"Why do we come to earth, and what are the consequences that need to be overcome?"
I asked the questions and asked for "the standard, Primary answers". They came up with: to be tried, to gain a physical body, to learn to repent, to progress, etc. - and, for the second part of the question, physical and spiritual death. We then focused on the concepts of physical and spiritual death - what they mean in practical terms and how the scriptures talk about them.
To discuss physical death (and to get to the heart of it within Mormon theology), we read 1 Corinthians 15:1-29, verse-by-verse. I started by explaining Paul's background (when he was Saul, the high-ranking agent of the Sanhedrin), in order to make sure they understood that Paul had been highly-educated in the law - that he was, in practical terms, like Elder Oaks now. Thus, like Elder Oaks, he often spoke in legalistic terms - since that was how he was trained and how he thought. I wanted them to understand the structure of the chapter we were going to read - how Paul's treatise about the resurrection basically was like a courtroom "defense" of the concept and precisely what he said about "salvation from physical death".
I'm going to quote almost the entire passage, with snippets of the conversation, just to present the general flow of the discussion:
(1-3) Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand;by which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;
Paul starts his discourse on the resurrection by reminding the members of the Church that he preached and scripture recorded, and they accepted, the idea that Jesus died for our sins. Thus, he started with the concept of redemption from spiritual death - but then he quickly shifted to the resurrection.
(4-8) And that he was buried, and that he arose again the third day according to the scriptures: and that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: after that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.
He then cites witnesses to the resurrection - six appearances in all. He does this, again, in order to cover the classic legal requirement of having witnesses to a claim. (I didn't mention this in the class, simply because I didn't think of it at the time, but, for this forum, it is interesting that Paul included his own "vision" in the list that otherwise would be interpreted as visitations. He didn't distinguish in the epistle between those different types of "appearances".)
(9-11) For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. Therefore whether it were I or they, so we preach, and so ye believed.
Paul then re-established that the people who were receiving his epistle had believed what he and the others had preached about the resurrection. It was, again, a legal argument saying, essentially, "This is not new to you. At one point, every one of you accepted and believed this."
(12) Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?
This verse says quite clearly that Paul was writing this chapter as a direct response to member of the early Christian Church who had started to reject the resurrection (as "physical" in nature), re-igniting the previous division that had existed within Judaism between the Sadducees and Pharisees regarding resurrection. That is important to understand, since there are two capstone verses that only can be understood properly if the intended audience is understood properly.
(13-15) But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: and if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not.
Here, Paul places his own character and that of the other witnesses at the center of the question of whether or not a resurrection occurred - and he says, flat-out, that Christianity is useless / ineffectual ("vain") without the foundation of a resurrection that had been witnessed by lots of people.
(16-18) For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: and if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished.
This is a repeat or extension of the previous verses, but it sets the stage for his first capstone statement:
(19) If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.
I asked the students what this verse means - how they would rephrase it in their own terminology. One of the students said, "If we stop believing in Christ, we will be miserable." I told him that I have heard that translation a lot, but that it wasn't quite what Paul was saying. (He's a great kid, so he didn't take offense at being told he was wrong - and I have done that in more than one lesson in the past, so they are used to it.) They read it again, and someone phrased it correctly as, "If our hope in Christ is confined to this life and has no real effect in the next life, we are more miserable than anyone else."
We then talked about why that would be - and they quickly understood that it is because of all the requirements involved in accepting Jesus and living as he told his disciples to live. We talked a little about what that entailed back then (which, in many ways, was a lot more than now, as much as we tend to feel restricted now), then we talked about what that entails now. After about ten things were listed as examples of things they do that they wouldn't do if they were believing Christian-Mormons, we all grinned and agreed that we could keep adding to the list for a long time. I repeated something the High Councilor had said in Sacrament Meeting - that we need to use common sense in how we dedicate time to our callings, since "the Church can take all of our time if we let it" - and that we can't neglect our family in performing our callings, since "the family is #1 in our lives, not the Church".
Verse 19 is the first "summation statement" in chapter 15. It is the end of Paul's first point - that the resurrection is central to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and warrants the sacrifices required of the early members at that time.
He then moved to the scope of the resurrection - the extent of salvation from physical death.
(20-22) But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
I asked the students who, according to these verses, is resurrected. They saw immediately that every person who has been born is said to be resurrected. One of them asked an interesting question: "How do other denominations interpret verse 22? I don't see how they can read it any differently than that." I told him that most people tend to interpret scriptures based on what they believe, not based on what the scriptures actually say - especially when what they say is different than what they have been taught. I told them that trying to understand scriptures as they are, not as we want them to be, is an important effort - and I told them again that making that effort has led me to interpret some passages and verses differently even than many other members of the LDS Church.
I then rephrased the answer to: "Everyone who is born already has been saved - from physical death." Based on that idea, I told them that I hope they never argue with anyone who claims to have been saved. Based on what most of them believe about the next life, they are right; they have been saved, just like all of them and I already have been saved. I told them that it's important to understand where others are correct and not accuse them of being incorrect in those instances. I told them that if anyone ever asks them if they have been saved to answer confidently, "Yes, I have been saved, just like you have been saved - at the moment we chose to follow Jesus." If they want to hear more (if the answer shocks them enough to ask), more can be shared; if not, the potential confrontation has been avoided.
Verses 23-28 are simply more "detail" about the resurrection and don't add anything unique to the discussion that I wanted to address, so I said it that way and we moved to verse 29.
(29) Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?
This is Paul's second capstone argument - focusing on the "proof" that the early Christian leaders and members really did believe what they taught about the resurrection. If reworded to make it easier to understand, it might read:
Why are people being baptized for the dead if they aren't going to be resurrected? (If there is no post-mortal life, of if the next life is nothing more than a spiritual continuation, why would we be baptized for them?
This rhetorical question is worded in such a way, in context of the entire chapter, as the clinching argument that ALL who are born will be resurrected - since it places them ALL under the requirement of the law to be baptized. Again, performing baptisms for the dead proved that the people involved really believed what the leaders taught - that salvation from physical death really is universal.
I looked at the person who asked the question about how others view verse 22 and told him that I have heard verse 29 explained away as Paul condemning a practice of the time by an apostate group - but I told them that such an interpretation simply makes no sense as worded or in the context of the entire chapter. Conversely, as a summation of a legal argument about the centrality and universality of the resurrection, it makes perfect sense.
Since this already is a long summary, I will hit only two things about the rest of the lesson:
1) We talked about agency as the central aspect of salvation from spiritual death - and how, in traditional Mormon theology, all but very few people who are resurrected will inherit a degree of glory and live forever in the presence of "God" (or, to be more precise, to be able to exist in the presence of a member of the Godhead).
2) We talked again about how important it is for each of them to act according to the dictates of their own consciences and become unique individuals - not carbon copies of someone else. I told them about Steven Peck's book, "A Short Stay in Hell", in which a man goes to a place where everyone is exactly like him and thinks, for a short time, that he is in Heaven - only to realize exact sameness is Hell. (Steven is a Biology professor at BYU and a phenomenal writer. I recommend this book highly to everyone here.) I recommended that book to them, and told them that lack of progress, lack of action, lack of purpose other than praising God constantly, and never-ending sameness would be Hell for me.