Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Mormonism and Universalism

I got my first request! In response to that post about John Lennon's song "Imagine," reader Adam asked about my thoughts on the extent to which Mormonism and Universalism are compatible (see how easy instant fame is? just ask!). I've thought a bit about that as well, and what better place than your own random blog to put some inchoate thoughts into writing and by writing end them clarify them.

First off, the obligatory definition of terms: I'll be using "universalism" to mean "everyone will be saved and get to heaven eventually." Hopefully that's what Adam meant, or he's going to get a whole load of tangent.

The best place I know of to start when talking about Mormonism and universalism is the Vision--more commonly known today as D&C 76*. In Rough Stone Rolling, Richard Bushman discusses this universalist-esque revelation that sends such a tiny portion of people to hell as to almost be Universal in its scope. While Bushman notes--quite well, I think--that it is distinguished from universalist doctrines in important ways, it is also interesting to note the reaction from some members who thought it was too close to salvation for everyone: one member was excommunicated for proclaiming that "the vision was of the Devil came from hel[l]." This is a good reminder of how inclusive our basic doctrine is: virtually every single person ever to have lived on the earth will at least achieve an inheritance in a kingdom that "surpasses all understanding"--this is de facto universalism as far as most of Christianity (and the world) are concerned. So Adam, in a sense, Mormonism and universalism are very compatible, almost even identical. But I have the feeling that's not what you were asking, since that is basic Mormon doctrine that every Sunbeam knows.

Moving into speculation-land, then: can universalist doctrines apply to the really Mormon concepts of heaven? I mean, no Mormon is excited about making it to the Telestial kingdom, so can we reconcile universal salvation in the Celestial kingdom with Mormon doctrine? I propose that it is possible, though I don't make any guarantees that it's true.

There is an idea about the possibility of progressing from one kingdom of glory to another. It is controversial--Bruce R. McConkie called it one of his 7 Deadly Heresies (though he also called evolution one, and that is taught at BYU, so what does that say? :) He decried the idea that God is progressing too, which I also agree with) and Spencer W. Kimball, Joseph Fielding Smith, and George Albert Smith are also on record opposing it.

However... you also have James E. Talmage, Brigham Young (via Wilford Woodruff's journal), Joseph F. Smith, J. Reuben Clark, and B. H. Roberts in favor of it, with the Secretary to the First Presidency issuing a letter (twice) saying that the church has no official position on the question, plus Lorenzo Snow and Harold B. Lee saying things that seem to imply the possibility. (see here for most of the quotes (don't miss the first comment there as well for the Roberts quote) and here for Talmage's softening stance between editions of Articles of Faith).

My point with all these quotes isn't to prove the doctrine either true or false--there are pretty impressive people on both sides--but just to show that both are (I believe) valid options for believing Latter-day Saints.

Again, I don't claim to have a testimony about this issue, but as a generally merciful-leaning type I hope that there is progression available between kingdoms. True, the scriptures at first glance don't seem to support the idea (and even appear to debunk it), but I don't think it's quite that simple. D&C 19 makes it clear that sometimes God lets us believe things to be harsher than they really are so that we will be motivated to do what's right, which is actually beneficial to us. So yes, I do think it's possible that there will be progression between kingdoms and thus universal salvation in the Celestial kingdom. I wouldn't bet on it (a la Pascal's wager) but I hope for it. As it is, I highly encourage everyone to do what they can to get to the Celestial kingdom on the first go-round as it will make you happier sooner at the very least.

What about the sons of perdition? Can we create a true Mormon universalism? Well, D&C 76 describes outer darkness a lot like D&C 19 said hell is often described--that is, sounding like it's endless but really just meaning God-given (and thus very intense and long), so maybe even they'll get out eventually. As verses 44-46 say, only they who are consigned to that state will know the end thereof. As an alternative speculation, Brigham Young once voiced his opinion that the sons of perdition would be recycled (for lack of a better term) into their native element and get another chance at some kind of kingdom!

So Adam, does that answer your question? To sum up: Mormonism definitely includes saving virtually everyone in some version of heaven, and it's possible that it extends that to exaltation as well. Fascinating to think about, but important to remember that we should repent and work out our salvation as best we can today!

P.S. There was a great short story in a recent edition of Dialogue about a guy in the Terrestrial kingdom that touches on this subject. It's called "Eternal Misfit" by Roger Terry. I highly recommend it. If you're super interested, email me and I might be able to email you a pdf of it.

* As an aside, does anyone else hate the new online scripture format? I don't want to scroll through 75 section summaries to get to the link I want.


  1. Great post, Austin. It dovetails nicely off of a conversation that I had recently with a friend about the possibility of multiple mortal probations...a sort of reincarnation-gone-light. It certainly doesn't look kindly upon those who would potentially "need" multiple mortal probations, but it is interesting for those Mormons who feel a strong kinship to Buddhism.

