How to Respond to Unanswerable Questions

Think about the following question.  How would you answer it during class?

Q: Can individuals progress between telestial, terrestrial, and celestial kingdoms?

Take a few minutes to think about how you will answer an unanswerable question based on the needs of your students. Your unanswerable question may not be this one, but I promise, you'll get at least one this year.

A: Despite some statements from general authorities strongly espousing differing positions, since 1952 the First Presidency has stated it has no official doctrine on progression between kingdoms:

"The brethren direct me to say that the Church has never announced a definite doctrine upon this point. Some of the brethren have held the view that it was possible in the course of progression to advance from one glory to another, invoking the principle of eternal progression; others of the brethren have taken the opposite view. But as stated, the Church has never announced a definite doctrine on this point." 

Joseph L Anderson, Secretary of the First Presidency

METHOD 1: Now, many teachers would stop here -- they move on to new material after letting students know there is no definitive statement on the matter. They would not allow students to discuss the material and move on to avoid a possible controversy. This is a perfectly acceptable thing to do in the classroom, but I think there is a better way.

When I'm teaching, I'm working all the time to encourage students to ask their hard questions during class, where I can try to help them find an answer that will build faith rather than tear it down. For me, I want students to feel comfortable asking any question, and I want them to know all of their ideas will be treated respectfully.

If I were teaching and this question came up, I'd let students know that the church has no definite doctrine about this, and I'd take them one of two ways, depending on student need and interest. One way is to talk about the frustration of not being able to get answers to every question with the intent of training students to rely on the faith they already have to get them through these annoyances. The other way is to let students discuss their views in order to build a classroom culture where idea-sharing is safe.

METHOD 2: If your students seem frustrated that they can't get an answer, consider using some of these questions to direct discussion:

  • How does it make you feel when you can't get an answer to every question?
  • Why do you think some things aren't revealed yet?
  • Have you ever asked a question, put it aside for a while, and then found the answer later?
  • What do you know about God that helps you understand why not all questions are answered immediately?
  • Questions are good, because questions lead to answers. How can we avoid becoming angry or annoyed when our questions don't lead to answers immediately?
  • How do you think we can exercise faith while we still have questions?

METHOD 3: The other direction is more classroom culture-directed, and you would use this in a classroom where you are trying to build a respectful, safe place to ask questions. It is a more advanced discussion leading technique, and takes some self-control and deliberate effort to be supportive of differing views on the part of the teacher. For this use, the teacher would let the class know that there isn't a specific doctrine on this topic, and then ask the class what they think will happen in the afterlife -- will individuals be able to progress between kingdoms? Why?

During this discussion, the teacher will NOT share his or her views. None. All of the teacher comments will be supportive but noncommittal.

"I like that."

"That makes sense to me."

"I have never heard that idea before, can you expound on it?"

"Keep going."

"It sounds like you've thought about this before. When/Why?"

"Does anyone have a different idea?"

"I'm so glad you said that. It helps me understand ___ better."

Also during this discussion, the teacher will be careful to ensure that students are respectful of other's ideas, and will not let a single loud, knowledgeable, or domineering student take over. If anything gets too far off in the weeds, gently redirect.

When you think it's right to end the discussion, do so, thanking the class for being willing to share their ideas. There isn't a right or wrong answer to this question, or if there is we don't know it yet. Compliment them on the respectful way they listened to one another's ideas. Compliment them on being bold enough to share their thoughts when they didn't know the answer. Remind them that it's okay to have questions and wonder about things. Let them know you want them to come to Seminary with their questions, and you'll do your best to help them answer questions. You wish you had an answer to this question, but we don't yet. Bear testimony of your faith in Heavenly Father and let the class know that you are confident that He will keep His promise in :

32 Yea, verily I say unto you, in that day when the Lord shall come, he shall reveal all things—

33 Things which have passed, and hidden things which no man knew, things of the earth, by which it was made, and the purpose and the end thereof—

34 Things most precious, things that are above, and things that are beneath, things that are in the earth, and upon the earth, and in heaven.

D&C 101:32-34

The goal with all three methods described above is to protect and build faith. You'll know which way to go in your classroom because you have stewardship over it. In fact, if you've got another idea of how to handle unanswerable questions, please post it below!

There's no right or wrong way, but it is very important that teachers never, ever speculate during class. Yes, I realize that in the classroom culture example, I am inviting you to allow students to explore deeper ideas that they will not find definitive answers to. They may even speculate. I think is okay (and even desirable) to allow students to practice wrestling with an unanswerable question in a safe, faithful environment . It is not okay for you to speculate or guess in your role as teacher, however. Don't do it.

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