Tuesday 30 July 2013

Pre-mortal existence and volunteering for mortal life


One aspect of Mormon theology which I have found extremely helpful in understanding the human condition is that humans had pre-mortal existence.


It took me a while to understand why this was such a significant part of the account of the 'plan of salvation' - but I now perceive it has a vital role; because it enables the explanation that each person chose mortal life on earth - just as Jesus Christ chose to become incarnate as a Man.

By this account, we were not created (indifferent to our wishes) in this vale of tears; we are not thrown into life whether we want it or not, whether we like it or not - but our pre-mortal spirits chose to live on earth in physical bodies, and to undergo death - before returning to the presence of God.


The idea that we are all, without exception, volunteers in this life has the effect of transforming the perspective on the nature of the human condition; and dissolving many of the apparently intractable questions related to human suffering.

Because to inflict suffering upon a person who has been thrown into the world, willy-nilly, like it or not, is morally a very different matter from the sufferings undergone by a volunteer.

Supposing that the extreme physical and mental trials and training voluntarily undergone by special military forces, such as the Navy SEALs, were inflicted on all young men, and against their will... this  would be torturing them, pure and simple. The fact of volunteering transforms the moral situation.

And, like special military forces; our voluntary consent to mortal human life was to the general process of life (including death), and to the objectives of that process of life, and not each specific one of life's trials - which were neither known, nor determined, in advance.


As Terryl Givens makes clear in his scholarly and thorough 2010 monograph When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought; the idea that humans had a pre-mortal existence is one that can be traced back to ancient times, perhaps through some specific Biblical texts, through some of the early Fathers of the church (probably including Origen and St Augustine) and right up to this day.

The idea of pre-mortal existence has been persistent and recurrent because of its great explanatory value - and from the fact that without pre-existence and the idea that we volunteered for incarnate morality, the Goodness of God becomes... well, if not impossible to explain, then at least a difficult, complex and often incomprehensible thing to explain.


Note added: I would add that mortal life is an experience, more than a test; and no matter how brief it may be - even if it ends in the womb - all mortal life includes the experience of death (death of the mortal body). Therefore, it seems that the experience of death is the minimum/basic reason for mortal, incarnate life. 


Mike Astill said...

Not only did we exercise our agency in our premortal existence and choose to come to earth, we "shouted for joy" when the foundations of the world were laid and the plan was presented to us.

Read Job 38:1-7.

"4 Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.

5 Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it?

6 Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof;

7 When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"

I don't believe for a minute that a loving God would send His children to this earth, subject them to all kinds of trials and tests, and then banish them (the majority of them) to an eternal suffering in a lake of fire and brimstone simply because they didn't accept Jesus as their Savior in this life.

That just does not compute.

When the Father presented this plan to us, it must have been better than we could have ever dreamed! Why else would we have shouted for joy, surely knowing the pain and suffering we would endure in this life?

All of us who chose to come to earth are indeed saved (as you pointed out in another post).

We are not here to work out our salvation. That has already been done for us.

All of us, except for a very select few, will inherit a degree of glory, either like the stars, or like the moon, or like the sun, but a degree of glory nonetheless.

We are here to work out our exaltation--or in other words, to learn what it takes to sit on the throne of God and rule with Him (see Revelation 3:21) and to inherit ALL that the Father hath and become heirs--joint heirs with Christ. (See Romans 8:17).

Or in other words, to use our God-given gift of agency and choose to become like Christ. (Matthew 5:48, 3rd Nephi 27:27)

THIS is the greatness of the plan of salvation. THIS is the greatness and power of the Atonement.

For me personally, this helps me to make sense of why we are here on this earth.

Just my two cents. I love your blog! I'm a huge fan of your insights and opinions. Your honesty and ability to discern are refreshing to read.

Mike Astill
West Jordan, Utah, USA

Bruce Charlton said...

@MA - Thanks.

That's how I see it, too.

"All of us, except for a very select few, will inherit a degree of glory" - Yes, I agree, with the modification that people are free to reject salvation. That was/is the biggest risk of mortal life - not so much that I will be wicked, but that I will fail to repent it. By which I mean I will not acknowledge that evil is indeed evil.

This is what is so horrifying about the modern condition, and why it may be the very worst situation the world has known - because it *seems* as if a lot of people have got themselves into the situation where they deny the reality of evil, hence deny the reality of Good - and such a person, wedded to such inversions, might well reject salvation (salvation offered them, as it were, 'on a plate' by the atoning work of Christ) on the basis that they regarded Heaven as Hell, and Christ as a demon.

