Line upon Line
Gary James Bergera, editor
Eternal Progression and the Second Death in the Theology of Brigham Young
[p.171]According to contemporary Mormon theology, gods, angels, mortals, and even devils are members of the same eternal family but at different stages of development. The difference among them is determined by their obedience to eternal laws. This concept of “eternal progression” undergirds the church’s notion of preexistence, mortality, and the afterlife. It renders Mormon theology radically different from traditional Judeo-Christian theology, which views God as the only self-existing reality and considers angels, mortals, and devils as creatures totally dependant—or contingent—upon God for their existence.
Despite its importance to Mormon theology, eternal progression has been variously interpreted since the church’s beginnings. For example, some of the ideas of Brigham Young, second president of the LDS church, are relatively unknown to church members today and are even considered heretical by some twentieth-century Mormon leaders. Likewise, Young’s beliefs about the “second death,” which he advocated as the logical opposite to eternal progression, seem to have died with him. Where eternal progression concerns the origin and future of gods, eternal retrogression, or the second death, concerns the origin and future of devils. Young usually discussed these two concepts together, contrasting them with each other to illustrate more clearly the nature of [p.172]each. In what follows I will explore Brigham Young’s teachings on these subjects, particularly the second death.
The earliest writings of church founder Joseph Smith, from whom Brigham Young took his lead in theological speculation, reflect an absolutist trinitarian theology with a primitivist Protestant influence. God is creator—eternal and self-existent; he spoke the cosmos into existence for man, his special creation made in his image. Man is creature, wholly dependant upon God for his existence; and because of the Fall, he is essentially depraved and unworthy of God’s presence. Therefore, he must prove himself, by accepting the “infinite and eternal” atonement made for his sins by God as Christ and by obeying God’s commandments. Satan and his followers are fallen angels, who tempt man to disobey God and with whom God shall condemn the unrighteous to Hell. God will reward the righteous by returning them to his presence in heaven, where they will sing ceaseless praises to him forever. Man’s banishment from God’s presence in this world is “spiritual death.” Following final judgment, those who do not prove worthy of salvation will be banished from God’s presence a second time with Satan and his angels, suffering the “second death” or second separation from God.1
Later Joseph Smith revised his thinking about the nature of God and man. He no longer considered God to be totally and uniquely uncontingent but began to teach that man and the elements of the universe are also self-existing and eternal (D&C 93:33). Further, he portrayed God as a temporal being occupying space and existing in time (D&C 130:4-9, 22; Abr. 3:3, 9, 18; 5:13). Sometime in his past, God was as man now is, but as he learned obedience to eternal laws, he progressed to godhood. Man’s spirit, coequal with and of the same nature as God, is capable of this same progression (Abr. 3:18; D&C 93:23, 29).2 The ideas that God progressed to godhood and that men and women could become gods themselves logically implied the existence of a plurality of gods. Indeed, Smith taught that God himself has a father, or god, to whom he is accountable. Just how far back Smith believed this paternal line of gods extended is unclear. At times, he hinted at the existence of an ultimate god to whom all other gods are answerable and who directs the lesser gods in their creation efforts (D&C 121:32).
Since Smith thought that all matter was uncreated and eternal, he reasoned that God creates by organizing these preexisting [p.173]materials (Abr. 3:24; 4:1). But that which can be organized can be disorganized; that which has a beginning can have an ending. Thus Smith believed that the spirit of man, to be truly eternal, never had a beginning. God’s creative work is to provide the opportunity and environment for man to progress from one stage of existence to another. Smith taught that life came to this earth through procreation, not special creation.3 His doctrine of celestial marriage, by which men and women are sealed together for eternity, promised that the seed of those so married would continue forever. The parents could thus create and populate future worlds, presiding over them as gods (D&C 131:1-4; 132:19-20, 30, 63).
