As our society’s “Mormon moment” continues, with the award-winning Book of Mormon musical selling out shows and a second Latter-day Saint announcing a run for the presidency, I think we’ll see more attempts by some to “expose” what they see as embarrassing or bizarre aspects of the church. Perhaps chief among their targets will be our doctrine of exaltation. But the descriptions given of this belief will likely be grossly warped, as they usually are.
Case in point: not only was exaltation mocked as a weird, scary secret in an anti-Mormon CNN blog post a couple of weeks ago, but an article in The American Conservative this week garnered two consecutive comments that depicted exaltation in an erroneous light:
They believe that their destiny is to become a god on another planet.
Furthermore, they claim that we are all potential gods (if we are good little Mormons) with our own universes to rule one day.
Neither of these remarks is accurate. My goal here is to define what Mormons do and don’t believe about exaltation, as best as I can.
This is actually pretty easy, because there isn’t much to say about it. What we call exaltation is what theologians call deification, the idea that human beings can become gods. This might stem logically from the LDS belief that humans are the literal spirit children of God—members of the same species—and that God is at an infinitely more advanced state of development, similar to an embryo and an adult.
Our goal in existence is to worship and obey Him, but in what Mormons believe to be scripture newly revealed in modern times, God has shared His long-term goal for us: “This is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). Our Heavenly Father, like any good parent, wants us to eventually grow up to become like Him.
As I said, that all might be logically extrapolated from basic Mormon doctrine, but what exactly do we say we believe about it? The facts are very few. From our scriptures and statements of church leaders, we know that:
1. Even after anyone is blessed with this gift in the future, they will always be subordinate to the authority of God the Father and Jesus Christ. (Doctrine and Covenants 76:58-59)
2. In addition to other basic ordinances, such as baptism, and obedience to gospel law (relying on the merciful grace of Christ to atone for our shortcomings—2 Nephi 25:23), marriage for eternity in an LDS temple is a prerequisite for exaltation. (Doctrine and Covenants 132:19-20)
3. Part of being exalted means that we will be able to have spirit children of our own in the highest degree of Heaven. (Doctrine and Covenants 132:19-20)
4. Our Heavenly Father was once Himself at the stage of existence where we are now. (Quotes from the King Follett discourse of Joseph Smith and a couplet by church president Lorenzo Snow—cited and discussed in an official church magazine here—second half of page)
5. Exaltation is a far distant goal, even in the perspective of eternity—we can’t expect it anytime soon. (Quote from same Joseph Smith sermon as previous point—footnote 4 here)
It might be helpful here to add two things: the vast majority of scriptures mentioning exaltation are in the Bible—where most Christians might interpret the promises of becoming like God differently, we take them literally. Also, exaltation was a well-documented belief of many early Christian leaders. (see here)
And that’s pretty much it. Nothing else of substance seems to be known about exaltation.
Mormons do not claim to know how spirit children are produced, and do NOT teach that it is done by some kind of “celestial sex” in Heaven.
Mormons do NOT teach that exalted women will be “eternally pregnant.”
And Mormons most certainly do NOT teach that exalted people will “rule their own planets.” In fact, on this very subject, Brigham Young said:
But the truth is, you are not going to have a separate kingdom; I am not going to have a separate kingdom; it is not our prerogative to have it on this earth. If you have a kingdom and a dominion here, it must be concentrated in the head; if we are ever prepared for an eternal exaltation, we must be concentrated in the head of the eternal Godhead…If we fancy that we have an independent interest here and in the world to come, we shall fail in getting any of it. Journal of Discourses 4:26-28. (more here)
When would-be critics try to exploit and sensationalize this belief, they also often imply that we hide it, or that we’re dishonest about it. Sometimes they’ll cite former church president Gordon B. Hinckley from a 1997 interview where, when asked about it, he replied:
I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it. I haven’t heard it discussed for a long time in public discourse. I don’t know. I don’t know all the circumstances under which that statement was made. I understand the philosophical background behind it. But I don’t know a lot about it and I don’t know that others know a lot about it.
But this isn’t dissembling; it’s merely being honest. We don’t know much about it, and therefore we don’t discuss it very often. This isn’t even because it’s a sacred idea to be kept personal, like things in the temple. I think we rarely bring up exaltation for two reasons:
1. Everything we know about it would fit comfortably on a post-it note.
2. This doctrine has very little bearing on practical, daily living.
So what’s the point of laboring in conversations over something when there’s almost nothing substantial that can be said about it? Don’t we have far more pressing things to teach and study, like the saving doctrines of the gospel, the commandments, and counsel from scriptures and prophets that help us in our lives every day?
If anyone knows of more detailed information from authorized church sources about exaltation, or if I’ve made any errors here, I’m open to hearing about it. What I’d really like to see, though, is for people to stop perpetuating fallacies without even trying to give decent documentation.
UPDATE: After writing this, I thought to check the church’s current doctrinal manual for group study, Gospel Principles, and sure enough, the very last chapter is about exaltation. So much for Mormons keeping this doctrine hidden. I read that chapter, and the essence of it is very similar to what I’ve written here. As this edition of the manual is only two years old and is in current use, it should probably be considered the most complete and authoritative statement of LDS belief on the subject of exaltation.