ORIGINALLY POSTED AT RATIONALFAITHS.COM ON SEPTEMBER 1, 2015.
The following is an argument for Mormon Universalism. I present this argument not as a personal endorsement in every particular, but rather as a prompt for constructive discussion and critical self-reflection.
What is “Mormon Universalism”? It is the belief that every single person who has ever lived will eventually return to and be reconciled with God, and that this is perfectly compatible with a reasonable interpretation of Mormon theology.
The argument is based on two key ideas: 1) the “Piano Model” of grace, and 2) eternity is a very long time.
THE “PIANO MODEL” OF GRACE
The first key idea is from an article by Brad Wilcox in the September 2013 Ensign entitled “His Grace is Sufficient.” Wilcox has become popular the last few years by challenging the Stephen Robinson “Parable of the Bicycle” model of grace that was popular in the 1990s. In brief, the Robinson “Bicycle Model” argues that the Atonement is like a parent who purchases a bicycle for his or her child after the child expends his or her own “best efforts” to save up the money, even though this might only be a few pennies. The Atonement, in effect, makes up the huge difference in the “purchase price” of salvation between what we can earn for ourselves and what is required.
Enter Brad Wilcox in 2013 who challenged this popular model by arguing instead that our “best efforts” are not needed to “pay off a debt” or “make deposits” toward a desired salvation. Rather, the Atonement has already paid the entire price in full and God asks us for our best efforts not because it helps earn our way into his presence, but so we’ll get a lot of practice becoming the type of person who will be comfortable in his presence. Instead of a bicycle, he uses the analogy of a piano. Our parents purchase piano lessons for us and give them to us as a gift. We practice the piano not to pay back the purchase price of the lessons to our parents (it was a gift, after all), but rather to show gratitude for the gift our parents gave us and to take advantage of the opportunity to learn how to become a pianist. In this sense, our best efforts are not what we do to “earn our way” into heaven but rather what we do to show gratitude for the gift of the Atonement by developing a desire to have a personal relationship with our Heavenly Parents, to be in their presence, and to become more like them.
One could argue that the “Piano Model” of grace suggests that the “entry fee” to God’s presence is already paid in full. Therefore, God is literally standing at the door of Heaven inviting everyone back in, since everyone’s fee has already been covered by the Atonement. And since “all are alike unto God” the entry fee has been paid for Mormons and non-Mormons alike: NO EXCEPTIONS. The only reason, then, that some do not accept the invitation is simply because they feel awkward or uncomfortable in God’s presence. The Piano Model suggests that all are welcome to return to God literally whenever they have the desire to accept the open, eternal, and standing invitation to do so.
ETERNITY IS A REALLY, REALLY, REALLY LONG TIME
The second key idea supporting Mormon Universalism is inspired by Steven Peck’s thought-provoking novel “A Short Stay in Hell.” This book illustrates how absurdly and infinitely long “eternity” is. (A review is available here). Given the incomprehensibly infinite duration of eternity, one could ask who in the world would choose forever to permanently declinethe standing and open invitation back into God’s presence (see discussion of the Piano Model above). Some may decline the invitation for years. But millions of years? Eons? Forever? Who would realistically never choose to accept the invitation? Who would never get around to making the choices that would lead them to feel comfortable in God’s presence, if nothing else than out of sheer boredom at having done everything else there possibly is to do in the Universe a trillion times over?
From a literal Mormon theological perspective, this of course requires the existence of “progression from kingdom to kingdom.” Someone initially more comfortable in the Telestial Kingdom, for instance, would need to be able to move up to the Celestial Kingdom when he or she feels comfortable accepting the invitation to do so. Bruce R. McConkie emphatically stated in 1980 that such a possibility does not exist, labeling such a view a “heresy.” This stands in stark contrast, however, to the plethora of teachings by other prophets and General Authorities that support (to one degree or another) the idea of eternal progression between the eternal Kingdoms (see here and here, e.g.). Importantly, a 1952 letter from the First Presidency states that there is no “definitive” stance by the Church on this doctrinal question. Given the absence of an authoritative definitive stance and the weight of prophetic statements weighing heavily in favor of the availability of eternal progression between the Kingdoms, it stands to reason that Mormon theology strongly supports this possibility.
Combining these two key ideas leads to a narrative that goes something like this: The Atonement of Jesus Christ is literally infinite and has fully paid everyone’s “entry fee” to return to God’s presence. Because of this, everyone (literally: everyone!) has a standing and open invitation to return to God’s presence and the only thing preventing some people from immediately accepting the invitation in the eternities is their own reluctance to do so. However, given that eternity is a very, very, very, very, very, very long time, everyone will have plenty of time to work out whatever they need to work out in order to eventually feel comfortable accepting the open and eternal invitation back into God’s presence and for full reconciliation with Them. And assuming there is no barrier on progression between the Kingdoms, even a literal understanding of the Mormon afterlife is amenable to the idea that everyone will eventually be able to make their way back, when that is what they desire. And a reasonable prediction would be that there will be few, if any, who will not eventually choose to return to God’s presence and partake of “eternal life and exaltation.”
[FN1] Others have also recently made appeals for Mormon Universalism, but based on different arguments. See chapter chapter 4 of The God Who Weeps by Terryl and Fiona Givens, for instance. More on the Givens’s approach to universalism can be found here. My strong hunch is that they would maybe even consider the term “Mormon Universalism” redundant.
[FN2] The “Piano Model” is also closer to the model of grace currently being promoted by Adam Miller and as recently explained by Pres. Uchtdorf’s General Conference talk on grace. It also moves Mormonism rhetoric and theology on grace closer to Evangelical Protestantism than what I had understood (and taught) as a missionary more than a decade ago…
[FN3] Note that this says “more comfortable.” According to this model, individuals are not “assigned” a Kingdom of Glory in the afterlife, but rather they choose which one they’d like to go to based on where they feel most comfortable.
[FN4] But, some may question, what of the salvific ordinances or authority that can be found only within the Mormon Church? Again, even assuming a literal Mormon approach to institutional authority, the doctrine and practice of vicarious ordinances means everyone will be covered eventually (and remember, eternity is plenty long to get everyone covered). Even if that weren’t the case, Mormons believe that the Atonement of Jesus Christ is literally “infinite,” it seems reasonable to ask why couldn’t the Atonement cover for someone who happens to be missing an institutional-specific salvific ordinance, especially when such ordinances have been available for such short time frames and among such small populations of God’s children throughout the history of the world?
- What are the strengths of the Mormon Universalism model as outlined above? What are the weaknesses?
- Does this argument “taste good” to you?
- What other arguments are there either for or against the idea of Mormon Universalism aside those outlined above?
- What similarities and differences exist between Mormon Universalism and other strains of Universalism, including Unitarian Universalism or Christian Universalism?
- Assuming this perspective is true (or parts of it are true), what implications does it have for your personal life? How would it affect your decisions, priorities, and values pertaining to your relationships with others or with the Church? What would you do differently in your life if you believed in Mormon Universalism than you would not do if you didn’t?
- What motivations would the institutional LDS church have to promote this Universalistic perspective? What motivations would the church have to discourage this perspective?