Q: My wife and I were sealed in the temple. As we got older, one of our kids left the Church. A branch president told my wife that we will not have our son with us in the next life. This has caused my wife much anguish for many years. What do you say to this? Is there an answer in church writings that we can refer to?
A: Sometimes even our leaders make mistakes. The short version is that your branch president was wrong. I’ll back that statement up with doctrine in a second.
But first, if it’s any consolation, the Prophet Joseph Smith knows all too well your wife’s pain. After his brother Alvin passed away, Joseph’s sibling William reported that "Rev. Stockton had preached my brother's funeral sermon and intimated very strongly that he had gone to hell, for Alvin was not a church member." Joseph cited this as a reason he did not join that particular church.
Thankfully for the Smiths, for you, and for your son, the mercy of God extends farther than we can imagine. Let’s take a look at what Apostles and Prophets have said on the matter.
Wayward Children Will Pay Their Debt to Justice but Can Still Be Redeemed, Learn, and Grow
“The Prophet Joseph Smith declared—and he never taught a more comforting doctrine—that the eternal sealings of faithful parents and the divine promises made to them for valiant service in the Cause of Truth, would save not only themselves, but likewise their posterity. Though some of the sheep may wander, the eye of the Shepherd is upon them, and sooner or later they will feel the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them and drawing them back to the fold.
“Either in this life or the life to come, they will return. They will have to pay their debt to justice; they will suffer for their sins; and may tread a thorny path; but if it leads them at last, like the penitent Prodigal, to a loving and forgiving father’s heart and home, the painful experience will not have been in vain. Pray for your careless and disobedient children; hold on to them with your faith. Hope on, trust on, till you see the salvation of God.” (Orson F. Whitney, in Conference Report, Apr. 1929, 110)
No Power on Earth or in Hell Will Separate Parents from Children
“Let the father and mother, who are members of this Church and Kingdom, take a righteous course, and strive with all their might never to do a wrong, but to do good all their lives; if they have one child or one hundred children, if they conduct themselves towards them as they should, binding them to the Lord by their faith and prayers, I care not where those children go, they are bound up to their parents by an everlasting tie, and no power of earth or hell can separate them from their parents in eternity; they will return again to the fountain from whence they sprang.” (President Brigham Young, quoted in Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols. [1954–56], 2:90–91)
You Will Work to Exalt Your Wayward Children in the Hereafter
“If you succeed in passing through these trials and afflictions and receive a resurrection, you will, by the power of the Priesthood, work and labor, as the Son of God has, until you get all your sons and daughters in the path of exaltation and glory. This is just as sure as that the sun rose this morning over yonder mountains. Therefore, mourn not because all your sons and daughters do not follow in the path that you have marked out to them, or give heed to your counsels. Inasmuch as we succeed in securing eternal glory, and stand as saviors, and as kings and priests to our God, we will save our posterity.” (President Lorenzo Snow, in Collected Discourses, comp. Brian H. Stuy, 5 vols. [1987–92], 3:364)
Parents Who Keep Covenants Have Children Bound to Them
“The measure of our success as parents . . . will not rest solely on how our children turn out. That judgment would be just only if we could raise our families in a perfectly moral environment, and that now is not possible.
“It is not uncommon for responsible parents to lose one of their children, for a time, to influences over which they have no control. They agonize over rebellious sons or daughters. They are puzzled over why they are so helpless when they have tried so hard to do what they should.
“It is my conviction that those wicked influences one day will be overruled. . . .
“We cannot overemphasize the value of temple marriage, the binding ties of the sealing ordinance, and the standards of worthiness required of them. When parents keep the covenants they have made at the altar of the temple, their children will be forever bound to them.” (President Boyd K. Packer, “Our Moral Environment,” Ensign, May 1992, 68)
How Will It Be Done?
Now, I don’t pretend to understand how our family bonds continue in the hereafter in the context of the three kingdoms (or degrees) of glory. Some have speculated that progression from one kingdom to the next is possible for those who repent and abide by God’s laws (Church leaders are divided on the issue, and there’s no official doctrine on this point).
We know from Doctrine and Covenants 76:86-87 that persons in lower kingdoms will be ministered to by those in higher kingdoms. There’s no reason why that couldn’t be family members ministering to one another. In fact, given President Snow’s statements above that “you will . . . work and labor . . . until you get all your sons and daughters in the path of exaltation and glory” and that “we will save our posterity,” it appears that family members are exactly who will be doing that inter-kingdom ministering.
Ultimately, while our children must repent and follow God to enjoy the blessings of salvation, and while we labor in this life (and in the next) to help them, they will be saved the same way anyone else is: through the Atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ. As King Benjamin taught: “There shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means by which salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent” (Mosiah 3:17).
Parents of wayward children should take great comfort in Jesus’ teaching: “For God sent not His son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:17).
Growing up, my dad used to say that “In the day of judgment, God will be as kind and merciful as He can possibly be. He’s on a mission to save us, not to condemn us.” Based on my experience with God and His character, I know that to be true. I testify that our children can never stray too far for Christ to reach them or for us to influence them. We must be loving. We must be welcoming. We must be patient. We must set a good example, without harshness or condemnation. We must walk up to our covenants. Then we can wait upon the Lord with perfect confidence that our family ties, our prayers, and our love are not in vain.