PROVO — What lies beyond the grave?
Mormons love a good near-death-experience story because of the echoes to the teachings of their faith. Seventh-Day Adventists believe when we die we sleep until the Resurrection. The hope of Anglicans is to join Christ in a bodily renewal of the entire cosmos.
Differing theologies abounded this week when representatives of 10 different faiths shared their views of the afterlife at Brigham Young University, but that was the point at a conference titled "Beyond the Grave: Christian Interfaith Perspectives."
"Enlightening. Challenging. Provocative," said Thomas Oord, professor of theology and philosophy at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho. "What stood out is that interpretation can be diverse and that those who honor and believe scripture is authoritative can have different interpretations of it, especially on the subject of life after death."
Joseph Smith had a near-death experience and Brigham Young had at least two, said Brent Top, BYU's dean of Religious Education. Latter-day Saints enjoy a rich heritage of such stories, which have been shared at the pulpit in general conferences, in Sunday School classes and in church magazines. Hundreds of near-death experiences are found in the archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Mormons are drawn to near-death accounts of family reunions because they seem to confirm the LDS belief in eternal families and are faith-affirming and life-enriching, said Top, who wrote "Glimpses Beyond Death's Door," with his wife, Wendy.
Top warned that Latter-day Saints may view such accounts as an interesting side dish, but some may set forth false or mistaken notions. They should never be seen as the life-sustainting main dish. They are never adequate replacements for faith.
"Death is in fact the enemy to the Christian," said Richard Mouw, professor of faith and public life at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Calvanist and evangelical faiths put a premium on the body and spirit together, while death separates them.
The good news, or what they would consider the "Good News" of the gospel, was that all the presenters shared the belief that Christ overcame death.
For Seventh-Day Adventist general vice president Ella Simmons, we sleep in our graves after we die, a belief shared by Martin Luther. That is a consoling teaching for her.
"If I were in heaven and conscious of all that is happening on earth," she said, "that would be hell for me, because all is not well with my family."
Mouw said the evangelical view of the afterlife is strongly rooted in theocentrism, the idea we will rejoice in Christ's presence.
Mouw said other faiths often find the LDS view of the afterlife dominated by an anthropocentric view — that much will be as it is on earth — such as the belief in eternal families. But he said a central part of the Mormon view is also theocentric. Still, asked directly what evangelicals could offer Mormons, he said Latter-day Saints could express more awe about the idea of being in the presence of God.
"It's there in your hymns," he said.
Harvard University Episcopal pastor and chaplain Luther Zeigler said the Anglican view of the Christian hope in the afterlife is for a new age when heaven and earth merge in a newly created and embodied life.
"God will reframe the cosmos," Zeigler said. "We're not just mere bystanders in this re-creation but collaborators to make the kingdom real. Our job is to now become kingdom-bearers."
Several hundred people attended at three sessions Thursday, Friday and Saturday in the Joseph Smith Building Auditorium on campus. The conference was sponsored by BYU Religious Education's Office of Religious Outreach.
"It was amazing to hear so many different perspectives and what they cling to to help them get through the difficulties of this life," said Colette Steele, a mom who has returned to BYU as an English literature major with a minor in Russian. "To find out what people believe is essential to knowing who they really are."
Steele attended all three days.
"There was no contention," she said, "even though there were so many different opinions."
Mouw got a big laugh when he said his secretary recently briefed him on two upcoming trips. "'Your second trip,' she said, 'is "Beyond the Grave,"' which was a bit of a shock to my system," he joked. "Even more shocking for an evangelical was to find out the first stop beyond the grave was at Brigham Young University," which he called the great intellectual center of Mormonism.
Oord expected that kind of collegiality, but he found it rewarding.
"These kinds of gatherings are crucial for overcoming the temptation to be suspicious," he said.