NOTE: I have not yet finished verifying all of the quotes that are used in this post.

Parents of wayward children agonize over the choices and trials of their prodigal sons and daughters, and the fear of losing them deeply shakes their hearts. It’s unfortunate that one of the most profound teachings in the Church, one that has the potential to bring these parents tremendous hope, seems to be one of the least understood and most controversial. I hope to share some things that may clear up a confusing doctrine.

How does the sealing power bless families?

Joseph Smith

“The Prophet Joseph Smith declared—and he never taught a more comforting doctrine—that the eternal sealings of faithful parents and the divine promises made to them for valiant service in the Cause of Truth, would save not only themselves, but likewise their posterity. Though some of the sheep may wander, the eye of the Shepherd is upon them, and sooner or later they will feel the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them and drawing them back to the fold. Either in this life or the life to come, they will return. They will have to pay their debt to justice; they will suffer for their sins; and may tread a thorny path; but if it leads them at last, like the penitent Prodigal, to a loving and forgiving father’s heart and home, the painful experience will not have been in vain. Pray for your careless and disobedient children; hold on to them with your faith. Hope on, trust on, till you see the salvation of God” (Orson F. Whitney, in Conference Report, Apr. 1929, 110).

Brigham Young

“Let the father and mother, who are members of this Church and Kingdom, take a righteous course, and strive with all their might never to do a wrong, but to do good all their lives; if they have one child or one hundred children, if they conduct themselves towards them as they should, binding them to the Lord by their faith and prayers, I care not where those children go, they are bound up to their parents by an everlasting tie, and no power of earth or hell can separate them from their parents in eternity; they will return again to the fountain from whence they sprang” (quoted in Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols. [1954–56], 2:90–91).

Lorenzo Snow

“If you succeed in passing through these trials and afflictions and receive a resurrection, you will, by the power of the Priesthood, work and labor, as the Son of God has, until you get all your sons and daughters in the path of exaltation and glory. This is just as sure as that the sun rose this morning over yonder mountains. Therefore, mourn not because all your sons and daughters do not follow in the path that you have marked out to them, or give heed to your counsels. Inasmuch as we succeed in securing eternal glory, and stand as saviors, and as kings and priests to our God, we will save our posterity” (in Collected Discourses, comp. Brian H. Stuy, 5 vols. [1987–92], 3:364).

Boyd K. Packer (as Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve)

“The measure of our success as parents … will not rest solely on how our children turn out. That judgment would be just only if we could raise our families in a perfectly moral environment, and that now is not possible.

“It is not uncommon for responsible parents to lose one of their children, for a time, to influences over which they have no control. They agonize over rebellious sons or daughters. They are puzzled over why they are so helpless when they have tried so hard to do what they should.

“It is my conviction that those wicked influences one day will be overruled. …

We cannot overemphasize the value of temple marriage, the binding ties of the sealing ordinance, and the standards of worthiness required of them. When parents keep the covenants they have made at the altar of the temple, their children will be forever bound to them” (“Our Moral Environment,” Ensign, May 1992, 68).

The impression that I get from these quotes is that the sealing ordinance makes it possible for children and our familial loved ones to eventually return and join us in the Celestial Kingdom. It’s a beautiful concept, but I also understand that this can trigger a doctrinal debate.

Can there be progression between degrees of glory after the final judgment?

I have searched long and hard for a canonized (or even semi-official) source that says there is no progression between degrees of glory after the final judgment. The closest I can find to an official position by the Church is a BYU devotional by Bruce R. McConkie called The Seven Deadly Heresies where Elder McConkie dedicates three of the seven heresies to variations of this concept:

Heresy three: There are those who say that temple marriage assures us of an eventual exaltation. Some have supposed that couples married in the temple who commit all manner of sin, and who then pay the penalty, will gain their exaltation eventually.

This notion is contrary to the whole system and plan that the Lord has ordained, a system under which we are privileged to work out our salvation with fear and trembling before him. If we believe and obey, if we enter the waters of baptism and make solemn covenants with the Lord to keep his commandments, we thereby get on a strait and narrow path that leads from the gate of repentance and baptism to a reward that is called eternal life. And if we traverse the length of the path going upward and forward and onward, keeping the commandments, loving the Lord, and doing all that we ought to do, eventually we will be inheritors of that reward.

And in exactly and precisely the same sense, celestial marriage is a gate that puts us on a path leading to exaltation in the highest heaven of the celestial world. It is in that highest realm of glory and dignity and honor hereafter that the family unit continues. Those who inherit a place in the highest heaven receive the reward that is named eternal life. Baptism is a gate; celestial marriage is a gate. When we get on the paths of which I speak, we are then obligated to keep the commandments. My suggestion in this field is that you go to the temple and listen to a ceremony of celestial marriage, paying particular and especial attention to the words, and learn what the promises are that are given. And you will learn that all of the promises given are conditioned upon subsequent compliance with all of the terms and conditions of that order of matrimony.

