Do Tattoos and Piercings Remain in the Resurrection? A Case Study in a Pragmatic Approach to an LDS Theology of Possibilities

As I have mentioned before, I am giving a presentation tomorrow afternoon (Thursday, March 27) at the University of Utah, for the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology conference. My presentation is entitled “Toward a Latter-day Saint Theology of Possibilities.”

The basic logic of the underlying problem I tackle in my presentation is that (a) there is a tenuous relationship between authority and freedom in the Church, (b) there is not a clear cut authoritative theology that is sufficient to guide Latter-day Saints in all matters of life, (c) Latter-day Saints cannot help but construct folk beliefs, (d) folk beliefs are not bad in themselves; the problem occurs when these beliefs are seen as closed folk beliefs (CFBs), rather than open folk beliefs (OFBs).

The problem with a CFB is that it is not seen as a folk belief at all; rather, it is seen as an authoritative, fixed belief that all faithful (non-heretical) Latter-day Saints do or ought to believe. By contrast, an OFB is seen as a folk belief; that is, it is interpretive, contextual, and changeable; moreover, it is possible for a faithful (non-heretical) Latter-day Saint to believe otherwise. The issue here is not whether CFBs or OFBs are true; in either case, they may or may not be true. Moreover, a person can be quite confident about an OFB, but nonetheless realize that a good Latter-day Saint does not have to believe likewise, and that their belief (by itself) has no standing on their status as a good Latter-day Saint. Moreover, this person would likely be open to the fact that their belief could change, in the sense that we continually see things differently in the wake of further experience.

The distinction between CFBs and OFBs is crucial, in my opinion, because there is a peculiar, pervasive, and persuasive popular culture that hovers as an authority which portends to fill in many of the Church’s theological, doctrinal, and practical gaps. The result is a smoothed over, monolithic Mormon theology in which CFBs abound. In proper fashion, these CFBs are mistakenly seen as that which we, as Latter-day Saints, believe – assuming that all faithful (non-heretical) Latter-day Saints believe likewise. As a result, many possible folk beliefs are hindered that otherwise might be crucial, in terms of their practical consequences, for (some) Latter-day Saints to hold.

A possible solution is for more Latter-day Saints to embrace an open folk belief (OFB) system. An OFB community would be grounded at some level in terms of more authoritative, incontrovertible teachings (recognizing, of course, that even these teachings are necessarily interpretive), but it would also consist of a pluralism of open folk beliefs. Collectively, such a community could be considered to embrace a theology of possibilities.

The bottom line for a theology of possibilities is similar to the pragmatism of William James: What difference does the belief, if true, make in your life? This pragmatism is not simply a matter of “wishing makes it so.” Rather, it is recognizing that theological beliefs are made for man, not man for theological beliefs. Quite likely, it is one’s personal experience and relationship with God and others that are going to be far more important than whether a person believes in all the right folk beliefs. Nonetheless, these folk beliefs are indispensable — even to claim “no position” is itself a position! We cannot escape the responsibility of “owning” our own beliefs. It is up to us, not general authorities, to construct our personal theologies in light of our experience. Yes, the scriptures and teachings of the prophets are necessary guides in this quest, but they are not sufficient, when it comes to the messy grind of daily living. Not even close. It is easy, of course, to argue that the solution is to simply live in harmony with the Holy Ghost. I believe this is true; however, this solution does not get Latter-day Saints off the hook from doing “many things of their own free will” (D&C 58.27), in the midst of uncertainty. From this perspective, it is desire, faith, and work from an active, eternally intelligent being – not “pure knowledge” being poured into a passive recipient – that forms one’s theology.

In the end, I believe, the fundamental issue is going to be “how” you go about constructing your theology (e.g., putting the most important things first, relying on Christ, constructing beliefs that best allow you to be charitable and be of the greatest service to others), not “what” you happen to believe. The scriptures teach that even “knowledge” will pass away, but charity, which is the pure love of Christ, endureth forever. I think it is fascinating how faith, hope, and charity trump “knowledge.” (In other words, there is more substance to a genuine hope than “wishing makes it so.”)

In my opinion, the Celestial Kingdom will consist of many individuals with “wrong” beliefs who have strived to be “valiant in the testimony of Jesus,” and the Telestial Kingdom will consist of many individuals with “correct” beliefs, but for whom Jesus was a stranger and theology was a mere intellectual exercise.

So what does all of this have to do with whether tattoos and piercings remain in the resurrection? Well, it sets up a useful framework by which we can approach this question.

First, let’s identify that either position — yes they will remain or no they won’t — is a folk belief. The scriptures do not definitively answer the question, nor is there an official, canonized position from Church leaders.

