Wednesday, 19 December 2012

What do we DO in Heaven/ Paradise? The Mormon answer


For Christians, Salvation leads to eternal life in Heaven, and Heaven is beyond our power to imagine since after resurrection we dwell there with purified minds in perfected bodies, adopted by God as Sons of God, and in the presence of the divine.

There is nothing in any other religion that can remotely compare with the Christian Heaven.

But for plain people, for those unable to think in terms of abstractions; the usual descriptions of Heaven are lacking in precision when it comes to the description of what we will do there.

Not least because our earthly minds always need to do something - we cannot imagine just being or just worshipping: this kind of explanation of Heaven seems indescribably dull and tedious.  


By contrast, the Paradise of some other religions is depicted in terms of the best imaginable kind of earthly life, lacking all earthly pains and including all earthly delights; going-on at the highest pitch of ecstasy, for all time.

If you think about this for a while, you will recognize what a false promise it is - and how, to be tolerable and not to be an horrific fate, it would entail something like recurrent oblivion of memory, so that we could just live in the blissful present without awareness of endless duration.

But at the first level of analysis, Paradise sounds a lot better than life on earth, and it is perfectly clear what we would actually do there: eat wonderful foods, drink wonderful drinks, make love, appreciate the beauties and so on.


By contrast, because we will live in Christian Heaven as purified and perfected beings, it is hard to state exactly what we will do there: most answers seems woefully inadequate to our feeble earthly imaginations.

So that, while it is factually correct that to live in the presence of God and the Heavenly beings would be a greater bliss than we can imagine; that is the problem - it is a greater bliss than we can imagine (unless we are already advanced in theosis).


This is another respect in which it seems that the concreteness of Mormonism is an advantage: above Salvation, the highest level of Heaven is called Exaltation, and is the destiny of a married couple:

Exaltation is the greatest of all the gifts and attainments possible. It is available only in the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom and is reserved for members of the Church of the Firstborn. This exalted status, called eternal life, is available to be received by a man and wife. It means not only living in God's presence, but receiving power to do as God does, including the power to bear children after the resurrection.

Here is a thing to do that is worthy of Heaven, and of Sons of God; a difficult, long term, but one could imagine deeply rewarding and endlessly interesting job.


This doctrine of exaltation has (at least) two elements: one is new to Mormonism -  that this destiny is available only jointly, to a man and wife. This puts a novel perspective on the highest Heaven, as it becomes a place we go to in company.

The other is a making concrete the mainstream Christian abstraction of what it actually means to be adopted as Sons of God: Mormonism say that it means we ourselves 'bear children' to populate a new world, a new Earth (as it were) with mortal men, and to do for them what God does for us.


As I say, in Mormonism all this is made very concrete and definite in a way that does not happen in mainstream Christianity - at least it does not happen in the kind of professionally-written systematic theology to which people refer in defining Christian beliefs.

However, what the mass of actual (real, devout, usually simple) Christians who now live and ever have lived believe in their own hearts and minds is another matter altogether - and I suspect that this is much closer to Mormonism that would be supposed from official theology.

I therefore take the Mormon doctrine of exaltation as a reasonable explanation of what we will actually do when we become Sons of God.


To the concrete mind, it seems obvious that being adopted as Sons of God must mean that we do something different from, something more than, 'merely' worship God and live with him in happiness and without pain; since that is possible to angels without the need for incarnate earthly life, indeed earthly life would seem to be a hazard and a distraction.

Whereas Mormons can explain earthly life as a preparation for doing the job of a Son of God.

That explanation makes sense, and satisfies the curiosity, in a very straightforward and immediate fashion. It addresses the question and what lies behind the question. Most mainstream Christian explanations of the work of Heaven do neither; and come across as merely vague, or else evasive - perhaps even dishonest.


Therefore it may be possible for mainstream Christians to believe that the Mormon description is a reasonable answer to a question (what do we do in Heaven?) that for many people demands an answer; and for which people will supply their own answer - if a comprehensible one is not forthcoming from the official sources.

It is utterly inappropriate to apply the logic and rigour of professional systematic theology to a necessarily simplified and concrete explanation of an complex and abstract phenomenon - which must be understood and taught to their families by an 'amateur' priesthood of all men in good standing (whatever their intelligence and knowledge may be).

It is inappropriate to use 'Gotcha!' arguments, such as that by this doctrine Mormons are revealed as Polytheists or Pagans - since the Bible often refers to gods in the plural, and it is normal Christian understanding that Men will become in some sense gods. Any explanation of this (essential) aspect of scripture must either be too abstract for most people to follow, or open to being misunderstood as polytheistic.

