There is a fundamental question that religion needs to answer if it expects to survive in an increasingly secular world. The question is, “how is your religion better at making the world a better place than ethical atheism?” Now, I’ve never heard this question stated outright like this; many atheists (and some others, too) seem to take it as a given that religion is inferior to ethical atheism and that religion is a “crutch” for the unintelligent. I, naturally, disagree. I would like to address this assumption and answer the question from a Mormon perspective, generalizing to wider Christianity when appropriate.
Let me begin by saying, I have a great deal of respect for ethical atheists. By “ethical atheists” I mean people who believe in right and wrong and who do their best to follow their understanding of how to be a good person – helping others, being productive, advocating for education, making the world a better place, etc. These people tend to contribute substantially to society. Christians could learn a lot from them. A good atheist can be just as good for society as a good Christian.
Ethics, as understood my most Christians, is rooted in love for your fellow human beings. However, we also acknowledge that people are “fallen” and require salvation, because our nature is, as stated in the Book of Mormon, “an enemy to God.” (Mosiah 3:19) A post I read recently by Michael Sitman described this state well:
This isn’t because we all fail to uphold certain ideals on occasion, but because we are sinners, meaning that even our supposed good works are tinged with self-interest or self-regard. Nothing pure issues forth from human hands, nothing escapes from the fallibility and brokenness in which we are inevitably implicated. Jesus didn’t just talk about our deeds, but our motives. He told us to pray in closets and not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing, such is our capacity for arrogance and self-congratulations. He didn’t just talk about adultery, but lust, and asked those of us who have never murdered someone if we’ve ever been filled with anger. I wish more churches would preach about sin this way – not as some kind of list of what not to do, but rather as the impossibility of being truly good.
The science is pretty clear to support this. Our Darwinian instincts and survival mechanisms make us inherently selfish and self-centered. Even our desire to do good is nearly always rooted in “what’s best for me?” So, even when we have excellent standards and ethics most of the time, there are always times when we will fail to follow our principles, and will take an easier or more appealing path. Do that a few times, and you will be in a rut that can be hard to get out of.
Salvation, particularly the Mormon interpretation thereof, not only raises our sights to the ethics taught, but gives us hope and help in striving to meet those ideals, despite our past and inevitable future failures. We believe that even failed efforts to do what is right will be rewarded in the end. In this way, our efforts to do good are never wasted. This can be a great comfort in difficult or dark times in our lives, thereby encouraging us to keep trying.
On top of that, there is an excellent support structure in the LDS church, for those willing to accept the help, consisting of the leadership, the home teaching and visiting teaching programs and fellow members. Because the church is run by the members, people are involved in the congregation and in each others’ lives. Wherever you go in the world, you will find a congregation with shoulders to cry on and backs to help carry your burden.
Another area where religion surpasses ethical atheism is in teaching the next generation. There’s a simple reason for this – Christianity has an absolute moral authority. While most atheists see a lack of authority as a positive, the level of knowledge and wisdom necessary to turn that into a positive is a significant barrier to teaching children ethics. While the litmus test of “can I predict any negative consequences from my actions?” may, for a mature adult, be a good way to make decisions in an unforeseen scenario, for children or teens, this could be potentially disastrous. Even if a parent claims to be the ultimate ethical authority, that authority will be mimicked and challenged eventually.
People need an ethical authority when they are growing up. A parent can be an ethical authority, but our children know us far too well for that to be consistently effective. To have God and the scriptures as an ethical authority takes that burden from us, and helps us to teach kids even when we want them to do what we say, and not what we do. When we teach our children how to reconcile ourselves to that moral authority when we make mistakes, we can even help kids become better through our failings.
I guess you could summarize my argument in one word: sustainability. Devout Christianity, and Mormonism in particular, are more sustainable systems for perpetuating ethical behavior than ethical atheism. It is for this reason that I truly believe that following Jesus Christ to the best of our abilities is the best way to bring about a better world.
Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God. – Ether 12:4
Note: This post is primarily targeting members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Please pardon my use of the Mormon jargon.
“I know this church is true.” You might be able to go a week without hearing that string of words in a Mormon congregation, but certainly not a month. Every Fast Sunday that comes along is almost guaranteed to have at least a handful of members proclaiming this as part of their testimony. By itself, however, this phrase has little meaning. What it really is is shorthand for a concept that is not easily put into a sound bite.
