I Knew Thee Before
Jeremiah, Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1508-1512
by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD, for the Come Follow Me lesson October 10-16: Jeremiah 1–3; 7; 16–18; 20
Jeremiah stated in chapter 1 verses 4-5, “Then the word of the Lord came unto me, saying, 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.” What follows is Chapter 2 from my new book, The Immortal Messiah: The Physiology of Resurrected Beings (Cedar Fort Publishing, Springville, Ut, 2022) in which these verses are cited.
Chapter 2 Premortal Spirits
The first two sentences in Lesson 1 of Preach My Gospel, A Guide to Missionary Service, state, “God is our Heavenly Father. We are His children.” The 2004 First Presidency Message in the front of that book states, “Preach My Gospel is intended to help you be a better-prepared, more spiritually mature missionary and a more persuasive teacher.”1 These first two sentences are intended as the introduction to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for anyone who wants to know about Jesus Christ’s Church in these latter days.
These two sentences identify those of us who are members of the Church as unique among Christians right from the beginning. Mainstream triniarian Christians, i.e. anyone who accepts as doctrine the decision of the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD concerning the Trinity, believe in “…the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible,” and “…in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages…consubstantial with the Father…”2 This sense of “Father” as our maker places us in the same relationship with God the Father as was Pinocchio with the woodcarver Geppetto. Furthermore, mainstream Christian belief holds that only Jesus Christ was “born of the Father before all ages [i.e. before time began, and is]…consubstantial with the Father…” so that only Jesus Christ is a literal child of God and in some unexplained, mysterious way, Jesus Christ was his own father.3 According to mainstream Christian belief, none of us are actually spirit children of God.
The first sentence of the third paragraph in Lesson 1 of Preach My Gospel, A Guide to Missionary Service, states, “Heavenly Father has provided us, His children, with a way to be successful in this life and to return to live in His presence.”4 The implication that we, as God’s children, can “return to live in His presence” is that we were previously in his presence before we were born to earthly parents, and thus can return to His heavenly presence. Indeed, that is our belief. That belief is completely consistent with the statement in Ecclesiastes 12:7, “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.”
There are actually six Old Testament scriptures listed in the Topical Guide under the heading Man, Antemortal Existence of:5
1. Numbers 16:22 “And they fell upon their faces, and said, O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and wilt thou be wroth with all the congregation?” This scripture, however, does not state that our spirits are God’s offspring nor that they had a premortal existence.
2. Numbers 27:16 “Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation,” The same may be said of this scripture.
3. Job 38:7 “When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” This is one of the most commonly quoted Old Testament scriptures cited as evidence of a pre-existence. However, why does the sentence end in a question mark rather than a period, as would be expected if this were a statement? The answer is, this is not a statement, but rather a challenge from God to Job asking him why he dares to question God’s doings.
We may read the scripture in context: 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 measure 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?6 The challenge of these verses appears to claim that Job wasn’t there when the Lord “laid the foundations of the earth,” or at least didn’t remember that he was there.
4. Ecclesiastes 12:7 [already cited] “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.” This scripture is clearly referring to a person’s death and, again should be read in context:
Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not…[before] desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets…Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.7
This scripture is quite informative in that it not only states that “the spirit shall return unto God who gave it,” but that, through death, “man goeth to his long home.” This latter statement clearly suggests that our true home is with God, from whence our spirit came and to where it will return.
5. Jeremiah 1:4-5 “Then the word of the Lord came unto me, saying, 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.” This is another scripture often cited to support the concept of a premortal existence. Some theologians have dismissed it as such suggesting that it only refers to God’s foreknowledge of Jeremiah’s mission as a prophet. However, although God’s foreknowledge alone could explain how God knew Jeremiah, it does not explain how God sanctified him and ordained him “a prophet unto the nations.” Such a statement suggests a premortal covenant between God and Jeremiah – even by the laying on of hands.
6. Zechariah 12:1 “The burden of the word of the Lord for Israel, saith the Lord, which stretcheth forth the heavens, and layeth the foundation of the earth, and formeth the spirit of man within him.” This scripture leaves no doubt but that God “formeth the spirit of man,” but it does not state when that formation occurred.
