Mormonism for me, but not for thee

June 18, 2008 | 46 comments
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Is a Mormon universalism possible? Or in other words, is it possible for Mormons to envision their faith as one of many efficacious paths to God? I have my doubts, but maybe there is an argument to be made.

The strong statement of Mormon exclusivity would note the many scriptural and authoritative statements affirming the church as the One True Church, and the sole authority for conducting ordinances, and the necessity of such ordinances for salvation. The missionary program and temple ordinances have a real and essential purpose.

A strong statement of universalism might note that God is good, and omnipotent, and loves his children, and surely has something in mind for the billions who never heard about Joseph Smith and never will, or even for the millions who did hear but weren’t all that interested.

Russell takes a much less stark position, in which he recognizes the fundamental correctness of the Christian message and the unique role of Christ, and he also leaves the door open to distinguishing salvation from an exclusive Mormon exaltation, although he seems to come down against doing so. Also in Russell’s favor is that the question has to do with the ultimate fate of human souls, which is a topic of great anxiety but little concrete detail in scripture. We know what we should be doing right now to work out our own salvation, but how things will actually look for everyone is largely a matter of vague impressions and speculation.

A possible avenue of inquiry might consider the role of Jews in Mormon thought. I’ve never gotten the sense that Mormons adhere to the notion of Christ descending on Israel to wreak an awful vengeance at the Last Day (although some will no doubt quote ancient and modern scripture to that effect). Instead, my impression is that some strands of Mormonism accept a positive eschatological role for Jews as Jews (rather than either as repentant converts or as suffering recalcitrants). If we can imagine the Jews inheriting Canaan as their promised land, can Mormonism analogously imagine, say, the Baptists inheriting Lubbock? That is, can we imagine a place in God’s plan for non-Mormons where they are not just also-rans who end up in the Terrestrial Kingdom? That our New Jerusalem touches down in Independence or Nauvoo or Provo, while the Episcopalians have their Zion in Banbury?

In the end, I’m somewhat dubious. Mormon claims of exclusive authority are too strong and consistent to leave a viable space for a vigorous universalism. However, I do think it is sufficient to accept “Mormonism for me.” People who see Mormonism as their path should follow it and participate in the conversation of Mormonism, even if they’re not sure that everyone has to follow in their footsteps. To be a good Mormon, one doesn’t have to demand that everybody be good Mormons.

UPDATE: Russell points to two of his earlier posts that deal with similar topics: “What Do We Think of the Jews” and “Of Popes, Post-Mortal and Otherwise

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I’ve opened comments earlier than planned, due to my personal schedule. I still expect comments to be informed and thoughtful.

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46 Responses to Mormonism for me, but not for thee

  1. Kari on June 18, 2008 at 7:55 pm

    Jonathan,

    I think you have summarized things nicely in your second and third paragraphs. How one answers this question really depends on your personal view of God. If one believes in the traditional God of Mormonism, then I don’t see how one can ever believe in any type of Mormon universalism. But if one’s view of God is more expansive, then it is certainly possible.

    So ultimately, your question is What is your view of God and salvation/exaltation?

  2. SilverRain on June 18, 2008 at 8:37 pm

    I think that the LDS vision of the afterlife, sent first through Joseph Smith, is about as universalistic as it can get. The breakdown occurs when we begin to equate Celestial glory with heaven, meaning Terrestrial and Telestial glory must be less than heaven. They are all heaven. Everyone will be given the opportunity to accept the ordinances in both body and spirit, which are necessary for exaltation and therefore admission to the Celestial kingdom. D&C makes it relatively clear that those in the terrestrial kingdom accept Christ, and have a testimony of Him, but are not valiant in their testimonies or are not willing to accept the fullness of what He offers. I suspect many more LDS people will be there than we might think. It is not a bad place. To the contrary, it is beautiful, unified and glorious. I don’t think anyone there will regret where they are. They will have every reason to rejoice and praise God. At least some will choose it with eyes wide open, knowing that the glories of the Celestial kingdom and the responsibilities and duties thereof are too much for them.

    I also think that, although we tend to think of the ordinances as “Mormon” ordinances, they are not. They are God’s ordinances. That they were revealed to Joseph Smith, founder of the “Mormon” church, is true, but they were also revealed in their essence to other prophets throughout time, including Abraham, father of the Jews. I don’t think we know as much about ordinances as we ought. They are eternal, representing essential truths cloaked in symbolism and allegory. They are not ritual, they are eternal. They are not proprietary to us, they are proprietary to God, and we administer them only upon His sufferance.

  3. Ray on June 18, 2008 at 8:39 pm

    #1 – “If one believes in the traditional God of Mormonism, then I don’t see how one can ever believe in any type of Mormon universalism.”

    Compared to . . . what?

    The traditional God of Mormonism that opens the doors of all kingdoms to Christians and Jews and Buddhists and Muslims and atheists and others – regardless of the availability of Jesus to them in this life? The one that says even those who “hear” the word won’t be condemned if they don’t “understand” the word? The one that teaches of and performs vicarious ordinances for all (including exalting ordinances) so everyone will have a real opportunity to choose on their own – in a real and meaningful way? The one that says that all will be resurrected and receive a degree of glory – with very few exceptions for the sons of perdition? The one that says that we can’t know for sure where anyone else will end up – that the judgment is left in the hands of a gracious and merciful Lord?

