By Eric Johnson
Check out a two-part Viewpoint on Mormonism series airing August 24-25, 2020. Part 1 Part 2
Not too long ago I spoke to two Latter-day Saint missionaries in northern California. Toward the end of the two-hour conversations, I explained that the two (both admittedly not living according to a celestial kingdom law) would end up in the terrestrial or telestial kingdoms, places where families are not allowed to be together. The oldest missionary said, “Wait a minute, that’s not true. Families will be together in all kingdoms.”
If that is the case, then what is the point of trying to be a good Mormon? I asked. After all, if families can all be together, then why should someone work their tail off for something that is not even attainable in the first place.
The missionaries are certainly fee to believe whatever they’d like, but the idea that families are only together in the celestial kingdom is the rule of thumb according to LDS leaders through the ages. Citations from a number of leaders prove this is true.
Families only in the Celestial Kingdom
Officially, Mormonism teaches that heaven is not complete unless one’s family is together. A church manual reports,
As husbands, wives, and children, we need to learn what the Lord expects us to do to fulfill our purpose as a family. If we all do our part, we will be united eternally (Gospel Principles, 2009, p. 213).
Tenth President Joseph Fielding Smith explained that families can be together only in the celestial kingdom, the top kingdom of the three kingdoms of glory:
Outside of the celestial kingdom there is no family organization. That organization is reserved for those who are willing to abide in every covenant and every obligation which we are called upon to receive while we sojourn here in this mortal life (Selections of Doctrines of Salvation, p. 166. Italics in original).
Could Smith have been any more clear?
To qualify for this, a person must get married for eternity in one of the LDS temples to have the chance to be exalted and reside together with the family in the hereafter. Ninth President Harold B. Lee said:
TEMPLE MARRIAGE MUST BE PERFORMED IN MORTALITY. Marriage is not performed in the heavens hereafter. If you would be united for eternity as husband and wife and family, that sealing must be performed here upon this earth by the authority of the holy priesthood. Knowing and believing this, no one of you should be content until you have prepared yourself to enter into this eternal relationship (Harold B. Lee, “Unwelcome Wedding Guests,” Radio Address delivered April 8, 1945. Cited in The Teachings of Harold B. Lee, p. 243).
He also said,
But redemption from individual sins depends upon individual effort, with each being judged according to his or her works. The scriptures make it clear that while a resurrection will come to all, only those who obey the Christ will receive the expanded blessing of eternal salvation (“To Ease the Aching Heart,” Ensign, April 1973, p. 5. Cited in The Teachings of Harold B. Lee, pp. 17-18. Ellipsis in original).
Sixteenth President Thomas S. Monson firmly agreed:
It is the celestial glory which we seek. It is in the presence of God we desire to dwell. It is a forever family in which we want membership. Such blessings are earned. A high report card of mortality qualifies us to graduate with honors (“An Invitation to Exaltation,’ Satellite Broadcast, March 4, 1984. Cited in Teachings of Thomas S. Monson, p. 33).
Henry B. Eyring, a member of the First Presidency, didn’t mince words when he wrote,
Of all the gifts our loving Heavenly Father has provided to His children, the greatest is eternal life (see D&C 14:7). That gift is to live in the presence of God the Father and His Beloved Son forever in families. Only in the highest of the kingdoms of God, the celestial, will the loving bonds of family life continue (“The Hope of Eternal Family Love,” Ensign, August 2016, p. 4).
Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland said that he couldn’t even envision eternity without his family:
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 (Introductory DVD shown at various LDS temple public viewings or open house).
Each Person Is Responsible to Keep His/Her End of the Covenant
Some Latter-day Saints, including these two missionaries, have morphed the teaching of exaltation with general salvation, which is the belief that all possessing mortal bodies will be resurrected from the dead. Yet they mean two different things, as Joseph Fielding Smith differentiated between the two:
Salvation is twofold: General – that which comes to all men irrespective of a belief (in this life) in Christ- and, Individual – that which man merits through his own acts through life and by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel (Doctrines of Salvation 1:134. Italics in original).
Fourteenth President Howard W. Hunter agreed:
Salvation is an individual matter. The atonement that Christ wrought was in behalf of every individual. However, each must work out his or her own salvation, for we are not saved collectively. The worthiness of one’s friends or family will not save him or her. There must be an individual effort. While it is true that worthy couples will obtain ultimate exaltation in the celestial kingdom, each man and each woman sealed in an eternal relationship must be individually worthy of that blessing (Howard W. Hunter, “The Church is for all People,” Single Adult Fireside, Satellite Broadcast, February 26, 1989. Also see Ensign, June 1989, p. 76. Cited in The Teachings of Howard W. Hunter, p. 10. Bold and italics in original).
There will be no hanging onto the coattails of others, including more valiant parents, spouses or children, for a person to get exaltation. Rather, this is earned on an individual basis, as eighth President George Albert Smith stated,
Obedience in this life is a foundation for eternal happiness. The fact that we have been baptized into the Church is not sufficient. The fact that our names are on the Church records is not sufficient. . . therefore we cannot drink with the drunken, we cannot debauch our lives, we cannot be dishonorable in our dealings with our fellowmen and gain celestial glory. We must keep the commandments of our Heavenly Father. We are told in other scripture that those who do not keep the commandments of God will forfeit their right to the blessings of the celestial kingdom (The Teachings of George Albert Smith, p. 97. Italics in original. Ellipsis mine).
Understanding that not every person will be entitled to individual salvation, or exaltation, is important to show that not everyone can expect to be with his or her family into eternity. In his April 7, 2019 talk in the spring general conference titled “Come, Follow Me,” seventeenth President Russell M. Nelson explained:
The spirit in each of us naturally yearns for family love to last forever. Love songs perpetuate a false hope that love is all you need if you want to be together forever. And some erroneously believe that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ provides a promise that all people will be with their loved ones after death. In truth, the Savior has made it abundantly clear that while His Resurrection assures that every person who ever lived will indeed be resurrected and live forever, much more is required if we want to have the high privilege of exaltation. Salvation is an individual matter, but exaltation is a family matter (Ensign, May 2019, p. 89).
Each individual is responsible to keep the covenants they make with God at baptism and in the temple if they hope to spend eternity with their families. As Nelson continued saying in his talk,
The Savior invites all to follow Him into the waters of baptism and, in time, to make additional covenants with God in the temple and receive and be faithful to those further essential ordinances. All these are required if we want to be exalted with our families and with God forever (Ibid., pp. 89-90).
As stated, Latter-day Saints are free to believe whatever they wish. But for missionaries to make it appear that their church’s doctrine allows families to be together in any other place than the celestial kingdom is wrong, plain and simple, when we consider the many quotes given by past and present leaders of the church.
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