From a mythological perspective, why does our religion have such a powerful and detailed “Sons of Perdition” element? I asked myself this recently after observing other members talk about this theme in length during separate conversations. They were so passionate about discussing this state of being, going on and on about it, even though it was only tangential to the conversation at hand. I watched them go deep within themselves as they pulled out all the information they knew about Sons of Perdition and reviewed it out loud. It prompted me to ask myself “why is this important to them?” They were emphatic about how difficult and rare it was to reach a level of knowledge and spiritual enlightenment that one could even make this conscious choice. If it is nearly impossible to become a Son of Perdition, why does it matter?
The conversations were about being worthy, losing faith, and failing to do “all that we can do” to enact our own salvation. I no longer agree with many traditional members’ views on life being the ultimate, high stakes pass/fail final exam. So maybe that is why I was so intrigued by their focus on this topic. In our religious mythology, we have 3 main kingdoms of glory. These have nice tidy definitions and names. Unlike many other Christian denominations who focus on just heaven versus hell, saving people from eternal damnation, we are focused on making sure we get the biggest prize. After all, 2nd place is first loser right?
I think one part of the reason Sons of Perdition exist in our mythology is that the actual conditions of Celestial glory are not well defined. Yes, we know we inherit all that God has, but what exactly is that? We can’t comprehend this state of being. We don’t know what the prize really is, except for vague ideas that it is the best we can get. We become gods with the power of eternal lives, but we don’t know exactly what that means or how it happens. This leaves a nebulous sort of feeling.
Another problem of life with such a risky, one-shot chance at the reward is perfection always seems to slip out of our grasp. The root of the problem lies in the checklist. It is endless and overwhelming. There is always something you could have done just a little bit better, if only you had enough faith and willpower. Even the most fundamental and literal member senses this deep down I think. No matter how much they do, or how hard they try, it can’t all be done. Satan is waiting for them to slip up and fail. Did they maybe forget to read their scriptures this morning? Did they only have a half-hearted family home evening last week? Did they not include the monetary value of company-paid benefits in their tithing calculations? All of these are a lack of perfect obedience and effort.
Here is what I saw: Sons of Perdition make a convenient floor, a lower boundary to our possible life results that we don’t really have to worry about crossing. We don’t know what it means to become a god. At least we can clearly define the worst-case scenario. I might have an occasional immoral thought, skip a meeting at Church, or miss a home teaching family one month; but at least I know I won’t deny Christ and become a Son of Perdition. They have to REALLY try hard to be evil. I am doing the best I can, but I fail sometimes. At least I am not THAT!
I think it might be a convenient way for people to compartmentalize their perceived risk. Sons of Perdition are a tool of comfort in a way. It helps us deal with processing the loss of a loved one who leaves the Church. That is what I heard several times. “Those people lost their faith and became apostates, but they didn’t know enough to become Sons of Perdition.” If they knew better, they would come back. They are safe though. They won’t end up in the Celestial Kingdom, but they also won’t end up in Outer Darkness. It’s going to be ok.
Just as an interesting tidbit of trivia, it was not always clear if there will be Daughters of Perdition or not. Brigham Young in his classic style of being on the wrong side of modern sensibilities firmly declared that women were not capable of achieving perdition status. Fortunately, this right was later restored to women by Wilford Woodruff. So don’t worry about issues of equality in outer darkness 🙂 [Reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man_of_Sin]
Who knows? Is it someone who knows the truth, is imbued with the Holy Ghost, and then turns away from it and perhaps joins another religion or just stops going to church? What an interesting post.
The last paragraph is hilarious.
Who knew Woodruff was such an advocate for women’s rights?
This is a really fascinating viewpoint, that of the “bottom floor”. I think this whole sense of the “ultimate pass or fail” of the Celestial Kingdom negates much of the purpose of the Atonement and Christ’s saving power. Its almost as if we have placed undue emphasis on “all we can do,” and forget the admonition that “it is not meet that you should run faster than you have strength.”
I thought of two possible reasons for why we are so fascinated with the Sons of Perdition (and the degrees of glory in general). The first is that knowledge of these things is one way our church differs from other Christian churches, in terms of our doctrine. As the church becomes more and more “mainstream Christian,” we lose more and more of the things that initially made us so unique above churches. We no longer talk of God’s plurality of wives. “All other churches are an abonimation unto me” has made way for “all churches have truth; bring your truth and let us add upon it.” The Word of Wisdom isn’t that different from some of the other Christian churches, namely some Baptists (who also are not permitted to dance) and Seventh Day Adventists (who in addition to the same rules we have also are strict vegetarians). As the church gets larger and worldwide, and previously isolated members encounter so many religions that have such similarities with our “uniqueness,” we need to focus on what makes us unique. Hence, the emphasis on this such as the Sons of Perdition.
Another thing we have that is unique is the temple – and we place significant emphasis on that part of our religious mythology as well.
A second possible reason is that it makes us feel good. “I screwed up, but there are only two unforgiveable sins.” You can never BE a son of perdition – someone will always be worse off than you are. Its similar to what you said about there being a ground to how bad one can go.
I think that Perdition serves two purposes. It satisfies the need for a “punishment place” or hell because the simple idea that hell is a place absent of God (namely, everywhere but the Celestial Kingdom) is a bit too simple and even too cruel for most people to understand.
The other purpose is to put distance between us and Satan. Since perdition is the another name for Satan and also the place he and his minions end up, it is a simple task to aviod it. In other words, YOU DON”T WANT TO GO THERE, DO YOU????? So, behave. Even though, as Valoel points out, it appears to be quite difficult to go there.
