Even in primary, I was taught the Plan of Salvation included three degrees of glory: the Telestial Kingdom, the Terrestrial Kingdom, and the Celestial Kingdom. It was far more elegant and complete than the simplistic heaven and hell emphasized by other faiths.
“There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption” (1 Cor 15:40-42)
In context, Paul was discussing the sorts of states various individuals would experience in the resurrection – the permanent kingdoms they would inherit – and comparing the glory of these states to the relative luminosity of stellar lights.
In other words, some would inherit kingdoms of light shining like stars at night. While some stars are visible only on dark, clear nights when the moon is new, others are visible even when the moon is full. That having been said, the light of a full moon can make objects on the earth clear and visible… a feat impossible for even bright stars. Next to the moon, stars provide little light to the earth.
Above each of these is the brightness of the sun, which renders stars invisible, and the moon unnoticeable. Its brightness is blinding, orders of magnitude above the brightness of other stellar objects on the earth’s surface.
The idea behind this analogy is important. Even a person who has committed serious transgressions, and refuses to repent of them, will still inherit a kingdom of glory. The simple heaven/hell comparison popular in various faiths does not portray the truth that all of God’s children will live in a world that, at minimum, will be free of death, of pain, of hunger, of deformity, of disability, and of most of the problems that accompany mortality. It will be wonderful!
Why then, if a resurrected life free from the cares of mortality awaits all, does Jesus preach about hell?
In the sermon on the mount, Jesus warns that a person who says “thou fool” shall be in danger of hellfire. He warns if your right eye or hand offend you, you should get rid of it because it is better to be without one member than to be cast into hell. (Matthew 5:29-30) He describes a strait and narrow path that leads to life, and a broad and wide way that leads to destruction.
In many of Jesus’s parables, he continues the binary choice between good and evil. Consider the wise man and the foolish man, the wheat and the tares, the sheep and the goats, or the rich man and Lazarus.
I recall several youth leaders who, after drawing the familiar circles representing the various steps and phases that represented the course of humanity from pre-mortality to a kingdom of glory, would circle the top of the circle representing the celestial kingdom. They explained our goal was not some other kingdom or state, it was to inherit the Kingdom of God.
By circling the top of the celestial kingdom and distinguishing it from all of the others, they had, perhaps unknowingly, created a two destination model; essentially, a more complicated diagram of the old paradigm taught by Jesus…heaven and hell.
The reasoning for doing this is to emphasize the goal.
Jesus did not come to earth and endure indescribable torment and suffering so that we could go to some lesser kingdom, rather he paid the price so we could inherit exaltation and eternal life.
This is not to say there is no point to understanding the degrees of glory. It is the promise to all that the problems, injustices, and difficulties we have as part of mortal life will be solved. A corrupt and violent thief will not receive the same fate as a person who mostly tried to be good, but was not interested in fully committing to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The degrees of glory represent the hope that God will establish justice, and that all of his children will receive a life free of pain and death, as is appropriate. He will solve all of our problems.
That having been said, Jesus sends his prophets not to remind us “no matter what you will inherit a kingdom of glory,” but to encourage us it is worth working hard to be better. As good as it would be to live free of pain and death and hunger and thirst, He wants something so much more than that for us: to the amount that the sunlight on a clear day is brighter than the light of stars on a clear night.
In other words, while the degrees of glory provides us hope of the resurrection, an understanding of heaven provides us the destination that Christ had in mind for us when he sacrificed on our behalf.
Paul perhaps said it best:
“Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9)
- Come, Follow Me—For Individuals and Families: New Testament 2019, Sept. 2 – Sept. 8.
- “Come, Follow Me” – President Russell M. Nelson, April 2019
- “According to the Desire of [Our] Hearts” – Elder Neal A. Maxwell, October 1996