Like most Christians, Mormons believe in life after death, but members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also believe in life before birth. This unique doctrine helps them understand who they are and the purpose of this life.
Before this mortal life, everyone existed as spirit children of God. Mormonism teaches that during this period, which Latter-day Saints call the first estate (see Jude 1:6), everyone knew and worshiped God the Father (see Godhead).
Some Latter-day Saints believe that, prior to being born as spirits, individuals existed eternally as intelligences or self-aware, individual entities whom God gave spirit bodies. The word intelligences, as used here, however, comes from the Book of Abraham, and refers to spirit children of God:
- Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; …for he stood among those that were spirits…
Also revealed by the Lord to Joseph Smith is the doctrine of our eternal nature:
- Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be (see D&C 93:29).
The term Intelligence, as used here, is singular. Some Latter-day Saints, therefore, refer to spirit beings as “organized intelligence.” On this topic, Bruce R. McConkie, an apostle, wrote:
- Abraham used the name intelligences to apply to the spirit children of the Eternal Father. The intelligence or spirit element became intelligences after the spirits were born as individual entities (see Mormon Doctrine, p. 387).
The Doctrine and Covenants sheds further light on the creation of spirit beings:
- All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence. Behold, here is the agency of man… (see D&C 93:30-31).
In other words, God placed truth and intelligence, which is co-eternal with God, in a sphere in order for that truth and intelligence to become independent, to have agency, to act for itself, to become a spirit being. Otherwise, there would have been no existence: there would have been no individual identity or consciousness.
At some point, Heavenly Father called a council in heaven, which all of his spirit children attended, and presented a plan of salvation. There was a limit to man's progression in the pre-mortal world. The goal was to become like Father Himself, who is a glorious, resurrected being, with an incorruptible body of flesh and bone. In order to progress, God's children had to be tested, found worthy, and resurrected. Mortal life would provide each spirit being with a physical body. Through the physical body, mankind could be tested. The loss of memory of the pre-existence and the separation from God would force men to live by faith. The plan allows man to gain wisdom through experience, guaranteed by his free agency. The Plan of Salvation was devised by a loving God before the foundation of the world. It is the plan through which He can lead His children to the same exaltation He enjoys. Christ said of the creation of the earth:
- We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them; And they who keep their first estate shall be added upon; and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever (Abraham 3:24-26).
Because man is guaranteed his free agency, the Lord presented the plan to His children, so they could have the choice to participate. Jesus Christ, also known as Jehovah, was the first-born of God in the Spirit. Through Him, all the worlds had been created. God and Jehovah knew that men would fall and sin. Therefore, they needed a savior and redeemer who could make an infinite atonement, satisfy the demands of justice, and enable men to return to the presence of God:
- And now, behold, I will testify unto you of myself that these things are true. Behold, I say unto you, that I do know that Christ shall come among the children of men, to take upon him the transgressions of his people, and that he shall atone for the sins of the world; for the Lord God hath spoken it.
- For it is expedient that an atonement should be made; for according to the great plan of the Eternal God there must be an atonement made, or else all mankind must unavoidably perish; yea, all are hardened; yea, all are fallen and are lost, and must perish except it be through the atonement which it is expedient should be made.
- Now there is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of another. Now, if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother? I say unto you, Nay.
- But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered; therefore there can be nothing which is short of an infinite atonement which will suffice for the sins of the world (Alma 34: 8-9, 11-12).
As the plan was presented, Heavenly Father also told His children that they would be tempted, that life would be dangerous and painful, and that some may not make it to exaltation. Lucifer, one of the spirit children of God, said that he would become the redeemer. He promised to save all of God's children by force, and he demanded God's honor and glory for doing so. Lucifer's plan would have destroyed the agency of man and thwarted the entire plan of salvation:
- And the Lord said: Whom shall I send? And one answered like unto the Son of Man: Here am I, send me. And another answered and said: Here am I, send me. And the Lord said: I will send the first.
- And the second was angry, and kept not his first estate; and, at that day, many followed after him (Abraham 3: 27, 28).
Lucifer declared war on God and Christ. One third of all the spirits sided with Lucifer. A war ensued, which Latter-day Saints refer to as the War in Heaven, and Lucifer and his followers were cast out of heaven. After being cast out of heaven, Lucifer became the devil. Lucifer and his followers were denied bodies. From this, Latter-day Saints understand that all who have been born and all who will be born, chose to follow Heavenly Father’s plan, because they have been given bodies.
Other events occurred in the pre-existence which have had important impact here on earth. Joseph Smith taught that all the prophets and apostles and many other leaders who have served mankind were fore-ordained to these positions before coming to this earth. This means that certain people, whom the Book of Abraham describes as "noble and great" were selected for special missions here on earth. Indeed, the whole House of Israel, according to Mormon doctrine, were a distinct group in the pre-existence distinguished by their receptivity to spiritual things. They were fore-ordained to come down as the House of Israel and heirs of the Abrahamic Covenant to bless the earth by proclaiming the gospel.
While the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price offer the most clear teachings on pre-mortal life, there are hints to it in other scriptures. Job 38: 7 refers to the sons of God rejoicing when the world was created. Jeremiah 1:5 mentions that Jeremiah was selected as a Prophet before he was born. John 9:1 refers to a man who was born blind. The disciples of Jesus ask whether he sinned and was punished by being born blind, implying that they believed in a pre-existence. Jude 1:6 refers to the first estate, which implies there must be a second estate. However, Latter-day Saints do not rely upon these scriptures alone for their teachings about the pre-mortal life, but also rely on modern day revelation from living prophets.