Monday, December 10, 2018

"What Is Heaven Like?"


In the First Presidency’s Christmas Devotional earlier this month, President Nelson told of meeting Lydia Terry (no relation that I’m aware of), who is suffering from a rare and aggressive form of brain cancer. In his words, “As we talked about her life and what lies ahead, she was calm and at peace. When I asked if she had any questions, she quickly replied, ‘What is heaven like?’”
Nothing like a child to get directly to the heart of things. Isn’t this the question we all would ask if we were in her shoes? If we had the honesty and candor of children. According to President Nelson, this question “led to ‘a heart-to-heart discussion about the purpose of life’ and the blessings that Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ ‘have offered to those who honor and follow Them.’” In other words, he didn’t answer Lydia’s question.
I’m not faulting him for this. We Latter-day Saints, even our prophet and apostles, assume we know a lot more about the hereafter than we really do. Even Joseph Smith’s grand Vision, recorded in D&C 76, does not really say much about what heaven is like. It is more a description of the characteristics of people who end up in the four divisions of the LDS afterlife. Perhaps the best description of the spirit world (the temporary way station between death and resurrection) is Heber Hale’s account of his visit to the spirit world, which is not scriptural but is nevertheless a fascinating and somewhat detailed narrative.
But in terms of the three kingdoms of glory that most of the human race will inhabit in the eternities, we know next to nothing. Let me try to explain what I mean.
1. For a Dialogue article I wrote a couple of years ago, I did a fairly rigorous estimate of how many of God’s children would be born on this earth between Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden and the end of the Millennium. I used LDS assumptions (such as a 7,000-year span in
which God’s children could be born on this planet, including a 1,000-year Millennium). My estimate was conservative in several respects, but it still resulted in more than 200 billion of God’s children being born on this earth. Because of the high mortality rate among children under eight years of age during most of our mortal history, and because of statements by prophets indicating that most people will accept the gospel in the spirit world, we must assume that the celestial kingdom will be the most populous of the three. And it will be on this earth.
Can you imagine more than 100 billion people inhabiting this planet for an eternity? The logistics of such a world are mind-boggling. Will we eat? If so, how will we grow food? Or will we replicate it like people on Star Trek? What will we wear? How will we produce the fabrics? What will we do with our time? What will the economy of heaven be like? Will we be “free” to do what we want, or will we live under a command economy in which we are each assigned a specific task so that everything runs smoothly? I can’t imagine the celestial kingdom employing a capitalist market system, but a command economy is also a disappointing idea.
Based on various speculative statements from Church leaders over the years, we assume that the organs of the mortal body will be perfected and useful after the resurrection. So we will indeed eat. And we will produce bodily waste. How will we deal with that for over 100 billion inhabitants? We will also, I presume, produce offspring. And it only makes sense that celestial bodies will procreate after their kind. Yes, I know we believe that celestial bodies produce spirit children, but that doesn’t make sense biologically. All creatures reproduce after their own kind. Why wouldn’t two celestial beings produce celestial (perfected physical) offspring? If true, this creates obvious problems.
Okay, so we don’t really know anything about this. But just for the sake of argument, let’s assume celestial beings somehow can produce only spirit children. With over 100 billion inhabitants, there won’t be room for each couple (or are there polygamous marriages in heaven?) to beget billions of spirit children. No problem, Mormon folk theology tells us. We will all just get our own world to live on, where we can produce bodies for billions of spirit children. That’s a whole galaxy of worlds just for the celestial candidates from this one earth. The universe is a big place, and it’s expanding. Still, the implications of such rapid expansion of human population is a bit perplexing.
We have a couple of competing ideas about what happens to celestial inhabitants. One is that they will live forever in family relationships in the celestial kingdom. Two problems with that. First, although we speak as if we’ll live with our children in the hereafter, they will be adults, mostly married. So the celestial kingdom, if it is a long-term abode, will be a couples’ paradise. Extended family relationships will be largely irrelevant. Sure, we’ll associate with each other. But the parent-child relationships we experience here for a few short years will be nonexistent in the celestial world.