Clearly, sealings will not save those we are unrepentant. Sealings cannot assure eventual exaltation for those who have not chosen to become Celestial. The terms and conditions for exaltation remain intact.

Heresy four: There are those who believe that the doctrine of salvation for the dead offers men a second chance for salvation.

I knew a man, now deceased, not a member of the Church, who was a degenerate old reprobate who found pleasure, as he supposed, in living after the manner of the world. A cigarette dangled from his lips, alcohol stenched his breath, and profane and bawdy stories defiled his lips. His moral status left much to be desired.

His wife was a member of the Church, as faithful as she could be under the circumstances. One day she said to him, “You know the Church is true; why won’t you be baptized?” He replied, “Of course I know the Church is true, but I have no intention of changing my habits in order to join it. I prefer to live the way I do. But that doesn’t worry me in the slightest. I know that as soon as I die, you will have someone go to the temple and do the work for me and everything will come out all right in the end anyway.”

He died and she had the work done in the temple. We do not sit in judgment and deny vicarious ordinances to people. But what will it profit him?

There is no such thing as a second chance to gain salvation. This life is the time and the day of our probation. After this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed.

For those who do not have an opportunity to believe and obey the holy word in this life, the first chance to gain salvation will come in the spirit world. If those who hear the word for the first time in the realms ahead are the kind of people who would have accepted the gospel here, had the opportunity been afforded them, they will accept it there. Salvation for the dead is for those whose first chance to gain salvation is in the spirit world.

In the revelation recently added to our canon of holy writ, these words are found:

Thus came the voice of the Lord unto me, saying: All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God;
Also all that shall die henceforth without a knowledge of it, who would have received it with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom;
For I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts. [D&C 137:7–9]

There is no other promise of salvation than the one recited in that revelation. Those who reject the gospel in this life and then receive it in the spirit world go not to the celestial, but to the terrestrial kingdom.

This section almost makes it sound like there’s absolutely no repentance in the life hereafter, which we know isn’t true. He makes a good point that there’s no such thing as a “second chance,” but the real question is does the “first chance” ever completely expire? This statement definitely sounds like he is saying there is no opportunity for a person to inherit the Celestial kingdom if they have rejected the opportunity to hear or obey the gospel in this life, which would seem to contradict the quotes from the other brethren.

Heresy five: There are those who say that there is progression from one kingdom to another in the eternal worlds or that lower kingdoms eventually progress to where higher kingdoms once were.

This belief lulls men into a state of carnal security. It causes them to say, “God is so merciful; surely he will save us all eventually; if we do not gain the celestial kingdom now, eventually we will; so why worry?” It lets people live a life of sin here and now with the hope that they will be saved eventually.

The true doctrine is that all men will be resurrected, but they will come forth in the resurrection with different kinds of bodies—some celestial, others terrestrial, others telestial, and some with bodies incapable of standing any degree of glory. The body we receive in the resurrection determines the glory we receive in the kingdoms that are prepared.

Of those in the telestial world it is written: “And they shall be servants of the Most High; but where God and Christ dwell they cannot come, worlds without end” (D&C 76:112).

Of those who had the opportunity to enter into the new and everlasting covenant of marriage in this life and who did not do it, the revelation says:

Therefore, when they are out of the world they neither marry nor are given in marriage; but are appointed angels in heaven; which angels are ministering servants, to minister for those who are worthy of a far more, and an exceeding, and an eternal weight of glory.
For these angels did not abide my law; therefore, they cannot be enlarged, but remain separately and singly, without exaltation, in their saved condition, to all eternity; and from henceforth are not gods, but are angels of God forever and ever. [D&C 132:16–17]

They neither progress from one kingdom to another, nor does a lower kingdom ever get where a higher kingdom once was. Whatever eternal progression there is, it is within a sphere.

If Bruce R. McConkie is correct, then the idea of the sealing ordinance making eventual progression possible is completely wrong. But I’m curious what others have said. I want to know what the general attitude of the brethren has been on this subject over time. I do agree that teaching that there is progression between kingdoms can lull people into a state of carnal security, so the others quotes from the brethren should be handled delicately. If we believe that there’s always a chance to turn back later down the road, we don’t feel a sense of urgency to change and we will likely engage in terrestrial or telestial behaviors until eventual change becomes impossible—not because of a limitation of Christ’s atonement, but because of the tendencies, habits, and programming of our own character.