Therefore, of the six scriptures cited, Ecclesiastes 12:1-7 and Jeremiah 1:4-5 appear to be the most convincing that our spirits were “given” by God, were at “home” with him whence thy shall return, and that some of us, at least Jeremiah, were sanctified and ordained by Him to perform certain missions here on earth. Considering the word “gave” in Ecclesiastes, the Hebrew word נְתָנָֽהּ (ne·ta·nah) may mean to give (thus “gave” in Ecclesiastes 12:7), put, set, or provide.8 Therefore, we may say that God “provided” spirits for our bodies, but there is no implication in this verse of any relationship, such as God being the father of our spirits.
However, the Psalmist wrote that “God [who] standeth in the congregation of the mighty; [and who]… judgeth among the gods… [stated] I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.”9 This Psalm implies that at least some of the Jews at the time when this Psalm was written had an understanding of our familial relationship to God – not simply as puppets fashioned by a Supreme Being but actual gods and children of God.
In their book, The Christ Who Heals, Fiona and Terryl Givens have stated that:
Versions of this understanding of an everlasting covenant made in heavenly courts before earth’s creation survived in some Jewish understanding and the Jewish culture out of which Christianity arose. It was one of the key tenets of a primordial gospel that those chosen people preserved and taught. ‘The idea of a covenant between a deity and a people is unknown from other religions and cultures,’ notes the Encyclopedia Judaica. In some Jewish traditions, the righteous souls were ‘called together by God before he created the universe.’ Traces of this original understanding persisted in Jewish thought for some time.10
In addition, Paul, in writing to the Hebrews stated, “Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live?”11 In making such a statement, Paul was apparently referring to a commonly held belief among the Jews that God is the Father of our spirits. Most Biblical commentators dismiss an actual parent-child relationship being implied here, suggesting that God is our “Father” only by reason of his being our creator (i.e. the Pinocchio – Geppetto relationship). However, it cannot be denied that Paul here is making a direct comparison between the fathers of our physical bodies and the Father of our spirits.
Paul told the Athenians on Mar’s Hill, “For in him [God] we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device.”12
Charles Ellicott commented on the phrase “as certain also of your own poets have said” in his A New Testament Commentary for English Readers, published in 1878:13
The quotation has a special interest as being taken from a poet who was a countryman of St. Paul’s. Aratus, probably of Tarsus (circ. B.C. 272), had written a didactic poem under the title of Phenomena, comprising the main facts of astronomical and meteorological science as then known. It opens with an invocation to Zeus, which contains the words that St. Paul quotes. Like words are found in a hymn to Zeus by Cleanthes (B.C. 300). Both passages are worth quoting:
“And all in all things need we help of Zeus,
For we too are his offspring.”
—Aratus, Phænom. 1–5.
“Almighty and for ever, thee, O Zeus,…
For we thine offspring are, and we alone
Of all that live and move upon this earth,
Receive the gift of imitative speech.”
—Cleanthes, Hymn to Zeus.