The second idea is that we will all go off into an empty corner of the universe and start creating and populating worlds with our spirit children. These competing ideas are incompatible. We can’t live forever on this celestialized earth and also go off into the void and create our own galaxy.
Even if we do accept the second of these competing visions of the hereafter, we must accept the notion that it’s going to take each of us a while to achieve godhood. Take, for instance, two country bumpkins from Dingle, Idaho. Salt-of-the-earth people. The sort we assume will be celestialized. They’ve never offended anyone. They love everyone. They wouldn’t dream of breaking a commandment. But they’re also in many ways simpletons. They can barely find their way around a smart phone, let alone understand the physics and chemistry and biology necessary to create an inhabitable planet. It is obviously going to take a long time to get these folks from Dingle to a stage where someone would be tempted to worship them.
So, what do they do during this long divine tutorial? They have perfect bodies that function perfectly. Do they just practice abstinence for millions of years while they learn enough to create a world and manage it? When and how do celestial inhabitants get their license to practice godhood in the full sense of the word? So what’s heaven really like? We have no idea.
2. We often speak of the celestial kingdom in terms of living with our Heavenly Father for eternity. But both Joseph Smith’s teachings and the numbers I mentioned above preclude this possibility. According to the book of Abraham, God the Father lives on a planet near a star called Kolob. He is not going to come and live on this earth after it receives its celestial glory. This is just one of his numberless worlds. He is apparently elsewhere, constantly creating new worlds and populating them with his children.
And even if he did relocate to our celestialized earth, with over 100 billion fellow inhabitants, we would have very little chance of having any face time with him. So, any notions about living in God’s presence and running around Father’s heavenly mansion are probably metaphorical at best.
In a Sunstone essay titled “The Tongue of Angels or the Mind of the Borg,” I explore the implications of our belief that God knows the most intimate thoughts of our hearts. After describing an experience I had as a missionary, where I was allowed to see what the people I was teaching were thinking, I make the following observations:
I have read several accounts of near-death experiences in which the near-dead person has moved on to a spiritual existence where communication is completely nonverbal. This type of communication is exactly what Orson Pratt predicted for the afterlife: “For instance; how do you suppose that spirits after they leave these bodies, communicate one with another? Do they communicate their ideas by the actual vibrations of the atmosphere the same as we do? I think not.”1 Pratt proposed an advanced form of communication in which a spirit could impart not just one train of thought but numerous ideas directly to other spirits. If the NDE accounts and Pratt are right, then spiritual communication is perfectly telepathic; spirits are able to share each other’s thoughts. But other experiences people have had with the dearly departed suggest that they do indeed speak in audible voices. So the evidence, what little there is, is ambiguous. After contemplating the conduit that opened between my mind and [my investigators’], however, I am inclined to believe that telepathy is indeed possible. . . . What this means, of course, is that God also knew what they were thinking—what I am thinking. But what I learned that evening was how intimately God knows each of us. He can judge us only because he knows everything about us, even the innermost thoughts of our hearts.
Which brings up several questions about the premortal existence, and the postmortal eternity to come. If our spirits are really able to communicate directly, without words, was our premortal existence, then, something similar to the Borg collective from Star Trek (without all the cybernetic hardware of course)? Were we connected to some sort of group consciousness through the Spirit? If so, then I can understand why we would need to come here to earth, where the veil of the flesh interferes with most spiritual communication, so that we could truly be tested. We know that we had free will in the premortal world—Lucifer is proof of that—but was our agency complete? If we were spiritually linked to God—a part of the collective divine mind, as it were—were we really free to choose? Were we really able to be individuals? Or were we like the Borg? Did we have to come to earth in order to be severed from the collective, to experience true individuality, to have unfettered agency, to experience pain and anguish, to be tested and tried in isolation, to show God and ourselves who we really are? . . .
