The Largess of Premortality
I'm excited about today's topic. My listeners have no idea how close I came to making today's topic Star Wars and the new Star Wars movie. Something trivial, I know. Something less intellectual, less weighty as the doctrine of premortality. Star Wars? C'mon. This podcast was designed to discuss topics a bit more paramount than that, right? So maybe we'll save that discussion for next week. I suppose talking about "Star Wars" could have its place, and such a discussion might turn out to be significant for my storytelling students. Besides, hey, I can talk about anything I want here.
But not this week. I used the word "largess" in the title of this podcast. The "largess" of the doctrine of Premortality. Largess might be a new word for some, so let me start with that. It means generosity, or the gifts themselves that are bestowed by such generosity. Both definitions will serve us here. More important might be to ask listeners if they know what premortality means, or what means in Christian doctrine. Not just LDS doctrine, because the concept of a premortal existence predates the Restoration of the Gospel by countless centuries. It goes back to the Book of Enoch, Egyptian mythology, and even some of the oldest religious documents and traditions we've ever discovered. And yet never with the same force or clarity as what was revealed by Joseph Smith.
Remember a few weeks ago I mentioned that the LDS Church was the only Christian Church that had as part of its core theology the idea that life--intelligent life in the image of God--exists on other planets--not just as a philosophical speculation--because even folks like Ben Franklin postulated the idea of a supreme God of the universe and lesser gods assigned to each planet and solar system. No, I'm talking about core theology. We're the only Christian denomination whose scriptures specifically affirm this idea.
I'm not even sure intelligent life in the image of God means beings that look exactly like us. When I ponder the variety of appearances that we see in this world of people who are all members of the human race, I have to wonder exactly what the "image of God" actually means. If Danny Devito and Arnold Swartzenegger are both considered beings in the image of God, the definition seems pretty broad. I mean, if Yao Ming, the Chinese basketball player, and African pygmies are both created in the image of God, maybe the definition could be even broader. I've sometimes wondered if the old Star Trek series, when budgetary constraints forced make-up artists to create aliens who primarily still had two eyes, two ears, ten fingers etc., and maybe just had an oddly shaped forehead or an upturned nose may actually a more accurate representation of intelligent life on other planets than some of the creatures we see in today's science fiction movies. Obviously a planet's mass and atmosphere and other variables could play a significant role in the evolution and appearance of an intelligent species and that species might still be very much considered in the image of God. But I digress. Just food for thought. Fodder for the imagination.
Today we're talking about the doctrine of premortality, and with regard to that doctrine, Latter-day Saints are almost the only Christian denomination that has this as one of its core doctrines. Other Christians in other denominations--it seems to me more and more every year--seem to vacillate toward this concept. I'm told that Mary Baker Eddy, of the Christian Science movement, was sympathetic to idea of a premortal existence of the human soul. I've also read internet posts from Catholics and Lutherans who seem to have no problem with, and even seem intrigued by, the concept. But we're talking about individuals in these denominations. None of them, as far as I know, teach premortality as a core tenet.
Certainly we find a healthy number of scriptures in the Old and New Testament that support the idea, but as Joseph Smith aptly noted, "the teachers of religion" often interpret "the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling practically any question by an appeal to the Bible." This can certainly be true with the doctrine of man's premortal existence. Some Churches have a hard enough time grasping the idea that Jesus Christ had a pre-mortal existence, despite such blunt statements by the Savior as "Before Abraham was I am" in John 8:58--a statement considered so blasphemous it nearly got the Savior stoned to death. If certain sects are still arguing over the Savior's premortal existence, the concept that mankind also existed pre-mortally isn't likely even on their radar.
By the way, when I first joined the Church everyone said "pre-existence". Even such scholarly giants as Hugh Nibley used the term pre-existence, but certain folks over the past couple decades have become very picky about the semantics of that phrase, saying "you can't exist before you exist," so we've had to stretch that term a bit to appease the semantics police and now "pre-mortal existence" is the more appropriate term.
However you say it, this doctrine is definitely one of my favorites of the Restored Gospel. It's unique. It's profound. It's unforgettable. And it's become embedded as a core tenet of our theology. It wasn't always that way. Brigham Young claimed that more people apostatized from the LDS faith because of the doctrine of premortality than any other doctrine--even more than apostatized over polygamy or any other tenet. Considering how comfortably the concept fits into our theology today, I find this hard to understand.
