What Happens When We Die? A “New” Perspective?

KC KernMormon, plan of salvation, theology 16 Comments

This past wave of media attention on Mormonism has not been very kind. In a number of venues and outlets, ranging from national network news, to the mainstream newspapers, to blogs and Youtube, many Mormon beliefs have been lampooned for their oddities and eccentricities as they came to the forefront of public awareness. Often times the portayal was something to the effect of “Mormons are nice, hardworking ethical people, but their belief system is nothing more than a hodgepodge of 19th century fantasy mixed with some biblical overtones.”

However I recently came across a very interesting news spot from ABC News (thanks to templestudy.com for the lead) which featured a world-renowned Anglican Bishop and theologian named Tom Wright, who is a leading New Testament scholar. In it, Bishop Wright challenges the simplistic Christian idea of heaven and hell, and explains that he (and the New Testament) is much more concerned with what happens after the spiritual realm termed “heaven,” like a resurrection, and a renewal of the earth. Those familiar with Mormon theology will notice some uncanny parallels to his analysis, and it might give rise to the need to reassess how “kooky” Mormon beliefs are. You can watch the clip here (pardon the ad), or read the story here.

Here is an except from the story I feel is significant:

“In a radical departure from traditional belief, Wright says that Christians are not ultimately destined for a spiritual place called heaven. He says that at the end of time as we know it, God will literally remake our physical bodies and return us to a newly restored planet.”

I suppose that is a “radical departure from traditional belief,” but its one that has been near the core of Mormon theology from very early on. Can anyone recite the 10th Article of Faith?

To quote him directly, he brings out even more intriguing details:

“Heaven is important but it’s not our final destination, If you want to say that when someone dies they go to heaven, fine. But that’s only a temporary holding pattern that is life after death. And what I’m much more interested in, or the New Testament is much more interested in, is what I’ve called life after life after death.”

“I’ve often put it like this, if somebody you know has been very ill, you say, ‘Poor old so and so, he’s just a shadow of his former self.’ And the extraordinary truth in the New Testament is that if you are in Christ and dwell by the spirit you are just a shadow of your future self, there is a real you to which the present you corresponds as a photocopy corresponds to the glorious original. You know, there is a real you, which God is going to make and it will be more physical — more real, not less.”

Oftentimes Mormons will explain that, instead of heaven or hell, there is actually the sun, moon, and stars (and sometimes their symoblic value is left out entirely…). However, let’s examine the traditional concept of the plan of salvation:


We will note that prior to the resurrection, there is in fact a spiritual realm. Mormons typically refer to it as “the spirit world,” “spirit prison,” or “paradise.” Setting aside differences in nomenclature, this could very well be termed “heaven” and/or “hell.” But we understand that the spirit world / heaven / hell is not the final destination and (echoing Bishop Wright) we are much more interested in what comes after. James E. Talmage even said:

“During this hundred years [of Church history] many other great truths not known before, have been declared to the people, and one of the greatest is that to hell there is an exit as well as an entrance. Hell is no place to which a vindictive judge sends prisoners to suffer and to be punished principally for his glory; but it is a place prepared for the teaching, the disciplining of those who failed to learn here upon the earth what they should have learned”

(In Conference Report, Apr. 1930, p. 97, emphasis mine)

So what does this all mean? Does the fact that one of the worlds leading theologians is now teaching doctrine that could be found in LDS Sunday School add any external credibility to the Mormon belief system? And what does this tell us about other odd doctrines that are still viewed by many as “radical departure” from traditional belief?

Comments 16

  1. That video was awesome and I am so glad that he spoke so candidly about Christian views of life after death. It is hard to argue with this. I remember chatting to someone about Mormonism vs Catholism and I said, “When Jesus died he took his body with him…where did he go to? Does this mean that his body merges with God to become one substance? No…it means they are one in purpose not one being.” They looked baffled because they had never thought about it long enough.

    Thank you so much for this video KC.

  2. Many Anglicans I’ve known reject a physical resurrection, I think that is the starting point of where the speaker feels he is moving beyond “normal” beliefs (even though most Anglicans I’ve known believe in a physical resurrection). Interesting to see how his development comes so close to our own.

  3. KC,

    I’m glad one of us finally commented on this story. I read the bishop’s interview a couple weeks ago and was struck by his frankness and how close some of his assertions are to developed Mormon doctrines. I’m not sure about the “sleeping spirits” part of what he talks about, but he is firmly on the side of a traditional bodily resurrection of Jesus, which is rarer than you’d think for a prominent Anglican, as I understand it.

    I actually thought Stephen Wellington was going to post on this a while ago, as our British correspondent! 🙂

    To get at your questions, I think we are seeing a new C.S. Lewis, if Mormons are smart enough to discover Bishop Wright’s thought and think about it. A new C.S. Lewis in terms of an accessible English-speaking Christian theologian who defends traditional readings of Christianity, and dusts off some older ideas in the process which Mormonism has laid claim to for a while. For Lewis it was the divinization of humans, which many Christians had forgotten about but was taught in the early Church.

    I also recommend Richard Swinburne’s books, who follows a similar line to Wright’s but whose journey took him from the Anglican Church to Eastern Orthodoxy.

  4. Wright’s thoughts are so interesting. Whenever I read the Bible, particularly Revelations, I’m always struck by the lack of traditional Christian doctrine on heaven and hell there. We have whole religions (JWs) built around a more literal reading of the Bible on these points.

    KC, it’s interesting you tie this with the idea that Mormon doctrines are “weird.” I’ve long objected to that label as “weird” really seems to mean either a) I am not familiar with it, or b) I hate or dislike the person/people that believes it.

