A Finite Population?

July 18, 2012 | 22 comments
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So how many people do we think will exist in the whole of humanity throughout our history?

Abraham was told his descendants would be as numerous as the sands of the sea and the stars of the heaven, both of which are finite but incredibly large quantities. (For a clear and haunting depiction of unimaginably large numbers, see Steve Peck’s excellent novella A Short Stay in Hell.) Of course, those descriptions given to Abraham may be more akin to poetic license than actual numbers.

What I’m curious about now is the total number of spirit children of our Heavenly Parents. We learn about them (us, really, although we cannot remember it) in the plan of salvation lessons, those multitudes who took part in the grand council in heaven. We lost a third of those brothers and sisters, so that must be a third of some particular number, right?

I clearly remember being told as a teenager that we were a choice generation, reserved especially for these latter days (reinforcing the idea that there is a certain number of spirits who have been all queued up waiting to enter mortality, and we’re getting close to the end of the line). Stories were passed around in testimony meetings and firesides about people, older than us, even, who were blessed that they would see the return of Christ in the flesh.

We have an obligation to provide physical bodies for spirit children (within the bonds of marriage, with the timing and quantity of children being the result of prayerful consideration by husband and wife). The command to multiply and replenish is still in effect, according to the Proclamation on the Family.

So do we think that at some point every spirit who is waiting for their chance at mortality will be born? And a related question: Are we still an end-of-times religion?

I’m very curious as to

1) What the range of faithful LDS opinions is on the subject (I expect it to be a mix of doctrine and folklore, which I’m finding describes most of the personal beliefs I grew up with. It’s interesting to me to go through and attempt to untangle the two, even while recognizing both as valid parts of my LDS heritage. But I could be wrong about the entire thing, and in that case, I’m more than willing to be corrected)

and

2) Whether anyone even thinks about these things.

In some ways, it doesn’t matter. It’s all a matter of faith or speculation, depending on your point of view. But in other ways, even small aspects of our faith will have an important influence on the choices we make as we live our lives (For example, a strong belief in Saturday’s Warrior may be a factor in the number of children a couple chooses to have.) What do you think?

22 Responses to A Finite Population?

  1. Sigma Ursula on July 18, 2012 at 9:55 am

    Who says there are a finite amount of stars or finite amount of anything? At least we’re told there is/will be no end to creation, which point to the infinite.

  2. Last Lemming on July 18, 2012 at 10:18 am

    Whether anyone even thinks about these things.

    At least one.

    My perspective on the cosmos was changed by reading The Physics of Immortality by Frank Tipler. The book is seriously flawed in both its science and theology, but it taught me that one can penetrate the fog of unimaginable things if one is willing to work with really really large numbers.

    At some point, we naturally give up trying to comprehend large numbers and take the route of those primitive tribes whose counting is limited to “one, two, three, many”. (I had a link here, but it seems to be getting caught in the spam filter.) But just as four is a valid number so are all those that can only be expressed in scientific notation. And religious concepts such as embodying spirits and resurrecting the dead can only be approached in those terms. If we continue to lump them in with the infinite and incomprehensible, we will, by definition, never comprehend them and our own eternal progression will be stymied.

    To answer the first question, I believe the number is finite–not because of either doctrine or folklore, but because of mathematics.

  3. Stephen R Marsh on July 18, 2012 at 10:36 am

    Well, I would think Abraham’s children would include all of ours, in this life and the next, and theirs, etc, for millions of years or more down stream.

  4. Frank Pellett on July 18, 2012 at 11:11 am

    I also think it’s finite, just well beyond our scope of numbers we can fit into our heads. Even though God’s creations are infinite, we also believe that he knows each of His children personally. Since He knows us all individually, He must know exactly how many of us there are, even if its a number that would be completely meaningless to us.

    Right now, we estimate the population of humans ever on this Earth as being roughly double what it is now. For tidiness, we round it off to 12 billion. Its not accurate, but it will do for now.

    I’ve occasionally wondered what happens when we get to the last spirit needing to be born. Do people suddenly stop getting pregnant?

