The Pre-mortal Existence
We are our Heavenly Father’s spirit sons and daughters and lived with Him before we came to Earth. And more than anything else, our Heavenly Father wants us to come home to Him
While we lived with our Heavenly Father, life was similar to what we experience here: We had friendships; we learned; we progressed, and, although we cannot remember, we developed a very personal relationship with our Heavenly Father. In fact, President Ezra Taft Benson said, "Nothing is going to startle us more when we pass through the veil to the other side than to realize how well we know our Father and how familiar His face is to us" (Ensign, Dec. 1988).
Our proximity to our Heavenly Father also taught us that we were not like Him. He possessed a perfect, immortal, physical body (D&C 130:22), but we were spirits. He had a fulness of joy and glory that we did not. And He was perfect in every way, unlike us.
But as our children have the capacity to become like us, Heavenly Father knew that we had the capacity to become like Him: perfect. (Consider Psalm 82:1,6; Matthew 5:48; Romans 8: 16–17; Doctrine and Covenants 84:36–38). And He wanted us to receive the fulness of joy that He had. So Father called a council and outlined a Plan, the Plan of Salvation, through which we could become like Him. We would come to Earth for a body and to be given agency—the power to choose (see 2 Nephi 2:27; Helaman 14:30)—whereby we would be tested if we would choose to follow God (see Abraham 3:24-26).
The power to choose for ourselves was central to this Plan. We could not become like God at once. We would need to learn from our choices to be obedient (Hebrews 5:8). Only by obeying could we progress until we became who our Father knew we could be. Without agency, no growth or progress would be possible.
Heavenly Father also told us of obstacles that would impede our progress. Although He would create a paradisiacal Earth free of sickness, suffering, sin, and death, He taught that its first inhabitants would be given a choice to either remain in paradise or pass through mortality, and if they chose mortality, mankind would be lost unless He sent a Savior, "[His] Beloved and Chosen from the beginning" (Moses 4:2), Jehovah, who would be known in the flesh as Jesus Christ. Furthermore, because we would have the power to choose, at times we would choose to sin. Our sins would also cut us off forever from the presence of our Heavenly Father. And without Jesus, we had no hope to overcome them.
Our Heavenly Father’s Plan hinged on the future sacrifice of Jesus Christ which would overcome death and sin. Father testified that "there [would] be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation [could] come unto [us], only in and through the name of Christ, . . ." (see Mosiah 3:17).
Heavenly Father gave each of us the choice to accept His plan for us. And to accept the Plan of Salvation required faith in our Father’s promises and in the ability of Jehovah, Jesus Christ, to effect the Atonement.
Lucifer, one of our spirit brothers who was in authority among the hosts of heaven (D&C 76:25), offered a variation to the Plan: He would take away our agency to prevent us from sinning so that none of us would be cut off. But he wasn’t interested in helping us to progress until we became like God with a fulness of joy. In fact, the only one he cared about was himself (see Moses 4:1-3). Lucifer’s plan enticed some to follow him even though it would not allow us to become like our Heavenly Father.
And war erupted, polarizing the hosts of heaven (Revelation 12:7-12).
The war that ensued wasn’t fought with sword and shield but with words. And even though Heavenly Father had gathered us together in the Great Pre-mortal Council to present the Plan of Salvation, I do not believe that it was first time that we had heard it; nor do I believe that it was a surprise that He presented His Firstborn, Jehovah, to be our Savior. I am certain that there were those among us who were already exercising great faith in Jesus Christ and who took every opportunity to learn the exalting doctrines of the Plan of Salvation, among whom were you and I. And when we heard Lucifer attack God’s plan and His Anointed, we stood and testified that Jehovah would do the Father’s will as He had promised. We were victorious, and Revelation 12:10-11 teaches that "[we] overcame [Lucifer and his legions] by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of [our] testimony [of the Atonement of Jesus Christ]. . . ."
Many feel that those who chose to follow Lucifer did so because they doubted their ability to follow the Plan to become like our Heavenly Father. Certainly, Lucifer must have cited our weakness to discourage us, but I do not believe that it was his most potent weapon. We need to remember that without the Atonement, the "corruption [of mortality brought on by the future fall] could not put on incorruption . . . [and our] flesh must [lie] down to rot and to crumble to its mother earth, to rise no more. . . . And we [would] become devils, . . . to be shut out from the presence of our God, . . . in misery, . . ." (2 Nephi 9:7-9).
If the Savior failed, all would be lost, and Lucifer did everything he could to destroy faith in Jesus Christ. Ultimately, those who had faith in Christ followed God’s Plan, and those who did not were cast out of heaven (Isaiah 14:12; Revelation 12:7-10).
