical of the likelihood of its ultimate success.

Second, an explanation of why I am posting the response here instead of at The World Table. It's purely a technical matter: The post composer at The World Table is a frustration to work with. It imposes a Draconian limit on characters in a single post in what should be a place for thoughtful posts; it formats posts poorly, including (most annoyingly) omitting paragraph breaks, so that every post is a big run-on paragraph; there are no provisions for links or even basic styling, such as italics; and the interface is glacially slow. This is not intended as any criticism of The World Table as a concept; only of the present implementation.

Third, a disclaimer. In keeping with The World Table principle of "Speak for yourself", I am speaking purely from my own understanding and belief, and not as any kind of official representative of the Church. I will be expressing my own opinions, which are not necessarily all shared by all faithful Mormons, but I will try to indicate where there are differences of opinion among us.

The question and response I am responding to are these:

First off, I hope you all can forgive my ignorance here. I figured if there was an appropriate place to ask these questions, this would be it! My step mother (and step-siblings) are Mormon, so I have a basic functional understanding of the church; however there are a few points that a lot of Mormons I know don't like talking about with those outside of their faith. I have encountered a LOT of strange ideas about what Mormons believe about the afterlife (from non-Mormons), and many of the Mormons I know (including my own family at times) don't like to talk about it with those outside their own faith. I feel unprepared to deal with those who are unfairly critical of the Mormon religion on this point, because I'm honestly not sure what the real answer is. Are there any here who might be willing to give just a basic 101 level explanation of the Mormon afterlife? (If asking this question is a faux pas, then please let me know, and accept my apologies in advance.)

The questioner later elaborates on his question:

Thank you for your insight! I have a Baptist roommate who routinely likes to quote some unknown source about the Mormon afterlife. She claims that LDS doctrine states that after one dies, they get to be the god of their own new world. I've heard similar things form a few places, but never from any of the Mormons in my life! Being such a potentially sensitive topic, I've always been a little afraid to ask; thus it's difficult to tell what may be true, and what may be a bunch of Anti-Mormon rhetoric. So thank you for being willing to help me clear that

One of the responses, from a former Mormon, is this:

Hi Xander, Chapter 47 of the Gospel principles series... [=url]here[/url] This chapter teaches that a blessing of exaltation is that man will become gods and have the same power, knowledge, glory, and dominion of God. Gospel..... principles is a good place to start. Other good reading is the LDS teaching manual "Gospel Through the Ages," by Milton Hunter. It gets into more detail of how God became and God, and how man will become a God. It was written under the authorization of some past "heavy weight" LDS leaders, and is a great read. I was taught LDS theology from this book by my folks. A quote from the teaching manual... "Mormon prophets have continuously taught the sublime truth that God the Eternal Father was once a mortal man who passed through a school of earth life similar to that through which we are now passing. He became God—an exalted being—through obedience to the same eternal Gospel truths that we are given opportunity today to obey." Section 132 of the D

(Note that this post is cut off. It's an example of the frustration I have with The World Table composition implementation.)

Why the reticence?

Mormons are sometimes reticent in discussing these particular beliefs. One reason for this is the question of emphasis. The bread and butter of Mormon belief and practice centers on the atonement of Jesus Christ, by which we mean His divine Sonship, suffering, death, and bodily resurrection. We believe these make possible both our own bodily resurrection and the forgiveness of our sins, which allows us to be made fit for the kingdom of God. Many Mormons feel that too great an obsession with "the mysteries", as we sometimes half-tongue-in-cheek call doctrines such as the ones the original poster asked about, can detract from what should be the focus of our mortal lives:  Developing faith in Jesus Christ, repenting of our sins, developing a covenant relationship with God, and learning to live our lives in harmony with His Holy Spirit.

