“Our heavenly Father is more liberal in His views, and boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive.”
-Joseph Smith Jr.
While I do not feel bound to believe every statement by Mormon general authorities, nor every verse in the LDS scriptures; and while I certainly don’t expect anyone else to take these statements for granted, I think it might be worthwhile to take a closer look at Mormon doctrine regarding the welfare of non-Members in the afterlife.
As is often the case, a close, thoughtful reading of the relevant passages from the LDS tradition goes a long way toward relieving us of the burdens of some popular misconceptions in our culture. Having said that, before I proceed, I ask one important favor of my readers – As I present Mormon doctrine on this subject, as accurately as I know how, I ask that you prayerfully consider if perhaps God is even more radically compassionate than LDS doctrine allows us to believe. I think it is spiritually risky business indeed to try to set limits on how much God is allowed to love and care for his children.
At the risk of stating the obvious, I want to point out that our doctrine on the afterlife is quite different than most or all of the other Churches out there. We do not speak ONLY of heaven or hell. In our doctrine, practically nobody will be tortured and punished for all eternity. So what does happen to them?
The Spirit World:
After death, we teach that people will go to the spirit world. Alma speaks concerning “the state of the soul.” He says that the righteous will be in “a state of happiness” until the resurrection. In contrast, we speak of “spirit prison” for those who were in some sense, not-so-righteous. Again, I think this is a state of mind, really, rather than a place of torture. Whether in this life or the next, or both, I suppose we will all have to suffer the pain of regret for one thing or another before the atonement can fully take effect in our hearts. We have heard “spirit prison” described as a place of learning for many, rather than a punishment. I think that sounds about right. I envision wounded souls going through a process of healing, and being freed from their personal prisons through an experience of God’s love.
- Alma 40: 12
Next, we are told that our time in the spirit world will be complete when we are resurrected during or shortly after the millennium. Then, finally, after the millennium we will be judged one last time and be assigned to a place in one of the three kingdoms, or degrees of glory, comparable to the brightness of the sun, the moon, and the stars, respectively.
Now, our teachings get a little tricky here regarding non-members. We are taught that people must accept the gospel and receive certain saving ordinances in order to achieve the highest kingdom or glory. This teaching could make for awkward conversation when speaking with people of other faiths. Also, for many of us, this might be cause for serious concern regarding our non-member friends and family, or those who have decided to withdraw from full participation in formal Church activities. So I want to dig into this a little further and see if it is something we really need to be agonizing over.
Taken literally, Doctrine and Covenants 76: 74, is one of the more problematic verses. Here we read that those “who received NOT the testimony of Jesus in the flesh, but afterwards received it” will go to the terrestrial, and not the Celestial kingdom. This is a little misleading. Now, although the terrestrial kingdom is supposed to be amazing, I still don’t think it's fair to assume that non-Mormons will be automatically assigned there because they didn’t receive the gospel during mortality. Mormonism has even better promises for non-members than this verse alone would lead us to believe.
“They who are without the Law”
For example, Moroni 8: 22 says that “they who are without the law” are “alive in Christ” and continues, “For the power of redemption cometh on all them that have no law.” Moroni then cautions against “denying the mercies of Christ.”
A similar principle is revealed in Doctrine and Covenants 82:3. "For of him unto whom much is given much is required; and he who sins against the greater light shall receive the greater condemnation." The logical extension of this is that "Of him unto whom little is given, little is required; and he who sins against the lesser light shall recieve the lesser condemnation." Either way you read it, the principle addressed is that God does not judge everyone with the same measuring stick. People are judged according to their personal knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong. Along the same lines, reason would dictate that God takes into account every person's capacity to understand, and to act according to their knowledge.
Doctrine and Covenants 137 is probably the most reassuring sections regarding the welfare of non-Mormons. Here Joseph Smith reveals a vision he had of the celestial kingdom in which he saw his older brother Alvin who he adored, and who died tragically when he was still a very young man, before the gospel was restored:
“The heavens were opened upon us, and I beheld the celestial kingdom of God, and the glory thereof…
“I saw Father Adam and Abraham; and my father and my mother; my brother Alvin, that has long since slept; And I marveled how it was that he had obtained an inheritance in that kingdom, seeing that he had departed this life before the Lord had set his hand to gather Israel the second time, and had not been baptized for the remission of sins.
“Thus came the voice of the Lord unto me, saying: All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God; Also all that shall die henceforth without a knowledge of it, who would have received it with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom;
“For I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts.
“And I also beheld that all children who die before they arrive at the years of accountability are saved in the celestial kingdom of heaven.”
Now, some of you may be thinking that these promises are only good for those who never had a chance to receive the gospel in this life. What about those who have had a chance, who have had abundant chances to receive the gospel… for example, what about friends of ours who have known us our entire lives… our family members… or even our spouses? What about them?
Who Am I To Judge?
I want to point out that only the Lord can judge whether a person has had a FAIR chance at receiving the gospel. For this reason, we should not assume that, because we know one or two verses of scripture, that we can figure out who’s going to make it to the celestial kingdom and who isn’t. We should not presume to know when someone has had their chance. It is not our prerogative to determine when or if someone is doomed to a lesser kingdom.
I encourage you to pay particular attention to D&C 137, verse 9: “I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts.” Does the loved one that you are concerned about do good works? Does the loved one that you are concerned about have a good heart? To me, it makes no sense for us to worry that God could be less merciful in his judgment of our loved ones than we would be. HE is all-loving. HE is all merciful. They are HIS children. He knows them and loves them better than we will ever know.
