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Mormon Misconceptions about Traditional Ideas of Heaven

Posted by nebula0 on October 14, 2008


This isn’t meant to pick on anyone in particular, but it’s a widespread problem in Mormonism.  Mormons really don’t understand what normative Christian heaven is supposed to be about.  This is partly due to the fact that Mormonism is a religion which is in a way obsessed with the beyond mortal life realms.  Who hasn’t seen that elaborate diagram drawn which called a depiction of “The Plan of Salvation” which consists of demonstrating how a spirit child in the premortal realm moves through mortal earth to the highest degree of glory in the Celestial Kingdom?  And, think about this, Mormon temples are arranged around those same degrees of glory, and move participants through that same drama to the Celestial Kingdom.  There is talk about all the work that is to be done in the spirit world.  There is talk about all of the families sealed to be together for all eternity.  Yes, there is a lot of specific, embodied talk about the afterlife in Mormonism, which can make traditional Christian notions of heaven seem pale and thin. 

This is also partly due to the fact that traditional Christians aren’t very good about talking about heaven.  Many are so confused by their own theologies concerning the afterlife that they aren’t even sure if they are going to be resurrected.  All of this stems from the Western obsession with salvation from Sin and Death.  Once that is conquered, it is assumed all will be very good, but exactly what that means isn’t well explained.

These two items combine to in the unfortunate current state of affairs in which most Mormons assume traditional Christian heaven consists of disembodied spirits singing hymns to an invisible God- invisible even in heaven!  So here is misconception #1: traditional Christians deny the resurrection.  Not true.  Most orthodox Christian theologies affirm the resurrection.  Misconception #2: there will be no friends or family in heaven, just individual spirits praising for eternity an invisible God.  Why not?  Yes it’s true that the highest loyalty will go to God.  It should be to God right now on planet earth (remember, Jesus claims that one must ‘hate his mother, brother,’ and so on to be a disciple).  But that doesn’t then follow that we won’t recognize each other in heaven, I can’t imagine why not.  Misconception #3: it will be very boring.  What?  By definition heaven will be great, the greatest.  We will have fullness of joy. 

What this comes down to is faith.  Do you have faith that God knows you, better than you know you, and cares for you completely?  Children may not understand why their parents make them do boring things like learn to read or eat gross things like vegetables.  It isn’t until later that we find out what gifts they were preparing for us.  Similarly with God.  I imagine when we see face to face, with full reality before us, our God, that our relationships with those we knew will be richer and better than anything, literally, imaginable to us now.  Our existence will be the richest and fullest possible.  The real problem is that our finite imaginations are simply not capable of really understanding the joys that God has in store for us.

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10 Responses to “Mormon Misconceptions about Traditional Ideas of Heaven”

  1. nebula0 said

    Let me clarify a matter here. Although I am unsure as to how I will approach the Bible or the notion of Christ in the end, I do believe that God created us and cares for us and intends for us to be with him in heaven. It’s not hard to see how the biblical account could fill in the gaps.

  2. Seth R. said

    You’d probably be interested in a recent article in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought:

    “The Grandest Principle of the Gospel: Christian Nihilism, Sanctified Activism, and Eternal Progression” Jacob T. Baker, Dialogue, Vol. 41, No. 3 (Fall 2008), pp. 55

    It talks about the Christian view of heaven and how it was criticized by Mormon thinkers like B.H. Roberts and others.

    To quote a few passages, Evangelical scholar Carl Mosser is quoted on the subject:

    “Too often, in my view, Christian theologians are content to reflect on how we are redeemed (the mechanics) and on what we are redeemed FROM. Smith’s teachings abut the eschatological potential of men and women challenges Christian theology to think more deliberately about what we are redeemed FOR.”

    It also cites Mormon scholar Nels L. Nelson’s scathing critique of what he viewed as the meaningless nature of the Protestant afterlife:

    “Here is the way in which a noted Presbyterian delivered himself on the theme: The question is often asked, “What shall we do when we get to heaven? Wherein shall consist our happiness?” I shall answer this question for myself. When I get to heaven, I shall spend the first five million years of my life in gazing upon the face of God: then if my wife is near I shall turn and look at her for five minutes. Then I shall gaze upon the glory of God again for a million million years; and when the longing of my eyes shall have been satisfied, and my soul is suffused with the beatific vision, I shall snatch up my harp and begin playing.

