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Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Re-emergence of a Flawed Doctrine

This blog might be a tweesy bit more controversial than some of my others. I've expressed these thoughts elsewhere. But I've tweaked them some, and it seems appropriate to mention them here. Maybe I’m overemphasizing the resurgence of this problem, but since some guy brought it up in Sunday School a few months back, and since I read where others tried to push the idea on other blogs, and since some might misconstrue that this teaching is also supported by a new book called, Odds Are You’re Going to Be Exhalted, I felt it was worth discussing.

“Universalism” is the doctrine that eventually, whether it may take billions of years, ALL of our Heavenly Father’s children will be exalted in the Celestial Kingdom. The idea is that even though many on earth will inherit the telestial kingdom, or the lowest of the three degrees of glory, over time they will have the opportunity to progress to higher kingdoms. Usually this doctrine is couched with the emotional philosophy that a loving Heavenly Father could NEVER introduce a plan of salvation wherein only a portion of His children would receive exaltation and be permanently reunited with Him.

The idea that souls can progress from kingdom to kingdom, over time, was batted around by various Church figures in the late 1800’s and the early 20th Century. But the concept was sent to the trash heap with a great deal of dramatic flourish by Elder Bruce R. McConkie in the early 1980’s with a popular talk that he gave entitled, “The Seven Deadly Heresies.” One of these “deadly heresies” was the notion that souls could progress from kingdom to kingdom.

Our mortal understanding of fairness and compassion is lulled by the idea that God could NEVER condemn ANYONE to a state less than their full potential. In his book, Odds Are..., the author points out the doctrine that many general authorities have espoused that children who die before the age of accountability, the mentally handicapped, and several other prominent categories of souls are assured exaltation because of their station in life. It even references a little known doctrine taught by Joseph Smith and others that celestialized parents who have wayward children in mortality will, through their own faith and determination, have the power to influence a child to change their attitude in the afterlife and eventually rejoin them in an eternally exalted family. The book leans upon the emotionalism associated with the philosophy as it states: “The thought that God would promote something that would ensure that the vast majority of His children would never again be able to dwell in His presence is incomprehensible. And the assumption that our mother in heaven would idly sit back and allow such a guaranteed flop to eternally strip her of any interaction with her spirit offspring is equally unfathomable. Such could not-and did not-happen!”

Now, I don't know this author. Never met him. So I really cringe to offend anyone. But something about this whole idea really sits uncomfortably with me. Yes, based on our mortal understanding of the eternities, the argument has a gut reaction that is quite persuasive. Our earthly comprehension of fairness veritably screams to the carnal mind that this MUST be the case. But the fact is, we have no revealed doctrine that specifically supports it. It is a speculation based on the logic of mortals. And we have so little understanding of anything about our Mother in heaven that assuming any state of mind for this sacred figure might actually be inappropriate.

To give this book it's due, it mostly tries to highlight the fact that we are saved by the grace of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. This is certainly true, and sometimes forgotten by Latter-day Saints who can be prone to bouts of guilt and (mental) self flagellation. But if one seeks comfort by gaining a full understanding of the overwhelming power of the Atonement, I would recommend Stephen Robinson’s book, Believing Christ. Odds Are..., though seemingly innocuous in its motives, and though it references various sources, seems strikes me as too closely allied with “Universalism,” or the doctrine that God does not really punish anyone. That there are, in the end, no eternal consequences for our choices in mortality. And that very few, if any, will be condemned to live in the eternities in any permanent state that cuts them off from the presence of their Heavenly Parents.

As I mentioned, Bruce R. McConkie specifically condemned such an idea in his talk “The Seven Deadly Heresies.” He states that the belief of eternal progression from kingdom to kingdom “… lulls men into a state of carnal security. It causes them to say, “God is so merciful; surely he will save us all eventually; if we do not gain the celestial kingdom now, eventually we will; so why worry?”

He then enlists some powerful scriptures. Of those in the telestial world it is written: “And they shall be servants of the Most High, but where God and Christ dwell they cannot come, worlds without end” (D&C 76:112).

