You are here

Spirits and the Mormon Worldview

Printer-friendly version

Spirits and the Mormon Worldview

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

What we believe about life after death is closely related to what we believe about God, about what it means to be human, about the significance of what Jesus Christ has done for us, and about our salvation. It is neither necessary nor possible for us to know everything about the spirit realm or the afterlife, but it is important that what we do believe about it is sound.

"Mormons are taught that human beings have two bodies simultaneously—a physical body of flesh and a finer but also material body of spirit that looks just like that of a human being. This doctrine leads to some intriguing and problematic implications."

The LDS Church rightly affirms that when our mortal bodies die, we continue to exist as spirits while we await our future resurrection from the dead. It also teaches that the spirits of the righteous and those of the wicked will be separated from one another (Gospel Principles, 241-43). These two points of doctrine are taught in the Bible (e.g., Luke 16:19-31; 2 Corinthians 5:6-8; Philippians 1:21-24; Hebrews 12:23; Revelation 6:9-11). However, other aspects of LDS doctrine about the spirit world do not fit with the teachings of the Bible. Some of the issues here may seem of interest only to professional theologians, such as whether spirit is a form of matter. However, when these seemingly academic issues are put into the larger perspective of the whole belief system of the LDS religion, they turn out to be of extreme importance.

A. The LDS Church teaches that all spirit is a refined form of matter.

The LDS Church teaches that spirits are corporeal, material beings. In a revelation given in 1843, the year before he died, Joseph Smith stated: “There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter” (D&C 131:7-8).

Joseph Smith did not originate the idea that spirit is a more refined or purer form of matter. The idea has been around for many centuries and was a common enough view in Joseph’s culture. Even the very adjectives that Joseph used to describe spirit, fine and pure, were conventional in his day. For example, Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) gave as one definition of the word spirit, “Something eminently pure and refined” (779).

The idea that spirit is a kind of “material” substance is controversial and arguably inconsistent with the Bible, but in and of itself may not be a destructive doctrine. It is what Joseph Smith did with this teaching that raises the most serious problems. He taught not only that all spirit is matter, but that all spirit is composed of eternal elements and that man is co-eternal with God:

“Ye were also in the beginning with the Father; that which is Spirit, even the Spirit of truth…. Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be…. For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy” (Doctrine and Covenant 93:23, 29, 33).

Now we begin to see the radical nature of Joseph Smith’s doctrine. The above revelation, dated 1833 (a decade before his statement that all spirit is matter), asserts that humans are spirit beings that have existed since the beginning of creation alongside God the Father and Jesus Christ. Mormons traditionally understand this passage to mean that all beings, including God, Christ, angels, and humans, are uncreated beings originating as “intelligence” and composed of “eternal” elements. Joseph’s later revelation in Doctrine and Covenants 131 (quoted at the beginning of this section) tweaked this doctrine by explaining that spirit is simply another form of matter, more refined and pure than physical things.

It is crucial to understand that the Mormon worldview includes God in this doctrine that all beings, both spiritual and physical, are composed of the same eternal elements, which Joseph called “matter.” The uncreated, eternal reality, according to Joseph’s developed worldview, is not God: it is, rather, the eternal “intelligence” or “elements” from which all things, including God, originate. Thus, a year after his revelation asserting that all spirit is matter, Joseph explicitly denied that God has always been God:

“In order to understand the subject of the dead, for consolation of those who mourn for the loss of their friends, it is necessary we should understand the character and being of God and how He came to be so; for I am going to tell you how God came to be God. We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea, and take away the veil, so that you may see… Here, then, is eternal life: to know the only wise and true God; and you have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done before you—namely, by going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you attain to the resurrection of the dead, and are able to dwell in everlasting burnings, and to sit in glory, as do those who sit enthroned in everlasting power” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 345, 346-47).

Here is where Joseph Smith’s supposed “revelations” concerning the nature of spirit and matter took him. Having taught that all beings, from God to humans, have existed from the beginning and are composed of the same uncreated, eternal elements, and having broken down the distinction between spirit and matter, Joseph had created a new worldview in which “intelligence” or the eternal “elements”—rather than God—were the ultimate, self-existent reality. It was a short step, if a step at all, from that premise to the conclusion that God himself was not eternally God but was a being who became God. It was just another short step to the conclusion that if God could start out as a being composed of the same elements as human beings and become God, then we could do the same.

