Mormonism as Spiritual Survival of the Fittest

Christopher BigelowMormon 20 Comments

In earthly nature, the term natural selection refers to the process that results in the survival and reproductive success of individuals or groups who adjust best to their environment.

In Mormonism, we are taught that God said, regarding his children who kept their first estate and got themselves born onto this earth, “And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them; . . . and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever” (Abraham 3:25-26).

In other words, one way of looking at Mormonism is that it represents spiritual survival of the fittest on an eternal level. We are put into a testing environment, and those who fully succeed spiritually are given the opportunity to reproduce in the eternities, via exaltation in the celestial kingdom.

This is a model that really works for me as I think about the plan of salvation and our purpose here on earth. In fact, I even managed to include it in the book Mormonism For Dummies that I coauthored: “In a kind of spiritual survival of the fittest—a process God would oversee with love and concern—only those who made enough progress in learning and obeying God’s will would eventually be resurrected as heavenly parents; the rest would be resurrected to lesser degrees of glory, according to their efforts, desires, and faith.” (My coauthor had the sense to have me add the part about God’s love and concern.)

In nature, an animal survives by its strength, cunning, defenses, etc. In the Mormon plan of salvation, of course, it’s practically the opposite: we demonstrate our fitness by recognizing and accepting the Savior, repenting, doing our best to live his gospel so that his atonement can heal and perfect us, and by accepting the fullness of the father through temple ordinances. In other words, whether in this life or the next, we have to be spiritually savvy enough to recognize and embrace the truth so that God can exalt us through his grace, after all we can do.

God wants us all to fully succeed, but unfortunately those who will suffer for their own sins in spirit prison through the Millennium and then inherit the telestial kingdom will be as numerous as the sands of the sea. And those who are only partially spiritually fit will inherit the terrestrial kingdom. But only the fully fit who gain the celestial kingdom through Christ’s atonement and God’s true religion will keep reproducing in the eternities.

So in what ways does looking at Mormonism in this way resonate with you, bother you, and/or downright offend you?

Comments 20

  1. I’ve commented to you before about this, Chris, and I’ll say it again. Mormonism is not, nor will it ever, be a spiritual survival of the fittest. Why? God’s grace is not earned. Period. I’m sad that this made it into your book, because people who read your book may be misled into thinking that LDS believe we subscribe to a concept of spiritual Darwinism. We do not.

  2. There is no guiding hand in natural selection. Simply put, individuals compete for resources and those better suited are more likely to reproduce.

    An attempt to view spirituality through this lens is highly questionably in the least. Is there a competition for limited spiritual resources? Are there spiritual genes and reproduction?

    The only image I can conjure is one of God throwing his children into a giant ‘death match’ so that he can pull out the best and discard the rest. This is more of a ‘farmer’ view of god then a ‘parent’ view.

    Sorry, I think you have had to cut, hammer, and staple too much to make this analogy fit.

  3. No analogy is perfect, and commenters zero in on the details that fall short in this analogy but which evidently fit nicely into their own particular hobbyhorse topics. Me, I think it’s a pretty good analogy, within the lines Chris draws and without throwing additional elements into the pot.

    We don’t “earn” God’s grace, but we fit ourselves to accept more or less of the blessings He offers us, and we each have a great deal to do with how well we so fit ourselves. Those blessings are unlimited and there need be no competition among us for a fair share, but just because there are enough blessings to go around doesn’t mean each of us is fit to exercise as many blessings, as much priesthood, glory, exaltation, whatever, as the next guy. We’re competing with ourselves — our old selves, the natural man, fallen man, our as-yet-undeveloped talents and capacities — to fit ourselves for more.

    If you don’t like “survival of the fittest,” use the term “winnowing” or “separating the wheat from the tares” which conveys pretty much the same idea, in a scriptural analogy you can hardly object to.

    I like it, Chris.

  4. Here’s a counter-question: does God know us well enough that he could simply determine on His own into which kingdom we’d best fit, without all this mucking about in mortality, with its evil, pain, and suffering?

    If your answer is “Yes”, then why are we here?

    If your answer is “No”, then on what basis can God execute righteous judgment on something as everlasting as our assignment to kingdoms?

    As for your question, no, I don’t think it’s survival of the spiritual fittest, “lest we should boast”. Or would you damn those who encounter the gospel, sincerely repent, are baptized, and then (for whatever reason) die before they can work on ‘perfecting’ themselves? How does that fit into the ‘winnowing’ concept? Strikes me as a bit unfair, since I’ve had to muck around here imperfectly for some 41 years since my own baptism. 🙂

    And what of the fact that likely at least 20% (and maybe as much as 50%) of those ever born on the earth have died before reaching the age of accountability and thus are saved in the Celestial Kingdom? Doesn’t that undercut the ‘winnowing’ concept severely? ..bruce..

