Questions: What biblical evidence is there for a pre-mortal existence?

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Questions: What biblical evidence is there for a pre-mortal existence?

Critics cite three scriptures, asserting that the Latter-day Saints use them as biblical proofs for the concept of a premortal life

In the course of proffering a refutation of the LDS doctrine of a premortal life, critics cite three scriptures, asserting that the LDS use them as biblical proofs for the concept of a premortal life. The cited scriptures are Jeremiah 1:5; Job 38:4,7; and Ecclesiastes 12:7. The extent of the critics' rebuttal of these scriptures is to contend that the LDS interpretations are incorrect, and offer differing interpretations. A deeper examination of those scriptures, along with the interpretations of them, is certainly in order.

The Case of Jeremiah: "Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee"

In the case of Jeremiah 1:5, the critics assert that the scripture is a reference to God's foreknowledge, and not to a personal knowledge of humans. Granting that God has limitless foreknowledge does not preclude a personal knowledge of individual humans, however. The critics do not refute the possibility of such knowledge, instead opting to say (in effect) "No, that can't be it." Such assertions, while they may be comforting to the critics and sufficient in their own estimation, do not preclude the acceptability of the LDS interpretation of the scripture at hand.

It is hard to deny the specificity of words used in the Jeremiah passage:

"Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations."

Notice three key words here: knew, sanctified, and ordained. The wording itself indicates that God literally knew Jeremiah and was familiar with his spiritual attitudes and abilities. In addition, God sanctified Jeremiah, a description not of foreknowledge but of an actual event with participants present. The process of sanctification, or setting something apart as holy, by definition requires that something (such as Jeremiah himself) be present to be set apart. Likewise, the act of ordaining a person—in this case a prophet—requires that the individual be present. These acts—sanctification and ordination—are not mental exercises, but actual events.

Indeed, other modern Christian scholars have chosen to acknowledge the claim that Jeremiah 1:5 speaks of more than mere foreknowledge. In reference to the concept of premortal life, William de Arteaga stated:

"This question was hotly debated by Christians of late antiquity, and the faction of the Church which was bitterly opposed to preexistence gained the upper hand. By the sixth century belief in preexistence was declared heresy. All of this is quite astonishing in view of the clear and repeated biblical evidence for preexistence."[1]

The event referred to in the sixth century was an edict by Pope Vigilius in AD 543 that rejected the doctrine of preexistence taught by Origen of Alexandria. Historical records indicate that the edict, called Anathemas Against Origen, was actually penned by the Roman emperor, Justinian,[2] and signed by the pope and other bishops present at the Second Council of Constantinople.[3] Tales of the relationships between early popes and Roman emperors make for great reading. The relationship between Pope Vigilius and Emperor Justinian is no exception. Many records indicate that the anathemas declared against Origen had their roots in political posturing regarding doctrines of the early church. Regardless, many scholars regard the papal edict in AD 543 as the reason that the concept of preexistence is generally considered extrabiblical today. It is clear from the record that before this time the concept was freely taught by many within the church.

The Case of Job: ""Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?"

When it comes to the trials of Job and the discussions that God had with Job, it seems that the critics are actually the ones taking scripture out of context. They are quick to cite the rhetorical nature of the questions posed to Job, but slow to understand the concepts being conveyed by the Lord through such literary means. Just take a look at Job 38:1-7:

"Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said,

"Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?

"Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me.

"Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.

"Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it?

"Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof;

"When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"

In the course of reproving Job, the Lord indicates several key pieces of knowledge. First of all, in verse four the Lord asks "Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?" Such a question, by its very nature, implies that Job was somewhere. Why would God ask Job a question which was not instructive, and why would the ancient scribes include the discourse if something could not be learned? The critics indicate that the assertion that Job had to be somewhere (thereby supporting preexistence) presupposes that preexistence is a fact. Such circular reasoning can be just as easily applied to the position taken by the critics: one can only interpret the verse as saying that Job was not present when God laid the foundations of the earth if one presupposes that the spirits of men had no premortal life.

Thus, both interpretations can be seen to be on an equal footing when the singular verse is examined. The Lord, however, does not leave the matter alone for long. In further questioning Job, he asks (in essence) where Job was "when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy." Here, again, is the assertion that Job had to be somewhere. Not just Job, however, but the morning stars and the sons of God. And these were not silent participants in the framing of the world, but singers and shouters, indicating they were possessed of independent capabilities of thought and action. Taken together, these two verses provide a strong case for the concept of a premortal life.

The Case of Ecclesiastes: "the spirit shall return unto God who gave it"

Finally, the critics indicate that Latter-day Saints see Ecclesiastes 12:7 as a reference to "the second leg of a 'round trip' passage." While this may be an amusing way to discredit the LDS concept, it is not nearly as easy to avoid the specific language of the verse:

"Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it."

The simple question remains as to how something could return to a point it had not been to before. If the scripture is best translated, as the authors assert, as only having reference to returning to a God who created the spirit,[4] then the only difference between their understanding and that of the LDS is a matter of timing. We believe that God created the spirit of man—just that it was done long before the mortal birth. Either way, the spirit still returns home to God.

But there is a deeper problem with the interpretation of this scripture offered by the critics. By rejecting the concept of premortal existence, the authors swallow the concept that the spirit of man springs into existence at some time between conception and birth.[5] If the scripture is to be interpreted literally, and as a parallel linguistic construction, then dust returns to dust, as it was without life, and spirit returns to its former uncreated condition, meaning without life as well. Thus, the problem is that the scripture could just as easily be used to justify a doctrine of there being no life after death.

Notes

  1. William de Arteaga, Past Life Visions: A Christian Exploration (New York: Seabury Press, 1983), 127, as quoted by Brent L. Top The Life Before (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988), 25.
  2. Justinian was not a nice man regarding those who disagreed with him theologically. One author reports the following concerning the emperor: "Savage penalties were more loudly advertised by the impatient autocracy of the emperors, to offset the irremediable venality and favoritism of their servants. The means of persecution available to the church thus had more of an edge. Especially so under Justinian (527–565). A brutally energetic, or energetically brutal, ruler enjoying a very long reign, he pursued the goal of religious uniformity as no one before him. … He did not see it as murder if the victims did not share his own beliefs. …Those he disagreed with he was likely to mutilate if he didn't behead or crucify them..." [Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries (Yale University Press, 1997), 26-27.]
  3. This Council, sometimes referred to as the Fifth Ecumenical Council, was held in AD 553. It was the council at which the anathemas, penned and signed some ten years earlier, were formally adopted. The official document labeled Origen's teachings heresy and forbid them being taught in the church.
  4. Note, however, that the wording used in the scripture is "gave," not "created." This same translation carries not only in the King James version of the Bible, but in the Amplified, New American Standard, New International, and New Revised Standard versions, as well.
  5. Exact timing is not critical; the issue is whether life exists before life.