“I know the church is true” more explicitly means that the speaker has a conviction that the LDS Church is the one and only church of Jesus Christ in that it is run by His authority through His priesthood with leaders who follow Him to the best of their ability and who receive inspiration and revelation to facilitate that leadership. Moreover, that any errors or imperfections in the church are there because of man, but that Christ will compensate and justify honest mistakes to continue the work of His church. That through the ordinances provided by the church that we are able to make binding covenants with Christ, and through service in the church and to our fellowmen that we show ourselves worthy of His grace. And finally, that through the scriptures and prophets of the church that true doctrines of the Gospel can be most effectively learned.
You may have noticed a few points in that last paragraph where human error might come into play. We also believe in human error – even in leaders of the church. The church may be true, but is not perfect.
Before I get into too much trouble with those statements, let me quote a couple of scriptures. First, Article of Faith 9 says, “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” (emphasis added) This is not just referring to the concept of continuing revelation for the guiding of the church through modern challenges, but to new and important information (dare I say doctrine?) to add to our understanding of the Kingdom of God. If we are missing important information, how can we consider it perfect?
Second is from Wilford Woodruff in the first Official Declaration, “The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.” Yet we know that the Lord allowed imperfect practices (born of good intentions or ignorance?) in the form of denying the priesthood to blacks. Due to this apparent contradiction, the only way to reconcile this is through the principle of agency. We are expected to do our best and seek guidance from the Lord. Our state as imperfect mortals means that we will not always do the best thing, even if we’re trying our best. Hence the initiation and propagation of imperfections.
So, this is awkward. This is how we end up with situations that give rise to organizations like the Ordain Women movement in the church, for instance. We have conflict between the current practice of the church, which some see as needing correction, and our responsibility as members to sustain the leaders of the church.
So, let’s say you’re someone who believes a practice of the church is wrong or imperfect. Say you feel you even received personal revelation to the effect that the practice would be changed some day — which is something a person may be entitled to receive, depending on their circumstances. What, then, are you obliged to do with that belief? Do you hold it sacred and keep it a secret? Do you use it to help alleviate someone else’s suffering? Do you share it publicly, with the caveat that you intend to follow current practices until it is changed? Do you question whether you were given the personal revelation to help prepare the membership for a coming change? I would argue that all of these are at least forgivable if not reasonable courses of action to this kind of belief.
I would draw the line at publicly questioning the leadership of the church. I don’t think we can intentionally suggest publicly that the General Authorities are not doing what they should be doing without risking our salvation. If we as members feel that the General Authorities are in error, and are willfully ignoring that error, it is our responsibility to either find a way to reconcile our beliefs to the church or leave it. Either this church is true, and the Lord will not allow it to be lead astray, or it is not, in which case, our belief in the church has been the straying. This is a weighty decision to make. To cause others to have to make this decision because of my choices and public statements is not a responsibility I would want to take upon myself.
The Lord uses the agency and transgressions of men for his own purposes. Consider Adam & Eve and the Crucifixion. These terrible events had to take place to allow the greater work of the Plan of Salvation to proceed. Is it that impossible to consider that the Lord uses the imperfections of his prophets to teach His flock and provide for us?
I believe that the leaders of the church are, in fact, lead by Christ. I trust them to follow the Lord. If they are aware of a potential error in the practices of the church, they are being lead in regard to it. A change will come, or it won’t. I will pray for understanding and unity.
Having questions and concerns about the church is normal, and in many ways part of the learning and faith-building process. Discussing concerns and even advocating for change can be a very good thing. However, if we truly believe that the church is lead by Jesus Christ, and is not just some other man-made institution, we need to stop short of criticizing the leaders. We need to have sufficient faith that the Lord will make all things right in His time frame. The imperfections of the church will not prevent our eternal progression unless we choose to dwell on those imperfections.
I love the church. I love my brothers and sisters. I love the discourse among passionate members. I hope we, as a church, can work through this period of turbulence, and find ways to disagree without causing others to lose faith. Dialogue and discourse are extremely healthy, conflict is not.
I know the church is not perfect. Despite that, it is still true.
Repentance has a bad reputation. For a long time, thinking of repentance brought up images of crazy people insisting the world was ending imminently, confessions of sins, guilt and other extremely negative ideas. Add on top of this that Christ explicitly tells his followers to call people to repentance as one of his final acts in the New Testament, and you get to add guilt for not telling people to repent to the list of negatives.
However, lately I’ve begun to think of repentance differently, all thanks to one simple idea. That idea was the realization that the importance of repentance comes not from the guilt nor even the forgiveness, but rather from it’s utility in promoting positive changes in our lives. This leads one to conclude that the main process for accomplishing repentance is to choose to make positive changes — to try to be a better person. When I changed my perspective in this way, the negativity associated with guilt was swept away, replaced by the recognition that we are always falling short of our divine potential, and can make incremental changes constantly in an effort to become better people. The awesome part about this is that whenever we are trying to do what we believe is right, and are trying to become better, His forgiveness makes it possible for us to push forward without the baggage of guilt for the past.
