Last month, our family mourned the passing of my wife’s grandmother. A centenarian, she lived a long and difficult life but had a faith that was unshaken. She endured the many trials associated with carving a living out of the dust and sagebrush in Eastern Utah in an era that did not have powered machinery and communications.

As I stood in the room with her casket during the viewing, the image of her spirit passing through a door into the next room came to my mind. Many of those we know and loved have made a similar journey. Their body, made up of the elements of this earth, is placed in the ground and their spirit, consisting of the elements of the eternal world, moves beyond our cognition.

What is this thing called death? From the moment we come into this life, we seem to be programmed to leave it behind. Whether it comes through accident, at the hands of another human, or a degeneration of the body, this time of mortality ends for each of us.

During the viewing, my mind also traveled back to another family funeral. Several years ago, my two-year-old grand-niece wandered away from the family at my sister’s house and fell into the swimming pool. They tried to resuscitate her when she was found but to no avail. To this day, this simple lack of attention which ended this young life haunts those who were present. Limited solace is found in the idea that these young people go directly to the celestial kingdom; that their parents can be reunited with their deceased children and can raise them in the millennium. However, this idea seems to present some inconsistencies.

Here I have two persons, one leaving us after 100 plus years of trial and error; the other departing only after a ‘few’ days well before any reasoned consideration of the good and evil in this life. How are each of these treated in the world to come?

Joseph Smith is cited in Section 137:10 telling us “that all children who die before they arrive at the years of accountability are saved in the celestial kingdom of heaven.” On the other hand, those who pass into at this ‘age of accountability’ are to be judged and assigned a kingdom based on their ability to keep the commandments.

So, if this life is a contest to see how little we can stain ourselves with sin, the child wins out. But, if we are sent here to learn and overcome, how does that experience come to the young departed?
Nephi tells us in the second chapter of second Nephi that the purpose of this creation was thus:

11 For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my first-born in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.

12 Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation. Wherefore, this thing must needs destroy the wisdom of God and his eternal purposes, and also the power, and the mercy, and the justice of God.

Without this opposition in all things, we cannot be tested. “Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other.” Much of this life hinges on the choices we make – how we conduct ourselves when options are before us. Are we able to resist temptation? Are we able to act and not be acted upon?

I have come to believe that this life is where we learn lessons, sometimes the easy way and sometimes the hard way. I also believe these lessons will continue to repeat in our lives until we learn from them, overcome them, and move on to the next lesson.

Where does the child who dies gain this essential experience of choosing between good and evil? Even being raised in the sin-free Millennium does not offer this opportunity. Are they left with no option? Will they never be presented with the same building experiences that my one hundred year old grandmother-in-law? Can these same lessons be learned when we are without a body?

I would suggest that no one can learn all the lessons in one lifetime. Even Christ, given the time of his birth, was not exposed during that mortality to all the bad choices we have before us today. Aren’t we taught that Christ descended below all things? Was His experience sufficient in the context of the materialistic, hedonistic life we are confronted with in these modern days? I would suggest the answer is: No.

In my thinking, this leaves us with no other option. We must have some means to have all these choices placed before us. We, by the rights of a loving God, are to be given the ability to act or be acted upon by temptations of all ilks.

“And now, as I said unto you before, as ye have had so many witnesses, therefore, I beseech of you that ye do not procrastinate the day of your repentance until the end; for after this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed.

Many have used this scripture from Alma 34:33, in a twisted form, to point out the single chance we have to prepare for the eternities. I would suggest a careful reading brings out the fact that this is a conditional statement. IF we do not improve our time in this life, THEN comes the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed. The corollary would thus be: IF we improve in this life, THEN we avoid the night of darkness where no labor can be performed. We improve in this life by learning lessons, by overcoming temptation, by acting and not being acted upon. By doing so, we will be given the opportunity to continue to progress. I believe this means a continuance of learning lesson after lesson. Can we do that without a mortal body? I believe that Nephi’s earlier discussion regarding the purpose of the creation suggests otherwise.

