Sunday, July 17, 2011

Renovating the Afterlife

Now that I'm trying to catch up on what the Bloggernacle has been up to while I was busy, I've stumbled across an interesting post by John C at By Common Consent. In "My Little Heresies, Part One: Renovating the Afterlife", John C suggests, in essence, that the terrestrial and telestial kingdoms would be wasteful and do not in fact exist; there is simply a celestial kingdom (containing three degrees of glory within itself) on the one hand and outer darkness on the other. My attention was particularly caught by this paragraph in John's post:
Speaking of D&C 76, there is a portion of the afterlife that it clearly got wrong. It was revealed in 1832 and it puts everyone who didn’t receive the gospel in this life in the terrestrial kingdom, even if they receive the gospel in the afterlife (D&C 76:71-75). However, four years later, in 1836, Joseph received D&C 137, wherein he is surprised to find his brother, Alvin, in the celestial kingdom. Why is he surprised? Because, as I just said, D&C 76 says he shouldn’t be there. We tend to conflate D&C 76 and 137, saying that the really righteous will wind up in the celestial kingdom no matter what (because we are now, apparently, Calvinists), but still clinging to the usefulness of a kingdom where most of its members just disappeared and whose primary explanation just became mostly irrelevant due to later revelatory correction. I say just do away with the whole thing.
What say you? Has John understood D&C 76 rightly? Has he understood D&C 137 rightly? Is there a contradiction? Is it merely an apparent contradiction that can be resolved, or is the only solution to judge as erroneous one of the canonized revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants? And is John's theology of the afterlife a good one, whether that means one faithful to major themes in LDS thought or by some other set of criteria?

A brief sketch of my own non-LDS take on the 'afterlife': the fundamental division is a sharp one between those who have life in the age to come, and those who do not. Those who have life in the age to come are those who have freely accepted that Christ is Lord; those who do not have life in the age to come are those who have rejected Christ as Lord. (I leave to the side for the moment the questions of whether every individual is explicitly presented with the choice. I don't think there would be anything unjust in God allowing some individuals to never hear the gospel, but I would not be terribly surprised if it should turn out that, at the instant of death, every individual experiences a potentially salvific vision of the risen Christ and is given a final opportunity.) Those who are outside the kingdom in the age to come are effectively in exile, cut off from the Source of Life - namely, God. One might see their existence as a perpetual and pointless hunger strike, in a way. They have effaced their human potential by choosing to eschew the source of human flourishing (God) and the model of perfect humanity (Christ in his incarnation). Therefore, they exist in a state of shame and are perpetually withering away, like a flower plucked from the ground, and are asymptotically approaching nothingness. Since not all have the same sins to be ashamed of, of course, not all will 'suffer' equally at any given point in their existence in this state.

In much the same way, those who have life abundantly in the age to come may not have equal honors; some have spent their lives in active submission to the sanctifying Spirit, while others have been somewhat lukewarm and failed to live up to a life of full discipleship. In this way, within the kingdom life to come, there are not merely three but a limitless 'degrees' of glory - all of whom, however, will have access to the presence of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Those who have life in the age to come will be drawn perpetually further into the limitless depths of the Eternal Communion of the Godhead - experiencing what some have called the 'beatific vision', the inexhaustible experience of God in his glory. (This eternal communion will be the fulfillment of all of its earthly shadows, including the family, but will subsume and surpass all of them; family bonds will be even stronger in the age to come, not done away with.) In so doing, everyone who lives in the age to come will experience eternal progression, forever learning, forever experiencing more of God and more of one another, forever rejoicing in godliness. There will never be a time at which anyone but God will obtain omniscience, or omnipotence, or omnipresence, or metaphysical necessity, or any of the other incommunicable divine attributes, precisely because they are incommunicable, and so they will never have a robust 'godhood' in the sense that God is God - but they will be exalted as the adopted sons and daughters of God and as joint-heirs with Christ, forever increasing and exploring the limitless wonders of God and of God's creations. (For my part, you'll likely find me spending an inordinate amount of time in the First Library of New Jerusalem...)

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