For believing Latter-day Saints, universalism speaks to a legitimate problem and a legitimate yearning.
The problem universalism speaks to is as follows: exaltation is the product of choices in the direction of eternal life (God’s life) that are made by souls who see their options with clarity. In mortality, many of us — to some extent all of us — have trouble seeing our choices with clarity. Some of the reasons for this (sin, rebellion) are within our control, but other reasons for our inability to see clearly (culture, trauma, neurological wiring, lack of opportunity) are to some extent not within our control. So after this life, there will be periods of time where people come to see reality with the clarity that has not been possible in mortality. Universalists are confident that everyone who sees with this clarity will choose eternal life, or that God will somehow unilaterally impose eternal life on everyone, regardless of their choices.
The legitimate yearning that universalism answers is the desire to be with loved ones for eternity. Latter-day Saint universalists see in the statement “families can be together forever” not a statement of possibility, but a statement of divine intention. They view any possibility of eternal separation from loved ones as being contrary to God’s plan, and view the eternal gathering of our Heavenly Parents’ children as being an ideal that is fully within our Heavenly Parents’ power to achieve.
There is a degree of legitimate truth in these universalist ideas, and we would do well to honestly acknowledge that.
However, the problems with universalism are numerous. To begin, it is true that mortality affords us varying amounts of clarity, which means that none of us are able to exercise agency to the fullest extent in mortality. But it is also true that a lot of people are presented with a tremendous amount of clarity in mortality, and they wilfully choose against it. Sometimes this is for what we call “sinful” reasons, but often these choices are ideologically-driven. The primary objections to the plan of salvation in premortality were ideological, and ideological opposition to the plan continues to the present among people who think that various elements of the plan — such as roles, hierarchies, and disparate experiences and outcomes — are fundamentally unfair.
The legitimate yearning for eternal togetherness does not necessarily need to be answered with an imagined universal exaltation. The scriptural keys to understanding this are D&C 130:2:
that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy.
And in Section 76:
(speaking of the terrestrial kingdom)
These are they who are honorable men of the earth, who were blinded by the craftiness of men. These are they who receive of his glory, but not of his fulness. These are they who receive of the presence of the Son, but not of the fulness of the Father. (v.75-77)
(speaking of the telestial kingdom)
86 These are they who receive not of his fulness in the eternal world, but of the Holy Spirit through the ministration of the terrestrial; and the terrestrial through the ministration of the celestial. And also the telestial receive it of the administering of angels who are appointed to minister for them, or who are appointed to be ministering spirits for them; for they shall be heirs of salvation. And thus we saw, in the heavenly vision, the glory of the telestial, which surpasses all understanding; (v. 86-89)
The critical thing to understand here is that these things we call “kingdoms” are not divinely-constructed walled compounds for isolating souls from each other. They are societies. And they operate with the same sociality that exists here in mortality.
Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon’s vision of the societies of glory was radical and upsetting, because many people had built their entire faith around traditional notions of heaven and hell as binary eternal sorting bins. A life of faith, then, involved living the gospel so that I can be placed into the heaven sorting bin, and not the hell sorting bin. Joseph and Sidney describe something very different: eternal societies where people are not walled off from each other; as the term “ministration” connotes, they spend time with each other! And moreover, there is no indication that this “ministration” is an unhappy activity.
The reasons why there are different eternal societies — different groups of people who feel comfortable with each other — are the same reasons why there are different mortal societies. The same sociality that exists here, exists there. And why do we sort ourselves into different societies here? Because 1) we carry different identities, and 2) we want different things.
In the gospel of John, Jesus describes this mechanism of self-selection in very simple terms.
And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God. (3:19-21)
Coming to the light (God’s clarity, offered by Christ) is both easy and hard. It’s easy in the sense that divine clarity shows us the good in ourselves and it shows us how deeply we are loved by the God of the universe. The hard part of that clarity is that it also shows us that we love some things that God does not love (sin, grievance narratives, false identities, etc). So some people respond to that clarity with a growth orientation, which involves repentance and conversion, a “turning” of the soul and lifelong reeducation of our desires to love the same things God loves. Other people respond to that clarity by preferring sin, and surrounding themselves with souls (sociality) that validate their sins, resentments, and false identities.
If we have acquired in this life a taste for validation over repentance, then guess what- in the next life, those 100 people in our social circles who validate our erroneous decisions and desires now will balloon to a society of billions of souls who are willing to validate us all the time, forever. People outside of God’s society will be swimming in a sea of affirmation and validation, which are the two things that make estrangement from God bearable to the unrepentant.
One of the problems at the heart of universalism is its avoidance of this core reality, that each choice we make in the direction of repentance or validation has an impact on our soul, and affects the likelihood of our subsequent choices. Whenever I willingly choose sin or false identity, I make it easier, at the soul-level, to continue making those choices. And I compound that process by surrounding myself with people who validate those choices instead of turning to God in repentance and conversion. This same dynamic of social reinforcement, this “same sociality,” will continue in eternity.
