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The Mysteries of God

professor Kelling 3 The dictionary defines mystery as something that people cannot understand, something beyond human knowledge or understanding, something that cannot be explained rationally.

That was precisely my definition and my understanding of religious mystery before I became a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Before I was confirmed a member of the Lutheran Church I attended preparatory meetings for almost a year. I liked our young pastor who told us Bible stories like Moses leading the Israelites across the Red Sea, Jonah being swallowed by a big fish, and Noah building the ark, but I had absolutely no idea about the deeper, symbolic meaning of these stories and, of course, I had no understanding of the “religious mysteries” taught by the church to which I belonged.

I did not know who God was. My family did not go to church ever, but my mother, a religious woman, had taught my sister and me to pray at night before we went to sleep. We would lie in bed and spoke short memorized children’s prayers. When I got older I no longer prayed regularly or sometimes recalled them only in my mind. I was enrolled in the Hitler Youth, and the system frowned on religion and prayer anyway. After the war, as I mentioned, I went to church instructions. I had no idea what the role of Jesus Christ was in my salvation. I thought Adam made a huge mistake in eating the “apple” (I really thought it was an apple he ate) because he lost paradise for all mankind. When I was about sixteen, I began to worry a bit as to how I could be saved. Did my grandparents who had died, my uncles and cousins who were killed in the war go to heaven or hell? Where would I go when I died? The only two alternatives promised by my priest were heaven or hell, nothing in between. I did not understand who I was and where I had come from.

I still remember vividly the agonizing pain and inconsolable weeks and months of emotional suffering my grandmother endured when she received the dreadful news that her youngest son had been killed in action in Russia during the Second World War. None of us, including our church, could give satisfactory consolation or hope. She was left to herself with her grief. My uncle Ernst was dead, we would never see him again, he was gone forever. What was now happening to him? Was his soul immortal? Where was he? It was a mystery to us, one that deeply disturbed and saddened us. And it was a question the priest could not answer satisfactorily either.

I remember that for me God was so distant and such a foreboding and threatening being for whom I felt no fervent love and who did not love me. He was indeed a mysterious figure. My church taught that God was a spirit without body, parts, or passions. The Father, Son and Holy Ghost were not three separate individuals, but of one substance, of one essence. They were the Trinity. I did not understand and even my priest said it was one of the beautiful mysteries of the church.

The teachings about salvation and the hereafter were equally vague and mysterious. Men and women, according to my priest, would no longer know each other after death, they would either be consigned to hell or heaven. In heaven all those who had died would be without a body, living as angels in a huge community, but there would be no family bonds. I wondered how God would decide whom to send to heaven and whom to hell. The answer was vague: Good people went to heaven, bad people to hell. I felt that I and my family were good people, but we were also sinners. How many and which sins did I have to commit to be assigned to hell, or how many good deeds must I do to be assigned to heaven? That, to me, was a fundamental problem, and the church gave no definitive answer.

I knew that the founder of my church, the Catholic monk and priest Martin Luther, had agonized for years over the problem of how man can please God and be saved by Him. The Catholic Church taught that man would be saved by works. So Luther and millions of other serious seekers of salvation performed works: Weekly if not daily they went to confession, uttered memorized prayers like the Lord’s Prayer, knelt in front of the altars and shrines of the church fervently imploring the images and statues of the saints to intercede for them with the austere Father. They castigated themselves to subject this evil, mortal flesh to the spirit. Often they walked for miles and miles on pilgrimages to sacred shrines to view the relics of saints and to pray for mercy and understanding. Yet the priest’s absolutions brought new doubts to the sinner. If he repeated a sin after confession, all the sins that had been previously committed would return and the sinner was surely doomed.

Martin Luther finally resolved the mystery for himself, denying the efficacy of works and proclaiming sola fide, by faith alone we are saved. But what does that mean, really? Is it sufficient to confess Christ, proclaiming that I have accepted Him as my Savior and that now I am saved? Can you imagine the confusion and spiritual agony these mysteries cause the willing believer?

