I went to lunch yesterday with a very good friend of mine. We've been friends for years, but have moved on in our professional lives down different paths. Nevertheless, we still get together about once a month to go to lunch and to catch up with each other's lives. In the past, he has always been reticent to talk about religion. He describes himself as a "deist", which to him means that he does believe there is some kind of all-powerful being who kick-started the universe and is out "there" somewhere.
Well, yesterday I felt it was important to ask him where he was with regards to religion these days. What followed was a most remarkable discussion that covered nearly every aspect of what is called the Plan of Salvation. To that end, I wanted to record the salient features of our conversation, as it was both intriguing and instructive.
The discussion began with my inquiry as to whether or not he believed in God. He was hesitant to answer, as he considers himself a man of science. Nevertheless, he did state that he believes that there is some being greater than ourselves who put together this universe. As an engineer and scientist, he sees too much order and pattern in the universe for it to have all been an accident.
I followed that question up by asking him if he believes that this supreme being, for lack of a better term, cares about our well-being. He replied that he thinks he/she/it does. He struggles with the concept of a benevolent God, however, because of all the misery and suffering that is in the world. He sees this misery and suffering as evidence that if there is indeed a benevolent God, then that God chooses not to interfere in the affairs of mankind.
I challenged him at that point by asking that if he is a hands-off God, why would he have created this universe in the first place? His response? He believes that it is this Supreme Being's intention to bring us all together in the end. I was surprised by this, as it sounds suspiciously like the scripture found in the Book of Moses, which I shared with him. It reads:
For behold, this is my work and my glory — to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.
Then I challenged him again, stating that if this Supreme Being is hands off, yet it is It's intent to bring us all together in the end, then It messed up. He wondered how It messed up, and I responded that since there is so much misery and suffering in the world, then clearly the Supreme Being did something wrong. How could it be so Supreme and goof up the creation so badly?
What followed was an interesting discussion about the purpose of suffering. By his own words, he stated that people grow stronger by experiencing challenges in life. Again, it sounded so familiar; this is from the Book of Ether:
And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.
I then shared with him that we believe that the Spirit is eternal and that we have always been. He agreed wholeheartedly with this principle, indicating that the essence of who we are is not some temporary flash in the universe, but an enduring entity, given life by this Supreme Creator for a purpose. Again, we agreed that this purpose is that we may all be together in the end.
Before we came to this Earth, we lived with this Supreme Being. I shared with him that before this Earth was created, God brought forth a plan, one where we would be given the opportunity to come to Earth, receive mortal bodies, and be tested by the challenge of free agency. From the Book of Abraham we read:
And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them;
We must be challenged, we must have the opportunity to choose. This is our divine birthright. He agreed with this concept, and indicated that were it not so, if we lived in a world devoid of challenges, then even the smallest disagreement or injury would seem to us as the greatest of misery.
I told him then that at the time that God was proposing this plan for us, there was one who disagreed, who proposed an alternative plan that would make it possible for all of us to come back to be with God. Many at that time agreed with this alternative plan, and thought it good, but that plan, by bringing us all back to God, would of necessity deprive us of that divine birthright that we have been given: our free agency. This alternative plan, proposed by one named Lucifer, was rejected by God and Lucifer rebelled. From the Doctrine and Covenants, we read:
And this we saw also, and bear record, that an angel of God who was in authority in the presence of God, who rebelled against the Only Begotten Son whom the Father loved and who was in the bosom of the Father, was thrust down from the presence of God and the Son, and was called Perdition, for the heavens wept over him — he was Lucifer, a son of the morning.
Lucifer was cast out of heaven and was permitted to roam the Earth, tempting and trying mankind. The irony is that even in the very act of rebelling against God, Lucifer facilitates God's eternal purposes by providing temptation to those who come to Earth. The prophet Lehi gave these words to his son Jacob in First Nephi:
For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my first-born in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.
So this life, then, becomes a time to be tested. The prophet Alma spoke of this, when contending with Zeezrom, when he said:
... this life became a probationary state; a time to prepare to meet God; a time to prepare for that endless state which has been spoken of by us, which is after the resurrection of the dead.
My friend was troubled by this. He is challenged by the fact that we will be judged by our deeds, since he recognizes that none of us are perfect. Further, it disturbs him that some religions proclaim that an evil person can repent on their deathbed, so to speak, and return to God, whereas a long-time good person can make one final mistake before dying and be banished to Hell. It can not be so black and white, he said.
I took the opportunity to express to him then that justice must be satisfied. I shared with him of the parable by Boyd K. Packer on the concept of justice, that illustrates the great need for mercy. Were it not for mercy, not a single one of us could return that God who gave us life. The prophet Nephi stated to his rebellious brothers:
Wherefore, if ye have sought to do wickedly in the days of your probation, then ye are found unclean before the judgment-seat of God; and no unclean thing can dwell with God; wherefore, ye must be cast off forever.
Clearly, we need a mediator, or savior, to pay our debt. In the book of 1st John, we read:
My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.
We understand this to be the Savior of the world, even Jesus Christ Himself. He not only showed us a perfect example to follow, but took upon Him all the sins of the world. But there is still a price to be paid by those for whom He has done this: we must let him. We must exercise our free agency, our divine birthright, to allow the Savior of all Mankind to bring us back to that God who gave us life. This is done by accepting Jesus Christ as our Savior, through repentance, and by keeping the commandments.
