Mormonism and Human Immortality
by Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin
Mormonism is distinctive in various ways, three of which are important to understanding Mormon beliefs about human immorality and the afterlife. First, Mormonism is a distinctively human religion. The structure of human familial relations, existence as an embodied human being and the progression along the scale of intelligence from ignorance to knowledge familiar from lived human experience all are central to Mormon doctrine and practice. Second, Mormon cosmology is distinctively symmetrical. Just as there is infinite existence after death, there was infinite existence before birth. And we are quite literally made in God’s image, as he was once like us (though he did not walk this earth) and we may be gods like him. Finally, Mormon doctrine embraces infinity. Not only is the existence of each soul and all matter infinite, both into the past and into the future, but there is also the possibility of infinite gods and infinite worlds. Rather than shun infinite regress, Mormon cosmology is founded on it.
According to Mormonism, a human being, such as you or me, is essentially an embodied, material soul with free will that has existed forever and will exist forever, progressing (hopefully) to ever-higher orders of intelligence. God is essentially like us, but he has progressed much further than we have. God organized our world out of eternal matter, and we have freely chosen to follow him along the path to greater intelligence. Our relation to God is like that of children to their father, and, if all goes well, each of us will eventually achieve godliness, at which time it is possible that the same pattern will repeat itself. Hence, the possibility of infinite gods and infinite worlds.
There is a lot packed into this brief description of the Mormon view of things. It will be helpful, in unpacking the view, to separate the discussion into three time periods: pre-corporeal existence, life on earth and the afterlife.
2. Pre-Corporeal Existence
Mormonism teaches that human souls are material and that each of us has existed eternally. It also teaches that God created this world, not ex nihilo, but rather as a creative act using already available material. There is a certain historicity to Mormon thought, and it would not be a stretch to conceive of time as divided into epochs. This world and our lives in it occupy a particular place and time in relation to a particular God. But there are other gods and other worlds. Perhaps what unites all gods and all worlds is the purpose for which worlds are created: in order to assist in souls’ progression.
In the beginning of the Book of Moses, God reveals to Moses that he has created many worlds, including this one. Moses asks why God created this world, and God answers: “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” At first glance, this is a puzzling reply. If human souls exist eternally, then how could God’s organization of material into this world make a difference with respect to man’s immortality? On closer examination, God’s reply seems to point to some distinctions important to understanding Mormon thought about the afterlife. Only given a world may human souls take on bodies, which they will have eternally in the afterlife. The word “immortality” must refer, not simply to eternal existence, but to eternal existence in a human embodied form. And the phrase “eternal life” is a technical term, referring to a certain quality of human embodied existence, one that, crucially, includes an eternal family structure. One receives this form of existence in the afterlife through progress and learning, some of which requires a human body. Perhaps God’s purpose in creating this world may be aptly paraphrased as in order to allow for eternal embodied existence and the progress and learning necessary to receive the highest form of eternal glory. Mormonism portrays God as essentially the same kind of being as us, but one who has progressed much further in intelligence than we have and who has taken it upon himself to aide in our own progression along the same dimension.
The centrality of human embodied existence to the Mormon conception of spiritual learning and progression comes out by considering the contrast. Mormonism teaches that at some time prior to the creation of this world, there was a collection of less intelligent souls, God, Jesus and another advanced soul named Lucifer, who offered the less intelligent souls an alternative way to reach salvation. They could decline to follow God and Jesus, and avoid the possibility of sin and suffering borne of human free will, and, instead, choose guaranteed salvation with him. The certainty of this salvation, however, would come at the price of a loss of free human agency. Those souls who followed Lucifer, and it is said that one-third of them did, were compelled to reach salvation. But they were condemned to eternal, non-corporeal existence. The other two-thirds, who followed God, received (or will receive) corporeal existence in the world created for them by God, with all of the opportunity for progress and learning this affords.
Mormonism teaches that human corporeal existence is the only divine path towards salvation. The human body is not inherently evil, and embodied existence is not a divine punishment. Mormons reject the doctrine of original sin and the fall. But Mormonism also teaches that this form of existence allows for the “one unpardonable sin.” All souls who enter this world will be granted some degree of immortality, save for those who come to personally know Jesus Christ for who he is (e.g., through a revelation) and still reject him. One who sins in this way is destined for an eternal existence about which not much is said in Mormon doctrine, save for that it does not resemble human life.
3. Corporeal Existence
The Mormon view is that all of us who walk this earth chose to follow God towards salvation, and our human existence on this earth is an essential moment in our progress towards higher intelligence. Mormon doctrine has been revealed as such in order to facilitate our progress along the path towards eternal life. What we do on this earth is important to our, and God’s, goal of achieving this aim. But progress does not end upon death. There is time for advancement in between death and the resurrection, and even after resurrection in the afterlife. The opportunity for progress after death is especially important for Mormonism’s ability to account for the advancement of those who were not fortunate enough to live during the time when God’s revelations were known. These souls may advance towards higher intelligence, both through their own work and the work of those on this earth, who may, for example, be vicariously baptized for them.
It goes almost without saying that participation in the church is central to Mormon life. The church affords a source of community and practice that allows for the unique kind of development this world was created to afford us. The church affords opportunities to help out in the community, including helping the poor and proselytizing to the unconverted. And certain rites and rituals performed in the church or temple, such as baptism and marriage, are essential for progress towards eternal life.
Perhaps the most salient structure in Mormon life is that of the family. Two of the three most important religious figures are God and his son, Jesus Christ—the third is the Holy Spirit. And one way to understand our relationship with God is as his adopted children. God took us under his wing, making it possible and providing guidance for us to achieve the kind of advancement in intelligence he already had. Given that God is essentially like us, it seems to follow that God, too, was adopted by another divinity, in the way we were by him. The cycle continues ad infinitum, and we play our small part in the eternal unfolding of things.
