Summary: The Lord has revealed that the purpose of us living on earth is to be tested “to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them.” However, throughout most of the world’s history the gospel of Jesus Christ was not on the earth, and without the gospel we don’t know what commandments God wants us to keep. If that is so, then what is the purpose of living in mortality without the gospel? This article sheds light on the answer to this question.
The Lord revealed to Abraham “And there stood one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them” (Abraham 3:21,5).
As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we believe that before the earth was ever created we existed in heaven as spirit beings born to God. This is why we referred to Him as our Father in heaven. We also believe that there came a time when He gathered us together and presented a plan that would allow us to become like Him, meaning that we could some day come to possess the same power, authority, dominion, glory, might, and knowledge that He has.
That plan called for us to leave our home in heaven and live on a planet where we could experience sin for ourselves, with all of its attendant consequences of sorry, misery, pain, suffering, and heartaches. In this way we could not only learn about sin and its consequences but, more importantly, we could learn why we should choose to do good rather than evil.
But there was a pitfall to this plan. Should we choose to sin, even once, we could not return to our heavenly home because nothing unclean or sinful can live there. Therefore, the plan called for someone to save us from our sins by paying its penalty, thus freeing us from the eternal consequence of separation from God s because of our misdeeds. The person who was chosen to save us we know as Jesus Christ and the process by which He paid for our sins we refer to as the atonement.
Yet, to inherit all that our Father has takes more than just having our sins forgiven. There are certain ordinances we must participate in and certain covenants we must make and faithfully keep in order to take full advantage of the atonement. But those ordinances and covenants are only found in Christ’s authorized church and those who do not belong to that church or who don’t keep the covenants they’ve made cannot inherit the fullness of blessings that heaven has available ,which blessing is to inherit all that our Father in heaven has.
This is why when members of the LDS Church talk about “the plan of salvation” they usually think of it mostly in terms of belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ with its saving ordinances and covenants, however, this is just one part of the plan and, in some ways, just a small part. To understand why, we need to consider the following.
In the beginning, God taught the gospel of salvation to Adam and Eve who then taught it to their children, but it didn’t take long before people began rejecting God’s plan for them. Although the gospel was taught for the next sixteen hundred years, its influence kept steadily declining until by the time of Noah there were only eight people in the whole world who were following God’s ways. The rest of the world’s population was glorying in their sinful behavior.
For this reason God cleansed the earth with a flood and afterwards as the world was repopulated by Noah’s children they taught the gospel to their children and grandchildren. But it didn’t take long before the great majority of the earth’s inhabitants were once more glorying in sin. By the time of Abraham, only a relatively few people cared about worshipping the true God of heaven and had set up for themselves many false, pagan gods to worship.
As time went on we only know of Abraham and his posterity who were faithful to God and in time even they too began to depart from His teachings. By the time of Moses it appears that the children of Israel only had a vague understanding of the God whom their fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had worshipped, and Moses had great difficulty getting his people to stop worshipping false gods.
As far as we know, once the Israelites had settled into their promised land, they were the only people on earth who believed in a God called Jehovah, and even they continued to struggle to live as Jehovah commanded them. Outside of this small nation, the rest of the world knew nothing about this God and no effort was made to even take the message of Him to other people. And as the world’s population continued to increase, more and more people were born, lived, and died without ever hearing about the plan of salvation. As a result, they lived their lives as though no such plan existed.
Throughout most of the world’s history, warfare was the normal way of life, as one tribe, city, or small kingdom fought against their neighbors to steal, plunder, and/or make slaves of others. Oftentimes people lived in fear while starvation, sickness, and misery were their common lot. Over time larger kingdoms came into existence with some having great riches and beauty yet most of their inhabitants still remained in extreme poverty and often lived lives of hardships and subjugation.
