Exaltation or eternal life is a belief in Mormonism, most prominently among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), that mankind can return to live in God's presence and continue as families. Exaltation could be referred to as a more literal belief in both the ancient and modern Christian doctrine of deification or divinization. It is often referred to in Mormonism as "eternal progression" and is believed to be what God desires for all humankind. The LDS Church teaches that, through the atonement of Jesus Christ, believers may become joint-heirs with Jesus Christ. The objective of adherents is to strive for purity and righteousness and to become one with Jesus, as Jesus is one with the Father (God). The Doctrine and Covenants contains a verse that states that those who are exalted will "be gods" and, thus, will inherit God's glory through Christ's atonement.
Overview of the doctrine
Members of the LDS Church believe that human beings can grow and progress spiritually until, through the mercy and grace of Christ, they can inherit and possess all that the Father has—they can become gods.
When discussing the Mormons' belief in eternal progression, various Mormon and non-LDS scholars generally refer to a couplet written by Lorenzo Snow, the fifth president of the LDS Church, which states as follows:
This doctrine is generally referred to by scholars both inside and outside Mormonism as the Christian deification. It has been noted by LDS and non-LDS scholars that the LDS expression of this Christian doctrine is often misrepresented and misunderstood when applied to Mormons.
Because of this alleged misunderstanding, several LDS scholars (and occasionally LDS authorities and theologians) have sought to clarify the beliefs of Mormonism regarding the subject of exaltation. Latter-day Saints do not believe that human beings will ever be independent of God, or that they will ever cease to be subordinate to God. Rather, LDS members believe that to become as God means to overcome the world through the atonement of Jesus Christ. Thus the faithful become heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ, and will inherit all things just as Christ inherits all things. LDS commentators have stated that, therefore, the Mormons believe they are received into the "church of the firstborn", meaning they inherit as though they were the firstborn.
LDS scholars, particularly at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University, point out that there are no limitations on these biblical passages and declarations; those who become as God shall inherit all things. The LDS believe that, in that glorified state, those who overcome the world through the grace and mercy of Christ will resemble Christ; they will receive his glory and be one with him and with the Father.
As stated above, Mormons believe that the primary source and references for their belief come from the teachings of their modern prophets. Nonetheless, members of the LDS (like other ancient and modern Christian faith groups who believe in a more literal form of deification) claim to find support for their belief in the Bible, which (along with other Christian faith groups) the LDS believe to be the "word of God."
LDS commentators have highlighted many biblical passages which members of the LDS refer to in support of a more literal belief in Christian deification. Some of these passages are as follows:
- Paul the Apostle taught in numerous passages that men are sons of God (as in chapter 8 of Paul's Epistle to the Romans). Paul conceives of the resurrection as immortalization of both the body and the soul (1 Cor 15:42-49). 2 Corinthians 3:17-18 says that "we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another."
- In John 10:34, Jesus defends himself against a charge of blasphemy by stating: "Have I not said that ye are gods?" It is widely believed that Jesus is referring to Psalms 82:6 in saying "Ye are gods and children of the most high."
- Christ's defence against the charge of blasphemy includes the following passages from John Chapter 10:
- 33 The Jews answered him, saying, For a good work we stone thee not; but for blasphemy; and because that thou, being a man, makest thyself God.
- 34 Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, "I said, Ye are gods'?"
- 35 If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken;
- 36 Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?
- In (1 John 5:4—5;Revelation 2:7-11), the apostle, John the Beloved, speaks about how men can overcome the world, as Christ did, through Christ's sacrifice.
- In Philippians 2:6, Paul talks about deification and that it is not insulting to God to suppose that someone (Christ) could become equal to God.
- There are several Bible verses which, if summarized state that, through Christ, men may become "heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ" and "will inherit all things" just as Christ inherits all things.
Like other Christian denominations that believe in a more literal meaning of deification, Mormons note that there are no limitations on these scriptural declarations; those who become as God shall inherit all things. Nonetheless, Mormons believe man will always be subject to God (1 John 3:2;1 Corinthians 15:49;2 Corinthians 3:18;John 17:21-23;Philippians 3:21).