As I began thinking of repentance this way, I realized that although there may be occasions when a more formal confession-forgiveness type of repentance event is necessary, more often than not, what is required is an attitude of repentance — a penitent perspective. Again, though, it is important to slough the the negative connotations from those words and our attitudes. We might regret or be frustrated by our blunders and imperfections, but the key purpose of those emotions should be motivation to continue to try to be better.
The Atonement provided by our Savior makes it possible for us to be forgiven of our sins if we repent. That doesn’t mean we have to be perfect after repenting. That means if we are constantly repenting and trying to be more perfect, even while knowing that we will never be perfect through our own efforts, that brief periods of perfection can be attainable, as the history of our mistakes is washed clean through the grace of the Atonement. Perhaps rather than aiming to be perfect, we should aim to repent faster than we sin.
The peace available through the Gospel comes from knowing that we are reconciled to God and that all will be well in the end. Learning to live habitually repentant can help us have this peace more often, regardless of the chaos swirling around us.
Repent! It’s awesome!
(This is the 5th and final part of my series on the Plan of Salvation. If you haven’t read the previous posts, you may want to start with the overview.)
I ended part 4 with a discussion of the resurrection. In LDS theology the resurrected soul (spirit and body, united) is eternal. I once heard some of my Christian friends of other denominations say they believed we’d be resurrected and then at a later date, we’d ditch the bodies. This is certainly not the case with Mormon beliefs, and in fact, we believe the physical aspect of our eternal souls is central to our eternal purpose and happiness.
The Final Judgement
Once we are resurrected, before we attain our eternal reward, we need to go through the Final Judgement. There are a lot of different references to this judgement in the scriptures. Much of it is symbolism and abstract. What it boils down to is this:
- We will come before the Father
- We will remember with perfect clarity our entire lives
- Christ will stand with us and mediate for us
- There may or may not be actual records involved
- The proceedings will be public – at least to those interested
- We might know the outcome before it is told to us
- We will be admitted to one of several “Kingdoms of Glory”
Prior to the resurrection I do not believe we will have a perfect remembrance of our lives. I’m extrapolating a little from scripture on this point, but it makes sense to me that it is the process of being resurrected to immortality that perfects our minds and makes this recall possible. This is also important for the Judgement, as we will be just as interested in finding a place where we are happy as we will be in “passing” the test of the Judgement. Yes, that is doctrine. The point of the Judgement is not to punish, but to reward, and more specifically, to reward us with as much happiness and glory as we are able to bear.
When we come before the Father for the Judgement, we will be basking in His full glory. We will understand His greatness and our relative childishness. We will similarly be in the full glory of Jesus Christ, the Son. Part of the essence of that glory is love for each of us. We will feel that love and desire to be with them, but will also have a full understanding of all of our sins, guilt, unworthiness, personality flaws, etc. To be with them will require us to become like them. The Judgement will help us determine whether or not we are ready to make that commitment. It will be an eternal commitment.
With the Father and Son, we will review our lives, the choices we made and the people we have become. All of our thoughts, words and deeds will be on the table, but most important will be the cumulative result that is the person we have become. If we have repented of our sins, and have accepted and upheld the covenants and ordinances required for taking advantage of Christ’s atonement, our sins will be wiped away and removed entirely from the process. This is key. It is only through the application of the atonement that we will be free from sin and pure and therefore able to bear the presence and glory of the Father.
I suspect we will also be given an understanding of the true impact of many of our choices. We will be shown how our acts of kindness and sacrifice brought others joy and helped them become better people. For those who have not repented, they will also understand how their selfishness and neglect hurt others. This, to my understanding is a key difference between “heaven” and “hell.”
The Kingdoms of Glory
The results of the Judgement will be obvious to each individual as they are judged, nearly immediately, I expect. There are essentially three “Kingdoms of Glory” where nearly all people will end up. From least to greatest, we have the Telestial Kingdom, the Terrestrial Kingdom and the Celestial Kingdom. They are each presided over by a different member of the Godhead, the Father presides in the Celestial, the Son in the Terrestrial and the Holy Spirit in the Telestial. We will be allowed to enter the highest level of glory we can tolerate. To be in the glory of the Father while still remaining unrepented of our sins will be unbearable.
There is also “Outer Darkness” where only those few who have had a perfect knowledge given to them through the Holy Spirit, and who have then chosen to reject God’s teachings. Precious few have received such knowledge, and even fewer have chosen to reject God after receiving it. Cain is one identified specifically in this category. Judas Iscariot may be another, though I have heard some suggest that he had not been given a perfect knowledge. So, you really don’t have to worry about this one.