  5. Kerry on July 18, 2012 at 11:54 am

    Your post makes me think of something that I never thought of before in the “end of times” scenario. When the last spirit is brought into mortality, will we notice the complete stop of the world’s birth rate? :)

  6. Dave on July 18, 2012 at 1:06 pm

    Interesting topic, Rachel. I wrote a post in 2009 that touched on some of the theological issues that spring from the doctrine of preexistence:

    http://mormoninquiry.typepad.com/mormon_inquiry/2009/03/does-preexistence-really-absolve-god.html

    Briefly, preexistence avoids the problem of imputing to God our weak and sinful nature — he obviously could have created us better, but didn’t (so the argument goes) so it’s not really our fault we are weak and sinful. But preexistence introduces another problem, that of attributing human weakness and sin seen in this life to a person’s own acts and choices in that preexistence. That line of thinking leads to the troubling LDS folk doctrines about race.

    You have presented another problem for the doctrine of preexistence — what if we run out of preexisting spirits? [Or: what if the End of the World happens while a few million spirits are still queued up for their turn on Earth?] Note that if spirits burst into existence at conception (or some other point in the developmental process) then the problem just goes away.

    Preexistence seems to create as many problems as it solves.

  7. Bob on July 18, 2012 at 1:27 pm

    I believe it is taught Spirits need to get a body. Is it also taught the all bodies need to get a Spirit?

  8. Aaron on July 18, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    I’ve taken a stab at working some numbers here.

  9. el oso on July 18, 2012 at 4:53 pm

    #4 & #5 Can eternal beings ever run out of offspring? The logical answer seems to be no. At some point the last person born on earth may be born, but the eternal plan will continue elsewhere for unborn spirits.

  10. Rachel Whipple on July 18, 2012 at 5:44 pm

    Aaron-do we need to allow time for spiritual gestation?

    Perhaps time works differently, non-linearly outside of this temporal realm of existence. So our Heavenly Parents are continuing to eternally increase their numbers of progeny and those spirit beings all are/were able to vote. When we become exalted, we’re supposed to have internal increase too–will that be creating spirits or bodies? Or both?

    The good thing about speculation like this is not that we are able to resolve seemingly contradictory scenarios and gain clear answers, but that by thinking on the problems we may gain some small insight.

  11. Stephen R. Marsh on July 18, 2012 at 6:58 pm

    So, 15 billion. to the fourth power (to get to the great grand children) … to the 20th power … gee, now to the billionth power. Number can get pretty large.

  12. whizzbang on July 18, 2012 at 9:28 pm

    I just wonder if there are other premortalities’ going on right now and if so it would seem there is a definate number of people assigned to this planet or was there one premortality and people are getting parceled out to wherever. If God is having more children then I assume there are more then one premortalities’ going on-to me that makes sense. But how many children are supposed to come to this earth I have no idea. Also if Christ is the author and finisher of our faith and worked out the atonement then did he do so for other worlds? If so how can someone yet to be born choose something that is alreadu underway as Christ’s atonement is? Are there other Christ? if so then how can Christ be the first born and special child of God’s yet another person born to him is also a Christ on another planet?

  13. christine on July 18, 2012 at 10:44 pm

    yes ! i am totally thinking about this. My understanding as a fresh mormon is that the existence on earth is finite and will come to an end when all of the spirits from pre-existence are brought to earth. then there will be judgement day and people will go from their “holding tank” where there is a good space for those who were baptized mormon and a not so great space for those who are not baptized and, by having them baptized posthumously in the temple we can move our ancestors up into the good space. how many people will end up living on earth…hopefully not too many more,it is getting crowded here in some places !!! then after judgement day provided one lands in some heaven spirits can continue to procreate but I assume the results of that procreation will not involve getting any spirits from the pre-existence ? ’cause pre-existence is already emptied out ? this is my impression from what the missionaries were telling me, anyone correct me if I am wrong

  14. Bryan S. on July 19, 2012 at 9:25 am

    “Perhaps time works differently, non-linearly outside of this temporal realm of existence.”

    Actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly… time-y wimey… stuff.

  15. Suleiman on July 19, 2012 at 9:46 am

    “Stories were passed around in testimony meetings and firesides about people, older than us, even, who were blessed that they would see the return of Christ in the flesh.”