I know that we lived with our Father in Heaven before we came to Earth, and I know that we accepted His Plan for us, including the appointment of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Our Life on Earth
Because all of us accepted our Heavenly Father’s plan for us, we are here on the Earth. This life is a probationary state, a time to be tested (Abraham 3:24–26). It is also the time for us to prepare to meet God (Alma 34:32).
To help us return home to Him, Heavenly Father has called prophets, apostles, and even His Son to teach us what we must do to live with Him some day. They have taught us that Jesus Christ has fulfilled the mission He was sent to do on the Earth. He has paid for our sins, but our ability to receive the benefit of His sacrifice depends on whether we do all He has asked us to do.
First, we must have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Second, we must repent of our sins. Third, we must be baptized by one who possesses the authority of the Priesthood, which was restored to the Prophet Joseph Smith. Baptism is a covenant, a two-way promise, in which we promise to keep the commandments and God promises to give us eternal life. Fourth, we must receive the gift of the Holy Ghost (Articles of Faith 1:4). These first principles and ordinances of the gospel place us on the straight and narrow path which leads to our Heavenly Home, but they are not our final destination (2 Nephi 31:19). To make it Home, we must "press forward with a steadfastness in Christ," keeping the commandments of God contained in the scriptures and delivered to us by modern prophets and apostles (2 Nephi 31:20).
None of these works pay for our sins. Jesus did, and it is only by His grace that we are saved. Good works are the means by which we submit our wills to the will of the Father until we are ultimately born again by the grace of Jesus Christ and are worthy to return Home.
Additionally, to become like our Heavenly Father, He has commanded that we make more covenants within Temples. And if we are true and faithful to these covenants, God has promised to give us all He has (Revelation 21:7; D&C 84:36–38).
During our lives on Earth, we are free to choose whether we will follow God’s plan for us or not (2 Nephi 2:27). And we are also free to believe what we want to believe. But we will be held accountable for all our actions (Mosiah 4:30).
The Spirit World
When we die, we will be judged according to what we did with the light and knowledge which we received on the Earth. If we were righteous, we will go to Paradise (Alma 40:11–12). If we were not, we will go to Spirit Prison (1 Peter 3:19). These assignments are temporary and last only until our bodies and spirits reunite in the resurrection. Additionally, spirits assigned to Spirit Prison will have the opportunity to receive the gospel of Jesus Christ; if they receive it, then they will be released from Prison and enter Paradise (D&C 138:26–35).
Moreover, through modern prophets and apostles, the Lord has revealed that baptism, the gift of the Holy Ghost, and temple ordinances are available to those who did not have the opportunity to receive them while they lived on the Earth. Those of us who are still living can receive these blessings on their behalf within temples as we perform vicarious work for the dead.
After we are resurrected, we will all stand before the throne of God to be judged (2 Nephi 2:15–22; Helaman 14:17–18). As is common among many religions, there are many Latter-day Saints who feel that God is looking for any excuse to thrust them to Hell. But the opposite is true. Our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ want to give us everything They possibly can for our final rewards. J. Reuben Clark, an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ and member of the First Presidency said:
You know, I believe that the Lord will help us. I believe if we go to him, he will give us wisdom, if we are living righteously. I believe he will answer our prayers. I believe that our Heavenly Father wants to save every one of his children. I do not think he intends to shut any of us off because of some slight transgression, some slight failure to observe some rule or regulation. There are the great elementals that we must observe, but he is not going to be captious about the lesser things.I believe that his juridical concept of his dealings with his children could be expressed in this way: I believe that in his justice and mercy, he will give us the maximum reward for our acts, give us all that he can give, and in the reverse, I believe that he will impose upon us the minimum penalty which it is possible for him to impose.I often think that one of the most beautiful things in the Christ’s life was his words on the cross, when, suffering under the agony of a death that is said to have been the most painful that the ancients could devise, death on the cross, after he had been unjustly, illegally, contrary to all the rules of mercy, condemned and then crucified, when he had been nailed to the cross and was about to give up his life, he said to his Father in heaven, as those who were within hearing testify: ‘… Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.
(Quoted by Thomas S. Monson, "Mercy—The Divine Gift," Ensign, May 1995).
The Degrees of Glory
Once we are judged, Jesus will assign us to one of three degrees of glory: The Celestial Kingdom, the Terrestrial Kingdom, or the Telestial Kingdom. (Consider 1 Corinthians 15:40–41; 2 Corinthians 2:12). And all of them are Heaven, the glory and beauty of each excelling that of the Earth. But there is a fourth option: Outer Darkness, or Hell.
