In their new book, The Christ Who Heals: How God Restored the Truth that Saves Us, Fiona and Terryl Givens make the case for how “the doctrines and scriptures of the Restoration have enriched our knowledge of the rock and foundation of our faith — Jesus Christ.” The book is a delight: The Givenses draw on a rich cast of characters — from spiritual leaders in the second century after Christ to General Authorities in the present — to map out the evolution of our understanding of the Savior. Each chapter explores a distinct aspect of our restored understanding of the Savior, and I was inspired again and again as I read (okay, listened to) this book.
The final chapter, “The Saving Christ,” expounds one of the boldest themes of the book. The Givenses make a credible case that every soul will have an eternity to work their way to exaltation. They suggest that “no loving parent would propose a plan that shuts the door of happiness to any of his or her children” and that “heaven isn’t a place we enjoy with other people; heaven is eternal companionship with other people.” But how then can we have both a “familial heaven” where all our loved ones are with us and “the freedom to reject heaven?” They reject the false dichotomy of either God as a “sovereign deity of vengeance and wrath” who condemns most souls OR God as a permissive being who will “‘beat us with a few stripes’ and then award us all heavenly bliss.” Rather, they propose that the gospel supports a third view: “Our Lord is, rather, the persistently patient master teacher; he is the loving tutor who, devoted to his students, remains with us, staying after class for extra lessons, giving us individualized attention, practicing sums again and again, late into the night, for as long as it takes—until we master the material.” This, they propose, implies eternal progression — including progress through the kingdoms.
They marshal some support from leaders of the Church:
- Charlotte Haven, a contemporary of Joseph Smith, records him as saying that a spirit in the lowest kingdom “constantly progresses in spiritual knowledge until safely landed in the Celestial.”
- Brigham Young taught that “those who fail to secure exaltation by the conclusion of their earthly probation ‘would eventually have the privilege of proving themselves worthy & advancing to a Celestial kingdom but it would be a slow process.'” [Double quotes here are the Givenses; single quotes are Young.]
- Lorenzo Snow: “You that are mourning about your children straying away will…get all your sons and daughters in the path of exaltation and glory.”
- B.H. Roberts: “The ministry alluded to in each kingdom seemed meaningless ‘unless it be for the purpose of advancing our Father’s children along the lines of eternal progress.'” [Again, double quotes here are the Givenses; single quotes are Roberts.]
- James Talmage, in the first edition of Articles of Faith: “Advancement from grade to grade within any kingdom, and from kingdom to kingdom, will be provided for….Eternity is progressive.”
- Joseph F. Smith: “There is a time after this mortal life, and there is a way provided by which we may fulfill the measure of our creation and destiny, and accomplish the whole great work that we have been sent to do, although it may reach far into the future before we fully accomplish it.”
- J. Reuben Clark Jr.: “We do not ‘seal our eternal progress by what we do here. It is my belief that…if we live unrighteously here, we shall not go to the other side in the same status, so to speak, as those who lived righteously; nevertheless, the unrighteous will have their chance, and in the eons of the eternities that are to follow, they, too, may climb to the destinies to which they who are righteous and serve God, have climbed.”
- James E. Faust: “I recognize that now is the time to meet God….If the repentance of the wayward children does not happen in this life, is it still possible for the cords of the sealing to be strong enough for them yet to work out their repentance?…Perhaps in this life we are not given to fully understand how enduring the sealing cords of righteous parents are to their children….I believe there is a strong familial pull as the influence of beloved ancestors continues with us from the other side of the veil.”
To be clear, the Givenses are not arguing for the “cheap, automatic salvation taught by the anti-Christ Nehor….It will take ‘work and labor,’ as President Snow said. No one will proceed automatically or under compulsion, as Elder David A. Bednar taught.” They are not arguing that universalism is a settled point of doctrine: “The Church leadership has officially declared that the question of eternal progression and movement through the kingdoms is not a resolved point of doctrine” in letters in both 1952 and 1965. They point to leaders, including Spencer W. Kimball and Bruce R. McConkie, who believed in a “more permanent, final state.” What they are doing is making a credible case for an eternal universalism. “Elder Robert D. Hales pleaded with parents in an area conference, ‘Never, never, shut the door of your heart to any of your children.’ We can hardly presume that God’s prophets are enjoining us to a degree of persistence, hopefulness, and readiness to forgive that exceeds our Heavenly Parents’.” And finally, “We find plentiful seeds of hope that Christ will truly wipe away all tears.” Of course, over the course of a thirty-page chapter, the Givenses make a more nuanced and complete argument than I can capture in this short post. But their proposal filled me with hope.
The volume is much more than just this case for universalism. Here is a taste of just a few of the other chapters:
- The Selfless Christ: “What greater perversity could we imagine than to take a human being made in the likeness and image of God and reduce her or him to a mere object among objects, a rung on the ladder of our own self-interest, a stepping-stone on the path to our own self-aggrandizement, or a disposable diversion in our pursuit of a self-serving aim? Such, however, is the nature of most any human evil one could name.”
- The Adoptive Christ: “Sin and death are not the beginning of the human saga; divine parentage and a planned celestial destiny are. Christ’s central purpose from the beginning was not to correct an Adamic misstep, but to draw us further into a world of joyful sociality.”
- The Healing Christ: “Rather than render the Messiah’s title of soter [a Greek word in the New Testament] as Savior, we could with equal linguistic justification call him Jesus Christ, Son of God, Healer of the World. One virtue of such a substitution is that healing signals the beginning of a glorious journey now unfolding, while saving implies its end.”
- The Collaborative Christ: “Heaven is not a reward for merit or a repair of an Adamic catastrophe; it is an eternal sociality of celestial beings, existing, striving, and creatively engaging in loving relation….The perfect harmony and synergy of a collaborative Godhead is not just a model for our own relationships, but a healing enterprise in which we are invited to participate, to collaborate.”
I recommend this bold, beautiful defense of Jesus Christ as taught in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.