When Jesus was born, only the Jews had a knowledge of the true God of heaven and even they had corrupted His teachings. After Christ’s resurrection, He commanded His disciples to preach His gospel to every nation but while its message spread, it also became corrupted and for well over a thousand years no one had a fully correct knowledge of why they were alive on the earth, what the purpose of life was, or what they needed to do to gain full salvation.
In 1830 Jesus Christ restored His gospel and His church, along with the essential ordinances necessary to fully inherit the kingdom of God. In the beginning there were just eight people in the entire world who had a proper understanding of God’s plan for the salvation of His children, but as the church grew in size it also spread into nearly every part of the world.
Yet, even when it’s membership grew to fifteen million, that number amounts to just one quarter of one percent of the world’s population. That means 99.75% of the world has no accurate knowledge of who they are, where they came from, why they are here on earth, what God expects them to do while here, where they go when they die, what their glorious eternal destiny could be, and how to achieve that destiny.
If the gospel of Jesus Christ is only about His church with its saving ordinances then we have to conclude that untold billions of people have lived and died throughout the long history of mankind without ever having had a chance to hear, let alone accept, the gospel of Jesus Christ. The LDS Church teaches that those who have died without having heard the gospel will have a chance to hear it in the spirit world where we go when we die, but if that is so, then what is the purpose of living in mortality without the gospel?
Receiving the gospel only in the spirit world doesn’t do anything for those living in mortality without it. Was their life here on earth therefore meaningless? And why would a loving Father in heaven whose glory comes from bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of His children send so many of them to a place of misery and suffering without giving them a knowledge of why they are here? How could God send so many people to live on earth “to prove them herewith to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them” without ever giving them the opportunity to hear what His commandments are?
These questions arise only because of a limited view of what is involved with the plane of salvation. When we come to understand the full scope of salvation then life in mortality takes on a more significant meaning.
In the limited view, we see the plan of salvation as consisting of only the Church of Christ with its attending ordinances and covenants, while in the full view we see salvation as encompassing much more than this. In the limited view we tend to focus just on living righteously and keeping the commandments of God as the means to gaining salvation, but in the more expanded view we see that salvation consists of doing many other things in addition to keeping the commandments.
To understand why, we have to have a better understanding of how the plan of salvation is designed to help us become like our Father in heaven and there is more to that than just having our sins forgiven and living righteously.
In the beginning, when Adam and Eve lived in the garden of Eden, God gave them a commandment not to eat a particular fruit. When they did eventually partake of this fruit, God said, “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil” (Genesis 3:22). One of the fundamental purposes of mortality in helping us to become more like God is to learn about both good and evil and the best way to learn about them is through personal experience.
Certainly, the commandments of God clearly defines what is good and what is evil but even without the commandments we learn from our own personal experiences the harmful effects of doing evil and we likewise learn the effects of doing good. Pagan philosophers going back a thousand years before Christ understood these things, and even today we can read the writings of non-Christian psychologists who have studied and observed what brings happiness and what kind of behavior brings sadness.
Take for example people living without the gospel in the slums of major urban areas who have become addicted to surviving on government welfare handouts. They tend to live very unsatisfying lives that are often filled with contention, alcohol and drug abuse, boredom, and crime. Although they may have brought these circumstances upon themselves, and their lives would most certainly be improved by having a knowledge of the gospel, yet they are still gaining a knowledge of good and evil that they could not obtain outside of mortality.
However, those who belong to the Church of Jesus Christ are likewise learning the same lesson. Having a knowledge of the gospel doesn’t shield us from evil and neither does it take away its temptation. All of us are confronted with the temptation of doing evil in one form or another because that’s the very experience we came to earth to have. Just because some people learn to avoid evil quicker or overcome it more easily than others, or that some people face greater evil than others doesn’t change the fact that everyone in mortality is forced to learn this lesson, whether they want to or not.
Thus, an important part of gaining salvation consists of learning about good and evil and learning to choose good over evil, and people all over the world, in every age of man have had the opportunity to do this whether or not they have a knowledge of the gospel.