To me the answer to my questions came as a miracle, indeed. In one of her travels, my mother had met a woman who was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It so happened that she had a son my age who not only attended church services on Sunday but officiated in the services because he held the priesthood. The two women talked about their sons and compared notes. While he was passing the sacrament I was playing soccer on Sunday. My mother and my younger sister became interested in the Church and attended every Sunday. One weekend my mother asked me to come with her the next Sunday. I really did not feel like it, but I respected and loved my mother dearly and could not refuse her invitation. So I went to my first sacrament meeting. The only detail I remember was that a young man, just two years older than I was at the time, stood at the pulpit and related the Joseph Smith Story. I had come home. I immediately knew God and Jesus Christ had indeed spoken to that fourteen-year-old boy and told him that none of the existing churches were true.

Gradually, grace by grace, the answers came through the enlightenment bestowed by the Holy Ghost, which I had received after my baptism into the Church of Jesus Christ. An authorized agent of Jesus Christ, holding the Priesthood of God, had laid his hands on my head and bestowed the gift of the Holy Ghost, who became my constant companion and revelator of truth.

I learned that the Scriptural phrase “The Mysteries of God” refers to knowledge that is hidden to the uninitiated, such as I had been, the person who does not have the Holy Ghost, but it is not incomprehensible to the enlightened Latter-day Saint.

7 And to them [the ones endowed with the Holy Ghost] will I reveal all mysteries, yea, all the hidden mysteries of my kingdom from days of old, and for ages to come, will I make known unto them the good pleasure of my will concerning all things pertaining to my kingdom.
8 Yea, even the wonders of eternity shall they know, and things to come will I show them, even the things of many generations.
9 And their wisdom shall be great, and their understanding reach to heaven; and before them the wisdom of the wise [the learned theologians] shall perish, and the understanding of the prudent shall come to naught.
10 For by my Spirit will I enlighten them, and by my power will I make known unto them the secrets of my will – yea, even those things which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor yet entered into the heart of man. (D&C 76:7-10)

The teachings of Christ are a mystery only to the world, but are revealed to the faithful children of God through the Holy Ghost:

61 If thou shalt ask, thou shalt receive revelation upon revelation, knowledge upon knowledge, that thou mayest know the mysteries and peaceable things – that which bringeth joy, that which bringeth life eternal.
65 Behold, thou shalt observe all these things, and great shall be thy reward; for unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom, but unto the world it is not given to know them. (D&C 42:61, 65)

I learned that the creeds of men are indeed “abominable” to our Heavenly Father since they are based on philosophy, not on scripture. They teach the philosophies of men mingled with scripture. The Trinity concept is obviously not based on sacred scripture or divine revelation but on philosophical thought. In the decades following Christ’s resurrection and the death of His apostles, learned scholars, schooled in the thought of Plato and other Greek philosophers, assumed leadership in the Church. They changed the plain doctrines of Christ and mystified them to intimidate the simple, uninitiated believer. Only the learned scholar pretends to understand the concept of the Trinity.

When Stephen, one of the first martyrs of the Church, was stoned to death by the angry mob, as recorded in the seventh chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, he being filled with the Holy Ghost looked up into heaven and saw “Christ standing on the right hand of God.” Where is the mystery of that? When Christ was baptized by John in the River Jordan, he beheld God, who acknowledged His beloved Son, and the Holy Ghost descended. Does that appear as if the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are one person, incomprehensible to human understanding?

The creed of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proclaims: We believe that God, the Eternal Father, and his Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost are three distinct and separate personages as witnessed in 1820 by the young man, Joseph Smith, who knelt in the Sacred Grove and petitioned God for knowledge and wisdom. And the knowledge and wisdom that is so apparent to the initiated person in the Scriptures was affirmed once again and the veil was lifted from the mystery.

When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other – This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him! (Joseph Smith History 2:17)

The Holy Ghost also made me understand what eternal punishment is. It is not endless punishment, meaning that there is no end. Man’s soul will not be consigned for all time and eternity to endless damnation without ever the least chance or hope of some measure of redemption, but “eternal punishment” is “God’s punishment” and there is a distinct difference:

6 Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment. …
8 Wherefore, I [the Lord] will explain unto you this mystery, for it is meet unto you to know even as mine apostles. …
10 For, behold, the mystery of godliness, how great is it! For, behold I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name. Wherefore –
11 Eternal punishment is God’s punishment.
12 Endless punishment is God’s punishment. (D&C 19:6-12)

It is a comforting thought, that punishment of a sinner is not without end, but is measured by God and mitigated by His mercy.

