If any religion has it right, the Mormons do. This is a short series on why I think that statement is true, as well as few reasons for why I still am a firm disbeliever.
13 years ago, last September, I joined the LDS church (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, aka – Mormons). My conversion started with a very logical consideration, which might come as a surprise to some of you, but it shouldn’t. I had studied religions for some time prior to my conversion. My “research” was very haphazard, casual and very shallowly done, comprised mostly of asking friends about what they believed and why. Even in my very poorly developed understanding I had uncovered some things that I really didn’t like which tended to keep me and religion at arm’s length up until I learned more about the LDS faith.
I think that if you are a critic of the more mainstream Christian religions you might be surprised to learn, if you didn’t know already, how cleverly the LDS doctrine side-steps some of the more problematic and insidious aspects of traditional Catholic/Protestant doctrines. In this post I will discuss one of the points, other will come later.
Hell - Eternal torture for those that do “bad things” and don’t repent, or by some doctrines for those that simply make the mistake of believing the wrong thing regardless of how, or when. they were raised. This is about as immoral a doctrine as exists, anywhere. I had friends that seemed like normal, friendly, caring people who could, with a smile on their face, tell me about how African tribes that never heard the name Jesus were doomed to hell which is why they hoped to go on a mission to help them some day. How cruel is this idea of God? How unjust? How illogical? Only recently has mainstream Christianity started to let go of this terrible doctrine, and not without some painful adjustments. (see controversy regarding the new book: Love Wins by Rob Bell)
If you don't look too deeply into it, the Mormon faith addresses this in a way that seems to be in harmony with both the bible, and the idea of a just and merciful God. Here’s how. Hell or “outer darkness” is very hard to get banished to - only truly horrible people, unrepentant, malicious murderers, and apostates (like me) go there. It isn’t a lake of fire like is said in so many passages of the bible, but a complete removal from the presence of God and the torment of knowing the full weight of your transgressions. The key point here is that the vast majority of people that are living or have lived on earth aren’t going there. How could this coincide with biblical accounts of how hard it is to get into heaven? Simple. With the Mormon’s it’s not binary. It’s not heaven or hell. It’s Hell (outer darkness)and then there is not-hell, not heaven, which is “Telestrial Exultation”. This is a lesser degree of “heaven” which still involves eternal life and resurrection with a perfect body but it’s not “heaven-heaven”. One level above that is “Terrestrial Exultation" which is like in between heaven-heaven and the Telestrial world. It’s got more God in it but it doesn’t get you to the ultimate goal. Finally is the Celestial world. This is the place (tee hee - inside joke). This is where families can be together forever, (all earthly bonds are broken in the lower worlds) This is where one can live fully with God, and this is where one can reach their full spiritual potential (more on that later.)
But wait, there’s more! Remember those poor unenlightened African tribes? What about them? Are they denied the option of the full exultation because they died never meeting a boy in a stiff white shirt? No! The will have an opportunity to hear the gospel in the afterlife, in the spirit world. The spirit world is a place where less righteous spirits will await the second coming. In the spirit world, missionary work continues. If someone in the spirit world accepts the gospel they are eligible to receive full exultation provided they participate in all the required ceremonies and make all the required covenants. Which is the doctrinal reason for Baptism for the Dead, by proxy and other ordinances for the dead by proxy that are performed in the temple. This is also the reason that Mormons are so engaged in genealogy. They are attempting to identify all the ancestors they may have that haven’t received these saving ordinances.
So there we go. No one is tortured unjustifiably. No one suffers for something beyond their control. No one is ever denied the opportunity to really make the choice. That makes much more sense, doesn’t it? That is undeniably just, is it not?
It took a long time for me to realize that this didn’t really fix much of anything. Here’s why.
Eternity is too long. Eternity is inescapable. If I am denied an opportunity to grow, progress, learn, change, be with my family without end., it is unfair. It is unjust. No matter how misguided I may have been prior to the Judgment. Just as the idea of anyone, no matter their offense, enduring endless torture is unjust, so is anyone being denied the opportunity to change their fate, to earn respite – no matter their offense. The idea of eternal consequences is a brutish social deterrent that is still rooted in our social infancy, and is only slightly improved in the LDS version.
Secondly. It’s not in line with the bible after all. It’s amazing to me now how few members are unbothered by all the passages that discuss hell and torment, for all the same offenses that have been there the whole time without wondering why it doesn’t contradict the teachings of the church. The introduction of more than two options totally works in some cases. Take Matt 18:3 “And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” For someone that believes that there is Heaven and Hell only “Not-Heaven” is the same as Hell but an LDS member can read this and say that has nothing to do with Hell it’s only saying that that a contrite spirit is required to enter the highest degree of “Heaven”, not that without one you’re going to “Hell”. That’s fine but what about passages like: Matthew 7:13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.” Or “Matt 25:44-46 “Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.” Mark 9:47 “And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell,” How can an eye participate in murder or apostasy?
I’ll take time for one more. Not that anyone is likely to have made it this far anyway. Inconsistencies: There have been changes in this modern dispensation regarding the conditions for exultation, and what will earn you a one way ticket into outer darkness. This shouldn't be possible with an unbroken line of "true prophets, seers and revelators" at the helm. I speak of, among other things, the abandoned doctrine of Blood Atonement. This doctrine stated that in the case of0 egregious transgressions (apostasy and malicious murder) the atonement of Jesus was insufficient to fully atone and that the shedding of the sinner’s blood was also required. This has been disavowed to some degree, there seems to be a caveat about when the church and the state are one. If you don’t know of this old doctrine you can find text of the 1954 edition (before it got cleaned up) Doctrines of Salvation online or you can try to find a hard copy of the old printing. They are around, I know know that much for sure.
These strengths and weakness come from the same place, Joesph Smith and modern day revelation. The church grew out the revival era and much of the distasteful, and illogical stuff in the Old and New Testaments had been mulled over for centuries by theologians and apologetics prior to and contemporary to, Joesph's time. In the "Burned-over District" these issues were being discussed passionately and constantly. This exposed him the everything he needed to start Christianity over, reinvent it, and do it in a way that resolved much of the problems that plagued traditional Christianity for so long.