(After all, many Protestants have regarded Roman and Orthodox Catholics as very obviously polytheists.)


Usually this matter is explained in terms of complex abstractness that simply have no meaning to most people; but in Mormonism there is an extra layer of explanation, that is able to answer obvious questions of a kind which get asked by the plain and simple person.

Perhaps these are indeed the most important questions? - and ones where comprehensible answers ought to be given? Even when these answers are necessarily selective, brief, simple, unsystematic...


Now although (in this instance, and in other instances) the concrete and clear Mormon answer can satisfy most of the obvious questions, and in a way which is comprehensible to almost anyone; it does break down when pushed further in terms of deep philosophical coherence, or when matched up against mainstream Christian systematic theology.

Putting a microscope onto Mormon theology, it is as rather if we were to go to an extremely saintly and utterly simple Orthodox Babushka from Holy Russia, and set her to debate with a Professor of Thomistic Systematic theology from Notre Dame - who may not actually be a Christian believer.

If we asked the Babushka for a description of her beliefs they would be concrete, anthropomorphic, perhaps idiosyncratic and almost certainly heretical (by official criteria) - utterly unsystematic but utterly relevant to her everyday spiritual needs.

For her to have the relationship with God which she does (and for which all Christians strive), God must be a person, and to be a person he must be concrete and not abstract.


What the Babushka and devout Mormonism share is that concreteness and actually and literal explicitness which potentially brings religion very close for many people (not only for an expert elite of intellectuals or monastics); brings into juxtaposition the spiritual realm with everyday earthly life.  

What then is Christianity, and how can it be distinguished from real, dangerous heresy?

What is 'Mere' Christianity - Christianity that is real, but not denominational?

Clearly we are not going to give a theological answer; nor can it be a complex answer. The best answer is surely the one from John's gospel that Christ is our (personal) Lord and Saviour.


Correctness of understanding what this actually means cannot (for reasons given above) be done on theological grounds, but must (in the end) be a personal and experiential matter.

But this personal and experiential justification is not a possible basis for a church. Much more is needed for a viable church. A church must be objective, public, shared.

Mere Christianity is not, therefore, autonomous - and it needs denominations.

All real Christian denominations (including Mormonism) contain part of the truth. But all real Christian denominations are partial, incomplete, distorted, and have particular strengths and weaknesses - there is always a trade off at work: monasticism may go higher, but has greater hazards; abstraction is more complete and coherent, but less relevant. And so on.


But the point of this post is that Christianity provokes plain people (including children) to ask certain obvious questions - such as what do we actually do in Heaven.

The question implicitly means what do we do in Heaven that we cannot do on earth, that is different from anything that could be done on earth, but which sounds like a task or job which is difficult and interesting enough to take-up eternity' (which is being understood as 'a very long time').

Considered in this fashion, it may be possible for mainstream Christians to acknowledge that Mormonism has provided a good answer; an answer that - while it is not perfect, and is less than coherent in terns of systematic theology - is motivating and inspiring at an everyday, experiential level: and perhaps mainstream Christians are prone to neglect that level - which may be the most important of all.


NOTE: I am not interested in publishing comments (although I will read them) that are purely critical of the Mormon doctrine of exaltation; any such comment must be backed-up by a similarly short, clear, comprehensible and relevant alternative answer to the question of what Christians do in Heaven. Ideally, this alternative should also be at least as appealing and appropriately-motivating as the Mormon answer.



Boethius said...

Have you ever read the King Follett discourse?Exaltation is understood as
a kind of recursion ad infinitum in which men become more and more like God.

Barbara H said...

I'm not sure you are correct in saying that we should accept an answer like the Mormons give. Why accept a wrong answer because accepting the correct one may not be emotionally satisfying?

Am I mistaken or have I read somewhere in your blog that we do not always have to come up with an answer to questions about our beliefs? Just to state the Truth is enough. When we die and are judged we either are put away to a place of punishment (away from God - frozen in our choice, if that's the choice we made here) or are welcomed to be with Him (as we chose to be when here). That "frozen" state is a good way to look at it, I think. No time, no change, no movement. Just bliss.

To look for earthly pleasures in heaven is to misunderstand who God is. He is Truth, Beauty, Justice, Mercy, Love. He does not POSSESS these qualities. He IS those qualities. Who wouldn't want to be with Someone like that? Just to bask in the glow of those qualities?

