I love to collect wood boxes and have a pretty good collection: old cheese boxes, tool boxes, fruit crates, Japanese secret boxes, my dad’s tool box, and even a rough-wood box made for me as a gift by my young son.
My dad’s tool box is simple but sturdy. Instead of dovetail joints there are simple, nailed, butt-joints. It was made to carry Dad’s tools to repair jobs around the house. Even years after Dad’s passing it is still solid.
My Japanese secret boxes are quite a contrast to Dad’s lumbering toolbox. They have precise inlays and exacting joints. Their unique construction highlights both their specific function and their creators’ remarkable skills and patience.
I also have boxes that are held together with glue and patience. They were poorly made or were intended to serve only a temporary purpose.
Each box tells a story about its creator and a specific purpose.
The same concept could be applied to one of God’s most important constructions: His plan of salvation. Any time we are presented with a theory for God’s plan for our salvation, we should consider whether or not it reflects what we know about its creator. Any plan truly created by the Master Craftsman should reflect His character and purposes. For example, if one hallmark of that plan is condemnation or desperation, we might suspect that it was designed by an inferior craftsman-not God. His plan presumably should effectively bless and teach His children while granting them all the blessings for which they can qualify. It should be prepared to handle every challenge with an unfailing focus on His central characteristic: love.
God’s plan of redemption should be the clearest testimony of His relentless redemptiveness. Yet this is the very issue that has confused and burdened earnest Christians for centuries: Why would a perfectly wise, powerful, and loving God devise a plan that rescues only a small fraction of His children while abandoning the bulk of humanity without even a chance at glory? How could a loving God create such a narrow and cruel plan that sends the vast mass of His children to suffer terribly and endlessly? If God is love, shouldn’t His plan manifest that love?
A review of many books by Christian theologians about heaven and hell manifests a surprisingly deep and abiding discomfort and confusion that many scholars feel about God’s plan as they understand it. They grapple with questions for which they find no satisfactory answers in their theologies.
It is worth noting that we should not assume all those who attend Christian churches agree with these theologians. Regardless of the doctrines advanced by their denominations, many Christians trust in God’s love and intuitively sense that He provides a way for more widely accessible salvation.
It is not my intent to diminish or mock the earnest beliefs of any faith. There are both coherent logic and great disciples in every tradition. It is my intent to help us appreciate the remarkable wisdom and graciousness of the plan taught by God Himself in the Restoration. It is worlds apart from any other plan and we should be profoundly grateful for the good news delivered through modern prophets.
The plan of salvation is a vast subject on which whole libraries have been written. In this article we will merely sample a few key issues in the discussions.
1. Does the plan show that God is kind, gracious and loving?
Presumably a kind and loving God would give all his children an honest chance at salvation.
When the Protestant reformers jettisoned the “intermediate state” or spirit world because of abuses with the Catholic selling of indulgences, they created an enormous problem for themselves. It is perfectly clear that the vast majority of this earth’s inhabitants have never had a full-fledged opportunity to know Jesus and His plan. They are marching toward a never-ending hell and there is nothing they can do about it. They will never hear the good news and will never have an opportunity to embrace it.
That idea is monstrous. Clark Pinnock, a modern and somewhat unconventional scholar troubled by the narrowness in modern Christian dogma, has weighed in on the issue, calling popular Christian views “morally shocking.”
What kind of God is it who consigns men and women and children to eternal torment, in spite of the fact that they have not had even a remote chance of knowing the saving truth? What sort of God would create men and women in love, only to irrationally punish the vast majority of them? A God who would thus play favorites with his children, condemning some to eternal separation from himself while admitting others, and distinguishing between them wholly or chiefly on the basis of the accidents of history or geography, over which they had no control, would be more devil than God. (p. 150)
Pinnock is right. It is simply irrational and indefensible to disqualify most of God’s children from salvation without giving them a chance. It is also unscriptural. “Sin is not imputed when there is no law” (Romans 5:13).
The Restoration declares boldly that every single person will have a full-fledged opportunity to hear the gospel and make their own informed decision. No one will be the victim of history, geography, or poor missionaries. Whether in this world or in the spirit world, everyone will have an opportunity to hear and embrace the good news that God provided a Redeemer to rescue us from our fallenness.
It seems to me that even the LDS cannot quite comprehend or accept the expansiveness of God’s goodness. We regularly try to turn the Telestial and even the Terrestrial kingdoms into lesser hells. It is popular to say that the residents of those kingdoms will live with an abiding regret that they didn’t do better and get more.
I think that view is fully unscriptural and contrary to the mind and heart of God. God describes those degrees of glory as lesser heavens rather than lesser hells. The glory of the Telestial surpasses all understanding (D&C 76:89). In our wildest mortal dreams we can’t imagine how glorious even the lowest kingdom is! If liars, sorcerers, and adulterers are allowed to pay for unrepented sins and go to a glory beyond description and comprehension, do we really believe that they will live with regret? I believe that EVERY knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is the Christ in pure amazement! I believe that Telestials will be filled with wonder and awe that God removed their sins and placed them in a glorious place that fits their preferences and utilizes their gifts. The wonder and awe will be even more profound in the Terrestrial and Celestial kingdoms.
What about lasting hell-the fiery, never-ending, suffering state of sinners? There are many problems with religious conceptions of hell. Debate rages about its nature and population (see Walker, 1964). It seems quite impossible to reconcile God’s loving nature with the traditional view of an appalling hell that will engulf most of His children through all eternity because of lapses or sins that spanned a few decades. It just doesn’t make sense.
One of the difficulties is the idea that God’s children can be tidily divided into two groups with vastly different outcomes. Does anyone really believe that God’s children are either entirely good or entirely evil? Does anyone believe that one group-those heaven-bound-has completely embraced God’s grace while the other group has totally rejected His offering? Offering only heaven and hell as eternal outcomes is simply too crude for the Master Craftsman who said that, in His Father’s house, there are many mansions (John 14:2).
There is another problem with popular Christian dogmas of hell. Many traditions argue that only a tiny percentage of God’s children (from .0001% to 49%) will escape its brutal clutches. The Restoration teaches a doctrine far more loving. While many people will suffer the temporary and purifying hell in the spirit world, very few people will suffer the lasting hell that is reserved for sons of perdition. Virtually all of God’s children who come to this earth will receive glory. If even 150 people (this seems like a high estimate to me) out of this world’s 150,000,000,000 estimated residents commit the unpardonable sin, that means that 99.999999% of God’s children who came to earth will ultimately go to a heaven-a place perfectly suited to their desires-a place that is glorious to them!
The plan of salvation assures us that God is serious about blessing and saving all of His children. We can rejoice that He is kind, loving and gracious.
2. Does the plan show that God is wise and capable?
There is a general belief among Christians that God placed us in the Garden of Eden to have a glorious human experience. He created that beautiful place for our everlasting enjoyment. But Adam and Eve went off-the-tracks and got the whole human race thrown out of the lovely place God prepared. Some seem to suspect that our first parents messed up God’s plan and as a result humankind has been relegated to a disadvantageous earthly experience that God never intended but was rendered incapable of changing.
The LDS stand virtually alone in believing that Adam and Eve are heroes who courageously opened the door for us to leave the comforts of home and have an authentic “study abroad” experience. This world, with thorns, thistle, and briar, is no accident. It is the perfectly designed and absolutely essential opportunity to learn to know good from evil. It is here that we learn to make choices. The Fall is as much a part of God’s magnificent plan as the Atonement. In fact they are companion principles that allow us to grow from our experiences without being eternally condemned by them.
Other faiths without this understanding struggle to answer fundamental questions: Why would a loving God allow trials, tragedies and suffering? Does He not care? Or is He powerless-incapable of preventing catastrophes and afflictions?
The LDS know that we had a pre-earth existence. We chose to come to earth with the awareness that we would face trials; we may even have agreed to our specific challenges. We understand that there is a purpose to this earth experience and its “opposition in all things” including adversities, afflictions and the natural consequences of poor choices by ourselves and others. The plan of salvation reassures us that there is growth and meaning in our lives on earth. We know that our challenges will pass, that we will eventually be made whole and will be reunited with our Father and all our loved ones, taking with us whatever growth and faith we have developed in this life. We know that His plan included a Savior who, through the infinite atonement, can compassionately minister to us during times of trial and suffering and who will ultimately grant us all the glory we’re willing to receive.
We need not worry about God’s capability or power over this world or about His love for us if we understand the purposes of the plan of salvation. We walk in serenity even during times of suffering, knowing we are safely in His hands and that eventually all will be for our good.
3. Does the plan show that God has modest or ambitious plans for us?
Many Christian heavens are not very heavenly. Many are theocentric-meaning that the residents are so focused on God that they are completely unaware of friends, family members or productive activity. All that we cherished on earth-from the beauties of nature and joy of love to the satisfactions of work-is lost as we turn our undivided attention to praising God.
For many of us, this would be hell. My fingers twitch to be busy. My heart rejoices in family and friends. My eyes yearn to be filled with eternity’s vistas.
A couple of scholars on the history of heaven have suggested that “scientific, philosophical, and theological skepticism has nullified the modern heaven and replaced it with teachings that are minimalist, meager, and dry. (McDannell & Lang, 1988, pp. 313, 352). They cite one exception to this general rule in the modern religious world: Latter-day Saints!
The Restoration assures us that God designed us for something more ambitious than spending all of our time singing hymns in praise of Him. We will praise God with our productive activity and loving relationships. We will join Him in the family business which is focused on saving souls and joining families.
He has designed us to grow to do the same kind of work that Jesus does-“till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).
The theocentric view portrays a God who designs our role throughout eternity as one that exalts Him. It suggests a supreme being whose main concern is on Himself and on satisfying His own need for praise. In contrast, the Restoration teaches of a Father who designed an eternity with a focus on His children and accomplishing His purposes for them. “He doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world; for he loveth the world, even that he layeth down his own life that he may draw all men unto him” (2 Nephi 26:24). We will continue to develop in knowledge, understanding, and skills. We will maintain loving relationships. In this doctrine, God is our loving parent whose mission is helping His children to achieve the full measure of their creation.
We raised the question, does the restoration plan of salvation reflect what we know about the Creator? Does it align with His character and purposes? Are His fingerprints on this creation?
The answer is a resounding “YES!” The plan of salvation clearly reflects God’s goodness, wisdom, redemptive intent and ambitions for His children. In every way this plan honors God and blesses His children. His fingerprints are all over it!
In the Book of Mormon, His great plan is called “the merciful plan of the great creator” (2 Nephi 9:6), “the great and eternal plan of deliverance from death” (2 Nephi 11:5), “the great and eternal plan of redemption” (Alma 34:16), and “the great plan of happiness” (Alma 42:8).
It is not a plan of condemnation but of redemption. “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:17).
His great plan should shock and surprise each of us as it did Joseph Smith who rejoiced in the fresh discovery:
Nothing could be more pleasing to the Saints upon the order of the kingdom of the Lord, than the light which burst upon the world through the vision [D&C 76]. Every law, every commandment, every promise, every truth, and every point touching the destiny of man, from Genesis to Revelation, where the purity of the scriptures remains unsullied by the folly of men, go to show the perfection of the theory [of God’s plan of salvation] and witnesses the fact that that document is a transcript from the records of the eternal world. The sublimity of the ideas; the purity of the language; the scope for action; the continued duration for completion, in order that the heirs of salvation may confess the Lord and bow the knee; the rewards for faithfulness, and the punishments for sins, are so much beyond the narrow-mindedness of men, that every honest man is constrained to exclaim: “It came from God.” (History of the Church, 1:252-53, emphasis added.)
Indeed. This great plan of redemption came from God and He has shown Himself to be an amazing Craftsman! Who can fear grief or death when we are in the hands of One as gracious and great as He? We walk in quiet serenity even when pain and tragedy befall us. We rejoice in His love for us. We know we are in His loving and redemptive hands.
Thanks to Barbara Keil for editing and contributing to this article.
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Books by Brother Goddard:
Givens, T. (2010) When souls had wings: Pre-mortal existence in Western thought. New York: Oxford University Press.
Givens, T., & Givens, F. (2012). The God who weeps: How Mormonism makes sense of life. Pleasant Grove, UT: Ensign Peak.
Hill, J. (2003). The history of Christian thought. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
McDannell, C., & Lang, B. (1988), Heaven: A history. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Pinnock, Clark H. (1992). A wideness in God’s mercy. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Walker, D. P. (1964). The Decline of Hell. Seventeenth-Century Discussion of Eternal Torment. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Farrar, Frederic W. (1904/1878). Eternal hope. New York: Macmillan.
Farrar, Frederic W. (1904/1881). Mercy and judgment. New York: Macmillan.