There is a relationship between ascension in this life and the right to ascend in the afterlife which is mentioned, but not well explained, in scripture. There are two ascents. One is temporary and happens when men are “caught up” but then return to this world. It represents overcoming the world and returning the individual back to the presence of God. It is called redemption from the fall (Ether 1:13) because it brings the individual back into God’s presence. This form of temporary ascent is designed to establish a covenant or promise related to the other, more gradual ascent through development of the individual. The temporary mortal ascent secures a promise for the individual that they will be permitted to make the eternal ascent to where God and Christ dwell in the afterlife. The second form is the actual ascent, involving redemption, and securing eternal life. It is a methodical process over eons of time to bring those who ascend to reside where God and Christ dwell (see T&C 69:14,28). In the “King Follett Discourse,” Joseph Smith said this: “Thus you learn some of the first principles of the gospel about which so much has been said. When you climb a ladder, you must begin at the bottom and go on until you learn the last principle; it will be a great while before you have learned the last. It is not all to be comprehended in this world; it is a great thing to learn salvation beyond the grave.”1 This is the growth, by degrees, which results in exaltation. “Here, then, is eternal life — to know the only wise and true God. And you have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves — to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done — by going from a small degree to another, from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you are able to sit in glory as do those who sit enthroned in everlasting power.”2
The second form of ascent cannot happen in mortality but is accomplished over time. It requires attaining to the resurrection, meaning that death has no claim on this person because he or she merits eternal life. This is what Christ gained in His life and through His sacrifice here. Men are dependent upon His merits to overcome death. But all will have to attain the same thing before they finish the second form of ascent. Christ is the prototype of the saved man and all must be precisely what he is and nothing else or not be saved, according to the Lectures on Faith (LOF 7:9).
The first form of ascent is possible for all mortals. The scriptures, in particular the Book of Mormon, contain accounts of those who have ascended to God’s presence and overcome the fall of mankind. Many Old Testament prophets did likewise, but their accounts were redacted by the Deuteronomists because of hostility to the doctrine. The reality is that most people — even very good, believing people whose lives are filled with Christian charity and love for their fellow man — are not going to ascend, even temporarily, while they live in this fallen world. The first ascent is covenant-filled. God brings one before Him to establish a covenant, assuring the Eternal ascent. Most people will ascend over eons of time, because the process is based on the determination and commitment people have to follow God and His Christ.3