In this excerpt from Precept upon Precept, Robert L. Millet explores the experience of the prophet Joseph Smith along with his scribe Sidney Rigdon as they received one of the most remarkable revelations from God—the vision of the degrees of glory.
VISION OF THE GLORIES
In a sense, the vision of the glories consists of six visions, each of which we will consider briefly.
Vision I: The Glory of the Son
The first vision briefly sets the stage for what follows by placing things in perspective with regard to the work of redemption and salvation—namely, that salvation is in Christ and comes through the shedding of his own blood and his glorious rise to newness of life in resurrection. The translators thus saw in vision “the glory of the Son, on the right hand of the Father, and received of his fulness; and saw the holy angels, and them who are sanctified before his throne, worshipping God, and the Lamb, who worship him forever and ever” (D&C 76:20–21). Similarly, John the Revelator had recorded concerning the Redeemer, “Ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands; saying with a loud voice, Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing” (Revelation 5:11–12).
The Prophet and his scribe bore witness of the Redeemer in powerful language: “And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him: That he lives! For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father—That by him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God” (D&C 76:22–24). Truly, the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy (Revelation 19:10), and all the holy prophets, from the beginning, have testified of the One who called and sent them (Acts 10:43; Jacob 4:4; 7:11; Mosiah 13:33).
In addition, Sidney and Joseph’s witness contains significant doctrine. For one thing, their testimony affirms the burden of scripture—that Jehovah, who is Christ, was and is the Creator of worlds without number (Moses 1:33; 7:30; Ephesians 3:9; Hebrews 1:1–2). It confirms also the infinite and eternal nature of the Atonement. Whatsoever our Lord and Master creates, he redeems. That is to say, his redemptive labors reach beyond the bounds of our earth (Moses 1:32–35). In 1843 the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote in poetry an account of this vision. Verses 22 through 24 of Doctrine and Covenants 76 were rendered as follows:
And now after all of the proofs made of him, By witnesses truly, by whom he was known, This is mine, last of all, that he lives; yea he lives! And sits at the right hand of God, on his throne.
And I heard a great voice, bearing record from heav’n, He’s the Savior, and only begotten of God— By him, of him, and through him, the worlds were all made, Even all that career in the heavens so broad,
Whose inhabitants, too, from the first to the last, Are sav’d by the very same Savior of ours; And, of course, are begotten God’s daughters and sons, By the very same truths, and the very same pow’rs.
Or, as a later apostle, President Russell M. Nelson, pointed out, “the mercy of the Atonement extends not only to an infinite number of people, but also to an infinite number of worlds created by Him.”
Vision II: The Fall of Lucifer
The Prophet Joseph and his scribe received an affirmation of a vital element of the plan of salvation—the nature of opposition through Satan and satanic influences. Lucifer is described in the vision as one “who was in authority in the presence of God” (D&C 76:25), who rebelled against the Father and the Son in the premortal council in heaven, thus becoming known as perdition, meaning “ruin” or “destruction.” Because he was indeed a spirit son of God, “a son of the morning” (D&C 76:26), the heavens wept over his defection. He coveted the throne of the Father and proposed to save all the sons and daughters of God in a way contrary to the plan of the Father (Moses 4:1–4). “The contention in heaven was—Jesus said there would be certain souls that would not be saved; and the devil said he could save them all, and laid his plans before the grand council, who gave their vote in favor of Jesus Christ. So the devil rose up in rebellion against God, and was cast down, with all who put up their heads for him.” Lucifer became thereby an enemy to God and to all righteousness: “Wherefore, he maketh war with the saints of God, and encompasseth them round about” (D&C 76:29).
Vision III: The Sons of Perdition
Joseph and Sidney were permitted to view those who receive light and truth and the revelations of heaven and who then choose knowingly to deny the light and defy God and his work. These are the sons of perdition, “vessels of wrath, doomed to suffer the wrath of God, with the devil and his angels in eternity” (D&C 76:33). Truly, “it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance” (Hebrews 6:4–6; compare 10:26–29).