In the midst of this infinite unfolding and eternal advancement of intelligences, it is perhaps no wonder that the family unit takes on an immense importance. With the most human of emotions, love, as the seed, a tight bond connects people with each other in a quintessentially human way. The family unit naturally involves the introduction and nurturing of new members. Hence, more and more human souls gain the opportunity for corporeal existence and the advancement this makes possible. And the Mormon belief that the bonds of family can survive for eternity endows the afterlife with perhaps the most recognizable of human characteristics.
4. The Afterlife
The work one does on earth is important to achieving eternal life after death. This is not to say that failing to live an earthly life according to Mormon teaching will lead to non-existence. Mormonism teaches that, just as all human souls existed eternally in the past, all human souls will exist eternally in the future. But not everyone’s existence in the afterlife will be the same.
Mormons do not distinguish between Heaven and Hell, but rather between three degrees of glory and two forms of existence that are not recognizably human. According to Mormon thought, most souls will achieve some degree of glory in the afterlife. But there are some souls who will not. Those souls who followed Lucifer will continue to exist forever, but they will never have the opportunity for an embodied existence and the advancement this makes possible. Their existence is not recognizably human because, though material, they are never embodied, they lack free will and they cannot progress intellectually in the ways that we can. Of those souls who followed God and became embodied, those who sin in the worst way possible, knowing Jesus for who he is and rejecting him, will not achieve any degree of glory in the afterlife. They will survive on in “outer darkness,” a form of existence that is not recognizably human and about which Mormon doctrine has very little to say. This is perhaps the closest thing to Hell in Mormon thought. But very few souls will end up here, since this requires receiving a unique revelation from Christ and yet still rejecting him.
All the rest of human souls will achieve one of three degrees of glory. The distinction between three degrees of glory is founded on a New Testament passage in which Paul compares degrees of glory to the sun, moon and stars (1 Cor. 15). The third, and lowest, degree of glory is called the Telestial Kingdom. It is reserved for those who have sinned greatly in their life on earth. The second degree of glory is called the Terrestrial Kingdom. Those who have lived good lives but were not baptized Mormon or who were baptized Mormon but did not live according to the commitments of the faith go to the Terrestrial Kingdom. One significant feature of these lower two degrees of glory is that the family unit is not recognized here. One’s marriage does not continue on eternally, and neither do one’s bonds with one’s children.
By contrast, the Celestial Kingdom, the first and highest degree of glory, has all the important hallmarks of human existence on earth, including, crucially, the family. Those who lived good lives and received the necessary sacraments will live on in the Celestial Kingdom. Couples married in a Mormon temple will remain eternally sealed to each other in the Celestial Kingdom, and their family units will remain intact for eternity.
The focus on progression that is so much a part of Mormonism comes together with the focus on family in an important way in the afterlife. It is not entirely clear what Mormon doctrine precisely says about progress in the afterlife (Is it possible to progress between degrees of glory? Is it possible to progress within each degree of glory?), but it is clear that there is the possibility of spiritual progress in the Celestial Kingdom. Those who live righteous lives on earth and receive certain sacraments will be reunited with their bodies (perhaps in a perfected form) in the Celestial Kingdom. Here they will have the opportunity to advance in intelligence and become gods themselves. Importantly, however, individuals do not become gods by themselves. Rather, individual couples, men and women together, become gods. This is no less true of God, who has a wife.
The Mormon conception of God is that of a creature not different in kind from us, and so the path to godhood for us is laid out as a progression along the trajectory of a recognizably human life. By living a righteous human existence here on earth, one is afforded the opportunity to receive eternal life, an eternal righteous human existence in the afterlife. This line of thought culminates in the view that there may be infinite gods, and each of us may be one of them, who create infinite worlds, all with the purpose of allowing others to successfully embark on this same progression towards godhood. At the center of this vision is a conception of human life as a journey undertaken with others in the context of the family unit.
Mormonism is an essentially human religion, which is reflected in its central focus on the most human of traits and emotions. The theme of freely choosing to love one another can be traced throughout Mormon cosmology. We chose to follow God and Jesus, as opposed to Lucifer, and God chose to make a world to enable our path. We choose husbands or wives here on earth, with whom to start and raise a family and to make progress during our time on earth and in the afterlife. Ultimately, we choose to achieve godhood and begin the cycle anew.
Brown, Samuel Morris. (2012), In Heaven As It Is On Earth (New York: Oxford University Press).
Bushman, Richard Lyman. (2008), Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press).
Critchley, Simon. (2012), ‘Why I Love Mormonism’, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/16/why-i-love-mormonism/.
Faulconer, James. (2012), ‘A Public Conversation about Mormonism’, http://www.patheos.com/Mormon/Public-Conversation-about-Mormonism-James-Faulconer-09-20-2012.
Givens, Terryl L. (2010), When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought (New York: Oxford University Press).
Smith, Joseph. (1844), ‘The King Follett Discourse’, Times and Seasons, 5, 612-617. Accessed online at http://mldb.byu.edu/follett.htm.
White, Justin. (ms.), ‘Sons and Citizens: The kingdom of God, The Family of God’.
 This quotation, found in Bushman (2008, 65), is from The Book of Moses (1:39).↩
 Smith (1844).↩
 Even if not canonical, this is the view that makes most sense given my reading of things. See also White (ms.).↩
 “Such was the inexorable logic of Smith’s heaven family: God could be no father without a mother at his side. The logic of the divine anthropology required it” (Brown 2012, 274).↩
 I would like to thank Justin White for very helpful discussions about this topic. I would also like to thank Makani for his very informative email message discussing the Mormon conception of the afterlife.↩