This is certainly how a lot of people talk, especially among intellectuals - the question is how deeply this runs, whether people believe these inversions deeply enough that they would reject salvation...

That is the special horror of the modern world for me - and of post-Nietzschian ideologies such as Leftism.

Moral inversion is not completely new - I think of someone like the Roman Emperor Caligula - but it does seem much more common than ever it was before - presumably because Caligula never had the mass media to mock and vilify common sense and Christianity, and propagate his evil ideology 24/7.

Ariston said...

I think this (originally gnostic) aberration is actually a very important difference because it impairs human agency in the important way of acting in this life and treats reproduction as a sort of zero–sum game for any soul that wants to get incarnated. Not only that, but traditional Christian theology is very specific that there is something lacking in a soul without a body because there is a harmony. Without that, it's very hard to hold on to an idea of mortal life not! being a test. In fact, if humans are not inherently incarnate, there's no reason to understand that it is important for salvation that Christ became so; that is, the soul itself is already like the divine, and since soul alone is not a true human, that physicality is important to be divinized as well. Indeed, it is hard to even understand the Fall absent physicality, which the Mormons (and gnostics) do.

(This is why there has always been an opinion that the Word would have been incarnated even absent the Fall, but because that would be a restriction on divine agency that it is not necessary for understanding, it has rightly been left as merely a suggestive idea.)

The idea of pre–incarnate souls is the most inconsistent idea in Mormonism, which is otherwise incredibly! fleshly. Indeed, though it over–corrects, it is an understandable reaction to the spiritualizing drive in American Protestantism that has led to groups like (for an example) the Christian Scientists— or the very common idea among American Protestants that saved humans are like angels, or are angels. Mormon eschatology, therefore, while going beyond what we can know or infer, is correct in seeing the saved state as including some sort of embodiment (though that embodiment is more like current embodiment is, whereas the Christian opinion—following scripture—is that it is a flesh unlike our current flesh— i.e., the new creation will be different in some important fashion that we cannot understand). This mundane embodiment is necessary for Mormons, however, because of their belief in pre–incarnate souls and their belief that the world itself is uncreated.

The idea that pre–incarnate souls are ‘spirit children’ also seems to be necessary under this reading, though it is strange that physical ‘gods’ would have spirit children that choose incarnation via their own agency. It creates a very weird situation, and is further evidence of the ad hoc development of Joseph Smith's teaching, which was often changed at whim (such as the rejection of polygamy, followed by its state as a ‘secret’ revelation for the elite of the LDS, followed by its command for everyone). I've lived with Mormons my whole life and have long took an interest in them, and I love them, despite the fact that their doctrine has largely taught me in the understanding of its weaknesses.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ariston - You are mistaken in your understanding of Mormon theology - in fact it is the opposite of ad hoc, and any such impression you have is simply because you have not joined the dots. Strictly as an accomplishment of theology, Mormonism would have to be regarded as the work of a first rank genius - if it is not acknowledged to be divinely inspired. If you don't perceive this, then the fault is in you - and I say this as somebody that studied Mormonism for about four years pretty intensively before the penny dropped on this topic, and the systematic nature of the theology became suddenly clear. It was Sterling McMurrin's book that did it for me - on the second reading. It's not that Mormon theology is hard to grasp, it is that there is so much things that must be unlearned and assumptions that must be undone before the lucid clarity snaps into position. None of this means that Mormonism is the only or necessary Christian theology - obviously there are many types of Christian theology which have sustained very high level Christian lives. But Mormonism takes its place alongside these, and with certain very important advantages that apply particularly to these days (I'm thinking of the much better rooted defense of the importance of marriage and family).

JP said...

it *seems* as if a lot of people have got themselves into the situation where they deny the reality of evil, hence deny the reality of Good - and such a person, wedded to such inversions, might well reject salvation (salvation offered them, as it were, 'on a plate' by the atoning work of Christ) on the basis that they regarded Heaven as Hell, and Christ as a demon.

The recent words of Desmond Tutu come to mind (if Heaven is "homophobic" he is not going there).

tgj said...

Pre-existence of souls is an idea that goes back at least to Plato, and Orthodoxy rejects it along with a lot of other things Origen taught.

Independent of whether it is true or not, or what the implications are, I think the question is whether it is true or not, and then maybe what the implications are. Not whether it can play a role as an idea in a theology that can sustain some kind of Christian civilization. Because history tells us that there are many, many of those, and the more there are, the more conflict is inevitably created.

