As I passed my local Catholic Church this morning, I noticed the parking lot is empty, for the first time this week. All other days during Holy Week, Christianity celebrates pivotal events in the Passion of Christ. Yet today, Saturday, there are no masses, no services, no formal, institutional worship of god.
God has died.
I was prepared, in contrast, to seek from our LDS scriptures, a point of view on the Spirit World that doesn’t view this time between the Crucifixion and Resurrection in such bleak terms, that Christ died and ascended instead to a glorious spirit world. I opened up to Doctrine and Covenants, Section 138, highlighting Joseph F. Smiths dream-vision of the afterlife. He starts with his contemplation of 1 Peter chapters 3 and 4, quoting:
“For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.”Then, Joseph F. Smith sees in vision, an “innumerable company of the spirits of the just, who had been faith in the testimony of Jesus while they lived in mortality…they were filled with joy and gladness, and were rejoicing together because the day of their deliverance was at hand…There Jesus preached to them the everlasting gospel, the doctrine of the resurrection, and redemption of mankind from the fall, and from individual sins on conditions of repentance. But to the wicked he did not go, and among the ungodly and the unrepentant who had defiled themselves while in the flesh, his voice was not raised.”
(1 Peter 3:18–20)
“For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.”
(1 Peter 4:6)
As I read President Smith’s words, my heart sank. The Jesus I have come to know visited me in my unworthiness, when I was in the midst of addiction and self-condemnation. The Jesus I have read about in the Gospels communed with publicans and sinners – the “unjust”, not with those who were the “just”. The Christ who met with his disciples washed the feet of all of God’s children, even he who would betray him. The Christ who gave his last commandment, his New Commandment, told us to love one another, as he has loved us, that is, unconditionally. And when Christ was crucified, he proclaimed, “tetelestai” – “It is completed”, meaning, that the connection of love between heaven and earth, between saint and sinner, between us and all that is, is now complete, whole, and unconditional.
To be honest, I’m struggling with the contradiction between President Smith’s exclusive vision of the paradise of the holy versus the prison of the sinners. I struggle, because I wonder, “where is the dividing line between saint and sinner?” Is there really an “us” versus “them” in the eternities?
The thought makes reason stare.
I truly think there are some wonderful ideas in Mormon thought, but the hard-line dualism between us and the rest of the world is not one of them. It’s not loving. It’s not edifying. And to me, those two failings of this theology – this specific dualism – witnesses that it isn’t of god. God is Love, universal, absolute, unconditional love. Yes, if we Love him in return, we WILL keep his commandments, and which commandments? We will love one another as Jesus and God have loved us.
And again, to be honest, I do not know that there is an afterlife. Yet, there are a large number of anecdotal stories of near death experiences that give me pause – there are enough hints that keep my faith in our afterlife story alive in me.
One of the most common experiences in these near death experiences, completely uncorrelated with what kind of life one has lived before, is that in entering into the next life, three things happen:
1. We are greeted in unconditional love and kindness.
2. We see, in perspective, the events of our life, and feeling sorrow for our fears and lack of love,
3. We are motivated to be more loving, inclusive, and kind to all.
I sense that these perspectives are largely formed by our cultural biases, but that may well be the skeptic in me. Yet what I hear from these near death experiences – almost all of them – is that the next life is characterized by unconditional love.
Nearly thirteen years ago, my mother passed away. It was a tough two years before she died; she was in chronic pain, had become addicted to opiates, and had developed multiple infarct dementia. Coherent conversation ended perhaps six months before she died, and for the last several months, she couldn’t speak. Yet, on Mother’s Day, 2004, one week before she died, she told me, in clear voice, “I love you, Mark. I love you, Mark”.
A few weeks later, we had a family wedding of one of my nieces in the St. George Temple. The sealing room was so packed we had to sit three people to every two chairs. For whatever reason, at the last minute, the chair one seat away from my niece vacated. This is where my mother would have sat were she alive for this event. I checked – it wasn’t intentional, yet in my heart, I knew that she was there, for she loved this niece and had felt a special connection with her.
To this day, nearly thirteen years later, I miss my mother with all my heart. Do I know that I will be with her in the eternities? No, I don’t know. But I hope, I have faith, that God is loving beyond all that I can possibly imagine, and in that Love, things will just work out.
So in this walk this week in Jesus’ last week of life, I walk into this spirit world. I place myself today, not on the Cross, nor in the tomb, but walking into this spirit world. Will this be a prison or paradise for me? If I had to choose, based upon my own self-condemnation and hatred for the many stupid, selfish things I do, I pretty sure I with the sinners.
It’s a good thing Billy Joel is here as well (sorry, I couldn’t resist).
But I am wrong in this assessment. Not the “sinner” part – that’s pretty clear. But the prison, as it turns out, is in my mind – my self-defeating behaviors, my compulsions, where I exercise control, dominion, or compulsion over myself, or over others – these are the prisons of my mind. Paradise is all around me, and I fail to see it.
But this I know. In walking with Jesus in this Spirit World, I am walking with him in BOTH prison and paradise. They are not separate places, but rather, separate states of mind – or better said, a “separated” state of mind. Our dualistic thinking, our black-and white mentalities, our favoring of those like us and condemning of others – all things that separate ourselves – these are the prisons of our mind. These are the Hell that we experience not just in the afterlife, but rather, they are a living hell, here and now: our fears, anxieties, hatreds, angers, contempts, and disgusts bind us with the chains of Hell.
And Jesus comes, to liberate the captives – us – from these bonds. The Atonement is the connecting principle of Love that frees us from our self-defeating behaviors, for if we Love, our fears cannot paralyze us in anxiety, but rather, we act in love to overcome them. Our angers will not morph into contempt and disgust, for we will seek loving answers one with another. The Atonement – God’s unconditional love – marks the path and leads the way, and every point defines, to light and life, and endless day, where God’s full presence shines.
Where is this afterlife? Where is this Spirit World? In some of our theology, we presume that this Spirit World is not in some separate place in the sky, but around us. This is a scary thought, in a way, thinking that all of our ancestors are watching us as we do embarrassing things… but this a literalized absurdity. If we think of the Spirit World, not as "there", but *here*; if we think of Eternity not as "then", but *now*, a new perspective arises:
Life before death.
What if, to take the perspective of a near death experience, I think in terms of a “new life experience”? What if, as I contemplate this Spirit World into which we have entered, I think in terms of what happens in a near death experience:
1. Can I seek for and find the unconditional love and kindness all around me?
2. Can I see, in perspective, the events of my life, and feeling sorrow for my fears and lack of love?
3. Can I be motivated to be more loving, inclusive, and kind to all?
As I have walked this week with you in the last steps of Jesus’ mortal ministry, I have come to realize that Love is the entire meaning of the Atonement. Nothing else matters. But love is not an abstract feeling, it finds in me, the need to see the love around me, assess whether I am being loving – not to condemn myself in shame, but rather, to find what I need to do better – and then, day by day, walk with you, sharing each other’s burdens, mourning together, and comforting each other.
And the Comforter comes, and abides, in this very moment.
The Spirit World is here, now, and forever.