Sunday, December 02, 2007

Rethinking the Eternal : Part 1 - Is There a Life Before Death?

The following is the first of four posts discussing some things that I have been thinking a lot about lately. I'll be the first to admit that my thoughts here aren't written out as well as I'd like them to be and that there is much work left to be done with them. In the end, I am strongly considering rewriting the whole thing into a more formalized paper for presentation. For that reason I would greatly appreciate any thoughts, comments, ideas, and especially criticisms that you may have.

And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?

-Matthew 19:16

In Darren Aronofsky’s, The Fountain, three variations of the same tragic theme are portrayed as the main character, Tommy sets out to find the secret to immortality in order to save his terminally ill wife, Izzi. Whether told from the perspective of a conquistador searching for the tree of life, a doctor searching for a cure of death, or a futuristic traveler searching for the eternal, the story is the same. Tommy’s quest to live forever leads to a life never lived, and even worse, his quest to be with Izzi forever leaves them indefinitely apart. This is explicitly portrayed in the main storyline as Tommy spends his every moment searching for a cure to Izzi’s illness, all the while rejecting his wife’s pleas for him to spend her remaining days with her. Tommy’s denial of death renders his life meaningless, while Izzi’s acceptance of death places the utmost value in every living moment.

Are we as Latter-day Saints guilty of a similar sin? Have we in our quest for a life after death, denied our life before death? Do we fall under Albert Camus’ criticism of religion such that we ignore the injustices of our lives in pursuit of a utopian afterlife? I believe that the answer to these questions is yes. However, this need not be the case and is a result of a confused sense of what it means to be ‘eternal.’ A sense, that, if cleared of its confusion, can provide a deeper and more active sense of eternal hell, eternal life, and eternal families.

In typical LDS discourse, Mormons use the word ‘eternal’ to denote an endless duration of time. For example, when one speaks of an eternal marriage or an eternal family, ‘eternal’ is used to qualify the family bonds as being those which will last for an infinite duration . These are marital and familial relationships and commitments that will last indefinitely – families that can be forever.

However, LDS scripture provides a different sense in which the eternal should be understood. In the 19th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, God instructs:

Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment. Again, it is written eternal damnation; . . . For, behold, the mystery of godliness, how great is it! 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 19:6-12)

Here, God explicitly states that the eternal and endless are not meant to be understood as endless duration, but is rather descriptive of the type or kind. This is divine punishment, punishment as God would experience it.

An example of this is given in the Book of Mormon as Alma the Younger finds himself suffering from “eternal torment” for three days:

But I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins. . . . And now, for three days and for three nights was I racked, even with the pains of a damned soul. (Alma 37:12,16)

There are three important things to notice from Alma’s description. First, his eternal torment lasted only three days – this was clearly not a description of the duration. Second, Alma instead used ‘eternal’ to denote the degree of his suffering. Third, Alma did not experience this eternal torment in an afterlife; rather, he was experiencing the eternal in the here and now – in his mortality.

These are the same points made by the (non-LDS) philosopher of religion, D. Z. Phillips. In his book, Death and Immortality, Phillips argues that all too often Christian notions of immortality and eternal life are confusions resulting from language. He concludes that the eternal should not be understood as

an extension of this present life, but a mode of judging it. Eternity is not more life, but this life seen under a certain moral and religious modes of thought. . . .

Eternal life for the believer is the participation in the life of God, and that this life has to do with dying to the self, seeing that all things are a gift from god, that nothing is ours by right or necessity.

While Mormonism’s materialism is able to avoid some of Phillips’ issues with traditional Christian metaphysics, his moral and linguistic contemplations of eternal life still hold. As illustrated above, by placing an emphasis on a life after this, we de-emphasize and become essentially less sympathetic to the sufferings and injustices in this life. Furthermore, for a life after death to have any value and sense, a life before death must be similarly measurable and judged. A pursuit of a type of grand life after death does not lead to a moral living, but results in amoral living. As Phillips puts it, “It seems that if people lead a certain kind of life simply because of the final set of consequences to which it leads, they are indifferent to that way of life.” If a person chose to keep certain commandments because doing so would giver her certain rewards in the next life, she would be no more moral than an employee who performed her duties in order to receive her wage or salary. In fact, we might think quite the opposite of her. If a person only refrained from killing others because of a fear of punishment or hopes for some heavenly reward, we would hardly call that person a moral person.

As I hope to illustrate in the next three posts, our theological use of eternal should not focus on some never-ending continuation of a life after death, but should rather focus on the type of life we ought to be living before death. Eternal hell, eternal life, and eternal families are not the end results of moral living, but are rather descriptive and prescriptive of life in the present – states denoting the rejection, reception, and reflection of divine love.


  1. Quantity is meaningless without quality, as quality is meaningless without quantity. Mormonism is about both.

  2. I think you are on to something here. Part of what fuels our (LDS group) thinking is a desire for easy, pat answers to difficult concepts or dilemmas.

    A common example is the whole who's sealed to whom when an "eternal" family experiences divorce? We want to imagine mom and dad and kids going on that way forever, not considering that kids and grandkids etc. marry and continue to build, and mom and dad are also kids and themselves grand and, etc. Then comes a divorce, and the whole thing falls apart? No, I rather like to imagine being sealed as adding your life's thread to the tapestry of one big family. In that setting divorce or marriage sealings seem a lot less complicated.

  3. lincoln,

    i'm not claiming that the eternal is quantity-less, that wouldn't make any sense.

  4. Right . . . as it would not make sense to claim that the eternal is quality-less. Mormonism teaches life both eternal and immortal, which I interpret as references to both quality and quantity.

  5. thanks again lincoln. what i'm trying to say is that eternal life and immortality are not identical (which most mormons would agree), but that eternal life can and is equally descriptive of types of life in mortality and immortality.


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