It seems to me that there are two contradictory sets of underlying assumptions about the plan of salvation. One is the “salvation as a game” perspective and the other is “salvation as a journey” perspective.
The key difference between a game and a journey is that in a game the rewards are given by people, while in a journey the rewards are obtained from nature. For example, money, gifts, recognition, and grades are rewards given by people. In a game, someone has the authority to bestow the reward. In a job, your boss has the authority to grant your paycheck; in a sport, the referee has authority to bestow points; in school, your teacher has authority to assign grades; in court, the judge or jury have power to decide a victor.
In a journey, however, the rewards are not given by an authority – rather they are obtained from nature. The mathematician seeking a more efficient algorithm, the inventor working to build a new solar cell, the athlete striving to train her body, and the carpenter working to build a house are all examples of individuals on journeys. Their rewards grow directly from their work, and are not granted by any human authority.
To illustrate, compare learning—a journey—with school, which is a game.
In the journey of learning, the goal is to obtain certain knowledge. The only way to obtain knowledge is through study and experience. There is no adjudicating body to which one can appeal. If calculus is difficult for you, you cannot appeal to your teacher to make calculus become easier.
In contrast, if you’re failing your calculus course, you can appeal to your calculus teacher for a better grade. This is because school is a game, and the goal isn’t learning, but rather grades. Since school is a game, the link between the work and the grades is arbitrarily defined, and can be altered. A calculus teacher cannot make calculus easier or harder, but she can make the class easier or harder. She can give one “A” or many “A”s.
Of course, the teacher hopes that the students will receive more than just grades. He wants them to receive an education! And so there is a connection between games and journeys. Teachers select assignments (games) that they hope will impel the students toward real learning (the journey).
So let’s bring these concepts of “game” and “journey” back to the plan of salvation. A commonly held view of God is to see Him as the arbiter in a great game. In this game, salvation in heaven is the reward, and it is granted by God, the authoritative body.
- If you believe that heaven is a gift;
- if you believe that God could reach down and put you into the celestial kingdom now;
- if you believe in a literal judgment day when God and His angels will decide the eternal fate of your soul;
- if you believe that the entry to heaven is guarded by sentinel angels who will grant entry only to those who have undertaken certain covenants and ordinances;
- if you believe that salvation is about living in a literal place that we call “heaven”;
- if you believe that you are literally perfect at the time of baptism,
then you believe in “salvation as a game”. In this game, God has arbitrarily determined the rules, and He grants salvation to those who “win” according to those rules, like a gold medal is granted to runner who crosses the finish line first.
- if you believe that salvation is a process of literally becoming something different;
- if you believe that works are relevant to salvation;
- if you believe that perfection at baptism is symbolic rather than literal;
- if you believe that salvation is about achieving peace, understanding, charity, or other personal qualities;
- if you believe that the celestial kingdom must be built by those who will inhabit it,
- if you believe that “the saints could make a heaven out of hell”,
then you believe in “salvation as a journey”. In this journey, earth life provides us with the experiences, trials, and learning necessary to undertake the transformation of salvation.
My concern here isn’t that one perspective is “better” or “more accurate” than the other (as though I could know!) Our church contains both games (temple worthiness, for example) and journeys (a full-time mission, for example). My concern is that we don’t distinguish between the two. This is especially evident in our discussions on grace (game perspective) vs. works (journey perspective). The two perspectives aren’t mutually exclusive, and can even complement each other (just as the game of school is intended to complement the journey of learning). I feel it’s important to understand and acknowledge these perspectives because each has a powerful influence on how we interpret our relationships with God, others, life, and eternity.