Zelophehad’s Daughters

Worrying About Salvation

Posted by Lynnette

The possibility of universalism comes up every so often in the bloggernacle (see for example, these discussions at M*, BCC, and NCT.)  In reading these conversations, I’ve realized that my own universalist leanings are not particularly unusual, at least in the context of the Bloggernacle.  (Further evidence of its apostate nature, some might say.)  I think the theological debate is an interesting one.  But in this post I want to bracket the question of whether universal salvation is possible in the context of LDS doctrine, and look at some of the more practical issues involved.  The concern most often raised about the idea is that it  leads to complacency.  In a nutshell, if everyone is eventually going to be saved, what incentive do I have to be good?  Why not eat, drink, and be merry?  Is anxiety about salvation something positive, even necessary—something that will motivate me to live better in the here-and-now?

I do think that a teaching of guaranteed universalism (i.e., certainty that everyone will eventually be saved, no matter what), runs the very real risk of leading to complacency, and perhaps a sense that one’s actions don’t ultimately matter.  And this is a problem.  However, I see this as somewhat different than discussing universal salvation as a serious possibility (though not a guarantee).  This latter formulation, I would argue,  rather than being a damper to spirituality, can instead serve as a tremendous source of hope and therefore encouragement to pursue righteousness.  It reminds us that God is in the business of saving, not of damning, that salvation/exaltation is not something intended only for an elite handful of God’s favorites, but rather for all of us (although we of course have the choice to reject it).  LDS scripture goes so far as to say that it is God’s work and glory to bring it about.  We therefore do not have the luxury of writing ourselves off–or dismissing anyone else–as hopelessly lost, and therefore giving up, because God refuses to do so. In this way, I think universalist ideas can actually be a strong counter to complacency.

I am also skeptical about the idea that people should be scared into being good, whether with threats of eternal punishment in the traditional Christian vision of hell, or even the kinder, gentler Mormon version of not making it to the Celestial Kingdom and missing out on what you could have been.  I had a lot of anxiety about this kind of thing as a kid; I had nightmares about the Second Coming arriving while I was still mired in sin.  In retrospect, I’m not sure it was the most spiritually healthy way to live.  At least in my own life, I have observed that the experiences which have most motivated me to change, to want to do better, have not involved guilt and anxiety, but rather a genuine acceptance of who I am now combined with a vision of who I could be.  Threats, I have observed, rarely lead to strong relationships–or even to enduring behavioral changes.

I am also intrigued by the argument that without an emphasis on next-life consequences, people will have no reason to keep the commandments in this life.  The underlying assumption here seems to be that righteousness is so difficult, so unpleasant, that people will only be motivated to pursue it with the promise of a big reward to come.  I would certainly not dispute that the commandments can be difficult.  Yet if we believe Alma, wickedness and happiness are in fact antithetical, which suggests to me that the kinds of relationships and behaviors in which we are called to engage are not meant as arbitrary hoops to jump through for an eternal reward, but are actually tied to the quality of our life experience here.  This suggests to me that we would find some value in them even if there were no next life.  In fact, I would argue that life here has more potential to be meaningful if not lived in single-minded pursuit of salvation/exaltation in the next.

On a similar note, I see something problematic about living according to certain behavioral standards with the motivation of gaining an eternal prize, or avoiding eternal punishment.  I am reminded of the experience of being visit taught by someone who is clearly doing it so they can check it off their list (I should mention that I’ve been on both ends of this).  Perhaps this is what Paul is getting at when he says that he can bestow all his goods to feed the poor, give his body to burned–and yet without charity, he is nothing. A common critique of Christianity is its individualistic emphasis, that it sometimes sounds like a belief system that is all about the self, producing adherents whose primary concern is with their own personal eternal reward.  Yet at the heart of Christianity is the call to love others. Given this, I sometimes wonder whether salvation is in fact something you can pursue directly.

Another concern sometimes arises in discussions of universalism.  It is this: what if I work incredibly hard to make the Celestial Kingdom, and get there–only to discover that that my slacking off, sinning neighbors somehow made it in as well?  Will I feel like I’ve been cheated?  Will my salvation be less worthwhile if it’s not as exclusive?  Some Christian theologians in the past have in fact suggested  that one of the pleasures of heaven will be viewing the torments of the damned.  As in the parable of the day laborers, it just doesn’t seem fair that those who only came to work late in the day got the same pay as those who were there from the beginning.  One of the most radical and challenging aspects of grace, I believe, is that it pushes to the breaking point our sense of fairness, of how things should be.  It ruptures any neat system in which the books are carefully balanced and everyone gets exactly what she or he deserves.