    This discussion of “universalism” has to be juxtaposed with the orthodox views in order to have real meaning – and the orthodox view is MUCH more restrictive than the traditional Mormon view. Imo, the only way that Mormonism could be “more universal” is if it taught that everyone will be exalted.

  4. Thomas Parkin on June 18, 2008 at 9:32 pm

    “They are eternal, representing essential truths cloaked in symbolism and allegory. They are not ritual, they are eternal. They are not proprietary to us, they are proprietary to God, and we administer them only upon His sufferance. ”

    Perfect.

    ~

  5. Bob on June 18, 2008 at 10:01 pm

    I lean toward universalism. But I feel most Mormons believe that being a Mormon on earth give them an edge in the Hereafter, or in being exalted.

  6. Adam Greenwood on June 18, 2008 at 10:34 pm

    Mormon universalism is the belief that through the grace of God *everyone* will eventually accept the ordinances. What you are arguing isn’t universalism but relativism. I see little warrant in scripture, prophecy, church history, or church practice for relativism, and lots against it.

    I think its shameful that you’ve framed the question as a disquisition into Russell Fox’s views.

  7. E on June 18, 2008 at 10:39 pm

    I feel quite certain that the Baptists will inherit Lubbock. That was an inspired prophecy.

  8. JA Benson on June 18, 2008 at 10:44 pm

    SilverRain #2 Very nicely put.
    Jonathan Green. thank you for a thoughtful post.

  9. Ann on June 18, 2008 at 11:25 pm

    I’m not a Baptist. I want to inherit Lubbock. Do I have to convert?

    I liked Lubbock. It was a great place to live. Biggest sky anywhere.

  10. Todd Wood on June 18, 2008 at 11:35 pm

    Lubbock?

    I must be where the Father is.

    Nothing less will do.

  11. Kari on June 19, 2008 at 12:37 am

    Ray (#3) – Most of my Christian friends believe in a form of universalism that essentially states, as summarized by Jonathan, that all (Christian) paths lead to Heaven. It doesn’t matter that one belongs to any particular sect; Baptist, Episcopalian, Methodist, etc. it makes no difference. That is what I understand as universalism, at least a Christian Universalism.

    There are others who have a more expansive view of God, and believe that it doesn’t matter what religion one espouses, that God will save all his creation. Certainly an even more expansive universalism.

    This is clearly not anything similar to what I was taught growing up in the LDS Church. The doctrine of the LDS Church is that there are certain ordinances, done by proper authority, that must be performed and followed by righteous living that is the only way one can truly be exalted. This is not universalism. It is exactly the opposite. The LDS church teaches that there is only one gate and path to exaltation.

    The view that this gate and path may be made available to all to ultimately accept or reject is noble and laudable to many, but equally abhorrent to many (just ask most Jews or the Pope what they think of baptism for the dead). It’s just not universalism.

    This was my interpretation of the original post, a comparison of the rather restrictive mormon view of exaltation, versus the more expansive view of salvation as taught by many Christian denominations today.

    Thanks to Adam’s clarifications, it is clear that I erred in my use of the term “Mormon universalism”, which I don’t really think of as universalism anyway.

    So I still think it boils down to one’s particular belief in God and exaltation/salvation.

  12. ZD Eve on June 19, 2008 at 12:43 am

    Todd, perhaps God is the God even of Lubbock.

  13. Thomas Parkin on June 19, 2008 at 1:08 am

    Kari,

    I agree in general. But only agree that the normative Christian view can be seen as more expansive if you forget that the good Hindus, Buddhists and Zoroastrians that have an excellent seat in Mormon cosmology, right at the gates of the highest heaven – and that even after they have failed to embrace and live by saving ordinances. While in the typcial Christian view these same folks are spending an eternity being tortured.

    ~

  14. Tim J. on June 19, 2008 at 1:56 am

    Of course, while we believe many Christians will obtain a degree of glory, they don’t really think we will at all.

  15. Jeff Day on June 19, 2008 at 4:13 am

    I have taken on a universalist viewpoint lately in many respects. I think the key is recognizing that we don\’t \”know\” much even if we think we do. Beliefs aren\’t the answer. Keys, covenants, and ethics are. If the Church can ever divorce itself from its relatively newfound concept of doctrinal orthodoxy, and instead focus on what really matters (which has more to do with how we treat others, than how others treat others, or who others marry) it will be a lot more productive spiritually for its adherants.

    In short, I\’m pleased to see a post like this on the blogggernacle.

  16. TMD on June 19, 2008 at 8:09 am

    I don’t know, when I hear about universalism I’m concerned that the church will lose the distinctiveness of it’s powerful, prophetic message. In short, I believe that the doctrine is one of the great (and divine) contributions of the church. And I think it is inescapable that a vigorous universalism degrades the doctrine of a church, be it this one or any other.