Ancient doctrine: Correlations between exaltation and patristic writings of early Christianity
There have been many LDS and non-LDS scholars and historians who have noted the similarities between the Mormon belief of eternal progression and the espoused beliefs of the fathers of the early Christian Church, especially in relation to those patristic writings of the first, second, and third centuries A.D. As noted by both LDS and non-LDS scholars of early Christianity, there exist many references to a more literal belief in deification in the writings of the Church Fathers (which some LDS and non-LDS scholars and early Church historians claim most closely resemble the beliefs of Mormonism than the beliefs of any other modern faith group derived from the Christian tradition), including, but certainly not limited to, the following:
- In the second century, Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (c. 130–202), arguably the most important Christian theologian of his time, said that God "became what we are in order to make us what he is himself." Irenaeus also wrote, "If the Word became a man, It was so men may become gods." He added: "Do we cast blame on him [God] because we were not made gods from the beginning, but were at first created merely as men, and then later as gods? Although God has adopted this course out of his pure benevolence, that no one may charge him with discrimination or stinginess, he declares, "I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are sons of the Most High." ... For it was necessary at first that nature be exhibited, then after that what was mortal would be conquered and swallowed up in immortality."
- At about the same time, Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–215), wrote: "Yea, I say, the Word of God became a man so that you might learn from a man how to become a god."
- Clement further stated that "[i]f one knows himself, he will know God, and knowing God will become like God. . . . His is beauty, true beauty, for it is God, and that man becomes a god, since God wills it. So Heraclitus was right when he said, 'Men are gods, and gods are men.'"
- St. Clement of Alexandria also stated that "he who obeys the Lord and follows the prophecy given through him ... becomes a god while still moving about in the flesh." 
- Still in the second century, Justin Martyr c. 100–165) insisted that in the beginning men "were made like God, free from suffering and death," and that they are thus "deemed worthy of becoming gods and of having power to become sons of the highest."
- Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria (c. 296–373), stated his belief in literal deification:"The Word was made flesh in order that we might be made gods. ... Just as the Lord, putting on the body, became a man, so also we men are both deified through his flesh, and henceforth inherit everlasting life." Athanasius also observed: "For the Son of God became man so that we might become God."
- Cyril of Alexandria says that we "are called 'temples of God' and indeed 'gods', and so we are."
- Gregory of Nazianzus implores us to "become gods for (God's) sake, since (God) became man for our sake."
- Finally, Augustine of Hippo (354–430), arguably the greatest of the early Christian Fathers, said: "But he himself that justifies also deifies, for by justifying he makes sons of God. 'For he has given them power to become the sons of God' [referring to John 1:12]. If then we have been made sons of god, we have also been made gods." "To make human beings gods," Augustine said, "He was made man who was God" (sermon 192.1.1). It should be noted, however, that Augustine goes on to write that, "[they] are not born of His Substance, that they should be the same as He, but that by favour they should come to Him... (Ibid)". Thus, Augustine maintained an ontological difference between humans and God.
Notable scholars and historians specializing in the studies of Early Christianity and the beliefs of first, second and third-century Christians have noted that of the above writers were not just important theologians in Christian orthodoxy, but all (in due time) became revered as saints as a result of the early church councils. LDS historians and scholars Robert L. Millet and Noel B. Reynolds also point out that three of the above early fathers of Christianity wrote within a span of less than one hundred years from the period of the apostles.
Relation and correlation to Christian beliefs on deification
Mormons and non-Mormon scholars have, on occasion, also discussed the similarities between Mormon beliefs in exaltation (which as noted is a more literal belief in the Christian doctrine of deification) and the beliefs of some Modern Christian faiths. Most notably, several non-LDS scholars have noted the similarities between the beliefs in deification between Eastern Orthodox Christians, Coptic Christians, and Mormons, which similarities largely persist until this day.
The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology contains the following in an article titled "Deification":
- Deification (Greek theosis) is for Orthodoxy the goal of every Christian. Man, according to the Bible, is 'made in the image and likeness of God.' ... It is possible for man to become like God, to become deified, to become god by grace. This doctrine is based on many passages of both OT and NT (e.g. Ps. 82 (81).6; II Peter 1.4), and it is essentially the teaching both of St Paul, though he tends to use the language of filial adoption (cf. Rom. 8.9—17; Gal. 4.5—7), and the Fourth Gospel (cf. 17.21—23).
- The language of II Peter is taken up by St Irenaeus, in his famous phrase, 'if the Word has been made man, it is so that men may be made gods' (Adv. Haer V, Pref.), and becomes the standard in Greek theology. In the fourth century, St. Athanasius repeats Irenaeus almost word for word, and in the fifth century St Cyril of Alexandria says that we shall become sons 'by participation' (Greek methexis). Deification is the central idea in the spirituality of St. Maximus the Confessor, for whom the doctrine is the corollary of the Incarnation: 'Deification, briefly, is the encompassing and fulfillment of all times and ages,' ... and St. Symeon the New Theologian at the end of the tenth century writes, 'He who is God by nature converses with those whom he has made gods by grace, as a friend converses with his friends, face to face.' ...