    It also apparently was recently featured as a topic on Big Love...? I remember reading something on the The Exponent (or maybe it was the Wheat and Tares) about the last episode discussing this. Thoughts?

  2. You're right, Lauren, they are kind of related. I'm similarly on the fence about that idea, but I've found the discussion and links here fascinating to think about.

    And yeah, I heard something about it being on Big Love. I don't watch but someone's facebook status mentioned it. Who knew? :)

  3. Umm... I kind of love this. I definitely got my money's worth! :) Thanks, Austin, for your insights. I DO really like how inclusive Mormon teaching is on this subject relative to the heaven/hell dichotomy of traditional Christian teaching. Those are some really interesting quotes I had never encountered before. I always find it interesting when the church says "Our official position on this is... we have no official position." It is a reminder to me that despite having access to modern revelation through the church, that revelation has been used to define what I see as a core set of basic doctrines, and that we have more "freedom" to build our personal belief systems on that core of essential doctrines than we sometimes realize. I think I also favor the idea of a progression from kingdom to kingdom, although, as you mentioned, that is purely speculative. Thanks again for sharing! You know, it's dangerous to be overly accommodating to requests... It will be harder for me to resist asking next time I have one :)

  4. Adam, I enjoyed writing it. I was generally aware of all this info before, but re-researching it and putting it all into coherent words helped me think about it a lot more. So feel free to request/ask, though I make no guarantees that I'll be able to answer :)

  5. Having attended both LDS and Unitarian Churches, I would say that Mormonism is compatible with the Unitarian Universalists, but that Unitarianism is not compatible with Mormonism.

    The Unitarian Universalists are very accepting of varying doctrines and would have no problem if one of their members believed in LDS doctrine or in LDS scriptures. They don't believe that one religion is more or less true than another. That is where they are incompatible with Mormonism. I do not think many Mormons would be okay with that. They seem to really be stuck on the whole "we are the one and only true church" line.

  6. Daniel, very true. I think Mormonism is interesting in that while it does make very strong truth claims, in many ways at the same time it is also a lot more open to inspiration from a variety of sources--in theory at least, I'm aware that that doesn't always happen in practice. I think we are doctrinally more prepared to accept (a portion of) the teachings of Buddha, Mohammed, etc. than, say, Catholicism. But you're absolutely right, there is still a fundamental gap between the two religions that no amount of flexibility on behalf of Mormons can ever get us truly close to the Unitarian church's position without abandoning Mormonism altogether. Their particular doctrine of universal salvation, however, I still think is potentially compatible with Mormonism without losing its Mormon-ness.

  7. >>>>What about the sons of perdition? Can we create a true Mormon universalism? Well, D&C 76 describes outer darkness a lot like D&C 19 said hell is often described--that is, sounding like it's endless but really just meaning God-given (and thus very intense and long), so maybe even they'll get out eventually. As verses 44-46 say, only they who are consigned to that state will know the end thereof. As an alternative speculation, Brigham Young once voiced his opinion that the sons of perdition would be recycled (for lack of a better term) into their native element and get another chance at some kind of kingdom!<<<<

    Can that view be reconciled with 1 Nephi 14:3 and Alma 11:45?

  8. Very good question, Anonymous. I suppose my answer would be: the same way Mormons distinguish scriptures that say things like (I'm paraphrasing due to laziness/more pressing demands at the moment) "God is a Spirit," "In the resurrection, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage," "No man at any time hath seen God," etc. so that they don't contradict our unique doctrines including a corporeal God, the First Vision, and eternal marriage. That is to say, we interpret them differently than the plain text would arguably suggest.

    Similar methods to those that I assume you already know Mormons actually use to interpret those verses could be used for the two scriptures you cite: 1 Nephi 14:3 might be understood to say that "Their souls won't be destroyed... oh unless you mean that hell that hath no end, i.e., the kind where their spirit-particles are recycled into a new spirit body--a process that won't end until they choose a new, more righteous path."

    Alma 11:45 could be understood to be saying that bodies will no longer be corrupted, resulting in death, but a spirit voluntarily leaving a body might still be possible, in which case this could just be another example of speaking in very general terms to an audience without a significant understanding of an afterlife at all (so why bother getting into crazy-intense details?); compare "the four corners of the earth" trope or Eve being formed from Adam's rib (neither of which even Bruce R. McConkie took as literal pronouncements of eternal truth).