  5. It bothers me because it is a cold way to look at it that may fit some but not me.
    There is something else that bothers me.
    The survival of the fitest law is only an Earth thing, it was included in our instinct so as to survive and adjust to an environement that was not intended to be good for us at first. The plan of salvation is not about surviving or adjusting, it is about becoming better to the utmost point in order to live in an environment that is suited for us.
    This survival of the fitest is a barbarian way to have a chance to die not too early so as to bread and let the race (human or animal) survive. The plan of salvation is organized and nobody will disapear , there is no improvement of the race to survive and enjoy a certain amount of time. It is about personal (not all) story and path.
    But it was a good question and I liked it a lot.

  6. I think Chris’ view is shared by many in the Latter-day Saint community, and perhaps as further scientific proof I would offer up the “bell curve”. That is, the Terrestrial Kingdom will cover about one or two standard deviations of people, and that those left on either side will be in the Telestial and Celestial Kingdoms respectively.

    Actually, in my view, those who end up in the Celestial Kingdom will be those who do not care into which Kingdom they fall–they will simply be happy to receive of God’s grace and leave to God whatever reward they may or may not receive. Further, they will be too busy and focused on helping the hungry, the homeless, the infirm, and the imprisoned to care whether or not they are checking off all the boxes to attain the highest grade point average, I mean Kingdom.

  7. I will be frank. The whole concept of being judged in any way strikes me as manipulative fear mongering. If God is the creator of both spirit and body, is it not God who should be judged for the quality of that work?

    The entire framework of fear of not being good enough for God I have rejected. I will never submit my mortal children to such games, and if God insists on playing that game with me then he can [edited profanity] well have some other more ‘valiant’ spirit. There is too much need in this world to worry about such games.

  8. #5–our “2nd estate” extends until the day of resurrection, so your point about dying while on the right path, but not to the end, is not relevant to the Abraham scripture.

    I do think God knows the end from the beginning. Thus he knows exactly where everyone will end up. But that doesn’t mean we know or would accept without proving ourselves to ourselves what we really are, want, and are willing to become.

  9. In the last year or so the implications of this side of Mormon theology have become deeply disturbing to me. Maybe it’s because I have had a serious brush with my own mortality by way of a chronic illness, and maybe it’s because I have been reading a number of excellent Catholic and Protestant writers who have expanded my perspective. But as I see it, we Mormons have taken this too literally and interpret the scripture by way of our limited mortal viewpoint. I am starting to see many, many ways in which the human competitive drive has turned us from a Christ-centered life to one in which we congratulate ourselves on our accomplishments and silently (usually unconsciously) find relief in the number of people who fail to live the gospel. They, after all, will be in a lower kingdom, which gives us all the more reason to hope for our own celestial glory. And in our limited perspective, well, not everybody can be celestial, can they?

    OK, that’s a bit exaggerated, I know. But Imperfection’s Eternal Death Match idea (#3) really is not that far off the mark. So the whole purpose of this world is to sift through God’s beloved children and hand-pick the ones best suited to dwell with him in eternity? What a strange idea. I thought his work and glory was to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of … all his children. I have asked this question here and there, and the usual reply is that, well, those in the lower kingdoms will be happy where they end up. We seem to believe they won’t mind not being with their father for the eternities. And they get what they deserve. But then, I ask, what about all those qualifications we get — those with mental defects, those who die before age 8, those in unusual circumstance that might have an influence on their “judgment”… in the end, how do we know anything about this whole judging process, except that general authorities seem to have a free pass into the Celestial gates (except a few obvious failures), those who achieve more are more likely to end up there, and the mediocre among us will end up mediocre in the eternities.

    I’m with Imperfection (#8) on this one: it’s ultimately a weird and not very helpful belief, even though I think the intent of this kind of teaching is to motivate us all to do our very best. Who knows? if we took away this competition, would anyone be motivated to live a Christ-like life? The sad truth is that we give it a human competitive spin and end up with too many holier-than-thou’s who are sure where they are headed.

  10. Chris – I see this exactly backwards from how you’ve described it. You’ve described it from a scarcity mindset, not an abundance mind set. Doubtless there are many who feel the same way you do. But I don’t hear this in GC. I hear that we should save ourselves WITH others, not beat them out for the few remaining CK spots. If life is a race, it’s a race against ourselves and time, not against each other. It’s not a competition.

    You asked where these ideas downright offend, so I’ll go out on a limb and say that it offends me when people represent the church as promoting some sort of righteousness hierarchy. We add grace upon grace, we increase in knowledge and glory, and we are required to help other souls along the way. Anything that smacks of being able to ascend to God independently or being able to look down on (or back at) our fellow Saints as being less righteous or worthy seems misplaced in a church founded by JS.

  11. OK, this will be blunt:

    Jehovah’s Witnesses are at one extreme, and most of Protestantism is on the same side of the exclusionary line – with Mormons being on the other side (almost to the extreme on the Christianity spectrum). If you want a survival of the fittest, consider a literal reading of the 144,000 – in a religion that claims membership in the seven figures. **That’s “survival of the fittest” – on steroids. Calvin’s predestination is a pretty solid second. Mormonism’s expansionist construct isn’t even close.