    I look at those institutions that have weakened doctrinally (Episcopal Church, USA), or who had weaker doctrines in the first place (RLDS/COC) [i.e., at very least, they lack the doctrines of the temple, which IMO provide an important cement for much else] and have moved in a more universalistic direction with concern and sadness. When strongly held opinion/criticism of others becomes ‘prophecy’ (ECUSA–their debate over the ordination of gay bishops provides a look at how they have come to understand the concept) and when doctrine becomes at best a contested statement of community values, it seems to me that _all_ doctine is devalued, even those that were once considered sacred and central (like, say, the resurrection, the divinity of Christ, etc.). In each case, room has been made for people who are, essentially, unitiarian universalists and crypto atheists. And increasingly people are essentially taught to ‘be nice’ (and I mean that diminutively, rather than ‘be righteous, just, loving, etc.’), and are thus cheated of the full message and promises of the gospel.

    In short, I think there are serious dangers with an explicit commitment to a vigorous and rigorous universalism.

  17. smb on June 19, 2008 at 8:14 am

    Universalism was a specific movement with specific adherents to which early Mormons were often compared and from which they at times converted. In that sense, Mormonism is not Universalism. However, in the broader sense you’re posing, I think there is room and precedent for something like this kind of approach. One way to phrase the question is as one of humility–I just don’t know enough to judge anybody else; nor do I have the authority. Just as I can’t know what God thinks of another Mormon’s life and faith-walk, I can’t know what God thinks of a non-Mormon’s faith walk. The beauty of one aspect of the early Mormon response to Universalism is that they believed (and we can too) that in the afterlife drama people will be judged justly and will be allowed access to the additional requirements imposed by Mormonism. It’s a fine line to walk, and one is at risk for being harangued by neo-orthodox militants, but I do believe that a humble awareness of the injunction against judging and a reluctance to believe that we are in a position to know when any individual has to take any individual step is entirely compatible with both the Gospel and a form of what you’ve proposed. Heaven knows I expect a lot of Catholics, Buddhists, pagans, and even, gasp, Evangelical Protestants, to be in the celestial kingdom when everything is wrapped up.

  18. Ray on June 19, 2008 at 9:47 am

    #11 – Kari, #13 & #14 already addressed the issue of non-Christians (and Mormons) in theologies of salvation, but I will add two more things – keeping your more narrow focus on Christians:

    1) It’s problematic to compare the Mormon concept of exaltation to the other Christian concept of salvation, since Mormons believe that the salvation of which they speak (living immortally in the presence of a God) truly is universal – again, with a very few exceptions for the sons of perdition. In the broadest definition, that would include the Telestial Kingdom, but even in their own terms (living in the kingdom of Christ) our belief agrees that they will receive at least that reward – and that at least that reward will be given to every good, sincere person regardless of religious or denominational affiliation. If you are saying that Mormonism is more restrictive than other denominations **because they also have an additional conception of a higher degree of glory** for which many of the saved (and many of those whom the other denominations teach won’t even be saved) will qualify, that simply is twisted.

    2) In Mormonism, only a very few individuals get “punished” (are worse off than before birth) for choosing to follow the Father and come to earth. Pretty much everybody gets some kind of reward. Compare that to the other Christian concepts of God’s eternal marshmallow roast. Which one is closer to a real sense of universalism?

    3) To state it a bit differently, if you take the common definition of salvation within Christianity, Mormonism is less restrictive (“more universal”) than most denominations; if you take the definition of exaltation within Mormonism, other denominations don’t even believe it is possible for anyone – making their concept totally restrictive (“less universal”).

    #16 – I agree that such a construct challenges many of the things Mormons might assume about exclusivity and their comparative status as a “chosen people”, but it’s part of our core theology – one of the principles of the Gospel we teach as fundamental to our understanding of the Plan of Salvation. I think it’s the heart of the Good News taught by Jesus during his mortal ministry and by the apostles in the NT. I don’t think it weakens Mormonism one bit. In fact, I see it as the very foundation of the power of godliness that others deny – the single most empowering and unique aspect of the Restoration.

  19. Nat Whilk on June 19, 2008 at 9:55 am

    @15: “newfound concept of doctrinal orthodoxy

    Church discipline has been used against persistent doctrinal dissidents since the beginning, has it not? (Including under the watch of Joseph Smith and David O. McKay, notwithstanding the canonical Pelatiah Brown and Sterling McMurrin stories.)

  20. Russell Arben Fox on June 19, 2008 at 10:10 am

    I think its shameful that you’ve framed the question as a disquisition into Russell Fox’s views.

    For what it’s worth, Adam, I don’t feel embarrassed or in any way targeted by how Jonathan constructed this post. It’s a worthy inquiry, and my (much too casual) aside in my earlier post was as good a jumping off point as any. I thank him for writing it.

    As for the question at hand, I think I agree with you that–in light of the exchange between Kari and Ray–“universalism” probably isn’t the correct terminology here. Given that most people who think about religion think about it in terms of the promises and practices it involves in this life, “universalism” probably works, but strictly speaking it doesn’t really apply to the issue, since Mormon doctrine really does contain universalist promises of a certain kind–in the sense that, as you and Ray both emphasize, it teaches that ultimately every single human being ever will be able to accept the saving ordinances, and that even those who reject such will dwell (in some, perhaps limited, but still real sense) in the presence of God. So really, the question at hand is about the eternal worth or significance of those ordinances, and the demonimationally and/or doctrinally specific claims–however minimal they may be–incorporated within them. I don’t really care for “relativism” as the preferred term for talking about this, but that’s perhaps because of my studies in philosophy; for this post’s purposes, “relativism” probably works.