- In reading these text is important to bear in mind the distinction traditionally made in Orthodox theology between God’s essence and his energies. The former remains totally mysterious inaccessible (cf. I Tim. 6.16) to any created being; deification, sharing in the divine nature, means sharing in God’s energies which, however, are truly God in his action and self-disclosure. As St. Basil says, and knowing God’s energies is truly God whom we know.
- Finally, it should be noted that deification does not mean absorption into God, since the deified creature remains itself and distinct. It is the whole human being, body and soul, who is transfigured in the Spirit into the likeness of the divine nature, and deification is the goal of every Christian, to be reached by the faithful following of Christ in the common life of his body the church.
"It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship."
In a fuller statement on his beliefs in literal deification, Lewis explained in his book, Mere Christianity:
"The command Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were "gods" and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him—for we can prevent Him, if we choose—He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said."
For a more recent example of commentary on the doctrine of deification in modern Christianity, M. Scott Peck stated the following in his book The Road Less Traveled as follows:
"For no matter how much we may like to pussyfoot around it, all of us who postulate a loving God and really think about it eventually come to a single terrifying idea: God wants us to become Himself (or Herself or Itself). We are growing toward godhood." Authors Millet and Reynold have noted the similarities between these statements of modern-day, non-LDS Christian commentators and the resemblances to the correlating Mormon belief in a more literal form of deification.
According to LDS beliefs, certain ordinances, such as baptism, are required of all those who hope to obtain exaltation. For those who have lived and died throughout history without having performed these ordinances, it is believed that exaltation will be available through LDS Church vicarious temple work. LDS doctrine teaches that all individuals will have an equitable and fair opportunity to hear the 'fullness of the gospel' as taught in this life, or in the life to come, and will subsequently have the opportunity to either accept the message of Jesus Christ and His gospel or reject it.
Some ordinances are performed in LDS temples (all ordinances done vicariously on behalf of deceased persons; endowment and sealings for living persons). Latter-day Saints are taught that they can become kings and queens in God's kingdom through performing ordinances such as the endowment, and by doing their best to be faithful to the covenants that the ordinances represent. Celestial marriage, or sealing, is also part of the requirement for being exalted.
Members of the LDS Church perform ordinances vicariously on behalf of those who have died without the opportunity of hearing the LDS gospel. They feel obligated to perform ordinances so that all may have an equal opportunity to receive the blessings of the Celestial Kingdom if they choose to do so through their faith in Jesus Christ as their redeemer. It is their belief that those who have died without these ordinances need them in order to progress beyond this life.
Acceptance of the ordinances by those who have died is entirely voluntary in the spirit world, and in no way takes away the agency of those individuals. Should an individual who is in the spirit world subsequently reject ordinances performed for them, it would be as if these ordinances were never performed. It is taught that some will accept them, and others will reject them.
Those who reject the ordinances are still believed to have the opportunity to inherit a kingdom of glory distinct from, and of less glory, than the celestial kingdom: either the terrestrial kingdom or the telestial kingdom.The celestial kingdom is reserved for people who were baptized—either while living or by proxy for the dead—who have a testimony of Christ and lived a Christian life. Children who died before age 8 will also receive exaltation in the celestial kingdom. The terrestrial kingdom is for the honorable and virtuous people of the world who rejected the gospel message and for those who were baptized but who were subsequently not valiant followers of Christ. The telestial kingdom is for murderers, robbers, adulterers, whoremongers, and liars.
The celestial kingdom has two separate classes, those who are married and those who are not, who will be servants to others. Only those residents of the celestial kingdom who are married will receive exaltation.
While the LDS Church maintains its position on historical and biblical support for exaltation, many within the broader Christian community reject the idea. Criticism usually comes in the form of accusations that quotes from early church fathers are taken out of context since they maintained a difference between being like God in mortality/sinlessness and being ontologically like God in omnipresence, -science, -potence.
- God in Mormonism
- King Follett discourse
- Mormonism and Christianity
- Mormon cosmology
- Plan of salvation (Latter Day Saints)
- Eternal Life, "Gospel Topics", LDS.org (LDS Church)
- Romans 8:16-17
- Joseph Smith, King Follett Discourse. See also: King Follett discourse
- D&C 132:20
- Millet & Reynolds 1998
- President Snow often referred to this couplet as having been revealed to him by inspiration during the Nauvoo period of the church. See, for example, Deseret Weekly, 3 November 1894, 610; Deseret Weekly, 8 October 1898, 513; Deseret News, 15 June 1901, 177; and Journal History of the Church, Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, 20 July 1901, 4.