    Now, I'm certainly not saying that that is what those scriptures mean, or even that those are the best possible ways to make sense of them if you wanted to work within the Universalist framework I've outline in my post, but they are readings that, in my opinion, don't do any more violence to the text than a number of other interpretations I give to tricky scriptures.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that interpretation of a text is a powerful* and often violent act. I'm in a Constitutional Law class, and it's amazing what two very intelligent and honest people can get out of the same simple text; the problem only increases when we get to the Word of God. The postmodern point about texts not having one inherent, true meaning (or at least, not except in relatively simple cases) has been done to death, but I think it is pretty applicable here. Mormons (and everyone who reads a complex book like the Bible or Quran etc.) has to resolve apparent inconsistencies in their scriptures or admit that incongruities exist. Mormons very much tend to prefer the former option, resulting in a very consistent gospel across very disparate texts; some traditions (I know some strains of Judaism do this) just accept the irreconcilable differences straight up and puzzle over what that means.

    Does that answer your question, or did I weasel around it? Maybe this lengthy response should have been its own post as well...

    * It's fascinating, by the way, to read Talmage's 'Jesus the Christ' in this light. He interprets a number of Bible passages about which we now reflexively say "Oh well the JST clears this all up" but he didn't have/trust the JST at the time, and yet he makes do without referencing it at all but still making sense of all those and other scriptures within a Mormon context.

  9. Merlin, the RLDS (now Community of Christ) church had the rights to it, and there was widespread suspicion that they had tampered with it (or made mistakes in publishing) and so LDS's didn't trust it or accept it, for the most part. Talmage does not cite the JST, instead interpreting the KJV directly.

  10. Please comment on 2 Nephi 9:16.

    "...their torment is as a lake of fire and brimstone, whose flame ascendeth up forever and ever and has no end."

  11. Anonymous, good question. That scripture could be interpreted in a few ways. First of all, it's ambiguous as to whether the "has no end" at the end refers to "their torment" or to the "flame" that keeps going up. While that may seem like splitting hairs, when you use an analogy it's necessarily imprecise; the value is in the image. This scripture might be an image used to convey the seriousness of outer darkness/hell, reminding people that smoke never "stops," it just keeps going up and up as high as the eye can see. But just as smoke does eventually stop/dissipate so much that it's not meaningful to think of it as "smoke" anymore, the torment could end as well. The image is powerful, and to a people who didn't understand the physics behind smoke (and didn't need to) it would have helped convince them to try to avoid sin and its consequences.

    Other reinterpretations could be offered as well; one could even try to take a D&C 19 approach and say "The scriptures say God has no end (see D&C 132:20) and so punishment that has no end is God's punishment."

    Ultimately, time and God have a relationship that appears very strange to us mere mortals and it's really hard for us to say what "time" will mean in the eternities. God even says time is measured only unto men, so interpretations of scripture dealing with time and ends are necessarily susceptible to changed understandings as we get closer to God's view of time.

    I'm not going to pretend like any of these interpretations is a very natural/convincing textual analysis on its face, but I think they're possible. And that's the point: if Mormonism had a doctrine of absolute universalism, I think we could potentially understand our scriptures to be in conformity with that. Since we don't have such a doctrine that we bring to our scripture reading, we understand the words of the scriptures somewhat differently. The difference is in the assumptions we bring to the text.

  12. I don't think I explained that first part, about analogies, well at all. Suffice it to say that the analogy doesn't need to be literally true. For example, the mustard seed is not the smallest of all seeds. Ranking the size of the mustard seed (say, 23rd out of the 13,402 total kinds of seeds) just doesn't have the same effect.

  13. I liked your explaination of 2 Nehpi 9:16, but "smoke" isn't mentioned there, "flame" is.

    I'm not really up on my physics, but could you elaborate a little on what the "flame" might symbolize, how it could have "no end" (and how it might conceivably be distinct from the individual, conscious torment of the sons of perdition)?

  14. Ha, sorry, I was clearly tired when I wrote that... But the point, I think, remains the same: even a really high flame has an end. A flame (at least any one that can exist in our universe) cannot have no end. Saying their torment is like a flame that has no end is like (if one were arguing in favor of universalism+Mormonism) saying God's love extends to all four corners of the earth: it's a saying that's not meant to be taken literally (though ancient Hebrews might have actually done so--I don't know enough about their understanding of the world to know), it just puts an image to an abstract concept. For another example, I wouldn't call Jesus a liar if it turns out that the inhabitants of outer darkness don't literally gnash their teeth--again, "gnashing of teeth" is an expression that (very effectively) conveys the utter anguish and torment they will undoubtedly feel there.

  15. Thank you.

    Is a flame (like smoke) a byproduct of heat and combution?

    And could a flame that ascends as far as the eye can see (and in that sense has no end) be distinct from the torment represented by the heat and combustion of the lake itself (and a never ending warning to others--as I think you suggested earlier)?

  16. Anon, I think that delving into the physical equations to find more meaning in an analogy ends up stretching the usefulness too far, but yes, I think I agree with what you're saying.

