Sad Mormon Heaven and Mr. Rogers’ Wager

How a belief in Sad Heaven prevents happiness right now.

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Photo credit: David Hilton

This is an excerpt from the book When Mormons Doubt: A Way to Save Relationships and Seek a Quality Life, available on Amazon.com.

In the heart of Provo, Utah stands a building constructed in the 1890s.

The building, formerly known as the Provo Tabernacle, suffered a brutal fire in 2010 and has since been completely restored and enhanced. Now it has been set apart as a Mormon temple.

Even if you’re not Mormon, you’ve likely seen similar buildings. They sit next to highways in San Diego, Washington, D.C., Boston, and elsewhere. They’re pristine and elaborate, each topped with a golden man blowing a trumpet.

For Mormons, temples are a symbol of heaven — a place where believers gather to enact a ceremonial journey to the presence of God.

But former Mormons can’t participate or even go inside. So when Mormons have non-believing family members and friends, the temple experience can turn into a physical symbol of eternal separation in the afterlife.

It doesn’t need to be that way.

Sad Heaven versus the quality life

In my last post, I outlined how the balanced pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness can help close the gap between believers and nonbelievers. By uniting around these three ideals we can all find success and live a quality life.

But is a quality life really enough?

Some believers don’t think so. They say, “It’s easy to talk about having a quality life, but what happens after death? When I die, I want all my family to be in heaven, but those who leave my religion won’t be. That’s what makes me sad.”

This sentiment is a source of sorrow for people all over the world, perhaps especially for Mormons. If it’s true, it’s devastating — a future where you’ll be forever separated from those you love simply because they don’t believe the way you do.

But is it true? Will the faithful spend eternity weeping with God about their loved ones who didn’t get in line with their particular beliefs?

Will believers with a black sheep in their family end up in Sad Heaven?

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In Dante’s Inferno, heretics were entombed in the 6th circle of hell — leaving their loved ones in paradise to assumedly mourn their absence forever. There are echoes of this destructive belief still around today.

The author Rob Bell once told a story that calls this idea into question. His Christian congregation hosted an event where people produced and displayed their own works of art.

One piece was a beautifully rendered quote from Gandhi. Most attendees were moved by the quote, but someone went rogue midway through the evening and placed a note on the piece that read, “Reality check: He’s in hell.”

“Gandhi’s in hell?” Rob Bell asked when he recounted the story. “And someone knows this for sure? And felt the need to let the rest of us know?” Bell says that we shouldn’t be so certain that we know what will happen to others in the afterlife.

Based on how few times I’ve died, I have to agree. I can’t be confident about what will happen in the afterlife, especially since any equation of salvation would by necessity factor in millions of variables.

For instance, I have a friend who grew up in stark poverty, who got into drugs at a young age, who has struggled with violence and substance abuse for decades. How could I ever convincingly make the case that he would fare worse in an afterlife than I would? If I’d had his upbringing, I would be in his shoes.

At this point, some Mormons might say that their belief in proxy baptisms will take care of everything. That is, they say that everyone will choose Mormonism once they learn about it in the afterlife.

But what about Mormons who reject their religion with a full knowledge of what they’re doing?

For example, picture someone who lives a happy, selfless life but who rejects the idea that polygamy was ordained of God. Or imagine someone who deliberately develops their spiritual, intellectual, and social health (i.e., truth, beauty, and goodness) but who can’t believe that Brigham Young was once God’s official mouthpiece on the earth. Will such people be banished from heaven, leaving their believing counterparts to suffer forever in the presence of God?

Again, I haven’t died, so I don’t know. But if it turns out that we are judged beyond the grave for our deeds and beliefs in this life, I have reason to believe we will find only mercy. After all, there are more than 7 billion people on the planet, and only a tiny fraction — around 0.01% — are actively Mormon. Similar numbers could be calculated for any number of beliefs, but real love extends beyond those limits.

Two wagers: Which will you choose?

Four hundred years ago a philosopher named Blaise Pascal worried about his fate in the afterlife. Eventually, he decided that it was in his best interest to just have faith. He figured that if he was right, God would give him an everlasting reward. And if he was wrong, he’d be dead and buried—just like everyone else.

A safe bet, right?

The problem with Pascal’s wager is that Pascal believed in a niche version of 17th century Catholicism. As such, he believed in a God who rejected Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists, and so on. What’s more, given that almost no one alive today believes in that same niche version of Catholicism, we will all be terribly disappointed in the afterlife if Pascal’s wager is true.

Luckily there’s another wager that’s more humane.

I call it Mr. Rogers’ wager.

Mr. Rogers, as anyone who has seen his show knows, repeated certain lines over and over. Two lines stand out to me as representing his wager:

It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive.

I like you just the way you are.

The wager works like this. Let’s say that someone disagrees with your beliefs. Rather than worry about their eternal salvation, you could fill your life with gratitude and love them just the way they are.

Now, some cynics might get the wrong idea when they’re told to love people just the way they are. They might think if they love someone in this way, they will be endorsing their bad behavior! But that’s not what Mr. Rogers meant.

When I watch Mr. Rogers (which I’ve only started doing recently) and he tells me he likes me just as I am, I feel like I want to be my best self. I want to pursue truth, beauty, and goodness. This feeling is in line with recent stories and studies about addiction that suggest that feeling loved might be just the thing people need to stop their worst behaviors.

So…

Let’s say your mother, daughter, father, son, or sibling no longer believes the way you do. Should you double down on your version of Pascal’s wager, holding tightly to the belief that they won’t be able to join you in heaven? Or should you double down on gratitude and pure love, thereby finding commonalities and enjoying their company?

We human beings don’t know much. But we know we have life. What a tragedy it would be, then, to let our fear of the unknown sour the relationships that our happiness hinges upon right now.

“There isn’t time, so brief is life, for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. There is only time for loving, and but an instant, so to speak, for that.” — Mark Twain

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