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?