Secret Tokens & Signs

6. Secret Tokens & Signs

Is God really going to require individuals to know secret tokens, handshakes, and signs to get into heaven? What is the purpose of them? Doesn’t Heavenly Father know our names and know us personally? Indeed, aren’t the very hairs on our heads numbered? And couldn’t those who have left the Church and still know of the secret tokens, handshakes, and signs (or those who have watched the endowment ceremony on YouTube) benefit from that knowledge?

CES Letter, Page 108

Entrance to the kingdom of heaven not only requires the knowledge and power imparted by participation in the ordinances themselves, but also keeping the covenants connected with them. Because earthly ordinances point to heavenly meanings, an understanding of them must come through personal revelation.

The Church has always taught that whether or not the saving ordinances we perform in this life become effective in eternity depends as much on what we eventually become as on what we know (D. H. Oaks, "To Become," p. 32, emphasis added. Cf. D. A. Bednar, Power to Become, pp. 1-35). The ordinances and covenants we receive in this life are meant to help prepare us to be “spiritually… born of God,” having received a “mighty change in [our] hearts” and “his image” in our countenances (Alma 5:14). In short, we are striving to understand and develop the character of Christ (see D. A. Bednar, Act, pp. 1-35; D. A. Bednar, Power to Become, pp. 155-157). Unless we draw on the enabling power of the Atonement to develop a Christlike character, we will remain unfit for the presence of God, no matter how much we may think we know.

As to the knowledge of the keys of the priesthood that is given in the temple, Hugh Nibley reminds us that the endowment (like every other priesthood ordinance) “is frankly a model, a presentation in figurative terms … [I]t does not attempt to be a picture of reality [as it exists in the heavens] but only a model or analog to show us how things work” (H. W. Nibley, Message 2005, p. xxix). According to Elder John A. Widtsoe, “the earthly ordinances of the Gospel are themselves only reflections of heavenly ordinances” and, though essential in our current state of probation, they are “distinctly of the earth and cannot be accepted elsewhere than on earth” (J. A. Widtsoe, Work, p. 33). For this reason, hyper-literalism about correspondences between earthly and heavenly ordinances is naïve and inappropriate.

The fact that the ordinances point to heavenly meanings beyond themselves — being “earthly symbols of realities that prevail throughout the universe,” as Elder Widtsoe put it (J. A. Widtsoe, Work, p. 33) — implies that it is possible to “learn” the keys presented in the endowment while still understanding very little about the glorious web of meanings to which they refer. In this sense, Nibley could say: “The ordinances are not secret [i.e., because, in a superficial sense, they may be “known” widely], and yet they are, so to speak, automatically scrambled for those not authorized to have them” (H. W. Nibley, Temple and Cosmos, p. 63). To be properly understood in their native context, the various elements of the ordinances must be “spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14. Cf. Matthew 13:11-13).