- For example, evidences of the Mormon doctrine of Exaltation can be seen in D&C 76:58; 132:19—20, as well as in sermons delivered by Joseph Smith, who Latter Day Saints believe was the first prophet of the last dispensation in these the latter days (i.e., modern times).
- See Joseph Smith, comp., Lectures on Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), 5:3; and Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 346–48.
- Lund, Gerald N. (February 1982), Is President Lorenzo Snow’s oft-repeated statement—“As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may be”—accepted as official doctrine by the Church?, "I Have a Question", Ensign
- See 1 John 5:4—5; Revelation 2:7, 11
- See Romans 8:17; Galatians 4:7; 1 Corinthians 3:21—23; Revelation 21:7
- See Hebrews 12:23
- See 1 John 3:2; 1 Corinthians 15:49; 2 Corinthians 3:18; John 17:21—23; Philippians 3:21
- See, LDS Articles of Faith, 8 (which states, "We believe the Bible to be the Word of God...").
- (Romans 8:17;Galatians 4:7;1 Corinthians 3:21-23;Revelation 21:7)
- Jacobs, Jonathan D. "An Eastern Orthodox Conception of Theosis and Human Nature".
- Adversus haereses, book 5, preface - Factus est quod sumus nos, uti nos perficeret quod et ipse.
- Irenaeus, Against Heresies, bk. 5, preface.
- Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.38 (4); compare 4.11 (2): "But man receives progression and increase towards God. For as God is always the same, so also man, when found in God, shall always progress towards God."
- Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks, 1.
- Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, 3.1. See his Stromateis, 23.
- Stromata 716,101,4 (Ed. Stählin): ὁ τῷ κυρίῳ πειθόμενος καὶ τῇ δοθείσῃ δι' αὐτοῦ κατακολουθήσας προφητείᾳ τελέως ἐκτελεῖται κατ' εἰκόνα τοῦ διδασκάλου ἐν σαρκὶ περιπολῶν θεός
- Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 124.
- Athanasius, Against the Aryans, 1.39, 3.34.
- St. Athanasius, De inc. 54, 3: PG 25, 192B
- "Αὐτὸς γὰρ ἐνηνθρώπισεν, ἵνα ἡμεῖς θεοποιηθῶμεν (Migne, Patrologia Graeca, 25, 192 B De incarnatione Verbi, 54: literally, "... that we might become ...". Grammatically, the verb θεοποιηθῶμεν could be translated as "be made God" Himself or "be made gods."
- Augustine, On the Psalms, 50.2. Augustine insists that such individuals are gods by grace rather than by nature, but they are "called gods" nevertheless.
- C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan, Collier Books, 1980), 18.
- Lewis, Mere Christianity, 174–75.
- M. Scott Peck, (New York: Simon and Schuster), 269—70 (1978).
- Baptisms for the Dead, "Gospel Topics", LDS.org (LDS Church)
- Condie, Spencer J. (July 2003), "The Savior's Visit to the Spirit World", Ensign (LDS Church), retrieved 2011-11-10, "No one will be coerced into accepting ordinances performed on his or her behalf by another. Baptism for the dead offers an opportunity, but it does not override a person’s agency. But if this ordinance is not performed for them, deceased persons are robbed of the choice to accept or reject baptism."
- Kingdoms of Glory, "Gospel Topics", LDS.org (LDS Church)
- Adams, Lisa Ramsey (1992), "Eternal Progression", in Ludlow, Daniel H., Encyclopedia of Mormonism, New York: Mcmillan, pp. 465–66, ISBN 0-02-904040-X.
- Hardy, Grant R. (1992), "Godhood", in Ludlow, Daniel H., Encyclopedia of Mormonism, New York: Mcmillan, pp. 553–55, ISBN 0-02-904040-X.
- Millet, Robert L.; Reynolds, Noel B. (1998). "5. Do Latter-day Saints believe that men and women can become gods?". Latter-day Christianity: 10 Basic Issues. Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies. ISBN 0934893322. OCLC 39732987.
- Pope, Margaret McConkie (1992), "Exaltation", in Ludlow, Daniel H., Encyclopedia of Mormonism, New York: Mcmillan, p. 479, ISBN 0-02-904040-X.
- Ricks, Shirley S. (1992), "Eternal Lives, Eternal Increase", in Ludlow, Daniel H., Encyclopedia of Mormonism, New York: Mcmillan, p. 465, ISBN 0-02-904040-X.
- "Chapter 47: Exaltation," Gospel Principles, (2009), LDS Church
- Becoming Like God, "Gospel Topics", LDS.org (LDS Church)