Monday, 31 October 2011

A Parable of Death

There was a young child who built herself a magnificent house out of Lego. She peopled the mansion with Lego figures, but it was her imagination which brought it to life. When the day ended, she stored the house carefully and went to bed.

Some days later, the house was showing its age. Bricks had been salvaged to aid in other creations, leaving plastic rubble in their wake, and the girl regretfully decided the house had had its day. She dismantled it carefully, placing the pieces back in her toybox for use later.

Her father, watching this, decided to use the moment to teach the young girl about death. He had no faith - he disdained such things - and had been uncomfortable with people telling his daughter that her late grandmother was 'in heaven'.

"That house is like Granny," he told the girl. "Before you made it it was just pieces in the box, and after you took it apart it was just pieces again. The house no longer exists - there is no 'house heaven' for it to go to. Do you understand?"

The little girl thought deeply about this, and finally said, "I love that house. I could build it from bricks again if I wanted, but isn't the image in my mind more perfect than the bricks? It was the model for the house, it was in my hands and my voice when I brought it to life, and it still lives in my memory now. That perfect image is even more beautiful because it lived in the bricks for a time, but it was not born with the brick house - and it did not die with it."

And her father patted her on the head, and called her a good girl, and did not listen.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Who goes to heaven?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is often accused of claiming that "only Mormons go to heaven". We as members of the Church tend to argue vehemently against this, and rightly so. Our argument usually consists of the following points:

  • We believe that after this life everyone goes to the Spirit World to await the resurrection. There those who did not join the Church in this life have a chance to.
  • We perform proxy ordinances on behalf of the dead, so that if they accept them, they can reach the Celestial Kingdom.
... which technically comes out as "Actually, yes, only Mormons do go to heaven, but you get so many chances to become one that it's hard not to". However, on rereading the relevant scriptures, I'm not convinced this view is entirely accurate.

To understand what I'm talking about, a broad understanding of the afterlife in LDS theology is necessary. After we die, there is a Spirit World, and this is split into two halves. The names we use for these are Spirit Paradise and Spirit Prison - that's the same prison as we find in 1 Peter 3:19, "By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison". Those in Spirit Paradise act as missionaries for those in Prison - they go down and try to convert them to the gospel. One of the important stages in this is baptism, which is done by proxy - and since we here in mortality don't know who's accepted and who hasn't, we're working hard to baptise everyone.

(Again - when we perform a proxy ordinance, it makes it available for the deceased person in question - it does not mean they are automatically baptised, and it certainly doesn't make them a member of the Church)

After the Second Coming, the Millennium and everything comes Judgement Day. By this time everyone - everyone - has been resurrected, at one time or another. We are judged by Christ according to a range of things - but that's another story - and receive our part in a Kingdom of Glory, of which there are three.
  • The Celestial Kingdom is probably what most people think of when they hear the word "heaven" - paradise, eternal families, dwelling in the presence of our Heavenly Father. Very likely there are free harps on entry. This is where the faithful go.
  • The Terrestrial Kingdom is the next step down. It's where those who didn't accept the Gospel but were pretty good people go. They dwell in the presence of Jesus Christ.
  • The Telestial Kingdom, at the bottom of the stack, is where the truly wicked go. Nevertheless it is still a Kingdom of Glory. Those who live there have no access to Heavenly Father or Jesus Christ, but the Holy Ghost still ministers to them. This is the closest analogue to our own Earth (which is sometimes called a Telestial world), and it's also the closest we have to Hell - living for all eternity out of the presence of God.
  • The one we barely mention in the Outer Darkness, which is true Hell - not even the Holy Ghost goes here. This is where Satan and his angels are cast, and also the so-called Sons of Perdition. You aren't one, so you don't need to worry about it. This is Hell in the classical sense, but it is stupidly hard to be sent there.
Now come the scriptures. We have two main sources to look at: Alma 40, in the Book of Mormon, and Section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants.

In Alma we can read a fantastic description of the Spirit World, in verses 11-14. However, when it comes to how we are divided between Paradise and Prison, Alma is a bit vague.

"The spirits of all men, whether they be good or evil, are taken home to that God who gave them life. And then shall it come to pass, that the spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness... And then shall it come to pass, that the spirits of the wicked, yea, who are evil—for behold, they have no part nor portion of the Spirit of the Lord; for behold, they chose evil works rather than good; therefore the spirit of the devil did enter into them, and take possession of their house—and these shall be cast out into outer darkness... until the time of their resurrection."

There is a clear distinction between "righteous" and "wicked", but the only actual information on what distinguishes the two is that "they chose evil works rather than good". It doesn't talk about faith, or belief, but about what they did. Can I quote C.S. Lewis here?

