The following equation best sums up how Mormons understand the universe and the purpose of life: As humans are, God used to be; as God is, humans may become.
One main key to getting the gist of Mormonism is the belief that a person's existence doesn't begin with birth on this earth. Rather, Mormons believe that all people lived as spirits before coming here. For Mormons, this belief helps explain a whole lot about the conditions and purposes of this earthly life, which they view as God's test of his children. In addition, Mormons hold some unusual views about the afterlife, particularly regarding what human beings can become.
Life before mortal life
If life doesn't start with conception and birth, when does it start? For Mormons, it never really started, because each person has an eternal essence that has always existed. However, Mormons believe that God created spiritual bodies to house each person's eternal essence, so he's the spiritual father of humankind. All human spirits were born before the earth was created.
Sitting at the knee of God and his wife, many spirit children expressed a desire to grow up and become like their Heavenly Parents. So God set up the plan of salvation, which involved creating an earth where his children could gain physical bodies and go through a challenging test of faith and obedience. Those who pass the test with flying colors get the chance to eventually start an eternal family like God's.
In premortality, as Mormons call this stage, two of the oldest spirit siblings made a big impression. The first spirit, named Jehovah, volunteered to help everyone overcome the sin and death they'd unavoidably encounter during the earthly test, and this brother was eventually born on earth as Jesus Christ. Mormons believe he's their Savior and strive to be like him. The other spirit, named Lucifer, rebelled against God's plan of salvation, convincing a bunch of siblings to follow him and start a war. God banished Lucifer and his followers to the earth without bodies, and Mormons believe that these spirits are still trying to win humans to their side and thwart God's plan.
Life on earth
Good news: In the Mormon view, everyone who's born on this earth chose to follow God's plan of salvation and come here. Even those who give in to evil during earthly life will still receive an eternal reward for making the correct choice during premortality. Mormons don't believe that humans are born carrying the stain of Adam's original sin, as Catholics and some Protestants do. But they do believe that each individual's circumstances in this life are at least partly influenced by what that person did in premortality.
One difficult aspect of this mortal test is that humans can't remember what happened in premortality, so they must rediscover their divine origins through faith. However, God sent Jesus Christ not only to overcome sin and death but also to establish the gospel, which serves as a road map back to God. Two kinds of messengers help people understand and follow this gospel: prophets and the Holy Ghost, a spiritual being who speaks directly to the human spirit. By listening to these guides, people can figure out the puzzle of life. Unfortunately, the devil strives to fill the world with distractions and counterfeits.
Another hard aspect of the earthly test is that God generally won't interfere with people's freedom to act, even when they do terrible things to each other or fail miserably. In addition, God allows accidents, natural disasters, illnesses, and other difficulties to challenge his children and prompt them to seek him out. For Mormons, it helps to remember that these temporary trials represent a mere blink of the eye on an eternal scale, and they exercise faith that God will comfort and protect those who ask for his help to endure suffering.
During mortality, Mormons believe that everyone needs to participate in certain rituals in order to live with God in the afterlife and become like him. Someone holding God's priesthood authority, which Mormons believe currently comes only through the LDS Church, must perform these rituals. If a person dies without receiving these ordinances, Mormons perform the rituals in temples on behalf of the deceased person, whose spirit then decides whether or not to accept. These ordinances are
- Confirmation, which includes receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost
- Priesthood ordination
- Washing and anointing
- Sealing, including celestial marriage for those wedded on earth
Life after mortal life
Mormons believe that when humans die, they slough off their physical bodies and return to the spiritual state. Some go to spirit paradise, and some go to spirit prison. Mormons believe that the spirits in paradise visit the spirits in prison and teach them the gospel, and some choose to accept it and cross over into paradise. Whether they're in paradise or prison, the stopover in the spirit world is only temporary, because God has greater things in store.
Eventually, after God's spirit children have experienced their earthly tests and paid for their sins either by receiving the Savior's Atonement or suffering themselves, he'll resurrect everyone with perfect physical bodies that will last forever. Then he'll sort people into three heavenly kingdoms:
- Telestial kingdom: Those who live in sin, die without repenting, and never accept the Savior's Atonement go here, after suffering for their own sins in spirit prison.
- Terrestrial kingdom: Those who live good lives but don't embrace the full gospel will inherit this kingdom. Jesus pays for their sins.
- (Both the telestial kingdom and the terrestrial kingdom are glorious paradises, not hell or places of torture.)
- Celestial kingdom: This highest kingdom is reserved for those who live the full gospel and receive the proper ordinances. This kingdom is where God lives and where his children can become like him.