Elder Bednar in the most recent Ensign (PDF) takes up a sensitive topic—the eternal fate of our children who turn away. This isn’t something that is uniquely Mormon. Faithful people the world over struggle with this, and it is at the root of some of the most interesting accommodations in religious history. Think the halfway covenant that bugged Jonathan Edwards so much.
In Nauvoo, Joseph Smith revealed a potent gemische that at once built on the previous work of the restoration and rocked the foundations on which it was built. A key facet of this work involved the initiation of close associates into the new liturgy of the temple. And this liturgy reworked standard conceptions, from ontology to christology.
It is quite clear that Joseph Smith taught that the seals of the temple were real. Heaven wasn’t some sort of reward or place you go if you do what is right. Heaven was something you built, welding-link by welding-link, on the anvil of our altars. Those sealings persevered. How we relate to others in this heavenly network is simply a function of the type of seals that bind us to each other. The problem is that this heaven we construct eventually and inevitably fractures. Heaven breaks by sin, abuse, death, divorce, and apostasy. Sometimes we break the shared walls of our heavenly mansion down, sometimes others. And how we have reacted to this instability has varied with time. Joseph’s revelation in the summer of 1829 indicated that Christ’s atonement was not particular and the torment of hell was not without end. His revelation fourteen years later reaffirmed that, indicating that a consequence of salvaging heaven could be our own destruction, albeit temporary; the sealings persevered.
When faced with the worst of humanity Brigham Young publically lashed out against those wishing secure their place in the heavenly network with him, while privately indicating that his biological children would nevertheless retain their connection despite their current infidelity. Then in 1894 Wilford Woodruff announced a revelation that changed everything. This shift was a great blessing to the Church but it created its own theological problems. After this revelation we accepted the axiom that God would not withhold any blessing from the righteous. The seals of temple, of which the vast majority of the church only get a fraction, will be available to all the righteous. We like this because we don’t like God to be a jerk. We want God to be fair and just. The problem is that this shift makes the seals of the temple into something closer to the Protestant heaven that Joseph Smith rejected—something that you get later, if you qualify. [n1]
Despite Elder Whitney’s popular and comforting divine tentacles of providence (perhaps the parable of the pickle of his day), Church leaders generally haven’t liked the idea of perseverance. The threat of antinomianism [n2] is just too real. We have wanted the possibility of eternal loss to motivate the actions of our people to righteousness. Joseph Fielding Smith, as popularized by Bruce R. McConkie is perhaps the most vivid example of this, teaching that “Salvation is an individual matter,” and that sealing only guaranteed access to the heavenly network, with actual kinship sealings being transferable to others as a function of faithfulness. [n3]
I think that Elder Bednar is in the Smith-McConkie theological camp. I appreciate that Elder Bednar employed some critical tools when approaching his sources. For example, he uses source materials to complicate a statement from Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. It just so happens that he draws the exact opposite reading that I think Joseph Smith intended. I also find his use of “authoritatively” particularly interesting. I’m not certain how many of the Church’s leaders share this view, but leaders frequently quote Whitney’s statement in situations intended to comfort parents whose children are not currently committed to the current standards of orthopraxy. [n4]
- The temple also appears to have complicated, if not deprecated, the cosmology of section 76, “The Vision,” in important ways. This doesn’t seem to have bothered JS or his immediate contemporaries. With time however, Church members and leaders seemed to have ignored this in favor of canonical consistency.
- Antinomianism is generally an epithet signaling heresy in the broader Christian community. It has various meanings but the root idea is the proposition that if one is saved by (typically irresistible) grace, then one’s actions cannot be held to any other standard or laws. The caricature is an idea that there aren’t really any rules you need to live by once you are saved to retain that salvation. The simplified orthodox protestant response is that while that may be technically true, if you have been truly saved then you will live according to moral/divine/scriptural/secular law, because that is what saved people do. Or something. I’m appropriating the term somewhat here, because it isn’t the licentiousness of gracious perseverence in our Mormon discussion, but the possible licentiousness of sacerdotal perseverance (something I think Protestants would fear even more).
- Bruce R. McConkie, comp., Doctrines of Salvation: Sermons and Writings of Joseph Fielding Smith, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56): 2:91-2.
- See, e.g., Henry B. Eyring, “Our Perfect Example,” Ensign, November 2009, 70–73; among dozens. Elder Bednar’s fn1 also has many examples. Search for “tentacles of providence” at lds.org.