In section 81 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord said, "And if thou art faithful unto the end thou shalt have a crown of immortality, and eternal life in the mansions which I have prepared in the house of my Father" (vs 6).
One of the beliefs unique to Mormonism is that we as individuals existed prior to our being born here upon the earth. However, to most Christians, this concept seems to contradict what the Bible teaches. Although it's true that almost all Christians accept the fact that Jesus existed before the world was formed, still, they don't believe that the rest of us likewise existed with Him. To the skeptics, the scriptures found in Job 38:4-7 or Jeremiah 1:5 are not convincing proof of our pre-mortal existence. They point to the words of the apostle John who explained, "That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life" (John 3:15). The very basis of Christian dogma is that only through a belief in Christ do we gain immortality, or in other words, eternal life.
When we speak about being mortal, what we mean to suggest is that we can perish or die. Therefore, the word immortal means that we cannot die. Similarly, the words "eternal life" means that we live eternally, or forever. Therefore, it is assumed that the words "immortality" and "eternal life" are synonymous with one another. But if we lived prior to our existence upon the earth and that our spirits continue to live on after death, that would seem to suggest that all of us are eternal beings, incapable of dying. And, indeed, that's what Mormons believe. However, if that's true, then what's the purpose of Christ's death, if we will live forever whether or not we accept Jesus as our Savior?
This question arises only because we make a wrong assumption about the definitions of "immortality" and "eternal life." Mortality refers only to the condition of our earthly body. But, even when our earthly bodies die, our spirit continues to exist and live. Therefore, the word "immortality" refers only to the condition of our resurrected earthly body when it no longer is able to die or perish.
The Lord explained, "And the spirit and the body are the soul of man. And the resurrection from the dead is the redemption of the soul" (D&C 88:15,16, italics added). Because of Christ's death and resurrection He has made it possible for the souls of all men to be redeemed. That means both the spirits and the earthly bodies of all men will be redeemed. That is what the resurrection of the dead is all about. But when our dead earthly body is resurrected, it will change from a mortal to an immortal tabernacle fit for our spirits to dwell within forever. (see 1 Corinthians 15:35-56).
However, does this mean we will all have eternal life? No. The Lord told Moses, "Behold, I am the Lord God Almighty, and Endless is my name; for I am without beginning of days or end of years; and is not this endless?" (Moses 1:3). He also explained, "For, behold, I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name. Wherefore- Eternal punishment is God's punishment. Endless punishment is God's punishment" (D&C 19:10,11).
The words "endless" and "eternal" are synonymous in that they are both names of God. The scriptures refer to God as the "eternal Father," "eternal God," "eternal King," "eternal judge," "eternal head," and "eternal Spirit." We could also say He is our endless God, Father, King, judge, and head. Thus, when a word is preceded with "eternal" we know it is something which has reference to God.
For example, the scriptures talk about the "eternal kingdom," "eternal worlds," "eternal heavens," "eternal glory," "eternal creations," "eternal presence," "eternal joy," "eternal bliss," "eternal plan," "eternal purposes," "eternal salvation," "eternal redemption," "eternal inheritance," "eternal sacrifice," "eternal judgment," "eternal fire," "eternal damnation," "eternal torment," "eternal despair," "eternal death," and "eternal extinction." In all of these references, if we substitute the possessive word "God's" in place of the word "eternal" we gain a clearer understanding of what the scriptures mean.
Thus, when we talk about "eternal life" we are really speaking about "God's life" or life with God. Eternal life isn't just living forever, it's living forever with God. It's living a God-like life forever. We ourselves can live forever and not be immortal because our spirits can exist without a physical body. But our spirits can also inhabit an immortal body forever without ever experiencing eternal life.
When we say we are eternal beings the implication is that we are God's (eternal) children (beings). But that has nothing to do with whether we choose to accept His way of life or not. He has begotten us as spirit beings, and, as such, we will always be His children and will live forever. We cannot die. Our bodies may perish, our life on earth may end, our relationship with God may cease, but we ourselves will never die. We will always be alive, in one form or another, and in one plane of existence or another.
But if we are eternal beings and cannot die, then what is death? To most people, the word death means the final, absolute end of life. When something dies, we say it sees nothing, hears nothing, feels nothing and knows nothing. It becomes unable to experience joy, happiness, sorrow, pain, and all the other emotions and senses we associate with living. In short, it ceases to exist. But if we cannot die, then what is the purpose of having our bodies perish?