"Of those who had the opportunity to enter into the new and everlasting covenant of marriage in this life and who did not do it, the revelation says: “Therefore, when they are out of the world they neither marry nor are given in marriage; but are appointed angels in heaven; which angels are ministering servants, to minister for those who are worthy of a far more, and an exceeding, and an eternal weight of glory. For these angels did not abide my law; therefore, they cannot be enlarged, but remain separately and singly, without exaltation, in their saved condition, to all eternity; and from henceforth are not gods, but are angels of God forever and ever. [D&C 132:16-17]"

To the mortal mind this just seems unfair, right? If God really loves us, how could it be true?

To me the answer seems elementary: In the end, as we receive our eternal estate, I'm not sure that anyone, after a period of mourning, perhaps, for falling short of their potential, will ultimately view themselves as being “punished.” We receive our "state" in the eternities because of our actions. In essence, we choose our kingdom of glory. It is not given to us as punishment. I emphasize that each kingdom is accompanied by the word “glory." These lower kingdoms are never referred to as states of sorrow and anguish. There’s a popular and publicized axiom that teaches that if men could see the glory of the telestial kingdom, they might readily commit suicide just to obtain it because of how glorious it really is. I have not found a particular source for this statement from the scriptures or from a General Authority so I would never advocate such behavior, but the point is instructive.

I feel we can reconcile all of our understandings about the fairness and mercy of God without changing basic LDS doctrine. In essence, we must assume that our lack of understanding regarding “fairness” (such as when contemplating the “luck” of children born with certain physical limitations or who die as infants, when compared to our own seeming lack of “luck” that we did NOT die as infants and must endure all the pangs and pains of multiple decades on earth) might be resolved with a great “Oh, duh!” if we could simply remember our pre-mortality. We would then fully comprehend the whys and wherefores of things that occur in mortality and eliminate any thoughts of injustice regarding opportunities and consequences that occur while residing on earth in its mortal probation.

Once again, what if telestial glory turns out to be utter bliss for those who inherit it? I believe our eternal destination is as much associated with principles of math and physics as eternal punishments. Like polar opposites or two repelling magnets imperfection may simply no be able to co-exist (and may not desire to co-exist) with perfection. Those who obtain lower kingdoms of glory would simply be uncomfortable and miserable in a higher kingdom. This understanding preserves the doctrine of the Church without introducing “universalism.”

And as far as the ultimate question, and the one that plays most effectively upon emotions (that is, the question of returning to dwell eternally with our Father and Mother in heaven), have we ever considered that maybe there are those who don’t WANT to return to God’s presence? That it’s not necessarily high on thier list of priorities? Getting back to the presence of the Father and Mother of our spirits sounds beautiful and luminous in principle, but the reality may not be as attractive as the abstraction. If the analogy of earthly relationships is to be enlisted, we ought to consider that some mortal parents have children who ultimately feel ambivalent about them. Or even resentful. And maybe those who obtain lower kingdoms with no interaction from Heavenly Father and Mother are simply more comfortable to live elsewhere. Undoubtedly this can be heartbreaking for the parents, but heartbreak and sorrow for the “world” as well as sorrow for decisions of our offspring is often cited as a condition experienced by God. For all we know, inheritance of the Celestial Kingdom assumes an incredible amount of responsibility, labor, effort, and study that many souls do not want to undertake. Creating worlds? Let’s face it, some of us in mortality find it difficult to get up the gumption to mow the lawn.

So what about the “billions and gazillions of years” that make up the fabric of eternity? Just what are those who inherit telestial glory going to be doing ten gazillion years from now if not attempting to progress to a higher kingdom? Well, again, this logic assumes way too much from our mortal understanding of time. The same flawed argument could be placed upon the past as well as the future. If we have “always” existed, why did it take so doggone long to even get to the point of getting here to mortality? See the problem? Again, we are trapped by our mortal understanding. The “veil” prohibits our comprehension. As the scriptures often indicate, “God’s time is not our time.” And it may be that time itself is a “thing,” a “dimension,” created strictly for mortal beings. “Universalism” as a doctrine seems fueled by that lack of understanding. It’s a doctrine born of a lack of faith and the arrogance that WE can come up with a better plan if the one God presents doesn’t suit us. And it is a doctrine born of basic human impatience.