Some of you who may have listened to an earlier podcast where I offered up some details of my personal conversion story. If so, you may remember that this was the first LDS doctrine that I fully accepted. I didn't need a spiritual witness. I didn't need a revelation. The concept was originally revealed to me by a high school civics teacher I had named Phil Robertson, who, at my request, invited me to his home one evening and taught me the Plan of Salvation.
I don't know why, but for some reason the idea that we existed before we were born struck a chord deep inside me. I was seventeen years old. My life experiences were limited, and yet something about this notion was like embracing an old friend. I didn't need anybody to show me Jeremiah 1:5 which tells of God knowing Jeremiah and ordaining him to be a prophet before he was born. I didn't need anyone to show me Ecclesiastes 12:7 which speaks of the spirit returning to the God who gave it life. Nor any of the dozens of other scriptures in the Bible that allude to this principle. At that particular time I wasn't even sure how I felt about the Bible. I just knew this principle was true. And I decided that whether or not I ever accepted all the other ins and outs Mormonism, the idea of a premortal existence would be incorporated into my own personal spiritual worldview.
I can't really explain that. Maybe President Joseph F. Smith accurately captured the feelings I experienced when he expressed the beautiful sentiment that “we often catch a spark from the awakened memories of the immortal soul, which lights up our whole being as with the glory of our former home.” Maybe that's what happened inside me, which may mean that my acceptance of this principle wasn't entirely intellectual. It sank into my heart much the same way as a revelation, but without much fanfare.
Or maybe the doctrine of a pre-mortal existence simply placed that missing piece of a puzzle inside my mind, and the picture--the image of its truthfulness-- was too obvious for me to ignore. It seemed to answer so many fundamental questions; its acceptance was the most natural thing I ever experienced.
The doctrine appears to have been widely taught and accepted in the ancient Christian world for 500 years. Just like today, an understanding of this concept was second nature to the early Christians. It was taught by Clement of Alexandria, Origen (or "Ore-gon"--I've heard it pronounced both ways), Justin Martyr, and many others. In the Apocryphon of James, which was a manuscript from the Nag Hammadi library, Jesus tells Peter and James, “If you consider how long the world existed before you, and how long it will exist after you, you will find that your life is one single day and your sufferings one single hour.” Sounds very similar to what God told Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail, "My son . . . thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment."
One of the greatest proponents of the idea that we existed in spirit form before birth was the Greek philosopher Plato. But Plato was not a Christian. He lived and taught 350 years before Christ was even born. But there were two schools of thought when it came to philosophies about man's pre-mortal existence, and it had to do with a philosopher's opinion of the positive or negative--evil--nature of physical matter, namely the human body. In the beginning many of the Christian fathers got it right. They believed that matter was good, matter was the substance from which good things were organized, but over time this idea transformed. Matter--in particular the physical body--began to be viewed as corrupt and carnal and grotesque, with all its secretions and sicknesses and states of decay. The concept of premortality continued to be taught, but many viewed our mortal existence as a curse. They began to look upon our spiritual state as a much more favorable existence. They looked forward to the time when death would set them free from this grotesque, corrupt body with all its sickness and disease. They yearned to return to that pure state before birth when we were spirits, clean and pure.
As soon as the concept of our physical mortal body being a steppingstone to receiving an immortal, perfect body fell out of favor, it seemed a natural philosophical progression that the concept of a literal, corporeal resurrection--a permanent uniting of the spirit and body--the soul--also began to fall out of favor. Keep in mind, it took almost 500 years for this philosophical progression to run full circle. There were pockets of Christians still teaching pre-mortality even in the 6th Century A.D. And then a new philosophy gained favor--one that completely divorced itself from the idea that matter in the physical world had any positive qualities whatsoever.