On this subject, I like the approach of Catholic theologian Hans urs von Balthasar, who comments,

But woe is me if, looking back, I see how others, who were not so lucky as I, are sinking beneath the waves; if, that is, I objectify hell and turn it into a theological-scientific ‘object’ and begin to ponder on how many perish in this hell and how many escape it.  For at that moment everything is transformed: hell is no longer something that is ever mine but rather something that befalls ‘the others,’ while I, praise God, have escaped it.1

There is much talk about the danger that the possibility of universalism might negatively affect our attitude toward our own life, our own status before God.  But I think this brings out another aspect of this topic–that the rejection of any such possibility runs the risk of what in Mormon terms might be called the Rameumpton approach, the comfortable speculation about those others who are bound for damnation.  Balthasar, like many contemporary Catholic theologians, calls for an approach in which we take the possibility of our own falling short very seriously–but when it comes to our neighbors, we are called to have an attitude of hope.  And I’d add an LDS twist to this: central to our doctrine is the notion that relationships really matter, that they have the potential to continue throughout the eternities.  The Celestial Kingdom becomes much less appealing if the people you care about aren’t going to be there.  Given this, wouldn’t we have even more reason to hope for universalism?

I do think that it’s important to emphasize that actions have consequences, to challenge complacency–and I would certainly say that any theology which leaves us comfortably sinning, thinking that we can always fix things later, is deeply flawed.  I’m not advocating Nehor’s version of universalism.  But I remain unpersuaded that a flat-out rejection of the possibility of universalism is necessary to avert this risk.  I think we can find ways of talking about the seriousness of sin while still holding out hope that universalism is at least a possibility.  For example, there is  clearly danger in procrastinating the day of your repentance; as Alma tells us, we might hit a point where it is everlastingly too late.   But does this refer to the danger that the door will be forever shut as we arrive at some final point of no return where God eternally seals our fate?  Or could it be that the very real risk we run in choosing to remain in sin is that the further we get away, the less of a desire we will have to return–and we must grapple with the sobering possibility that we might never choose to do so?

I am intrigued by the different uses of the term “fear” in the scriptures.  On the one hand, we are told to fear God, and to work out our salvation with fear and troubling.  On the other, we are encouraged to fear not.  Something in the tension between those two perhaps gets at the nature of faith, and the need to avoid both complacency and despair as we think about questions of salvation. Perhaps we could slightly revise T.S. Eliot: “Teach us to fear, and not to fear. Teach us to sit still.”

  1. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope AThat All Men Be Saved, with a Short Discourse on Hell, trans. David Kipp and Lothar Krauth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 190. []

35 Responses to “Worrying About Salvation”

  1. 1.

    Fascinating topic. Your concluding paragraph is good advice – don’t be complacent, but don’t despair.

    For teenagers, I think fear is often the tactic of choice in teaching about sin. It takes some maturity to obey Commandments for positive reasons (love of God, love of others, foregoing immediate pleasure for greater gains) – more maturity than most young people have, I think. More than I have at times, to be honest. So fear can be useful.

    As to whether everyone will be saved, I don’t know. I hope so. I think we all need a lot more grace than we realize. If we are honest with ourselves about our failings, we should all be humbled by the notion that we could ever be saved.

    But the dangers of complete universalism (is that redundant?) are real, as you said. I’ve attended services at some churches where it’s said that not only will everyone eventually be saved, but that everyone is currently accepted by God. As in, whatever state you’re in right now, that’s just fine. The assumption behind this is that there isn’t really such a thing as sin. I know, from personal conversation, that the clergy at one of these churches believes there is such a thing as sin, but she’s loathe to actually name one in a sermon. Interestingly, very few teenagers come to church there.

  2. 2.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Emily. I definitely think you can go too far the other direction as well–and I appreciate the danger you point out, that one of the results of universalism can be the downplaying of sin. I do think that happens. That’s the reason, I think, why it’s important to talk about hell as a real possibility, even if it ends up empty.

    This might be an oversimplification, but I kind of wonder whether this is to some extent a matter of temperament. I’ve always been somewhat neurotic, excessively prone to guilt and anxiety. So even when I was a teenager, the fear stuff wasn’t helpful; it just made me feel worse, because it reinforced my belief that I was a horrible sinner, probably out of the reach of salvation. But I can certainly appreciate that there are situations in which fear might be motivating.