    Nels comments scornfully, “What kind of being must God be, if we suppose him to get pleasure from having a billion billion… eyes glued upon Him from all sides for millions of years at a stretch? And then to have a certain quadrant of the enraptured gazers suddenly seized with harp-madness for other millions of years! Surely he will need the full measure of his infinite patience and long-suffering!”

    He adds elsewhere: “Think of the agony involved in an eternity of stagnated bliss, of monotonous, never-varying joy!”

    Now, you don’t need to tell me that this is hardly an entirely fair critique of Protestantism. Mormon authors like Nelson and Roberts seem to have engaged in a bit of a straw man argument in attacking the Protestant heaven. In fact according to the article, Protestant heaven at their time was actually, in some ways, more anthropocentric than even Mormonism was at the time. So both writers seem to have misrepresented Protestantism in their day.

    “Heaven is a workshop” wrote Baptist preacher William Ulyat in 1901. And many other Protestants were speaking of an afterlife of “sanctified activism.”

    However, the article asserts that the Protestant movement preaching an “active heaven” was only part of a particular historical movement and did not endure to today. It claims that such Protestant has actually moved closer to the caricatured heaven described by Roberts and Nelson. I would note it seems particularly popular among the “Left Behind” crowd of Evangelicals.

    But that is not to say that Protestant though could not eventually swing back to a less silly view of heaven. Today, one of the strongest adherents of the idea of an “active heaven” is probably Anglican theologian and archbishop N.T. Wright. I like his stuff quite a bit and imagine many Mormons would find some resonance in it.

  3. nebula0 said

    Seth,

    All that is pretty much contained in my original post. I already critiqued the Western view of heaven as not being well developed due to a focus on ‘the mechanics of salvation’ (as your guy put it). My point with that is to say do not confuse ‘not well developed’ with the idea that therefore it is impossible to get an interesting idea of heaven out of Western Christianity.

    But I think even more basically than that is that your focus on aesthetic appeal is a bit bizarre. Do you really, really, I mean really think God would let us be bored for an infinite amount of time, I mean, really? Come on.

  4. Seth R. said

    My comment was not meant to counter anything you said, but merely to supplement.

    I do not think God is going to allow eternal boredom. That is why I like Mormon theology.

    What I don’t like in traditional Christian thought is this implicit sense of nihilism that I don’t think you can really get away from.

    Now the Christian theologian tries to get away from it by asserting – “well, there was always something. There was always God.”

    But this is merely to deny nihilism at the macro level, while still allowing it – even glorifying it – at the micro level. We, and all our surroundings came from nothing.

    But the fatal flaw in traditional Christian thought, is that it allows “nothing” as a possibility AT ALL. If nothing is an option for my own being, it is also an option for you. Furthermore, it is also an option for God. Suddenly, you are faced with a universe where it is as equally possible for God to “be not” as for God to “be.”

    Like a coroner at a wedding feast, this continual possibility of the void hangs over the life of every Christian, and dampens any joy found in it. No matter what we may be doing in heaven – whether strumming harps, gazing rapturously, making friends, or building righteous communities, the void is never far removed, and casts a pall over the whole thing.

    It’s like finding out one day that you are nothing more than the product of a sleeping man’s dream. And you never have any guarantee that one day he isn’t going to start dreaming about something else.

    After all, he did it once before when he started dreaming about you instead of whatever else he was dreaming about previously. Why not again?

  5. Seth R. said

    And I very much find this sense of nihilism in frequent comments from online Evangelicals that I’d better shape and embrace my nothingness or go to hell.

    I mean, what a crappy view of life!

  6. I think I agree with Seth. And Roberts.

  7. nebula0 said

    Seth,

    YOu seem to be implying that because you cannot imagine nothingness, therefore it is impossible. But, just because we cannot imagine something, or like something, doesn’t mean it’s not the reality of the situation. You spend a lot of time discussing your preferences to which I have to reply “interesting… so?”.

    Yes it’s true, to believe that we come from nothing but as God has created us takes a lot of faith- IN God. That’s my point. God asks us to trust him, radically, with our very existence. Where’s your faith?? My assurance is with God and that’s enough.

  8. Geoff J said

    Good post nebula0. I agree that the creedal Christian version heaven can make sense based on the assumptions that underlie it. I also think your critiques are accurate of the blind spots.

  9. nebula0 said

    Thanks Geoff.

  10. Howdy! This is my first comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and
    tell you I really enjoy reading your posts.
    Can you recommend any other blogs/websites/forums that go over the same subjects?

    Thanks a lot!

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