    I think you’ve identified a good example of b) here. Mormons can teach something and it’s weird but Wright can teach the same and it’s merely “different.”

    “Does the fact that one of the worlds leading theologians is now teaching doctrine that could be found in LDS Sunday School add any external credibility to the Mormon belief system?”

    If what I am saying it at least sometimes true, then the answer will at least sometimes be “nope it makes no difference because they only thought it was weird because they disliked the speaker anyhow.”

  5. I see some really basic connections to Mormon eschatology in Dr. Wright’s explanations, but nothing that really stands out. I think the piece was to be a contrast to the Rapture idea that many Evangelicals hold. The idea of the Rapture is a standard departure from the eschatology found in Revelation, and one that Dr. Wright seems to be advocating–especially with the Earth being transformed into glorified planet. Maybe I’m just not seeing what exactly the hubbub is.

  6. Thanks KC for the link to Temple Study, and for expounding further on this topic.

    Yea, I too thought this was fascinating to hear a leading Christian theologian spout principles that ring true to Mormons. The fact that it is coming from an Anglican bishop, and one of the Christianity’s foremost thinkers, will probably mean that many more will accept his view of the afterlife than if two Mormon missionaries knocked on their door and told them the same thing. Of course, they will attribute that to the fact that Joseph Smith stole these things from the “true” Christians in the first place, as he somehow stole the temple ceremonies from the Masons, and that even if we got it right on this one, all the rest of our teachings are still completely unorthodox. Unless, of course, they find that something else we teach is the truth. I guess we can’t get away from being a “peculiar people.”

    What is orthodox anyway – believing what the early Christians did when Christ was actually here, or believing what 2000 years of speculation, manipulation, and formulation has produced?

    I find it amazing how much more Mormonism teaches about the afterlife than the majority of the denominations of Christianity, yet learning about our place in this life and the next is supposed to be whole purpose of religion in the first place.

  7. It is interesting to see how this is a natural direction for thought to flow. I’m pleased.

    I’m also hopeful that eventually the spam filter will calm down. Part of the problem is that short comments seem to look like spam to it.

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    NM Tony, I think the more striking comments are about the eternal identity of individuals and the physical nature of our final state. Most traditional Christian ideas of heaven involve an ethereal sub–reality of eternal bliss, and Bishop Wright is saying that it goes beyond that, into a realm of perfected physical matter—ideas which match up very well with Mormon emphasis on literal resurrection and the physical nature of the celestial world.

    Also he mentioned the continuation of interpersonal relationships in the hereafter—a notion that is largely disregarded by much of Christianity, but is at the core of what Mormons understand heaven to be.

  9. KC, Atheism is the religion of England these days…so i am more informed on that to be honest. lol

    maybe I could do a British blog for receipes about Mormon crumpets and appropriate teas for Mormons to drink lol

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  11. Concepts of the afterlife have constantly been changing and adapting. Even within the LDS tradition we can see the quick, rapid evolution of otherworldly thinking during the life of Joseph Smith, and since then the slow adaptations like the non-necessary need for polygamy to attain the highest degree in the Celestial kingdom.

    Before I left the Church, my concept of the afterlife had evolved from what is basically believed to a broader, more equitable approach to salvation. One idea that I had was that we would not necessarily become individual gods, but more of a god collective. This was based off the idea that only Christ is said to have lived a sinless life, and only he is granted all his father has. Joseph Smith eluded to the idea that God was once a Christ before he became god – maybe there is only a lineage of gods and we are just participators in that plan. This would also make Satan’s attempt to overthrow the kingdom a much bigger threat. Anyways, we become gods because we participate in his glory. We can even bear children and teach them, but these spirit children would worship Christ as their God, and Christ’s son would become the new god of the next generation.

    I also thought that maybe there would be progression between kingdoms, and the idea dawned on me this morning that maybe all three kingdoms would be here on earth – if the spirit world is both paradise and prison, why couldn’t all three kingdoms be part of the same place? The same society is supposed to continue, so it should have a variety of perfected beings. But, then I worried that the Celestial kingdom might be more like a glorified caste system…so who knows.

    Just because someone has taught similar ideas doesn’t mean that Mormonism’s concept of heaven is any more valid; otherworldly living is largely guess work. Even President Hinckley said he didn’t know much about the doctrine. To accept Mormonism today means the ability to accept a redefinition of doctrines and teaching and the disclaimer that unfortunately the truth hasn’t been completely revealed.

  12. (10) “KC, Atheism is the religion of England these days…so i am more informed on that to be honest. lol”

    How does an atheist live sharia law? That’s a quandry 😉

  13. Yeah, it makes SO MUCH SENSE that God would give us His Word then have some miscriant named Joseph Smith write a book to supercede God’s Word and completely contradict it.

  14. What happens when we die?

    Starkly, when the brain ceases to function, that ‘being’ ceases to ‘be’

    The motivation driving that unique combination of elements is no more.

    A ‘Spiritual Future’ ????? – – – Pure self-indulgent fantasy!

    The chemo-electrical activity of the brain – the MIND – is naturally prone to generate any illusive mirage.

    If that imagery is not backed up by factual proof, it remains a fantasy.

    To give any credence to life after death, one must be round the bend, if not well up the straight!

    Natural cognition (common sense), affirms Life’s future as solely dependent on reproduction!

    Offspring are our future!

  15. Pingback: Organizing Chaos and Restoring the American Community: The Sociology of Mormonism (April 2010) – Katrina's Peace Corps Adventure

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