    I wonder if it also might be useful to make a distinction between threats along the lines of “if you don’t shape up, you’re going to hell,” and pointing out to people the consequences of their choices. I think the former is probably ineffective, but I do think the latter can be helpful–especially if done in a spirit of genuine concern.

  3. 3.

    I agree, pointing out specific consequences to specific behaviors is better than just saying you’ll go to hell. And relying on just fear and threats of divine punishment will wear off eventually for most people.

  4. 4.

    I think perhaps the entire premise of “making it to the Celestial Kingdom” and what it means to be saved, entirely misses the mark of what salvation, exaltation, and the eternities mean.

    When a person sees exaltation, salvation, and eternal kingdoms of glory as more of a chosen state of being than a place, I think the questions and quandary of universalism in an LDS setting resolve themselves.

  5. 5.

    Good point, Emily.

    SilverRain, I agree with you about it being more helpful to conceptualize the various places in the afterlife as chosen states of being than geographical locations. But I’m not following how this resolves the problems related to universalism. My question is still the same–what would it mean to hope that everyone will choose the state of being which we call exaltation? Is that a hope we should have? Are there dangers in adopting or teaching such a hope? Is there a point of no return, in which people are permanently set into their current state of being and can’t choose otherwise? And so forth.

  6. 6.

    The fairness concern can be countered with the very Mormon notion that we are all beggars. That passage of scripture reminds us that the difference between the very best of us and the very worst of us isn’t really very big.

    And the thought of my enjoyment of salvation being diminished because my neighbor isn’t getting the dangnation I think he deserves strikes me as laugh out loud funny.

  7. 7.

    But the term “dangnation” is even funnier. ;)

  8. 8.

    :-)

    I credit our teenaged sons. Once my wife and I had concluded that the kids were emulating the example of J. Golden Kimball too much, so we had a long, tense FHE in which the law was laid down: No more swearing.

    The kids got back at us because when we had family scripture reading they would always substitute heck and dang into the scriptures.

  9. 9.

    Lynnette,

    Thanks for keeping this intriguing discussion going.

    Here are a couple of thoughts:

    First, I don’t think you’ll get very far with your parsing the possibility of universalism with the guarantee because the former naturally flows into the latter. In a Mormon context robust universalism usually boils down to a belief that we retain free will in the afterlife and as a result we have the ability to return to God (a la the prodigal son) no matter how long we wait. This of course assumes progression between kingdoms. The issue is that if we assume resurrected beings are rational and we assume that wickedness never was happiness then it is pretty much inevitable that eventually every rational being would eventually turn to God in a search for peace and happiness.

    I think we are better off focusing on the idea of justice being served in the universe. Meaning, we have it on authority of scriptures that we must suffer for sins that we don’t repent of (see section 18) so repenting now has lots of benefits regardless of the long run.

    Further, if “men are that they might have joy” and if “happiness is the object and design” of our being here as Mormonism teaches us we can be long-term universalists and still find motivation to love and serve one another now. If loving one another leads to happiness now then doing so is win-win to use business jargon.

    I think these factors play into our agreement in some ways with humanists.

  10. 10.

    I can’t say any more than this.
    Your post is awesome and will probably help resolve a dispute within my marriage.
    Thanks.

  11. 11.

    I believe that God will always hold the door open for us – I don’t think he would willingly exclude any of his children from his presence. But I think he’ll respect our agency (“God will force no man to heaven”) – and I don’t think we’ll all choose to join him.

    Or could it be that the very real risk we run in choosing to remain in sin is that the further we get away, the less of a desire we will have to return–and we must grapple with the sobering possibility that we might never choose to do so?

    I suspect this is the case, and it worries me, vis a vis my own choices and character.

    I liked The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis. I tend to think he’s on to something, with his description of people who just keep building further and further away from the bus stop, refuse to board the bus, or return back to the gray city rather than completing the journey to God. Each of them just can’t bring themselves to let go of their sins – which are all variations on the theme of pride.

  12. 12.

    Yea, I am with you. The reasons people offer against universalism always ring hollow for me.

    By the way, it is great to see that Geoff has finally come around since the days of our epic battle on this thread. I credit my tireless efforts.

  13. 13.