A second reason for reticence is a question of communication. The center of our religious lives as faithful Mormons, namely, faith in Jesus Christ, is shared with many other Christian groups and is also familiar to many from other faith traditions, who thus have some framework for understanding these beliefs and appreciating their significance to us. But the doctrine of eternal progression (our term for the matters brought up by the original poster) is uniquely Mormon. Like our faith in Christ, it is sacred to us, but my experience is that few non-Mormons have the framework to understand it the way we understand it. Later in this post, I'll try to provide some of that framework. But, as you'll see, providing that framework is a time-consuming and sometimes awkward process, and many a Mormon who is asked questions about the doctrine of eternal progression is at a loss where to even begin. The easy alternative is to shy away from the question, just as many a decent and honest parent nevertheless might shy away from fully answering questions about sex from a young child: There is nothing shameful about sex per se, nor anything wrong with answering questions about it, but the child, through no fault of his own, lacks the framework to understand the answers to his questions.

A third reason for our reticence is that there is considerable grey area between those beliefs that are clearly doctrines of the Church and those beliefs that are clearly folklore. Much of what has been said about the doctrine of eternal progression falls into this grey area, where even lifelong Mormons can disagree on what is firm doctrine and what is speculation.

A fourth reason for our reticence is that many of us have been burned. The Church has enemies, and they sometimes lay rhetorical traps for us. It has been my experience, as well as that of many other Mormons, that the doctrine of eternal progression is one of the favorite baits with which such traps are set. As rhetorical bait, it has the merits of distracting the target from more central matters (the atonement of Christ) and of taking the target into an area unfamiliar to non-Mormons where the lack of a framework for understanding can be exploited to evil ends. It's analogous to the small group of editors who briefly tried to include a section on the Eucharist in Wikipedia's article on cannibalism.

Frankly, when a non-Mormon jumps into a conversation on the doctrine of eternal progression with quotes from obscure Mormon sources, as the quoted responder did, a lot of red flags go up. Perhaps that's not always justified. But, too often, it is.

What are the Mormon sources of doctrine?

In order to establish the framework for understanding the doctrine of eternal progression, I need to explain the sources of Mormon doctrine.

Mormons believe that all scripture is given by revelation by the Holy Spirit. Such revelation usually takes the form of open visions, dreams, or inspiration. The latter is the most common, and my own experience of it is that it is like a flow of pure understanding into the mind. Conversely, all revelation by the Holy Spirit is scripture.

However, not all scripture is equally valuable. God is perfect and His truths do not change; however, revelation comes to imperfect human beings, who differ in their capacity to understand what the Holy Spirit is saying to them or in their ability to convey this knowledge to others. Scripture therefore also varies in its value to us. Our belief in continuing revelation reflects our belief that existing scripture is incomplete and, at times, inconsistent or even incorrect. To a Protestant, or to some extent even some Catholics, whose religious framework presupposes the infallibility of scripture, this can cause some confusion when trying to understand the process of Mormon doctrinal development.

We believe God has called prophets and apostles to receive revelation for the whole Church. These apostles and prophets are gifted men, unusually attuned to the Holy Spirit, whom we trust to do the best any man can do to understand what God wishes to reveal to humanity. We sustain them as prophets, seers, and revelators. We take their official statements very seriously.

However, even among these men, there is a prescribed order in the Church for receiving revelation. The President of the Church, whom we sometimes describe as "the prophet" (though he is not the only leader sustained as a prophet, and we believe all members can partake of the spirit of prophecy) is assisted by two or more counselors, who are also sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators. We believe in the law of witnesses, which requires that "in the mouths of two or three witnesses shall every word be established." Thus, no pronouncement by the President of the Church is considered binding on the Church unless it is supported by the President's counselors as well. Furthermore, while it is not strictly required, I can think of no really significant pronouncement by the First Presidency (President and counselors) in my lifetime that was not also unanimously sustained by the next governing body of the Church, the Quorum of the Twelve.

