E is for Exaltation

[Complete series] The True to the Faith (TTTF) entry “Exaltation” is just three words: “See Eternal Life.” Interesting. I think the Church still believes in and teaches what Mormons have traditionally referred to as “exaltation,” but leaders prefer to use different terms now, such as Eternal Life, which is given a two-page discussion. Are we feeling less exalted these days?

I’m inclined to think it’s just a better sense of decorum and more attention to friendly get-along-with-your-neighbors PR. “Exaltation” sounds a little too triumphant in a day when religious tolerance and ecumenicalism are among the institutional virtues religions are expected to publicly embrace. The term is fine for an EQ lesson or even a Sunday talk from the pulpit, but (following this theory) leaders prefer to speak of “salvation” or “eternal life” in public discussion.

As evidence, I’d first point to TTTF itself, which declines to give an independent definition for “exaltation.” The “eternal life” entry says nothing about temple ordinances or celestial marriage, so that entry actually says very little concerning the traditional LDS understanding of “exaltation.” The only possible reference to the LDS belief that higher temple ordinances are required to attain the highest form of salvation — to enjoy the full presence of God in the afterlife and a full measure of His promised blessings — is the statement that we must show “obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel” in order to obtain salvation, a rather elliptical way to refer to celestial marriage or the temple. The “eternal life” article quotes 2 Nephi 31 extensively, but D&C 132 not at all and D&C 131 only by reference.

A second source to consider is the recent post at M-Star quoting an LDS stake president responding to a TV interviewer’s question about the LDS view of salvation. The SP responded that everyone will be resurrected, but only some will “be exalted,” namely those who “follow the teachings of Jesus Christ” and “repent of their mistakes.” Sounds like salvation, not exaltation, to me, but TV sound bites don’t accommodate lengthy explanations or careful doctrinal distinctions.

By contrast, the short Encyclopedia of Mormonism article “exalation” is much more direct. Exaltation is “a state that a person can attain in becoming like God — salvation in the ultimate sense.” It is “available only in the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom” and requires “the Endowment and the eternal marriage covenant of the temple.” It is a short and accurate summary of the traditional LDS view of exaltation and it was directed to the general public, not a strictly LDS audience. On the other hand, the article was published in 1992, 13 years ago. Has the tone of the LDS message changed that much in 13 years?

That’s the question, I think. I don’t believe the LDS doctrine of exaltation has changed at all, but the way it is discussed by senior leaders and the vocabulary they use when discussing it seems to have changed. Anyone have any other examples (or counterexamples)?


  1. I haven’t looked into this carefully for myself, but the missionaries assigned to our ward recently told me that under the new system Preach My Gospel, the default time to teach about eternal families, temple work for the dead, etc. is now after baptism. This surprised me, since the notion of ‘eternal families’ is one of the traditional areas of appeal.

    Perhaps we are seeing the Church pull back its esoteric space a bit, trending towards an insistence on obedience to the milk of repentance and baptism before even learning about the existence of temples.

    Another simple explanation for delaying talk of exaltation is that because it is defined in Sec. 132, it too easily leads to questions about polygamy.

  2. This isn’t the first time we have had a major shift in exaltation doctrine. Just look at our fundie friends. Polygamy, the higher ordinances of the temple, and even the nature of exaltation itself have changed over the course of a century. This latest iteration is more of an egalitarian approach to the eternities. I think that is one of the most interesting tensions in Mormonism – universality and exclusivity.

  3. My feeling is that the Church realizes a lot of people don’t fit the squeaky-clean forever families mold, so they are softening the Exaltation doctrines (especially to new converts, including those on other continents) who don’t have the traditional family. This approach will win more converts and gradually warm people to the idea of Celestial Marriage.

    Given that about 50% of marriages end in divorce and the remain 50% are not necessarily even happy, it’s wise to tone down that rhetoric.

  4. Also, there are many problematic issues with the idea of Exaltation. Lately it seems the Church is drifting from the idea of “you will go where you deserve” to “you will go where you want to be…”

    But, what if someone wants to live with Heavenly Father forever but just doesn’t want to be married, or just doesn’t want to be married to his/her particular spouse? As they said in Star Child, “Forever is a loooon, loooong time.” Not everyone wants to be married to his/her spouse forever and ever. Fifty years without divorce might be long enough. And yet both people might be very faithful members of the Church and partakers of the gospel.

    I never have quite understood what romantic love, dating, marrige and sex have to do with being Christlike. I know other members who insist that to be exalted, Mother Teresa will have to be married. Hmmmm. And what of all the ancestors of hundreds of thousands of years ago–yes, 100s of thousands, not just six thousand–who never married their life partners at all, or who had children by multiple people, or who had their slave masters’ children, or had children for their mistresses (i.e. masters’ wives), sold their babies, etc.? Sometimes we Mormons like to see the ideal family life/Exaltation in a 19th or 20th century American life, when in fact there are more people throughout history than not who can be sealed into nice tight packages for all eternity. Sealing makes no sense, which is another reason the Church is probably toning down the Exaltation mumbo-jumbo. Soon the Church will look no different than your average run of the mill Christian church, with a little Unitarianism mixed in.

  5. Make that “there are more people than NOT who CAN’T be sealed” in a traditional Mother/Father/Children relationship for all eternity.

    Last point: who really wants to be exalted, anyway? Being a god, married to maybe multiple partners, listeneing to prayers all day, working, working, working, presiding, watching your kids mess up day after day and being powerless to help them (powerless or unwilling); waiting thousands of years for a small fraction of your children to come home…

  6. Thanks for your comments, G, although I must say that to mention run-of-the-mill creed-spouting Christians and believe-just-about-everything Unitarians in a paragraph that labels LDS exaltation talk as “mumbo-jumbo” strikes me as rather selective mumbo-jumboism. If the creeds don’t get that description, you’re being awfully generous. Maybe that’s what the “G” stands for.

