"What must I do to be saved?"
As the jailer asked this question above, so should we. Over the last couple of days I was confused by the apparent discrepancy in a couple of general conference talks, so I thought I would do a little research into what the LDS church teaches. Then we can compare the conference talks.
First the basics, from True to the Faith. This manual is ostensibly a youth publication, but it's the most accessible collection of doctrinal descriptions available. It doesn't provide links to the invidual topic headers, just to the entire manual:
I'll provide the topic header, followed by the entry.
"In the scriptures, the word heaven is used in two basic ways. First, it refers to the place where God lives, which is the ultimate home of the faithful (see Mosiah 2:41). Second, it refers to the expanse around the earth (see Genesis 1:1)."
Kingdoms of Glory (excerpts)
"The celestial kingdom is the highest of the three kingdoms
of glory. Those in this kingdom will dwell forever in
the presence of God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ.
The celestial kingdom is the place prepared for those
who have “received the testimony of Jesus” and been “made
perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, who
wrought out this perfect atonement through the shedding of
his own blood” (D&C 76:51, 69). To inherit this gift, we must
receive the ordinances of salvation, keep the commandments,
and repent of our sins."
"From another revelation to the Prophet Joseph, we learn
that there are three degrees within the celestial kingdom.
To be exalted in the highest degree and continue eternally in
family relationships, we must enter into “the new and everlasting
covenant of marriage” and be true to that covenant. In
other words, temple marriage is a requirement for obtaining
the highest degree of celestial glory."
From the descriptions above, it seems clear to me that what non-LDS Christians refer to as "heaven" is what LDS refer to as the "Celestial Kingdom", the place where God lives. The highest level is accessed as a result of exaltation through temple marriage.
How do we achieve this place? From the Kingdoms of Glory entry:
"The glory you inherit will depend on the depth of your conversion,
expressed by your obedience to the Lord’s commandments.
It will depend on the manner in which you have “received the
testimony of Jesus” (D&C 76:51; see also verses 74, 79, 101)."
From the Salvation entry:
"Eternal Life, or Exaltation. In the scriptures, the words
saved and salvation often refer to eternal life, or exaltation (see
Abraham 2:11). Eternal life is to know Heavenly Father and
Jesus Christ and dwell with Them forever—to inherit a place
in the highest degree of the celestial kingdom (see John 17:3;
D&C 131:1–4; 132:21–24). To receive this great gift, we must
do more than repent of our sins and be baptized and
confirmed by appropriate priesthood authority. Men must
receive the Melchizedek Priesthood, and all Church members
must make and keep sacred covenants in the temple,
including eternal marriage."
OK, with all that background out of the way, let's get into the actual conference talks, the words of the living prophets.
The first talk is a classic, the one that finally convinced me that I could no longer be a fully believing member of the LDS church.
It has so many issues it deserves a separate post, but let's just examine what Russell Nelson has to say about salvation:
"While salvation is an individual matter, exaltation is a family matter.5 Only those who are married in the temple and whose marriage is sealed by the Holy Spirit of Promise will continue as spouses after death6 and receive the highest degree of celestial glory, or exaltation. A temple marriage is also called a celestial marriage. Within the celestial glory are three levels. To obtain the highest, a husband and wife must be sealed for time and all eternity and keep their covenants made in a holy temple.7"
“In the premortal realm, spirit sons and daughters knew and worshipped God as their Eternal Father and accepted His plan by which His children could obtain a physical body and gain earthly experience to progress toward perfection and ultimately realize their divine destiny as heirs of eternal life. [Heavenly Father’s great] plan of happiness enables family relationships to be perpetuated beyond the grave. Sacred ordinances and covenants available in holy temples make it possible for individuals to return to the presence of God and for families to be united eternally.”15
"Our Heavenly Father declared, “This is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.”20 The Atonement of His Beloved Son enabled both of these objectives to be realized. Because of the Atonement, immortality—or resurrection from the dead—became a reality for all.21 And because of the Atonement, eternal life—which is living forever in God’s presence, the “greatest of all the gifts of God”22—became a possibility. To qualify for eternal life, we must make an eternal and everlasting covenant with our Heavenly Father.23 This means that a temple marriage is not only between husband and wife; it embraces a partnership with God.24"
Now, here's a talk by Elder D. Todd Christofferson
"We enter into covenants by priesthood ordinances, sacred rituals that God has ordained for us to manifest our commitment. Our foundational covenant, for example, the one in which we first pledge our willingness to take upon us the name of Christ, is confirmed by the ordinance of baptism. It is done individually, by name. By this ordinance, we become part of the covenant people of the Lord and heirs of the celestial kingdom of God."
"Other sacred ordinances are performed in temples built for that very purpose. If we are faithful to the covenants made there, we become inheritors not only of the celestial kingdom but of exaltation, the highest glory within the heavenly kingdom, and we obtain all the divine possibilities God can give (see D&C 132:20)."
So, what do we actually need to do to return to the presence of God? After reading these sources I'll admit to still being confused.
Elder Christofferson and the True to the Faith entry on the celestial kingdom represent my traditional understanding and what I have been taught in church before, that baptism is the gateway to the celestial kingdom, which is the dwelling place of God. i.e. Heaven.
The "Salvation" entry in True to the Faith seems to agree with what Russell Nelson has to say, that really to return to God's presence, temple marriage is required.
Why does this really make a difference? I think it gives us some insight into the character of God. Bruce R McConkie gave a talk entitled "The Seven Deadly Heresies" that I won't attempt to excerpt:
in which he's pretty clear that you don't get a second chance to accept in the spirit world what you rejected in this world.
My take on this is that if you rejected the LDS missionaries in this world with a clear understanding of what they were preaching, the door to the "celestial kingdom" is forever closed to you.
Even worse, if you were a baptised member of the LDS church and either rejected initially or at some time accepted and then rejected the higher level of testimony and commitment required to qualify for a temple recommend, the higher level is closed to you as well.
So, if Russell Nelson is to be believed, in order actually live with God forever, i.e. to be "saved", I have to sustain him and the other apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators and accept what they describe as the "restored gospel", which is primarily the exclusive authority claims of the church. I have to do that in spite of all the contradictory evidence about the First Vision, priesthood restoration dates, conflicting claims from the witnesses to the gold plates, concerns about the abuses of polygamy, etc.
Based on these hurdles, heaven doesn't seem like it will contain many people, nor does it seem like a set of criteria put in place by a God who loves his children and wants as many as possible to come back. All in all I hope Paul is right instead.