‘Doctrinal possibilities for premortality’

What about before this? Photo courtesy Discovery

What does life before birth really mean?

That is what Roger Terry explores in his blog “mormonomics & mormonethics“:

The doctrine of premortality is unsettled primarily because Joseph Smith died before he made clear exactly what he understood regarding our premortal state, and apparently none of his successors have felt comfortable filling in all the gaps (or perhaps they have disagreed on the details). It is also possible that Joseph himself was uncertain regarding some of the particulars and that God, for some reason, was reluctant to reveal too many specifics about the nature of our premortal past. The revelations are intriguing but unclear on some points. According to D&C 93:29, for instance, “intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be” (D&C 93:29).

But does this refer to some sort of unembodied yet individualized prespirit entity or a rudimentary, impersonal spiritual element? Whatever it means, the context suggests something more than the general conceptual notion of knowledge or understanding held by the earliest Mormons.1 The idea that intelligence cannot be created suggests it is a self-existent capacity or entity. Along these same lines, in the King Follett discourse, given just weeks before his murder (and captured in longhand imperfectly by William Clayton), Joseph taught, “The mind of man—the intelligent part is coequal with, God himself. . . . Is it logic to say that a spirit is immortal and yet have a beginning[?] because if a spirit have a beginning it will have an end. . . . Intelligence exists upon a self-existent principle—is a spirit from age to age & no creation about it.”2 Although Joseph seemed to use the terms mind, intelligence, and spirit interchangeably, he was very clear that the “mind of man,” the intelligent part that gives us agency, identity, and being, had no beginning. Whether that intelligent mind was already packaged in a spirit body is uncertain. Joseph left both doors open on that question.

Three Pairs of Possibilities

Because of the imprecision of Joseph’s statements and the equally imprecise records that preserved these statements, we are left with two initial possibilities: (1) our spirits always existed in an embodied form, or (2) our spirits were organized by Deity through either a process analogous to mortal birth or some other creative act. The second option leads to two further possibilities: (1) prior to the creation of our spirits, we were already self-aware, individual, intelligent entities with agency and accountability; or (2) our spirits were organized from an impersonal spirit substance called intelligence, at which point we became sentient, accountable individuals. Dividing these possibilities along different lines, there are two ultimate alternatives: (1) at some point, we became individual, accountable entities; or (2) we have always existed as self-aware, individual beings, either as uncreated spirits or as intelligences who later acquired spirit bodies.

During my investigation of our premortal past (and perhaps heavily influenced by Samuel Brown’s essay), the more I learned about the idea of spirit birth and its theological history, the less persuasive I found it. But that is not the most important question anyway. Whether I am a literal child of Heavenly Parents through a process of spirit birth, or whether my spirit body was organized using some other mechanism and was then adopted into the heavenly family does not really matter to me. Adoption is a perfectly viable method of joining a family, either in mortality or in a prior life. The more important question—indeed, the most important question, regarding our premortal existence—is whether, on the one hand, I was always “me,” an individual with a unique personality, strengths and weaknesses, and the inviolable right to choose my path, or, on the other hand, at some point in the past I was conjured into existence out of impersonal elements and given free will at that point, with its accompanying accountability. This is a crucial question for several reasons, and I believe the evidence overwhelmingly favors the idea that we have always existed as accountable beings with free will. Let me give two of several possible arguments supporting this assertion.

Agency and Accountability

If we assume that God organized our spirits from some kind of impersonal spiritual element called intelligence, and that before this creative act those spirits did not exist as conscious, individual beings, then God did in fact create something—a conscious, self-aware, independent, accountable personality—where before there was nothing. And if this is the case, the creation of the spirit signifies the inception of agency, if this is even possible.

We know that spirits had agency in the premortal existence. But if God created a conscious entity from unconscious elements, knowing perfectly at the outset that this particular new being possessed substantial flaws and weaknesses and had no chance whatever (in God’s mind, at least, since he sees the end from the beginning)3to gain exaltation, then God would be, in a very real sense, at least partially accountable for that being’s damnation. Why? Because he created that spirit child with insurmountable weaknesses, which he or she had no choice in acquiring. In essence, if God, using impersonal “intelligence” as his potter’s clay, chooses for some reason to make one spirit vessel adequately strong and another hopelessly flawed, then the ultimate exaltation or damnation of the individual is largely his doing.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell used this same argument to combat the notion that God created all things out of nothing:

Latter-day Saints also know that God did not create man ex nihilo, out of nothing. The concept of an “out of nothing” creation confronts its adherents with a severe dilemma. One commentator wrote of human suffering and an “out of nothing” creation: “We cannot say that [God] would like to help but cannot: God is omnipotent. We cannot say that he would help if he only knew: God is omniscient. We cannot say that he is not responsible for the wickedness of others: God creates those others. Indeed an omnipotent, omniscient God [who creates all things absolutely—i.e., out of nothing] must be an accessory before (and during) the fact to every human misdeed; as well as being responsible for every non-moral defect in the universe.”4

Antony Flew, the atheist philosopher quoted here (who late in life became a deist),5 is pointing out the inescapable flaw in the notion of ex nihilo creation, but the same illogic applies to the idea that God created conscious and imperfect but accountable beings out of impersonal, unaccountable raw materials. On a significant level, this idea is precisely analogous to creatio ex nihilo and leads to the inescapable conclusion that God is at least partially (and perhaps primarily) accountable for the evil in the world. Indeed, some of his children have an astonishing capacity and proclivity for evil. Given the choice, why would God create such beings?

Blake Ostler, in volume 2 of his series on Mormon thought, similarly argues that a fundamental incompatibility exists between free will and the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo:

If the causes of our acts originate from causes outside of our control, then we are not free and cannot be praised or blamed for what we do resulting from those causes. . . . Thus, a person must be an ultimate source of her acts to be free. . . .The source of the action is the agent’s own will that is not caused by events or acts outside of the agent but from the agent’s own acts of will. . . . If the libertarian demand that we must be the ultimate source of our choices to be morally responsible for them is sound, then God cannot create morally responsible persons ex nihilo.6

Ostler’s argument is valid whether we are talking about the Christian notion of God creating the physical world and mortal souls out of nothing or the LDS view that God created (organized) all things spiritually before they were created physically. Free will, or agency, can only truly exist for God’s children if they are what theologians call “first causes,” uncreated individuals.

Mormons do not believe in a deterministic God. We believe in a God who has perfect foreknowledge.7 But since the God described by those who favor the “impersonal intelligence” theory does indeed play a deterministic role in the lives of his children—by the choice of elements he employs in their creation—he is, therefore, ultimately accountable for their failures.

We may argue that no weakness is insurmountable, that we can choose to accept God’s grace and overcome our weaknesses, so that “weak things become strong” unto us (Ether 12:27). Our ultimate destiny is then a product of our choices, regardless of any disadvantage we may have been given at the outset. But if we were burdened before we were ever capable of choice with fundamental weaknesses—perhaps even a basic incapacity to plant the seed of faith—how can we be accountable for not having sufficient faith to accept God’s grace and overcome that weakness? It is an eternal Catch–22. Our strengths and weaknesses always influence our choices.

Sometimes we are simply too weak to choose correctly. Sometimes we are too weak to even ask for strength. If God created us as sentient beings from nonsentient material, knowing from the outset that we would not choose to become as he is—and this is a very real scenario for the majority of his children who live to the age of accountability—we might very well ask why he would create us that way. For his entertainment? Because he needs other beings to worship him? Or perhaps so that he would be needed by us? But we do not believe in a sadistic or narcissistic or insecure God. So why wouldn’t he create us differently, make us more like his flawless Firstborn? Precisely because he did not create us from impersonal raw materials.

Sin, Satan, and Punishment

The notion of sin also argues against this theory. Sin is more than simple bad behavior (doing things we know we should not do). The question that is rarely asked, or answered, is what causes us to do things we know we shouldn’t do? Temptation? No, temptation does not cause sin. The root cause of sin is our inability or unwillingness to resist temptation. In other words, sin results from weakness. If we had no weakness, we likely would not sin. Christ was sinless because he was not weak. He was tempted in all points, undoubtedly more severely than any of God’s other children, yet he never succumbed (see Heb. 4:15).

When we have no knowledge of appropriate behaviors and attitudes, of course we are not accountable. Sin occurs when we know the law but act against our own better judgment. Sometimes we act against better judgment out of rebellion (although it can be argued that rebelliousness is simply a particular manifestation of weakness), but usually our sins do not come from rebellion. Most often we are simply too weak to withstand temptation, too weak to break out of dysfunctional behavioral patterns, too weak to invoke God’s saving grace. So, if our weaknesses are God’s doing because he used an inferior quality or selection of “intelligence” when he formed our spirits, then we cannot be accountable for our failure to measure up. “It’s not my fault,” any of us could argue, “that God didn’t use top-quality intelligence when he organized my spirit. It’s not my fault that he didn’t make me more like Jesus.” Indeed, in such a universe, dear Brutus, the fault is not in ourselves, but in our stars.8

The very existence of Satan creates difficulties for the intelligence-as-impersonal-raw-material argument. God sees the end from the beginning. He knew, when he organized the spirit son named Lucifer, that he was creating a vessel doomed to suffer the horrible torments of eternal hell. Would a compassionate God create from oblivion a conscious being, a son he would love, if he knew with a perfect foreknowledge that this son would spend eternity in hellish agony? Not if intelligence was merely a mass of raw, impersonal material to be used as God saw fit. Such an act would be nothing less than sadism. The same, of course, holds true for his other children, many of whom, he knew at the outset, would suffer varying degrees of eternal damnation.