    So…am I a “Christian relativist”? Not insofar as the need to confess, at the final judgment, that Christ is Lord is concerned. But insofar as ordinances go? Especially when one gets down to issues of authority and lineage in the performance of said ordinances? Well, some ordinances I take a lot more seriously than others (baptism and the sacrament, for instance). But overall, yes, I suspect I am a bit of a relativist, sometimes, in some ways, if only because I have long believed–and this is a belief which I remember as pre-dating my mission, for whatever that’s worth–that God can and probably will, in the end, overthrow and transcend every and any human attempt to define or administer just who receives His grace, whatever we think, in our always-limited human understanding, the scriptures or the prophets may say. (But check back with me in a few years; who knows what I’ll believe by then.)

  21. Timer on June 19, 2008 at 10:17 am

    There are two separate doctrinal questions here, and it’s very easy to mix them up.

    1. WILL ALL HUMANS ULTIMATELY HAVE THE ORDINACES OF OUR CHURCH DONE OUR THEIR BEHALF AND HAVE TO CHOOSE WHETHER TO ACCEPT THEM IN ORDER TO RECEIVE THE FULL BLESSINGS OF THE NEXT LIFE? The doctrinal statements I’m aware of seem to indicate that the answer is yes. As Russell mentions, the story is that the ordinances will be performed for everyone in the millenium. Is the answer to this question a big deal? Well, in some sense the “cost” of doing all the temple work for 30 billion people (if we value our time at, say, $15 per hour) is only about $600 billion — less than, say, the total cost of the current war in Iraq. It is not a huge expenditure of time or resources compared to the infinity that lies before us. A more interesting point might be whether the actual promises others are required to make to God are exactly the same as the promises we have made via these ordinances. Or are there perhaps greater, superceding and more legally precise promises (the wording of our temple vows is a bit vague as far as what it binds us to do in the eternities) that we will all be required to make? I don’t think Mormon doctrine really answers this question.

    2. DOES GOD WANT EVERYBODY (WHO IS GIVEN THE OPPORTUNITY) TO BECOME A MORMON IN THIS LIFE? Or is it possible that God would inspire a certain individual not to join the church in this life (e.g., because she is doing so much good as a Seventh Day Adventist or is meant to have a different set of experiences)? This is also a tricky question. On the more universalist side, we have the logic that if God really wanted everybody to be a Mormon He could probably do a better job at making that happen. On the Mormon exclusivity side, well, there are plenty of “proclamations to the world” of sorts asking everyone to join the church; but (in the views of most of the world) these proclamation do not come coupled with a lot of evidence that they really are from God. In fact, of the people who prayed about the church on my mission and reported receiving revelations, most said that God told them NOT to join the church. Does my Mormon faith allow me to accept that, perhaps, their revelations were actually from God? Or does it require me to conclude that they were blinded by pride/Satan/insincerity/etc.?

    These seem like subtle questions, and anyway, I agree with Jonathan that our own membership in the church does not require us to answer them.

  22. HeidiAnn on June 19, 2008 at 10:21 am

    Ok, I joined the Church in Lubbock, and there’s a temple there. They are so not getting Lubbock. It’s Zion to me. (Yes, I realize others see it as outer darkness)

  23. TMD on June 19, 2008 at 10:39 am

    Ray,

    I would say that what you are talking about are are universalist overtones to our theology, rather than a vigorously and rigorously universalistic theology. Such a theology would answer Johnathan’s question ” Or in other words, is it possible for Mormons to envision their faith as one of many efficacious paths to God?” with a clear yes, and perhaps even rephrase the question to be ‘as _but_ one of many efficacious paths to God’.

    While our (or at least my?) understanding of the gospel says that there are ways for those who never had serious opportunities to accept the gospel to do so (hence a universalistic overtone), there are certain unequalities in efficaciousness–evident in the need for vicarious ordinances, etc. Hence, we cannot say that this would be a clear ‘yes’ to the universalism question.

  24. StillConfused on June 19, 2008 at 10:43 am

    THis may sound bad, but there are lots of people that I would not want in “my heaven” — sadly some of them are Mormon. I just hope heaven is a really big place!!

  25. Ray on June 19, 2008 at 11:34 am

    TMD, I’m just not getting the distinction.

    If we believe that many people will end up exactly where we end up even though the paths they took in this life to get there are radically different than the one(s) we took to get there, I see the answer to your question as a clear and resounding, “Yes.” We can speak of the belief that **at some point in our eternal existence** we all will have to accept the Father and the Son in order to live with them, but that just seems like a logical given.

  26. Joseph Antley on June 19, 2008 at 12:11 pm

    If someone is in a different location than me, then it is impossible for both of us to take the same road to somewhere.

  27. Sumner on June 19, 2008 at 12:32 pm

    I think we pick and choose certain quotes from Joseph Smith that fits with our concept of who God is but Joseph in my opinion was not a universalist by any means. Anyone who reads the many biographies of smith with come to that conclusion. Our church is inherently tolerant of different beliefs and we dont assume to have a monopoly on truth but we do declare a monopoly on exaltation. The idea that we can “choose” our road to heaven does not fit well within our theology, it doesn’t work that way. We believe those who choose different paths will be accepted if they acknowledge, although well intentioned, their path was incorrect and they accept Christ true path. Its not a choice of preference.

