The hope that we will be eternally reunited with our families in Heaven presents itself as perhaps the single most attractive tenet of Mormon belief. Husbands and wives, after being sealed in a temple ceremony, can look forward to a day when they shall reign as king gods and queen gods over an extended celestial family of their own birthing. And even the married couple’s earthly children, if they have lived righteously, will be right there with them to share in their happiness. This vision of future familial glory shines at the center of Latter-Day-Saints’ worship and practice; the promise of everlasting kinship and love is the dynamo that drives their daily lives.
But is the Mormon hope founded on truth? Many passages of Holy Scripture seem to forbid a belief in marriages that extend beyond the grave. Take, for instance, the words of Our Lord concerning the final resurrection of all people:
On that day, too, [Jesus] was approached with a question by the Sadducees, men who say that there is no resurrection; “Master,” they said, “Moses told us, ‘If a man leaves no children when he dies, his brother shall marry the widow by right of kinship, and beget children in the dead brother’s name.’ We had seven brothers once in our country, of whom the first died, a married man without issue, bequeathing his wife to the second. And the same befell the second brother, and then the third, and in the end all seven, the woman dying last of all. And now, when the dead rise again, which of the seven will be her husband, since she was wife to them all?”
Jesus answered them, “You are wrong; you do not understand the scriptures, or what is the power of God. When the dead rise again, there is no marrying and giving in marriage; they are as the angels in heaven are.” (Matthew 22:23-30, Knox Bible)
The Sadducees, a Hellenized sect of Jews who had imported many ideas from Greek philosophy, attempted to expose what they saw as the absurdity of a belief in a future resurrection. For the Sadducees, the Law of Moses, or Torah, was unassailable and everlasting. Therefore, in their eyes, the very possibility of confusion regarding marital law in the world to come would render a belief in the afterlife impossible. The Mosaic Law was complete and final, and since it did not include rules for the next world, the Sadducees reasoned that there simply must not be a next world. Rather conveniently, the Sadducees’ belief allowed them to side with the more “enlightened” Greek philosophers of their time, and thus also with their Roman masters, who considered the resurrection absurd as well (but for very different reasons). So, there were some political motivations behind their belief too.
Jesus responded to the Sadducees by reiterating the more traditional belief of the Pharisees and the Essenes, two other sects in ancient Judaism, who in stark contrast to the revisionist-minded Sadducees, were less willing to uncritically accept Greek ideas. They taught, along with Our Lord Jesus, that there would be no marriage in the world to come. Instead, everybody would live as the angels. Such was their solution to the problems posed by Torah. In anticipation of this form of eternal life, many of the Essenes lived celibate and ascetic lives in the desert. Indeed, even today, Catholic monastics and priests see themselves as living the angelic life on Earth in order to catch a glimpse of Heaven.
But, what is Heaven? “Things no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no human heart conceived, the welcome God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). It is certainly a very strange place. One of the clearest images we have of it involves celibate people dwelling in caves out in the heat of the desert. How is that paradise? And what does it have to do with families?
Like Mormons, Catholics believe that man is destined to inherit a kind of divinity. As St. Athanasius wrote, “God became man so that men might become gods.” The purpose of Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, and resurrection was to explode our mortality with an influx of divine energies that will one day allow us “to share the divine nature, with the world’s corruption, the world’s passions, left behind” (2 Peter 1:4). We are children of God, in a spiritual rather than biological sense, and as St. Paul wrote, “if we are [God's] children, then we are his heirs too; heirs of God, sharing the inheritance of Christ; only we must share his sufferings, if we are to share his glory” (Romans 8:17). St. John added, “Beloved, we are sons of God even now, and what we shall be hereafter, has not been made known as yet. But we know that when [Jesus] comes we shall be like him; we shall see him, then, as he is” (1 John 3:2).
Now, Jesus Christ is the Word of God. “At the beginning of time the Word already was; and God had the Word abiding with him, and the Word was God. He abode, at the beginning of time, with God. It was through him that all things came into being, and without him came nothing that has come to be. In him there was life, and that life was the light of men. And the light shines in darkness, a darkness which was not able to master it” (John 1:1-5). Jesus Christ is that through which “we we live, and move, and have our being,” but made flesh in a most mysterious manner (Acts 17:28). He is the vivifying force behind existence, the life principle of our entire universe. You could even say that he is the soul of the whole world. The Holy Spirit breathes him into each and every thing, and there is nothing that does not have him dwelling deep within. He knows and empowers everything from the inside out. He is eternal, all-powerful, everywhere present.
And someday, if we hold fast to Christ, we are going to be just like him.
The Mormon vision of godhood pales in comparison, and so does their vision of family. It is much too small to say that men will one day rule over planets of their own and be reunited with their earthly families. All things considered, such a vision is still limited. It is much bigger—and more scandalous—to say that without loss of personal identity, mankind will share fully in the divine life of the Creator God and his governance of the universe, and all people will become family in the truest sense. “At present, we are looking at a confused reflection in a mirror; then, we shall see face to face; now, I have only glimpses of knowledge; then, I shall recognize God as he has recognized me” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Or, as St. Maximos the Confessor put it, “All that God is, except for an identity in being, one becomes when one is deified by grace.”
Families are, ideally, schools of love to prepare us for our heavenly destiny. We will see our spouses in Heaven, yes; but they will not be our spouses any longer, but something even more. We will see our children in Heaven, yes; but they will not be our children any longer, but something even more. We will dwell fully within each other and have full knowledge of every thought and every action. We will know each other fully, as God knows us, and experience limitless intimacy with every member of the human family who has ever lived, lives now, or will live in the future. And that is why Our Lord said, “Believe me, when you did it to one of the least of my brethren here, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). The communion which the saints enjoy in Heaven includes an intimacy and unity akin to the life of the Holy Trinity. It is impossible to exaggerate the degree to which we shall be united to one another at the deepest levels. Some theologians have even speculated that Purgatory is nothing more than the burning fire of having your naked being wholly exposed before the eyes of God and all his saints. Hell may well result when a wicked soul shatters under the pressure. One thing though, is certain: we will experience everything we have done from the perspective of those we have done it to.
That’s Judgment Day.
In the new mode of existence, earthly familial relationships will seem radically distant and incomplete compared to the supernatural friendship we will then enjoy with one another. Those who choose celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God are getting a head start on preparing for the coming of this all-encompassing love—a love which is so strong and strange that it will literally destroy the known universe.
But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness. (2 Peter 3:10-13).
There will be no families in Heaven—there will be only one family, all of us. Are you prepared to embrace a reality where you may be just as close to your current wife as you are to your current worst enemy?
A fire is coming, burning in the heavens, and it will destroy every limit we have placed on ourselves and on our love. Those who resist it and cling to smaller loves will surely die and burn away. That is the great and terrifying news of Our Lord Jesus Christ, far more disturbing and awesome than any merely human idea. Indeed, that’s what we should expect of the truth—to be more wonderful than our most profound dreams, and stranger than our most alien nightmares.