Simplicity is not the same as stupidity. In debate with any theologian, your Russian peasant might just say "I don't know what God has planned for me, I just know I'm going to be out of this world of suffering, and be with HIm in happiness forever."

You may not be approving the Mormon answer but I surely wish to point out, in all charity, that it is the wrong answer - as are all answers like it.

Anonymous said...

Your conception of the Mormon afterlife is, I think, largely a correct diagnosis. It may also contribute to explaining why Mormon missionary efforts tend to be more effective with lower-class, less well-educated individuals: the concreteness and literalness of the answers and the interpretation is fresh to their experience of Christianity. Frankly, even as a (pseudo)intellectual, I myself find the directness of this approach refreshing---God meant what he said (in the KJV).

But more broadly, this prompted me to post a talk I made in an LDS sacrament meeting a few months ago. From that:

But for me at least, I think what holds my fascination better than anything else is the peculiar sense of possibility that hangs in the air thick around Mormonism. Peter could not have conceived of walking on the water until Jesus had done it before him. Just so, Mormonism shows me the infinite radius of the possible. To ponder seriously the idea of God and His Father, eternity piled upon eternity, is to experience vertigo more effectively than a mere void could give me. Whatever its failings or successes, conventional Christianity labored for far too long under the theological illusion of a single world—that the universe consisted of only the tiny sliver of a solar system ensphered around us. But from the beginning, Joseph Smith revealed a creation of “worlds without end”—a finding which has been resoundingly consonant with scientific astronomy. (Although we seem to have lost the spiritual astronomy!) I hope that what we accomplish we accomplish because of rather than despite our traditions and religion.

Whatever its theological gains and failings, I think Mormonism does gain this: the theological universe ``feels bigger'' to a Mormon than it does to a Christian---or at least that's the popular experience.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BH - Well done for attempting a brief definition:

"To look for earthly pleasures in heaven is to misunderstand who God is. He is Truth, Beauty, Justice, Mercy, Love. He does not POSSESS these qualities. He IS those qualities. Who wouldn't want to be with Someone like that? Just to bask in the glow of those qualities?"

But I would regard this as incomprehensible. I would suppose that many people would seek a straight answer to what seems like a straight question. And if they couldn't get such an answer, I would not be surprised if they were put-off by this.

I am suggesting that the Mormon answer may be (how can I put it?) broadly not-un-reasonable, even from a mainstream Christian perspective - assuming that a comprehensible answer is going to be given at all.

I am pretty sure that Mormonism is getting some important things right that mainstream Christianity is getting wrong; and the LDS church has exhibited a strength and steadfastness over recent decades which has been exceedingly rare in Christianity.

I think the things they are getting right have to do with marriage and family, and are likely to be related to what are either distinctive beliefs on these matters - presumably divinely revealed to Joseph Smith (whom I would regard as - by his fruits - having been genuinely inspired; albeit I would certainly not regard him as inerrant like the Biblical prophets), or else the expression of what are more or less orthodox Christian beliefs rendered understandable and relevant, and thus more strengthening.

From my recent writings on intelligence, you may know that I regard modern people as considerable less intelligent than those of 200 years ago; and much less able to deal with abstractions.

Perhaps Mormonism was created and allowed to survive and grow because God knew there would come a time when we (as a society) ceased to be able to understand and live-by conceptualizations such as Thomism, or Calvinism - when these would come to feel remote and abstract, and something which did not sustain a strong and living faith.

At any rate, something has gone *terribly* wrong with the mainstream Christian denominations during the past century.

Bruce Charlton said...

@rb - Thanks for your comment. Although worlds without end is exactly the kind of ultra-abstract formulation that the vast majority of people find incomprehensible.

When you refer to "missionary efforts tend to be more effective with lower-class, less well-educated individuals" - I presume this refers specifically to the kind of people being to converted nowadays; but *most* Mormon growth has comes from higher than average fertility.

And Mormons, as a group, are of above-average intelligence, education and income (this probably also applies to British Mormons, from my own investigations; they are strikingly managerial/ professional class).

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

"Just to bask in the glow of those qualities": I second this.

I am a cradle Catholic, admittedly more devout than average as a child, but with an IQ barely above average (meaning that I have no special power of abstraction: proof is I am very bad at math). I don't remember we (me and the other devout people I knew, none of them was particularly brilliant) had difficulty with ordinary catechesis to understand what beatitude meant, just like the Russian Babushka or our saints who were uneducated (saint Bernadette, saint Therese of Lisieux, saint Faustina Kowalska...). What the saints happened to believe, and sometimes to receive as private revelations, was exactly corresponding and never contrary to what good theologians taught.