"I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn... and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted." (Aslan, speaking in The Last Battle)

But, charismatic authors notwithstanding, we need a little more to build a theology on. Let's move on to D&C 76, the Resurrection, and the Kingdoms of Glory.
  • The Celestial Kingdom (v. 50-70): This is the testimony of the gospel of Christ concerning them who shall come forth in the resurrection of the just— They are they who received the testimony of Jesus, and believed on his name and were baptized... These are they who are just men made perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, who wrought out this perfect atonement through the shedding of his own blood. These are they whose bodies are celestial, whose glory is that of the sun, even the glory of God, the highest of all.
  • The Terrestrial Kingdom (v. 71-80): Behold, these are they who died without law; And also they who are the spirits of men kept in prison, whom the Son visited, and preached the gospel unto them, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh; Who received not the testimony of Jesus in the flesh, but afterwards received it. These are they who are honorable men of the earth, who were blinded by the craftiness of men.
  • The Telestial Kingdom (v. 81-86, 99-106): These are they who received not the gospel of Christ, neither the testimony of Jesus... These are they who are liars, and sorcerers, and adulterers, and whoremongers, and whosoever loves and makes a lie. These are they who suffer the wrath of God on earth. These are they who suffer the vengeance of eternal fire. These are they who are cast down to hell and suffer the wrath of Almighty God, until the fulness of times, when Christ shall have subdued all enemies under his feet, and shall have perfected his work;
To summarise: The Celestial Kingdom is for those who received the Testimony of Jesus when they were first offered it, and have been baptised. The Terrestrial Kingdom is for those who had a chance to receive the Testimony of Jesus in the flesh, but were blinded by the craftiness of men, and only received the Gospel when preached to them in the Spirit World. The Telestial Kingdom is those who accepted neither the Testimony of Jesus nor the Gospel, and who - unlike the other two - were not resurrected until the Judgement.

What is the difference between the Testimony of Jesus and the Gospel of Christ? Because they clearly are different things. My understanding is that the Gospel is, well, the Gospel - the message held by the restored Church. The Testimony of Jesus is something simpler - the acceptance of Christ as your Lord and Saviour. If you have the Testimony of Jesus in this life, you are going to the Celestial Kingdom - whether or not you were in the Church at the time. You are going to Spirit Paradise when you die. Then, since you will have completed your test - will have kept your second estate - you won't have to wonder whether it's true when your proxy baptism comes through. You're in Paradise - you've got a guaranteed ticket to the First Resurrection and Eternal Life - you know it's true.

Do only Mormons go to heaven? You can be non-Mormon in this life and still make it, and you don't have to be converted in the Spirit World, so... I'd say no.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

The Council at Jerusalem (and what happened after)

The Council at Jerusalem was an important event in early Christianity, chronicled primarily in Acts 15, but also discussed by Paul in Galatians 2. The best way to show its far-reaching effects is to tell the whole thing as a continuous narrative, bringing parts of Acts 14 and 21 along the way. Specific references have therefore been omitted in the rest of this post.

In AD 48, Barnabas and Paul were at Antioch in Syria, preaching the Word and teaching the opening of the Gospel to the Gentiles. After some time, other men (unnamed) arrived out of Judea to the south, preaching that Gentile members needed to be circumcised after the Law of Moses. Barnabas and Paul disagreed vehemently, and it was decided that they and some of the opposing side should go to Jerusalem and ask the Twelve for guidance. By virtue of this decision, they showed themselves to be merely misguided, not actively deceiving. Titus, a Greek, was in Paul's company, and intimately involved - it is entirely possible his presence was the trigger for the whole debate.

The group arrived at Jerusalem in AD 49, where some ex-Pharisees - Paul's sect - also proposed that Gentile converts should obey the Law of Moses. The council of Apostles and Elders convened - and bickered.

During the debate, Simeon - possibly Simon Peter - pointed out that God had created Israel at the very beginning from Gentile stock. Eventually Peter brought the general discussion to a close, reminding the Council of God's opening of the Gospel to the Gentiles by his mouth; he mentioned that the Holy Ghost was poured out on them, and asked, "Why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?"

Following this, Barnabas and Paul spoke, recalling the "miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them". According to Paul later, the council "added nothing to [him]", but saw as he did - that the Gospel of the Gentiles was now committed to him.

James, the brother of the Lord, summed up: quoting Amos 9:11, he declared that they should "trouble not" the Gentiles, but simply instruct them to remain unpolluted - that is, to keep the parts of the Law of Moses which were still important. He pointed out that Moses was already preached every Sabbath - they hardly needed to do more.

Paul states that Peter, James and John gave him a commission to preach to the Gentiles while they served the Jews, and to care for the poor - which was Paul's plan all along. The Twelve sent Barnabas, Paul, Judas and Silas to teach the Gospel abroad, sending with them a letter outlining the details of the council. Titus escaped being circumcised, and Paul's company returned to Antioch.