In the absence of a First Presidency, as when a President passes away, the full authority of the First Presidency falls on the Quorum of the Twelve. Their unanimous pronouncements -- and only their unanimous pronouncements -- are then fully binding on the Church. Should the Quorum of the Twelve be completely dissolved, as by the deaths of all its members, full authority then devolves on the Quorums of the Seventy. That's pretty much a theoretical point, since it has not happened since (we believe) the time of the primitive Church, two thousand years ago, and it's unlikely to happen today.

The closest thing Mormonism has to a canon of scripture is what we call the Standard Works: the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. These are scripture that have long been officially recognized as authoritative by the Church. They are the touchstones against which other revelations are measured. Nevertheless, we do not consider them infallible. We normally use the King James translation of the Bible, occasionally in conjunction with what is commonly called the Joseph Smith Translation. The latter is best thought of as a kind of inspired commentary on the Bible, correcting our understanding of difficult passages and filling in some gaps. We believe the Book of Mormon to be an inspired translation of the records of a lost people from the American continent who had roots in Jerusalem and brought their belief in the God, and of a coming Messiah, to the New World. The Doctrine and Covenants is a collection of individual revelations given to Joseph Smith and some of his successors in the Presidency of the Church, while the Pearl of Great Price contains additional translations and writings by Joseph Smith with a slightly different history from the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants.

These Standard Works are preeminent. Only the pronouncements of the current First Presidency can supercede them or even be regarded as their equal. Official statements by past First Presidencies remain binding on the Church, but can be clarified or extended by the current First Presidency. And while we value the writings and speeches of individual prophets, apostles, and members of the quorums of Seventy, they do not carry the same weight of authority. Books written or endorsed by these men are not generally regarded as scripture.

I realize all this may seem a bit confusing to a non-Mormon, but it's important for understanding which statements or teachings of past leaders of the Church are considered reliable as statements of doctrine, and which are to be regarded as opinions or speculation, however interesting or (to a Mormon) plausible. In particular, a sermon or a lesson manual from decades ago, even when it comes from a member of the Seventy with the blessing of some of the Apostles, is not a binding statement of Mormon belief. It is, at best, a reflection of the opinions of some of the Church leaders in the past, which (in the case of a priesthood manual) was written for an audience already acquainted with the larger framework of the Gospel.

A friend of mine, Adam Greenwood, put it very well (I am mildly paraphrasing him here): "Think of Mormon doctrine as a spectrum. At one end you have doctrine that is found repeatedly and expressly in the scriptures, has been repeatedly and expressly preached by the prophets from Joseph Smith to the present, is a frequent subject of exhortation from the pulpit or in Sunday School classes and other church settings, is part of the general understanding that Mormons have of the gospel, and is an integral part of current  Mormonism as it is actually lived. Anything that meets all those criteria is clearly official doctrine by any standard. So, for example, there is no question that Jesus is the Christ, the Savior of mankind, who died to save us from sin. Something that isn’t expressly stated in scripture, hasn’t been preached by any of the prophets, isn’t taught over the pulpit and in other church settings, isn’t part of the sensus communis of the Mormon people, and isn’t an integral part of their lived experience, isn’t official doctrine by any standard. In between you have considerable grey area and have to exercise judgment."

In the past, Mormons have been quite free with their theological speculations, which have found their way into Conference sermons by Mormon leaders, books by Mormon leaders, and even lesson manuals prepared in past decades by, or under the direction of, Mormon leaders. It is understandable that persons unacquainted with how our Church actually works (including even a few Church members) would assume that a Conference sermon, or an official lesson manual, or a book by a Mormon apostle, represents a binding statement of doctrine. But this is not always the case. In my lifetime, the Church has become significantly more circumspect in what it publishes, and even the sermons preached in General Conference have shown a greater tendency to stay away from "the mysteries." I do not believe this is an attempt to cover up anything, but rather an effort to more closely adhere what is settled doctrine.

What is the doctrine of eternal progression?

There are two elements to this doctrine. The first regards the origin and destiny of man. The second regards the origin of God. I will address each in turn.