Next, let’s acknowledge that the “yes” position, for some reason, is a closed folk belief (CFB) for some Church members. In other words, it is often not seen as a folk belief at all, but as THE authoritative Church position on the matter. I do not think this view is all that common, especially today, but it is out there. We can probably trace this position to at least two statements, one by President Kimball and the other by President Joseph F. Smith. Let’s begin with President Kimball’s:

This body will come forth in the resurrection. It will be free from all imperfections and scars and infirmities which came to it in mortality which were not self-inflicted. Would we have a right to expect a perfect body if we carelessly or intentionally damaged it? (Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 36)

The implication here of course is that imperfections and scars and infirmities that ARE self-inflicted will remain.

President Smith’s perspective provides a more nuanced approach to the issue:

What a glorious thought it is…that those from whom we have to part here, we will meet again and see as they are. We will meet the same identical being that we associated with here in the flesh – not some other soul, some other being, or the same being in some other form, but the same identity and the same form and likeness, the same person we knew and we associated with in our existence, even to the wounds in the flesh. Not that a person will always be marred by scars, wounds, deformities, defects or infirmities, for these will be removed in their course, in their proper time, according to the merciful providence of God. Deformity will be removed; defects will be eliminated, and men and women shall attain to the perfection of their spirits, to the perfection that God designed in the beginning….What else would satisfy the desire of the immortal soul? Would we be satisfied to be imperfect? Would we be satisfied to be decrepit? Would we be satisfied to remain forever and ever in the form of infirmity incident to age? No!…From the day of resurrection, the body will develop until it reaches the full measure of the stature of its spirit, whether it be male or female. (Gospel Doctrine, pp. 23-24)

So, from President Smith’s view, not only scars and wounds, but defects, deformities, and infirmities, will remain in the resurrection. Clearly, then, this is not limited to “self-inflicted” imperfections. In time, of course, these imperfections will be healed. I think that this view makes sense on certain levels. For example, how could a person born with only one arm be resurrected as a two-armed person? From this view, he/she would not be, but then would grow the arm (hopefully shortly!) after the resurrection. Perhaps the glorified nature of a resurrected body has generative abilities (e.g., growing an arm, healing deep scars) that surpass the abilities of a mortal body. Pretty cool, if you ask me.

However, there are still unanswered questions. Do we rise with the appearance of our age when we passed away (at first)? What if I weighed 1200 pounds between ages 15-45, and then I lost 1000 pounds during the next year, and then I died — what weight will I be in the resurrection? Will I be bald at first? Wrinkled? Are joined (“Siamese”) twins joined at first in the resurrection? What about the person whose life is sustained by another’s kidney? What about the soldier who died in a mine field that completely decimated his body before he died a few weeks later? Will these scars remain at first? For how long?

Moreover, President Smith’s perspective does not necessarily shed light on President Kimball’s fundamental argument. A person could reasonably argue that the most harmonized view of the two positions is for Smith’s position to pertain only to non-self-inflicted imperfections. It could simply be that all wounds are not healed at first, but that self-inflicted wounds would never be healed. From this view, Kimball clearly knew about (and likely agreed with) Smith’s position, and yet he still differentiated between self-inflicted and non-self-inflicted wounds — what point would there be to do this if, in the end, all wounds are healed? Of course, another reasonable argument is to simply say that the matter is not clear.

Whatever the case, it is imperative that we realize that both positions are folk beliefs! Neither statement clearly squares with the scriptural record or canonized statements. Neither views are official declarations from the First Presidency. Considering this, we would be remiss to not ask ourselves, “Well, where might these views have come from?” The most honest answer, in my opinion, is that these questions reflect the opinions of these great men. They don’t rely on any authority — not the Savior, not the scriptures, not authoritative statements. We might do well to listen, but we don’t have to agree. They just might be wrong, at least in terms of some of their specific understandings. (Anyone who has a hard time coming to grips with this should read from the Journal of Discourses. It is a fact that general authorities, including prophets and apostles, have been wrong. They are men who can make mistakes, or who can speak out of turn, or who can simply be misunderstood, just like anyone else. And yet, I believe, they truly do have authority from God.) Maybe Kimball and Smith are right — but only perhaps. There is no epistemological certainty that can be claimed on the basis of these statements alone. Thus, it is up to each one of us to decide what we ought to believe.