Not to mention that the truth gets lost in the multiplication of futile attempts to save Christianity, civilization, the world, someone else, or one's self, because no one can actually do any of those things.

What is evil? Evil is a world full of people who want to believe that they can do more than they can actually do.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ariston - I have read your comments, but don't want to publish them. I would say it is incredibly difficult/ impossible to make a systematic theology post hoc - especially if that theology is to be understandable to ordinary people. This means that Mormon theology was coherent all along, but emerged in a piecemeal fashion only gradually attaining completeness (and somewhat mixed with human error, as was stated from the beginning - requiring correction by further revelation).

@JP - That is a very good example. The remark by Tutu can be unpacked to mean something like 'I regard as evil all ideologies which deny the moral primacy of the concept of homophobia and the moral system from which this term emerges' - and if he really does believe this, in his soul, he would naturally reject salvation.

@tgj - I don't intend that pre-existence be adopted because it is expedient - I intended to show what work the concept does in theology.

In favour of pre-existence are some metaphysical arguments, some interpretations of revelation, and an intuitive belief which I have but others may not (I mean the spontaneous conviction that I had a pre-mortal spiritual existence, which can be in some very partial and vague sense remembered).

One underlying point to this post is that because Mormonism is approached by most Christians with a negative prejudice, the differences between Mormonism and mainstream Christianity get presented as a shopping list of point and sputter factoids: "Mormons believe God (the Father) had a body" etc etc.

Now many of these shock tactics are misrepresentations and distortions - but of course Mormonism does have *many* and important differences from mainstream Christianity.

Now, if these are examined one at a time, and especially with a negative prejudice, then this will seem either wicked or simply absurd and arbitrary.

But in fact (and I mean in *fact*) most of these differences (and all of the really significant ones) emerge from an underlying metaphysical difference - philosophical pluralism - and from a different way of reading the Bible (taking it at face value, minus Classical philosophical preconceptions) - and I assume that this different perspective predated the writing of the Book of Mormon, which was then written in accordance with this mode of understanding so different from the theology of the post-Apostolic era (but comfortably consistent with the Bible).

Now, of course, this way of understanding Mormonism is not a 100 percent inclusive explanation, but then it is, I believe, a snare to demand 100 percent cohesion of all aspects in an imperfect world.

In sum, Mormonism is Christianity; and differs from other denominations primarily in its metaphysical assumptions (i.e. its philosophical assumptions concerning the basic nature or structure of reality - which are pluralist rather than monist).

These metaphysical assumptions are not a part of revelation, rather they are second order (and historically later) attempts to systematize revelation.

The truth of metaphysical systems is NOT an empirical matter, because the metaphysical system includes and defines empirical evaluations.

How, then, to choose which metaphysical system to adopt? In a sense, this choice is a matter of expediency, and also comprehension, and intuition/ personal revelation. Different systems work for different people for different purposes and at different times - each has advantages and disadvantages.

All I would point out is that the Mormon system has many and important advantages for some people at this point in history.

Adam G. said...

The idea of premortal choice has never moved me much, because I don't see how a disembodied spirit can have any idea what it is choosing.

Mormon theology may be coherent, but its standard Mormon doctrine that much remains to be revealed and that it may up-end or at least recast our current understanding of things. So the coherence of Mormonism should only be taken as coherence on par with other philosophical or theological systems, not as actually complete.
The general Christian idea that souls are created at the moment of conception simply cannot fit with the Christian idea that souls are eternal (outside time). Being created at a time is meaningless. If it means being united with a body in some sense (giving form to the body, if you take a Thomistic view), then this really isn't much different from Mormonism.

Adam G. said...

*The idea of pre–incarnate souls is the most inconsistent idea in Mormonism, which is otherwise incredibly! fleshly. *

I see your point, but consider this. The Mormon idea is that the original sin was the refusal of some souls to accept incarnation. These souls became the Devil and his angels. So what the premortal existence story does for Mormons is underline that rejection of the flesh is demonic. I can't say that a story that shows that rejection of the flesh is the single factor that makes Satan Satan is all that immaterialistic.

Bruce Charlton said...

@AG - "The idea of premortal choice has never moved me much, because I don't see how a disembodied spirit can have any idea what it is choosing."