Entry into the Celestial Kingdom requires absolute purity, and the glory thereof is likened unto the brightness of the sun. The only way to achieve this purity is through the Atonement of Christ. He graciously atoned for all who died before becoming mentally accountable. Usually, children reach accountability at the age of 8. All children who die before that get a free pass. Anyone else who desires to accept the offered Atonement, must have both received baptism through the proper authority, and must have lived up to the covenants made at baptism. (Remember that this baptism can be accepted posthumously, prior to the final Judgement, as described in part IV of this series.)
The Terrestrial Kingdom will be where good people who have refused baptism and the associated covenants will go. Its glory is likened unto the brightness of the moon. It’s not clear to me exactly how knowledgeable you have to be to become ineligible for vicarious baptism, but I suspect there will be many stubborn and proud people here who were either deceived by Satan’s lies or who simply did not want to be responsible for upholding the covenants. Regardless of that decision, only people who are basically good go to this kingdom. I suspect if the amount of good you have done outweighs the bad, you’ll end up here.
The Telestial Kingdom is “hell” from the perspective of those who end up here. Its glory is likened unto the brightness of the stars. It’s populated with all the bad people – murderers, child abusers, rapists, antichrists, etc. There might also be some not-that-bad people here, such as adulterers, corrupt leaders, and possibly those who accepted covenants in this life, but did not live up to them. Remember, again that the Judgement is based partly on your knowledge of what is right, so those who could have done a lot of good but chose not to will be accountable for the lack of good that they might have done.
The weird thing about Mormons, though, is that we believe that ALL of these “Kingdoms of Glory” are better than this world. Essentially, everyone is rewarded with a heaven that is as good as it can possibly be with them in it. That is not to say that there are no differences between them, nor that there will not be pain and suffering for sins. Our eternal progress does not end after the Judgement. Those who were admitted to the Celestial Kingdom continue their progress to become like God the Father. Those in the lower kingdoms must suffer for their own sins if they decide they want to work their way up.
So, “why would you want to get into the Celestial Kingdom, anyway?,” you might ask. Well, there are certain benefits (power and/or knowledge?) granted to those who attain the highest kingdom. For instance, those in the lower kingdoms will be separated from Father (and Mother – this needs another post). Not only from Father, but from others in the Celestial Kingdom. Friends and family may visit individuals in lower kingdoms, but not vice versa. The sealing power, which we believe allows married couples to be bound together and to their children for all eternity cannot be fully in-force except in the Celestial Kingdom.
But the greatest reward offered in the Celestial Kingdom is Exaltation. A man and woman who have been sealed together for time and all eternity, who have lived up to their covenants and gain entrance to the Celestial Kingdom will continue their eternal progression until they eventually become like the Father. They will be able to have spirit children, and can create worlds for those children to live on as we live on Earth now. Those exalted couples will become a new generation of gods.
Some would call this blasphemous. Others might call it pretentious. To me, it just makes sense. Of all the titles God could ask us to use when we address Him, why would He want to be called “Father” unless it was true? In nature, all creatures have the potential to become like their parents. If you believe in any form of the Creation, you might think there would be some symbolism there, if not a natural law. That is the great purpose of our life here on Earth. It is one required step in our life-cycle as children of God. We have the potential to become like God, but can only achieve that end by learning to become godly.
My wife, who is not a Mormon, sometimes thinks I’m crazy when I talk about this stuff. I understand that thinking. It’s similar to my thoughts on M-string theory and the Multiverse. There are just so many possible ways it could be absolutely wrong, though it may be right, how can we possibly judge? The answer is similar, too. We can trust people who know more about it than we do, and we can find out if it answers any big questions.
The Plan of Salvation elegantly answers some of the most difficult questions posed to Christianity.
- If God is so good, why do bad things happen to good people? God will not interfere with our agency, and we are here to learn to be good and faithful in the face of evil. All will be made right in the end. All evil will be paid for, and all good will be rewarded.
- If God is so merciful, why would He require rites like baptism that essentially exclude the vast majority of humanity from the possibility of salvation? That is what vicarious works are for, and why those who are not accountable are saved automatically.
- Why are we here on this world which is so full of evil anyway? We needed to gain physical bodies and the experience of living away from Father to become like him and learn to use our agency.
Additionally, the Plan is consistent with scripture; it is logically sound; it makes sense. The revelation of the Kingdoms of Glory to Joseph Smith tied together disparate, vague doctrines given elsewhere in scripture into a cohesive whole. This is beautiful and wonderful to me. It exemplifies God’s love for us and gives us hope in things to come. I can think of no other heaven better than one in which I can be with my family and loved ones forever.