I fear the problem is in the question itself and that there is no good answer to "What do we do in Paradise?" The question should be: "What will we be in Paradise?"

It seems to Roman Catholics that the Bible and the Catechism -- which is theology and Bible study made accessible to all -- answer abundantly to this last question, that comes logically after we have found a proper answer to the first: Who are we?

The Crow said...

There is no point in imagining heaven. You can't. Because it is nothing to do with mind, or the imaginings of mind.
Imagine this instead: I've been there. It is possible, even in life.

You don't "do" anything there.
You "are" there, and you "are" it.
It is one-ness: "being" everything, everywhere, always.

Christians, I know, don't like this idea, or the relating of this experience. Probably not realizing it to be the very thing they take aim at, but without earthly success.

Heaven is real. It exists, and will always exist, because it lies beyond any and all harm. Although many Christians will never see it, being so wrapped-up in "being Christian", as opposed to being Christian as a means of transcendence.

Kenneth Lloyd Anderson said...

The Christian heaven is not unlike the heaven of the Eastern religions, it is a state, a condition reached inwardly, of bliss, since all the desires of the flesh have been blocked to attain this state, which is what Christ meant by curbing the desires of the flesh. Any definitions of heaven other than this are not what Christ meant, what he meant was not unlike what the Hindus and Buddhists meant by heaven, a blissful reaching of the Soul-within. Interpretations of heaven beyond this have been exaggerated and changed from what the great mystics meant.

Matthew C. said...

"At any rate, something has gone *terribly* wrong with the mainstream Christian denominations during the past century."

There can be no doubt about this.

I would generalize this to say that something has gone terribly wrong with all religions who have engaged with modernity, with the exception of the Mormon church and possibly one or two others.

I believe that the answer is quite simple -- Mormons have (for whatever reason(s)) rejected the sexual and divorce revolution. And sexual license and divorce are so catastrophically damaging that a community that eschews them cannot help but shine in contrast to the social wreckage around it.

I believe we non-Mormons have been corrupted by our society -- the fiction and nonfiction media we consume is, in large degree, spiritual sewage (unjustifiable violence, normalized premarital and extramarital sex, a lack of spiritual inspiration, struggle and meaning in favor of worldly struggle to fulfill greed, lust and hatred).

Speaking from personal experience, when parents divorce a child is made psychologically homeless in the world. It is one of the worst things that parents can do to their children, and it is considered normal and acceptable behavior in our condition of false understandings and beliefs.

I see a Christian church in the west (and Buddhists, Jews, Baha'is, and New Age / Spiritualists) who either directly embrace the sexual revolution and divorce lifestyle, or else have completely caved in to those social currents. Most churches now believe that Christianity is about a "get out of hell free" card and not about keeping their flock and children out of the hell of broken families and broken sexuality. And so we reap the whirlwind. . .

The Crow said...

Hey Kenneth! How very unusual to see anyone express a view like yours.
Have you arrived at it through experience, or is it a view you subscribe to for other reasons?

MC said...

I dare say, Mr. Charlton, that you understand Mormonism better than any "religon journalist", I've ever read.

I hasten to add that Mormonism by its very nature recognizes that it is "partial, incomplete, distorted" and has "particular strengths and weaknesses." Hence the Article of Faith that says "We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God."

Bruce Charlton said...

@Matt C - Thanks for that comment.

I think we need to understand what is might be about the Mormon beliefs and emphases concerning marriage and family that is capable of exerting such a powerful, motivating appeal that it is able to counteract the pervasive, immersive milieu of the sexual revolution.

I don't in fact, find this appeal particularly hard to understand - there is a mythic beauty about the doctrines themselves, and the power is visible in the way Mormons talk and write about them.

Kenneth Lloyd Anderson said...

Crow: I arrived at my view of heaven through the experience and study of various religions, but mainly in the process of developing religious philosophy that I could agree with from many angles. Ravi Ravindra's “The Gospel of John in the Light of Indian Mysticism” is a good source for the Eastern view of Christ.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crow and KLA - what you are describing is not the Christian Heaven, not at all - merely some small element of it. Christians are promised resurrection with a purified mind and perfected body, and to adopted as Sons of God (brothers to Jesus) to dwell in a new made world (New Jerusalem) in the presence of God and the Angels. Very different.