Mormons believe that our spirits existed before our birth, being eternal in nature. We also believe God the Father is the Father of our spirits. Both of these are settled, official doctrine by the standard Adam suggested. There is, however, some difference of opinion in the Church on what it means to say that God is the Father of our spirits. I think the most common view is that the intelligence making up the very core of our being -- our self-awareness -- existed from eternity past, but at some point was clothed with a spiritual body by our Father and Mother in Heaven, through a procreative process whose details have never been revealed. This is not actually stated in our scriptures, and my impression is that the idea originated after the time of Joseph Smith and became popular with a number of Church leaders. This puts in in the gray area of not-quite-settled doctrine. A somewhat less common view is that our Father and Mother in Heaven made our eternal spirits Their children through a process that can be likened to adoption. Proponents of both opinion can point to hints in the Standard Works or in the sermons by Joseph Smith to support their view, but proponents of either view sit side by side in Mormon churches and temples, worship together, and sustain the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve together. In other words, one can accept either view and be fully a part of the Church community.

Let me say an additional word about the concept of a Mother in Heaven. I can find no explicit mention of her in the Standard Works, and only occasional mention in the sermons given through the years by the leaders of the Church. However, the belief that God has a Spouse is widely if quietly accepted in the Church, and seems to find confirmation in the recent Proclamation on the Family, which carries an authority just short of the Standard Works (and which many members speculate will someday be added to the Standard Works.) Thus, I would say that the belief in a Mother in Heaven falls just within the bounds of settled, official doctrine. The reason for the lack of scripture concerning Her has not been revealed. Some Mormons speculate that God the Father is shielding His Spouse from the mockery of rebellious humans, but this is pure speculation, and strikes me as not entirely plausible. My opinion is that the veil thrown around our Mother in Heaven relates to the different roles of spiritual Mother and Father, but I have no deeper insight to offer. The bottom line is that we pray to God the Father in the name of Jesus Christ, and to no other, and the Mother in Heaven plays far less a role in our religion than (for example) the Virgin Mary does in Catholicism.

Whatever the origin of our relationship to God the Father, it is widely viewed in the Church in terms of an intimate family relationship, of a perfectly loving character, analogous to the very best in human family relationships. This is more a cultural phenomenon than a doctrinal matter, but I think it is a key part of the framework through which Mormons view their own beliefs. Although we have almost no formal liturgy in our weekly services,we have a vocabulary for speaking of religious matters, and Mormon religious language contains many elements of praise, thanksgiving, and supplication towards God. But, in comparison with almost all other Christian groups with which I am familiar, there are very few elements of what one might call fearful worship. We almost always view God as a loving Father, even when He must punish, and almost never as a Despot. In fact, I feel that the idea of God as oriental despot is almost completely foreign to Mormonism. So is the idea of God as the Complete Other of classical deism and its modern offshoots. I can think of no better illustration of this than the story of Enoch conversing with God over the coming Flood, found in the Pearl of Great Price ( Moses 7):

 28 And it came to pass that the God of heaven looked upon the residue of the people, and he wept; and Enoch bore record of it, saying: How is it that the heavens weep, and shed forth their tears as the rain upon the mountains?

 29 And Enoch said unto the Lord: How is it that thou canst weep, seeing thou art holy, and from all eternity to all eternity?

 30 And were it possible that man could number the particles of the earth, yea, millions of earths like this, it would not be a beginning to the number of thy creations; and thy curtains are stretched out still; and yet thou art there, and thy bosom is there; and also thou art just; thou art merciful and kind forever;

 31 And thou hast taken Zion to thine own bosom, from all thy creations, from all eternity to all eternity; and naught but peace, justice, and truth is the habitation of thy throne; and mercy shall go before thy face and have no end; how is it thou canst weep?

 32 The Lord said unto Enoch: Behold these thy brethren; they are the workmanship of mine own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them; and in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency;

 33 And unto thy brethren have I said, and also given commandment, that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood;


 37 But behold, their sins shall be upon the heads of their fathers; Satan shall be their father, and misery shall be their doom; and the whole heavens shall weep over them, even all the workmanship of mine hands; wherefore should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer?

