Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus [Outside the Church there is no salvation] . – St. Cyprian
In the Jewish community, people who come up with good answers are widely admired, while those who ask good questions are even more respected. In my experience, those leaders who can do both are usually called rabbis. Last week I was asked a series of probing questions by a Conservative rabbi. Like most of the good questions that rabbis have posed to me over the years, they centered on LDS beliefs concerning the afterlife. Most rabbis, like most Jews, don’t care a great deal about what Christians believe about the olam ha-ba. However, those who do almost always want an answer to the question of theological exclusivism: Can Jews achieve salvation on their own, or do they need to convert to Christianity?
For Mormons, this query needs to be broken down into two separate questions: “Will heaven be populated only by people who lived their earthly lives as Mormons?” and “Will everyone in heaven ultimately have to accept LDS beliefs and ordinances?” Our responses are no and yes, respectively. In order to understand why we believe this, it is necessary to review two important principles:
1) It is an axiom of our faith that the principles of God’s religion are eternal: they were taught to us before we came to earth, and they will continue to be taught in the next life. In LDS theology, the first “Mormon” on earth was Adam, not Joseph Smith. Our scriptures teach that basic Christian beliefs and ordinances like baptism were taught and practiced by Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Moses, all of whom held God’s priesthood. The Judaism of the Hebrew Bible, with its temples, prophets, and priesthood, was the earthly embodiment of the gospel from Moses until the death of Jesus Christ, when Rabbinic Judaism began to develop.
2) Mormons believe in a three-tiered heaven (1 Cor. 15:40-41), with the highest level of the highest heaven corresponding to what most Jews would consider “salvation”: there the righteous will live in God’s presence and enjoy every blessing that He can give them. Moreover, our prophets have taught that almost everyone who has ever lived will be given some degree of glory in the next life. Only a relatively small group of souls who openly rebel against God will be condemned to suffer with the devil and his angels for eternity. In the eternal battle for the souls of men, God wins by a landslide.
The LDS Church believes that portions of God’s truth have been given to the great religious teachers of the world (Confucius, Mohammed, the Protestant Reformers); wonderful, moral people of all faiths (and none) continue to walk the earth. To reach the highest heaven, we believe that one must first of all live a righteous life according to the moral principles she has been taught. One does not have to be a Mormon to be righteous, and being a Mormon is certainly no guarantee of righteousness.
In addition, we believe that those who reach the highest heaven will need to accept God’s eternal truths and participate in ordinances (e.g., baptism, eternal marriage), either in person or by proxy, that He requires in order to achieve salvation. In contrast to other Christian faiths, we believe that the dead also have a chance to accept God’s teachings and ordinances (1 Cor. 15:29). Those souls who have lived righteous lives and accept God’s truths, whether in this life or the next, will ultimately achieve salvation by God’s grace. There is no doubt in my mind that most people in heaven will not have lived as Mormons on earth, and many earthly Mormons won’t make the celestial cut. However, everyone who lives in God’s presence will ultimately share the same faith and accept the same truths.
The rabbi responded that with all due respect, this belief sounded “exclusivistic,” even “arrogant,” since an infinite God was certainly capable of establishing more than one path to salvation. My response was twofold. First of all, the ancient Israelites – with their temples, prophets, and priesthood—were most likely exclusivistic as well (he readily agreed, with the caveat that Judaism had evolved since then through rabbinic interpretation). Secondly, everyone I have met (including Jews) who believes that we will continue to live as individual entities in the next life also believes that we will possess far greater knowledge than we have in this one. All of us will have to discard beliefs and ideas that turn out to be erroneous. We will discover earthly “parents” who are not our blood relatives, “friends” who secretly betrayed us, “enemies” who tried to help us, and deeply-held religious “truths” that turn out to be false. Heck, we may even discover that O.J. wasn’t guilty. Mormons believe that lovers of truth from all faiths, including ours, will cleave to truth when it is presented to them in this life and the next.
The rabbi insisted: what about his righteous great-great grandfather, who lived and died a Jew in a shtetl without ever hearing a word about Jesus? I answered that he is in a place now where he is free from mortal limits on knowledge, and has more of a divine perspective on truth. I have no doubt that his righteous ancestor has retained all of the truths that he brought from mortality and continues to add to them in the olam ha-ba. If Jesus turns out to be the Messiah, I’m sure that pious shtetl-dwellers will accept this belief in the eternities. Well, asked the rabbi, what if the Jews turn out to be right? What if Jesus was not the Messiah? What if Joseph Smith was not a prophet? Could I accept this? I certainly could. My goal for the next life is to learn what God wants me to believe and do, not to carry my limited mortal knowledge, biases, and prejudices into the eternities. I can’t express this concept better than the Apostle Paul, who used a memorable metaphor to contrast our earthly and heavenly lives: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor. 13:11-12).
Our conversation was both earnest and cordial, and we parted with a greater understanding of our respective views on the afterlife, a subject that has touched my life in an unforgettable way. After a profound spiritual experience in Petra, Jordan, I can honestly say I know – as surely as I know that I am typing these words – that we live after we die and that our departed relatives remain nearer to us than we can imagine. To this day I cannot remain in a room where someone publicly denies the reality of an afterlife, and I have walked out on panel discussions when participants have made such baseless statements. I understand and accept that people can hold personal views on the afterlife that are skeptical, even doubtful, but public denial of an afterlife can only be made by people who have no idea what they are talking about.
I have enormous respect for people who share my interest in the olam ha-ba, regardless of how they perceive it. Of one thing I am certain: lovers of truth who follow the moral precepts that they have been taught in this life will have little to fear in the next. In the case of this rabbi, my goal is to end up where he does in heaven’s hierarchy.
I will make a presentation on LDS-Jewish relations at Harvard University on April 8.
Rabbi Barry Block and I will engage in dialogue during the San Antonio (TX) West Stake’s Education Weekend on April 15, and I will make a separate presentation on April 16 entitled “Mormons and Jews in the Latter Days: A Zion Relationship.”
My podcast interview on LDS-Jewish relations is available on the LDS Church’s official radio station: http://feeds.lds.org/WhyIBelieve
The Mormon Times recently profiled two LDS bloggers for Jewish newspapers: