For those who are specific followers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there are life questions that have no answers, at least no answers that make any sense to plain-thinking regular human beings, if any such creatures exist.
Near the top of that list of questions is this one: Why would God create children, and put them on this Earth, who seem to have no realistic shot at attaining out of this life the highest degree of heaven, God’s greatest glory?
That was the question that repeatedly bubbled up when Dallin Oaks, who essentially is the prophet-in-waiting in the faith’s red-chair hierarchy, gave his sermon during the church’s most recent General Conference.
Before that gets taken apart and put back together, for those who are unfamiliar with the church’s doctrine on the afterlife, it goes in rough form like this:
When everyone dies here, there are three degrees of glory (heaven) to which they can eventually ascend: the Celestial Kingdom, the Terrestrial Kingdom, the Telestial Kingdom. There’s also something called outer darkness, a doomed place so dreadful that it is reserved for a limited number of baddies, folks so wicked that Oaks essentially tossed it aside in his talk, speaking instead to the rest of us.
The Telestial is the “lowest” of the designations, for people who were lousy-to-OK in this life, not anything close to spectacular, not soul-sucking horrible, a big blob of in between. Maybe you recognize individuals who fit into that abyss of people and personalities. Your lazy brother-in-law or the guy three chairs down at your regular lunch counter who burps and belches, who laughs at other people’s pain, who brags about his many indiscretions and convictions, who ignores his kids, who mistreats his fellow travelers, who lies and steals and looks out only for himself.
Reminds me of the joke about the man standing in front of the pearly gates, being asked questions by St. Peter about his faithfulness and fidelity regarding his wife. The man says, “I was always faithful.” He’s rewarded with a Cadillac and drives off. The next man is asked the same question. His answer: “I was mostly faithful.” He’s given a Buick. The next man answered, “I messed around quite a bit.” He’s given a Hyundai.
They’re all driving down the golden streets, and suddenly the guy in the Cadillac slams on his brakes. The guy in the Buick bashes into his bumper, the guy in the Hyundai smashes into the Buick. They get out of their cars, and the man in the Caddy shakes his head and says to the others, “Sorry, fellas, I just saw my wife riding by on a moped.”
The Terrestrial is the middle ground for good, honorable people, or at least those who are usually that, perhaps with a few zigs and zags, dips and dalliances along the way. This is the place for people who might believe in God, but they weren’t on the “covenant path,” the one specified as the highway to heaven by Latter-day Saint leadership.
The Celestial Kingdom is the top realm, the one where God lives, the one that only the most faithful and obedient receive, the one that opens up all kinds of promises and privileges for the righteous to enjoy forever and ever, including eternal families and wonders beyond imagination. Everything God has is attainable for those at the upper reaches of this domain.
There are levels within the Celestial, but the best of the best is a condition known as exaltation, where and when all the good, godly stuff can happen.
A fine definition of hell
Some say we all will be assigned by the Judge of Judges to a kingdom — based on our virtue or lack thereof — that is most comfortable for each of us, because nobody wants to be uncomfortable for eternity.
I view this line of believing, I suppose, a little like recreational golfers who have a choice of three grades of courses to play, say, the famed and formidable Winged Foot West and then the nice and solid Soldier Hollow Gold and then the breezy-easy Fore Lakes Par-3.
Golfers always think they want to go to the biggest, best, most prestigious, toughest courses, but then they end up getting crushed, being miserable, shooting three-digit rounds, losing a dozen Pro V1s in neck-deep rough, swearing loudly and laboring heavily en route. That, to me, day after day, is a fine definition of hell.
On the other hand, most Latter-day Saints want to strive for that highest degree of glory. That’s what everyone’s taught Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. They want to see themselves as Jack Nicklaus at Augusta.
But they are not Jack. They aren’t even Scott Gutschewski, who has zero career victories but did finish tied for 41st at the Puerto Rico Open.
The whole idea of divisions of kingdoms is tricky on this account. What if you love your wife or husband and kids, and your idea of heaven is being with them throughout all eternity, but one or more of them doesn’t qualify for the one you qualify for? How does that work? And who’s keeping score on all this stuff? What if, even with the blessings of Christ’s atonement, you come up one point short of the highest place of ascension?
Oooh, missed it by thaaaaat much.
I’ve always thought — or hoped — that since eternity is a long time, that the divisions between the kingdoms are not walls, but mere way stations, where we can advance from one state to another as we progress over the long, eternal haul.
Apparently, some folks inside the faith disagree with me on that issue, underscoring instead that we have one go-around at being faithful and righteous in this existence and only one. If we don’t comply, we’re done. I had a recent lengthy discussion with a former mission/temple president and his wife on this very topic. He was a devout hard-liner.