Perhaps we can understand this subject better by looking at a familiar experience in life -- going to school. When a child first goes to Elementary school, they've entered a learning environment that they've never experienced before. It's new to them and as such they begin at the lowest level of learning. But, as they increase in knowledge, they begin to advance through various grades until they finally reach the highest level (either fifth or sixth grade, depending on the school system). At this point, they have become the most experienced students in Elementary School.
But what happens to them once they've successfully completed this highest grade? They graduate and move into a different learning environment known as Junior High School. Yet when they enter this learning environment, in one sudden step they find themselves going from being the oldest members of Elementary school, to being the most inexperienced students of Junior High school.
But what about their Elementary School learning program? That condition has ceased to exist for them. They will never again go back to that environment as students. They will never have those teachers teach them again. They will never study from the same books again. The world of going to Elementary school as a student is gone forever. They have died to that environment and have now moved into a different world of learning. As strangers in their new surroundings, they start out as inexperienced beginners at the lowest grade level and once more have to work their way to the top.
And when they reach the highest level of Junior High School, what happens then? They graduate and move onto the next higher level of education -- Senior High School -- where they start out at the bottom and work their way to the top once more. When they graduate from High School, they move onto college where the same thing happens again. And when they graduate from college, does their education cease? Not at all. They move into the work force, where they start at the bottom and work their way upward. When they graduate from work (known as retirement), they start out at the lowest level of the Senior Citizen's group and gradually grow to become the most senior of the Seniors.
Thus every graduation becomes both a death to the old environment and a birth into a new and higher sphere of learning. As such, death and birth are events that happen simultaneously. Death is like exiting a room through a door, while birth is entering another room through the same door.
We once lived in a celestial world. There we gained knowledge, learned skills, acquired talents, and grew in wisdom. But in an perfect environment of peace and love, there were some things we couldn't learn. In order to gain more knowledge, learn more skills, acquire better talents and grow wiser, we had to leave that world and enter a different setting. Here on earth we have the chance to experience mortality, hunger, pain, sorrow, heartaches, frustration and disappointments. We also come to experience evil, selfishness, hatred, greed, lust and anger. Controlling and overcoming these tendencies are the lessons which earth life has to offer. However, at some point we will all eventually graduate from this environment and enter the spirit world where we will continue to learn and grow in knowledge.
Once we have learned the lessons which each learning environment is meant to teach, we graduate and move forward in our education process. When we were born into mortality, we died to our former spirit world of existence. That world no longer exists for us any more and neither will we ever go back there to live again as children. When we left our parent's celestial environment, we left behind loved ones, friends, and a way of life that we will never experience again. As we entered mortality, we died to our former way of life. And what makes that graduation seem more death-like is that even the memory of loved ones and friends we once felt so close to has ceased to exist for us while we live here on the earth.
But when we graduate from earth life, this mortal world will cease to exist for us. We will leave this sphere of learning and never again return to live here as students. Thus we die as to things pertaining to this life and are born into another learning environment. Although we will then return to living as a spirit being, we will no longer be the same as we were before. We will have gained knowledge that we didn't previously have, which, in turn, will help us to advance further in the spirit realm than we ever could before. Furthermore, the spirit world we enter after leaving our earth life behind will not be the celestial kingdom from whence we came.
Then when we are resurrected, we will graduate from that way of living and be born into a new and more glorious realm. When that time comes we will never again live without a physical body. As such, the world of living strictly as a spirit entity will have ceased forever for us.
When we come to understand what death and birth really are, it helps us to better appreciate the purposes of these events. With that understanding comes a better realization that the children whom we give birth to are actually graduates from a former world. They come to us as students who depend on us to instruct them in the lessons which earth life has to offer. As newly arrived pupils, they start their new life at the lowest levels of education. Since we, as parents, have arrived in this world a little earlier than they, we are expected to teach them the lessons we've learned. We become their tutors to help and guide them in their eternal progression. When we view the begetting of children in this light, we come to appreciate better the great responsibility we have as parents.
Also, when we see loved ones pass away, there is no need to feel sorry for them. They have merely graduated from this world and have advanced to a higher level of education. Only their body has perished, but they themselves continue to live. Furthermore, when it comes our time to graduate, they will be there waiting for us and will be our guide, tutor and teacher to help us in our new learning environment.
If this is true, then the question we need to ask is, "What are we being educated for? What is the purpose of advancing from one learning level to another?" The Lord answered that question on several occasions when he said, "And if thou art faithful unto the end thou shalt have a crown of immortality, and eternal life in the mansions which I have prepared in the house of my Father" (D&C 81:6). "If thou wilt do good, yea, and hold out faithful to the end, thou shalt be saved in the kingdom of God, which is the greatest of all the gifts of God; for there is no gift greater than the gift of salvation" (D&C 6:13). "And, if you keep my commandments and endure to the end you shall have eternal life, which gift is the greatest of all the gifts of God" (D&C14:7).