  28. MG on June 19, 2008 at 2:01 pm

    Someone may pass through the non-Mormon road _in this life_ and yet reach God. Of course, this life is just the first half of a two-half football game. The second half occurs in the Spirit world and into the millennium. The path to the Father _does go_ through the ordinances, and when all is said and done those ordinances will be a requirement. However, I think our view is obfuscated because we see such a tiny portion of the big picture during our mortal life. In trying to understand how God deals with all His children, I\’ve come to the conclusion that He is Universal in His desire to bless His children with what they are willing to receive, and in the end all will feel they have been dealt with justly and lovingly. The fact that those that are called forth at the sound of the \”second trump\” will be worthy of the millennial presence of Christ is telling.

    \”And after this another angel shall sound, which is the second trump; and then cometh the redemption of those who are Christ’s at his coming; who have received their part in that prison which is prepared for them, that they might receive the gospel, and be judged according to men in the flesh.\” (D&C 88:99)

    \”And then shall the heathen nations be redeemed, and they that knew no law shall have part in the first resurrection; and it shall be tolerable for them.\” (D&C 45:54)

    From Joseph Fielding Smith:

    \”VARIOUS CHURCHES FOUND DURING MILLENNIUM. On this subject President Brigham Young has said: \”In the millennium men will have the privilege of their own belief, but they will not have the privilege of treating the name and character of Deity as they have done heretofore. No, but every knee shall bow and every tongue confess to the glory of God the Father that Jesus is the Christ.\”

    \”There will be wicked men on the earth during the thousand years. The heathen nations who will not come up to worship will be visited with the judgments of God, and must eventually be destroyed from the earth.\”

    The saying that there will be wicked men on the earth during the millennium has been misunderstood by many, because the Lord declared that the wicked shall not stand, but shall be consumed. In using this term wicked it should be interpreted in the language of the Lord as recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants, section 84, verses 49-53. Here the Lord speaks of those who have not received the gospel as being wicked as they are still under the bondage of sin, having not been baptized. The inhabitants of the terrestrial order will remain on the earth during the millennium, and this class is without the gospel ordinances.\” (Doctrines of Salvation, Vol. 3, pg 63).

    Also from Joseph Fielding Smith:

    \”The gospel will be taught far more intensely and with greater power during the Millennium until all the inhabitants of the earth shall embrace it. Satan shall be bound so that he cannot tempt any man. Should any man refuse to repent and accept the gospel under those conditions then he would be accursed. Through the revelations given to the prophets we learn that during the reign of Jesus Christ for a thousand years, eventually all people will embrace the truth. Isaiah prophesied of the Millennium as follows:

    The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.

    And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

    And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child put his hand on the cockatrice\’ den.

    They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.(Ibid., 11:6-9.)

    This chapter in Isaiah Moroni quoted to the Prophet Joseph Smith and said to him it was about to be fulfilled. If the knowledge of the Lord covers the earth as the waters do the sea, then it must be universally received. Moreover, the promise of the Lord through Jeremiah is that it will no longer be necessary for anyone to teach his neighbor, \”. . . saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord.\” (Jeremiah 31:34.)\” (Answers to Gospel Questions, Vol 1, pg 110-111).

  29. john f. on June 19, 2008 at 2:59 pm

    On the one hand, the Book of Mormon condemns the religion of Nehor in no uncertain terms.

    On the other hand, most creedal Christians certainly don’t believe (to my knowledge) that good people who never had the opportunity to hear of Jesus Christ and accept him during their lifetimes will ever be saved. The Restored Gospel, however, points out that even though the ordinances that God has decreed are mandatory, everyone who ever lived — regardless of where, when, or under what biological, economic, psychological, geographical, etc. circumstances they were born — will have the opportunity to make a reasoned choice whether or not to affirmatively accept or reject the message of the Gospel, which is the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

    So, there is some tension there but certainly not in the sense Kari is depicting.

    Nehor = bad;
    Restored Gospel = good.

    creedal Christianity = so, so until Calvin, then very bad.

  30. john f. on June 19, 2008 at 3:17 pm

    That is, can we imagine a place in God’s plan for non-Mormons where they are not just also-rans who end up in the Terrestrial Kingdom?

    Jonathan, correct me if I am wrong but if creedal Christians end up in the Terrestrial Kingdom, they are going to think they went straight to the heaven they always expected. (As a snarky aside, one could speculate that in all likelihood, this will prove to them that they were “right” all along and they will be entirely unaware of the life and activities of those who inherit the Celestial Kingdom.) Do they not deny the possibility of becoming like God, as expressed in the New Testament, inheriting all that he has as joint heirs with Christ?

    I am sympathetic to Russell’s “Christian Universalism” but am persuaded by scripture that ordinances matter, and not just as symbols. Luckily, contrary to your post here, I think that the Restored Gospel is much more universalist than most Christianities because of the doctrines of proxy work for the dead and the fairness of God for not creating people in a place where they could never have the possibility of hearing of Jesus Christ, much less accepting or rejecting him, and then torturing them in hell for eternity for not confessing Christ in their hearts.

  31. Raymond Takashi Swenson on June 19, 2008 at 6:15 pm

    There is a good deal of discussion amopng traditional Christians concerning the possibility of salvation for people who have not heard the gospel of Christ taught to them in mortal life.