Satan and his followers are also self-existent spirits, who, prior to the creation of the world, rebelled against God. Cast out of God’s presence, they forever forfeited their right to progress into mortality with the more valiant spirits. Those spirits who entered mortality are being tested to determine their worthiness to progress further along the road to godhood. The vast majority will receive some form of redemption and be resurrected to one of three “kingdoms of glory.” Only the “sons of perdition,” who commit the “unpardonable sin” against the Holy Ghost, will be resurrected to a kingdom of no glory, where they will suffer the “second death” of eternal banishment from God into outer darkness along with Satan and his followers (D&C 76:19-113; 88:3-39). Smith reported that this torment was too terrible to describe fully (D&C 76:43-48) and later added that the sons of perdition would never be redeemed: “There also have been remarks made concerning all men being redeemed from hell, but those who sin against the Holy Ghost cannot be forgiven in this world or in the world to come. But I say that those who commit the unpardonable sin are doomed to Gnolaum, and must dwell in hell, worlds without end; they shall die the second death.”4
Joseph Smith’s early, more absolutist teachings and his later, more progressive doctrines exist side-by-side in Mormon canon. However, his most innovative views were only taught publicly just before his death in 1844 and have never been canonized. The differences between these two approaches have proven troublesome to many Mormon theologians who have long tried to reconcile these seemingly irreconcilable views. They have sometimes offered diluted interpretations of Smith’s more controversial statements or [p.174]have challenged the historical accuracy of the statements themselves. The same is true of some Mormon writers’ attempts to deal with the equally radical theology of Brigham Young.
For their part, neither Young nor Smith paid much attention to this apparent dichotomy. Rather than try to reconcile the two teachings, they simply abandoned earlier Mormon theology in favor of later doctrines. Although both men claimed that there were no differences between the teachings of ancient apostles and prophets and those of the modern restorers of God’s truth,5 they did not feel the need to justify their new doctrines by reconciling them with scripture. When they did occasionally use scripture, however, they focused on present needs with little regard to original context and meaning. In fact Young maintained that the scriptures were written according to our readiness to receive truth. If Young’s views differed from the scriptures, it was only because he was better prepared to receive the truth than the ancient authors. Young thus continued to promote and elaborate on Smith’s later theology, sometimes even revising Smith’s doctrines to better suit his own unfolding views.
For example, Smith did not seem to believe that the spirit of man had a beginning. But Young taught that the spirit was literally begotten by heavenly parents.6 Young expanded Smith’s teaching that all life began on this earth through procreation, explaining that God had transplanted the Earth’s plant and animal life from another world. Similarly, Young believed that God and one of his plural wives voluntarily descended from heaven to become Adam and Eve, the parents of the human race. God’s father presided in his place while he enacted the role of Adam.7
Although consistent with Smith’s concept of a plurality of gods, Young’s teachings rejected the possibility of an ultimate god to whom all other gods are accountable. He believed in an endless chain of gods extending back into the eternities with no beginning and which would continue into the future with no end.8 This infinite line of gods formed a patriarchal hierarchy, along which the “presiding god” at any one point would be the one who presided over those below him. According to Young, God’s role as Adam was a one-time “calling”; his next responsibility would be to preside as “grandfather” over his own posterity, who would, if they proved worthy, act as Adams and Eves of their own worlds.9
Like Smith, Young believed that space, time, and matter [p.175]exist eternally. He evidently did not envision the universe as a closed system but as an infinite system with no boundaries. An infinite supply of matter must exist, which an infinite line of future gods use to organize worlds without number for their spirit children who are born in infinite numbers.10 Young also believed that the entire universe either progresses or retrogresses: “All organized existence is in progress, either to an endless advancement in eternal perfections, or back to dissolution.”11
Just as he saw no limits to the physical universe, Young saw no limits to the possible progression of mortals and gods. Although men and women would be assigned to a kingdom in the next life according to their merits, they could still progress within their assigned kingdom and eventually advance to higher kingdoms.12This process of progression would never cease, even for the gods who would eternally acquire more dominion, knowledge, and power. Young reasoned that limiting the amount of knowledge one could attain was equivalent to limiting the universe itself. 13 He taught that only the devils and the sons of perdition themselves, who had consciously decided to rebel against God, would ever cease to learn and progress.14
