How wide the divide in our greater Utah community is manifest by an imaginary situation in which a Roman Catholic and a Latter-day Saint decide to convert to the other's religion. In such a case, both churches would require re-baptism. Each considers itself the sole legitimate holder of divine authority. The pathway to heavenly salvation for both is a series of ordinances and rituals. For the Catholics it is most of their Seven Sacraments and for the LDS baptism, confirmation ordination, endowment and sealing. In order to live with God in the Heavenly City, one must undergo these rites performed by an authorized representative of God.
We find that Jesus confronted similar views during his ministry. The Pharisees exhibited the same elite and narrow attitude about who enters heaven. They said the Torah or Law was normative for worship. In addition, of equal validity was a great body of extra-biblical oral tradition. God's salvation they asserted was found exclusively in a strict outward observance of both the Law and oral tradition.
Jesus paid little attention to their extra-biblical external commandments, rites and practice. Instead, he focused on the true spirit of religion–addressing the inner person–asking that we emulate his behavior and become reborn as good and loving persons. The tendency of churches, then and now, is to look beyond the mark, to entail more than Jesus requires for entering heaven.
What Jesus values in this quest for celestial citizenship, he outlined in Matthew 24-25–the last of his five great mortal discourses. In Matthew 25, Jesus centered his attention on the judgment of humanity. He declared a very different measure of evaluation than advocated by the legalistic Pharisees and scribes whom he has just excoriated in Matthew 23. Jesus explained the three explicit criteria which humankind can expect in the judgment by way of three well-known parables.
He described the first area of his concern in the parable of The Ten Virgins (25:1-13). His main point is that they who “know” him enter “the kingdom of heaven.” To the wise he said, “I know you,” whereas to the foolish, “I know you not.” Thus, the first question becomes: “Do you know him?” Do you know your Bridegroom–the Master and King who is coming? Or in other words, have you become a genuinely loving person, one who emulates God's nature?
The second area Jesus invites our attention to is the Parable of the Talents (25:14-30), which is also about “the kingdom of heaven.” The parable centers on stewardship. Jesus asks the important question: “What have you done with your time and gifts during your tenure on earth?”
We find the third area of significance in the enthroned Son of man judging The Sheep and the Goats (25:31-46). After he returns in glory at his second coming, as King he will judge “all nations: and he shall separate them [people] one from the other, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats'' (meaning the righteous from the wicked). Importantly, he identifies those who will “inherit the kingdom'' (v. 34) and receive “life eternal'' (v. 46), as those who minister to the: “hungr[y] . . . thirsty . . . stranger . . . naked . . . sick . . . [or] in prison.” Notice that Jesus does not judge us by the church we have attended, or by our distinctive theological beliefs or creeds that we hold dear, or by the peculiar rituals and ordinances that we have embraced; but rather he focuses directly on our behavior toward other human beings. In other words, claims of belonging to the only true church with the only true theology and authorized ordinances for salvation become unimportant in His judgment. This is not to say that ordinances are without value, for they can and do aid and strengthen the worshiper when internalized to experience God's saving presence.
In summary, Jesus is interested that we “know” him–becoming reborn as a good and loving person, that we become productive stewards of our talents, and in what good we have done for others. To such, Jesus promises they will “inherit the kingdom,” and receive “life eternal” with Him and his Father in the holy City of God. Exclusionary claims of being the only true way to heaven and the implications of superiority and practice that such a doctrine usually fosters, contribute to the wide-divide among us; whereas this gap is greatly narrowed by individual Christians who ignore such dogma and embrace Jesus' message and promise and ponder it in their hearts.
GRANT H. PALMER is the author of The Incomparable Jesus (Kofford Books, 2005) and An Insider's View of Mormon Origins (Signature Books, 2002).