What happens when we die?
At death, our spirit and physical body are separated. At the Resurrection our spirit and body reunite in a perfected state, never to be separated again.
Our spirits are divine and they are eternal; they existed long before we were born, and they will continue on forever after we die. In many ways we can compare our existence to a three-act play, with a premortal existence, an earthly existence, and a post-mortal existence. While most of us focus only on the act we’re currently taking part in—our life here on earth—God’s plan for us includes our entire existence. We have to exercise faith when trying to understand His vantage point, because our concepts of time and purpose are limited by the mortal lens through which we view them. Accordingly, we have difficulty envisioning the limitlessness of eternity and eternal progression.
God’s plan of salvation for us included leaving His presence in the premortal world to achieve the kind of progression unique to an earthly existence. The earth was a place where we could gain physical bodies; exercise agency; grow in wisdom, faith, and compassion; build relationships with others; and perform holy ordinances necessary for our salvation.
During our mortal life we must put forth great effort to perfect ourselves. Unlike our Savior, Jesus Christ, we sin and fall short as we strive for this perfection.
To balance the scales of justice, the Savior atoned for our sins, ensuring that our physical death would not be the end of our progression. This gift of Resurrection is available to all of us, but whether or not we attain a fulness of joy after this life is determined by how we spend our time here on earth. After death we enter the spirit world, where we no longer have physical distractions and where our actions on earth determine the amount of peace and happiness we experience in this new realm. In many ways, we judge ourselves while we await our Resurrection and the Final Judgment of Jesus Christ.
That is why this life is a time of testing—because our actions in this life determine our eternal destiny. Those who repent and live valiant lives will feel peace and happiness in the spirit world, which will be for them a state of paradise and rest. Those who live otherwise will become acutely aware of their sins and will be in a spirit prison of their own making. But God is compassionate, and even here, He allows us to progress and to be taught things we still need to learn. We can continue to learn about and benefit from the Atonement, faith in God and Jesus Christ, repentance, and the fulness of the gospel. Saving ordinances can be performed on earth by proxy for those who were not baptized or sealed to their families during their earthly lives, and if these works are accepted by those who have passed on, then these individuals can progress to paradise while awaiting the Resurrection.
Humans have lived on the earth in periods of time known as dispensations, and the last dispensation is a period marked by events prophesied by God’s prophets from ancient times. Paul spoke of a future time when all things that are in heaven and on earth would at last be gathered together, and he called it the “dispensation of the fulness of times” (Ephesians 1:10). The prophet Isaiah also wrote of humanity during this time, saying, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4).
Before Jesus ascended to heaven following His death and Resurrection, He said that He would return to earth in glory. At that time He will serve as our king.
In Isaiah, Daniel, and John we read about Christ dwelling among the inhabitants of earth and ruling over the kingdoms of both earth and heaven. In the book of Revelation we learn that the world will enjoy a thousand years of peace and that, for the duration of the Millennium, Satan will be bound. When we talk about the “end of the world,” it does not mean the end of the earth or humankind but the end of evil. As we read in Genesis and Exodus, the Millennium symbolizes a sabbatical in human history much like the role of the weekly Sabbath day; it is patterned after the Lord’s period of rest following the six periods of the Creation. During the Millennium, the earth will be renewed to its former paradisiacal glory; there will be a refreshment, not a replacement, of the world we know now. The earth will not be destroyed but transformed—glorified—as the disparity between heaven and earth is overcome while Jesus reigns.
Just as the world will be renewed and improved, so too will the spirits of the dead be reunited with a perfected body in the Resurrection. As God’s children are resurrected, we will be brought to stand before the Lord, who will ultimately judge us, assigning us to the degree of glory we have earned while living. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul discusses the three glories of resurrected bodies: one like the sun (celestial), another like the moon (terrestrial), and the third like the stars (telestial) (see verses 40–41). “So also is the resurrection of the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:42). In John 14:2 we read, “In my Father’s house are many mansions. . . . I go to prepare a place for you.” Of the three degrees of eternal glory (celestial, terrestrial, and telestial), even the lowest kingdom surpasses the glory of the earth. But God dwells in the celestial kingdom, and only those whose lives prepared them to live in His presence can also dwell there. While it might seem harsh to deny some of God’s children access to Him in the eternities, we each have agency and are allowed the desires of our hearts. Through our choices on earth, we choose our eternal destiny. Those of us who want to claim the highest degree of exaltation and dwell with our Father are actively earning our place there now while we have earthly bodies and the agency to do so. We do this because we love Him and want to be with Him.
Why does life continue after death?
As humans, we tend to define life in terms of our mortal, physical bodies. However, life should really be seen in a much bigger context.
Our spirits—our individual characters—existed before we had bodies, and they will continue to exist after we die. We all lived before this life as spirits with our Heavenly Parents. We each accepted the challenge of receiving a physical body so that we might experience the good and the bad in a way we could not experience them before. During our time on earth, we choose how to act, and in so doing we show whether we are willing to become better individuals, more like our Father in Heaven. But mortal life is just one necessary segment of our eternal journey.
When our physical body dies, our spirit continues to live. We continue to exist as the same individuals we were before—but we’ve had the opportunity to grow and progress because of our mortal experiences. Our ability to learn doesn’t end with death either. As spirits we continue to be taught eternal truths, and we choose to accept or reject teachings and ordinances that will prepare us to live again with our Heavenly Father in happiness.
How will eternal life look?
We can live again with family and friends who have died. We hope that we—and they—have made choices that will ultimately allow us to be with each other forever in the presence of God.
Mortal birth and death are steps along the eternal path. So is the Resurrection. This reunion of spirit and body was made possible by our Savior, Jesus Christ. Because of His Resurrection, all who have lived on this earth can reclaim their physical bodies in perfected, immortal form. Never again will we experience pain, sickness, or death.
All people will be resurrected, and all people will be judged “according to their works” (Revelation 20:13) during this life. Those who have shown obedience to God’s commandments, followed Jesus Christ, and accepted His Atonement will be rewarded as “heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17).
Those who do not choose to follow Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ will be judged according to what they have done in this life, but they will not enjoy the full glory of living in the presence of God. And yet, as a loving parent, our Heavenly Father wants His children to return to Him, to experience His glory, and to live eternally, being sealed to spouses and children in “fulness of joy” (Psalm 16:11).