  7. Dave, have you attended an average, run of the mill Christian church? I’m not talking about froth-at-the-mouth bible-thumpers here. The Church has been stressing how Christian (i.e. not Mormon) we are. As for the Unitarians–I said “a little” Unitarianism mixed in. Have you gone to a Unitarian church lately? Compare it to a testimony meeting or a very casual Sacrament meeting and there’s honestly not much difference.

    The more the leadership waters down the curriculum, the more we look like a nice lil ol’ Christian church but with the casual ease of a Unitarian anything-goes church. We already say “bring what you have and we’ll add to it.” Sounds like the UUs to me.

  8. You make some interesting points, G. I think you are conflating arguments a bit though. Complaining about current curriculum or rhetoric from the correlation committee or the brethren is a very different thing than discussing actual doctrines like exaltation. I’ll leave the complaints about organizational messaging for someone else to discuss and focus on the doctrines in my comment.

    First I have one quibble with something J said earlier:

    and even the nature of exaltation itself have changed over the course of a century.

    I think it is important to note that the nature of exaltation will never change — the things that change in the church are popular understandings/conceptions of what exaltation is and means, etc. We are allowed to be wrong in the church and in this probation in general and we use that right quite often I think. Some thelogical and doctrinal points are just not completely revealed to us by God yet.

    I think that applies most of our theological complaints, G. If you think exaltation sounds awful, but God tells us it is very desirable, then that probably means you are incorrectly envisioning it. (The administrative version of exaltation you described does indeed sound awful, btw)

  9. You said a lot of things, G, I was just noting your inexplicably loose application of the epithet “mumbo jumbo” to LDS exaltation talk. I don’t think it applies to the actual sources I linked to.

    I’m waiting for someone to take a stand on whether what I am noting (if, in fact, I am accurately noting it) is just a change in message or whether there is an actual doctrinal change going on. I think it’s just a change in message, and G seems to agree in a roundabout way. Evangelicals, too, have done this. A big megachurch I drive past from time to time displays a huge banner: “We’re here for you!” That’s ad-slogan talk, their soft-pedaled message to bring people in.

  10. I think it’s just a change in message too, Dave.

  11. Hmmm…change in doctrine vs. change in message. Is there really a difference? It’s pretty rare that the church comes out and “changes” a doctrine, but over time if the message changes enough, the old message can get forgotten to the point where people will decide that the old message wasn’t really a doctrine at all. Sometimes the new message will then be formulated into more rigid doctrinal form.

    Some examples from our history: Adam-God, celestial marriage=plural mariage, nature of Holy Ghost, second annointing, multiple baptism, ancestors of American Indians, lineage in tribes of Israel. (Some or all of these may be disputed, but my essential point is that the line between “teachings” and “doctrines” is fuzzy.)

    Granted, most of these examples are pretty old. Perhaps the church has matured to the point where doctrines won’t change so much anymore. But if the exaltation doctrine WERE going to change, I’d expect the change would start with just such a shift of emphasis. I guess Dave is predicting that the change isn’t going to go very far, and I guess I’d have to agree, though I’m not that confident.

  12. Maybe this doesn’t really mean anything, but on the church website, I did two different searches within the conference talks only:

    One for ‘Eternal Life’ and one for ‘Exaltation’

    ‘Eternal Life’ returned 109 matches while ‘Exaltation’ returned 100. That’s not a very big difference, and I didn’t count how many matches came up for both either.

    What do you think?

  13. Trevor, did you note the dates of the hits? In other words, is the frequency of use of “exaltation” as opposed to “eternal life” staying the same over time or declining?

  14. Trevor, can you tell me how you did those searches? I can’t seem to get searches at http://www.lds.org to work very reliably, and anyway it never returns more than 100 results.

  15. I’m not sure that I would say that the doctrine is changing per se, but I would agree that certain points have been emphasized less than others in recent Church history.

    The idea that there is a distinction between “teachings” and “doctrine” may not sit well with some Latter-day Saints, but I think our history shows that such a distinction should be made. Brigham Young taught the Adam-God theory in public on numerous occasions, but the teaching was never adopted as Church doctrine.

    Some ideas inevitably slip into our teachings that don’t constitute doctrine. These teachings likely won’t be continually taught by later generations of Church leadership, and will fall out of the general knowledge and belief of Church membership.

    Personally, I feel that the core doctrines and revealed truths will be the ones that withstand the test of time. They will be the ones that are continually taught and emphasized over multiple generations of general authorities.

    As for the doctrine of exaltation, my opinion is that the leadership of the Church simply feel a greater need to emphasize certain, fundamental aspects of the doctrine. But I do not believe they are actually in the process of changing the doctrine, or taking away from what has previously been taught.

  16. Dave, you make a good point, i didn’t check the dates. Ed, perhaps the church site’s search isn’t the best, however I’ve had up to 500 results displayed. But that was without any exclusions. Anyway, it was just a thought.
    Also, it seems to me that in today’s world, I run into very few people who even believe that there is a God. Perhaps the method the church is using is to first teach people the concept that life is eternal, whether you are exalted or not. It’s good to reinforce the simple ideas to prepare someone for the ones more difficult to comprehend or have faith in.

  17. I did not notice that steve’s last paragraph was similar to what I posted, so maybe I should just say I agree with what steve said, sorry, I’m new to this.

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