Suddenly the Church--that is, the most powerful authorities of the Church in Rome and Constantinople--began to favor the idea that man was created out of nothing--ex nilho as we call it--that man (and woman) did not exist until their moment of conception in the womb. The notion of pre-mortality began to be seen as a philosophy of the Greeks--Plato, in particular--all non-Christians--and that somehow it was this Platonic philosophy that infiltrated and contaminated the writings of the early Church fathers and therefore ought to be rejected. It was officially declared heretical by a minority of Church leaders under Emperor Justinian in 553 A.D., but by then the concepts of physical matter and the literal resurrection of the body were so twisted that rejecting the concept of pre-mortality hardly seems a surprise.
There were other periods of history wherein the concept of pre-mortality became fashionable, such as in Europe in the 1700s, but without revelation and guidance from our Heavenly Father it never really gained traction. The reason some theologians and philosophers looked upon it favorably was because the idea that certain traits or talents or stations were decided in some realm prior to birth explained the basic inequities of man and offered a possible resolution of God's seeming injustices.
As Elder Boyd K. Packer profoundly stated, "Occasionally, as at the time of birth, we pause in awe of what nature has to say. We see patterns of creation, so ordered and so beautiful as to sponsor deep feelings of reverence and humility. Then, just when we might discover the meaning of life, we are jerked back by the wild, uncontrolled things that humanity is doing to itself.
There are so many unanswered questions. Why the inequities in life?
Some are so rich.
Some so wretchedly poor.
Some so beautifully formed, and others with pitiful handicaps.
Some are gifted and others retarded.
Why the injustice, the untimely death? Why the neglect, the sorrow, the pain?
Why divorce, incest, perversion, abuse, and cruelty?
If there be order and meaning to life, they are hardly visible in what mortals do to one another and to themselves.
In counterpoint, we see love and devotion, sacrifice, faith, and humility; we see humanity in exalted expression of courage and heroism.
When at last the mystery of life is unraveled, what will be revealed?"
For me the doctrine of pre-mortality answered all of these things in a blinding instant.
The principle was revealed line upon line in Church history, until an outpouring of revelation clarified and cemented the concept in the Church of Jesus Christ. In 1833 a stunning communication, today known as section 93, was received by Joseph Smith that even today stretches and edifies the imagination: “Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.…For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fullness of joy.”
The Pearl of Great Price expounds on these ideas even more. Moses is told of God's innumerable creations, including other worlds where the plan of salvation has already been carried out. The Lord adds, “But only an account of this earth, and the inhabitants thereof, give I unto you. For behold, there are many worlds that have passed away by the word of my power.” (Moses 1:35)
And then in Abraham: “If there be two spirits, … [they] have no beginning; they existed before, they shall have no end … for they are … eternal.” “Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones; “And God … said: These I will make my rulers; … and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.” Then the most humbling statement of all. "These two facts do exist, that there are two spirits, one being more intelligent than the other; there shall be another more intelligent than they; I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all."
It might be hard for some to appreciate the elegance and momentousness of these doctrines when they were first revealed. They're gorgeous. They're resplendent. As Elder Boyd K. Packer stated, "The doctrine is so logical, so reasonable, and explains so many things, that it is a wonder that the Christian world rejected it. It is so essential a part of the equation of life that, left out, life just cannot add up, it remains a mystery."
He goes on to say, "Once (the Christian world) rejected this doctrine, the doctrine of pre-mortal life, and the doctrine of redemption for the dead, they could never unravel the mystery of life. They became like a man trying to assemble a strand of pearls on a string that was too short. There is no way they can put them all together.
Why is it so strange a thought that we lived as spirits before entering mortality? Christian doctrine proclaims the Resurrection, meaning that we will live after mortal death. If we live beyond death, why should it be strange that we lived before birth?
The Christian world in general accepts the idea that our condition in the Resurrection will be determined by our actions in this life. Why can they not believe that some circumstances in this life were determined by our actions before coming into mortality?"
Boyd K. Packer offers a profound analogy, or parable, of this entire concept that you just can't edit down. It has to be presented in its entirety. So here it is: "We know that this life is a test, that life did not begin with birth, nor will it end with death.
Then life begins to make sense, with meaning and purpose even in all of the chaotic mischief that mankind creates for itself.
Imagine that you are attending a football game. The teams seem evenly matched. One team has been trained to follow the rules; the other, to do just the opposite. They are committed to cheat and disobey every rule of sportsmanlike conduct.
While the game ends in a tie, it is determined that it must continue until one side wins decisively.