    One view, of course, is the one of people who call themselves Calvinists, that missing out on hearing the gospel in mortality is just God’s way of not selecting people for salvation.

    Another view, held by “progressive” ministers, is that all religious traditions seek God, and that it is not necessary to know Christ in order to be saved by him. The Unitarian/Universalists would fall into this category, as well as some other theologians from the Protestant tradition.

    A third view is that, at the point of death, all humans are confronted by Christ and given the opportunity to embrace him, which will determine their state eternally. It has to be done in a microsecond because of the (non-scriptural) belief that the final judgment takes place immediately upon death. (This ignores the statements in Revelation that the people resurrected would THEN be judged.) This approach seems to be popular among many Catholic priests. Richard John Neuhaus has expressed the view of many that hell is real, but he hopes sincerely that it will in fact be empty.

    A fourth view, held among a minority of Protestant theologians, is that, since there is an indefinite period of time between death and the resurrection, there is no need for the final judgment to take place at death, but rather the time before resurrection presents an opportunity for “post mortal evangelism”, where people can hear the gospel and accept it and be saved. For most Protestants, baptism is symnbolic but not essential for salvation, so they don’t see a need for the post-mortem converts to be baptized vicariously. The advocates of this view cite the same passages Mormons do about the preaching of Christ to the “spirits in prison” between his death on the cross and his resurrection.

    My own comparison between LDS teachings in D&C 76 and elsewhere places us in at least categories 2 and 4 for some groups. Because of being born with the “light of Christ”, people have a means of judging and choosing what is right and wrong, and are therefore accountable. They are also rewarded for choosing the good. Additionally, they have the opportunity to go beyond that by accepting the gospel as preached in the Spirit World.

    And of course, we see in D&C 128, 137 and 138 a massive project to give every person the full opportunity to hear and accept or reject the restored gospel, so those destined for the Terrestrial kingdom have a shot at the Celestial.

    When one considers that the number of people who have died is far more than those who are alive, plus the difficulties the Church has in preaching the gospel in certain nations, the actual bulk of the active “Mormons” or “saints”, the majority of the members of the Restored Church, are in the Spirit World, where the work of preaching does not have the barriers we encounter on earth. The Church of Jesus Christ was lost from the earth around 100 AD, but it continued in full force among the spirits of the dead from then until now.

    And of course those who ignore the light of Christ enough to commit felonies will suffer for their own sins, that suffering apparently consisting of the wide-eyed realization of how they have sinned (comparable to what Alma 2 went through before he repented). And then THEY are saved through Christ after a minimum of 1,000 years of that hell, after learning the empathy they failed to manifest in the flesh.

    Since God does not lie, I am sure that the folks who end up in the Telestial and Terrestrial levels of heaven will be aware of their relative status, and of the existence of the Celestial. As Ray said, Mormons believe that every faithful Christian will receive everything in heaven that their denominations tell them to expect. That was pointed out by Professor Craig Blomberg in his book with Stephen Robinson (How Wide the Divide?) So salvation will be 99.99% pure for such people.

    According to Evangelical books that try to teach Baptists how to convert Mormons into “Christians”, the people who want to do this are driven by their vision that, if they are not successful, their Mormon neighbors will burn in hell for all time. With that in mind, they see their actions as running into a burning house to wake up the family and get them out. They therefore think it is OK to break in windows and kick down doors, and yell and shake the Mormons in order to get their attention, even to swear at them if it will wake them from a deadly slumber. We Mormons believe the alternative to our Baptist neighbors converting is (a) they might accept the restored gospel in the spirit world or (b) they will be happy in the Terrestrial Kingdom. Mormon doctrine teaches us we can afford to be tolerant of the free agency of investigators of our church, that the house is not going to burn down for a few hundred years yet.

    So what is the urgency in Mormon proselyting? Many critics of Evangelical post-mortal evangelism have said it saps all the urgency out of missionary work. Why isn’t that true for Mormons?

    Since we fully expect that we are going to be stuck doing the proselyting in the Spirit World, putting off missions just means we will have more to do there. We might as well get started now, both with our own efforts, and training, and in recruiting people who will join us in proselyting both here and hereafter.

    Since the program of post-mortal conversion requires baptism and other ordinances to be done on earth, we need to recruit Latter-day Saints here in mortality to hold up our end of the major conversion efforts in the Spirit World.

    We are told by the Lord that we will have great joy in the Spirit World with those we have converted here on earth. We have an opportunity to manifest some of the same sacrificial love that the Savior has for us.

    We are told that recruitment of a body of Saints here on earth is essential for the preparation of the world for the Second Coming of Christ and his judgment of the world. By taking our testimony of the Restoration to the world, we facilitate God’s judgment of the world and its inhabitants. We are not told to expect that all or even a majority of people will join the LDS Church. Rather, a critical mass will assemble to do the work needed her on earth before Christ returns, so that we will be able to enter on the work of the Millenium directly, having already been trained to follow God’s commandments.

  32. Ben H on June 20, 2008 at 3:07 am

    This post would have been a lot more effective if it had included some review of what, specifically, Mormons and Mormon scriptures do say about other churches, people who never hear about Christ, in general people who are ignorant of the commandments, etc. The Book of Mormon has a lot to say on these topics. As it is, your question is very vague. Various commenters fortunately have brought in some more specific points of Mormon thought, and distinguished implicitly or explicitly several different questions in the vicinity of the post.