But there is still another aspect of being like God that we must learn. We refer to God as our Father in heaven and if we want to become more like Him, then we too need to learn how to become a father (or mother) ourselves. Upon our birth into mortality God has placed within each man and woman the means by which we can have children and, as all parents quickly learn, raising children is not easy.
As much as we might love them, bringing up children is a challenge and this is true for parents within as well as outside of the Church. Therefore, by having children we gain a little more knowledge and experience of how to do something that our Father in heaven is able to do and in this way we are progressing to become more like Him.
But just because some people choose not to have children or not to get married doesn’t change the fact that God has provided this opportunity for us. Whether we take advantage of that opportunity or not is our personal decision. It’s true that there are some people who want to have children but who can’t but that situation is more the exception than the rule, however even here, those couples are learning yet other essential lessons needed to become more like God.
Except for people whose heart has grown cold to feelings, sorrow and heartache are experiences that nearly everyone has, and belonging to Christ’s church usually doesn’t lessen the pain. The anguish of not being able to have a child when one is desperately wanted is real. Even Sarah, the wife of Abraham, as well as Rachel, the wife of Jacob both experienced this kind of sorrow. The death of a loved one is an event that very few people fail to have, and the more we love someone the greater the pain we feel with their passing.
A mother’s heart is especially tender towards her children and to see a child sick, injured, or in trouble is something that can cause a mother tremendous sorrow. But that pales in comparison to what our Father in heaven experienced when one-third of His children rebelled against Him and were lost forever.
Physical pain is another part of mortal life that is necessary for our progression towards becoming like God. It is rare that someone can go through mortality without become sick or injured, and pain is just as hard to bear whether a person has accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ or not. In the very beginning, after Adam and Eve had disobeyed God’s command, thorns and thistles sprang forth to torment and afflict man, and Eve was told that she would experience much pain in childbearing, which is something every mother can readily attest to.
And along with this are other forms of pain such as hunger, thirst, sleep deprivation, sickness, extreme cold and heat. There is also emotional pain from worry and doubt as well as from being betrayed or hurt by a loved one or a trusted friend, or even by strangers. As with all other experiences in life, the gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us how to better handle these situations but even so, we are still forced to confront these kinds of situations, and learning how to deal with them is not always easy.
Father Lehi taught his children “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad” (2 Nephi 2:11).
Opposition is an essential part of life and without it there can be little or no growth. If the plan of salvation is all about helping us to progress until we can become perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect, then opposition is something that all of need to experience in order to become more like him. For this reason, everyone faces opposition in their life in one form or another. Some face greater opposition than others and some opposition is more severe than others, but opposition is absolutely necessary if we are to improve.
Opposition comes in many different ways. It can come from having to make hard and difficult decisions all the way to such things as discrimination, maltreatment, and persecution. Opposition can come in the form of small everyday things that are minor annoyances, to things that present major challenges in our life. It comes in the form of problems we face and the choices we are forced to make. But whatever the opposition is, they are part of our life in mortality for the purpose of helping us learn and thereby grow because of them.
When Joseph Smith complained about the cold, cramping conditions he was forced to live in when confined to Liberty jail, the Lord told him, “if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (D&C 122:7).
We don’t need to have the gospel in our life to face opposition. In fact, they come despite our knowledge of Christ. Thus, whether someone has the gospel in their life or not, they are growing in knowledge, spiritual strength, and moral courage whether they realize it or not because of the opposition they face and, as Lehi explained to his family, “[God] shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain” (2 Nephi 2:2). This is the purpose of opposition.
It is said that we learn from our failures. No matter what our circumstances are in life or whether we have the gospel in our life or not, everyone has to make decisions, often many times a day, and it is very common for us to make the wrong decisions at times, yet in doing so we learn from our mistakes.