The fact of the quotation would at once quicken the attention of the hearers. They would feel that they had not to deal with an illiterate Jew, like the traders and exorcists who were so common in Greek cities, but with a man of culture like their own, acquainted with the thoughts of some at least of their great poets.14
Concerning the phrase, “We are also his offspring,” Ellicott stated,
We too often think of the quotation only as happily introduced at the time; but the fact that it was quoted shows that it had impressed itself, it may be, long years before, on St. Paul’s memory. As a student at Tarsus it had, we may well believe, helped to teach him the meaning of the words of his own Scriptures: “I have nourished and brought up children” (Isaiah 1:2). The method of St. Paul’s teaching is one from which modern preachers might well learn a lesson. He does not begin by telling men that they have thought too highly of themselves, that they are vile worms, creatures of the dust, children of the devil. The fault which he finds in them is that they have taken too low an estimate of their position. They too had forgotten that they were God’s offspring, and had counted themselves, even as the unbelieving Jews had done (Acts 13:46) ‘unworthy of eternal life.’15
Paul obviously agreed with the poem, however applying it to Jehovah, not Zeus, as had the mistaken Athenian poets, for he followed the quote by stating, “Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device.”16 Furthermore, Paul declared, “Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.”17
Fiona and Terryl Givens have pointed out that “Fragmented memories of that heavenly prelude to our earthly life appear in the world’s most ancient religions and belief systems. Mesopotamian creation narratives, Greek myths and philosophy, and early Jewish texts all make reference to a life in the spirit before embodiment.”18
In addition, some of the most prominent early Christian thinkers retained at least fragmentary concepts of a premortal world of spirits. The foremost of those was Origen of Alexandria, who wrote approximately 2,000 treatises during the first half of the third century, was one of the most influential people in early Christian theology, and was described as “the greatest genius the early church ever produced.”19
John McGuckin, who edited The Westminster Handbook to Origen in 2004, said that Origen was, “…a theologian whom Jerome once described as clearly the most important Christian thinker since the generation of the apostles.” McGuckin said that not only was Origen “…the Christian church’s first and greatest biblical scholar,” but he was also, “…the Christian church’s first great mystic, describing the soul’s fearful search for its lost Lord…” In many parts of the early Christian world, Origen was regarded as the ultimate authority on theological matters. 20
Origen had, according to McGuckin,
…a grand passion to tell the epic tale of God’s first creation (long before the earth was made), when all rational life was gathered in harmony around the Divine logos (the source of all reasonable intelligence) to comprise the chorus of superangelic spirits…each and every soul on earth was for him, once a great and preexistent spirit who had (only recently in God’s time) fallen into cosmic sorrow because of their lapse from contemplation.”21
Origen’s “…influence over monastic asceticism was so powerful three centuries after his death that it brought down on his head a posthumous condemnation, for all the agitation it had caused…22
But despite the devastation of the textual tradition of his works, Origen’s manuscripts were still copied and circulated (like samizdat literature), and he always kept a body of Christian admirers who were themselves powerful voices in the formation of Christian theology in their own generations.23
In his book, Church History, A Complete History of the Catholic Church to the Present Day, John Laux stated that Origen was, “Known far and wide as the intellectual leader of the Christians…” However, “Origen was condemned by the Fifth General Council (553), because it was found that his writings contained a number of heretical doctrines, such as the pre-existence of souls and the final salvation of all men.”24
However, Origen’s notion that “each and every soul on earth was… once a great and preexistent spirit who had… fallen into cosmic sorrow…”25 is much different in its final conclusion from the belief held by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that each and every soul on earth is a literal spirit child of God, a great preexistent spirit, sent to earth by a loving Father to learn lessons only available through this existence and to learn obedience to His commandments and ordinances, which are necessary for our continued eternal existence in His presence.
No matter what was being taught on the European continent concerning a premortal life after Origen’s work was condemned in 553 AD, such a concept was apparently part of the doctrines taught to the first Christian converts in England, as shown by the beautiful allegory given in 627 AD by Coifi, the chief Priest of King Edwin, of Northumbria:
Your Majesty, let us give careful consideration to this new teaching; for I frankly admit that, in my experience, the religion that we have hitherto professed seems valueless and powerless…Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.26
According to this story, the concept of a premortal existence was a key part of the conversion of the English people to Christianity.
Joseph Smith, the Prophet, taught that, “Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.”27 What a wonderful, uplifting perspective on humanity! What a huge difference this belief makes in people’s lives compared to the belief that we are some sort of sophisticated marionette, created for God’s amusement.
In the April 1844 General Conference of the Church, the Prophet Joseph Smith taught the following:
The mind or the intelligence which man possesses is co-equal with God himself…The intelligence of spirits had no beginning, neither will it have an end…There never was a time when there were not spirits; for they are co-equal [co-eternal] with our Father in heaven…The first principles of man are self-existent with God…Intelligence is eternal and exists upon a self-existent principle. It is a spirit from age to age, and there is no creation about it.28
The relationship between brain, mind, and intelligence will be discussed in a later chapter. Many early Christians struggled with the notion of how Christ could be co-equal with God the Father and still be his Son. This teaching by the Prophet Joseph Smith moves that entire discussion to an entirely different level, and places human beings in a much higher, eternal environment than most Christians have ever even dreamed of.