What I am talking about here is trying to answer the (natural) question - 'what then' but I am not disputing the nature of Christian Heaven which is described in some detail (albeit necessarily symbolic) in the Bible.

Kenneth Lloyd Anderson said...

bgc : Religious history has changed the original idea of heaven, and you can follow the new history of the church, or the new Mormon path, but I don't believe it is what Christ was speaking of regarding heaven. In the opinion of very responsible deep Eastern thinkers, your Christian heaven is not the heaven that Christ really promoted, and I agree with them.

The Crow said...

Do you feel, Bruce, that there are various versions of heaven, depending on an individual's religious belief?
I find that difficult to consider as a possibility.
Most likely, there is a heaven. Period.
Having visited, I never had the feeling there were any more of them.
But, as you say, your point was to wonder what one would do when one arrived, and my answer was to observe that there was nothing to do, at all, since doing involves a body and a mind, neither of which is available to the soul.
Maybe your wondering was simply that, and rhetorical, in which case, my observations about it may be quite reasonably ignored.

MikePh said...

I get your point. Too much theological, "spiritualised" down-playing of real human questions have dominated discussions about heaven. It is almost as if the actual physicality of the resurrection is ignored in favour of some bodiless existence, so much the vogue. An FSSP priest advised us to answer questions about heaven simply and without theologising: "Yes, you will indeed have a red dress, but it will be the reddest dress you could possibly imagine." "Yes, you will play with Jesus and have lots of fun." As for me? I will kick a spiralling punted Rugby ball 50m and Jesus will catch it and kick it back and I will gather it in perfectly and smile back at Him.

There is nothing to prevent God from creating individual time-space continuums for each and everyone: physicality free from time. To answer your question then: "What would one do?" Anything and everything one could imagine given the divinisation of our bodies and souls!! Our Lord's own Beatific Vision did not preclude Him eating fish and chips with His friends. After kicking practice I might like to join the meal.

Rygee said...

You have perfectly explained what I, an orthodox Catholic, find appealing in Mormonism. It takes the little given to us from scripture--that there will be work for us to do, that we will continue relationships began in this life--and provides just enough for the imagination to take flight, well mine, at least. I think it's a vision that is particularly appealing to women. At this risk of taking this blog to an all time low, The Twilight Saga is a fascinating when read through a Mormon lens, a reading invited by Stephanie Meyer who constantly refers to Edward as a god.

Rygee said...

You have perfectly explained what I, an orthodox Catholic, find appealing in Mormonism. It takes the little given to us from scripture--that there will be work for us to do, that we will continue relationships began in this life--and provides just enough for the imagination to take flight, well mine, at least. I think it's a vision that is particularly appealing to women. At this risk of taking this blog to an all time low, The Twilight Saga is a fascinating when read through a Mormon lens, a reading invited by Stephanie Meyer who constantly refers to Edward as a god.

Bruce B. said...

Professor Charlton,
One thing in modern Christianity that really stands out to me when I see it is female modesty and femininity in dress. I mean things like women wearing dresses or skirts (modest ones particularly) exclusively or near exclusively. This is not concentrated in a particular denomination but to me it is even more striking than when I look Mormon fertility (which is impressive compared to most Christians and yet still not that stunning). You see modest dress in a small minority of Catholics, a small minority of Baptists, some (most?) Mormons, most Jehovah’s Witnesses I think, etc. Among most Christians it is not the norm. But that just makes it especially striking to me when I do see it. Have you ever written about this? It would be interesting if you did – you have a rather unconventional way of seeing things.

Anonymous said...

Not sure if you caught my posts on Buddhism in the thread about hell, but since you are on the subject of eastern thinkers, I happened to interpret the Christian Paradise as being a preservation of both the anatta and the atta after death. Whereas the Neoplatonic/Buddhist/Vedic Heaven is merely the atta alone. Which, if true, is unique to Christian Theology.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - In retrospect we can perceive that immodest dress was a slippery slope leading to the current state of mass self-mutilation.

I noticed that the Latter Day Saints website has specific teachings prohibiting immodest dress, tattoos and piercing (except for a single ear lobe piercing in women with modest ear-rings).

Bruce B. said...

It seems to me like you can find a very orthodox church just by looking at how the women dress no matter what the denomination. In other words, it’s one of the most obvious visible signs of what’s going on behind the scenes. For example, in my community, the only church where the women consistently dress modestly and femininely is an independent Baptist church. As Baptists, they are very orthodox Baptists. To some extent this goes for male dress too. Where there are suits and ties, there’s serious Christianity.