What about my uncle Ernst who was killed in action in Russia? And what about my grandparents and all my ancestors whom I have learned to dearly love? They never heard about the restored church and gospel and thus had no chance to decide whether they wanted to accept Christ or not. Are they forever condemned to eternal hell, as Luther feared for the unbaptized Greek scholars and philosophers whom he admired so much?

What does Paul mean when he asks, “Otherwise, what shall they do who are being baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are they being baptized for them?” (Corinthians 15:29).

The Lord promised to prepare “many mansions” for His followers (John 14:2). Modern revelations assert that all men will be saved into one of the many kingdoms that God has prepared for His children. The Apostle Paul writes about eternal kingdoms that differ in glory as the sun differs in brightness from the moon, and the light of the moon differs in brightness from the stars in the heavens (1 Corinthians 15:40, 41). Modern revelation given to the Prophet Joseph Smith reaffirms this eternal truth (D&C 76:70-81, 96-98).

Can you image the weight that was lifted from my shoulders when I learned that my grandparents and their children, my aunts and uncles and their children, will be taught the gospel in the spirit world and will have the opportunity to accept it and thus may be saved into eternal glory? Not only will my uncle Ernst rise in the resurrection, but he will be assigned to a kingdom of glory and – dare I say it? – even find a mate, be sealed to her, and raise a righteous posterity.

That, indeed, is a miracle and a mystery, but not a mystery beyond my understanding. How glorious are the teachings of Christ! Can we comprehend the message of joy and hope contained in the 76th section of the Doctrine and covenant alone? If this were the only revelation received by a modern prophet, we would sing eternal praises of gratitude to our Heavenly Father, for opening our understanding to one of the greatest mysteries.

I will meet my uncle Ernst again, I will embrace my grandparents whom I so dearly loved, I will be embraced by my father and mother, and by my beloved wife, Joyce, who passed away two years ago.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, by proclaiming the good news, the true Gospel of Christ, saved my spiritual and intellectual life. Without the restored gospel I would have become a total skeptic like most of my contemporary German friends. After the traumatic awakening from a brainwashed totalitarian political philosophy that I had undergone in my youth, I determined never again to place my trust in any system or belief that proclaimed absolute truth. But thanks to the grace of God I was enlightened and privileged to decipher and discern the heavenly mysteries: that God so loves mankind, including me, that He sent His Only Begotten Son to redeem us, and that He prepared a kingdom of glory not only for me, but for all my fellow men, a kingdom in which we live in joyous reunion with all our loved ones and with God and Christ, who are separate and distinct personages.

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Hans-Wilhelm Kelling earned his Abitur in Bremen, Germany, and then, following studies at Brigham Young University (BYU), received a Ph.D. in German literature from Stanford University. A former chairman of the Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages at BYU, he directed the University’s European Studies Program for fifteen years and its foreign language houses for twenty-three.

Professor Kelling has been, among others, a Fulbright Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow (twice), a BYU Alcuin Fellow for Distinguished Teaching in General Education, and a fellow of the Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst (DAAD), in Göttingen. In 1980, he received the Karl G. Maeser Distinguished Teaching Award from Brigham Young University.

His areas of academic specialization include the classical period of German literature (particularly Goethe), twentieth-century German literature, the cultural history of Germany, and computer-assisted language learning. Among his publications are The Idolatry of Poetic Genius in German Goethe Criticism (Berne: Herbert Lang, 1970), Wie man’s sagt und schreibt (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972), Deutsche Kulturgeschichte (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974; 2d rev. ed. 1978; New York: McGraw-Hill, completely revised and updated editions 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2003, 2006, 2008), and, with Christian Gellinek, Avenues toward Christianity: Mormonism in Comparative Church History (Binghamton, NY: Global Publications, 2001). He currently serves as German editor of the Encyclopedia of Mormonism.

He has held many positions in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, not least of which involved three years of service as president of its Germany Munich Mission.

Posted December 2009