The Social Hierarchy of Spirits (The Baron’s Random Doctrinal Musings)

In the obscure 1991 movie Defending Your Life with Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep, Brooks’ character dies and finds himself in the afterlife where he is judged for the things he learned (or didn’t learn) during his earthly sojourn. He is told that those who progress past a certain level of knowledge and achievement in their Earth life are able to move on afterwards to other (better) realms of existence. Those that do not are doomed to be reincarnated on Earth and try again…and again…and again until they get it right.

He also discovers that in this new universe, Earth is fairly low on the totem pole in spiritual progression. It is an early stop on everyone’s spiritual journey, one that the good spirits will quickly pass through on their way to better things, while the ‘not-so-great’ spirits get stuck there for a while–sort of like the spiritual equivalent of a dead-end cashier job in a fast foot joint.

While the movie is not doctrinally accurate from an LDS standpoint by any stretch of the imagination, it does bring to mind some important doctrines…and some important questions.

Much is made in the scriptures of the importance of Earth life within the plan of salvation. We need to be born and live on Earth so we can obtain a physical body, make covenants, perform ordinances, and learn the important spiritual principles we need to continue on our journey to perfection into the celestial kingdom and beyond. The scriptures and modern day prophets have often stressed that those of us who are living on this earth here and now are special chosen ones of God–the ‘noble and great ones’ who were saved to be sent down to Earth during these last days. It makes it sound like that among all of God’s children from the pre-existence, those of us alive today–especially those with high callings and responsibilities in the Church–are among the ‘elite’–the best of the best.

And yet…we have to reconcile this idea with other doctrines in the Church. For example, this section in Doctrine & Covenants 137:

And I also beheld that all children who die before they arrive at the years of accountability are saved in the celestial kingdom of heaven. (137:10)

Now think about this–ALL children who die before the age of accountability are celestial-worthy. Throughout all human history, that’s got to be millions upon millions of children. Many modern day prophets have expanded upon this idea, saying simply that some of Heavenly Father’s children need only to come down to Earth for a short period of time to obtain their physical body before being called back to heaven. For those within this substantially large group, it appears there is no need to prove that they are ‘celestial quality’ in this life, thus do not need to stay long. If this is true, this leads to a few significant questions:

(1) Does this mean those spirits were so valiant in the preexistence that there was nothing left for them to prove in this life? If so, what does that imply about those of us who are here for longer periods of time?
(2) If celestial worthiness was not determined in the pre-existence for us or them, when do those spirits obtain the experience, trials and testing necessary to develop celestial attributes–as we are doing today?
(3) If there is no need for these spirits to obtain these types of experience and knowledge in this mortal life, then is there any benefit at all to living past the age of eight in this life?

The implications behind these questions are significant. If children who die are those who are already heirs of the celestial kingdom while the rest of us have to work for it, doesn’t that in fact demonstrate that we (here on Earth now) are not really the ‘noble and great ones’–we’re in fact more like those students who didn’t pass the class the first time and have to take a remedial make-up session during the summer (mortality) while the first group is free to go outside and play. This seems to divide the children of Heavenly Father into distinct upper- and lower-class spirits–and we’re not in the higher class!

The problem with mortality is that while many of us can and will keep our covenants and become celestial worthy in the end, many of us will not. That means this Earth life represents a very real danger to those who become accountable. We’re subject to the temptations of Satan, and many will never make it (back) to the celestial level. If that’s true, it seems there is much greater benefit to being one of those spirits with a ‘free pass’ than those of us who were chosen to live in the last days–we have nothing more to gain, but everything to lose. Compare it to soldiers who risk their lives on the front lines of a war, while others are waiting safely back at home in a ‘reserve’ role. After the war is over, the rewards of both groups for ‘serving’ are the same, but many in the first group won’t survive to get home in the first place.

I don’t have an answer for this… My gut feeling says surviving Earth life–learning about the role of the Spirit and how to progress and avoid temptation in this life–does present invaluable experience and benefits that help us become truly celestial people. (In other words, our earth life really matters…) If so, when/how do those ‘unaccountable’ spirits make up that missing experience? If they don’t need this experience (or already have it) based on what happened in the pre-existence, doesn’t that indicate that the preexistence does, in fact, have a fairly large role in determining the situation in which we find ourselves born into in this life?