    I don’t remember what we were battling over in that thread. What did I come around to again? May I argued for possible universalism rather than guaranteed?

  14. 14.

    Geoff, See your take on Model 2 in the OP. We were battling over whether or not there was sufficient incentive to repent for someone who accepts the idea of progression between kingdoms. See especially my #43 on that thread, your response in #49, and the longish battle that followed. Then compare to your #9 here on this thread.

  15. 15.

    Ah yes. Well I actually don’t think it would be a good idea to teach robust universalism even if it is true (as I suspect). Nor am I convinced God would want us to broadly push it in that case. As I mentioned in my most recent post that Lynnette linked to here:

    So even if my suspicions about universalism are true, it may be that God knows that not everything that is true is useful in the end (and not everything that is useful is true).

  16. 16.

    This quote drives me crazy.

    not everything that is true is useful in the end (and not everything that is useful is true

    I’ve heard it before (in general conference, I think).
    Geoff, or someone else, can you give me examples of this idea?

  17. 17.

    I thought I just did give an example. Here it is again:

    Even if robust universalism proves to be true it may not be useful to teach it openly and widely in the church (because of the “eat drink and be merry”/procrastinating repentance thing)

  18. 18.

    I should add that “not everything that is useful is true” is my own semi-snarky turn on the phrase.

    The phrase that some church leaders have used is “not everything is true is useful” and critics of the church have had a field day with that one. I don’t know that it was ever used in GC though…

  19. 19.

    Yes, I did understand that example. I was wondering if there are others (or if you think that is the one the GAs meant.)
    Also, I wondered if you had examples for your other phrase, but I suppose old wives’ tales would fall in that category.

  20. 20.

    Hehe. I can’t speak for GA’s but here are a few examples of scenarios where completely true answers might not be the most useful answers:

    “Does this make me looks fat?”
    “How do you like my new hairdo?”
    “Is Santa really coming tonight?” (From a 4 year old on Christmas eve)

    You know — ‘to everything there is a season’ and all that…

    See here for more on God’s use of this principle. (And of course feel free to ignore my heterodoxy if you wish)

  21. 21.

    Wow, Lynnette. This is a very thoughtful discussion.

    Will my salvation be less worthwhile if it’s not as exclusive? Some Christian theologians in the past have in fact suggested that one of the pleasures of heaven will be viewing the torments of the damned. As in the parable of the day laborers, it just doesn’t seem fair that those who only came to work late in the day got the same pay as those who were there from the beginning. One of the most radical and challenging aspects of grace, I believe, is that it pushes to the breaking point our sense of fairness, of how things should be. It ruptures any neat system in which the books are carefully balanced and everyone gets exactly what she or he deserves.

    Very insightful. I remember reading those verses as a teen in seminary — more or less obsessed with the eternal-checkbook-balancing model of salvation — and thinking, that’s totally not fair. It’s not fair that someone can spend their money and still not bounce the check. We watched the church production of The Prodigal Son and the son’s protest — “I’ve been the good one!” — really resonated with me. I was trying to follow all of these damned rules about everything, reading scriptures and going to seminary and everything else. And I wanted to get a reward for that, dammit. It just wasn’t fair if the pot-smoking, non-seminary-attending slacker in math class got exactly the same reward as I did.

    And now, as a parent, I fight constantly against that tendency in my kids, who are quick to point out that they’ve done some particular act, and therefore they should get some reward which is also denied their siblings. (That appears to be half the fun, the possibility of rubbing in the fact that they got a reward and siblings didn’t.)

    And sometimes that happens — sometimes kids don’t do what they’re supposed to do, and do get excluded from dessert or fun activity or whatever because they didn’t finish chores. But much more often than not, I end up trying to find a way to help kids who are struggling, and make it so that everyone gets the treat. And I know that this offends the hyperactive and finely tuned sense of fairness and comparative advantage that the kids track. But at the end of the day, I’d rather not exclude anyone from dessert, if there’s a reasonable way to do it.

    It reminds us that God is in the business of saving, not of damning, that salvation/exaltation is not something intended only for an elite handful of God’s favorites, but rather for all of us (although we of course have the choice to reject it). LDS scripture goes so far as to say that it is God’s work and glory to bring it about. We therefore do not have the luxury of writing ourselves off–or dismissing anyone else–as hopelessly lost, and therefore giving up, because God refuses to do so.

    Amen. :)

    Your post is awesome and will probably help resolve a dispute within my marriage.