There is much more in this chapter, and I invite readers to view the complete text at the link. For the purposes of this essay, my point is that Mormons do not believe in a God who is Wholly Other or untouched by His own creations, but One who is deeply touched by the suffering of His children, even when they bring it on themselves: a God who weeps.

It is equally a settled doctrine among Mormons that our Father in Heaven means for us to grow up.  Mormons point to many verses in the Standard Works -- including both the Old and New Testaments in the Bible -- indicating that we are not only children of God, but His heirs. Mormons take quite seriously the verses in Romans 8:

 16 The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God:

 17 And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.

And also 1 John 3:

2 Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.

But the plainest expressions are found in the Doctrine in Covenants, such as Section 130:

1 When the Savior shall appear we shall see him as he is. We shall see that he is a man like ourselves.

or Section 132:

20 Then shall they be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be from everlasting to everlasting, because they continue; then shall they be above all, because all things are subject unto them. Then shall they be gods, because they have all power, and the angels are subject unto them.

Mormons see in this an echo of Psalm 82:

6 I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.

The idea is not entirely foreign to other Christian groups. Catholics and some Protestants speak of partaking of the divine nature, and Greek Orthodox even go so far as to use the word theosis. A beautiful statement of this idea, which many Mormon commenters have pointed to, comes from the Catholic church father Athanasius (298-373 A.D.): "God became man that man might become God." However, Mormons take the idea further than other Christians and put it in plainer language: If we are heirs of God, and if we become partakers of the divine nature, are we not then gods? C.S. Lewis once put it this plainly, but only by literary proxy.

It is important to understand how Mormons understand these beliefs. A statement like "We shall see that [Christ] is a man like ourselves", stripped of context, is subject to terrible misunderstanding. So I cannot emphasize enough that this statement, in the Mormon mind, has important if unspoken qualifications: Christ remains our Lord and Saviour, so far as has been revealed, forever. God remains our Father and God, so far as has been revealed, forever. That we eventually becomes His fully grown children does not mean our relationship ceases to be that of child to Father. When Christ appears (at His Second Coming) we will see that he is a Man, but we universally understand this to mean a Divine Man. The effect is not to lower God, but to elevate His children.

What will be the scope of our powers as gods in the afterlife? From Doctine and Covenants, Section 121, we read: 

 45 Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.

 46 The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.

I find this a remarkable teaching, suggesting that the divine power invested in the faithful in the hereafter comes to them from a Universe that voluntarily obeys them out of love. A few Mormon writers have gone beyond this, suggesting that God Himself rules through such voluntary obedience, but this is a speculation rather than settled doctrine. Beyond this, little has been revealed about the nature of our dominions in the world to come.

However, my opinion of the statement that "they get to be the god of their own new world", coming from a (possibly hostile) non-Mormon source, claiming that it is a statement of settled Mormon doctrine, is that it is balderdash. You can doubtless find Mormons, including some in positions of leadership, who have said something like this. But in my opinion, it presupposes far more than has ever been revealed to us. Furthermore, it lacks the framework of understanding which I have just attempted to provide the reader. What seems plausible to me is that godhood means joining God the Father in His continuing work of Creation, which Mormons believed will never cease. That creation is ongoing is stated quite plainly in our scriptures; that we will someday participate in the continuing work of creation is strongly hinted at in our scriptures and widely believed among the members of the church.

It also seems scripturally sound to say that the family structure of the faithful will be incorporated into an eternal family structure in the world to come, with faithful husbands and wives everlastingly bound to each other and to their children by ties of love. Mormon scripture is reasonably clear that the ties of husbands to wives, sealed by the power of the Priesthood, are essential to attaining godhood. Some of the enemies of Mormonism have rephrased this concept in the most vulgar possible terms, revealing both their unwillingness to see these ideas as Mormons see them, and (quite unconsciously) their own hangups about human sexuality, projected onto their Mormon targets. In fact, we have no idea what marital love will be like in the world to come, except that it will doubtless be as wonderful as all other aspects of the world to come:"But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him" (1 Corinthians 2:9).

