When I served as a full-time missionary for the Church, we often introduced a gospel discussion with the three big questions of life:
- Who am I?
- Why am I here?
- Where am I going after this life?
In my mind, any religion worth its altars should be able to provide answers to these questions, each of which is fundamental to our understanding of our relationship to God. Oddly enough, these are the three questions on which many religions or religious denominations are maddeningly vague, leaving us with some sense of an ethic duty without an understanding of how it all fits into the big picture. If there is a big picture.
One of the things that I always have appreciated about the Mormon faith is its genuine effort to address these critical questions. The answers provided by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been a great comfort to me, especially in times when I have stood face-to-face with the stark apparent finality of death. One cannot stand at an open casket without wondering, “Is that it?”
That said, in my experience Mormon funerals tend to be unusually upbeat affairs. Of course there is mourning and a sense of loss, but there is an element of hope that permeates the proceedings, and that hope derives specifically from our doctrine.
Keeping in mind that the purpose of this blog is to provide general answers as if you were asking them of me on a subway, and I had left my scriptures at home, I’ll avoid loading up on scriptural references and instead will explain as best I can in my own words what death means to Mormons.
To understand our view of death, you have to first get your arms around those other two questions: Who are we, and why are we here?
Mormons believe that before any of us were born, we lived as spirit children of our Father in Heaven. We believe that each of us is, literally, a child of God. We believe, contrary to much of Christianity, that our Father in Heaven, while all powerful and all knowing, nonetheless has a perfected body of flesh and bone.
We believe that like any Father, our Father in Heaven wanted us to enjoy the blessings He has enjoyed. He did not want us to remain forever in innocence, but instead wanted us to experience mortality, with all of its challenges and opportunities for growth. Because of that, He taught us that He had a plan for us that would allow us to come to earth, obtain bodies, and experience life with all of its good and evil. As we exercised faith in Him and strove to make righteous choices, we would grow to be more like Him.
Of course, mortality presented two problems for us. The first is physical death. The second is the unavoidable nature of sin. Each of us will die, and each of us will make mistakes that would render us ineligible to live with a perfect God.
In order to overcome sin and death, our Father provided a Savior for us: Our elder brother, Jesus Christ. He would come to the earth and provide the means by which we could overcome both sin and death. We believe that as a result of the atoning sacrifice of Christ, all mankind will be resurrected. We believe that as we strive to live His commandments, we can be forgiven of our sins. In that way, we may become perfected in Christ, and return to live with our Father in Heaven.
Coming into mortality, each of us knew that the only way to get back to our Father in Heaven would be to pass through the portals of death. I imagine that, from the eternal perspective we likely held at that time, we may not have seen that as a great sacrifice. But here on earth, death is a shadow that hangs over us, and when it touches those that we love, it is traumatic, heart-wrenching, and unnervingly final.
Mormons believe that when we die, our spirits, which existed before this mortal life and will continue to exist for eternity, are separated from our bodies. Our spirits essentially return to God, where we await our eventual reunion with perfected, resurrected bodies.
We do not believe, however, that we just sit in some celestial waiting room reading expired magazines until the resurrection. Rather, we believe that in the Spirit World, there remains work to be done, a part of which is that those who never heard of Christ or His gospel will be taught those principles and given an opportunity to accept or rejection them. This is why Mormons practice vicarious baptism for the dead in our temples: We perform necessary earthly ordinances for our ancestors in the event that they accept the gospel after this life.
Also related to the temple, we believe that through making and keeping sacred covenants, families can be “sealed” together for all eternity, so that our existence after this life will continue to be experienced in the framework of family. We echo the belief of President Andrew Jackson, who as a widower opined, “Heaven will not be Heaven to me if I do not meet my wife there.” Thus, this post-mortal missionary work is intended to bind generations of families together.
We have little other information about what happens after we die. However, the Prophet Joseph Smith taught that the Spirit World is very close to us, and that there is an opportunity for our departed loved ones to see us and to influence us. They are, we believe, as close as they often feel.
Mormons believe that at some point, Christ will physically return to the earth, and at that time all who have died will be resurrected in perfected physical bodies, never to die again. Each of us will then be judged according to our efforts in this life, relying upon the mercy and grace of Christ for forgiveness of our sins.
We believe that following the Judgment, we shall live according to the lives we embraced here on earth. If we have made every effort to do good and follow God, we can live again in the literal presence of our Father. If we have not, then we will be assigned to other “kingdoms,” consistent with the choices we made in mortality. Those of us who have done our level best to be obedient will have the opportunity, throughout the eternities, to progress in our development as we inch forward towards being like our Father.
In no way are Mormons immune to the pall that follows the death of a loved one, particularly deaths that are untimely, unexpected, or unusually tragic. But in that mist of darkness, we cling to the hope that is found in Christ that each of us literally will live again, that we can be restored to presence of our God and the companionship of our families. That shining hope lights our way.