    That’s awesome. :)

    Your post will, alas, do nothing to resolve any conflicts in my marriage. The conflicts that we have of late tend to revolve around silly stuff like whose turn it is to take the kids to school, or whether I’ve been hanging up my suit coat or not. (Usually, not). I could try to use this post to resolve those issues, but I don’t think it would go over very well.

    M: Have you been leaving your coat in a pile by the side of the bed again?
    Me: Hmm, probably. But, guess what? There are some very interesting reasons why we may want to teach universal salvation as at least a possibility. Isn’t that wonderful?
    M: (glares)

  22. 22.

    I just wanted to say that I liked this passage because even though I think the point of no return is a possibility (we don’t really know how the eternities work), the question you ask at the end hints at what feels to me a bigger danger:

    For example, there is clearly danger in procrastinating the day of your repentance; as Alma tells us, we might hit a point where it is everlastingly too late. But does this refer to the danger that the door will be forever shut as we arrive at some final point of no return where God eternally seals our fate? Or could it be that the very real risk we run in choosing to remain in sin is that the further we get away, the less of a desire we will have to return–and we must grapple with the sobering possibility that we might never choose to do so?

  23. 23.

    Very interesting post, Lynnette!

    A few random thoughts. First, Nephi says something that might be construed as universalist at the very end of his writings:

    And I pray the Father in the name of Christ that many of us, if not all, may be saved in his kingdom at that great and last day.

    I have always found this striking because Nephi comes across to me as so harsh and judgmental. Of course, you might just say that he’s saying here that he hopes everyone can shape up well enough to be saved. But maybe he was saying that he hoped that everyone would in fact be saved even if it took some of us a while.

    Either way, I’m impressed that he avoided the “it’s not worth as much if other people get it more easily” trap. It always makes me laugh when I read stories about churches that estimated how many people in a given state are going to hell. Because that’s so how I think too. I don’t want anyone else to have it easier than I do.

    Tangentially, I think you can see that tension in trying to get earthly rewards too. Lots of bloggernacle discussions get us riled up with related issues. For example think of Devyn’s legendary post at Mormon Mentality on whether married Mormon graduate students should be on welfare or not. The argument from the “no” side is a fairness one just like some of the arguments against universalism that you mention.

  24. 24.

    Or how about this? As the writers of New Cool Thang will be happy to expound on, perhaps it makes more sense for God not to have absolute foreknowledge. Well maybe he doesn’t have absolute after-knowledge either. (Note: I haven’t read all the Thang posts and perhaps this idea is already subsumed by their discussion of foreknowledge.) Specifically maybe he can’t tease apart the causes of how we all ended up behaving. I’m thinking of a comment by C.S. Lewis (can’t find it–sorry if I butcher it) that where people ended up in life depended far more on the luck of where they started out than we like to acknowledge. Well maybe God can’t disentangle the causes meaningfully better than we can. Maybe he would have to run us through multiple lives with varying factors to get around the fundamental problem of causal inference, and that’s beyond even him.

    So maybe given limited knowledge about whether we “deserve” it or not, God will save us all just to give us the benefit of the doubt.

    I can hope, can’t I? :)

  25. 25.

    Hmm, lots to think about.

    First of all, I’m glad to hear that I’ve managed to resolve a dispute in Jessawhy’s marriage. Though I guess the fact that I didn’t manage to do the same for Kaimi means that I shouldn’t re-title my posts things like: Marriage Counseling 101: The Problem of Universal Salvation.

    Mark, I’m glad you brought in the point about all of us being beggars. My guess is that at least for most of us, ultimately our preference might be for less “fairness” and more mercy. And just anecdotally, it seems to me that often those who are most concerned about the possibility that others might get too much grace, so to speak, are those who struggle to accept grace in their own lives. Not that I would know that from personal experience or anything.

    However, on the subject of the value of seeing the suffering of the damned, I should not let the opportunity to quote Thomas Aquinas pass me by:

    “Nothing should be denied the blessed that belongs to the perfection of their beatitude. Now everything is known the more for being compared with its contrary, because when contraries are placed beside one another they become more conspicuous. Wherefore in order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned.”

  26. 26.

