March 19, 2010

Kristen's Dilemma: Eternity or Annihilation

They played Alphaville's "Forever Young" at every junior high dance I ever awkwardly attended. I especially loved the trumpet part at the end. I still do, even though I recognize now that those horns were synthesized instead of real. I admit it isn't the deepest, most poetic piece of music ever put together. In fact, some of it is pretty damn cheesy. But for whatever reason the lyrics and the song still give me the good kind of chills. I think your experience reading this blog post will be enhanced by listening to the song while reading it. (At the very least it will pleasantly increase the cheese factor.) So click play on the embedded player below and enjoy.

"Do you really want to live forever..."  Mormons might answer, "As long as there is something to do there!"

“When you climb up a ladder, you must begin at the bottom, and ascend step by step, until you arrive at the top; and so it is with the principles of the gospel—you must begin with the first, and go on until you learn all the principles of exaltation. But it will be a great while after you have passed through the veil before you will have learned them. It is not all to be comprehended in this world; it will be a great work to learn our salvation and exaltation even beyond the grave.”1

I don't know many people who look forward to death and despite my faith in God and an afterlife, some uncertainty born of ambiguity remains. My wife Kristen says when she was younger she had this thought of eternity being like a never-ending spiral staircase going up and around and up, and she didn't like that at all. She said people like endings, and most people like those endings to be happy. (Which is strange because Kristen likes sad films. She makes me watch them too. Her favorite films have ambiguous endings—she imagines the conclusion, and it's usually the sadder option. We still disagree about the outcome of Before Sunset.) Maybe she just fears the potential for eventual boredom and wishes for something different.

But that's where a little ambiguity might actually help her look forward to eternity a little more. Take the idea of hell, for example. Mormons generally affirm that a classical "hell" doesn't exist. That is, we don't view the fiery lake as a literal place where unrepentant souls burn forever and ever (D&C 19). We aren't alone in that belief, either. There are other Christians who view hell "not as a place of mere retributive punishment but as a remedial and pedagogical place of transformation."2 That's from Evangelical theologian John Sanders, who outlines rationales behind Christian rejections of a classical hell. For one thing, a place where people eternally burned "would have the practical effect of preventing those in heaven from experiencing complete bliss...if eternal damnation existed, eternal bliss could not, since the awareness of those suffering in hell would ruin the blessedness of those in heaven....'heaven can be heaven only when it has emptied hell.'"3

This is where the ambiguity particularly puzzles me. While hell can end for individual people who go on to receive a higher "degree of glory" (D&C 76), we nevertheless believe the state of hell itself remains a possibility for others. I don't know if the "Vacancy" sign in the hell hotel is ever lit,despite the transience of its residents. Can heaven ever be heaven? Perhaps not in the sense expected by the Christians whom Sanders describes.

Sanders offers an answer, although it might not be the most comfortable one (even for Kristen, who doesn't mind a sort of sad ending, or at least a bitter-sweet one):    

"The Bible presents us with a God who makes himself vulnerable by creating creatures who have the freedom to reject him. [I might say God makes himself vulnerable by attempting to enter relationships with other lesser beings, eternal "intelligences," despite knowing the pain involved in the relationship, hoping to elevate and love them nevertheless.] This God takes risks and leaves himself open to being despised, rejected, and crucified. The God of the Bible is not a deity of raw power but a Creator and Sovereign who nonetheless suffers with, because of, and for his creatures. [Those who don't believe hell exists at all] do make a valid point in arguing that it would pain God if any of his creatures chose hell, and hence that he would suffer forever if eternal damnation were a reality. But is it not possible that God might be willing to accept such suffering as the price of being a God of vulnerable love, the God of the Bible?"4

Is it possible that we have to accept some of that ongoing pain ourselves in order to enter into a meaningful and eternal relationship with God? Is there an end to the stream of intelligences who fall under God's declared work and glory, to bring to pass their immortality and eternal life (Moses 1:39), when hell will be empty? If not, will it be fully heaven? "Worlds without number" sounds like a pretty big project (Moses 1:33). It seems that having something to do and having people to be with isn't necessarily the most enjoyable bliss in terms of never encountering pain and suffering, even for God, so what about us? And is that better than pure bliss? Or even non-existence? Does the war in heaven ever fully end for all?       

It's so hard to get old without a cause
I don't want to perish like a fading horse
Youth's like diamonds in the sun
And diamonds are forever...
Do you really want to live forever... 

[awesome trumpet fanfare]


See Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (2007), 268, citing History of the Church, 6:306–7; from a discourse given by Joseph Smith on Apr. 7, 1844, in Nauvoo, Illinois; reported by Wilford Woodruff, Willard Richards, Thomas Bullock, and William Clayton. Incidentally, the Community of Christ's temple in Independence, Missouri has a spiral tower patterned after the nautilus shell in the center of the main sanctuary. It looks somewhat strange from the outside, but from the inside it is quite beautiful. When I toured the temple several years ago, the guide noted it reminded her or eternity the way it seemed to keep climbing. The nautilus shell has also been used as a symbol of creation, expansion and renewal, as well as the beauty of nature.

John Sanders, No Other Name: An Investigation Into the Destiny of the Unevangelized (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001), 96.

Ibid., 96-97.

Ibid., 112.


I am Chree-uz said...

I really enjoyed this post. Its a valid point of wonder for sure. I think of hell as a state of mind more than a place. To get to the other side and to have regrets in varying degrees, etc., I suppose everyone will have their own degree of hell just as everyone shall have their own degree of heaven.

A good post and something to think about. Good jorb, Brother Blairseph.

Jordan said...

Thanks for this interesting post. Upon reflection (and I had never really considered it, so thank you), I think it makes a lot more sense to have an eternity where there continues to be some struggles, and I don't find that uncomfortable at all. The BoM teaches that without opposition there could be no realization of joy, and I don't think this principle ends after this life.

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