Does the Church have an official position on the matter? Have any prominent church leaders taught there is a possibility of progression between degrees of glory after the final judgement?

Secretary to the First Presidency

“The brethren direct me to say that the Church has never announced a definite doctrine upon this point. Some of the brethren have held the view that it was possible in the course of progression to advance from one glory to another, invoking the principle of eternal progression; others of the brethren have taken the opposite view. But as stated, the Church has never announced a definite doctrine on this point.”
-Secretary to the First Presidency in a 1952 letter; and again in 1965 (cited in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. XV, No. 1, Spring 1982, pp.181-183)

Joseph Smith

There is never a time when the spirit is too old to approach God. All are within the reach of pardoning mercy, who have not committed the unpardonable sin.”
-Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 191

James E. Faust

I believe and accept the comforting statement of Elder Orson F. Whitney:

“The Prophet Joseph Smith declared—and he never taught more comforting doctrine—that the eternal sealings of faithful parents and the divine promises made to them for valiant service in the Cause of Truth, would save not only themselves, but likewise their posterity. Though some of the sheep may wander, the eye of the Shepherd is upon them, and sooner or later they will feel the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them and drawing them back to the fold. Either in this life or the life to come, they will return. They will have to pay their debt to justice; they will suffer for their sins; and may tread a thorny path; but if it leads them at last, like the penitent Prodigal, to a loving and forgiving father’s heart and home, the painful experience will not have been in vain. Pray for your careless and disobedient children; hold on to them with your faith. Hope on, trust on, till you see the salvation of God.” [In Conference Report, Apr. 1929, 110.]

A principle in this statement that is often overlooked is that they must fully repent and “suffer for their sins” and “pay their debt to justice.” I recognize that now is the time “to prepare to meet God” (Alma 34:32). 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? In the Doctrine and Covenants we are told, “The dead who repent will be redeemed, through obedience to the ordinances of the house of God,

“And after they have paid the penalty of their transgressions, and are washed clean, shall receive a reward according to their works, for they are heirs of salvation.” [D&C 138:58–59]

We remember that the prodigal son wasted his inheritance, and when it was all gone he came back to his father’s house. There he was welcomed back into the family, but his inheritance was spent. [See Luke 15:11–32] Mercy will not rob justice, and the sealing power of faithful parents will only claim wayward children upon the condition of their repentance and Christ’s Atonement. Repentant wayward children will enjoy salvation and all the blessings that go with it, but exaltation is much more. It must be fully earned. The question as to who will be exalted must be left to the Lord in His mercy.

There are very few whose rebellion and evil deeds are so great that they have “sinned away the power to repent.” [Alonzo A. Hinckley, in Conference Report, Oct. 1919, 161.] That judgment must also be left up to the Lord. He tells us, “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.” [D&C 64:10]

Perhaps in this life we are not given to fully understand how enduring the sealing cords of righteous parents are to their children. It may very well be that there are more helpful sources at work than we know. [See John K. Carmack, “When Our Children Go Astray,” Ensign, Feb. 1997, 7–13; Liahona, Mar. 1999, 28–37.] I believe there is a strong familial pull as the influence of beloved ancestors continues with us from the other side of the veil.

President Howard W. Hunter observed that “repentance is but the homesickness of the soul, and the uninterrupted and watchful care of the parent is the fairest earthly type of the unfailing forgiveness of God.” Is not the family the nearest analogy which the Savior’s mission sought to establish? [The Teachings of Howard W. Hunter, ed. Clyde J. Williams (1997), 32.]

Another possibility is that it is possible to progress to the Celestial kingdom, but that exaltation is no longer on the table. This may explain why some people remain angels forever and ever, as explained by Bruce R. McConkie, and it may also satisfy the parable of the prodigal son who returned home but had spent their inheritance.

Wilford Woodruff

If there was a point where man in his progression could not proceed any further, the very idea would throw a gloom over every intelligent creature. God himself is increasing and progressing in knowledge, power, and dominion, and will do so, worlds without end. It is just so with us. We are in probation, which is a school of experience.”
-Wilford Woodruff, Journal of Discourses Vol. 6:120, 6 Dec 1857

I’m concerned that the significance of the first part of the quote will be lost in our general reaction to the second half of the statement. Here are my thoughts.

Considering what Bruce R. McConkie has already said about God’s perfect knowledge and power, the only sense that God can be increasing in knowledge, power, and dominion is that as creation expands, there is simply more to know and have dominion over. Saying that God’s knowledge and dominion are increasing is not the same as saying there is knowledge He does not have or creation that he has no dominion over. This is the classic pie analogy—God owns 100% of the pie. But as the pie grows, He has more pie. Not because he didn’t have 100% of the pie already, but there is simply more pie to have. The point is that I believe Wilford Woodruff was making a completely true statement, but that it can easily be interpreted incorrectly (as Bruce R. McConkie has already articulately explained).

