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Our Hopes for Salvation
The German theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand has written that “It is not by accident that the Old Testament chose the heart and not the intellect or the will, as representative of the entire interiority of man.” We may get a lot of things wrong with our minds. And we may will, or choose, that which falls short of that ultimate Good toward which we strive. But if our heart is right, if our heart is pure, if our disposition toward God and our fellow human is good and holy, then the rest will follow.
An arena where these crucial distinctions may be most on display is that place in our minds given over to thinking about the life to come and what awaits us—and the rest of the human family—there. We know that choices have consequences. We know that some kind of judgment will unfold. We know that following our death, a destiny will reveal itself for each of us. And we know that scriptural language is replete with references to the righteous and the wicked, the saved and the damned, heaven and hell.
Over the Christian centuries, good Christians have disagreed as to precisely how these terms—and the human fates they suggest—are to be understood. Through Christian history, the entire spectrum has been represented: Massive predestination to damnation? (Augustine and Calvinists). Punishment conforming to our crimes? (Dante). Eventual salvation for all? (Origen, Charles Chauncy and Universalists). In Latter-day Saint history, the discussions assume their own particular dimensions. Will there be steady if gradual progression through the kingdoms of glory for virtually everyone? (Hyrum Smith, most turn-of-the-century apostles, and J. Reuben Clark). Or does our standing at death lock us into a bounded kingdom? (James Talmage, Bruce McConkie, Spencer Kimball).
We may not know, and have no uniform consensus in the LDS leadership about the terms and conditions of our progress in the world to come—about the extent and reach of God’s mercy. What we can know, and what should occupy our attention, is what we hope is the case. Not for ourselves, primarily, but for those who may fall outside our own standards and conceptions of truth and righteousness. Nikolai Berdyaev was a Russian Orthodox philosopher of the early twentieth century, one of those “holy men [w]e know not of.” He wrote powerfully and feelingly in defense of the most rigorous standards to which we should hold ourselves as compassionate Christians. To read Berdyaev on this subject is to be convicted of our shortcomings in this regard, and to be drawn to the possibilities of more fully emulating the love that Christ enacted in his life and on the cross. More specifically, he challenges us to assess, not our own standing before God, but our hopes for those who are often judged to miss the first harvest.
Berdyaev’s assessment of Christian history is an indictment of what he calls “the legalistic” or “judicial” interpretation of the gospel: “Salvation,” he writes, “can only be understood as…becoming like God…. It is difficult even to grasp the idea that God needed that there should be some process of justification, which is the outcome of criminal proceedings." And yet, he laments, “It must definitely be recognized that religious beliefs and the manner in which God has been thought of, have been a way in which human cruelty has found expression."1 In our worst moments in Christian history, "ideas associated with the prince of this world have been transferred to God." We have made him a sovereign embodiment of “the cruelty of the world." But Berdyaev’s finer point is that in the absence of pogroms and inquisitions and teeming hells, we still cleave to an underlying framework of justice as retributive—and judgment as final and definitive.
Moral history began, he writes, when God asked Cain, “where is your brother Abel?” It will reach its culmination when God asks Abel, “where is your brother Cain?” As Saints, we embody one response to that question, by our devotion to the work of saving our kindred dead. One can read that work as at least a partial assent to Berdyaev’s claim that “the 'good' do not relegate the 'wicked' to hell and enjoy their own triumph, but descend with Christ into hell in order to free them.” What we can do, we do. What we can not know but hope for, we hope for. When Christ’s love takes true possession of us, such hope may signal its own variety of spiritual birth.
As Berdyaev writes, "The true moral change is a change of attitude toward the 'wicked' and the doomed, a desire that they too should be saved, ...This implies that I cannot seek salvation individually, by my solitary self…. Religious morality based upon the idea of personal salvation is a 'minimum morality', a morality of transcendental egoism.”
Artwork by Viktor Vasnetsov
All Berdyaev quotations are from his Truth and Revelation (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1953).