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Salvation, Immortality, and Eternal Life in Mormon Belief

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Salvation, Immortality, and Eternal Life in Mormon Belief

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

“We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel” (Articles of Faith 3).

A. Immortality for All?

The LDS doctrinal manual Gospel Principles states that the Atonement is Christ’s “great sacrifice” that he made “to pay for our sins and overcome death.” By “death” is meant both physical and spiritual death. “Physical death is separation of the body and spirit. Spiritual death is separation from God.” Since we could not ransom or redeem ourselves, Christ came to be the Savior and ransom us from sin and death (Gospel Principles, 59).

So far, so good. However, according to LDS doctrine, the Atonement frees all human beings from physical death whether they repent and believe or not. “Because of His Atonement, everyone born on this earth will be resurrected…. This condition is called immortality” (62). The LDS Church teaches that every human being will receive resurrection to immortality in one of three heavenly kingdoms. The only exception to this rule is that the “sons of perdition,” who had a spiritual testimony that Mormonism is true and yet willfully rejected it, will be resurrected, but will not live in one of those heavenly kingdoms. We discuss the LDS doctrines concerning the afterlife in our response to later chapters of Gospel Principles (especially chapters 41, 46, and 47). Here, though, we may simply point out that immortality is a benefit of the atonement only for those whom God saves through repentance and faith. The apostle Paul spoke of “immortality” as an aspect of the resurrection bodies of believers who inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 15:50-54). The Lord Jesus himself said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26, emphasis added). Not everyone, but only those who believe in Christ, have the promise that they will never die (which is what “immortality” means).

Note: In biblical language, immortality does not mean merely existing forever—something that will be true even of the wicked in hell—but means being impervious to death. The wicked will exist in hell but they will not be alive, because “life” in biblical terms means participation in a realm of fellowship or community. Hence, Revelation 20:6, 14 and 21:8 call hell “the second death.” The Bible uses the words “immortality” (athanasia) and “incorruption” (aphtharsia) to refer only to the nature of God and of the future state of the redeemed (Romans 1:23; 2:7; 1 Corinthians 15:42, 50, 52-54; 1 Timothy 1:17; 6:16; 2 Timothy 1:10; 1 Peter 1:4, 23).

To support the claim that God will resurrect everyone from the dead to immortal life, the LDS Church cites the following passage from Paul: “For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:21-22). Mormons understand Paul to mean that because of Christ everyone will be resurrected. However, this is not what Paul is saying. Rather, Paul is saying that just as everyone who is “in Adam” dies, so also everyone who is “in Christ” will be made alive. But while all human beings are born “in Adam,” not everyone is “in Christ.” Paul has just referred to those who have “fallen asleep in Christ” (v. 18) and those who have “hoped in Christ” (v. 19). These statements refer to Christians, not to all people. Paul then says in verse 23, “But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at his coming.” The expressions “in Christ” (v. 22) and “those who are Christ’s” (v. 23) refer to the same group. Thus, in this passage Paul is speaking only about those who are raised from the dead as members of the body of Christ.

It is true that God will raise all human beings from the dead, both righteous and wicked (Daniel 12:2; John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15). However, the resurrection of the wicked will not be a resurrection to immortality. Daniel 12:2 contrasts two futures for those who are resurrected: some will be raised “to everlasting life” while others “to everlasting contempt.” Those who did the good, Jesus says, will come forth from the grave “unto the resurrection of life,” while those who did the bad “unto the resurrection of damnation” (John 5:29). Resurrection to immortality is obviously a resurrection to life, so once again immortality is clearly not something everyone who is resurrected will receive.


B. Eternal Life Only for the Elite?

On the one hand, the LDS Church teaches that Christ’s atonement redeems all people from physical death, so that they will be resurrected to immortal life (almost all living together in some heavenly kingdom) regardless of what they do or believe. On the other hand, the LDS Church teaches that Christ’s atonement does not redeem all believers in Christ from spiritual death. In fact, to be precise, Christ’s atonement does not redeem anyone from spiritual death; it merely “makes it possible for us to overcome spiritual death” (Gospel Principles, 62). The heading for this section of Gospel Principles states, “The Atonement Makes It Possible for Those Who Have Faith in Christ to Be Saved from Their Sins.” The distinction may seem subtle but it is extremely important. Whereas the atonement supposedly saves all people from physical death without them doing or believing anything at all, the atonement does not save anyone from their sins but only “makes it possible for those who have faith in Christ to be saved from their sins.” The atonement in LDS doctrine is only a necessary precondition for salvation from sin; it does not actually save anyone from their sins. Likewise, according to LDS teaching faith in Christ does not secure salvation from sin for anyone; it is also merely a necessary precondition, a kind of prerequisite to get started toward being saved from one’s sins.

How, then, can a person be saved from his or her sins? The third Article of Faith (found in the Pearl of Great Price, one of the LDS scriptures) puts it this way: “We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.” It is easy to misread this statement as saying that the Atonement of Christ saves people. That is not what the third Article says. Rather, people “may be saved,” it says, “through the Atonement of Christ.” In other words, the atonement makes it possible to be saved but it does not guarantee it. What secures salvation from our sins is stated in the last part of the sentence: “by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.” According to this statement, we are saved from our sins by our own obedience. In effect, according to LDS doctrine, the atonement makes it possible for us to save ourselves. We save ourselves by our obedience; the atonement of Christ, and our faith in Christ, simply get us started.