The knowledge of these kingdoms was restored in our day to the prophet Joseph Smith. In 1832, while studying and clarifying certain passages of the Bible, Joseph and his companions read John 5:29. The power of the Holy Ghost descended upon them, and a vision opened before Joseph and his scribe, Sidney Rigdon. The other men in the room did not see the vision but felt the power of God filling the room. Occasionally, Joseph would say, "What do I see?" and then he would describe what he was seeing. Sidney would then reply, "I see it, too." Occasionally, Sidney would say, "What do I see?" and then he would describe what he was seeing. Joseph would then reply, "I see it, too."
After the vision closed, Joseph and Sidney wrote down the vision as best they could, and we have it today as section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants.
The Celestial Kingdom (D&C 76:50–70).
The Celestial Kingdom is the highest degree of glory and the habitation of God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost. All those who attain this kingdom receive all that Heavenly Father promised He would give us. If we are worthy of the Celestial Kingdom, we will become like our Heavenly Father: perfect, possessing a fulness of joy. And by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, our families during our lives on Earth will be with us eternally; husbands, wives, and children will be united forever!
Those who attain this Kingdom will also experience eternal progression. That is, they will have no end as they participate in the salvation of souls for all eternity.
To attain this Kingdom, we must accept Jesus Christ as our Savior, have faith in Him, repent of our sins, be baptized by one having the proper authority of the Priesthood, receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, and keep the commandments so that Jesus Christ can save us from our sins (see Alma 42:13; Helaman 5:11). Mercifully, those who did not receive the Gospel of Jesus Christ while living on the Earth but who would have received it with all their hearts had they had the opportunity will also be saved in the Celestial Kingdom. For this purpose, Latter-day Saints build temples and perform ordinances for those who have passed away who did not receive the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
And all those who were not accountable for their actions—children who died before they reached the age of accountability and those who are like children—will also receive a place in the Celestial Kingdom (Mosiah 3:16). But because they were never accountable for their sins, they do not need to receive the ordinance of baptism (Moroni 8:10–12).
Terrestrial Kingdom (D&C 76:71–80)
The Terrestrial Kingdom is the second highest Kingdom of Heaven. Those who attain this Kingdom will not live in the presence of Heavenly Father, but Jesus Christ and other who attain the Celestial Kingdom will administer to them throughout eternity. This glory of this Kingdom differs from the glory of the Celestial Kingdom as the glory of the moon differs from the glory of the sun.
Those who attain this Kingdom are the just men and women of the Earth who would not receive the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Because all religions contain Truth, all those who lived according to the Truth they received will not be thrust down to Hell. Thus, men and women who are not members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will not suffer eternal damnation. Rather, they will rejoice with their Savior through all eternity if they live according to their religions while upon the Earth.
The Telestial Kingdom (D&C 76:81–86)
The lowest Kingdom of Heaven is the Telestial Kingdom. Those who attain this Kingdom will be blessed with the visitation of the Holy Ghost. The glory of this Kingdom differs from the glory of the Terrestrial Kingdom as glory of the stars differs from the glory of the moon. This Kingdom’s beauty, although the lowest Kingdom of Heaven, far exceeds the beauty of the Earth. It is a place of rest and peace.
This Kingdom, unlike the Celestial and Terrestrial Kingdoms, is reserved for those who must pay for their own sins because they would not let Jesus pay for them. These are robbers, murderers, thieves, rapists, kidnappers, and all the wicked men and women who lived upon the face of the Earth. Because of their wickedness, they are thrust to Hell (Outer Darkness) prior to being resurrected. While in Hell, they must suffer even as Jesus suffered (D&C 19:4–20). But after their debt is paid, they will be resurrected and will inherit salvation in the Telestial Kingdom.
Outer Darkness/Hell (D&C 76:30–49)
Outer Darkness is the Mormon term for Hell. The torment of those in Hell is "as a lake of fire and brimstone whose flames are unquenchable, and whose smoke ascendeth up forever and ever. . . ." (Mosiah 3:27). These are they who are cut off from the presence of God. But not all those who go to Hell will remain there forever. Once their debt is paid, they will be released.
But there are those whose debt can never be repaid. These are the devil and his angels and the sons of perdition. To become a son of perdition, a man must first be exceptionally good then turn against Christ "[h]aving denied the Holy Spirit after having received it, and having denied the Only Begotten Son of the Father, having crucified him unto themselves and put him to an open shame" (D&C 76:35). Although there may be more, the scriptures identify only two sons of perdition: Cain and Judas Iscariot.
But even though their debt cannot be repaid, even the sons of perdition will be resurrected. Thus, is the mercy of our Heavenly Father and our Savior Jesus Christ.