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What We Know About the Degrees of Glory from Joseph Smith's Visions


Vision VI: The Telestial Glory

Remembering that celestial persons receive the testimony of Jesus and also the gospel covenant and that terrestrial persons receive the testimony of Jesus but not the gospel covenant, we now learn concerning the inhabitants of the telestial world: “These are they who received not the gospel of Christ, neither the testimony of Jesus” (D&C 76:82; see also 101). They “deny not the Holy Spirit” (D&C 76:83). That is, their wickedness is not such as to lead to complete perdition; they have not committed the unpardonable sin, but they are “thrust down to hell” (D&C 76:84); at the time of their mortal death, they enter into that realm of the postmortal sphere we know as hell, or spirit prison, and are confronted with their sinfulness (2 Nephi 9:10–12; Alma 40:13–14). These do not come from the grave until the last resurrection, until the end of the Millennium, “until the Lord, even Christ the Lamb, shall have finished his work” (D&C 76:85).

As is the case with the other kingdoms of glory, there are broad classifications of telestial people. These are they “who are of Paul, and of Apollos, and of Cephas. These are they who say they are some of one and some of another—some of Christ and some of John, and some of Moses, and some of Elias, and some of Esaias, and some of Isaiah, and some of Enoch; but received not the gospel, neither the testimony of Jesus, neither the prophets, neither the everlasting covenant” (D&C 76:99–101). Further, the telestial kingdom is the final abode of liars, sorcerers, adulterers and whoremongers, and, as John the Revelator learned, of murderers (D&C 76:103; Revelation 21:8; 22:15).

Finally, this portion of the vision adds the sobering detail that the inhabitants of the telestial world will be “as innumerable as the stars in the firmament of heaven, or as the sand upon the seashore” and that the inhabitants will be “servants of the Most High; but where God and Christ dwell they cannot come, worlds without end” (D&C 76:109, 112).

Although the telestial kingdom is the lowest of the kingdoms of glory, the inhabitants of that glory will be “heirs of salvation” in a world that “surpasses all understanding” (D&C 76:88–89). Generally, the word salvation means in scripture exactly the same thing as exaltation or eternal life (D&C 6:13; 14:7; Alma 11:40). There are a few times in scripture, however, when salvation refers to something less than exaltation and this is one of those times (see also, for example, D&C 132:17). In this expansive sense, our Lord seeks to save all of his children with an everlasting salvation. And he does so, in that all but the sons of perdition eventually inherit a kingdom of glory (D&C 76:43). In fact, Elder Charles W. Penrose observed about the telestial kingdom: “While there is one soul of this race, willing and able to accept and obey the laws of redemption, no matter where or in what condition it may be found, Christ’s work will be incomplete until that being is brought up from death and hell, and placed in a position of progress, upward and onward, in such glory as is possible for its enjoyment and the service of the great God.

“The punishment inflicted will be adequate to the wrongs performed. In one sense the sinner will always suffer its effects. When the debt is paid and justice satisfied; when obedience is learned through the lessons of sad experience; when the grateful and subdued soul comes forth from the everlasting punishment, thoroughly willing to comply with the laws once rejected; there will be an abiding sense of loss. The fullness of celestial glory in the presence and society of God and the Lamb are beyond the reach of that saved but not perfected soul, forever. The power of increase, wherein are dominion and exaltation and crowns of immeasurable glory, is not for the class of beings who have been thrust down to hell and endured the wrath of God for the period allotted by eternal judgment. . . .

“They cannot go up into the society of the Father nor receive of the presence of the Son, but will have ministrations of messengers from the terrestrial world, and have joy beyond all expectations and the conception of uninspired mortal minds. They will all bow the knee to Christ and serve God the Father, and have an eternity of usefulness and happiness in harmony with the higher powers. They receive the telestial glory.”

It is not uncommon to have a person not of our faith challenge the idea of “more heavens than one” as being odd or unbiblical or unnecessary. But just how odd is it? Just how strange, how unusual is this belief in varying degrees of reward hereafter? St. Augustine, who has exerted perhaps the most significant influence on both Roman Catholic and Protestant theology, wrote: “But who can conceive, not to say describe, what degrees of honor and glory shall be awarded to the various degrees of merit? Yet it cannot be doubted that there shall be degrees. And in that blessed city there shall be this great blessing, that no inferior shall envy any superior, as now the archangels are not envied by the angels, because no one will wish to be what he has not received.”

During the First Great Awakening, the early American theologian Jonathan Edwards stated: “There are many mansions in God’s house because heaven is intended for various degrees of honor and blessedness. Some are designed to sit in higher places there than others; some are designed to be advanced to higher degrees of honor and glory than others are.” Similarly, John Wesley, essentially the father of Methodism, spoke of some persons enjoying “higher degrees of glory” hereafter: “There is an inconceivable variety in the degrees of reward in the other world. . . . In worldly things men are ambitious to get as high as they can. Christians have a far more noble ambition. The difference between the very highest and the lowest state in the world is nothing to the smallest difference between the degrees of glory.”

The vision is a remarkable oracle. “Nothing could be more pleasing to the Saints upon the order of the Kingdom of the Lord,” Joseph Smith stated, “than the light which burst upon the world through the foregoing vision.” The Prophet described it as “a transcript from the records of the eternal world. The sublimity of the ideas; the purity of the language; the scope for action . . . are so much beyond the narrow­mindedness of men, that every man is constrained to exclaim: ‘It came from God.’”

CONCLUSION

The Prophet Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon received the vision of the glories in February of 1832. God continued to reveal himself, his plan, and the doctrines of salvation, precept upon precept, during the next twelve years of the Prophet’s mortal ministry and subsequently to his successors. Sometime after the coming of Elijah and the restoration of the sealing powers and fulness of the priesthood in April 1836, the Prophet introduced the doctrine and practice of celestial marriage to the Saints. He taught that “in the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees; and in order to obtain the highest, a man must enter into this order of the priesthood [meaning the new and everlasting covenant of marriage]; and if he does not, he cannot obtain it. He may enter into the other, but that is the end of his kingdom; he cannot have an increase” (D&C 131:1–4). Or, as the Prophet stated another way, “except a man and his wife enter into an everlasting covenant and be married for eternity, while in this probation, by the power and authority of the Holy Priesthood, they will cease to increase when they die; that is, they will not have any children after the resurrection. But those who are married by the power and authority of the priesthood in this life, and continue without committing the sin against the Holy Ghost, will continue to increase and have children in the celestial glory.”

Truly there are many mansions of the Father (John 14:1–2), and the Holy One of Israel has made provision for his people to attain to that level of glory hereafter that they are willing to receive. In describing the revolutionary nature of the vision, Richard Bushman pointed out that “the most radical departure of ‘the Vision’ was not the tripartite heaven but the contraction of hell. . . . The doctrine recast life after death.” In the vision, “a permanent hell threatened very few [the sons of perdition]. The question was not escape from hell but closeness to God. God scaled the rewards to each person’s capacity.”

Here is a message of hope, a breath of fresh air amid the fiery winds of sectarian theology, a doctrine that manifests the mercy and wisdom of our Divine Redeemer.

Lead image from Getty Images.

Image titleRobert L. Millet is the author ofPrecept Upon Precept: Joseph Smith and the Restoration of Doctrine which is available at Deseret Book stores or ondeseretbook.com.

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