Although Smith declined to reveal the full extent of the terrible sufferings of the sons of perdition, Young was more willing to speculate on the second death: “When the elements in an organized form do not fill the end of their creation, they are thrown back again … to be ground up, and made over again… . And if he [Jesus] ever makes `a full end of the wicked,’ what else can he do than entirely disorganize them and reduce them to their native element?”15 “The first death,” he explained, “is the separation of the spirit from the body; the second death is … the dissolution of the organized particles which compose the spirit, and their return to their native element.”16 The second death, he warned, is “the death that never dies.”17 “To refuse life and choose death,” he stressed, “is to refuse an eternal existence in an organized capacity, and be contented to become decomposed, and return again to native element… . The one leads to endless increase and progression, the other to the destruction of the organized being, ending in its entire decomposition into the particles that compose the native elements.”18
Young did not believe that man has a conscious, self-existing identity separate from his spirit. Rather, he thought that spirits were [p.176]made of uncreated, raw intelligence, and predicted that devils and sons of perdition will eventually cease to exist as conscious entities: “If you do not obey [the Lord’s] voice, it will prove that you are not worthy of intelligence, any more than the clay upon the potter’s wheel: consequently, the intelligence that you are endowed with will be taken from you, and you will have to go into the mill and be ground over again.”19 A person who returns to this state will cease to exist. But because of the eternal nature of matter, this return to native element does not necessarily mean complete annihilation: “When people take the downward road, one that is calculated to destroy them, they will actually in every sense of the word be destroyed. Will they be what is termed annihilated? No, there is no such thing as annihilation, for you cannot destroy the elements of which things are made.”20
Young implied, like Smith, that this rebellion can occur at any stage of one’s progression: during the preexistence, during mortality, or even following the resurrection. “Suppose,” Young hypothesized, “that our Father in heaven, our elder brother, the risen Redeemer, … or any of the Gods of eternity should [abuse their power] … to torment the people of the earth, exercise sovereignty over them, and make them miserable at their pleasure; they would cease to be Gods; and as fast as they adopted and acted upon such principles, they would become devils, and be thrust down in the twinkling of an eye; the extension of their kingdom would cease, and their God-head come to an end.”21
Young also speculated that Satan, before rebelling against God, was probably a resurrected son of perdition from a previous world. He believed that prior to their eternal dissolution, the resurrected sons of perdition from this earth would be used by the Lord as devils for future worlds: “We expect all who are faithful to take the place of Adams in the worlds to be created; then if there were no apostates, what would we do for Devils? As we have to get our devils from this earth, for the worlds that are to be created.”22“Men in the flesh are clothed with the Priesthood and its blessings, the apostatizing from which and turning away from the Lord prepares them to become sons of perdition,” he added, hinting at the future role of sons of perdition as devils. “There was a Devil in heaven, and he strove to possess the birthright of the Savior. He was a liar from the beginning, and loves those who live and make lies, as do his imps and [p.177]followers here on earth. How many devils there are in heaven, or where it is, is not for me to say.”23
The Mormon temple endowment scenario, which Young codified, also suggests that Young believed Satan once possessed a physical body. The endowment depicts Satan as Adam’s peer who lived with him on a previous world which provided the pattern for the creation of this earth. The fact that Young believed that Adam had been resurrected prior to coming to this earth implies that Satan also was resurrected. Could Young have interpreted the serpent’s curse in the Garden of Eden—the loss of its arms and legs, being forced to crawl upon its belly in the dust—as a metaphor for Satan’s loss of a physical body as part of this process of decomposition? In the endowment, Satan does lose his apron, a symbol of his “power and priesthoods,” after being cursed in the Garden of Eden. Although speculation, Young did teach that part of Satan’s curse was that he would not possess a physical body, that he would eventually decompose even spiritually, return to the eternal spirit element from which he was created, and become as if he did not exist.