I think of it as a choice whether to progress or stay put - (analogously) rather as if a child could choose not to grow up but stay as a child. It is in some sense 'higher' to be a grown up, but there are serious risks and sufferings on the way, and many or most grown ups are worse than they were as children.

MC said...


I doubt that it's really possible to understand what you're getting yourself into when you join the SEALs either,* but your assent still puts the physical and mental agony of "Hell Week," etc., in a completely different light.

* I mean, you can "know" what goes on, but you don't really "know" what that will be like.

Adam G. said...

that's why I'm a little more sceptical of choice as the philosopher's stone that explains the gospel.
Though thinking about choice and ignorance can explain the otherwise odd Mormon notion that Christ atoned at both Gethsemane and on the cross. One (speculative) way of looking at it is that the double atonment allows Christ's choice to undergo it to be fully informed.

Adam G. said...

I think of it as a choice whether to progress or stay put - (analogously) rather as if a child could choose not to grow up but stay as a child. It is in some sense 'higher' to be a grown up, but there are serious risks and sufferings on the way, and many or most grown ups are worse than they were as children. **

Interesting. When you combine this notion with the Adam and Eve story and the Mormon preexistence idea, it sounds very much like Adam and Eve's choice between stasis/sinlessness and progress/sin is a model for something all of us had to do.

David said...

I find these argument's very compelling. I really would like to think they are true and I am a volunteer who is saved by default. One question: why does the Navy SEAL have to work so hard to remember his mission, to know the details, who his commanding officers are in the field, etc. Mortal life seems to be a state of amnesia in battle at best? Why the great mystery? Why don't I recall clearly my pre-mortal life and these choices? Or did I agree to have my memory wiped so that I can find myself in a spiritual battlefield unarmed with the certainty of a divine mission before I make an informed choice of going awol? The issue of cruelly forcing a navy seal to complete a mission he doesnt even remember signing up to still feels like a stumbling block to my understanding. It makes me wonder whether shell shocked as I wander the spiritual battleground my shell shocked comrades are telling me stories to comfort themselves that have no substantial basis except that I like their comforting words?

Bruce Charlton said...

" telling me stories to comfort themselves that have no substantial basis except that I like their comforting words? "

If you find that Christianity sounds like just wishful thinking, then I suppose you are already living fully by the Christian rules/ commandments - because that was the condition, wasn't it? If it was wishful thinking then surely we would not have to do anything, suffer any pain or inconvenience - would we? We would do just exactly what we felt like doing, and that would be OK.

Yet the West has almost completely abandoned Christianity because it was too restrictive - and there are very few devout Christians in the UK? That doesn't seem to square with its just being a comforting story, does it?

David said...

@Bruce - perhaps I can qualify my previous post. I accept your point (although my first point about why we do not have any memory of volunteering and pre mortal life remains unadressed? If you don't remember something happening to yourself how can you confidently assert that it did? This seems like a blank cheque for creating whatever we want to believe to fill in speculative gaps tempting though that may be. I am intuitively wary of this. I do not think Christianity is 'just wishful thinking.' If I did I would not be spending so much time confronting my doubts and trying to strengthen and clarify my spiritual understanding. It increasingly seems clear to me that God is the only thing that makes sense of the world. Do not forget you are many decades older than I am and probably much more intelligent and able. You have progressed through many stages of intellectual development and only relatively recently in adult life found the truth as you understand it to be a Christian faith. If this wisdom is truth (and it may well be) it cannot be imposed on the young and must be discovered by individual paths of spiritual discovery. If it could we would not need to live lives ourselves and we would just acquire the wisdom of our elders wholesale and with no real lived/earned understanding or else perhaps the unquestioning subservience of another monotheistic religion would be the path to take. I find this path feels very wrong to me. I have asked God about this in prayer and reflection. We appear to be in agreement that that is not the kind of relationship he wants with me. He tells me to trust my own heart with his guidance and not to just accept what other Christians or anyone else tells me is true, at face value. As far as I understand it this is discernment. I am perhaps not very good at it yet but I am learning.

Bruce Charlton said...


You have missed out a vital source of evidence - the testimony of those you trust.

It is absolutely impossible to discover the whole of Christianity by oneself - and absolutely necessary that you rely for most of it upon sources whom you trust.

You can discoverer whom to trust by prayer and experience, acknowledge their testimonies - then move on - live by them (as best you can).

David said...

This seems like sound advice. I will reflect on this and follow the guidance of those whom I trust or come to
trust. Thanks for your reply as usual. May God bless and guide us.