No empty chairs. As far as I can tell this phrase is over 35 years old in the church, probably a family saying started by Ezra Taft Benson and shared in the 80s. I don’t know his original intention, but I know how it’s been used since. And it’s sad. It speaks of a God who excludes, a heaven that divides, and an eternity of sorrow.
There is a gravestone near my home of a mother and grandmother. She and her husband were sealed in the temple of God to each other and to their posterity for time and all eternity. The inscription on the gravestone reads, “Please, no empty chairs.” She asked for that inscription because she knew that whether the family will be together depends on the choices each family member makes. The word “please” is there because neither God nor she can compel another to choose happiness. And there is Satan, who wants misery, not happiness, in families in this life and in the next.
My hope today is to suggest some choices which may seem difficult but that would assure you that you have qualified for there to be no empty chairs in your family in the world to come. (Henry B Eyring, 2009)
In the traditional view of the plan of salvation, there are three degrees of glory to which we can attain after we are resurrected. There are key qualifiers for entry into each of the kingdoms, and the Celestial Kingdom even has sub-kingdoms, each with their own qualifiers as well. Once we are resurrected, our timed test is up and we all have to go to our rooms. We’re all separated into the different kingdoms depending on our testimonies and our corresponding actions.
We have no official doctrine related to movement between these kingdoms, or whether or not people can change once there, but it is widely believed that we can visit kingdoms of a lesser glory, but not those of a higher. Thank goodness, because if we have empty chairs, we sure will miss our wayward family members and it will be good to be able to visit them once in a while.
Except, that’s not really good enough for me. I believe in a loving God and a benevolent universe. This means that the deck was stacked in our favor from the beginning. The very beginning. Satan is not the most powerful being. Christ was the first idea before the creation of the world, not a reactionary plan “b”. God’s grace is infinite. And eternity is a really, really long time. It’s true, God cannot force us to heaven, but he has literally eternity to persuade us. Our minds can’t even fathom that.
We really don’t comprehend time very well, let alone eternity. We want to imagine an end to all of this because it’s easier to think about, but there isn’t. There isn’t some universal timer which signals some threshold of time that God’s grace and love cannot reach beyond. And he’ll never give up.
If our traditional view of kingdoms is correct, and I end up being the type of person who would make it to one of those penthouses in the sky, I would not be content to sit around soaking in my well-deserved reward knowing that there is anyone, anyone at all, struggling or suffering in any way. Even if that suffering is only in their minds and totally unbeknownst to them, I’ll know it. And just like God, I’m never going to give up.
So, if there are “empty chairs”, mine will be one of them. I’ll be busy living with the lower kingdoms and showing them The Way. And since I’m resurrected and celestial, I’ll never get tired. If God can touch the heart of the sinner, and Jesus can break bread with them, then I’m pretty sure there isn’t anywhere they can’t go. I’ll bring them with me. Actually, they’re probably already there. And so are the rest of the celestial beings. I’ll join them in their joyous work. I bet they’re all “empty chairs”.
In fact, I bet all of heaven has packed up their tables and chairs and moved them to be with those who have more to learn. Heaven, itself, is “empty”. The whole idea of separate kingdoms starts to break down, until we are all living in the same place, separated only by our perceptions of reality as seen through the good news of the gospel and our understanding of it. So we serve each other, we teach each other, mostly we just love each other, since actions speak louder than words, and love the loudest of all. This, the glorious sharing of the good news, witnessing the return of every prodigal son, and getting to be part of that party, is our heaven.
So, I guess there ends up being “no empty chairs” after all. We’ll all share in table fellowship together, in the great work of eternal life and glory for each and every one of God’s beloved children.
And if that’s what heaven looks like, then certainly we can do that here on earth, too.
Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen. (Matthew 6:9–13)