Now what of this doctrine that God was once a man? This is widely believed in the Church, yet it is not mentioned at all in any of the Standard Works. It comes almost entirely from two sources: the King Follett Discourse of Joseph Smith and a couplet by Lorenzo Snow, both of whom were Presidents of the Church. The Snow couplet states "As man now is, God once was; as God now is, Man man someday become."  The King Follet Discourse was a funeral sermon preached by Joseph Smith just weeks before his assassination.

It is worth noting that neither President Snow's couplet nor the King Follett Discourse are part of the Standard Works. Furthermore, most of the revelations to Joseph Smith in the Standard Works are written in the first person, as God speaking directly to man. This is not true of the King Follett Discourse, which takes the form of a scriptural exegesis, and it remains uncertain which parts of this discourse represent Joseph Smith reasoning from the scriptures and which parts represent the sharing of new revelation to Joseph Smith. Nevertheless, the King Follet Discourse has been extremely influential in the development of Mormon theological speculation.

As a result, the majority of Mormons believe that God the Father was once a mortal man. To many Mormons, it seems logical that he went through the same stages of development as we have and will: Begotten spiritually as a child of heavenly Parents of his own, born physically to live a mortal life like ours, resurrected, exalted, and made divine. It seems to follow that the Father of our Father in Heaven did the same, and so on, backwards in infinite regress into eternity past. In other words, there have always been Gods and there have always been universes in which They dwell. There are many attractive features to this concept. It extends the family of God into eternity past and eternity future as an everlasting community of love. Indeed, I have speculated this community can be identified with God, such that God is a united community of perfected Persons. This concept also suggests some solutions to what I call the cosmological problem of theology, which is that we live in a universe that potentially contains trillions of worlds, which superficially seems to challenge the idea of an Incarnation and of a personal God.

But while the doctrine that God the Father was once a mortal man comes close to being settled doctrine, the further we extrapolate from it, the less settled the ground we are on. For example, there are differences of opinion in the Church on whether God the Father was ever a sinful man. If so, the reasoning goes, then each generation of Gods has had its Christs to redeem and perfect them. Others have taken the view that God the Father was a sinless, perfect Man without need for a Saviour in his own mortal experience.

I point out, though, that almost none of this is settled scripture. Though attractive in some ways, the notion of an infinite regress of Gods is problematic in others. There are hints of an alternate solution to the cosmological problem in Doctrine and Covenants, Section 88. When President Gordon B. Hinckley told an interviewer that we don't teach much about this and don't necessarily know much about this, he was only speaking the truth. There is a school of thought in Mormonism -- small, but made up of faithful members -- that reject this infinite regress of Gods and emphasize instead the concept of a council of Gods, over which God the Father presides, and identify exaltation with membership in this council. But it must be acknowledged that this is a minority view.

So, what's the bottom line here? Mormonism teaches a great deal about faith in Christ, repentance, and proper living. It teaches men and women to live by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It teaches a great deal about the importance of family. It holds forth a promise of continuing family ties in the world to come, and of being a joint-heir with Christ. It provides glimpses of how God came to be and glimpses of the ultimate destiny of man. But there is a great deal God has not revealed; there is a lot that many Mormons believe, but which is still seen "through a glass, darkly" (1 Corinthians 13:12); and there is much in Mormon belief and theological speculation that cannot be understood, as Mormons understand it, from a few cute phrases thrown out by sources not necessarily friendly to Mormonism, or even understood from friendly sources writing just a few sentences. I've written quite a lot more than a few sentences here, but it's still no more than the barest framework for such an understanding. My hope is that the reader will thoughtfully and charitably consider what I've written.