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?