As with so many other words, the phrase “eternal life” has a drastically different meaning in Mormonism than it does in Christianity. In the following, the differences are emphasized by the italicized words.
Christianity: It’s life with God which is the present possession of believers (see John 5:24) given as a gift from God based on Jesus’ works.
Mormonism: It’s life as God which lies in the future and is given as a reward for a person’s work.
But it’s not always so easy to see Mormonism’s definition. One of the clearer statements is made in the June 2016 issue of the Ensign magazine. In an article entitled, What Do We Know About Life After Death, the following is stated: “Those who inherit the highest degree of the celestial kingdom will be exalted, which means they will have eternal life, become like our Heavenly Father, and receive all that the Father has.” And the next paragraph says: “Those in other kingdoms will be angels, which ‘are ministering servants, to minister for those who are worthy of a far more, and an exceeding, and an eternal weight of glory’ (D&C 132:19-23).” (Those who are worthy of a far greater glory are those who receive eternal life.)
Those two statements clearly show that, in Mormonism, eternal life lies in the future. The qualification of those who are worthy point to it being a reward for what they do. That it is life as God is not as clearly seen but it’s there. Note that those who receive eternal life will “receive all that the Father has.”
The official LDS manual, Gospel Principles, is even clearer. (The italics in the following are mine. As the quote above states, exalted people are the ones who receive eternal life.) Gospel Principles state:
“These are some of the blessings given to exalted people:
They will live eternally in the presence of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ (see D&C 76:62).
They will become gods (see D&C 132:20–23).
They will be united eternally with their righteous family members and will be able to have eternal increase.
They will receive a fullness of joy.
They will have everything that our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ have—all power, glory, dominion, and knowledge (see D&C 132:19–20).”
Pretty striking, isn’t it? They will become gods. They will have all power, glory, dominion, and knowledge. Becoming a god remains the goal Mormonism holds out to people.
When talking with Mormons, however, I don’t usually talk to them about their definition of eternal life. Instead I focus on whether or not they are confident that they will obtain eternal life. I do that because most have no assurance that they will have eternal life. They aren’t confident because it all depends on not only on their becoming worthy but also remaining worthy.
In striking contrast, I tell them how confident I am of having eternal life. I talk about how God has given it to me as his gift through Jesus my Substitute. My confidence sometimes acts like a magnet - attracting them and causing them to ask more questions.
I have found this approach, rather than one that focuses on all their errors, produces much more fruitful discussions. It is modeled after Paul’s approach in Athens recorded in Acts 17. Instead of talking about all their false idols, he focused on the unknown God. He used that as his launching pad to tell them about the true God.
Likewise, we can use the phrase eternal life as our launching pad to tell Mormons about the great things God has done for them. And what is so neat is that the more you talk about what Jesus has done for you, the greater your own appreciation grows for him.