Recently I sat in a youth Sunday School class filling in for an absent team teacher. The other adult teacher was presenting his lesson on “Family.” He asked the 14-year-olds in the room: “What terms related to the temple would individuals not of our faith not recognize without further explanation?”
One girl responded, “Eternal families.”
The instructor complimented her on a great answer and wrote it on the board.
He then asked, “And if that individual not of our faith was to ask you to explain the concept of eternal families how would you respond?”
She said, “Having an eternal family in the temple allows you to be with your family forever.”
The answer was not surprising as it had been said before in other church classrooms.
This experience also reminded me of another church classroom I once sat in where a mother of a gay son was heartbroken about the decisions her son had made to live with another man in a romantic relationship. She did her best to show love to both her son and his partner, but she was concerned with the eternal ramifications of his choices and how there would be an “empty chair in heaven” because of his decisions. Even as she talked, she was brought to tears as she explained to the class a heaven that seemed quite sad.
Is Heaven Sad?
In early August 2016, the Salt Lake Tribune printed an op-ed by Jon Ogden titled, “Belief in ‘Sad Heaven’ hurts relationships in era of Mormon doubt.”
It describes an all-too-common occurrence in the gospel when a loved one makes the decision to leave The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Family members remaining in the faith mourn this decision in a way that makes them think they won’t see or interact with this family member in the afterlife. Hence the description “sad heaven.”
As a devout Latter-day Saint, reading that caused me to pause and analyze the church culture in which we live. It took me back to my time serving as a bishop when a disgruntled divorcee would come into my office and kindly demand cancellation of sealing because “There’s no way I want to be stuck with THAT person in eternity!” Individuals or groups in the Church may make broad assumptions related to the doctrine of heaven that lead to conclusions that are not accurate, which in turn leads to damaged relationships. These assumptions may grow and distort the pure and beautiful doctrines of the gospel.
For example, this idea of “sad heaven” is an accepted opinion by some members of the Church. They may not use the term “sad heaven,” but Jon Ogden’s description seems to fit. If there were a heaven where I could not see my family even after I had remained faithful to my covenants, then yes, that would be a very sad heaven. Even Elder Holland has stated, “I know, in my life, that it won’t be heaven without my wife, and it will not be heaven without my children.” (PBS Documentary, Mormons)
Considering the other sacred doctrine of justice and mercy; is this really the case? Will the faithful not be able to see or associate with their loved ones who were not faithful to the gospel? It’s easy to see how many in the Church could believe that to be the case considering we literally sing the phrase, “Families can be together forever,” and missionaries around the world spark interest in their message with the question, “Do you want to be with your family after this life?”
This is an interesting topic on many levels because details of heaven and the afterlife are always interesting to talk about and even speculate about. But most importantly, this is a doctrine that needs to be framed correctly because many families are assuming the “plan of happiness” is filled with a lot of sadness. This unnecessary sadness is then affecting relationships in this life as faithful family members desperately try to convince their loved ones to change their unrighteous ways because they want to associate with them in the afterlife. Instead of loving them for where they are at and blossoming that relationship, it becomes uncomfortable and passive-aggressive. The importance of salvation naturally makes us try to influence the strayed loved one down a path of righteousness and “save” them in the end; when in reality the role of saving is only the Savior’s since his “grace is sufficient” (2 Cor. 12:9). When we allow our intention to save them outshine our role to love them, we lose the most significant opportunity for them to feel the Savior’s love in our presence and consider returning to Him.
It’s About Exaltation & Eternal Life
When an individual hears the vernacular of the Church to include “eternal families” or “sealed together” it is easy to make the assumption that if a family member is not faithful or qualified for that sealing ordinance they will somehow float off into the deep, dark emptiness of the eternities and not associate with loved ones in heaven. As I have searched the scriptures, read prophetic statements, and discussed this doctrine with Latter-day Saint religion professors, I can find no scriptural or prophetic statement to support this assumption.
The emphasis on temple sealing ordinances that need to be “sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise” by “him who is anointed” (Doctrine & Covenants 132:7) is important because this ordinance, like all ordinances, is part of the new and everlasting covenant. By receiving the new and everlasting covenant (or the total sum of saving ordinances), we receive eternal life, which Harold B. Lee explained is “God’s life, that is, to be like Him.”
How we form relationships here, in this life, is no doubt an essential part of the doctrine of Jesus Christ. Participating in celestial ordinances in the temple is crucial and has everything to do with our exaltation in the afterlife. I have found no doctrine connecting these ordinances to our interactions in the afterlife. We don’t get sealed as a family so that we can all live on the same street in heaven, we get sealed so we can be exalted as a family and become like our Father in Heaven. As President Nelson stated in the April 2008 General Conference, “In God’s eternal plan, salvation is an individual matter; exaltation is a family matter.” We are misunderstanding the consequences of a family member who falls away. They are not choosing to never see us in the afterlife, but they may be choosing to not participate in exaltation.
It is also crucial that we understand these ordinances and their context so that we don’t scare people into desiring ordinances by telling them their family won’t be “together forever” if they don’t get baptized and have their marriage in the “right place.” Those who make covenants should only do so with a feeling of excitement and love rather than fear of an eternal boogeyman that will take away their family if they don’t submit. Assuming the eternities are ruled by a vengeful God who is separating families and requiring no interaction damages our remarkable message to the world that not only can families be together forever, they can also be exalted together and reach a new potential of love and happiness.
“You are worrying about the wrong problem.”
Well, maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps heaven is a place where we are separated from the unexalted, and we have bigger goals to focus on that don’t give us time to think of the relationships we created in mortality. My primary intention of this article is that as a Latter-day Saint culture we must get away from the assertion that we do know what to expect regarding heaven and our relationships with those who choose not to become exalted through the ordinances of the gospel. Simply put, there has been no clear doctrine revealed to us at this point on our relationships in heaven. We should assume we will be in a “happy heaven.”
A few years ago I felt guided to President Eyring’s message in the August 2016 Ensign titled The Hope for Eternal Family Love. He shared a message he learned from a prophet of God that we could all benefit from understanding. He said, “A prophet of God once offered me counsel that gives me peace. I was worried that the choices of others might make it impossible for our family to be together forever. He said, ‘You are worrying about the wrong problem. You just live worthy of the celestial kingdom, and the family arrangements will be more wonderful than you can imagine.'”
As we have loved ones who make decisions that disqualify them from the ordinances of the gospel and covenant promises, let us remember that there is nothing “sad” about heaven. We can hold on to the promise that our heavenly familial arrangements will be “more wonderful than [we] can imagine.” I hope we can love family members where they are at spiritually and that through the process of learning how to love all mankind we will find personal growth and sanctifying power.
What do you think? What have you learned about the characteristics of heaven that would add to this perspective?
I think we will experience the whole spectrum of emotions in heaven. Even God weeps for His children. There are positive and negative aspects to all emotions. As someone who has suffered with depression for many years I can tell you that there are positive aspects to dark and painful emotions. There are righteous and celestial versions of negative emotions such as Godly sorrow and righteous indignation. Great article though. Very though provoking.
I agree with you, that the full spectrum of emotions must be felt in heaven because life is always in real time and decisions are made which cause heart break for families. And we have been taught, “ opposition in all things” by Nephi, which I am sure holds true in the after life.
We all fall short and so we all depend on the atonement of Jesus Christ. We should never assume that our sins are more excusable than anyone else’s. We are not the final judge, and its not up to us to assume the timing of final judgement. That’s up to Christ who paid the price for all of us!
I think that far too often we tend to use the doctrines we are taught, with commandments, and blessings and cursing, to assign ourselves a place in the overall scheme of things. I’m doing much better that that guy over there, so I’m better than him, but, I need a little work to become as good as this guy over hear.
I think it’s just a normal condition of mortality.
The Lord did not suggest that we avoid judging, he said over and over, “judgment is mine”!
In judging, we miss the importance of unconditional love, maybe, to our own condemnation?
“Adam fell that men might be. Men are that they might have joy.” I believe that my Father in Heaven wants me to be happy. If I live my life to the best of my ability He will take care of the rest. I don’t have to know HOW everything will work in order to know that it WILL work.
I agree. My husband is a non-member; I don’t know where my kids will end up in this life; my birth family is a fractured mess & I’m not sealed to my mom (or a “father,” and that’s a case of pick the least distasteful versus the biological one she never married!)… But I’ve learned not to fret these things. I received my endowment 5 years into a 30 year marriage (thus far). My kids are in their 20s. No idea what’s happening in the afterlife with those messed up parental people. Nevertheless, I’ll just keep on keeping my covenants, enjoying my work in the temple, serving & learning better to ‘let go, let God,’ and just wait and see!
I see it as a matter of privileges . The righteous will have the privilege to visit and minister their posterity after this life, but those who has been unrighteous won t. That s all.
I’m not sure that’s doctrine. Maybe again it’s just one of those cultural ideas in the church that we have accepted as true but isn’t doctrine.
The prophets have made it clear that all of the children sealed to us will be ours in the eternities if we are faithful to our covenants. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young both taught this doctrine quite clearly. Children who are disobedient “will have to suffer for their sins” and “may tread a thorny path” as the Prophet Joseph said, but, “either in this life or the life to come, they will return”. See the Sept 2002 Ensign for more quotes.
We hope all will be worked out, and we love as you describe, without judging our loved ones or considering ourselves better than they are. Yet consider Doctrine and Covenants 132. Studying this section carefully may not answer all of our questions, but it does teach clear doctrine on our relationships in heaven.
I sincerely believe there will be sadness in heaven. The sadness there is part of the love we give so freely here. If we didn’t love our children, we wouldn’t really care where they ended up in the next life. God lost a third of his children to the war in heaven, and we know He weeps when his children are disobedient. As an exalted being, God has learned how to have a fulness of joy while still mourning the loss of some of His children. It is a paradox, to be sure.
Jennifer, you are correct! There is definitely sadness in heaven. The point of this article was not to argue there is no sadness in heaven but rather to argue against this concept of “sad heaven” where we should be sad that we will not interact with family members who have not “kept the commandments.” Hopefully that is more clear.
Thank you for pointing out what President Nelson said in 2008 “In God’s eternal plan, salvation is an individual matter; exaltation is a family matter.”
The only ordinance we participate in that brings us onto salvation is Baptism. The Sealing ordinances are to bring us onto exaltation. Two distinctly different things. We so easily fall into the trap of thinking that all ordinances are for the purpose of salvation when they are not. We also easily fall into the trap of thinking that the actions of others will affect our worthiness for exaltation. If this were so the very premise of agency would be negated, which we know it is not.
I have learned that our idea of family and Heavenly Father’s idea of family are not even close to being the same. I converted to the church quite late in life hence none of my children are members. At this time it appears that they will never be sealed to me and my wife (also a convert). I agonized over this for quite a while. When my wife and I were sealed none of our children were there (or so we thought). As we were standing outside the temple taking some pictures after our sealing it came upon me to turn around and look behind me to see all those who attended our sealing. We were blessed because we had immediately been called as Ward Missionaries after we became members. For the next 2 years we were greatly blessed to work with many Missionaries. Our ward had 4 sets of Elder Missionaries, 2 sets of Sister Missionaries and 1 set of Senior Missionaries. We were Sealed in the Salt Lake City Temple. Many of the Missionaries had completed their missions and were now going to BYU Provo or living in the valley area. I would say that 80% of the Missionaries that we knew who were already home were there. Elders, Sisters and Seniors. About 30 in all. As I turned and looked at all of them behind me I was overcome by the same joy I had felt when I carried each of my children out of the delivery room when they were born. I knew right then that my Heavenly Father had filled my life with sons and daughters far beyond my deepest desires. He showed me that day of the vast distance between my thoughts and his thoughts. He also quite clearly showed me that his desire for us to have joy is eternal and complete. I know that the joy of family he will rain down upon us in eternity is deeper, fuller, more expansive and more complete then we can fathom at this time. If I but strive to do what I can he will do what he has promised, join us to our families (as he has defined that to be) for time and all eternity in fullness of peace and joy.
If you haven’t found any doctrine about sad heaven, then you probably just haven’t read enough from Spencer W. Kimball. You can choose to ignore him, of course, but this HAS been taught by prophets. In fact, it’s still included in our institute manual for the D&C.
After quoting Doctrine and Covenants 132:13, President Spencer W. Kimball said:
“How final! How frightening! Since we know well that mortal death does not terminate our existence, since we know that we live on and on, how devastating to realize that marriage and family life, so sweet and happy in so many homes, will end with death because we fail to follow God’s instructions or because we reject his word when we understand it.
“It is clear in the Lord’s announcement that righteous men and women will receive the due rewards of their deeds. They will not be damned in the commonly accepted terminology but will suffer many limitations and deprivations and fail to reach the highest kingdom, if they do not comply. They become ministering servants to those who complied with all laws and lived all commandments.
“[The Lord] then continues concerning these excellent people who lived worthily but failed to make their contracts binding:
“‘For these angels did not abide my law; therefore, they cannot be enlarged, but remain separately and singly, without exaltation, in their saved condition, to all eternity; and from henceforth are not gods, but are angels of God forever and ever.’ (D&C 132:17.)
