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Three Kingdoms of Glory: Joseph Smith, 1 Corinthians 15, and Doctrine & Covenants 76

Three Kingdoms of Glory: Joseph Smith, 1 Corinthians 15, and Doctrine & Covenants 76

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Christian theology traditionally (and biblically) teaches that all people will end up in one of two eternal futures: either in the new heavens and new earth (often simply called “Heaven”) or in what Revelation calls the lake of fire (often called “Hell”). According to LDS doctrine, on the other hand, human beings have four possible eternal futures: three “kingdoms of glory” (celestial, terrestrial, or telestial) and “outer darkness,” which is similar to what Christians traditionally call Hell (Gospel Principles, 271-73). What is the origin of the LDS doctrine, and is it in agreement with the Bible?

 

A.     Doctrine & Covenants 76

The primary, authoritative scripture for Mormons on the three heavenly kingdoms is Doctrine & Covenants 76, which Joseph Smith produced in 1832. Here is Joseph’s explanation of the origin of this “vision”:

“Upon my return from Amherst conference, I resumed the translation of the Scriptures. From sundry revelations which had been received, it was apparent that many important points touching the salvation of man, had been taken from the Bible, or lost before it was compiled. It appeared self-evident from what truths were left, that if God rewarded every one according to the deeds done in the body the term ‘Heaven,’ as intended for the Saints’ eternal home must include more kingdoms than one. Accordingly, on the 16th of February, 1832, while translating St. John’s Gospel, myself and Elder Rigdon saw the following vision” (History of the Church, 1:245; quoted in the introduction to Doctrine & Covenants 76).

Some observations about these comments seem in order.

  • First, we should note well that Joseph Smith acknowledges that his doctrine of the three kingdoms is not found in the Bible as it has come down to us through the centuries.
  • Second, Joseph explains that many important truths concerning salvation had been either deliberately removed from the Bible or lost before the Bible was compiled.
  • Third, Joseph’s comments imply that the reason Christianity has traditionally understood that there was one “Heaven” instead of the three kingdoms is that important material had been removed or lost from the Bible.
  •  Fourth, it follows from these points that the alleged loss or removal of important material from the Bible resulted not merely in a loss of some information but also a distortion of the information we still have.

This means that Joseph’s teaching in Doctrine & Covenants 76 really constitutes a new teaching that is in conflict with the Bible’s teaching, at least as it has come down to us. Thus, even though Mormons often try to support this doctrine from the Bible, we should recognize that the doctrine does not come from the Bible and actually disagrees with the Bible, as Joseph’s remarks above implicitly acknowledge.

It is also interesting to note the sequence in Joseph’s own report of this incident. First he says that it was apparent to them (Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery) that much important information had been lost from the Bible and that it seemed “self-evident” to them that Heaven must include more than one kingdom. Only then do they receive a “vision” confirming what they had already concluded was obvious. In this instance the vision seems to have been the child of the thought. In the main text of Doctrine & Covenants 76, Joseph says that while he and Oliver were “translating” John 5:28-29 “the Lord touched the eyes of our understandings and they were opened” (v. 19), and they saw Christ, the holy angels, and Lucifer (vv. 20-30). The rest of Doctrine & Covenants 76, though it is framed as a description of the rest of their vision (see v. 113), is simply a lengthy exposition of this new doctrine regarding the final destinations after death of various categories of human beings (vv. 31-112). This exposition weaves together biblical statements, mostly from the New Testament, to present a new doctrine about four final destinations of human beings. The table below gives a quick and simple overview of the passage, including the major New Testament passages that Joseph Smith wove into his revelation.

 

Four Classes of People in D&C 76

D&C 76

Place/Analogy

People

New Testament

vv. 31-49

Lake of fire

Sons of perdition

Matthew 25:41-46
John 17:12
Revelation 20:7-15

vv. 50-70, 91-96

Celestial world (sun)

Church of the Firstborn

Hebrews 12:22-25
1 Corinthians 15:40-41

vv. 71-80, 97

Terrestrial world (moon)

Honorable people who did not receive the fullness of the gospel

1 Corinthians 15:40-41
1 Peter 3:19; 4:6

vv. 81-90, 98-112

Telestial world (stars)

Wicked people

Revelation 21:8

 

For a Bible-believing Christian, the real test of Joseph Smith’s purported vision in Doctrine & Covenants 76 is whether it agrees with the Bible. The heavy use of biblical statements and phrases throughout the text certainly gives the impression that the doctrine Joseph Smith presents is biblical. However, when Joseph’s doctrine is compared to the biblical passages in context, we find that his doctrine is very much contrary to biblical theology. We have already commented on Revelation 20 in the previous article in this series and on 1 Peter 3:18-4:6 in our response to chapter 41 of Gospel Principles. The key passage on which Joseph Smith builds his doctrine, though, is 1 Corinthians 15:40-41. Because of its importance, we will give some sustained attention to this passage in its context.

