I thought I’d start with beginnings, since they affect so much else.
Mormons reject the classic (and largely post-Nicene) Christian concept of creatio ex nihilo, that is, creation out of nothing, in at least two important senses: the existence of individuals and the ultimate framework for our current space-time continuum. Let’s focus on the first for now.
We believe that some essential nature of our personal being is eternal, indeed co-eternal with God. The arc of individual existence, in current Mormon terminology, goes like this:
intelligence: nowadays, this term is used to describe our core eternal being, the part of us that has always existed. This is generally considered to be individualistic — that is, you and I have always existed as separate entities — though a few within the Church have argued for more of a ‘raw bulk material’ concept (with possible recycling). Joseph Smith’s statement (in the King Follett discourse) was that “…God never did have power to create the spirit of man at all. God himself could not create himself: intelligence exists upon a self existent principle…”.
pre-mortal) spirit: at some point prior to this life, God encased our intelligences in ‘spirit bodies’ (and thus became “the Father of spirits“). We know nothing about the process and we frankly know very little about the conditions there, though this doesn’t stop Mormons from rampant speculation and presumption, plus generating a fair amount of folk doctrine. 🙂 It also should be noted that early LDS scripture and discourses on this subject did not make as clear a distinction between the terms ‘intelligence’ and ‘spirit as is currently made in the LDS Church today (cf. the King Follett discourse above, as well as this passage from the Book of Abraham).
mortal being: we are born into this life with an impermanent bond between our spirit body and our physical body — in other words, we’re mortal and will die (breaking that bond).
(post-mortal) spirit: after death, we exist again as spirits for a period until we are resurrected.
resurrected being: resurrection permanently fuses our spirits with an immortal physical body.
Note that the last three states line up pretty well with standard Christian theology (at least that which preaches a physical resurrection). The big difference is that most Christian churches preach that the spirit (soul) is created at some point ranging from conception to birth; the LDS Church states that the individual spirit (with its corresponding agency [free will]) exists prior to and independent of conception.
Note that LDS doctrine in this matter goes a long ways to addressing theodicean issues regarding the origin and existence of evil in mortal life that traditional Christianity struggles with. Evil exists because uncreated, imperfect intelligences with agency independent of God — that is, people like you and me — exist. God is not responsible for it; His entire goal is to help us overcome it (“…this is my work and my glory: to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” — Moses 1:39), hence the need for the Atonement. As Truman Madsen noted in his book Eternal Man, we did literally ask to be born and we came into mortality aware of what we would face.
On the other hand, there are new issues raised by this model of individual existence. An excellent article by B. H. Roberts — published in 1907 in what was then the LDS Church’s official publication, The Improvement Era — sets forth the development and sources for this “tripartite model” (intelligence, spirit, body) of human nature within LDS history, discourses and scriptures, while pointing out some of the questions and implications of this model.
This is a short posting for a large, complex subject, but I’m going to leave it for now to jump to the next related subject. As I noted earlier, it will take some interweaving of various topics to address the points for which I’m aiming. ..bruce..