  17. I keep thinking of that passage in D&C that says "it's not written that their torment will have no end, it's written 'endless torment."

    In Nephi 9:16 it is written that "their torment is as a lake of fire and brimstone, whose flame ascendeth up forever and ever and has no end."

    I know that's an annalogy, but I find it difficult to find a meaningful distinction between "their torment" (this lake of fire and brimstone), and the ascending flame (which is said to have "no end.")

    Smoke is evidence of fire, but it's not the same thing, and it would be easier for me if that word were used here (but it's not.)

    Do you have any more thoughts on this?

    I'm reminded that God told Nineveh (thru Jonah) that it would be destroyed within forty days, but I'm not sure if that's relevant here.

  18. Again, I think the plain text supports the traditional view (that there literally will be no end) but I just think it would be possible to reinterpret the verse to conform with a universalist doctrine. Other than that, I have no more thoughts on it :) Thanks for helping me flesh it all out and consider other scriptures!

  19. Thank you.

    Here's another thought.

    If "forever and ever" means something like "for ages and ages," could the meaning of "has no end" be limited by that context (i.e. "has no end for ages and ages")?

  20. "Other reinterpretations could be offered as well; one could even try to take a D&C 19 approach and say 'The scriptures say God has no end' (see D&C 132:20) and so punishment that has no end is God's punishment."

    How could one take that approach when D&C 19 seems makes a distinction between "endless" and "no end"?

    It says "it is not written that their torment will have no end, it's written "endless torment. Endless is my name, and punishment from me is endless."

    Doesn't this necessarily imply that when something is said to have no end, it has no end?

    But then, why does it say (elsewhere in D&C, specifically speaking of the torment of the sons of perdition) that "it's end" no one knows?

  21. Could anyone offer a universalist intepretation of 2 Nephi 9:16?

    And if the flame that has "no end" is symbolic, could anyone suggest anything it might symbolize (short of eternal conscious torment)?

  22. Could this quote (from another LDS site) have any relevance here?

    The Book of Mormon states that Hebrew was the language spoken and understood by the people. This makes the Hebrew text of the Bible a good source to look to for understanding of some of these words...


    ...This word is frequently translated as eternity or forever but in the English language it is misunderstood to mean a continual span of time that never ends. In the Hebrew mind it is simply what is at or beyond the horizon, a very distant time. A common phrase in the Hebrew is “l’olam va’ed” and is usually translated as “forever and ever” but in the Hebrew it means “to the distant horizon and again” meaning “a very distant time and even further” and is used to express the idea of a very ancient or future time. – Jeff A. Benner


  23. Thanks, Anonymous--that absolutely ties in here! Great find

  24. So when 2 Nephi 9:16 says "their torment is as a lake of fire and brimstone, whose flame ascendeth up forever and ever and has no end," it could mean "no end for ages and ages"?

  25. What about Mosiah 2:38-39?

    Therefore if that man repenteth not, and remaineth an enemy to God...mercy hath no claim on the man; therefore his final doom is to endure a never-ending torment.

    How is it possible to reconcile that with any theory of universal salvation?

  26. Anon, from the context it doesn't sound like it's talking about sons of perdition, so I guess my question is how to reconcile that with D&C 76?

    Even if it is talking about sons of perdition, in the context it's in it could be that the torment is endless... as long as the person chooses not to repent, but once they choose to repent (which everyone will do, given eternity [see, relatedly and humorously, this comic]) their torment will end.

    I'm just sayin' universal salvation + Mormonism is possible, not necessarily that it's probable.

  27. What about Doctrine and Covenants 132:27?

    Doesn't it say that the SOP won't be forgiven "in the world or out of the world"?

    What does that leave?

    If they're not forgiven "in the world or out of the world," how could they ever be forgiven?

  28. I don't know. Probably the same way that Jesus' stark sayings about divorce or no marriage for resurrected beings or any of a number of other doctrines/scriptures are re-understood later in the light of further revelation.

    (In other words, I don't think it's very fruitful for us to go verse by verse through the standard works and debate whether or not each one is compatible with universalism; the thrust of this post is that it's possible, though it acknowledges that some scriptures will have to be re-interpreted. The precise re-interpretation will have to wait until we find out whether or not universalism is true.)

  29. But how could further revelation possibly modify "i the world or out of the world" if that really is a direct quote from Jesus?

    In the Gospels it's "neither in this world (or age), or the world (or age) to come," and I can see how that could be modified by further revelation.

    But how could "neither in the world or out of the world" be modified?

    Spirit prison, paradise, the celestial kingdom, the terrestrial kingdom, the telestial kingdom, and outer darkness (and anything else we could imagine would all be "in the world or out of the world."

    How could that statement ever be modified by further revelation?

    So how could Mormonism ever be even possibly "compatible" with universalism?