So how do we decide? Well, certainly, we would be remiss not to have the Spirit be our guide. But again, this does not mean that we do not have a role to play in interpretation. Nor is it simply a matter of asking God whether the statements are true. If the answer is simply “yes” or “no,” we still have to make sense of what that means in our life. Obviously, the same is true if there is no answer. Thus, we need to ask ourselves, what difference does it make if this or that position is correct? In doing so, we would be wise to consider the things I mentioned earlier (relationship with God and others, our noblest desires, our experiences, our current understanding of the standard works, etc.). Moreover, we would be responsible to “own” our belief — it is something that I believe, not something that all faithful Latter-day Saints must believe (even if it turns out I am right).

For some, it might be a moot point; it doesn’t really matter either way. For others however, especially those with undesired self-inflicted tattoos and piercings, the issue is very important. There might be a person who has received several tattoos in the past, yet takes very seriously the teachings of the prophets, who is deeply troubled by President Kimball’s statement. To dismiss the statement is to not take seriously the teachings of the prophets — and where does that lead? (so the reasoning goes). But to affirm the statement is to compromise one’s understanding of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, as taught in the scriptures:

Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. (Isa. 1:18)

Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more. (D&C 58:42)

Fear not; thou shalt not be ashamed: neither be thou confounded; for thou shalt forget the shame of thy youth, and shalt not remember the reproach of thy widowhood any more. For thy Maker is thine husband; the Lord of hosts is his name; and thy Redeemer the Holy One of Israel … In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer… For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the Lord that hath mercy on thee. (Isa. 54:405, 8, 10)

For me, anyway, these scriptures effectively shatter the idea that a person who has repented of their sins would be forever cursed in their body. Clearly, at the very least, President Kimball couldn’t have intended for his comment to apply to those who have repented of their tattoos and piercings! In a choice between these very clear and compassionate (living) scriptures and an obscure interpretation of an obscure statement by a (dead) prophet, I’ll take the scriptures hand down. The Lord has said he would not remember my sins anymore, and I believe Him! Moreover, if he can turn scarlet sins to white snow, certainly he can remove a few measly tattoos! Do we honestly think he doesn’t have the power (and the desire) to do this? Honestly, tattoos can be removed in this life; it is absurd to think that they can’t be removed in the next! So I reject hands down that interpretation of President Kimball’s remark — that even repentant individuals would continue to have self-inflicted scars and wounds (while still maintaining that President Kimball was a prophet of God who I highly respect). It is important, though, that I be willing to own this belief — to claim it as my own. I believe it’s true, but I’m open to believing otherwise, in light of future experience or revelation. And I realize that honest, faithful Latter-day Saints might believe otherwise. I still think my view is correct, but I don’t see myself as better than anyone else (or closer to God) for holding it. And I don’t see it as the position of the Church.

But what about unrepentant persons? I am more open to this being the case, but even here I have major problems with this view. At the least, I need more information before I could take this view seriously. First, from my reading of the scriptures, all individuals who attain a degree of glory will be forgiven from their sins. Moreover, even the Telestial Kingdom is glorious!; anyone who abides there must be able to abide the presence of the Holy Ghost. In other words, the bodily tabernacles of men and women will be filled with the Holy Ghost in the Telestial Kingdom. Hard for me to imagine these “temples” being desecrated and yet being filled with the Spirit! Further questions remain: What about something like sexual reassignment surgery? This is a self-inflicted mutilation, without question. I find it hard to believe that there will be sex-changed individuals walking around in the resurrection. It’s ridiculous for me to think that God would “honor” this decision by allowing this artificial surgery to be restored to individuals. Of course, a person could argue that this situation wouldn’t apply because it is artificial — but so is tattoo ink! So would only the tattoo scars remain, but not the tattoos? Only the sexual reassignment scars, but not the artificial accessories? And what about cancer wounds from chewing tobacco? How about blackened lungs? Corroded livers? Cocaine-induced brain damage? Hmm, seems this is a wee bit complicated. So, if President Kimball were alive — and I actually cared about this issue — I might ask him for more clarification. As for now, I really cannot take this view seriously (nor do I find the Brethren today doing so). My most charitable view of this statement by President Kimball is that it is largely rhetorical — perhaps to counter “sin now, repent later” attitudes. And it is true that he did not directly say that self-inflicted wounds would not be removed at some point. Regardless, I do think he has confused some members on this remark, and he might not have realized the possible consequences of this. He is human, after all.

I don’t have a problem with Kimball’s question, “Would we have a right to expect a perfect body if we carelessly or intentionally damaged it?” The answer here is clearly no. Nor do any of us have a right to even be resurrected. We have all sinned and as such none of us have a “right” to be resurrected and redeemed. That’s what makes the gospel of Jesus Christ such good news! That’s why we sing praises and shout for joy when we think of what the Savior has done for us, undeserving and profitless creatures. As for me, I’m not banking on my rights. I’m banking on the grace of Jesus Christ, including that grace as it works through me in any good thing I could possibly do.