    But there is more than clarity at stake here. To say, “To be a good Mormon, one doesn’t have to demand that everybody be good Mormons,” without taking the trouble to look at just what our scriptures and prophets say about the subject, seems rather flippant. Consider D&C 1: “the anger of the Lord is kindled, and his sword is bathed in heaven, and . . . the day cometh that they who will not hear the voice of the Lord, neither the voice of his servants, neither give heed to the words of the prophets and apostles, shall be cut off from among the people” (vv13-14). Do you have to believe the D&C to be a good Mormon?

    But if Mormon exclusivism is too radical for you, we can start with Christian exclusivism. Christ said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father but by me.” Can I be a good Christian and say that there are other ways to God besides Christ?

  33. Jonathan Green on June 20, 2008 at 7:58 am

    Ben, in this case, the vagueness is intentional, as I’m primarily trying to sketch out some of the arguments on either side, rather than argue for either one. I’m not particularly attracted to the idea of universalism, but thinking and arguing about an idea can often be helpful in gaining a better understanding of Mormon beliefs.

    If someone felt personally compelled to embrace Mormonism, but wasn’t convinced every single person on the planet had to do the same, that person could be baptized, serve in church callings, and hold a temple recommend. Is there something else that is part of the definition of “good Mormon”? Or do you see a contradiction between the holding of universal-ish belief and one or more of those? If so, at what point does the contradiction between universal-ish belief and Mormon behavior become untenable?

    There are two related variables here, including the degree of universalist belief, and distance from mainstream Mormon thought. So one question concerns the degree of universalism that can be maintained while still remaining within the Mormon community. Do we say that there is absolutely no universalism within Mormonism, and any degree of it in any member is unacceptable? That seems unwarranted. I think there are some universalist ideas already in the core of Mormon thought, for example in the replacement of a binary heaven and hell with three degrees of glory, AND I think that individuals are permitted to entertain a certain amount of stronger universalist belief and still be part of the community of Mormon believers. How much additional belief is possible is a matter of debate.

    A second question concerns the ethics of heightening the contradiction between belief and community membership. Do we put up with a little bit of variant belief to keep the community intact, or do we push people out in order to maintain doctrinal purity? Certainly there are times when one chooses one or the other. I don’t believe that this is an issue where people who want to walk the walk of Mormon life should be prevented from doing so, even if others think they’re not talking the talk.

    About the D&C, one could read those verses as a warning to all those who mistreat kittens and puppies, but not a commandment to take the missionary discussions and be baptized. One is in that sense still a believing reader of the D&C. I’m sure that there are verses that state the problem more starkly, however.

    Your third paragraph contains too many faulty assumptions for me to be able to respond at the moment, unfortunately.

  34. Adam Greenwood on June 20, 2008 at 8:25 am

    If someone felt personally compelled to embrace Mormonism, but wasn’t convinced every single person on the planet had to do the same, that person could be baptized, serve in church callings, and hold a temple recommend

    If a person felt personally compelled to embrace Mormonism and was willing to believe the law of chastity even if they emphatically didn’t believe in it, that person could be baptized, serve in church callings, and hold a temple recommend. There is no question, however, that the law of chastity is right and that person’s beliefs are wrong. Just as you have been equivocating the meaning of universalism, you are now equivocating between what beliefs are unacceptable within Mormonism and what beliefs make someone unacceptable as a Mormon.

  35. Jonathan Green on June 20, 2008 at 11:15 am

    Uh, no, Adam, the whole point of this post was to say that they’re two different questions.

  36. Adam Greenwood on June 20, 2008 at 11:23 am

    I agree that they are different things. It sounds to me like you keep trying to justify Mormon relativism as a tenable position, but if you’re not I don’t have dispute.

  37. Ben H on June 20, 2008 at 3:59 pm

    Jonathan, the clarifications and distinctions in your comment #32 help a lot. I gather that what you meant when you said, “To be a good Mormon, one doesn’t have to demand that everybody be good Mormons,” is that someone who isn’t ready to do that–someone who doesn’t have a testimony of Mormonism’s exclusivist claims–can still be acceptable as a member of the church who is earnestly on the path of faith. In a similar way, an elder who is rather inconsistent about doing his home teaching can still be earnestly on the path of faith, and acceptable as a member of the church. We don’t apply church discipline for such things. This doesn’t mean that home teaching is optional. Someone who doesn’t do his home teaching is defective as a Mormon. Okay, a lot of us are defective. Perhaps it is normal to be defective as mortals. But still these are defects in relation to the standard of faith.

    So if you said, “You can be a good Mormon elder and not do your home teaching,” I would say, “Where in the world did you get that idea? Home teaching is a basic priesthood duty.” Your statement would be false because it implies there is nothing wrong with an elder who doesn’t do his home teaching. Similarly, without some special context your statement, “To be a good Mormon, one doesn’t have to demand that everybody be good Mormons,” is false. But I see what you meant, and I think what you meant is quite true.