We address in detail these ideas that God was once a man like us, that he then became God, and that we can also become God just as he did, in the final two articles in this study guide (in response to the last chapter of Gospel Principles). These two articles review the history of the LDS doctrine that God was once a man and then examine whether the Bible teaches that a man can become a God. It is crucial at this point, though, to understand that there is a lot at stake in this seemingly arcane issue of the relationship between spirit and matter. In the LDS doctrinal system, this is a key premise of its doctrine that we can become Gods in the same way that our own God became one.

B. The LDS Church teaches that human beings have both “spirit bodies” and “physical bodies.”

In an undated statement, probably from about 1842 or 1843, Joseph Smith is reported to have said, “That which is without body or parts is nothing. There is no other God in heaven but that God who has flesh and bones” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith [2007], 42). The inclusion of this statement in the Teachings book, a recent official curriculum published by the LDS Church, shows that they accept this statement as part of Joseph Smith’s teachings. However, the statement is confusing since it implies that spirits who have not yet received physical bodies are “nothing.” It also implies that the Holy Ghost (the preferred term among Mormons for the Holy Spirit) is not a God, since Joseph Smith taught at the time, and the LDS Church still teaches, that the Holy Ghost does not have a physical body. “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit. Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us” (Doctrine and Covenants 130:22).

The current teaching of the LDS Church is that human beings have two bodies: a “spirit body,” which we had before our physical births and which we will always have, and a “physical body,” which we have in this mortal life and which in the future will be resurrected and permanently joined to our spirit body. Both the spirit body and the physical body are composed of matter and have essentially the same size, shape, parts, and features, but whereas we can see and touch the physical body we cannot as mortals see or touch spirit bodies. Note the following statements from General Authorities of the LDS Church, all quoted from conference editions of Ensign, the LDS Church’s official magazine:

“We came into this life to acquire a physical body” (Russell M. Nelson, April 2005).

“In the premortal realm, spirit sons and daughters knew and worshiped God as their Eternal Father and accepted His plan by which His children could obtain a physical body and gain earthly experience to progress toward perfection and ultimately realize his or her divine destiny as an heir of eternal life” (“The Family: A Proclamation to the World” [an official statement of the LDS Church leadership], Nov. 1995).

“Our spirit body has the same shape and form as the physical body. The spirit body then has arms, legs, a head, and a mind” (Eldred G. Smith, Oct. 1964).

“You and I are dual personages, possessing a spirit body which dwells in a physical body. Death is the separation of that spiritual body from the physical body” (Milton R. Hunter, April 1949).

As Eldred Smith’s comment indicates, in LDS theology the spirit body and the physical body look alike and have the same form and parts. According to Gospel Principles, “Spirit beings have the same bodily form as mortals except that the spirit body is in perfect form (see Ether 3:16)” (242).

C. The LDS Church teaches that animals and plants also have spirit bodies—and that all animals will be resurrected from the dead.

In the Book of Moses, a revision of the early chapters of Genesis produced by Joseph Smith in 1830 and early 1831—within the first year after publishing the Book of Mormon—Joseph taught that God created all things spiritually before he created them naturally in the earth.

For I, the Lord God, created all things, of which I have spoken, spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth. For I, the Lord God, had not caused it to rain upon the face of the earth. And I, the Lord God, had created all the children of men; and not yet a man to till the ground; for in heaven created I them…. And I, the Lord God, formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul, the first flesh upon the earth, the first man also; nevertheless, all things were before created; but spiritually were they created and made according to my word…. And out of the ground made I, the Lord God, to grow every tree, naturally, that is pleasant to the sight of man; and man could behold it. And it became also a living soul. For it was spiritual in the day that I created it; for it remaineth in the sphere in which I, God, created it, yea, even all things which I prepared for the use of man; and man saw that it was good for food” (Moses 3:4-5, 7, 9, emphasis added).

This passage teaches that in some sense all human beings—“all the children of men”—existed “in heaven” before God made the first man, Adam, on the earth. However, it does not explain what this means. It is noteworthy that the text presents God as saying that he “created” human beings—and everything else—“spiritually.” This does not fit well with the LDS Church’s later view that we were God’s spiritual offspring in heaven. Nevertheless, for the first time Joseph was promulgating the idea that human beings existed in some way “spiritually” in heaven before becoming “living souls” here on earth. This idea eventually developed into the full-blown doctrine of “preexistence”—that all human beings lived in heaven as literal spirit children of God even before the formation of the physical universe.