Likely at this time, Peter went up to Antioch, where he ate with the Gentiles as usual - until some Jewish converts sent by James arrived. Then Peter separated himself from the Gentiles, afraid of upsetting the newcomers. The other Jews followed his lead, even including Barnabas, until Paul called Peter on it. In front of the congregation, he demanded to know why Peter was compelling the Gentiles "to live as do the Jews", and managed to work in the point that Peter normally lived like a Gentile himself.

Paul referred obliquely to the Council at Jerusalem, stating, "If I build again the things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor." He testified of the uselessness of the works of the Law, by which "shall no flesh be justified", and closed on an emotional note, saying, "if righteousness come by the Law, then Christ is dead in vain." We have no record of Peter's reply.

It seems likely that this occasion caused Paul to lose some of his respect for Barnabas. Shortly following the confrontation the two had a disagreement on who they should take as a companion. They parted ways at Antioch, and never came together again.

Two years after Paul wrote of these events to the Galatians, and eight years after the Council - in AD 57, at the close of his third missionary journey - he came once again to Jerusalem. With Luke and other disciples he presented himself to James and gave an account of his labours amongst the Gentiles. The assembled Elders told him of the concerns of the Jewish converts - they heard that he had commanded all to put aside the Law of Moses.

To prove these rumours wrong, Paul agreed to ritually purify himself and enter the Temple. Before the process was complete, however, Jews who had not heard or did not believe in his display - and thought that he had taken an Ephesian Greek into the Temple - seized Paul from the Temple itself and dragged him away. Thus began the long road to Rome.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Elijah on Family

The Spirit of Elijah, prophesied by Malachi ("he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers", Malachi 4:6), is understood by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be that spirit who guides us into performing family history work, and saving ordinances for the dead. It is his doing that the world as a whole has become so fascinated with family trees in recent years - but what has all this to do with Elijah?

If asked to tell a story about Elijah, most people would talk about him being carried to heaven in a chariot (2 Kings 2:9-11), hearing the still, small voice of the Lord (1 Kings 19:11-13), or summoning fire to light a wet altar (1 Kings 18:22-40). There is, however, another major incident in Elijah's life: the time when he sealed the heavens, so no rain fell in Israel for three years (1 Kings 17-18, and in fact the first story we have of him). During those three years, when Elijah was in hiding (since, rather understandably, people wanted to kill him), we know of only one incident when he went out into the world again.

The Lord sent Elijah to the house of a poor widow, who was suffering because of the drought. In fact, she had only enough meal and oil to make two small cakes, which she was going to eat with her son and then die. Elijah proceeded to insist she make him a cake first, which must have been a hard thing for the widow to do. However, even as the Lord does, Elijah gave her a promise that would follow her obedience to God's servant: if she fed Elijah, the meal and oil would not run out until rain came again.

If someone asked this of us, we would likely be uncertain. We might decide to make our own cakes first, perhaps, and then, if there was any left, we'd give one to Elijah. The widow, however, did not. 1 Kings 17:15 - "She went and did according to the saying of Elijah", just like that. And Elijah's promise came true.

Elijah stayed with the little family, and after a time the widow's son grew sick - so sick that he died. Elijah took him and prayed over him - "O Lord my God, I pray thee, let this child's soul come into him again!" (1 Kings 17:21). The boy was raised from the dead, and Elijah returned him to his mother with the words "See, thy son liveth." (1 Kings 17:23)

Elijah's mission in this dispensation is just as personal as his mission to the widow. He isn't here to perform massive-scale miracles, but to help individuals - both living and dead. By so doing, he draws families closer together, giving them sustenance through their hard times, and helping them to understand that those who have passed on are not truly dead - they live in the spirit world, will come forth in the resurrection, and we will be reunited with them. Then we can say with the widow, "Now by this I know that thou art a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in thy mouth is truth." (1 Kings 17:24)

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Obadiah's Parable

The Book of Obadiah is one of the shortest in the LDS scriptures, coming in at only 21 verses. It's a fairly clear historical prophecy, but I believe that, like everything else in the scriptures, it also has relevance today.

As far as history goes, Obadiah prophesies the downfall of Edom, identified with Esau, at the hands of Israel, or Jacob. This is to come as a punishment for Edom's treatment of Israel - they made war with Israel despite their close kinship. The Israelites will possess all Edom's former lands and possessions, and Edom shall be utterly destroyed. So much for the obvious prophecy.

I see Obadiah as a parable of the spirit world, to which we will all go on death. The two halves of the spirit world are symbolised by two mountains - the mount of Esau is spirit prison, and mount Zion is spirit paradise. Edom/Esau and Israel/Jacob are symbols of the people who will inhabit those two realms. This is not an invented analogy - in verse 15, the Lord tells Edom "as thou hast done, it shall be done unto thee", and as we shall see, the primary sin of Esau was to bring Israel into captivity.

