One of my pet peeves is when we talk about exaltation as though it were merely a reward or merely a location. We speak about “getting into the celestial kingdom” or use “reward” analogies like Stephen Robinson’s parable of the bicycle. I do not doubt that the celestial kingdom is a location and that receiving it is a reward (or is it a gift? cf. D&C 14:7), and these analogies have value. The problem I have with them is when we imagine that these analogies comprehensively explain how salvation works (also known as the “Now I understand how it works!” reaction). These analogies are missing something very important that is articulated in the scriptures.
The celestial kingdom is not like an amusement park where you just need a ticket to get in and if you can’t pay the full entrance fee, Jesus pays the rest. In addition to being a location and a reward (or gift), it is a state of being. For example, note the following scriptures (emphasis mine):
Therefore, what manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am. (3 Nephi 27:27)
And for this cause ye shall have fulness of joy; and ye shall sit down in the kingdom of my Father; yea, your joy shall be full, even as the Father hath given me fulness of joy; and ye shall be even as I am, and I am even as the Father; and the Father and I are one. (3 Nephi 28:10)
I am Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was crucified for the sins of the world, even as many as will believe on my name, that they may become the sons of God, even one in me as I am one in the Father, as the Father is one in me, that we may be one. (D&C 35:2)
And the Lord said unto me: Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters; And thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God. (Mosiah 27:25–26)
These (and many other) scriptures make it clear that exaltation requires that we become like Christ, and this is where the “location” and “reward” analogies seem to break down. Does “admittance” into the celestial kingdom make someone like Christ? It seems to me that this cannot be the case, or everyone could be exalted merely by admitting them into the celestial kingdom. It seems to me that “admittance” requires first that we become the kind of person who can be admitted.
Does the atonement somehow “make up the difference” by making me fully like Christ even when I’m not? Not in this life, as far as I can tell. What about the next? Well, Amulek taught:
That same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world (Alma 34:34)
The Doctrine & Covenants adds:
Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come. (D&C 130:18–19)
If the atonement somehow transforms us into fully Christlike beings, regardless of what level of character we have attained in this life, I cannot see how these scriptures apply. And it seems also to run counter to Joseph Smith’s teaching that:
When you climb a ladder you must begin at the bottom run[g] until you learn the last prin[ciple] of the gospel for it is a great thing to learn Sal[vatio]n. beyond the grave & it is not all to be com[prehended] in this world. (Thomas Bullock report of King Follett Discourse, Words of Joseph Smith, pp. 349-352)
In other words, there’s still a lot of work to do beyond the grave — exaltation is a process. This would not be the case if the atonement simply “made up the difference” for us and transformed us into fully Christlike beings. Agency and accountability also factor into these questions.
And then there’s the whole point of a mortal existence. If it is possible for God to simply tranform us into fully Christlike beings, then the only real point there seems to be for us on earth is to receive a physical body. After all, we all accepted the Savior prior to our mortal birth. But we recognize that there is more to life than merely receiving a body — we understand that this is a probation in which we can progress and change to become more Christlike. This seems to indicate that exaltation is not a matter of sudden transformation, but rather one of learning and experience, facilitated by the atonement that allows us to learn from our mistakes without being eternally determined by them. This is how I read the following passage from D&C 88:
Bodies who are of the celestial kingdom may possess it forever and ever; for, for this intent was it made and created, and for this intent are they sanctified. And they who are not sanctified through the law which I have given unto you, even the law of Christ, must inherit another kingdom, even that of a terrestrial kingdom, or that of a telestial kingdom.
For he who is not able to abide the law of a celestial kingdom cannot abide a celestial glory. And he who cannot abide the law of a terrestrial kingdom cannot abide a terrestrial glory. And he who cannot abide the law of a telestial kingdom cannot abide a telestial glory; therefore he is not meet for a kingdom of glory. Therefore he must abide a kingdom which is not a kingdom of glory.
They who are of a celestial spirit shall receive the same body which was a natural body; even ye shall receive your bodies, and your glory shall be that glory by which your bodies are quickened. Ye who are quickened by a portion of the celestial glory shall then receive of the same, even a fulness. And they who are quickened by a portion of the terrestrial glory shall then receive of the same, even a fulness. And also they who are quickened by a portion of the telestial glory shall then receive of the same, even a fulness.
And they who remain shall also be quickened; nevertheless, they shall return again to their own place, to enjoy that which they are willing to receive, because they were not willing to enjoy that which they might have received.
For what doth it profit a man if a gift is bestowed upon him, and he receive not the gift? Behold, he rejoices not in that which is given unto him, neither rejoices in him who is the giver of the gift. (D&C 88:20–24,28–33)
The question for me is how this teaching can be reconciled with a theology of redemption in which our deficiencies are compensated for by the Savior. How can we be “saved” by the Savior and be able to abide a celestial law and be accountable for our agency?