 

B.     1 Corinthians 15:40-41

In Doctrine & Covenants 76, Joseph Smith sets forth a doctrine of three heavenly worlds or realms in which nearly all people will eventually live forever. He describes the inhabitants of these three worlds, and the worlds themselves, using the three terms celestialterrestrial, and telestial. Where did Joseph Smith get these terms? We know that he got the first two terms, and the core of his descriptions of all three, from 1 Corinthians 15:40-41, which reads as follows in the King James Version:

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” (1 Corinthians 15:40-41)

Compare these verses with the following statements in Doctrine & Covenants 76 (emphasis added):

70 These are they whose bodies are celestial, whose glory is that of the sun, even the glory of God, the highest of all, whose glory the sun of the firmament is written of as being typical. 71 And again, we saw the terrestrial world, and behold and lo, these are they who are of the terrestrial, whose glorydiffers from that of the church of the Firstborn who have received the fulness of the Father, even as that of the moon differs from the sun in the firmament….78 Wherefore, they are bodies terrestrial, and not bodies celestial, and differ in glory as the moon differs from the sun81 And again, we saw the glory of the telestial, which glory is that of the lesser, even as the glory of the stars differs from that of the glory of the moon in the firmament…. 96 And the glory of the celestial is one, even as the glory of the sun is one97 And the glory of the terrestrial is one, even as the glory of the moon is one98 And the glory of the telestial is one, even as the glory of the stars is one; for as one star differs from another star in glory, even so differs one from another in glory in the telestial world…” (Doctrine & Covenants 76:70-71, 78, 81, 96-98).

Joseph Smith uses all of the wording of 1 Corinthians 15:40-41 in his explanation of the three kinds of people who will live in the three future worlds. These three kinds of people will have “bodies” differing from one another in “glory”; the three worlds and their bodies will differ from one another as the sun, moon, and stars differ from one another in brightness; the bodies inhabiting the least glorious world will differ from one another in glory as stars differ from one another in brightness; and the two most glorious worlds and the bodies that inhabit them are called celestial and terrestrial. Thus, there is no question that the words of 1 Corinthians 15:40-41 form the framework of Joseph’s doctrine of three future worlds as laid out in Doctrine & Covenants 76:50-112. The problem is that his use of the text radically changes it meaning. The most obvious difference is the lack of any reference to “telestial” bodies in 1 Corinthians 15. To “correct” this lack, Joseph Smith added two lines to the passage referring to telestial bodies in his “translation” of the Bible, commonly called the Joseph Smith Translation (JST):

 

1 Corinthians 15:40 KJV

1 Corinthians 15:40 JST

There are also celestial bodies,
and bodies terrestrial:
 
but the glory of the celestial is one,
and the glory of the terrestrial is another.

Also celestial bodies,
and bodies terrestrial,
and bodies telestial;
but the glory of the celestial, one,
and the terrestrial, another,
and the telestial, another.

 

Smith omitted the words italicized in the KJV, which in itself is not troubling, since they were added to complete the sense in English. What is a problem is that he added two whole phrases in order to introduce into the passage the third of his three eternal worlds, inhabited by so-called “telestial” bodies.

The word telestial apparently did not exist before Joseph Smith used it in Doctrine & Covenants 76. For example, no such word, and no word that might be related to it, appears in the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary. The words celestial and terrestrial are both derived from Latin words (coelestis and terrestris) meaning “of heaven” and “of earth.” There is no Latin root of possible relevance to the word telestial, nor any relevant root of other languages, so far as anyone knows. Joseph appears to have coined the word te-lestial by combining the first two letters of the word terrestrial with all but the first two letters of the word celestial. To put the matter bluntly, it is a nonsense word.