Soon the field is a quagmire.
Players on both sides are being ground into the mud. The cheating of the opposing team turns to brutality.
Players are carried off the field. Some have been injured critically; others, it is whispered, fatally. It ceases to be a game and becomes a battle.
You become very frustrated and upset. “Why let this go on? Neither team can win. It must be stopped.”
Imagine that you confront the sponsor of the game and demand that he stop this useless, futile battle. You say it is senseless and without purpose. Has he no regard at all for the players?
He calmly replies that he will not call the game. You are mistaken. There is a great purpose in it. You have not understood.
He tells you that this is not a spectator sport—it is for the participants. It is for their sake that he permits the game to continue. Great benefit may come to them because of the challenges they face.
He points to players sitting on the bench, suited up, eager to enter the game. “When each one of them has been in, when each has met the day for which he has prepared so long and trained so hard, then, and only then, will I call the game.”
Until then, it may not matter which team seems to be ahead. The present score is really not crucial. There are games within games, you know. Whatever is happening to the team, each player will have his day.
Those players on the team that keeps the rules will not be eternally disadvantaged by the appearance that their team somehow always seems to be losing.
In the field of destiny, no team or player will be eternally disadvantaged because they keep the rules. They may be cornered or misused, even defeated for a time. But individual players on that team, regardless of what appears on the scoreboard, may already be victorious.
Each player will have a test sufficient to his needs; how each responds is the test.
When the game is finally over, you and they will see purpose in it all, may even express gratitude for having been on the field during the darkest part of the contest.
I do not think the Lord is quite so hopeless about what’s going on in the world as we are. He could put a stop to all of it any moment. But He will not! Not until every player has a chance to meet the test for which we were preparing before the world was, before we came into mortality."
Elder Neal A. Maxwell said, "The adversary relentlessly uses the absence or disbelief of this doctrine to shrink man’s perspective. One-dimensional man with only a one-dimensional view of the world will surely focus upon the cares of the world, yielding to the things of the moment...
It seems almost inevitable that the beauty and perfection of these ideas should begin to attract individuals in other Christian denominations. I tend to feel a bit jealous when I hear that others might be starting to embrace the this doctrine. I like the fact that this teaching is wholly unique in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and I feel possessive to think that other Christians might adopt some form of pre-mortality without accepting the entire package of the Restored Gospel.
Elder Maxwell also said, "Pre-mortality is not a relaxing doctrine. For each of us, there are choices to be made, incessant and difficult chores to be done, ironies and adversities to be experienced, time to be well spent, talents and gifts to be well employed. ....This doctrine brings unarguable identity but also severe accountability to our lives. It uniquely underscores the actuality of the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.
The ultimate catch in all this is that we don't remember a thing. That's apparently the most important aspect of mortality. The fact that we have forgotten all means that the test can be conducted in a state of genuine equity and fairness to see if we will do all things that our Father in Heaven commanded us.
Again from Elder Maxwell: "Agreeing to enter this second estate, therefore, was like agreeing in advance to anesthetic—the anesthetic of forgetfulness. Doctors do not de-anesthetize a patient, in the midst of what was previously authorized, to ask him, again, if it should be continued. We agreed to come here and to undergo certain experiences under certain conditions."
The point is that all of this foreknowledge--this comprehension of who we are and the potential of our destiny--can be regained. Brigham Young proclaimed that he could weep like a whipped child when he thinks of how far the saints have fallen short of their possibilities and opportunities. We are taught repeatedly that there is no end to what we can and will receive so long as we don’t reject it, through apostasy, through laziness, and through our failure to properly repent.
And that seems to be a common theme of all my podcast. "Cry nothing but repentance unto this generation," or so the Lord told many of the earliest converts of the Restored Church. I hope my listeners will bear with me if I feel compelled to so frequently repeat that theme. And the best assurance that you and I will succeed? Stay close to the Lord. If you don't feel as close to the Lord today as you did yesterday, who moved? May we never tire of practicing that principle and contemplating that questions.
Star Wars? I don't know. Might be fun, but would it be edifying? Possibly. Depends on the approach. I'll think about it. In the meantime, this is Chris Heimerdinger. And this is ForeverLDS. All my best. Good night.