This may be another example of a simple answer to a complex question, but the doctrines as constituted seem to divide God’s spirit children into ‘protected’ and ‘unprotected’ groups, where the second group has to risk much in mortal life to gain the same(?) rewards. I’m still ready and willing to fight on the front lines (since, you know…I’m here already), but I’m just wondering in the end if I’m going to find out later that I was really one of the ‘lower-middle class’ of spirits before being born, and God just didn’t want to hurt my self-esteem…

20 thoughts on “The Social Hierarchy of Spirits (The Baron’s Random Doctrinal Musings)

  1. My gut feeling is that there is a lot more to reveal regarding the nature of children who die before the age of accountability. Even Joseph Smith was notoriously inconsistent on this matter – perhaps affected by the number of children he’d lost himself?

  2. Kevin, I see it slightly differently than you do. I agree that we on the Earth may be the lower-middle class of the spirit world. It’s probable that there are all kinds of spirits who die when they are two years old who are significantly more valiant than we older people are. But I really think the idea of agency plays into how and when we live our lives even before we get here. I truly believe that my life is meant to help me progress and work on issues that I knew in the pre-existence that I had to improve. I see myself in the pre-existence doing a complete personality analysis and saying: “I need to work on humility, obedience, overcoming temptation,” etc, etc. And I believe that in the pre-existence we were given assurances that if we were eventually faithful all of these faults would be worked on during our time here. It’s possible that the spirit who dies at birth had completely different issues to work on — and that he or she could resolve those issues immediately upon getting a body. Certainly Adam — who lived to be 900 years old — was not lower middle class among the spirits. For whatever reason, it helped him to live and see all of the things he did, just as it is helping us to live to perhaps 90 years old today.

  3. Ok, my personal take on it has top do with what the celestial kingdom ultimately is. Remember there ar three divisions in the kingdon, and baptism only wualifies you for the Celestial Kingdom in general. We also know that if you do not have an in-effect celestial marriage, you cannot get the hightest degree, where we can be exaluted. So what about the second, and when do we find out which is which? Well, it’s something called “Eternal Progression” and when we are resurected we are resurected in celestial bodies, but we do not know which of the celestial divisions we are going to go to, because we are progressing. We didn’t make an inredibly stupid mistake by choosing Satan in the pre-life, we didn’t make a big mistake by landing in one of the ‘T’ Kingdoms in this life, so perhaps we get a chance to make a smaller mistake by missing exaltation. What is the mistake opportunity there? What’s it like? Don’t know, haven’t been there, couldn’t tell ya.

    Not only that, the children live in the spirit world until they are resurected, so they can still learn somewhat over there. But when it comes to the Celestial Kingdom, there is still some deliniation that can be made for them, based on their free will.

  4. I loved that movie because they could eat everything they wanted and all the food was good. I don’t care if I have the cheaper hotel room, but maybe I will save a cat’s life and can have the hot tub, as well.

    I have no clue to the answer to any of those questions. I lost a child at 2 years old and it doesn’t make sense to me that he is a mature, special spirit in the spirit world, but that I will be given him to raise from a toddler when I die, if I’m worthy. I think my time with him as a baby is over, regardless what the prophets said.

    Joseph Smith said the truth tastes good. A lot of things don’t make sense. I think we have only a small iota of understanding of the nature of the world, put in terms for our finite understanding. I do have confidence that in time things will make sense, and like Elder Hanks says, “to know there is a God is to know that all the rules will be fair, and that there will be wonderful surprises.” Boy, I want that hot tub.

  5. I’ve always been jealous of those three boys that carried their pioneer company across the icy river, and later died from the exposure, about whom Brigham declared that the act alone had secured their spot in the Celestial Kindgom.

    The idea that extraordinary acts can secure a blessed spot, while others are doomed to earn it minute by minute by minute by minute over a hundred years, is difficult to me. How much easier to suffer agony for an hour, than to suffer lifelong subtle buffetings from Satan.

    Kevin, like you, I’m happy to be here on the front lines. But it’s interesting to take account of the risks we face up here, that aren’t being faced by everyone. Oh well, pass the ammo.

  6. And if God said to me, “Anne, if you love your fellow man and serve me and obey my commandments, I will give you a cabin and lots of books and a hot tub and you can eat, and meet CS Lewis and Walt Whitman,” I would find that more tempting than be a Goddess and live in the Celestial kingdom and create worlds without number. That sounds suspiciously like work “Do a lot of work on earth, and I will give you even more work in heaven.” I’m tired, I want to rest when I die.

    If we get the reward we feel comfortable with, then what does it matter where I end up, if I do my best? I said that once in Sunday School, thinking “wait a minute, won’t we go where we feel comfortable and fit in? So what’s all this posturing and self-righteous claiming of the celestial kingdom?” I smell a rat somewhere. People took it personal when I said that. I think we’re clueless.

  7. Well, Ryan Bell, whatever one can say about God (one cannot say enough) one cannot say he’s fair. Look at Alma the Younger’s conversion experience. I wasn’t nearly as wicked as he, but I had to fight for a testimony for a long time. It was hard.