    One of these was my Great-great grandmother. She has been dead for over a century. Note that “flesh” could denote someone resurrected to meet Christ, so I don’t get too wound about this theologically. But the hysteria has been around for centuries.

  16. geoffsn on July 21, 2012 at 6:42 pm

    I’d say infinite. Why assume to impose a limit since we don’t know?

    Also, I personally prefer Joseph’s teachings about pre-earth life than Brigham’s or B. H. Robert’s fusion of the two. Joseph never mentioned Heavenly Mother, he also never spoke of ‘literal spirit birth’ or ‘vivaporous spirit birth.’ Rather Joseph said that “God never had the power to create the spirit of man” and that our spirits are co-eternal with God. Under such a system, spirits become sons and daughters of God through adoption/covenant. It is very well described in Abraham 3. Now if we have heavenly parents adopting some of the infinite number of co-eternal spirits to be their children, it seems to me that there must be an infinite number of such eternal spirits.

    As for the chosen generation, I did a study a while ago looking at the use of the phrase “chosen generation” and what it has meant over time. It seems to me that part of the reason for this phrase becoming so popular is a desire among the members (and leaders) to return to more of an ‘end-times’ church. Compared to the early church we are not an end-times church. We still do retain our end-times doctrines however (even if subdued) so that is a tricky subject. I found it interesting that Elder Packer mentioned that the young people at conference would be able to live to see their grandkids before the 2nd coming.

    I think there is a specific number of spirits for this earth and it is incredibly large. From science we know there is a limit to how long earth can sustain human life. Even if we perfect our use of natural resources, eventually the earth will be kissed by the sun in its He->Li(and others) phase of fusion. Plus I’m partial to the idea that we wait until all our spirit siblings are done with earth life at which point we move onto the terrestrial kingdom of the millennial earth (while some still hang out in the spirit world waiting their turn), and then repeat that again as we enter the celestial kingdom of the glorified earth (and presumably continue on from there).

  17. christine on July 21, 2012 at 9:26 pm

    geoffsn I am with you, infinite amounts of spirits but they will not all get to earth and they were probably not all in earth targetted pre-existence. since each spirit is likely in an infinite existence, they can have infinite amounts of spirit children in the after life , but a finite amount of spirits earmarked for life on earth maybe because there was a pre-pre existence where spirits could choose to go to earth or go to another type of existence or some such thing. Maybe infinite locations like earth where spirits have some sort of biological or even viviparous birth and have to endure a body bound existence or somekind of existence that is more difficult but potentially more entertaining and character building than pure spirit existence. Like we have different theme parks on earth, haha.
    I think it is a VERY tricky subject. and I am very curious to see what the missionaries will dig up, they promised me today to research it a bit. specifically the number of spirits whether it is considered to be finite. I google that there are as many as 5 or more different opinions about pre-existence in LDS.

  18. whizzbang on July 22, 2012 at 6:31 pm

    Something too if there are a finite amount of people coming here to this earth then that means that the population will run out at some point and even before that happens people can’t have babies-apologies for the run on sentence!

  19. christine on July 23, 2012 at 11:29 am

    yah whizzbang interesting cause the last generation will not have a go at a full life in this scenario.

  20. Cameron Nielsen on July 23, 2012 at 6:02 pm

    Very interesting speculative subject. I won’t belabor my theories, mainly because I don’t think it’s worth it to invest too much time into them so I probably wouldn’t add much to the discussion.

    One thought I might add: whatever the paradigm of spirit creation, it has something to do with *intelligence* – whatever it is, and how it is translated into spiritual beings.

  21. christine on July 23, 2012 at 8:55 pm

    cameron are you trying to say we are all not intelligent enough to notice we are wasting our time…

  22. YvonneS on July 24, 2012 at 7:19 am

    When You consider that the birth rate in some countries has declined to the place where it is questionable whether their populations will be able to sustain themselves; it doesn’t seem at all impossible that the human race, if it continues on its present course, could reach a point of extinction. I tend to lean toward the finite number. Since there is no actual evidence either way I would not rule out an infinite number, if there actually is such a thing. Eternal eternal increase implies that increase goes on without end in all directions, before earth life, during earth life and after earth life. While it is interesting to think about it doesn’t make much difference either way.

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