“What must a man do to commit the unpardonable sin?” Joseph the Seer asked in the King Follett sermon. “He must receive the Holy Ghost, have the heavens opened unto him, and know God, and then sin against Him. After a man has sinned against the Holy Ghost, there is no repentance for him. He has got to say that the sun does not shine while he sees it; he has got to deny Jesus Christ when the heavens have been opened unto him, and to deny the plan of salvation with his eyes open to the truth of it; and from that time he begins to be an enemy. . . . You cannot save such persons; you cannot bring them to repentance; they make open war, like the devil, and awful is the consequence.”
All of the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve will rise from the grave in the resurrection, including sons of perdition (D&C 88:32). The sons of perdition are guilty of the unpardonable sin (Alma 39:6), a sin not covered by the atonement of Christ, a sin for which no amount of personal suffering will right the wrongs done. There is no forgiveness for them, neither here nor hereafter, for, “having denied the Holy Spirit after having received it, and having denied the Only Begotten Son of the Father, having crucified him unto themselves and put him to an open shame” (D&C 76:34–35), they are guilty of shedding innocent blood, meaning the innocent blood of Christ. “The blasphemy against the Holy Ghost,” a later revelation attests, “which shall not be forgiven in the world nor out of the world, is in that ye commit murder wherein ye shed innocent blood, and assent unto my death, after ye have received my new and everlasting covenant, saith the Lord God” (D&C 132:27; emphasis added). The sons of perdition are the only ones who will be subject to the second spiritual death, the final expulsion from the presence of God. They, after being resurrected and standing before God to be judged (2 Nephi 9:15), will be consigned to a kingdom of no glory.
In the midst of this gloomy scene the Lord provides one of the most beautiful definitions of the gospel of Jesus Christ: the “glad tidings” that “he came into the world, even Jesus, to be crucified for the world, and to bear the sins of the world, and to sanctify the world, and to cleanse it from all unrighteousness; that through him all might be saved whom the Father had put into his power and made by him; who glorifies the Father, and saves all the works of his hands, except those sons of perdition who deny the Son after the Father has revealed him” (D&C 76:40–43).
This third vision ends with a sobering reminder that the particulars of the fate of the sons of perdition have not been revealed (D&C 76:45–48). In 1833 the Prophet Joseph explained that “the Lord never authorized [certain individuals] to say that the devil, his angels, or the sons of perdition, should ever be restored; for their state of destiny was not revealed to man, is not revealed, nor shall be revealed, save to those who are made partakers thereof: consequently those who teach this doctrine have not received it of the Spirit of the Lord. Truly Brother Oliver declared it to be the doctrine of devils.”
Vision IV: The Celestial Glory
The Prophet and Sidney next studied and learned by contrast: Their attention shifted from those who will inherit no glory to those who inherit the highest. They beheld the glories of the celestial kingdom and provided broad descriptions of those who inhabit the same. They witnessed the inhabitants of the “resurrection of the just” (D&C 76:50), what we call the first resurrection (Mosiah 15:21–25), the resurrection of celestial and terrestrial persons. Celestial persons are those who receive the testimony of Jesus and accept the terms and conditions of the gospel covenant. They are “baptized after the manner of his burial” and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, thereby becoming “cleansed from all their sins” (D&C 76:51–52).
Those who inherit a celestial glory are they who “overcome by faith” (D&C 76:53), who have learned to “withstand every temptation of the devil, with their faith on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Alma 37:33). They overcome the world in forsaking worldliness and carnal attractions and give themselves to the Lord and his work. These are “sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, which the Father sheds forth upon all those who are just and true” (D&C 76:53). The Holy Spirit of Promise is the Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit promised to the Saints. Because “the Comforter knoweth all things” (D&C 42:17; Moses 6:61), the Holy Ghost is able to search the souls of individuals and to ascertain the degree to which they have truly yielded their hearts unto God, the degree to which they are “just and true” (D&C 76:53). Thus to be sealed by the Holy Spirit of Promise is to have the ratifying approval of the Holy Ghost upon our lives and upon the ordinances and covenants into which we have entered. It is to have passed the tests of mortality, to have qualified for celestial glory hereafter. The poem continues:
For these overcome, by their faith and their works, Being tried in their life-time, as purified gold, And seal’d by the spirit of promise, to life, By men called of God, as was Aaron of old.