Joseph Smith taught:
“Our heavenly Father is more liberal in His views, and boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive.”
Please indulge me in sharing a personal experience with you. My Gramps passed away almost a year ago. And although he was surrounded by Mormons all of his life, he was not a Mormon. He was however one of the most compassionate and caring people I ever knew. As I drove to work one night, I wondered about the welfare of his soul. As soon as I could ponder the question, a distinct thought flooded my mind, and I was overcome with the kind of peace that only the spirit can bring: “God, in his infinite love, cannot help but to lift such souls up to the highest heaven.”
A few weeks ago in Sunday school, a man in my Ward who recently finished his mission serving in the Temple Presidency made a comment that touched me, and I think it fits nicely with what I am talking about:
He said that when he and others do work for the dead in our temples, they do it with the hope and the expectation that those departed spirits will one day be received into the Celestial Kingdom. I think he has the right idea. The spirit of his words is consistent with my impressions about the kind of love our Heavenly Parents have for us.
My prayer and my hope, as I write this, is that you will be comforted by these assurances, that you will become more convinced of God’s love for all of his children, and more trusting in his plan to bring all of us back home. I hope this will relieve you of the worry you may feel for your loved one’s or any non-Mormons you come to know in the future who do not choose to accept your views.
An Interfaith Plan of Salvation:
I think there is tendency among the members to assume that if someone is sincere in their search for truth, and if they are willing to keep the commandments, and if they pray, surely God will reveal to them the truth of the Restored Gospel precisely as we know it. We assume this of people who are raised in this Church, and we assume this of people raised in other Churches. If they just ask God, they will know this is the one true Church. But I would encourage you to think of your own experience. Are there any exceptions to this rule? The Apostle Orson F. Whitney offers one way of explaining possible exceptions:
"God is using more than one people for the accomplishment of his great and marvelous work. The Latter-day Saints cannot do it all. It is too vast, too arduous, for any one people….We have no quarrel with the Gentiles. They are our partners in a certain sense....Because of their worldly influence —which would depart if they connected themselves with the Church—many are kept where they are, where the Lord has placed them, and can best use them for the good of all."
- Orson F. Whitney (Conference Report, Apr. 1928, p. 59-60)
“Know ye not that there are more nations than one? Know ye not that I, the Lord your God, have created all men, and that I remember those who are upon the isles of the sea; and that I rule in the heavens above and in the earth beneath; and I bring forth my word unto the children of men, yea, even upon all the nations of the earth?
“Wherefore murmur ye, because that ye shall receive more of my word? Know ye not that… I remember one nation like unto another?...
“Wherefore, because that ye have a Bible ye need not suppose that it contains all my words; neither need ye suppose that I have not caused more to be written.
“For I command all men, both in the east and in the west, and in the north, and in the south, and in the islands of the sea, that they shall write the words which I speak unto them; for out of the books which shall be written I will judge the world, every man according to their works, according to that which is written.
“For behold, I shall speak unto the Jews and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto the Nephites and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto the other tribes of the house of Israel, which I have led away, and they shall write it; and I shall also speak unto all nations of the earth and they shall write it.”
What is the connection?
Nephi envisions a world in which God’s word is given to the people of all nations. Such a vision allows us to imagine God revealing his truth and his word in many or all of the religious traditions of the world, in some measure.
Similarly, Orson F. Whitney’s statement allows us to imagine that God needs people in the various nations and religious communities serving him in their corner of the world, just as we do our best to serve him in our own Church, in our own community, and in our own corner of the world. As I see it, it is more proof that we are all God’s children, and that he truly cares for all of us.
Tolerance of Religious Diversity Within and Without the Church:
On the subject of respecting other people’s religious convictions and individual paths, Brigham Young said of unconventional members of our own Church:
“Judge not that ye be not judged… We ought to reflect seriously on this point; how often it is said – ‘that such a person has done wrong, and he cannot be a Saint, or he would not do so.’ How do you know? … Do not judge such persons, for you do not know the design of the Lord concerning them; therefore, do not say they are not Saints.”
I love that line, “you do not know the design of the Lord concerning them.” I think this necessitates a humble approach to both members and nonmembers who have a different opinion from us or different way of understanding the life of a Saint.
In addition, many LDS General Authorities have given many assurances to parents of children whose path in life has taken them away form the Church. According to Orson F. Whitney, Joseph Smith taught "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." Brigham Young declared boldly, "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," Lorenzo Snow counseled, "mourn not because all your sons and daughters do not follow in the path that you have marked out to them" and assured, "we will save our posterity.”
Brigham Young also taught,
“In the millennium, men will have the privilege of being Presbyterians, Methodists or Infidels, but they will not have the privilege of treating the name and character of Deity as they have done heretofore.”
If Jesus can tolerate a religiously diverse world during his reign, then so can we. We have plenty of reasons to give non-Mormons the benefit of the doubt. Maybe where they currently are is exactly where the Lord needs them at the moment. If so, trusting in his justice and mercy, I think it is safe to assume that God cannot and would not withhold any blessing from any kind-hearted, earnest non-Mormon in the afterlife. May we learn to trust a little more in God to lead our friends and family along the path that is right for them. And may we always show our friends and family who are not Mormons, or who are unconventional in their brand of Mormonism, that we love them and respect them and have faith in their ability to live and believe according to the dictates of their own conscience.