While Joseph Smith offered no hope of redemption for the sons of perdition, Young taught that the elemental matter of such disorganized individuals might be reconstituted: “The rebellious will be thrown back into their native element, there to remain myriads of years before their dust will again be revived, before they will be re-organized.”24 “Worked over again,” they will “sooner or later” be “prepared to enjoy some sort of kingdom.” Although it is unclear if Young believed such “reorganized” individuals will have the same intelligence and identity as they did previously, this seems unlikely in light of his teachings that the sons of perdition would cease to exist.25 Thus his concept holds little comfort for those who fear that the wicked would have a “second chance.”
Just as Joseph Smith’s later teachings troubled some followers, Young’s additional speculations have for the most part been coolly received. Apostle Orson Pratt publicly and privately opposed many of Young’s teachings, specifically disagreeing that the second death means a dissolution of the body and spirit: “[The] second death [is] not a dissolution of body and spirit like that of the first death, but a banishment from the presence of God, and from the glory of his power.”26 “Suppose I ask the learned when was the beginning of eternity?” Young countered. “Can they think of it? No! [p.178]And I should very much doubt some of the sayings of one of the best philosophers and writers of the age, that we call brother [i.e., Pratt], with regard to the character of the Lord God whom we serve. I very much doubt whether it has ever entered into his heart to comprehend eternity.”27
Other church authorities defended Young’s teachings, however, including Heber C. Kimball,28 Erastus Snow,29 Daniel H. Wells,30 and Wilford Woodruff.31 But after Young’s death in 1877, many of his doctrines were apologized for, reinterpreted, repudiated, or simply denied to have ever been taught. Much of this took place at the turn of the century, when the church was trying to improve its public image and refining its diverse doctrinal heritage into a more concise, harmonious theology. The only view of the second death the church retained was the Book of Mormon’s traditionalist description of spiritual separation from God. Church leader (and later president) Joseph F. Smith typified this position in 1895. “The first death which came into the world is also the last death which shall be pronounced upon the sons of perdition,” he said. “What is it? Banishment from the presence of God… . This is what I understand spiritual death is. I do not understand it to be the separation of the body and spirit again. I do not understand it to be the dissolution of the spirit into its native element. I understand the second death to be the same as the first death.” Resurrected men and women “are immortal beings,” he continued, “and they are destined, if they commit the unpardonable sin, to be banished from the presence of God, and endure the punishement of the devil and his angels throughout eternity. I think that the wicked would prefer annihilation to the sufferings of such punishment—an end to being. This view cannot be reconciled to the word of God.” Joseph F. Smith rejected Young’s second death doctrine because, in his mind, it contradicted the scriptural description of the second death as being a separation from God, it conflicted with the perception of a bodily resurrection as a final, imutable condition, and it somehow violated the demands of justice which require prolonged, or even eternal, suffering and punishment for the wicked.
These arguments seem to stem back to the more conservative, Protestant-influenced theology canonized in Joseph Smith’s earlier days. But Smith himself departed radically form his own teachings, giving precedent for Young’s additional innovations. Still, I doubt that Smith would have accepted Young’s second death doctrine. His reasons would not necessarily be those later elucidated by Joseph F. Smith; instead, he would probably have felt that it contradicted his view of the unbegotten, eternal nature of the spirit, which he believed coexists eternally with God. Like Joseph Smith, Young did not feel the need to justify his doctrines scripturally. Once he died, however, many of his ideas failed to find a strong vocal advocate among the leaders of the church, including his second death doctrine.
Personally, I find the internal logic and liberal nature of many of Young’s ideas of eternal progression appealing. Although they are not always totally harmonious with Joseph Smith’s views, they at least continue the inventive doctrinal trend Smith began in Nauvoo. But ultimately both men’s views were influenced and limited by nineteenth-century scientific theories as well as by scriptural traditions grounded in mythology centuries old. Still, their willingness to strike out into unchartered theological waters gives Mormons today intriguing and unique responses to the ageless quest for life’s meaning. Sailing upon the open seas of theological speculation has some risks, but no ship ever discovered new ports while anchored in the harbor.