Only by doing so can we overcome the two great obstacles that keep us from God, namely physical death and sin (sometimes called a spiritual death). Those who have done so can die with a calming assurance that all will be well, while those who die having done evil in their lives will pass on to the next life with fear and dread.
I explained to my friend that while traditional Christianity believes this to be the end, it most certainly is not. We still await the resurrection, where our Spirits are brought back together with a perfect, immortal body; and the judgment, after which we will finally receive our eternal rewards.
Alma the prophet spoke to his son Corianton on this very topic, saying, in part:
Therefore, there is a time appointed unto men that they shall rise from the dead; and there is a space between the time of death and the resurrection... Now, concerning the state of the soul between death and the resurrection — Behold, it has been made known unto me by an angel, that the spirits of all men, as soon as they are departed from this mortal body, yea, the spirits of all men, whether they be good or evil, are taken home to that God who gave them life. And then shall it come to pass, that the spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness, which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care, and sorrow. And then shall it come to pass, that the spirits of the wicked, yea, who are evil ... shall be cast out into outer darkness; there shall be weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth, and this because of their own iniquity, being led captive by the will of the devil. Now this is the state of the souls of the wicked, yea, in darkness, and a state of awful, fearful looking for the fiery indignation of the wrath of God upon them; thus they remain in this state, as well as the righteous in paradise, until the time of their resurrection.
I explained to him after expressing these sentiments that he was right -- it isn't as black and white as a simple heaven and hell. This judgment must come, and then all will be sorted into the appropriate place where they receive their just and happy reward. As the Savior himself said, as recorded in the book of John:
In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.
We know that there are different areas within the kingdom of heaven, sometimes called different glories, as recorded in 1st Corinthians by Paul the Apostle:
There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power:
With this, my friend and I came full circle in our discussion. We once again came back to the question of whether or not he believes in God. He again expressed that he does, but does not believe that God is involved in the affairs of men. I asked him if he has ever prayed, and he said he does not, as he does not believe that God would lower himself to our level to answer our prayers, which he considers to be mostly mundane, repetitive, and selfish in nature.
He further repeated his observation that people the world over do the most atrocious and horrific things after having received what they consider to be divine guidance. Thus if some are inspired to do evil after praying, then certainly it can do no good. I asked him then how one is to learn the "truth" about God, and he replied, somewhat abashed, that he relies upon the "scientific method". He indicated that he tests and tries what he learns from all religions, seeking the common truth and that which feels right to him. He rightly notices that nearly all religions, for example, carry simple prohibitions against certain immoral behaviors, such as murder and theft.
I asked him if he could believe in a prophet, and he again said that he does not believe that any person can receive guidance from the Supreme Being since it does not deign to communicate with anybody. This made me very sad. My friend has literally cut himself off from all forms of communication that God has with His children, namely prayer and prophetic utterance, both living and dead.
Furthermore, he proclaimed that no one church can be "right", since by stating they are right, they, by implication, proclaim that all other churches are "wrong." It was with some irony that I was reminded of the words of one young boy who had similar feelings when faced with a great religious excitement. He was faced with many religions, each quite zealous to proclaim the truth, or their version of it, and was troubled by his inability to determine which was true. Indeed, this boy, Joseph Smith, later wrote:
In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?
As a 14-year old boy, Joseph Smith was humble enough to recognize that he needed help. He turned to the scriptures, which instructed him to pray to receive answers, and received a most glorious answer to his prayer. As a prophet of God, he taught the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and encouraged people to pray to know the truthfulness of what he taught, as well as to search the scriptures.
My poor friend refuses to do all of these. He refuses to read the scriptures, as, in his opinion, they are the so-called inspired (and contradictory, though he's never truly studied them) writings of prophets, which don't really exist. He refuses to contemplate that there might be a living prophet today, who could be receiving guidance and direction from the Almighty. And worst of all, he refuses to humble himself even in the least to utter a simple prayer of any kind. In this state, I can not fathom how my friend can ever truly understand in his heart even the most simple of Gospel truths.
Strangely enough, though, his search for truth using the "scientific method" has yielded him some understanding of divine principles. By and large he does live a moral life. He does seek to do good. He doesn't entirely know why, nor does he understand how his good works can ever be of benefit to himself. He does know that he has a role to play in reducing human misery and suffering, those very things which the devil himself brings to this world. I am reminded of another scripture, which explains his behavior. It was written by Moroni in his waning days:
For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God. But whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do evil, and believe not in Christ, and deny him, and serve not God, then ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of the devil; for after this manner doth the devil work, for he persuadeth no man to do good, no, not one; neither do his angels; neither do they who subject themselves unto him.
And now, my brethren, seeing that ye know the light by which ye may judge, which light is the light of Christ, see that ye do not judge wrongfully; for with that same judgment which ye judge ye shall also be judged. Wherefore, I beseech of you, brethren, that ye should search diligently in the light of Christ that ye may know good from evil; and if ye will lay hold upon every good thing, and condemn it not, ye certainly will be a child of Christ.
My good friend does have this light of Christ, even if doesn't know it. It teaches him to be a good person and to recognize certain divine truths that encourage him to live a moral and honest life. I count myself lucky to be his friend, and even though I would not say this conversation with him was enlightening to him, certainly it was two good friends communicating matters of eternal importance. We left our lunch, both of us, agreeing to disagree in our approach to seeking the truth. We will meet again next month, and I pray that maybe something of what I shared with him will spark some greater desire to learn more.