In the words of Isaac Watts, “When I survey the wondrous cross / On which the Prince of glory died / My richest gain I count but loss / And pour contempt on all my pride.” Upon the cross, the Savior’s hands, feet, and side were pierced and wounded — and all for the “wounds” and “piercings” that I have administered — to myself, to others, to Him. He holds out his hands and feet to me, asking me to feel the prints in them; likewise, he asks me to feel the wound in his side. He carries these wounds as a symbol of his taking my sins upon Himself. I believe this with all my heart. But this is my belief. I own it. I claim it. It is mine.

In terms of President Smith’s remarks, I’m quite open to them being true. I don’t see it is a major issue — from my reading, the issue is simply when the healing occurs, not whether it does. My wife Candice, however, is a little troubled by the thought of still having undesired scars and wounds on our glorified bodies during the resurrection. She finds no plausible reason to take this idea very seriously (even if it does turn out to be true). Apparently, neither do today’s Church leaders, as you never hear it talked about.

However, there are many Church members who think that a proper approach to church doctrine consists of a general authority quote hunt (“I’ll see your James Talmage, and raise you a Bruce R. McConkie”). For these members, if any prophet or apostle (dead or alive) said anything, especially in General Conference, it is Truth, unsullied as it flows like the dews from heaven! This view really is quite indefensible (not to mention unscriptural), but it is commonly held nonetheless. Some of these members are going to need to, on pragmatic grounds, continue to hold this view of church doctrine. To do otherwise would be to act contrary to some deeply held beliefs that could, perhaps, harm their relationship with God and their testimony of the restored gospel. It’s important to be very sensitive to this.

However, these individuals effectively wall themselves out of a theology of possibilities, and possibly shut themselves off from grander understandings that are better suited for things that are more important. Moreover, they will continue to be taken advantage of by others who can convince them of just about anything by drudging up a general authority quote. As far as I’m concerned, I might try to reason with some of these members (as perhaps I am doing right now, depending on who is reading) to help them realize that (a) many things that apostles and prophets say are not authoritative church doctrines, (b) there might even be some things that are simply their opinion (which could be wrong — and that’s fine! Peter was wrong once when Paul was right) or perhaps is valid only in a certain context. Whatever the case, they would be better off, in my opinion — if they are willing — to take ownership of their own beliefs and to realize that many things that they believe are not necessary for other (good) Latter-day Saints must believe (even if they are right). It might just be that someone else has a view different than yours that you can learn from. Perhaps it could even open up important possibilities that will make an enormous difference in your life — even in terms of your relationship to God and your service to others. After all, to love God and love one’s neighbor are the two greatest commandments, and in all other matters we would be wise to be at least a little open-minded.

Allow me to close by returning to Isaac Watts’ hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”:

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown? …

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

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4 Responses

  1. Good Post Dennis,

    Here’s my own musings or folk beleifs concerning ressurection:

    I think the question of ressurection is a question of identity. As such it seems rather silly to me to ask What (body) gets ressurrected? The question should be Who (body+soul) gets ressurected?

    Approaching it thus, I beleive these metapyshical issues with resurrection are somewhat diminished. From such a perspective, people are ressurected to reflect their true identity as shown in their relationship with God. A man who had a sex change is resurrected as God knows him and not how the man pretends to know himself. The repentant tattooer no longer has his tattoo because he has changed his identity through the atonement. However, I can see people choosing to keep some scars from their mortality, just as Christ chose to keep his. There is perhaps nothing more important to our identities than remembering the suffering of the Christ, remembering our own suffering points toward the suffering of Christ.

    One crazy thing to consider from this view is that as people’s identities change perhaps their bodies change as well. Many of us can think of someone in our lives who has gone off the deep end. Generally we can tell the difference by looking at their face.

    I think this view also accounts well for the order of ressurection. The wicked are ressurected last because they will be given the merciful chance to change their identity before they are ressurected.

    But I digress, I think its really really difficult to talk about the resurrection. We just don’t know that much and I think there are a number of things about it we are incapable of understanding.

  2. I really like how you point the question toward who rather than what.

  3. Your post moved me to tears. Thank you so much.

  4. I would note that Elder Kimball, in the preface to The Miracle of Forgiveness, mentioned that Job’s words, “Oh, that mine enemy had written a book,” had caused him to reflect carefully before writing it.

    Also note the lengthy discussion of not only teaching, but also of listening by the Spirit in D&C 50.

    And there is some discussion of context in D&C 93.

    Lots of scriptures that can be tied into this: 2 Nephi 31: 3 and Alma 12 and others to help out a bit.

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