  8. LOL, I don’t want to eat CS Lewis and Walt Whitman.
    I want to eat the best pasta in the universe and all the coconut cream pie I can stand. This is heaven to me.

  9. “I’ve always been jealous of those three boys that carried their pioneer company across the icy river, and later died from the exposure, about whom Brigham declared that the act alone had secured their spot in the Celestial Kindgom.”

    That’s always been one of the difficulties of interpreting words spoken by prophets–are they always prophetic utterances, or just speaking off-the-cuff?

    I remember hearing a story from Taiwan last year during the SARS epidemic about an LDS nurse who was willing to go in and treat some of the SARS patients when most of the other nurses would not. She later died of SARS herself soon after. It’s easy for me or anyone to say that that she is definitely celestial material, and true, she demonstrated the attributes of a celestial person, but who knows for sure? God is the judge of all, not me or Pres. Young. I’ll worry first about myself, and let others end up where they may…

  10. Ryan,

    Re: the three youths — I know the BY quote makes it seem otherwise, but perhaps it wasn’t the act per se that saved them; rather, the fact that they engaged in such an act signifies enough about their character that BY knew they were celestial timber.

  11. Davis, while I sort of doubt that Brigham meant that, given his penchant for dramatic pronouncements, I’m much more comfortable with that rendering. On the other hand, if that’s true, does the fact that I think I’d be willing to do exactly the same thing mean I also pass the Celestial test?

  12. Well, if that reading is accurate, then yes. But I’m not sure that you can know whether you would or not. (And judging from that one time when we were at an icy river and you refused to carry anyone across, your prospects don’t look good).

  13. Davis, none of the people that needed to get across the river were Mormon pioneers. I would totally carry Mormon pioneers across.

  14. No, they weren’t; but you would think that your ailing grandparents, your wife, and your children would qualify for an exemption.

  15. First of all, Annegb, those coconut cream pies are mine – all mine…

    Secondly, in spite of all the musings about whether Ryan is going to make it or not, my reading is that he will and Davis will probably have to get over it. :)

  16. Adam,

    If anything, God was unfair to Alma. Where much is given, much is required, and I’m sure a good portion of his dedication thereafter stemmed from an awareness that he would be judged by a very high standard in the hereafter. He didn’t have as much excuse for sin as you and I do.

  17. A related question, which is probably easier to answer, might be, why should I be baptized on this earth? Say I know about the gospel and what it means to live a good life more or less. Of what benefit is it to me to be baptized now, only to potentially screw things up, when I can wait until I’m safely dead, knowing that I’ll accept my temple work on the other side?

    I’ve thought about this before — maybe I’ll postify it.

  18. There are some major assumptions that have been made that I think are not quite correct. We cannot think that it’s such a simple black and white situation, with the righteous premortal spirits dying before accountability and the rest of us left to muck about because we weren’t as righteous. This presumes that the length of our life is due to our premortal righteousness or lack thereof. As I understand the gospel, we are not here for ourselves. We had associations beyond the veil and should not be surprised to one day learn that we continued those relationships here in our mortal probations.

    Certainly Joseph Smith, who has “done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it” was not less righteous in the premortal existence than the millions of children who have died before accountability.

    As I see it, in the premortal realms we all were individuals, with individual talents and abilities. We were also foreordained to certain responsibilities, we were sent with missions which we should accomplish. For Joseph, that was the restoration of the Gospel. That is no small deed.

    The point however is not to look at it on a one-line right to left scale, but to see that we all have responsibilities and that in our sphere we can fulfill our purpose. A bishop is not more important than an elders quorum president or a Sunday school teacher. A ward librarian who fulfills his calling is more valuable than a bishop who does not.

    I imagine we will be stunned in the day that all things are revealed unto us to see how intertwined our earth lives were, how complex the plan was and how much of a role we played.

  19. Aaron, I’m totally with you. I think we will be so stunned. Also maybe pleasantly surprised, unless we’re among those who try to figure out who will and won’t be there and the people we don’t like show up right alongside us, all God’s children. I know my neighbor will probably pass out and die again if she sees me there. :)

  20. I think we have only a small iota of understanding of the nature of the world, put in terms for our finite understanding. I do have confidence that in time things will make sense, and like Elder Hanks says, “to know there is a God is to know that all the rules will be fair, and that there will be wonderful surprises.”

    Well said, much like John, when he states “brethren, it does not yet appear what we shall be” or Joseph Smith taking about the glory of the least of the kingdoms and how people would be willing to immediately die to go there.

    There is a lot to the celestial worlds, especially given that they are not bound by time in the way we are.

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