Dexter – LOL!
To me, Sons of Perdition is just a nod to our universalism. We don’t want anyone to go to hell, but if you send CERTAIN people to the telestial kingdom, there goes the neighborhood!
Brilliant post Valoel. I really enjoyed it. I think you have provided some good analysis and I think you’re right on the “lower bound” issue.
I really enjoyed your analysis as well especially the part on us focusing on our uniqueness as we become more mainstream.
Using fear to control is a common technique in many religions (and any organization for that matter). I don’t think Mormonism is any exception, although it is a bit different. Jeff alluded to this concept. Sons of Perdition may be the ultimate “Shape up or be damned” scare tactic (although it is interesting to consider the incentive in place TO NOT gain sure knowledge in this light). Additionally, if all of God’s children were saved to one degree or another, it may not mesh well with human psychology. Humans have a tendency to desire justice and retribution, even at their own expense. Maybe the concept of Sons of Perdition allows us to better deal with those who we feel don’t deserve any of God’s graces.
I agree with Jeff.
We focus on Sons of Perdition precisely because they give us the “bad boys” and the “punishment place” that we are otherwise lacking. Three glories of heaven may be a great and comforting concept…especially for nonmember friends and family, people who are living well (or not so well, but who don’t necessarily know the fulness of the gospel, etc.,)…but it’s really dull. Tame. Boring. But Outer Darkness, the sons of perdition, that sounds like a GREAT story.
Can you IMAGINE the novelization of someone who walked with God and KNEW him, and then threw it all away? And can you imagine what he would feel as he realized what he had done? This is ART.
Wonderful post Valoel.
your post brings back memories from my mission when we used to speculate on who could go to perdition. I recall rumors like N. Eldon Tanner saying he was shocked to think he could become a son of perdition or Bruce McConkie writing that neither Hitler nor Judas could go to perdition. The Judas idea is interesting since this was debated among the Twelve.
Boyd Kirkland has a great article called “Eternal Progression and the Second Death in the Theology of Brigham Young”. There seems to be evidence Young did not think perdition would last forever for those who went there. This even had an escape clause.
I was teaching the Plan of Salvation in Gospel Doctrine a couple of weeks ago, and I was saddened and surprised at how many people were actively trying to “lower the bar” as it were to include more people as “Sons of Perdition.” Even after reading what the early prophets had to say (essentially how really, really, hard it is to become one), there were a couple of people that just didn’t buy it. They wanted to make every baptized church member eligible for the “Celestial vs Outer Darkness” dichotomy. They also wanted to add, liars, horemongers, thieves, etc to that group.
I was forced to point out that universal salvation and the mercy/love of God for His children are much greater than our petty desire for Justice and judgement, and it’s uncharitable to try and put *more* people than necessary in Outer Darkness.
I am no longer a believer in the Mormon mythology, but I remember a particular fascination with this type of stuff. For me, it really was the excitement of having information that most people were unaware of- including members of the church. I was fascinated by exploring the lesser-known intricacies. I still am, to a large extent.
I was just speaking with a catholic about their mythology. It was interesting to find out that just Heaven and just Hell was very much a simplification of their belief system. Hell is reserved for the worst of the worst. When the good and the in-betweeners die, they go to one of two places. The good people go to Limbo, where they await the final judgment in peace. The others go to Purgatory where they suffer for their sins and then are eventually redeemed and brought into Heaven. Those people reminded me of the ones in Mormon mythology who will pay for their sins but later be brought into a state of glory- the concept that eternal punishment is actually Eternal (proper noun) punishment.
I just started reading Dante’s Divine Comedy again. I can’t help but see a lot of similarity between Dante’s Catholic afterlife myth and the Mormon’s degrees of glory version. There are a lot of similar themes when you free your mind to unfocus a little and re-sort the ideas.
As far as the Sunday School discussion about putting MORE people in the category of perdition, why would anyone want to do that. It only serves to bring that possibility closer to yourself. Forgiving the way that Christ forgave really seems to motivate us to serve all, living or dead, as if the possibility of exaltation in the highest level of the CK is possible for all.
It is interesting that some modern day prophets give women the assurance that they cannot become daughters in Perdition. On the opposite spectrum, they are also given the assurance that no blessing of Celestial Glory will be witheld when the opportunity to be sealed to a husband was not forthcoming during their earthly sojourn.
Men can be sons of perdition on the one hand, and on the opposite end of the spectrum can only hope to be ministering angels if they don’t get around to getting sealed to a wife during their earthly sojourn.
If it is a place of punishment I suspect it is self punishment. I see perdition as a lowly state of enlightenment. To know but deny is to be stopped in one’s progression by what, maybe pride or ego? The concept of perdition conveys a lesson even if no one actually qualifies.
Active members can obtain perdition status and pretend to be a faithful member. True god like behavior is a state of being not a state of action. The bishop who is acts faithful but has his secret fling maybe on the road to perdition (but no one can judge that because we do not know what is in his heart). The inactive member who seeks God in private, does good in the world, is tolerant of others and seeks to be love is on the right track. We get too focused on the physical doings of the church activities and ordinances losing focus of the correct state of being. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “Be ye therefore perfect.” Or it should state, “Be ye therefore present.” God is that – he is present. His power and love are in the here and now. We access his love by being present.
Sons of perdition concept is a distraction to create fear and fear creates conformity. We should focus on connecting with God not fearing if we are obtaining perdition status.