“How conclusive! How bounded! How limiting! And we come to realize again as it bears heavily upon us that this time, this life, this mortality is the time to prepare to meet God. How lonely and barren will be the so-called single blessedness throughout eternity! How sad to be separate and single and apart through countless ages when one could, by meeting requirements, have happy marriage for eternity in the temple by proper authority and continue on in ever-increasing joy and happiness, growth and development toward godhood. …
“Are you willing to jeopardize your eternities, your great continuing happiness, your privilege to see God and dwell in his presence? For the want of investigation and study and contemplation; because of prejudice, misunderstanding, or lack of knowledge, are you willing to forego these great blessings and privileges? Are you willing to make yourself a widow for eternity or a widower for endless ages—a single, separate individual to live alone and serve others? Are you willing to give up your children when they die or when you expire, and make them orphans? Are you willing to go through eternity alone and solitary when all of the greatest joys you have ever experienced in life could be ‘added upon’ and accentuated, multiplied, and eternalized? Are you willing, with the Sadducees, to ignore and reject these great truths? I sincerely pray you stop today and weigh and measure and then prayerfully proceed to make your happy marriage an eternal one. Our friends, please do not ignore this call. I beg of you, open your eyes and see; unstop your ears and hear.” (“Temples and Eternal Marriage,” Ensign, Aug. 1974, p. 6.)
I read it and I found no contradiction with the article. Will be sadness in Heaven? Yes, but it will be not as some people believe. “Sad Heaven” is understood as a fence where people from one side will be denied even to talk to people on the other side. That won’t be the case. The truth is that we will see people progressing and others not. The conditions and limits will be focused on progressing, not only in relationships. I think it will be like some single adults that choose not to be in a relationship or not to have children and then in the final days of their lives they are longing for a family of their own. Maybe they would be sorrounded by others family members, but they feel that need.
I think Heaven will be like that for some people. They will have the love of other people still. They will have opportunities to interact. But they will have a limit. Is it sad? Yes. But they won’t be alone. They won’t be entitled to live with them as a family, but they will have family members loving them and caring for them. It won’t be the ideal way of life, but they will have some comfort, and they will experiment happiness in some degree.
“Doctrine” is not found in church manuals, or a statement by a prophet, or even and a verse of Scripture. Doctrine in the Church of Jesus Christ must be taught clearly and repeatedly by the 15 living prophets and apostles. I like the tone of this article. It hesitates to make any definitive claims on what heaven is. Yet, President Eyring’s statement captures what we repeatedly hear taught about heaven-that it will be more wonderful than we can imagine. That is doctrine.
We know very little really about family relationships in the eternities, however, there are several scriptures which teach of “never ending happiness” in the eternities if we are faithful. My favorite is Mosiah 2:41 “And moreover, I would desire that ye should consider on the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God. For behold, they are blessed in all things, both temporal and spiritual; and if they hold out faithful to the end they are received into heaven, that thereby they may dwell with God in a state of never-ending happiness. O remember, remember that these thigs are true; for the Lord God hath spoken it.” It seems never ending happiness would not be possible if families were torn apart in the life hereafter.
In April 2019, President Nelson gave a talk that I would say describes “Sad Heaven”.
In my blended family, only 1 out of 12 siblings are “Active” and maybe only 3 are “believers”. The message of eternal families falls flat for me.
On it’s surface, it makes for appealing doctrine, that we will be with our family in heaven. Which mom? I have three.
I think this approach, to love unconditioned on participation or belief, is one we need to hear more. I applaud the author for that message.
I wonder if we limit our definition of “family” too narrow? Who says only biological children brought into this world at a certain time can only be considered “children”? If we truly love as God does, I think our understanding of family will expand and we may find deep joy in those relationships as well.
We need to be careful making judgements about someone before judgment day (plus it’s not our stewardship anyway). Also, I have found focusing on how to be the best mother, sister, aunt, etc to those who are not actively on the covenant path is my real job. Not worrying about their eternal exaltation. When we are worrying and making ourselves sad before the game is over we are shortchanging the Savior and God’s plan which is a presumptuous place to be.
I like the distinction that there can be the emotion of sadness in heaven but the overarching belief is Heaven is Wonderful.
I have been told that if a Woman desires not to be married to the man she is sealed to, she can make that choice after death. However, a Man can’t ask for the sealing to be lifted. I have searched and I can’t find anywhere that states that we can do this. Is this doctrine that I am missing?
Mary, I don’t know where these things are discussed in definitive ways, but I believe that the eternal principle of choice/agency is foundational, and that relationships are always a choice. It would be against the nature of God to force anyone to exist eternally in a relationship that is not their choice.