Celestial men and women are “the Church of the Firstborn” (D&C 76:54). The Church of the Firstborn is composed of faithful Saints who have proven true and faithful to their covenants. As the covenant of baptism is the gate to membership in the Church of Jesus Christ on earth, so the covenant of celestial marriage opens the door to membership in the heavenly church. The Church of the Firstborn is the Church beyond the veil, the organized body of Saints who inherit exaltation. It is made up of those who qualify for the blessings of the Firstborn. Jesus is the Firstborn of the Father and as such is entitled to the birthright. As an act of consummate mercy and grace, our blessed Savior makes it possible for us to inherit, receive, and possess the same blessings he receives, as though each of us were the Firstborn. Those who come into the Church and live worthy of the companionship of the Holy Ghost are born again; they become the sons and daughters of Jesus Christ by adoption (Mosiah 5:1–7). If they continue faithful, receive thereafter the covenants and ordinances of the temple, including the endowment and celestial marriage, and are true to those higher covenants, they will eventually become the sons and daughters of God, meaning the Father. They become heirs of God and jointheirs, or coinheritors, with Jesus Christ to all that the Father has, including eternal life. “Wherefore, as it is written, they are gods, even the sons of God” (D&C 76:58). President Brigham Young therefore stated that “the ordinances of the house of God are expressly for the Church of the Firstborn.”
“They are they who are priests and kings, who have received of his fulness, and of his glory” (D&C 76:56). That is, they are kings and queens, priests and priestesses, individuals who through their steadfastness and immovability in keeping their covenants have received what the prophets call the “fulness of the priesthood” (D&C 124:28). These are they who will accompany the Master when he returns in glory, those who, if they have already passed through the veil of death, will come forth from the grave in glorious immortality. The first resurrection, which began at the time of Christ’s resurrection, will thus resume. These are they whose names are written in heaven, in the Lamb’s book of life (D&C 88:2), “where God and Christ are the judge of all” (D&C 76:68).
And then, lest we should conclude that such persons have attained to this highest degree of glory on their own, through their own merits and moral accomplishments or without divine assistance, the holy word attests: “These are they who are just men made perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, who wrought out this perfect atonement through the shedding of his own blood” (D&C 76:69; emphasis added). They are made perfect—whole, complete, fully formed, spiritually mature—through their covenant union with the Redeemer.
Vision V: The Terrestrial Glory
The vision of the first resurrection or resurrection of the just continues. The Prophet and his scribe witnessed the final state of those who chose to abide by goodness and equity and decency in their second estate but also chose not to receive and incorporate the fulness of that light and power that derive from receiving the everlasting gospel. The terrestrial glory is made up of those who in this life did not receive the testimony of Jesus—the testimony that he is the Savior and Redeemer of mankind—but afterward received it; that is, they received that witness in the postmortal spirit world (D&C 76:73–74). The terrestrial world is also inhabited by those who knew in this life that Jesus was the Christ but who were not valiant enough in that witness to receive the fulness of the gospel when it was presented to them. Or, as the Prophet rendered it poetically:
Not valiant for truth, they obtain’d not the crown, But are of that glory that’s typ’d by the moon: They are they, that come into the presence of Christ, But not to the fulness of God, on his throne.
For that matter, those who received the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ—in our day, those who join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints—and then do not prove valiant in their testimony. These are candidates for the terrestrial degree of glory hereafter.
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.’”
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.
Robert 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.