    Geoff, thanks for your perspective on this. I don’t know that I’m persuaded that a Mormon version of universalism means that everyone will eventually return; I still think the language of possibility vs. guarantee is useful. It seems to me that the idea that everyone will inevitably come back rests not only on the premise of possible progression between kingdoms, but also assumes that a) given an infinite amount of time, everyone will eventually act in a rational fashion, b) choosing righteousness can in fact be understood as a rational decision, and c) free will is a static attribute. I realize I’m opening a theological can of worms here, but I have some doubts about all of those. Though I don’t know that I want to get into an extended discussion of those questions here—I’m just mentioning them as a kind of theological hit-and-run (kind of obnoxious, I know.)

    But back to the topic of the value of preaching universalism (or not), which is my real interest in this post, I like your focus on justice being served, that we can’t escape the consequences of our actions (repent now or suffer later). And I agree that that seems a useful motivation, regardless of your beliefs about where everyone will end up. This is maybe somewhat related to a tension I’ve often thought about regarding LDS missionary work—namely, what’s the urgency in preaching the gospel to the world, if people can get baptized after they’re dead? One might think that unique LDS doctrines would make us less inclined to proselytize. But I think our missionary impulse is grounded not just on the desire to bring people eternal salvation, but also on the premise that church membership has something valuable to offer in the here-and-now. In other words, the desire for salvation isn’t the only motivating factor.

    Jacob, I’m glad to hear that you managed to convince Geoff to see the error of his ways in an epic battle. Unless, of course, his previous position was one with which I agreed, in which case I’m sorry you misled him.

  27. 27.

    jane, thanks for mentioning The Great Divorce. I have my share of reservations about C.S. Lewis, but I like that book; I think he really gets at something crucial in his depiction of why people choose to remain in hell.

    Nice thoughts, Kaimi, especially about not excluding anyone from dessert if at all possible. (Because that’s just cruel—especially if your siblings are smugly eating their ice cream in front of you.) The Prodigal Son movie resonated with me a lot as well. I guess it’s a bit easier to see ourselves as in need of repentance when we’ve been living in the muck with the pigs. An acquaintance of mine once gave a talk in sacrament meeting in which he made what I thought was a really interesting point. He talked about the ninety-and-nine parable, and the tendency to resent the one, who seems to get all the attention at the expense of everyone else. I related a lot to that. But then he asked something like, “but who am I to assume that I’m one of the ninety-and-nine?” Which is a great question. I suspect that there are ways and times in our lives in which all of us are the one—and maybe it’s that experience of being rescued ourselves that allows us to respond with concern instead of resentment when others stray.

    Thinking about this, I note that I can have a tendency to see God as acting in a kind of zero-sum fashion. In other words, if other people are getting blessings and attention and forgiveness, that means there’s less for me. So then I’m bitter, and like the devil, I want everyone to be miserable like unto myself. ;) I do better, I think, when I operate from a mentality of abundance rather than one of scarcity, at least when it comes to God’s love.

    Thanks, Seraphine. That danger—that I’ll give up on God, rather than vice versa—seems like a more pressing one to me as well.

    Ziff, nice point about Nephi. Almost thou persuades me to have a better attitude about him (my views, admittedly, are doubtless tainted by Arnold Friberg depictions). And I very much agree that these kinds of debates play out in the temporal sphere as well.

    And as for your speculation about God’s “afterknowledge”—that’s a great twist on this whole discussion. I’d never heard of the “fundamental problem of causal inference”, but it sounds like one of the ideas articulated by Karl Rahner, who says that we can’t ever really know if our orientation is toward God because we don’t have the ability to trace the roots of our own decisions. (Okay, I really just said that because I wanted to write a sentence that managed to contain both “the fundamental problem of causal inference” and “Karl Rahner.”)

  28. 28.

    On this topic of truth and usefulness, I have to say that I’ve always been bothered by the trick in D&C 19, in which God basically says, just kidding, I fooled you into thinking “everlasting” and “eternal” meant endless, but really they don’t. I just wanted you to think that so you would be more inspired to shape up. So to answer the question posed in the post Geoff linked on the subject, I do think the passage raises difficult questions about the character of God. It doesn’t much inspire me to think that God might be deliberately misleading us, even if for some greater good. Whatever happened to “ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free?” If we agree with Marvin J. Ashton that “a lie is any communication with the intent to deceive,” I’m not sure that the brother of Jared is correct in his assertion that “thou art a God of truth, and canst not lie.”

