The following is a precis for a paper I hope to present in the upcoming conference for the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology.
In his book, Death and Immortality, D.Z. Phillips argues that the common conception of immortality and eternal life in Christianity, as being the survival of the soul after death, is based on a confused understanding of life and death. He writes, “If one understands what is meant by 'survival' and what is meant by 'death,' then one is at a loss to know what it means to talk of surviving death.”1 While Mormon teachings of material spirit, physical resurrection, and continuing relationships avoid the conceptual problems of immortality indicated by Phillips, much of what Phillips has to say about eternal life for the Christian believer can provide helpful insights for the concept of eternal life in Mormonism. Phillips' insights, in light of LDS scripture and the distinction usually made within Mormonism between immortality and eternal life, show that eternal life is not a type of life than can only be achieved in the 'post-mortal' life, but is one that can and ought to be experienced and achieved during our mortal existences. Our ability to experience the eternal in our present lives does not only provide further insight to our understanding of eternal life, but has similar implications for our understandings of other “eternal doctrines” such as eternal punishment and eternal families.
According to Phillips, the notion of an immaterial soul continuing to survive after death is nonsensical for three primary reasons. First, it does not make sense to speak of the continued existence of an immaterial soul or person. This is because our concepts of life and existence are tied to our material bodies. Furthermore, our concepts of existence (and especially continued existence) are tied to material things. While some may argue that there are non-material things that exist (such as God or Plato's forms), it would be bizarre and perhaps contradictory for someone to talk about those things as continuing to exist—as if their non-existence were even conceivable. Phillips' second argument against the continuation of life after death also hinges on the notion of an immortal immaterial spirit person. The insistence that we continue to live after death as persons is problematic because our grammar and concepts of what a person is depends on material bodies. “Persons are not mysterious entities that we never meet directly or have direct knowledge of. On the contrary, we do meet persons, come to know them to varying degrees, sometimes know them better than they know themselves, share or nor share their private experiences, and so on.”2 If we have no continuing material existence, then to say that we continue to live as persons after death is nonsensical as our very notions of being persons is tied up with our material bodies. Finally, according to Phillips, our notions of being persons are also tied up with our conceptions of being persons in relationships. We are not persons in isolation, but who we are only have sense in relationship to others. “The question arises, then, of how one can know one's father after death without being his son, how one can know one's lover without still being a lover oneself, or how one can be a friend without the bonds of friendship. Yet no one suggests that the features of this life which can make these relationships . . . are perpetuated beyond this life.”3 If who we are as persons is dependent upon our relationships, to say we continue to exist in this life as the same persons is senseless if those types of relationships (and the physical and societal means for them) are not also present after life.
The Mormon teachings of physical material spirits, physical bodily resurrection, and the continuation of societal and personal relationships into the next life4 provides a context for speaking of the immortality of persons without the problems that Phillips sees in traditional Christian theology. With the belief that persons are (at least partly) composed of material spirit bodies provides a context for which it makes sense to speak of being persons after death—and continuing to exist as persons after death.5
While Mormonism may provide adequate responses to Phillip's criticism of immortality, his conceptions of what eternal life is (and should be) for the Christian believer is insightful for Mormon thought. Because the belief in the continued and immortal existence of the person is confused, Phillips argues that eternal life for Christians is not a state of existence in a future post-mortal life, but is a type of life that Christians can and should strive to attain in our present lives. “Eternity is not more life, but this life seen under certain moral and religious modes of thought.”6 For Phillips, “eternal life for the believer is participation in the life of God.”7
An oft-appealed to scripture in Mormonism is in the LDS Book of Moses where God tells Moses, “For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). In discussing this and similar scriptures, a distinction is usually made between immortality and eternal life, where it is pointed out that immortality refers to the never-to-die-again state that all humans will receive after the resurrection, and that eternal life is a state of immortality-plus for those who keep God's commandments. Eternal life is usually understood as the ultimate goal which is achieved following the resurrection where we both live immortally and live the type of divine life that God does now. Immortality is usually described as the default state anybody achieves regardless of their faith or righteousness, while eternal life is the privileged state reserved for those with faith who live righteously.
This view of eternal life, however, should be problematic for Mormons for a few reasons. If our definition of eternal life includes immortality, then it would be either nonsensical or redundant to speak of God's goal for his children to be both immortality and eternal life. That would be like telling somebody that they are both a good parent and a good mother. Furthermore, it would be bizarre (if not blasphemous) to claim that God's goal, or his work and glory, is to bring immortality to some and eternal life to others. If God loved all of his children equally, it would seem odd to think that eternal life was not a goal that God would want for all of his children.