Two years later in 1832, Joseph offered a comment on the “beasts” in the Book of Revelation, in which he indicated that the spirits of animals look like their physical forms:

“They are figurative expressions, used by the Revelator, John, in describing heaven, the paradise of God, the happiness of man, and of beasts, and of creeping things, and of the fowls of the air; that which is spiritual being in the likeness of that which is temporal; and that which is temporal in the likeness of that which is spiritual; the spirit of man in the likeness of his person, as also the spirit of the beast, and every other creature which God has created” (Doctrine and Covenants 77:2).

On the basis especially of this text, the LDS Church teaches that all plants, animals, and human beings existed in spirit form with their own spirit bodies—looking essentially like they look here—in heaven before the formation of this world:

“All living things—mankind, animals, and plants—were spirits before any form of life existed upon the earth (Gen. 2:4–5; Moses 3:4–7). The spirit body looks like the physical body (1 Ne. 11:11; Ether 3:15–16; D&C 77:2; D&C 129)” (“Spirit,” in The Guide to the Scriptures).

Consistent with this doctrine that all living things have spirit bodies, the LDS Church teaches that all animals will be resurrected to immortality along with human beings, a doctrine at least implied in one of Joseph Smith’s early revelations:

“And the end shall come, and the heaven and the earth shall be consumed and pass away, and there shall be a new heaven and a new earth. For all old things shall pass away, and all things shall become new, even the heaven and the earth, and all the fulness thereof, both men and beasts, the fowls of the air, and the fishes of the sea; And not one hair, neither mote, shall be lost, for it is the workmanship of mine hand” (Doctrine and Covenants 29:3-5).

The notion that animals have spirit bodies in addition to their physical, earthly bodies is even more highly problematic than the idea that humans have two such bodies (which we will critique below). At least in Mormon theology there is a reason given for human spirits to come to the earth as physical beings: they need the physical bodies to experience testing and mortality so they can become immortal and potentially become exalted beings or gods. What do spirit bats or spirit crawfish gain by coming to earth in mortal, physical bodies? They were apparently already flying or swimming happily in the spiritual realm, in no danger of ever dying. The LDS Church denies that animals can become gods, so what is the point of their experiencing the travails of biological life on earth? This is just one of the many problems inherent in this doctrine that all animals have spirit bodies with which they existed and will exist again in heaven.

From a biblical perspective, animals are just that: animals. They are biological organisms. Their life begins in their physical conception and birth and ends with their physical death. The Genesis creation account states that God caused animals to be brought forth from the earth (Genesis 1:24-25). They are literally of earthly, terrestrial origin. The human desire for immortality, for relationship or connection with the divine, for experiencing the transcendent—this desire distinguishes us from the animals and is a mark of our unique creation in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27).

Many Christians—not just Mormons—entertain the possibility and may even hold dear the hope that God will re-create their beloved pets in the new heavens and new earth. There is nothing in the Bible to preclude this idea, nor is there anything that would clearly or directly support it. I see nothing theologically faulty about holding this opinion. However, the LDS doctrine might be viewed as this innocent enough wish to be reunited with the family dog in the resurrection run amuck. Again, it is important to put this doctrine into the larger context of what is the quite distinctive Mormon worldview. In that theological system, all living beings come from eternal matter/spirit, taking their present forms as stages in their development toward perfection. This is what the LDS Church teaches about all living beings, from dogs to Gods. Whatever one may think or hope about pets in the new creation, the Mormon worldview in which all animals are primordial spirit beings temporarily residing on earth is radically different from the biblical worldview in which the only eternal, uncreated Being is God himself (Genesis 1:1; Psalm 90:2; Romans 1:19-21; etc.). This is the larger theological context in which we need to examine the LDS doctrine that all human beings existed with spirit bodies in heaven before starting life here on earth in physical bodies.

D. The Mormon doctrine of human “spirit bodies” is both unreasonable and unbiblical.

We have provided a great deal of background and context to the Mormon view of human “spirit bodies” in order to approach this subject in the clearest possible context. Now we will examine this idea directly and explain why it is simply not a tenable doctrine.