The LDS theology of salvation, then, combines a kind of near-universalism (virtually everyone will be saved, including unrepentant atheists and the most heinously wicked people) with a kind of salvation by works (only those who obey a list of laws and other requirements will be “saved” in the highest sense). One “general salvation” everyone gets whether they believe in God and live good lives or not; another “individual salvation” must be earned by a person’s own good works. Notice in the following statement from LDS Church President Joseph Fielding Smith that individual salvation is something that a person “merits” based on his own acts:

“Through the atonement of Christ all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel. Salvation is twofold:General—that which comes to all men irre­spective of a belief (in this life) in Christ—and, Individual—that which man merits through his own acts through life and by obedi­ence to the laws and ordinances of the gospel” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation [Bookcraft, 1954], 1:134).

The notion of a salvation that one must earn or merit is simply unbiblical. Salvation is either a gift of God’s grace or something we merit by our works; it cannot be both. “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace” (Romans 11:6).

The very term atonement in the Bible means a sacrifice by which God and the human being on whose behalf the sacrifice is offered are reconciled. In fact, in the one place in the New Testament where the King James Version uses the word “atonement,” it translates a Greek word (katallagē) that means reconciliation: “And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement” (Romans 5:11). Paul has just used the related verb (katallassō) twice in the preceding verse: “For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life” (Romans 5:10; see also 2 Corinthians 5:18-21). Paul does not say that Christ’s death makes it possible for us to merit reconciliation with God; he says that Christ’s death actually reconciles us. All we “do,” if it can be described as something we do at all, is to “receive” this reconciliation as God’s gift to us. That’s what faith in Christ means: it is accepting God’s gift of a reconciled relationship with him that he provided on the basis of “the death of his Son.” Earlier in the same chapter, Paul writes, “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). To “have peace with God” means the same thing as to be “reconciled to God”: it means that the barrier between us and God has been broken down and we are now able to enjoy a positive relationship with God. This happens “by faith” as we trust in God’s gracious provision of his Son’s death on our behalf.

Oddly, LDS doctrine distinguishes between immortality, which practically all people receive with or without faith in Christ, and eternal life, which only the most zealous Mormons can hope to obtain. Biblically, however, the terms are synonymous. Immortality means never dying; eternal life means always living. One merely states negatively what the other states positively. Immortality means the property of being impervious to death that believers will receive in the resurrection; eternal life means unending life in the age to come. It really makes no sense to claim that only a small percentage of those who receive immortality will obtain eternal life.

The extent to which the LDS doctrine of the atonement departs from the biblical doctrine is evident from the lengthy story that chapter 12 of Gospel Principles uses to illustrate its understanding of the atonement. According to this story (originally from Boyd K. Packer), our predicament is analogous to that of a man who goes deep into debt and then is unable to pay his creditor and so faces debtor’s prison. If the creditor forgives the debt “there will be no justice”; if he refuses to forgive the debt “there will be no mercy” (64). But then a rich friend offers to pay the man’s debt for him to keep him out of prison, on the condition that the debtor accept his friend as his new creditor. “‘Then,’ said the benefactor, ‘you will pay the debt to me and I will set the terms. It will not be easy, but it will be possible” (65). According to this analogy, the debtor still is obliged to repay his debt. The atonement in LDS teaching may pay our “debt” but it in no way releases us from the debt; it only makes Christ our new “creditor” and gives us more time to make good on the debt! The atonement turns out to be a kind of divine “loan” in which Christ pays our debt only on the condition that we agree to repay him on a new contract.

In LDS theology, practically everyone will receive immortal life in some heavenly kingdom, but many—apparently including a majority of people who believe in Christ—will not be able to “go home” to heaven where God dwells. They will not live in the presence of Heavenly Father. If they will live forever and yet remain separated from God, then in reality they will never be reconciled to God. Yet the apostle Paul teaches that Christ’s death on the cross reconciles us to God. It doesn’t just make it possible; it makes it happen—not for all people, but for all who by faith accept the gift of reconciliation. In short, in the biblical doctrine of salvation, there is one salvation that includes both salvation from death and salvation from our sins; it includes both immortality and life in God’s kingdom and presence for eternity. This salvation is the gift of God in which he reconciles us to himself through the death of his Son Jesus Christ. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Notice that eternal life—which LDS doctrine says is only for those who merit it by their works—is the free gift of God. This gift comes to all who trust in Christ Jesus as their Lord and Savior:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

“And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life. These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life” (1 John 5:11-13)

For Further Reflection 

  •  According to the Bible, who will receive immortality?
  •  Does the atonement merely make it possible for us to be saved from our sins, or does it actually save us from our sins?

  •  If individual salvation is based on merit, can it also be based on grace?

  •  Can a person be reconciled to God and still be estranged from him, excluded from living in his presence?

  •  Can a person have immortality but not have eternal life?

  •  Is eternal life a free gift of grace or something for which we must work?


For Further Study

Boa, Kenneth D., and Robert M. Bowman Jr. Sense and Nonsense about Heaven and Hell. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007. Explains what the Bible teaches about heaven and hell, in contrast to the teachings of various religions including Mormonism. This book is available from IRR.