  38. Dave on June 20, 2008 at 8:52 pm

    As an alternative to considering doctrines as free-standing objective entities that can take on truth values, we might consider them as expressions of the communities that affirm them, with the “core doctrines” reflecting core values of those various particular communities. The traditional Mormon claim to exclusivity when it comes to God’s choicest blessings in the next life correlates nicely with the well-defined membership boundaries of the Mormon community in this life and our strong feeling that it is very important to be a member of the LDS Church in this life if you can. Many embrace that doctrine of the afterlife because it reinforces our convictions about what matters in this life.

    What those folks need to understand is that one can also adopt a universalist view of the afterlife — hoping that God will save or exalt as many as He can regardless of earthly ordinances, doctrines, or denominational affiliation — while still sharing the this-life view that membership in the LDS Church is critically important for those who have the choice. And it is what we do in this life, not what we believe about the next, that is the key point. Our “core doctrine” is that we don’t have core doctrines or creeds. We have a way of living.

  39. Nat Whilk on June 21, 2008 at 9:02 am

    @38: “As an alternative to considering doctrines as free-standing objective entities that can take on truth values, we might consider them as expressions of the communities that affirm them, with the “core doctrines” reflecting core values of those various particular communities.

    Does this alternative itself have a truth value, or is it merely a non-propositional expression of one of Dave’s core values? If the latter, what are those of us outside of the Community of Dave supposed to make of this expression?

    Our ‘core doctrine’ is that we don’t have core doctrines or creeds.

    This must be a non-propositional expression of one of Dave’s core values, because if it had a truth value it would obviously be “false”. Not to mention that prophets, seers, and revelators repeatedly talk about us having core doctrines. (But I suppose Dave’s hermeneutic, if it asserts anything, asserts that those prophets, seers, and revelators might not really be asserting what they seem to be asserting?)

  40. Dave on June 21, 2008 at 1:44 pm

    Nat, I’m sure you’ve got a list of core LDS doctrines in your head. The problem is that so does everyone else and the lists don’t agree. There is no published list identifying “the twelve core doctrines of Mormonism.” I’m sure you’d agree that the LDS Church differs from mainstream denominations in not subscribing to creeds or employing theologians. What’s the difference between a creed and a list of core doctrines?

    When GAs use the term, I think that’s just a rhetorical phrase emphasizing the importance of a particular doctrine. In the right context any doctrine can be important. Imagine a GA beginning a talk with the following disclaimer: “The topic I’m addressing today is not really an important doctrine and whether you accept it or not is really up to you. It’s certainly not one of our core doctrines. But I’m going to spend a few minutes talking about it anyway.” Nope, you’re not going to hear that. So if every doctrine can be a core doctrine, then we’re not really talking about two different categories into which one can sort various LDS doctrines.

    And if there were a Community of Dave, it would be T&S. As a commenter, you’re already in it.

  41. Bob on June 21, 2008 at 3:17 pm

    #40: Dave, your disclaimer is unnecessary. The congregation has already said in it’s mind:The topic you are addressing today is not really an important doctrine and whether I accept it or not is really up to me.”

  42. comet on June 22, 2008 at 5:43 am

    So if you said, “You can be a good Mormon elder and not do your home teaching,” I would say, “Where in the world did you get that idea? Home teaching is a basic priesthood duty.”

    Right, HT, which reminds me that it’s getting late in the month.
    Anyway, I wonder what an exhuastive list of “good mormon” attributes would look like, one for all time and eternity? Just curious.

  43. comet on June 22, 2008 at 5:45 am

    #37″So if you said, “You can be a good Mormon elder and not do your home teaching,” I would say, “Where in the world did you get that idea? Home teaching is a basic priesthood duty.”” And “defective as a mormon.”

    Right, HT, which reminds me that it’s getting late in the month.
    Anyway, I wonder what an exhuastive list of “good mormon” attributes would look like, one for all time and eternity? Just curious.

  44. Denise S. on June 23, 2008 at 12:02 am

    With regard to the statement above, “I wonder what a list of ‘good Mormon attributes’ would look like”: I was in a class once and this question was asked. We listed everything we could think of, while the teacher wrote it all down on the board. We listed everything from Home/Visiting teaching to making homemade, healthy meals. The list covered the board, and the teacher had to stop us due to time; believe me, we could have gone on much longer. We looked at this list and felt absolutely exhausted just reading it, much less doing any of it. Then the teacher flipped the board over and asked, “Now, what do you think Christ expects of us? What attributes do you think would really matter to Him?” Funny, with that perspective, everything changed. The list was much shorter and basically listed things such as, being kind and respectful to others, and following the spirit. We looked at this list and realized how much pressure we put on ourselves. We are always getting the “cultural gospel” and the “real gospel” mixed up with each other. The “real gospel” is the atonement of Jesus Christ. Period. We only need to have one goal… following the spirit. If we do that, all other things will fall in to place, if we follow promptings.

  45. Nate W. on June 24, 2008 at 3:57 pm

    Regarding the original question, this new Pew survey may be interesting. The survey reports that 39% of American Mormon respondents agreed that “many religions can lead to eternal life.” The average for all denominations was 70%, which is expected, but I found it interesting that Mormons were much more likely to be “universalist” than Jehovah’s witnesses, of which only 16% agreed with the statement.

  46. Adam Greenwood on June 24, 2008 at 4:53 pm

    I don’t think the survey makes the kinds of distinctions we need for this conversation.