The concepts of Heaven and the afterlife are often difficult for humans to wrap their minds around. Our limited visions of heaven are sometimes reduced, in popular culture, to cartoonish images of people playing harps on clouds. Teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (sometimes inadvertently called the Mormon Church) have been similarly reduced to cartoonish images of “godmakers” receiving their own planets. The doctrine of Jesus Christ is simple, but it’s not about planets—it’s about families. We are all literal spirit children of God, our Father in Heaven. As His offspring, we have inherited divine potential. Just as our children have the potential to become like us when they grow up, so do we have the potential to become as God is. To me, images of playing harps on a cloud or receiving a planet just seem…lonely. Heaven is having my family around—my husband, children, parents, siblings and even close friends. The Church of Jesus Christ teaches that this is what eternal life (or the ability to live in an exalted state, as families, in God’s presence) is all about.
President Thomas S. Monson, the President of The Church of Jesus Christ, explained, “We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Thus, the question of where we are going after we die is best answered by explaining where we came from and why we are here on earth. You can’t comprehend the end without understanding the beginning. It’s comparable to a three-act play—the end only makes sense when you know what happened in the first two acts. This three-act play is called Heavenly Father’s plan for His children, the plan of salvation or the plan of happiness. And when we understand God’s plan for us, we can see how some people can mistakenly call members of The Church of Jesus Christ “Godmakers.”
Where Did We Come From?
The scriptures teach that each of us is a spirit child of God. (See Acts 17:28.) We lived with Him in Heaven before we came to earth. Elder L. Tom Perry, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (with the First Presidency, the governing body of The Church of Jesus Christ), taught:
Many people wonder, “Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going?” Our Eternal Father did not send us to earth on an aimless, meaningless journey. He provided for us a plan to follow. He is the author of that plan. It is designed for man’s progress and ultimate salvation and exaltation.
The missionary guide Preach My Gospel teaches:
God is the Father of our spirits. We are literally His children, and He loves us. We lived as spirit children of our Father in Heaven before we were born on this earth. We were not, however, like our Heavenly Father, nor could we ever become like Him and enjoy all the blessings that He enjoys without the experience of living in mortality with a physical body.
God’s whole purpose—His work and His glory—is to enable each of us to enjoy all His blessings. (, 48).
… We first heard about the plan of salvation before we were born, in what the scriptures call our first estate (see Abraham 3:26). What occurred in this first estate is dimly understood, but we do know that we lived there as spirits, children of our Heavenly Father, and we made certain steps of advancement to prepare for the opportunity of housing our eternal spirits in earthly bodies. We also know that our Father held a great council to explain the purpose of earth life. We had the opportunity of accepting or rejecting the plan of salvation. It was not forced upon us. The essence of the plan was that man would have an opportunity of working out his own salvation on earth, with God’s help. A leader was selected to teach us how to follow the plan and to redeem us from sin and death. …
Jesus Christ, our Elder Brother, became the leader in advocating the plan designed by the Father, and we accepted the plan and its conditions. With that choice we earned the right to come to earth….
As literal spirit sons and daughters of Heavenly Father, each of us has divine potential—which can only be cultivated and refined in the test of life on earth.
Why Are We Here on Earth?
This period of testing and refining is called mortality—or life on earth. Of this, Elder Perry said:
There are two purposes for life in mortality. The first is that we might gain experiences that we could not obtain in any other way. The second is to obtain tabernacles of flesh and bones. Both of these purposes are vital to the existence of man. We are now being tried and tested to see if we will do all the things the Lord has commanded us to do. These commandments are the principles and ordinances of the gospel, and they constitute the gospel of Jesus Christ. Every principle and ordinance has a bearing upon the whole purpose of our testing, which is to prepare us to return to our Heavenly Father and become more like Him.
But during this testing and refining period, we are going to make mistakes—because, after all, each of us are human. The scriptures teach us that no unclean thing can enter into the Kingdom of Heaven (Alma 11:37). So what are we to do? This is one of the reasons that Jesus Christ came to the earth. Elder Perry said:
… Jesus Christ … is the centerpiece of the eternal plan of the Father, the Savior who was provided as a ransom for mankind. God sent His Beloved Son to overcome the Fall of Adam and Eve. He came to earth as our Savior and Redeemer. He overcame the obstacle of physical death for us by giving up His own life. When He died on the cross, His spirit became separated from His body. On the third day His spirit and His body were reunited eternally, never to be separated again.
Life on earth is of limited duration. There comes a time for all of us when the spirit and the body are separated in death. But because of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, we will all be resurrected, regardless of whether we have accomplished good or evil in this life. Immortality is the gift to every mortal child of our Father in Heaven. Death must be viewed as a portal to a new and better life. Through the glorious resurrection, body and spirit will be reunited. We will have a perfect, immortal body of flesh and bones that will never be subjected to pain or death. But the glory we attain to in the next life will depend on our performance in this life. Only through the gift of the Atonement and our obedience to the gospel can we return and live with God once again.
For Latter-day Saints, knowledge of our divine heritage influences our decisions, our values and, ultimately, our destiny. It helps us to focus our priorities so that we are headed in the direction we want to go—and avoid the distractions that would take us down other paths.
Families are Central in God’s Plan for His Children
Heavenly Father did not send us here to earth alone—He sent us into families. This is the reason that members of The Church of Jesus Christ stand strong in defense of the traditional family—it’s part of God’s plan. The Family: A Proclamation to the World teaches:
Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness, to provide for their physical and spiritual needs, and to teach them to love and serve one another, observe the commandments of God, and be law-abiding citizens wherever they live. Husbands and wives—mothers and fathers—will be held accountable before God for the discharge of these obligations.