    So I guess what I’m saying is that if guaranteed universalism were true, but God lied about it because it would turn us into slackers, I would have some real ethical concerns about that. Not to mention the trust issues—as the Lectures on Faith say, we can’t have faith in God without a correct knowledge of his attributes, and if one of those attributes is a willingness to deceive when necessary — hmmm . . . However, I’m not really sure what to make of the D&C 19 thing, because it seems to me that it’s not actually a very useful deception, given that God lets the cat out of the bag. I mean, now that we know that everlasting punishment is somewhat less everlasting than we’d assumed, what’s to motivate us?

    I’m also a bit uncomfortable with a sense that sometimes comes out of these discussions (I’m thinking of theological discussions generally, by the way, not this one in particular), in which the masses can’t know about universalism because they couldn’t handle it–they would all fall into wickedness before you could say “everlasting punishment.” But the few, elite theologians who’d manage to deduce the doctrine through sophisticated use of hermeneutics could handle the truth, because they were on a higher plane of morality and would be able to do good anyway. Much as I might like to think that those of us with universalist inclinations are more naturally righteous than those poor benighted souls who disagree, I can’t say that I see any evidence of it.

    But I’m getting sidetracked. This is the question I really wanted to get at. I think we’re all pretty sensitive to the dangers of preaching universalism. The procrastination issue is obviously a big one. But are there dangers in not preaching it? Or at least, in preaching with certainty the notion that not everyone will make it? Off the top of my head, I can think of a couple of possibilities: hopelessness (for those anti-Calvinists, who rather than assume they’re elect, immediately jump to the conclusion that they’re among the damned); self-righteousness, Rameuptom-style, as mentioned earlier; constant anxiety about being “good enough” which makes it difficult to get much out of life here.

    I guess none of this is anything new—it’s the basic problem in Christianity. If you preach grace, will that cause everyone to sin more? But how can you not preach grace, given that it’s what the gospel is all about?

  29. 29.

    But the few, elite theologians who’d manage to deduce the doctrine through sophisticated use of hermeneutics could handle the truth

    Hehe. It is a bit absurd isn’t it? I’m mildly surprised that this messy section 19 thing doesn’t cause more consternation in more people. It is a potentially massive destabilizing scripture (as I mentioned in that post).

  30. 30.

    But are there dangers in not preaching it? Or at least, in preaching with certainty the notion that not everyone will make it?

    Sure, I think so. At worst we become insufferable or even dangerous zealots who think most any means justifies the end of saving souls from eternal torture. I think many of the so-called Christians who head up anti-Mormon ministries are fine examples of this. We have plenty of (too many) insufferable zealots in our ranks as well.

    Your point is well taken that this is really a Christian problem and not just a Mormon Christian problem though.

  31. 31.

    I love it!

    Recently I have been perceiving heaven and hell less as destinations and more as states, states which we create for ourselves and others in the here and now, and maybe states we sometimes do not choose, existences in which we sometimes just find ourselves anyway, for better or for worse. And maybe both are necessary for our purification. Heaven/hell as eternal punishment or reward do not motivate my behavior really. I think maybe if I felt more certain of their reality as eternal destinations, they might influence my behavior more. I just have no faith right now in anything after we die.

    As for the eternal perspective, I have to confess that any salvation except for universal salvation has very little appeal to me. I believe (naively?) that there is good and potential in every human being. A salvation that does not acknowledge this is not really one in which I’m interested. The possibility or hope for universal salvation makes me feel far more motivated to be good or virtuous, to grow and reach my potential (whatever that may be) and to help others do the same than does one based strictly on reward for good behavior or avoidance of bad behavior.

    So I think, even in the eternal sense, salvation in my ideal universe – universal salvation – would be a process. Universal, in that everyone would have access, but specific in its application to each person.

    Maybe I don’t even know what salvation is.

  32. 32.

    […] “One of the most radical and challenging aspects of grace is that it pushes to the breaking point … […]

  33. 33.

    Thanks for the interesting comment, Newt. You bring up a point I hadn’t really thought of–that in this life, at least to some extent, our existence is “heavenly” or “hellish” isn’t entirely in our control. There are people who “go through hell” who clearly haven’t brought it on themselves. And we sometimes describe those experiences as important, maybe even redemptive–if not inherently so, in the sense that God can manage to bring something good out of them. Might that have implications for our view of the afterlife?

    I believe (naively?) that there is good and potential in every human being.