Honestly, if I accepted “Universalism,” I really would feel tempted to go out and do any darn thing I pleased. It would allow me to feel just fine about sin itself. What the hooey! The scriptures say there are consequences??? So what??? “Universalism” makes me say “No big deal!” As a carnal, self-serving human being I am prone to respond, “I’ll worry about consequences later and seek out all my self-gratifications now.” Or to paraphrase the scriptures, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!” This notion really is reenergized in my psyche with “universalism” or any doctrine like unto it. And it seems to me this was also the favorite doctrine of the anti-Christ, Nehor, when he preached for gain and "testified unto the people that all mankind should be saved at the last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble, but that they might lift up their heads and rejoice; for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men; and, in the end, all men should have eternal life. (Alma 1:3)"

Also, we can resolve this argument by looking at Mor. 7: 16-17. To paraphrase: “That which invites men to do good and believe in Christ is of God. That which invites men NOT to do good is NOT of God.” Such puts universalism squarely with the flattering “doctrines of men” that have fooled humanity for countless ages. Though I am tempted by the carnal comfort I receive from the concept, I believe that comfort is essentially inspired by laziness and does not contribute to our Spirit-induced desire to repent and do better day by day.

And lest there are some who believe that this rejection could only be born of a universal power struggle, i.e. a desire to stomp upon one’s fellow man and declare a certain select few superior to others, or that is upholds the argument that the Plan of Salvation as outlined was born from a lack of compassion for humankind, I declare that this is not accurate or true. The Plan of Salvation—-the same plan which allows us to choose our own destiny for time and eternity—-is the very essence of compassion and justice. For we see now through the veil darkly. And human logic will never replace the eternal light of revelation. So until the Lord reveals more (or finds us humble enough to receive more) it's recommended that we remain rooted to the prevalent understanding about repentance and living the commandments that we have been taught by our leaders since our earliest days in Primary.

(c) Copyright 2009, Chris Heimerdinger


  1. I agree with you wholeheartedly. Universalism is false.

    The best argument against Universalism which I could offer in support of your ideas here, is the resurrection. There is only ONE resurrection for each of us. That body with which we are resurrected is one of "bodies celestial, bodies terrestrial, and bodies telestial." Our resurrection is literally part of our judgment, and that is wholly determined by our spiritual state. Have we chased all darkness from our souls through obedience and proper application of the atonement by repentance? If so, Christ's grace makes us whole... and we have BECOME celestial. That is the body we will be raised from the grave with. We will see in a coming day that the bodies of God's resurrected children in those kingdoms are as different as the sun is from the stars and the moon.

    Just my two bits.

  2. Regarding the Joseph Smith suicide statement, I found a quote by Elder Truman G. Madsen awhile back that, to me at least, answers the question:

    "Many of us have heard the statement made—and ascribed to either Joseph Smith or Brigham Young—to the effect that if a person could see the glory of the telestial kingdom he would commit suicide to get there. If only we could get the fundamental doctrines across to Church members as rapidly as we get across rumors, everyone would be saved. Am I saying that’s a rumor? Well, I am saying this: that over a period of many years I have combed everything Joseph Smith said and wrote, and I can’t find it. Hugh Nibley has done the same with Brigham Young’s words, and he can’t find it. It is hard to prove a negative, of course. What I can say is that we have found a statement from Joseph via Wilford Woodruff that says something else that is close, and I suspect it is the origin of the alleged statement. Elder Woodruff said the Prophet taught this, roughly: that if we could see what is beyond the veil we couldn’t stand to stay here in mortality for five minutes. And I suggest from the context that he was not talking about the telestial kingdom. He was talking about what it was like to be in the presence of God and the family."

    None of the quotes about it are direct quotes from Joseph Smith, just things recorded about 30 years later by other people from second- and third-hand accounts.

  3. There is definitely a reason why Mormon included the basic concept of Nehor's sophistry in the abridged records. The Gospel is simple, so simple that our mere mortal minds have a hard time comprehending it. The adversary takes advantage of that in trying to lead people astray by modifying it to satisfy the mortal limitations we operate under.

    The Lord's Atonement and sacrifice are indeed universal in that it is accessible to all who enter mortality, but that does not equate to everyone is guaranteed to become joint heirs with Christ...

    Redemption from the physical death is universal. Beyond that, the only thing universal is that God's law is applied equally to all who are capable of sin. Salvation in the form of Exaltation is a combination of grace and merit based, with the former not kicking in until the latter has been filled. It is indeed available to all and all are called to take part in it, but to say or intimate that everyone will accept or listen to that call during the time given to do so is indeed false, misleading, and pernicious.