The only logical explanation for the fact that we are completely accountable for our decisions and must suffer the consequences of those choices is that we have always existed, that our weaknesses and strengths are an intrinsic part of us, and that we have always been accountable for them. This makes perfect sense. If I am either an eternally existing spirit or recipient of a spirit body and have the opportunity to both expand my innate strengths and overcome my inherent weaknesses—through my own efforts and through the saving grace of Christ—it is I who am wholly accountable for my success or failure, and my free will is totally unimpaired. In this theory, instead of God being a preferential determiner of destinies, an omnipotent playwright who dreams up an infinitely varied cast to perform his bizarre eternal tragicomedy, he becomes a compassionate volunteer, aiding in our eternal progress, but never infringing on our eternal agency to become whatever we choose.

The only logical explanation for our unfettered free will, our complete accountability, and a just God’s willingness to punish us for disobedience is the eternal existence of identity. And this, I believe, is what Joseph Smith was trying to teach. Eternal sentient existence redefines our relationship with God. If we were just impersonal intelligence before God “created” our spirit bodies, then his relationship to us is far different than if we existed forever as self-aware beings with agency and inherent strengths and weaknesses.


  1. “All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence” (D&C 93:30). Here, intelligence appears to have the ability to act independently, and so does truth, which raises questions about what truth actually is. Of course, this may merely be another example of Joseph using words imprecisely.
  2. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph (Orem, Utah: Grandin Book, 1991), 359. I would argue with Joseph’s logic here. Simple mathematics demonstrates that something can have a beginning but no end. A straight line that begins at point A but goes on forever in a certain direction is an example. Another is a series of whole numbers, beginning at 3 and increasing by 3 forever—3, 6, 9, 12 . . . and so on to infinity. So logic does not insist that because we have no end we also have no beginning. Joseph’s ring analogy, as with all analogies, has its limits.
  3. See, for instance, Abraham 2:8 and D&C 38:2. See also note 7 below.
  4. Neal A. Maxwell, “The Richness of the Restoration,” Ensign 28 (March 1998): 14, quoting Antony Flew, “Theology and Falsification,” in New Essays in Philosophical Theology, ed. Antony Flew and Alasdair Macintyre (1955; repr., New York: Macmillan, 1973), 107.
  5. William Grimes, “Antony Flew, Philosopher and Ex-Atheist, Dies at 87,” New York Times, April 16, 2010, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/17/arts/17flew.html?_r=0.
  6. 6. Blake T. Ostler, The Problems of Theism and the Love of God, 2 ofExploring Mormon Thought (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2006), 410–11.
  7. There is some debate among LDS philosophers and theologians about God’s omniscience, what the term means, and whether it includes a perfect foreknowledge of events. Terryl Givens, for instance, refers to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism,which “states that ‘Latter-day Saints differ among themselves in their understanding of the nature of God’s knowledge. Some have thought that God increases endlessly in knowledge as well as in glory and dominion. Others hold to the more traditional view that God’s knowledge, including the foreknowledge of future free contingencies, is complete.’ But it is hard to find in Mormon writings either any apostolic pronouncement that limits God’s knowledge of the future or the opinion that divine omniscience would be an impediment to free will. [Joseph] Smith denied the assumption that God’s omniscience must condition at least a limited predestination. He asserted simply, ‘I believe that God foreknew everything, but did not foreordain everything; I deny that foreordain and foreknow is the same thing.” Givens,Wrestling the Angel, 100, quoting David L. Paulsen, “Omnipotence of God; Omnipresence of God; Omniscience of God,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow, 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 3:1030, and a report in a letter (now lost) by Mathew L. Davis, written to his wife, February 6, 1840, in Ehat and Cook,Words of Joseph Smith, 33. In LDS scripture, we also have the Lord describing himself as “the same which knoweth all things, for all things are present before mine eyes” (D&C 38:2), and “I know the end from the beginning” (Abr. 2:8).
  8. My apologies to William Shakespeare; see Julius Caesar, I.ii.140–41.

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