Beliefs Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Author returns, exhausted, after 3 hours in Mormon heaven

Illustration of Heaven's gates.
Illustration of Heaven's gates.

Illustration of Heaven’s gates.

It was not the heavenly respite Ronald Jared Sorensen was expecting.

“Every minute was accounted for,” Sorensen complains in Three Hours in Mormon Heaven, a new book published today. In the exposé, he chronicles a stroke he experienced in 2009 at age 73, and describes the three hours he alleges he spent in the Celestial Kingdom, the highest Mormon heaven, which he had been preparing for with great zeal all his life.

“Right away, they put me on an eternal missionary rotation. They paired me up with this guy who never stopped smiling to go preach the gospel to the dead. Forever! I mean, I served a mission for two years of my life and was glad to do it, but that doesn’t mean I want to knock on doors for all eternity,” Sorensen explained in an email interview.

His memoir claims that after he died he was met at the pearly gates not by Saint Peter, who was attending a meeting at the time, but by a former cruise director with a clipboard:

She was very welcoming, and wanted me to feel at home. She gave me Lion House Rolls and told me to take all I wanted. But she also made it clear right from the start that this was not a holiday. We were Mormons, and we needed to put our shoulders to the wheel. (p. 9)

Sorensen’s unusual experiences are in line with his religion’s beliefs, according to Yale scholar Harold Bloom, who has called Mormonism “perhaps the most work-addicted culture in religious history.” Unlike other Christian denominations, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has long put forward a more active view of heavenly life, in which the deceased assist with missionary work, learn how to become more like God, and possibly even raise children they never got to parent in this life.

“It was very exciting and wonderful to be reunited with my own parents and my older siblings who died before me,” Sorensen said, treading carefully. “I cried with joy at seeing them all again. But this whole idea of having more children after we die? That’s pretty intense. I’m not sure my wife is going to be thrilled with it when she gets to heaven, frankly. We already raised seven kids.”

Sorensen’s claims have been disputed. The LDS Church has largely stayed above the fray, its only comment being that Sorensen must be confusing the Celestial Kingdom, which is an ultimate destination after Christ’s millennial reign, with the “spirit world,” where people go immediately after death.

But some medical professionals have been far more outspoken in protesting the book.

“Mr. Sorensen believes he was dead for three hours, but medical records show that his heart stopped beating for less than one minute,” said Central Utah Trauma spokeswoman Oaklynne Burton. One physician who spoke on condition of anonymity suspects that Sorensen “just concocted the whole fable in order to take advantage of the popularity of books about heavenly experiences.”

It’s certainly true that “heavenly tourism” has become a genre all its own in religious publishing. Kicked off in 2004 by Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven, which as of last year had sold over six million copies and been translated into 46 languages, the genre also includes, controversially, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, a 2010 bestseller that its young author recanted earlier this year.

On the other hand, at least one industry expert thinks Sorensen’s book will have limited appeal. “It’s not just that it’s a Mormon book, and Mormons are less than two percent of the population,” said Margaret Harrington-Ross, senior editor of Books Today. “It’s that it’s not a totally happy-touchy-feely book. The author went to heaven, sure, but it wasn’t a slam-dunk positive experience. Readers might not want to hear they’ll be expected to work full-time for God after they die. Mostly they just want to watch all the Netflix episodes they didn’t have time for on earth.”

Sorensen, for his part, feels a bit scarred. He now attends a recovery group called ERCK (Early Returns from the Celestial Kingdom), where members offer experiences and support.

“Mormon heaven can be demanding,” Sorensen concludes. “All this time I’ve been thinking I should cram in lots of bucket-list experiences while I was still in my 70s and in decent health. Now I’m thinking that’s exactly backwards. I’m just going to sleep for the rest of my mortal life, knowing there’s no rest for the righteous where I’m eventually going.”

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • I am trying to figure out if it is inappropriate to laugh or not. I don’t want to be disrespectful.

  • Wow, she really got me! I guess its because I haven’t resided in the US in over 6 years; I´ve gotten caught in April Fool´s traps for the last 3 years. I got all the way to the end of the blog post before reading the tags, and realizing I had been taken in. I was thinking, “Sometimes Ms. Reiss writes some silly stuff, but this, this doesn’t sound like something even she would be taken in by.” That´s OK, ’cause I was! Well played, Ms. Reiss, well played.

  • The Amazon link is to an April Fool’s Book.

    This being about religion, however, one never can really tell…

  • I remember the day when I decided that I never, ever wanted to go to the Celestial Kingdom. It was the day my parents told me that the earth was going to be turned into a giant Urim and Thummim for those born on this planet and “worthy” of the “Celestial Kingdom.” This giant looking glass would be their home, and they’d spend the rest of eternity walking about in bare feed in celestial robes. [D&C 130:8-9]

    Ugh! I always hated those long, boring, stuffy church meetings. As a kid they made my legs ache and my back hurt. Sitting for three hours in a stuffy meeting house was bad enough, but *all* *eternity*! No! I couldn’t conceive of a worse hell than church 24-7 for billions of years! I decided right then and there that a lower Kingdom was the place for me. Green grass, meadows, mountains, lakes, and hills. That is the world I love, the world I yearn for.

    In fact, I’ve come to wonder if the whole thing isn’t an elaborate version of opposite day, where the “worthy” unthinkers (sheeple) inherit hell, masquerading as the “Celestial Kingdom,” where they are constrained to live out a horribly boring eternity on a glass sphere. Meanwhile, those who are deemed “unworthy” because they challenge the orthodoxy and do their own thinking end up in “heaven,” (a “lower” kingdom, according to the church) where the grass is green, the air is sweat, and mountains and lakes abound.

    You “worthy” members of the church may have your stuffy Celestial Kingdom with it’s planetary looking glass, temple robes,and group think. I want none of it; it seems like hell to me.

  • This was brilliant Jana. I know it was a joke, but it really makes an important point. I’ve always said that I really don’t aspire to get into the Celestial kingdom; it just sounds like too much work. Eternity sounds like a long time to me and I’m not really interested in spending it doing missionary work, managing a bunch of worlds, or pumping out billions of spirit children with my polygamous wives. Thanks but no thanks.

    Sign me up for the Telestial Kingdom, that’s where the fun people will be!

  • My plan is to watch all the Netflix I can now and have a beer, cause as a life long faithful LDS member, I’m tired.

  • Hilarious article. As somebody above mentioned, it makes an important point. Our concept of “heaven” is really very fuzzy. It’s hard to envision such a place in realistic terms. It’s hard to envision living (or existing) for eternity. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in paradise with my every need met. The thought of living for eternity in a perfect environment sounds like hell. I’ve had a miraculous life so far. I’m extremely happy. I have no regrets at all. I hope to run a good race for a few more decades and then call it quits. I can live with that.

  • I get it.

    Joe Smith invented his religion on April 1st.

    Awesome. I knew this LDS stuff had to be a gag.

    Next to Atheism, it is one of the most hilarious delusions to ever enter the mind of a madman.

  • I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. The sinners are much more fun.
    -Billy Joel

  • @Steve C-R,

    Are you sure that was Billy Joel. I could swear it was either President Benson or Bruce R. McConkie. I need to go look for the quote.

  • A seminary professor of mine said he envisioned heaven as the place where he will get to do all the things he never had time for in this life, and one of the things he wants to do there is learn to play all the instruments in the orchestra…since he had NO musical aptitude, I was sort of wondering whether I have to sit through the results.

    Pr Chris

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