Furthermore, equating eternal life with an (temporally) endless divine life seems to go against LDS scriptures where the concept of eternal is used to describe the qualities of a thing and not to describe its duration. For example in the Doctrine and Covenants, God (in discussing punishment) says “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, 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 states that the eternal in eternal punishment—and even the endless in endless punishment—is not used to mean “there shall be no end,” but is rather used to denote the type and quality of the punishment. As names for God, eternal and endless indicate the types of punishment, they are God's punishment. It is for this same reason that D.Z. Phillips says that “eternal life for the believer is participation in the life of God.”8
One way to get around this is to do what many Mormons have done by making immortality and eternal life two distinct categories for our potential post-mortal lives.9 Here, the former describes the temporal quantity of that life while the latter describes the quality of that life. The end goal then is to possess both immortality and eternal life. Though not describing the duration of this new life, eternal life is still understood as something that is not attained until the next stage of life.
This exclusion of experiencing the eternal to our post-mortal lives also seems to go against LDS scriptures which depict the ability to experience the eternal in the present moment. For example Alma the Younger says that for three days and nights he “was racked with eternal torment” (Alma 36:12). This scripture shows that the eternal (in this case eternal torment) could be experienced both in mortality and in a finite amount of time.
Like Phillips, Nephi taught that “to believe in [Jesus], and to endure to the end, . . . is life eternal” (2 Nephi 33:4). Nephi here does not say simply that faith and enduring eventually result in eternal life, but rather that faith in Christ and the act of enduring is eternal life. Like the eternal punishment experienced by Alma's unrighteousness, eternal life can be experienced in the present and is not just a result of righteous living, but is righteous living. This equation of righteous living with eternal life by Nephi correlates with his Father's (and brother Jacob's) teachings that we are free to choose between eternal death and eternal life. If immortality is necessary for all humans, then like eternal life, eternal death cannot refer to an endless duration of death, but would rather refer to a type of death, or an unrighteous type of life. According to Phillips, if eternal life is identifying one's life with that of Gods, then eternal death would be a distancing of one's life with that of Gods. “For a person to die unaware of his distance from God would not, for the believer, be a matter of that person escaping anything, but of his dying in the worst possible situation.”10
For Phillips, the understanding of eternal life as not a state of a next life, but rather as a state of one's current life was not a mere issue of philosophical or theological speculation, but was of special ethical importance for the Christian believer. It is here to that understanding the eternal in temporal terms can have significant ethical importance for Latter-day Saints. Phillips argued that this view of eternal life focused our religious/ethical to the present conditions of ourselves and others. Rather than succumbing to the temptation and criticism of Camus to ignore the present conditions in hope for better condition in the next life, we must focus on achieving and helping others achieve eternal life today. For living like God (loving, caring, sharing, liberating, etc.) are not activities that will lead eventually to eternal life, but are acts of eternal life.
This concept of eternal is not exclusive to eternal life. As already seen, it's opposite, eternal death or eternal punishment, are also not types of life that can only be experienced in the next life, but can be and is a condition that we suffer from today. Anybody whose actions are in defiance of God's love are in a state of eternal death and punishment. To be or feel locked in the chains of addictions, sins, poverty, and other obstructions that keep us from loving like God or feelings God's love are states of eternal punishment that we must seek to end. All to often, in seeking to save someone from eternal punishment in a post-mortal sense, we ignore the suffering and hell they are currently in.
This concept of eternal can and should be carried into other 'eternals' in Mormonism, such as eternal families, eternal covenants, etc. In each of these, rethinking the eternal as a type that is lived today, rather than one which is just experienced tomorrow, can bring us a greater understanding of those things.
Many may object that our focus must be placed on the next life and not this as, coupled with immortality, how these eternals are experienced in the next life have and endless duration and ultimately have a greater importance when one looks at 'the greater picture.' However, as Alma the Younger taught to his son Corianton, whatever type of life we live today will be restored to us in our next stage of life (Alma 41). If this is the case, if we focus on our current state, then what happens in the next life will simply follow from this. If we have eternal life now, we will have eternal life again. If we have eternal punishment, it will continue. If we live in eternal families and relationships today, then those relationships will also remain the same.
1D.Z. Phillips, Death and Immortality (London: Macmillan and Co, 1970), 15.
4To speak of the next life in Mormonism is not to speak of another different life, but rather refers to the next stage of the same life.
5However, as Phillips noted, much of our understanding of being persons depends on our physical flesh and blood bodies which we identify others with. Whether, and to what extent, our spirit bodies are sufficient to be understood (and recognized) as the same persons in the 'spirit world' between our deaths and bodily resurrection requires further discussion.
6Ibid., 49. Emphasis added.
9See for example, Joseph B. Wirthlin, “Timely Topics: What Is the Difference between Immortality and Eternal Life?” Ensign (November 2006). “Eternal life, however, is something altogether different. Immortality is about quantity. Eternal life is about quality. To use a metaphor, immortality is how long the dinner lasts. Eternal life is what is on the menu and who is with us at the table.”