    The scriptures and living prophets are pretty clear in telling us that no unclean thing can abide the presence of The Father and that in the resurrection we are restored to that which we have merited in mortality.

    Extrapolating that justice will have no hold on anyone from the assumption The Lord is more merciful with individuals than we assume He will be is indeed false.

  4. Just a quick touch-up on a previous comment - Truman G. Madsen was never a General Authority, so calling him Elder is not exactly accurate. But I wholeheartedly agree with what he said.

    One of my BYU professors taught a doctrine that seemed the polar opposite of this 'advancing through the kingdoms' idea, but equally as erroneous - that of annihilation. He taught that souls sent to outer darkness are literally destroyed - blown apart, if you will, back into whatever it was we were before we were spirits, and then 'reorganized' into different spirits. Call me crazy, but this sounds like an attempt at an LDS rehash of reincarnation. I think a good rule of thumb is the advice Joseph Smith taught - don't tend to the outer branches [of church doctrine] - cling close to the trunk.

  5. Chris: The same flawed argument could be placed upon the past as well as the future. If we have “always” existed, why did it take so doggone long to even get to the point of getting here to mortality? See the problem?

    That is a fantastic point. I think so many logical conundrums like this only seem problematic to mortals who are stuck in linear time. I'm not claiming to be able to comprehend how eternity functions, but I think once we can comprehend it, things like this will make sense.

    Maybe there are those who don’t WANT to return to God’s presence?

    To me, this is exactly the message of several passages in the Book of Mormon:

    Mosiah 2:38—If that man ... dieth an enemy to God, the demands of divine justice do awaken his immortal soul to a lively sense of his own guilt, which doth cause him to shrink from the presence of the Lord, and doth fill his breast with guilt, and pain, and anguish, which is like an unquenchable fire.

    Mosiah:325—If they be evil they are consigned to an awful view of their own guilt and abominations, which doth cause them to shrink from the presence of the Lord into a state of misery and endless torment, from whence they can no more return; therefore they have drunk damnation to their own souls.

    Mormon 9:3–4—Do ye suppose that ye shall dwell with him under a consciousness of your guilt? Do ye suppose that ye could be happy to dwell with that holy Being, when your souls are racked with a consciousness of guilt that ye have ever abused his laws? Behold, I say unto you that ye would be more miserable to dwell with a holy and just God, under a consciousness of your filthiness before him, than ye would to dwell with the damned souls in hell.

    All three passages emphasize that when we return to God's presence for the Judgment, if we haven't repented, he does not cast us out, strictly speaking. We run out of the room. We cast ourselves out. And that's because, if we're not prepared, we won't be happy in His presence.

    I think of it like those Scout Camp bonfires. Everyone would sit in the forest amphitheater waiting for the evening program and bonfire to start, wishing they had a fire and shivering from the cold (earth life). Then someone would light the bonfire, and everyone would run up right next to it (the Judgment). Then a funny thing would always happen. After about five seconds, many of us started thinking, "Ouch! This is hotter than I expected!" So what did we do? Some would take two steps back, others would take four steps back. Others walked back and sat down on the benches. And others stayed just as close as they originally were, because they liked that amount of heat.

    I kind of think that's what the Judgment will be like. Everyone will be exposed to the full, glorious, intense presence of the Father, and then, like King Benjamin and Mormon say, many will be so uncomfortable because of the degree to which they've not repented, that they will voluntarily retreat from the presence of the Father. Some will step back to a terrestrial glory, some to a telestial glory, and some will retreat all the way to outer darkness. We all move to the glory where we feel most comfortable.

    We often think of hell as the burning place, but both Isaiah and Joseph Smith teach that "God dwells in everlasting burnings." So the question is whether we'll prepare ourselves to feel comfortable to dwell with him in the glorious bonfire.

  6. Thank you, Nathan, for these scriptures. They drive the point home very nicely.

  7. I came across an interesting article about universalism and the Restored Gospel, and I thought I'd post a link here, for those interested in the discussion:


    It's by a seminary teacher in Sandy, Utah, and it was part of BYU's 2008 annual Sperry Symposium, published by the BYU Religious Studies Center. He doesn't say universalism is part of the Restored Gospel, but he does show some interesting connections, including statements by Brigham Young and some early apostles about universalism. It gave me something to chew on.