That being said, let’s reconsider the first half of his quote and chew on it as we digest these other statements. Wilford Woodruff also said:

“I attended the Prayer Circle in the evening … In conversing upon various principles President Young said none would inherit this Earth when it became celestial and translated into the presence of God but those who would be crowned as Gods and able to endure the fullness of the presence of God, except they would be permitted to take with them some servants for whom they would be held responsible. All others would have to inherit another kingdom, even that kingdom agreeing with the law which they had kept. He said they would eventually have the privilege of proving themselves worthy and advancing to a celestial kingdom, but it would be a slow progress.”
-Brigham Young, Journal of Wilford Woodruff, 5 Aug 1855

James E. Talmadge

Elder James E. Talmage of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explained:

“To hell there is an exit as well as an entrance. Hell is no place to which a vindictive judge sends prisoners to suffer and to be punished principally for his glory; but it is a place prepared for the teaching, the disciplining of those who failed to learn here upon the earth what they should have learned. True, we read of everlasting punishment, unending suffering, eternal damnation. That is a direful expression; but in his mercy the Lord has made plain what those words mean. ‘Eternal punishment,’ he says, is God’s punishment, for he is eternal; and that condition or state or possibility will ever exist for the sinner who deserves and really needs such condemnation; but this does not mean that the individual sufferer or sinner is to be eternally and everlastingly made to endure and suffer. No man will be kept in hell longer than is necessary to bring him to a fitness for something better. When he reaches that stage the prison doors will open and there will be rejoicing among the hosts who welcome him into a better state. The Lord has not abated in the least what he has said in earlier dispensations concerning the operation of his law and his gospel, but he has made clear unto us his goodness and mercy through it all, for it is his glory and his work to bring about the immortality and eternal life of man” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1930, 97.)

Joseph Fielding Smith

President Joseph Fielding Smith gave this insight:

“The same punishment always follows the same offense, according to the laws of God who is eternal and endless, hence it is called endless punishment, and eternal punishment, because it is the punishment which God has fixed according to unchangeable law. A man may partake of endless torment, and when he has paid the penalty for his transgression, he is released, but the punishment remains and awaits the next culprit, and so on forever” (Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols. [1954–56], 2:228).

J. Reuben Clark

President J. Reuben Clark of the First Presidency provided additional insight by teaching about God’s true nature. As you read his explanation, think about how understanding the nature of God helps us understand about God’s punishment.

“I cannot subscribe to the modern doctrine that God does not punish, because I cannot throw away all of the scriptures there are in order to reach that conclusion[, but] I have a feeling that when the Lord comes to give us our reward … and our punishment … that he will give that punishment which is the very least that our transgression will justify. I believe that he will bring into his justice all of the infinite love and blessing and mercy and kindness and understanding which he has. …

“And on the other hand, I believe that when it comes to making the rewards for our good conduct, he will give us the maximum that it is possible to give, having in mind the offense which we have committed” (“As Ye Sow … ,” Brigham Young University Speeches of the Year [May 3, 1955], 6–7).

“I am not a strict constructionalist, believing that we seal our eternal progress by what we do here. It is my belief that God will save all of His children that he can: and while, 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 to those eternities that are to come.”
-J. Reuben Clark, Church News, p. 3 , 23 April 1960

Dallin H. Oaks

“The theology of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ is comprehensive, universal, merciful, and true. Following the necessary experience of mortal life, all sons and daughters of God will ultimately be resurrected and go to a kingdom of glory. The righteous—regardless of current religious denomination or belief—will ultimately go to a kingdom of glory more wonderful than any of us can comprehend. Even the wicked, or almost all of them, will ultimately go to a marvelous—though lesser—kingdom of glory. All of that will occur because of God’s love for his children…” (Apostasy and Restoration, Elder Dallin H. Oaks, April 1995)

Hyrum Smith

“Hiram [Smith] said Aug 1st [18]43 Those of the Terrestrial Glory either advance to the Celestial or recede to the Telestial [or] else the moon could not be a type [viz. a symbol of that kingdom]. [for] it [the moon] “waxes & wanes”. Also that br George will be quickened by celestial glory having been ministered to by one of that Kingdom.” (Franklin D. Richards, “Words of the Prophets,” Historical Department of the Church, p. 24.)

Other Sources

“Is There Progression Among the Eternal Kingdoms?”, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. XV, No. 1, Spring 1982, pp.181-183

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