Some people take longer to grow wiser because they keep making the same mistake over and over again but even they are progressing to become better decision makers, howbeit at a slower pace. Since God is all wise, by learning how to make wise decisions we are progressing towards becoming more like Him.
The scriptures tell us that God created the heavens through faith (Hebrews 11:3), and another important principle we were sent to earth to learn is how to live by faith. In heaven it took faith on our part to accept our Father’s plan for our salvation but when we lived in that perfect environment, faith was something easy to have.
By comparison, in this life many times it is hard to have faith even in non-religious things. For example, it can be hard to have faith in ourselves and in our abilities, especially when we compare ourselves to others who are better than us in certain areas. It can take great faith to face difficult challenges when we are unsure of what lies ahead. Yet as we are forced to walk by faith we learn to develop an attribute that God has in great abundance, and as our faith increases we progress a little more towards being like our Father in heaven.
We often don’t think of God as “working” but it took work to create the heavens and the earth and the scriptures tell us that God’s “work” is to bring about the immortality and eternal life of man. Just before God drove man out of the garden of Eden he commanded him to work by the sweat of his brow. Thus the concept of work is an important part of our salvation. There is much work that needs to be done within the Church of Christ, but even outside of the Church there are ample experiences available for us to learn the value of work and how to be successful at it.
And there are other areas of mortal life that are essential to our salvation if we want to become more like our Father in heaven that do not require us to be part of Christ’s church or are associated with making sacred covenants. It is through the experiences we have that we grow. It is through our experiences with God that we come to trust in the Lord (Genesis 10:27) and it is through the experiences we have in life that we grow in wisdom and knowledge (Ecclesiastes 1:6). It is through the experiences we have, even without a knowledge of the gospel that we are more perfectly prepared to become like God. But if that is so, then what is the purpose of having the gospel of Jesus Christ on the earth or belonging to His church?
We have already mentioned one reason which is that the gospel teaches us how to better deal with the challenges of life. Instead of learning through trial and error, we can learn through the experience of others and from the teachings of our Father in heaven as recorded in the scriptures, and through the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Ghost. But there is a more important reason.
In the Protestant faith, they teach a one-size-fits-all concept of heaven and hell. In other words, the most righteous saint and the worst criminal who accepts Christ as his Savior on his death bed will both go to the same heaven and enjoy the same blessing of being with Christ, while the most faithful Buddhist and the worst mass murderer will both suffer alike in hell.
By contrast, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that because of the atonement of Christ all men will be saved from the consequences of their sins and inherit heaven, but that there are many different degrees or levels of heaven where men will be rewarded according to their deeds (Matthew 16:27; Revelation 22:12).
To live in the part of heaven where God dwells requires us to take upon ourselves certain covenants and obligations whereby we strive to live according to His laws. Those who were not given the opportunity to make those commitments in this life will have the opportunity in the next life, and if they accept the gospel there they can become heirs of salvation the same as those who accepted the gospel in this life.
Each person will have the chance to choose for themselves whether or not they want to voluntarily accept Christ, whether that happens in this life or the next. However, the only place where we can learn the lessons of good and evil, pain and sorrow, experience opposition in all things, and develop stronger faith is here in mortality. Therefore, no one will be denied the opportunity to hear the gospel, accept it, make sacred covenants and show their willingness to keep God’s commandments in order to achieve the highest degree of salvation, even if they never had a chance to hear of God’s plan while here on earth. But everyone will also have the opportunity to learn all other aspects necessary for salvation that can only be learned here on earth.
To inherit the lowest degree of heaven doesn’t require accepting Jesus Christ and adhering to His gospel message, yet even these people will have developed stronger faith because of their time on earth, will have grown in their knowledge of good and evil, and will have become much wiser in choosing to do good rather than evil. Thus, even without the gospel of Jesus Christ, every person who comes to earth will eventually become worthy to inherit some degree of glory in heaven and that’s because of the experiences we have
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