The greatest gift God can give us is eternal life. Eternal life is the same as being saved in the kingdom of God as an immortal being. That is what we are being trained for. That is what we are being educated and prepared to receive. That is what we are striving to obtain. That is the sole reason we graduate from one level of eternal schooling to another.
If we are children of God, and our Father is a King, then it follows that we are also children of a King. We belong to royalty because we come from the Royal courts on high. That means all men are princes, and all women are princesses. More than that, each of us has the potential of becoming eternal kings and queens, priests and priestesses ourselves to rule and reign upon the earth (Revelation 5:10).
In the days when kings did rule the land, the property over which they governed was known as a kingdom. (If God, our Father, is a King, is it any wonder why the scriptures talk about "the kingdom of God"?) Although, in those days, there was only one king at a time who ruled over a kingdom, his children were given special training so they could someday assist their father in managing the affairs of his estate. As such, the education they were given was not the ordinary kind. They received the best training that was possible. Among the many lessons they were taught were those in financial matters, law, governing, and warfare. In addition to these, they were also taught the rules for proper court etiquette. When they became old enough, it was the children of the king who then became the finance ministers, the diplomats, the governors (known as Dukes) and the army generals of the kingdom.
As children of a heavenly King, we are similarly being trained to serve in our Father's kingdom. To prepare us for our eternal responsibilities, we are going through the royal education system. We are being taught how to manage finances (tithing), why and how to obey the laws of the universe (keeping the commandments), how to govern others (the priesthood - see D&C 121:40-46), and how to fight successfully against a ruthless opponent (Satan). We are also learning the rules for proper court etiquette -- kindness, courtesy, pleasant speaking, helpfulness and love.
However, as in life, not everyone wants to be a king. Not everyone wants to be a ruler. Not everyone wants to have a heavy weight of responsibility resting on their shoulders. For example, I have absolutely no desire to want to be the President of the United States. Furthermore, I don't want to do what is necessary to achieve that goal and I don't want to live that kind of life even if it were offered to me.
Does an earthly father love any of his children less because they don't want to be rich and famous? Does a righteous earthly father love a child of his who has become the president of a large, international company any more than he loves a child of his who is happy working forty hours a week on an assembly line, or who wants to be a farmer? Of course not!
If we are all God's children, then He loves each of us just as much whether we chose to attain the greatest gift He has to offer or whether we chose to seek a far more inferior eternal reward. Not everyone wants to be a king and a priest, a queen and a priestess. Not everyone wants the responsibility that goes with such a title. More than that, not everyone wants to do what is necessary to achieve such an exalted position. They're perfectly content to accept a far less weight of glory.
In the days of kings, there were people who were happy working as servants to the royal family. They worked inside the castle and ate well and were clothed well, but they never held any ruling authority. Still, they were content to live that kind of a life. Then there were those who were happy working in the courtyard of the castle. They were the skilled craftsmen who were the bricklayers, carpenters, sword makers and ironworkers. They too never held any ruling authority yet they were happy with the life they had chosen.
Then there were the farmers who worked outside the stone walls of the castle The farmers loved the freedom of the outdoors, the smell of clean dirt and the reward of the harvest. To them, working a desk job inside of a stuffy castle would be torture. At the same time, those who worked in the courtyard took pride in forming and turning out beautiful works of art. They didn't like the uncertainty of farming and yet they didn't want the life of a ruler or a court servant either. They were happy being who and what they were. At the same time, those who lived in the palace enjoyed what they did. They wouldn't be happy working in the courtyard or in the fields.
God understands this about His children, and therefore He allows every soul to be free, to choose his life and what he'll be. For this eternal truth is given that God will force no man to heaven. He'll call, persuade direct aright, and bless with wisdom, love and light. In nameless ways be good and kind, but never force the human mind (hymn #240).
Just as in an earthly kingdom, where there is a place for everyone to find their own happiness, so too in the kingdom of God there are different eternal worlds where people can dwell forever at their own level of happiness. Each of us are eternal beings engaged in a spiritual journey of personal growth and development. What we want to learn and where we want to be at the end of that education process is up to us. Death is simply the graduation ceremony that helps us progress from one sphere of learning to another. And it's when we come to better understand this process that we no longer have to fear the sting of death.