By Eric Johnson
Note: The following was originally printed in the March/April 2019 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here.
One of the key doctrinal issues that leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have emphasized throughout their religion’s history is the importance of the earthly family unit and the hope of being reunited with these family members in the celestial kingdom. Consider what the following three church presidents taught from the church manuals Teachings of Presidents of the Church.
8th President George Albert Smith:
“The fact is, we look upon every child that is born into the world, as a son or daughter of God, as our brother or our sister, and we feel that our happiness will not be complete in the kingdom of heaven unless we enjoy the companionship of our families and those of our friends and associates with whom we have become acquainted and in whose interest we give so much of our time on earth” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: George Albert Smith, 2011, pp. 13-14).
10th President Joseph Fielding Smith:
“I have the glorious promise of the association of my loved ones throughout all eternity. In obedience to this work, in the gospel of Jesus Christ, I shall gather around me my family, my children, my children’s children, until they become as numerous as the seed of Abraham, or as countless as the sands upon the seashore. For this is my right and privilege, and the right and privilege of every member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who holds the Priesthood and will magnify it in the sight of God” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith, 1998, p. 386).
12th President Spencer W. Kimball:
“Oh, brothers and sisters, families can be forever! Do not let the lures of the moment draw you away from them! Divinity, eternity, and family—they go together, hand in hand, and so must we!” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, 2006, p. 212).
Since this church claims to be “restored” from the days of Christ, it would seem logical that the Gospel accounts and the words of Jesus would support the possibility of an eternal family as taught by these men. Is this the case?
Jesus and the Family
To get an understanding of what Jesus thought about a) the family on earth and b) the potential for this family in the next life, we need to consider the biblical passages on these issues.
First, we must understand that Jesus thought highly of the earthly family. For instance, he agreed with the Fourth Commandment (Matthew 19:19; Mark 7:10) about children obeying parents. Jesus also taught that, at a mature age, children should become self-sufficient and leave their parents. In Mark 10:6-9, He said, “’Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’”
While divorce was allowed in the Judaism of Jesus’s day, He agreed with the admonition found in Malachi 2:16 that declares how God hates divorce. As Jesus said in Matthew 5:31-32, “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Later in that same Gospel, Matthew 19:3-6 reports, “And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Verse 10 adds, “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
Jesus and the Division of Families
While it might sound odd, Jesus declared that He came to divide—not unite—families. This is not something a Latter-day Saint would expect to hear at a Fast and Testimony meeting or, for that matter, at general conference! But listen to what He said in Luke 12:51-53 (also see Matthew 10:34-39):
“‘Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’”
Luke 14:26 adds, “‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.’”
This hardly seems like a position Mormon leaders would ever advocate. Consider the words of James E. Faust, who served as a member of the First Presidency: “The Savior’s supernal gift to mankind gave us the opportunity for eternal life, but eternal life without our loved ones would be bleak” (“Eternity Lies before Us,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 1997, p. 19). And as Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland explained in a video used at temple open house events, “I don’t know how to speak about heaven in the traditional, lovely, paradisaical, beauty that we speak of heaven – I wouldn’t know how to speak of heaven without my wife, my children. It would, it would not be heaven for me.”
If this is the case, how would Faust and Holland explain the cold reception Jesus gave to His family in Matthew 12:46-50 (also see Mark 3:31-35 and Luke 8:19-21)?
“While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’”
Or how would they explain the manner in which Jesus told a man how serving God was more important than a parent’s funeral, as described in Luke 9:59-60? “To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’”
A person who leaves the family in order to serve God will be rewarded in the next life, as Jesus said in Matthew 19:29 (also see Mark 12:31, Luke 18:30) that “everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.”
Don’t mistake what I’m saying. Indeed, I do believe that earthly families are important. Yet Jesus was making an important point by emphasizing how the spiritual family should take a much greater precedence over earthly relationships. At the same time, Jesus was not claiming that the earthly family should be neglected, as this passage in John 19:25-27 explains:
“So the soldiers did these things, but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.”
Before Jesus left this earth, He wanted to make sure His mother would receive proper care. Yet as the other passages show, Jesus’s main priority was the family of God.
Are families forever?
According to Jesus, heaven is not a place where the earthly family will one day be joined together in an eternal union. Remember the event discussed in Matthew 22:23-33 (also see Luke 20:27-40)? Some Jewish leaders attempted to paint Him into a corner as they described a fictional man who had died with no children. His brother then married this man’s wife. He then died, and the same thing happened to the five other brothers, leaving the woman with no husband or children. (Was she that bad of a cook!?) Finally, the woman died. The religious leaders asked Jesus in verse 28 which of the seven husbands would get her as a wife.
It sounds like the perfect scenario for a Latter-day Saint general authority who understands how eternal marriage works. “Whomever she was sealed to for eternity in the temple” would seem to be the answer to the leaders’ question that can be easily supported in Mormonism. But Jesus doesn’t say this. Instead, He insisted that marriage and families will not be the same in heaven as they are understood on earth.
Heaven is a place reserved for the spiritual family to have fellowship together for eternity. Gaining entrance to heaven is not a reward based on one’s baptism, membership in a particular church, or any good work that could be performed. Instead, it is based solely on what Jesus provided for His people. These can include spouses, siblings, and children along with extended relatives who had faith and are therefore recipients of God’s free gift of salvation.
To base heaven on earthly family members each doing their part (having complete obedience) is nothing more than an exercise in futility, for who doesn’t have a “black sheep” in the family known for constantly shirking his or her responsibilities?
The Mormon slogan “families are forever”—meant as a reference to the nuclear family on earth—plays a major role in the motivation of most faithful members and the fear to not break the “family chain.” While Jesus certainly believed in familial relationships, including honoring parents and taking marriage vows seriously, He did not teach in eternal families. Unfortunately, Mormon leaders have turned the human family into a type of idol, encouraging their people to be smitten with the romantic idea of spending eternity with one’s earthly family forever.
Don’t believe me? Just ask any Mormon what they look forward to in the next life. No doubt their answer will be similar to Jeffrey Holland’s. As Christians, we must remember that, while family is important, it is not the end-all goal. Because Jesus did not advocate Mormonism’s view of an eternal family, this doctrine ought to be rejected by anyone who takes the words of Jesus seriously.
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