Afterward, I suggested to his wife, as wise a person as I’ve ever known, that maybe I needed to go home and repent. Her response was perfect. Jabbing her husband with an elbow, she said: “No, he needs to.”
Oaks’ keys to the kingdoms
Back to Oaks’ sermon, titled, “Divine Love in the Father’s Plan.”
In it, he described most of the above, and a whole lot more, in far more solemn and orthodox language. There’s not just a heaven and a hell, there are the varying kingdoms, all of them blessed, but one more blessed than the rest.
You can watch and listen to the talk at https://tinyurl.com/2p8zyyx8.
God loves us, he said. He has a plan for us, all of us.
We’re supposed to keep his commandments and then we get what we get.
“In the final judgment,” the apostle said, “each of us will be judged according to our deeds and the desires of our hearts. Before that, we will need to suffer for our unrepented sins. The scriptures are clear on that. Then our righteous judge will grant us residence in one of those kingdoms of glory.”
He said that God has revealed “little” about two of the kingdoms, but a lot about the Celestial. And he stressed the highest level of the Celestial. The church attempts to teach God’s children, the church’s members and others, too, what they need to do in preparation for the highest level of the highest degree.
“The covenants and ordinances of the temple guide us toward achieving exaltation,” he said. “... Because of our Heavenly Father’s great love for all of his children, he has provided other kingdoms of glory … all of which are more wonderful than we can comprehend.”
He quotes Latter-day Saint scripture in saying, “He who is not able to abide the law of a Celestial Kingdom cannot abide a Celestial glory. And he who cannot abide the law of a Terrestrial Kingdom cannot abide a Terrestrial glory. And he who cannot abide the law of a Telestial Kingdom cannot abide a Telestial glory.”
It’s a matter of getting to the fairways and greens that fit our game, he intimated. No, he did not. It’s all dependent on the commandments everyone follows or doesn’t follow, and, of course, on the atonement of Christ.
Which is to say, all y’all are free to choose how to live and what you’ll receive.
And as an important part of that, he quoted church President Russell Nelson, saying: “In God’s eternal plan, salvation is an individual matter; exaltation is a family matter.”
He next explained that “exaltation can be attained only through faithfulness to the covenants of an eternal marriage between a man and a woman. That divine doctrine is why we teach that gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal and eternal identity and purpose. That is also why the Lord has required his restored church to oppose social and legal pressure to retreat from his doctrine of marriage between a man and a woman, to oppose changes that homogenize the differences between men and women or confuse or alter gender.”
The unanswered LGBTQ question
This is where we put away the jokes and the TaylorMade golf clubs and get gravely serious.
It is Satan, Oaks said, who “seeks to oppose progress toward exaltation by distorting marriage, discouraging childbearing or confusing gender.”
God’s plan won’t change, he said, personal circumstances might.
Either way, the faithful will get God’s promised blessings.
The so-called unfaithful … well, hmmm.
The so-called unfaithful loathe this ideology.
While Oaks wrapped up his talk by reminding his listeners that they should love all of God’s children, it appears to leave those who are LGBTQ stone-cold out if they act on the very LGBTQ-ness with which they were born. They can be loved, but they can’t be saved to the highest level of God’s glory.
The problem here bounces back to an offshoot of the original question.
Why would God create gay or transgender children and assorted other kinds of children with that kind of condemnation baked in?
Even those who are strong believers in the Latter-day Saint faith, those who love the gospel and attempt to live by its teachings and follow its principles, wrestle with this question.
Not even the church, in its official position, wants to fall back on the antiquated and inaccurate idea that being anything other than heterosexual is universally a choice.
Oaks is suggesting that LGBTQ children of God should resist any deep and meaningful relationships, or any intimate contact with one another, avoid it completely, or take another route, faking some other sorts of love interests, limping through the motions, and then, only then, can they be considered for the highest glory, after “personal circumstances” change.
Anyone who fully buys into that likely hasn’t experienced what a notably significant percentage of individuals, and their family members, experience in this life. It’s much easier for heterosexual church leaders to make such proclamations without looking and thinking and feeling and understanding a bit deeper.
Oaks said the church is OK with swimming against the popular tides of the day, citing a Latter-day Saint scriptural passage about facing “opposition in all things.” But for the directly affected, real people with real loved ones, it’s not simply a matter of putting up opposition to the church. For them, it’s a matter of living, of loving, of feeling, of … being.
And please, nobody start comparing LGBTQ individuals with other of God’s children who are “afflicted” with “illness” or “disabilities” or “deficiencies” or “troubles” or “incapacities” or “challenges.”
The unanswered question remains: Why would God create children he loves to be what they are and then command them to be what they aren’t?
I don’t know. I just don’t know. I try. I don’t get it.
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