The family is ordained of God. Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan. Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks, an Apostle of Jesus Christ, taught:
Knowledge of God’s plan for His children gives Latter-day Saints a unique perspective on marriage and family. We are correctly known as a family-centered church. Our theology begins with heavenly parents, and our highest aspiration is to attain the fullness of eternal exaltation. We know this is possible only in a family relationship. We know that the marriage of a man and a woman is necessary for the accomplishment of God’s plan. Only this marriage will provide the approved setting for mortal birth and to prepare family members for eternal life. We look on marriage and the bearing and nurturing of children as part of God’s plan and a sacred duty of those given the opportunity to do so. We believe that the ultimate treasures on earth and in heaven are our children and our posterity.
God Himself established the pattern of families with Adam and Eve, our first parents. Fathers provide the stabilizing force in a child’s life, and mothers nurture and teach them. Elder M. Russell Ballard, an Apostle of Jesus Christ, said:
The family is at the heart of Heavenly Father’s plan because we are all part of His family and because mortality is our opportunity to form our own families and to assume the role of parents. It is within our families that we learn unconditional love, which can come to us and draw us very close to God’s love. It is within families that values are taught and character is built. Father and mother are callings from which we will never be released, and there is no more important stewardship than the responsibility we have for God’s spirit children who come into our families.
The home is where we learn our values and priorities, providing a foundation upon which we will build our own lives and families. Traditional families—with a father and mother—offer children the best opportunities for development. Elder Perry said:
Surely we have learned by now, from the experience over centuries, that the basic family provides the most stable and secure foundation for society and is fundamental to the preparation of young people for their future responsibilities. We should have learned by now that alternate styles of family formations have not worked and never will work.
Eternal life is the ability to live in an exalted state with our families. Not families created in the world’s way, but families created God’s way. If our goal is to become as God is, and have our own families throughout eternity, then we must understand how God defines the family. We learn this through ancient and modern prophets, as well as following the patterns God has set. The Family: A Proclamation to the World clearly defines this: Marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God.
Commandments, Temples and Sacred Ordinances
The ability to live together as families for eternity begins by making sacred covenants in the holy temple. A covenant is a two-way promise between a person or a group of people and God, and the terms and conditions are set by God. Temples are literally houses of the Lord, sacred places of worship where members of The Church of Jesus Christ make sacred covenants with God and receive ordinances (which are sacred, formal acts performed by the authority of the priesthood—which is the power that God gives to men to act in all things for the salvation of His children). In the holy temple, a husband and wife are married, or “sealed” for time and all eternity—meaning that their marriage covenants, if honored, will be in force beyond the grave. It is for this reason that members of The Church of Jesus Christ follow God’s commandments in all things—so they can receive the blessings of eternal life. Elder Oaks explained:
… The Final Judgment is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts—what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts—what we have become. It is not enough for anyone just to go through the motions. The commandments, ordinances, and covenants of the gospel are not a list of deposits required to be made in some heavenly account. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become.
A parable illustrates this understanding. A wealthy father knew that if he were to bestow his wealth upon a child who had not yet developed the needed wisdom and stature, the inheritance would probably be wasted. The father said to his child:
“All that I have I desire to give you—not only my wealth, but also my position and standing among men. That which I have I can easily give you, but that which I am you must obtain for yourself. You will qualify for your inheritance by learning what I have learned and by living as I have lived. I will give you the laws and principles by which I have acquired my wisdom and stature. Follow my example, mastering as I have mastered, and you will become as I am, and all that I have will be yours.”
This parable parallels the pattern of heaven. The gospel of Jesus Christ promises the incomparable inheritance of eternal life, the fulness of the Father, and reveals the laws and principles by which it can be obtained.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ believe that we have the potential to become like our Father in Heaven and obtain all that He has—and this life is the test to see if we are willing to do so by obeying His commandments and following the Savior, Jesus Christ, in all things.
Glimpses of Eternal Life
We are given glimpses of exaltation and eternal life in this life. We just need to know where to look. My husband is a skier, and so are our kids. This winter we have had some of the best ski days ever—because every one of us was able to go to the top of the ski hill together. Now, the 6-year-old and I aren’t skiing black diamond runs. But we were having fun together, as a family. When we get together with our extended families—my parents and siblings and their families, and my husband’s family—we also catch a glimpse of heaven. We can catch sight of the eternities when we are with close friends as well. Recently our family got together with two other families who are close friends for a “staycation.” We stayed in condos in our hometown for our spring break vacation. We laughed and played together. But the moments only felt complete when all members of the three families (19 people in all) were all together—eating dinner, watching a movie and kneeling in prayer. The article written by The Church of Jesus Christ states:
Latter-day Saints tend to imagine exaltation through the lens of the sacred in mortal experience. They see the seeds of godhood in the joy of bearing and nurturing children and the intense love they feel for those children, in the impulse to reach out in compassionate service to others, in the moments they are caught off guard by the beauty and order of the universe, in the grounding feeling of making and keeping divine covenants. Church members imagine exaltation less through images of what they will get and more through the relationships they have now and how those relationships might be purified and elevated. As the scriptures teach, “That same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy.”
The moments that we enjoy with those we love are all glimpses of what eternal life might be like. It is in the enjoyment of relationships that are refined and purified as we love and serve each other—and as we work together to serve others. Those are the glimpses into eternal life.
I am a wife and mother of 4 beautiful children in a small town in the mountains of Idaho. We ski as a family in the winter and camp, fish, and go to the beach in the summer. I’m a lifelong member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and I am grateful for the Savior and the blessings of the gospel in my life.