When I was in school, I needed to pass all the requirements of the second grade before I was permitted to move on to the third grade. I suggest that our lives are like our school experience. Is this life my version of second grade? What requirements must I perform before I can move on to the next?

What think ye?

3 Responses to “What is this thing called Death?”

  • OWIW:

    This is a very sensitive topic.

    I have mentioned in other articles that I don’t believe that those who die before the age of accountability automatically gain the same exaltation and Godhood that is spoken about in section 76.

    In fact, when defining who inherits the highest kingdom, section 76 seems to make it quite clear that those who receive that glory have done the following things during mortality-

    -received the testimony of Jesus

    -believed on the name of Christ

    -were baptized

    -kept the commandments

    -overcame by faith and were sealed by the Holy Ghost

    All of the above items are required to gain the highest exaltation and become Gods.

    There doesn’t seem to be anything on the list that states that the act of avoiding mortal probation provides a free ticket to Godhood… if it did, why would a loving God put others of us through this vail of tears.

    I realize that this is very offensive to those who want to believe they do, but it just is not consistent with the scriptures or eternal principles IMO.

    I don’t pretend to know exactly what does happen to them.

    Your article seems to imply the possibility of transmigration or multiple mortal births which is a possibility. There are other possibilities as well.

    It is wonderful to know that they are saved, regardless of whether they are given another opportunity to become exalted or another possibility that is consistent with the economy and grace of God and their spiritual DNA from the pre-existence.

  • Tom:

    Thanks for the thoughts.

    I think it’s only sensitive because we get so caught up in the finality of it all, seemingly believing that it’s all or nothing. And, if it is all or nothing, we tend to take great pride in our own ability to save ourselves, to labor, to work righteousness and perfect ourselves. Love your interpretation of Alma…

    I just took a long drive cross-country, from Utah to the midwest where I’ll be for the summer. Somehow a copy of a book by Brian Weiss found it’s way into my hands and it was one of several I listened to on the journey. I admit that some of what he believes is uncomfortable to me, but there is a lot in there to ponder. For most LDS, even listening to this book would probably constitute heresy, but I do think there’s something to it.

    The only reason I bring this up is because of a comment you made in the original post.

    You said: “I have come to believe that this life is where we learn lessons, sometimes the easy way and sometimes the hard way. I also believe these lessons will continue to repeat in our lives until we learn from them, overcome them, and move on to the next lesson.”

    I’m not sure if you chose the “in our lives” phrase on purpose or not, but it very much reminded me of that book (“Same soul, Many bodies”). According to the author, he was able to help his patients find out the lessons they had not learned, had not yet surmounted, etc. And, in the process, once those lessons were seen in past lives, they were much more able to overcome them in the present lives. This act, according to the author, enabled them to move on to a better existence both today and in future lives.

    I don’t subscribe to everything the author stated, but I did find the discussion intriguing and something I’m looking into a bit more. I, too, am struggling to reconcile our eternal judgment (even eternity itself) on a life that cannot possibly provide all the experiences one needs to understand mortality.

  • OWIW,
    Good point regarding Section 76. I would agree with the precept that these should be adhered to by those who desire to enter the Celestial kingdom. As far as transmigration is concerned. I don’t resonate with the same spirit inhabiting a genealogical line but MMP does have provide some answers. We each need to seek light and knowledge.

    As far as godhood is concerned, I don’t think a loving god would require us to do more than we are able to in this life or in eternities. I would expect that we have a loving Father who will offer us as much opportunity as we are willing to accept. I would expect we can say, at some point, I have progressed enough, let me take my reward now. I have known very few humble people that really want to go to the godhood extreme… and the ones that do have too much of an ego to make it there.

    I also question how a God could ask His Son to do something He hasn’t done. We read in John 5 that “The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do.” If our Father did show the Son how to be a sacrifice for all mankind on some world, what does that tell us about progression?

    I will have to look up the book you mentioned. I have always thought that one way to tell a true precept of the plan is to see the counterfeits. I just wish I could always tell them apart.

    Yes, ‘in our lives’ could be taken several ways. Pick the one that fits the best for your frame of reference.

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