This is why the Lord and His prophets have spoken unanimously, without exception, about the fact that our choices in the present have enormous consequences. Now is the time to choose, because our choices don’t just express our desires, they create them. We are literally creating our eternity each day, which is why Alma says that we are our own judges (41:7). Judgment day is not really in the future; it’s always today, in this very moment. And if I prefer other people’s validating judgment over God’s challenging, growth-oriented judgment, if I am unable or unwilling to receive any kind of correction from God and His ordained servants as a form of love, then guess what- I get to soak in the comforting hot tub of other people’s validating judgments for all eternity. Because that — not eternal life — is what I desire.
All that said, I always take comfort in Paul’s description of a thorn in the flesh (2 Cor 12:7), an aspect of his mortal mind-body experience that he prayed repeatedly to have removed, which request the Lord denied. Paul tells us that this persistent mind-body affliction was allowed to persist so that Paul would not become arrogant and that he might know the Lord’s grace. Often our desires are a function of something other than our will, and this is a normal experience of mortality, and an opportunity to know grace- one of the foundational aspects of God’s character. I take comfort in this because speaking personally, I am not confident that, despite my own pleadings, my thoughts and desires will fully reflect God’s thoughts and desires before I finish my mortal probation. Like Paul, I am aware of the persistent distance between my heart and God’s in several areas of my life. And also like Paul, I know the grace of Christ from personal experience.
When Joseph and Sidney offered D&C 76 to the saints, it was not received well. Brigham Young frankly acknowledged that “it was a great trial to many.” There was too much salvation and too much glory going to too many souls, violating people’s religious conditioning that envisioned a binary afterlife where all “the bad people” would get what was coming to them, and all “the good people” would be in a state of eternal bliss. The vision goes so far as to show that people outside of God’s society are able to receive the Christ! This is true of people who do not desire eternal life, or “the fulness of the father.”(V.76-77) The vision further destroys our notions of walled-compound kingdoms with its language of ministration between eternal societies. There is no such thing as eternal isolation from loved ones, or “sad heaven;” or it is more accurate to say that there is nothing about eternal sociality that is more sad than our earthly relationships. People go where they are comfortable here, and they will go where they are comfortable there.
Ultimately, the real question of universalism is personal: where am I and my loved ones going to end up in eternity? And this question is better rephrased as “Where do we feel comfortable now?” Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf teaches that in heavenly society, people forgive and are forgiven. Is forgiveness something that I love and that I practice now, or do I take comfort in my resentments and identify with them? In mortality, Jesus gave us a glimpse of celestial society by showing us where God feels comfortable: in holy places like the temple, which he called “my Father’s house,” and among the poor and meek and broken-hearted. We often speak of the temple as a place where we “do ordinances,” but it is far more than that: it is in fact a glimpse of celestial society, a social order of peace and holiness and selflessness. Do we feel comfortable there? And outside the temple do we feel comfortable in another place where the Lord and his angels spend their time, among the poor and meek and broken-hearted in society, or do we gravitate to voices that are brash and arrogant, that convey worldly (and therefore satanic) notions of greatness and power and influence? Do we live our life of faith asking what we can get away with, or do we live our life of faith asking how we can deepen our conversion and have God’s law written upon our hearts?
If we do not love the things that celestial people love, then we will beg and plead to be excused from celestial society. As Elder David E. Bedar recently said about this thing we call judgment, the question of where we belong will be obvious. There will be no mystery, and no awkwardness.
It is also important to note, however, that in a fallen world with thorns of the flesh, we have a limited understanding about what we and others are even capable of desiring. The story of Paul’s life seems to telegraph an important reality about God’s plan of redemption: the Lord who made the brutal chief persecutor of the early church into the greatest missionary in history, also revealed to Paul the powerful reality that “we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away…For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (1 Cor 13)” With that appreciation for how little we understand of ourselves and others, we should expect that, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “there will be surprises.”
There are different models of universalism put forward by people with different intentions, and in our efforts to guard against the self-interested and indulgent theology of modern Nehors, let us not make the mistake of rejecting the inspired imagination of people like C.S. Lewis, in whose masterpiece The Great Divorce we see envisioned a system of post-mortal “ministration” that enables progression for the willing, and eternal stasis for the unrepentant. My personal expectation is that in the future day of perfect clarity described by Paul, the universalist longing will be regarded at minimum as a righteous hope, held by many who are perfectly at home in celestial society. With that in mind, let us remember that a good indicator of our level of comfort in future celestial society is the grace and charity that we extend to people with whom we disagree here and now, including on doctrinal questions like universalism.