Furthermore, we learn from the book of Abraham that,
Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones; And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.29
Even though our minds, our intelligences, have existed eternally, we are told that during that infinity before the Grand Council, we were not all the same,
Howbeit that he made the greater star; as, also, if there be two spirits, and one shall be more intelligent than the other, yet these two spirits, notwithstanding one is more intelligent than the other, have no beginning; they existed before, they shall have no end, they shall exist after, for they are…eternal. And the Lord said unto me: These two facts do exist, that there are two spirits, one being more intelligent than the other; there shall be another more intelligent than they; I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all.30
This scripture teaches us that it is by the power and level of His intelligence that the Lord is God.
In November 1995, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles presented “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” A portion of that proclamation states,
"Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.
In The Premortal Realm, spirit sons and daughters knew and worshiped God as their Eternal Father and accepted His plan by which His children could obtain a physical body and gain earthly experience to progress toward perfection and ultimately realize his or her divine destiny as an heir of eternal life."31
This beautiful doctrine of a premortal life was powerfully summarized in 1983 by President Boyd K. Packer, then President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “There is no way to make sense out of life without a knowledge of the doctrine of premortal life. … When we understand the doctrine of premortal life, then things fit together and make sense.”32
1. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; Preach My Gospel, Intellectual Reserve, Inc., 2019, churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/preach-my-gospel-a-guide-to-missionary-service/lesson-1-the-message-of-the-restoration-of-the-gospel-of-jesus-christ?lang=eng; retrieved 20 October 2019
2. Loyola Press, A Jesuit Ministry, Nicene Creed; loyolapress.com/our-catholic-faith/prayer/traditional-catholic-prayers/prayers-every-catholic-should-know/nicene-creed; retrieved 20 October 2019
4. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Preach My Gospel
5. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Topical Guide, Intellectual Reserve, Inc., 2013, churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/tg/man-antemortal-existence-of?lang=eng, retrieved 20 October 2019
6. Job 38:1-7
7. Ecclesiastes 12:1-7
8. biblehub.com/lexicon/ecclesiastes/12-7.htm, retrieved 20 October 2019
9. Psalm 82:6
10. Givens, Fiona and Givens, Terryl, The Christ Who Heals, Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, Utah, 2017, p 12
11. Hebrews 12:9
12. Acts 17:28-29
13. Ellicott, Charles, A New Testament Commentary for English Readers, Dutton, New York, 1878, archive.org/details/newtestamentcomm01elli, biblehub.com/commentaries/acts/17-28.htm, retrieved 22 October 2019
16. Acts 17:29
17. Acts 17:23
18. Givens, The Christ Who Heals, p 15
19. McGuckin, John Anthony, editor, The Westminster Handbook to Origen, p ix, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2004
22. McGuckin, The Westminster Handbook to Origen, p. x
24. Laux, John, Church History, A Complete History of the Catholic Church to the Present Day, Benziger Brothers, Inc, New York, etc, Printers to the Holy Apostolic See, 1930, p 69
26. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 731 AD; translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin, 1955, 1990, p. 130
27. Doctrine and Covenants 93:29
28. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, compiled by Joseph Fielding Smith, pp. 353–54, Deseret Book Co., Salt Lake City, Utah, 1938; the bracketed insertion was in the original – footnote says “Undoubtedly the proper word here would be ‘co-eternal,’ not ‘co-equal.’ This illustrates the imperfection of the report made of the sermon.” There are four original accounts of the King Follett Sermon: Willard Richards used the term “co-equal” in his account; Wilford Woodruff used the term “coequal” in his account; Thomas Bullock said “man is as immortal as God himself” in his account; William Clayton used the term “coequal” in his account. see josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/discourse-7-april-1844, retrieved 22 October 2019
29. Abraham 3:22-23
30. Abraham 3:18-19
31. First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 102.
32. Boyd K. Packer, “The Mystery of Life,” Ensign, Nov. 1983, 18
Trent Dee Stephens, PhD
Where science meets religion and the scriptures.
If you have read this blog and are not on my weekly notification list, and would like to be, please send your email address to email@example.com.