1. See 1 Ne. 11:16-18, 21; 2 Ne. 2:17-18, 22; 9:7, 8, 10-12, 20- 23; Jac. 4:9; Mos. 2:21, 23, 25, 28, 38-39, 41; 3:5, 11, 15-21; 25-27; 4:2, 5, 9,11, 5:2, 15; 7:27; 13:28; 15:1-5; 16:3-5; Al. 12:16-18, 22, 24, 32; 22:10; 26:35; 34:9-16; 32-35; 41:4; 42:4, 9-10, 13-16; He. 14:16-18; 3 Ne. 11:14; Morm. 7:7; 9:17, 19; Eth. 3:4; Moro. 7:22; 8:18; D&C 19:16-19; 20:12, 17, 28; 29:31-33; 36-44; 38:1-3; 45:1; 61:1; 76:4, 25-29; 88:41; 93:10; Moses 1:3, 6, 33, 35, 37, 38; 2:1, 5-7, 11, 16, 30; 3:6, 7; 4:1, 25; 6:48-49, 54-55; 7:29; but compare 1 Ne. 14:3 and Al. 42:9, 16 with 2 Ne. 1:17, 22 and Al. 36:15, where the possibility of annihilation seems somewhat ambiguous.
2. See Stan Larson, “The King Follett Discourse: A Newly Amalgamated Text,” Brigham Young University Studies 18 (Winter 1978), 2:198-225. For Brigham Young’s views on God’s being subject to law, see Brigham Young, et. al, Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (Liverpool: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1855-86), 14:71-72 (hereafter JD, followed by volume and pages numbers).
6. In supervising some of Joseph Smith’s public sermons for publication, Brigham Young changed Smith’s statements that the spirit of man has no beginning and is coequal with God to refer instead to the intelligence of man’s spirit as having no beginning, thus changing Smith’s original meaning. See Van Hale, “The Origin of the Human Spirit in Early Mormon Thought,” in this compilation.
7. See Brigham Young, unpublished sermons, 8 Oct. 1854 and 25 Aug. 1867, historical department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City (hereafter church archives); JD 1:50; 3:318; 7:285; 9:148.
9. See Scott G. Kenney, ed., Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 9 vols. (Midvale, UT: Signature Books, 1983-85), 4:317; JD 4:271; 8:61, 208; 12:97; Samuel W. Richards Journal, 11 March 1856, church archives. Technically, Young implied that God could continue to create and populate worlds eternally, continually reenacting the Adam role as often as he desired, if he had a sufficient number of wives and posterity.
11. JD 1:349. Young wanted to build the Salt Lake Temple from adobe rather than granite. He believed that adobe would last longer because it was becoming rock but granite had already reached the extent of its progression and would soon begin to deteriorate (JD 1:218-20). Young taught that the entire earth would continue to progress until it would ultimately be redeemed and be made into a celestial world, returning to its place of origin near the throne of God (unpublished sermon, 8 Oct. 1854; JD 17:144).
12. Kenney, 4:333-34. Joseph Smith’s older brother Hyrum publicly taught during Smith’s lifetime that “Those of the Terrestrial Glory either advance to the Celestial or recede to the Telestial” (Franklin D. Richards, “Scriptural Items,” 1 Aug. 1843, church archives). See also Gary James Bergera, “Grey Matters: Is There Progression Among the Eternal Kingdoms?” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15 (Spring 1982), 1:181-83.
13. JD 8:17; Kenney, 4:288; 5:439; Deseret News 22:308-309. Contrast Young’s views here with those of twentieth-century apostle Bruce R. McConkie, “Eternal Progression,” Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, [p.181]1966), 239; and “The Seven Deadly Heresies,” 1980 Devotional Speeches of the Year (Provo, UT: BYU Press, 1981).
27. Ibid., 1:352; see also 1:276. For others of Pratt’s and Young’s doctrinal disagreements, see Gary James Bergera, “The Orson Pratt-Brigham Young Controversies: Conflict Within the Quorums, 1853 to 1868,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 13 (Summer 1980), 2:7-49.