Again, Mormons are taught that human beings have two bodies simultaneously—a physical body of flesh and a finer but also material body of spirit that looks just like that of a human being. This doctrine leads to some intriguing and problematic implications:

  1. that in each human being, two “bodies” are occupying the same space at the same time
  2. that when a human being is a small child, it has a child-sized physical body but is inhabited by an adult-sized spiritual body
  3. that a human being has four eyes, four ears, two mouths, twenty fingers, and so forth (since he or she has two sets of every body part)
  4. that spirits have such features as eyelashes (which function in the physical body to keep dust out of the eyes)
  5. that spirits have bodies designed to listen to sounds (vibrations in air) and talk (create such sounds with the mouth); eat and drink; digest foods and eliminate waste; detect odors; pick up, carry, and manipulate objects; walk, sit, and stand; engage in sexual relations; and produce offspring

 While Mormons typically have no objection to the idea of spirit bodies eating and drinking, as well as talking and hearing, most would reject the notion that spirit bodies have sexual activity or produce offspring. Yet just as there is no purpose to having a nose if there are no odors, there is no purpose to having reproductive organs if there is no capacity for reproduction. The point here is not to poke fun at the LDS doctrine or to engage in sensationalism, but to raise some serious questions about the coherence of the doctrine.

 Mormons accept the doctrine that all humans have spirit bodies because they regard it as revealed truth. Their confidence in the LDS revelations overrides any objections arising from the incoherence of the doctrine. But is this doctrine based on genuine revelations from God? If so, it is puzzling that the doctrine is not found in the Book of Mormon (which attributes a body of spirit to Christ and perhaps to the Holy Ghost, but never to man and never two bodies at the same time) or the Bible.

The biblical writer who has the most developed doctrine concerning the relationship between the physical and spiritual aspects of human nature is the apostle Paul. He distinguishes these two aspects using a variety of terms:

  • “outer man,” which is “seen,” and “inner man,” which is “unseen” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18; Ephesians 3:16)
  • "flesh” and “spirit” (1 Corinthians 5:5; 2 Corinthians 7:1)
  • “body” and “spirit” (1 Corinthians 5:3; 7:34; Colossians 2:5; possibly Romans 8:10)
  • “body” and “mind” (Ephesians 2:3)

In Romans 7:22-25 Paul uses several of these terms, contrasting the “body” or “flesh” with the “mind” or “inner man.” Thus, in Paul’s doctrine, human beings have two aspects: the body, flesh, or outer man which is seen, and the mind, spirit, or inner man which is unseen. When a believer in Jesus Christ dies, he becomes “out of the body” or “absent from the body” but “present” or “at home” with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:6-9). When Paul speaks about the “body” of a human being, he always means the physical, flesh-and-bones body. The Bible never uses such expressions as “spirit body” or “body of spirit”; these are modern expressions that Mormons and other religious groups (such as Jehovah’s Witnesses) use to articulate their doctrine. The Bible uses the Greek word sōma (“body”) about 278 times, about half in the Greek translation of the Old Testament and half in the Greek New Testament, and never in reference to spirits, angels, or God. Nor does the Bible ever speak of a human being as possessing two personal or literal “bodies” (not even Christ). The human spirit or soul is not a body; it is something that the Bible contrasts with the body (in addition to Paul, see Isaiah 10:18; Micah 6:7; Matthew 10:28; James 2:26).

The LDS doctrine concerning the nature of spirits is obviously attractive because it may seem to make spirits more “real” than the traditional view. The ideas of spirits having bodily form, of human spirits being intrinsically male and female, and of animals also have spirit bodies that existed in heaven may seem harmless enough, but in the context of Mormon theology they are part of a radically unbiblical worldview. In that worldview, all entities (even animals) are eternal beings and there is no essential, eternal difference between people and God. This worldview conflicts with the Bible’s teaching that human beings intrinsically physical creatures made by God on this earth with a special capacity among all earthly creatures, not to become Gods, but to have a personal relationship with God. The Mormon view of spirits leads also to such absurdities as the notion that all people have two bodies and that their “spirit bodies” can perform all of the same functions as physical bodies. For these reasons, the LDS doctrine of spirits should be viewed as unbiblical speculation.