The Lord gives a long list of the sins for which Edom is condemned, comprising most of the book (verses 1-4, 10-14):

The pride of thine heart hath deceived thee... thou exalt thyself as the eagle... for thy violence against thy brother Jacob... in the day that thou stoodest on the other side, in the day that the strangers carried away captive [Israel's] forces... even thou wast as one of them. But thou shouldest not have looked on the day of thy brother in the day that he became a stranger... thou shouldest not have rejoiced over the children of Judah in the day of their destruction... spoken proudly in the day of distress... looked on their affliction... laid hands on their substance... stood in the crossway, to cut off those of his that did escape...

It's clear that God isn't very happy with these people. Note, however, that they weren't the leaders of the invasion of Israel here referred to - they stood by, and occasionally helped out, helping to capture the children of Israel. These people were mislead by others, rather than being intrinsically evil. They suffer from pride (and who does not?), but for the most part their sins are of omission, or caused by listening to their friends. And who are their so-called friends? One possible answer is that we are dealing with two separate groups in prison - Esau, and everyone else - but my preferred interpretation is that the others are Satan and his followers. Esau is all those who listened to Satan in this life, followed his bidding and did his work, and their greatest sin is taking the children of Israel captive - or, perhaps, leading those who are faithful to abandon their faith and follow Satan's plan instead.

Verses 5-10 describe how completely forsaken Edom is. The Lord describes how even thieves or grapegatherers would leave more than He will - "how are the things of Esau searched out! How are his hidden things sought up!" - and then points out that those so-called friends who led to his sin have abandoned Esau. "The men that were at peace with thee have deceived thee, and prevailed against thee... there is none understanding in him." Satan will make all kinds of promises to his followers, through the lies those followers will tell others and themselves (chief among them, perhaps, being that there is no God, and no eternal consequences for our actions), but he will not support them when the lies are exposed. "Shall I not in that day, saith the Lord, even destroy the wise men out of Edom, and understanding out of the mount of Esau?" God will destroy the so-called wisdom and understanding from those in prison - and realising our own lack of wisdom is the first step to becoming humble.

Finally, in verses 17-21, we have the reason for the whole parable. "Upon mount Zion shall be deliverance, and there shall be holiness" - this is where the righteous live, those who have not abandoned their God for Satan's (apparently easier) plan. Verse 18:

And the house of Jacob shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau for stubble, and they shall kindle in them, and devour them; and there shall not be any remaining of the house of Esau; for the Lord hath spoken it.

As a prophecy of actual destruction, this verse simply does not make sense. The house of Joseph, used to represent the North Kingdom, was destroyed centuries before Obadiah prophesied. And then we have that bizarre phrase - "they shall kindle in them and devour them". Israel will eat the ashes of Esau? Why? Was that a thing in those days?

However, as a parable of the spirit world, this verse is key. The house of Jacob represents all those who inhabit spirit paradise, as already mentioned, and they are a fire - a source of heat, of faith. The house of Joseph, to a Mormon, represents the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In spirit paradise, they are represented as a flame - Jacob is the body of the fire, but Joseph carries it to others. Joseph is the missionaries, who travel from paradise to prison to preach to those in captivity, and have done so ever since the Saviour organised them while his body lay in a tomb at Jerusalem (see D&C 138:29-31).

And Edom shall be destroyed as stubble, eaten by the flames - and then devoured by the house of Israel. In verse 16 we read:

For as ye have drunk upon my holy mountain [mount Zion], so shall all the heathen drink continually, yea, they shall drink, and they shall swallow down, and they shall be as though they had not been.

This is the verse where Esau is identified as a symbol of "all the heathen", of all who will dwell in prison. And they will drink the words of Joseph, the words of God, and be remade, new men and women, as if their former selves had never been. Then they will indeed be devoured - absorbed into the house of Jacob, made part of the body of the faithful, and carried to mount Zion in glory.

Will all those who dwell in prison be redeemed? Obadiah and the Lord certainly wish it were so, and the parable says as much, but we know from human nature that it will not be so. There will always be those who reject the word of the Lord. The closing words of verse 18, "there shall not be any remaining of the house of Esau", does not mean what we wish it did, but rather that every Esau-like aspect of those who are redeemed will be destroyed - they will be reborn, divorced from their sinful past.

Verses 19 and 20 describe how utterly each individual will be changed - every aspect of them (here represented by the geography of the Middle East) will be possessed by Israel, by faith in God. And then comes the recap of the entire parable: how Jacob and Joseph will descend from mount Zion to redeem Esau, and all those who repent will come unto the Lord with all their hearts. Verse 21:

And saviours shall come up on mount Zion to judge the mount of Esau; and the kingdom shall be the Lord's.