If in the premortal world we were part of some sort of collective spiritual consciousness, what will the postmortal eternity be like? Will purified resurrected bodies not only provide no interference to spiritual communication, but perhaps even amplify it? Will we be Borg again, but on a much higher level, elated and enthralled by the spiritual connection that links us to the collective spiritual mind? I remember the spiritual high I experienced at [our investigators’] house and how it faded as we walked to the subway. And it was a high. Which brings up other questions. Is the Spirit a sort of mind-altering metaphysical drug that will fill us with joy and happiness and contentment and keep us on a constant high if we make it to the celestial kingdom? Or even if we land in one of the two lower kingdoms? Is the Spirit an eternally ubiquitous soma akin to Huxley’s serenity-inducing drug from Brave New World? Is our postmortal future one void of any sort of inner turmoil, disappointment, or frustration, as well as any interpersonal friction? If so, what are the implications of an existence without conflict?
3. One thing President Nelson discussed with Lydia is eternal life: “When the Father offers us everlasting life, He is saying in essence, ‘If you choose to follow My Son—if your desire is really to become more like Him—then in time you may live as We live, and preside over worlds and kingdoms as We do.’”
But what does this really mean? In order to become gods, we would have to become omniscient. Do we understand the implications? We would have to know everything. We believe, for instance, that God knows what we are thinking, every second of every day of our lives. That’s a tall order for just one person. But multiply that by over 200 billion, and that’s just for this one earth, which is just one of God’s numberless creations. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. To be omniscient, God doesn’t just know everything we are thinking. He has to know what we will think tomorrow, and every tomorrow for an eternity. He has to know where every atom in his kingdom is at any given time and every instant after that for an eternity. Jesus describes himself in D&C 38 as “the same which knoweth all things, for all things are present before mine eyes.” What sort of existence is this? But if we are to qualify as gods, as beings who can be the object of faith, who are never surprised by anything, we have to have this sort of knowledge. We have to be able to “hear” and “answer” billions of prayers in millions of languages, and all at one time. So one-dimensional time is no longer our element. Every instant must be filled with an eternity of thought. And we would never get a vacation, never be able to “get away from it all,” because all of it needs our constant attention.
I’m sure the rewards are magnificent, but we really cannot understand what God’s life must be like. We cannot understand what it means to be omniscient, and that is just one characteristic of God. One implication of omniscience is that we would never “need” to communicate with others of our kind. What could we possibly say to each other when we already know what the other person is thinking and what he or she will say? Why even communicate telepathically, when we already know what the other person is thinking and will be thinking, forever?
4. Let’s explore one final question about the hereafter, again quoting my Sunstone essay:
I have pondered the question of how God would maintain peace and harmony in his kingdoms while still permitting individuality and free will. In fact, I’ve explored this very scenario in the story “Eternal Misfit,” published a few years ago in Dialogue. In a world filled with imperfect inhabitants, such as, say, the terrestrial kingdom, how would God prevent imperfect people from behaving as imperfect people and creating just the sort of chaos and contention and confusion that prevail on earth today? Is it even possible to keep perfect amity and tranquility without depriving people of the ability to be disagreeable or the capacity to create conflict? I see only two options. Either the hereafter is not quite so tranquil as we presume, or Heavenly Father maintains peace through external control. Is such peace managed through the Spirit, which acts not only as a medium of hypercommunication but perhaps also as a heavenly palliative or sedative? It will be fascinating to find out. Maybe.
Other troubling questions sprout from these. For instance, assuming heaven is as peaceful and perfect as we often assume, how are we to practice Christian virtues in the absence of evil and trouble and imperfection? How can we be forgiving if no one ever offends us? How can we be peacemakers if there is never conflict? How can we exercise patience if no one ever annoys us or delays us? The list is nearly endless. Indeed it is very hard for us to imagine what the hereafter will be like. From our limited perspective, any vision of the afterlife is fraught with logical impossibilities.
So, what is heaven like? We have many questions and not very many answers. Even the prophets can’t answer most of the specific questions. For some reason, God has chosen to keep this knowledge from us in any meaningful detail. We hope that the hereafter will be a wonderful, peaceful, glorious existence. But what is the cost of such an existence?
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1. Orson Pratt, in Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854–86), 3:100 (October 22, 1854).