  12. Pure love isn’t expressed in the survival of the fittest model. He is who the most fit among us, who is the perfect example of pure love, wasn’t motivated by the survival of the fittest model you’ve outlined. “God so loved the world” and “my work and my glory” are models where love on a scale, that fallen beings like ourselves can’t really grasp, is the model that deity follows.

  13. All you critics are missing the point. “Survival” is not entering the Celestial Kingdom, living with Heavenly Father, being eternally happy, or anything that can be obtained through grace alone. It is, as Chris put it, “that those who fully succeed spiritually are given the opportunity to reproduce in the eternities.” That’s the whole story. If you can’t reproduce, you are damned. You (and even I) might be perfectly happy in that state. But from a Darwinist perspective, we will have failed. And you do hear this message in General Conference. They never mention Darwin, of course, and they call it “exaltation” instead of “the opportunity to reproduce in the eternities” but it’s the same thing. The way I see it, it’s Mormonism that is Darwinism on steroids (dang Ray for stealing that phrase before I could respond), and if you believe that the opportunity to reproduce in the eternities is real and not universal, then I don’t think it is even an arguable point. Well, maybe the part about steroids.

    The apparent temptation is to assume that we achieve this at the expense of others. Nothing could be further from the truth (and Chris made no such claim). The scriptures (not to mention human history) make it clear that cooperation is the way to go. Indeed, a critical mass of population will be needed to make it all work. (OK, that’s speculation, but nevertheless entirely consistent with the Church’s behavior.)

    For those worried about the fairness awarding this status to dead infants or denying it to dead adults who didn’t have time to perfect themselves, you can relax. Dead infants are saved in the Celestial Kingdom, but are not guaranteed exaltation. They, and adults who die prematurely, will have the entire millenium to work on perfecting themselves. (And I would no more assume that the millenium will last 1,000 years than I would believe that the earth is 6,000 years old.)

    Christian Cardall expounded on this much more eloquently in this post from 2 years ago:

  14. I think we get the point. To invoke Darwinism to say ‘if you are good you get to keep reproducing when you die’ is a misunderstanding of Darwinism. Darwinism is not about individuals, it is about genes, and the genes are not conscious entities trying to be ‘good’. There is no goal in Darwinism. There is no plan. The analogy says that we are not actors, but are acted upon, and that we will be chosen by god depending on how we are acted upon by our spiritual environment.

    It makes for an interesting discussion, but I would certainly not push it as an analogy for the plan of salvation.

  15. I think a lot of Mormons view their religion in these terms, but for most of these it isn’t as well thought out and clarified as Chris has presented. It just sort of simmers below the level of deliberate or conscious thought. I think this is how our unique doctrines may seem to many outsiders as well. But for those with this view and lots of zeal and not so much in the way of Christlike-attributes, Rameumptoms are rapidly built. (Sorry, yesterday’s Sunday School lesson had Alma 31 in it, so it’s on my mind)

    I have to agree with David H (7) that whatever sorting that happens may surprise a lot of people who thought they had all the boxes checked off but were stingy with their time, talents, and especially their charity and affections.

  16. The erroneous nature of this model, to me, suggests that we are dealing with an economy of spiritual scarcity…as though there is only so much salvation to go around and that it is the “spiritually strong” who ultimately bump off the “weak” into inferiority. And given the phrase’s less-than-venerable origin with Herbert Spencer and the next century of the eugenics movement (though I am aware of the “chosen race” rhetoric in some of the hymns), I would be loathe to ascribe to this model too much.

    That said, as is often the case, Hugh B. Brown makes a provocative comment that leaves gaping room for a kind of spiritual Darwinianism. He notes in “Man and What He May Become,” that there is a theory of evolution to which we can subscribe w/o hesitation…that man can become like God. In this sense, the model is helpful, as it demonstrates that exaltation is something that must be endured as much as it is enjoyed. Joseph Smith talk similarly, that he who cannot endure affliction should also not expect to endure exaltation. Given our teachings about “a weeping God,” Joseph’s point fits quite well…how can we suppose that we can endure watching billions of our children fall astray when we can’t even keep ourselves steady in the midst of what ultimately amounts to a little cancer….

  17. Hawkgrrrl #11: Whoa, you took the analogy a lot further and in a different direction than I did. I do not subscribe to the things you said, such as that there are a limited number of spots in the celestial kingdom, that we are competing with each other, that we ascend to God independently, that we can judge other individuals for apparently being less righteous.

    If you don’t see ANY value at all in the analogy, that’s a failure of your imagination, not mine.

  18. Chris – glad to know you don’t take it that far! I do worry, though, that analogies like this appear exclusionary and can lead to self-righteousness or justification. In such a universalist church (three degrees of glory), this seems more like a “glass is half empty” analogy to me. But it is not wholly without justification I suppose. Paul refers to it as being a race, although Ecclesiastes (Solomon?) says the race is not to the swift. You do soften the analogy in your description, but the analogy speaks louder than the softening IMO.

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