    On a bit of a tangent, reading this made me realize something strange about my own views. In a lot of ways, I really like the Mormon perspective on humans, with all of its positive elements–humans as the literal children of God, with divine potential, and all of that. And yet, for some reason, I tend to be on the cynical side. I totally believe in original sin. So what am I of all people doing arguing for the possibility of universalism? One would think that I would be playing instead with the possibility of universal dangnation. Perhaps it goes back to an observation I really like from Karl Barth, that you can have as strong a doctrine as sin as you want, as long as your doctrine of grace is stronger.

    The possibility or hope for universal salvation makes me feel far more motivated to be good or virtuous, to grow and reach my potential (whatever that may be) and to help others do the same than does one based strictly on reward for good behavior or avoidance of bad behavior.

    Well said. I think there’s a lot to that.

  34. 34.

    Another concern sometimes arises in discussions of universalism. It is this: what if I work incredibly hard to make the Celestial Kingdom, and get there–only to discover that that my slacking off, sinning neighbors somehow made it in as well?

    After many online encounters with evangelicals who think Mormons are going to hell it became apparent to me that everyone needs to measure themselves against some standard. Mormons have rules based on the necessity of obedience and “doing” as a measure of where they are. The dedicated “I’m saved and yer not” people seemed to need the “yer not” as their standard. In other words, they had no way to assure themselves they were saved unless there was a hell bent group that they could assure themselves they were not part of. As for universalism, I liked Dennis Potter’s ideas on group salvation. I think the scriptures and prophets teach universalism…we just don’t teach it. If there are family members depending on us I think that does away with the problem of complacency.

    It is not uncommon for responsible parents to lose one of their children, for a time, to influences over which they have no control. They agonize over rebellious sons or daughters. They are puzzled over why they are so helpless when they have tried so hard to do what they should.
    It is my conviction that those wicked influences one day will be overruled.
    “The Prophet Joseph Smith declared—and he never taught a more comforting doctrine—that the eternal sealings of faithful parents and the divine promises made to them for valiant service in the Cause of Truth, would save not only themselves, but likewise their posterity. Though some of the sheep may wander, the eye of the Shepherd is upon them, and sooner or later they will feel the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them and drawing them back to the fold. Either in this life or the life to come, they will return. They will have to pay their debt to justice; they will suffer for their sins; and may tread a thorny path; but if it leads them at last, like the penitent Prodigal, to a loving and forgiving father’s heart and home, the painful experience will not have been in vain. Pray for your careless and disobedient children; hold on to them with your faith. Hope on, trust on, till you see the salvation of God.” (Orson F. Whitney, in Conference Report, Apr. 1929, p. 110.)
    We cannot overemphasize the value of temple marriage, the binding ties of the sealing ordinance, and the standards of worthiness required of them. When parents keep the covenants they have made at the altar of the temple, their children will be forever bound to them. President Brigham Young said:
    “Let the father and mother, who are members of this Church and Kingdom, take a righteous course, and strive with all their might never to do a wrong, but to do good all their lives; if they have one child or one hundred children, if they conduct themselves towards them as they should, binding them to the Lord by their faith and prayers, I care not where those children go, they are bound up to their parents by an everlasting tie, and no power of earth or hell can separate them from their parents in eternity; they will return again to the fountain from whence they sprang.” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols., 2:90-91.)
    Boyd K. Packer, “Our Moral Environment,” Ensign, May 1992, 66

  35. 35.

    I have just a few thoughts on this. Since I am leaning toward Universal Unitarianism myself (born LDS now conflicted), I do not see Universalism as inspiring complacency or removing my reasons for being good. On the contrary, I love it because instead of doing good because I’m afraid of God’s punishments, or always wondering if I have done enough to lay claim on the Atonement, I find myself wanting to serve others and develop compassion for the sole purpose and helping the world be a better place for others. I find myself motivated to find purpose by working to alleviate the suffering of others, and dedicate myself to teaching my children to have empathy and compassion, and be wise stewards over the earth.

    In addition, the belief that everyone may one day be reconciled with God does not necessarily mean at the same time. LDS doctrine teaches that whatever knowledge we obtain in this life will be to our advantage in the next. Just because someone we perceive as less valiant “makes it” doesn’t mean they will be at the same level we are (assuming we have a right to determine what makes someone less valiant or less worthy!). In addition, if we have developed Christ-like love, we won’t feel bitter or jealous, we will feel joy, because it will not please us to see someone lost or suffering, and because we will measure ourselves against our own selves, and not against others. Our job is not to be more righteous than others. It’s to be more righteous than we we were last year.

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