Adding the two lines “and bodies telestial…and the telestial, another” not only adds an invented word, it is unjustified textually. No surviving Greek or other ancient manuscripts of the passage contain anything corresponding to these words. Mormons may wish to argue that the words originally appeared in Paul’s epistle but that they somehow came to be omitted in the process of copying. This claim would be plausible if the text as it stands appeared to be missing something, or if the addition of these words brought clarity and coherence to an otherwise confusing text. In fact, the addition of these words does no such thing, but instead changes the meaning of verses 40-41 and disrupts the passage as a whole. Let’s look, then, at these verses in their context. The issue that Paul is discussing throughout 1 Corinthians 15 is the doctrine that believers—those who are redeemed in Christ—will be resurrected to immortal life. Some people in the Corinthian church were denying this basic doctrine (see verse 12).

Already here we are faced with a major difference between the doctrines of Paul and Joseph Smith. According to Joseph Smith, virtually all people will be saved and receive immortal resurrection bodies of varying degrees of glory corresponding to the three different worlds in which they will live forever. According to Paul, on the other hand, this will be true only of those who are redeemed “in Christ,” that is, who are saved by Christ’s atoning death for their sins (see verses 1-4). Paul does not deny that wicked, unredeemed humanity will also be raised from the dead (he affirms this truth in Acts 24:15), but they are resurrected to face the Final Judgment as whole human beings, not to receive immortality or heavenly life. Everything in 1 Corinthians 15 is focused on the resurrection of believers, of those saved through faith; nothing in this chapter has anything to say about the resurrection of nonbelievers.

Thus, Paul says that Christ’s own resurrection is important because without it Christians’ faith is worthless, those who have “fallen asleep in Christ” have perished forever, and those who have hoped “in Christ” in this life should be pitied (verses 17-19). Contrary to the views of those Corinthians, Paul insists that Christ’s resurrection guarantees our own (verses 20-21). He then states, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22 ESV). Paul here first acknowledges that “in Adam all die,” or in other words that everyone who belongs to Adam, who is related by descent to Adam, dies. Then Paul says that “so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” This does not mean (as Mormons commonly claim) that all people will be resurrected to immortal life, but that everyone who belongs to Christ, who is related by faith to Christ, will be made alive in the future resurrection. We know this is Paul’s meaning because he says so in the very next breath: “But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:23 ESV, emphasis added). In short, the expression “in Christ” here in verse 22, as it does everywhere else in Paul’s epistles, refers to the people redeemed by Christ and the blessings that come to them because of Christ. Those who are “in Christ” stand in contrast to those who remain “in Adam” and therefore remain destined for eternal condemnation and separation from God’s loving presence.

It is this hope of immortal life in the resurrection that we have “in Christ” that motivates Christians, including Paul himself, to live as they do. Paul asks the Corinthians why he would put his life in danger and feel like he was dying every day for the sake of the gospel, if not for the hope of his future resurrection (verses 30-34). Please notice: Paul risked his life because of the hope of this resurrection to immortality, not because he was hoping to attain the highest of three levels of immortal life. Throughout this passage Paul assumes that there will be two categories of people: those who are saved “in Christ” and are assured of immortal life in the resurrection of the dead, and those who are not.

In verses 35-57, Paul specifically addresses the question of what kind of body believers will have in the resurrection (see verse 35). Let’s look at these verses more closely.

35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?”
36 You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38 But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.
39 For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish.
40 There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one kind, and the glory of the earthly is of another. 41 There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. (1 Corinthians 15:35-41 ESV)

Paul’s purpose in this section of 1 Corinthians 15 is to present some analogies showing that God has the capability of making different kinds of bodies in different contexts. The Corinthians who denied the future resurrection of the dead mistakenly assumed, apparently, that such a resurrection would mean a return to the same mortal, degraded condition as our present human lives. Paul corrects them by explaining that resurrection is analogous to what happens to a seed: it begins as something very humble, “dies” (by being buried in the ground), and then “comes to life” as the full, impressive, valuable “body” of wheat or other grain (verses 36-38). (Paul is speaking in layman’s terms here and not trying to teach botany: he doesn’t mean that seeds literally die and then become resurrected to life.) Thus resurrection bodies will be far more impressive and wonderful than our bodies in their current mortal state.

Paul then gives another analogy, this time not from the plant kingdom but from the animal kingdom. Creatures of flesh come in varying kinds, including humans, land animals, birds, and fish (verse 39). Paul doesn’t develop this point, but it is an important one because human beings are in this category and Paul is arguing that human bodies can become very different in the resurrection. His point is that God has already shown he can do this by making creatures of flesh with very different kinds of bodies. These different kinds of bodies of creatures living on the earth are what Paul evidently means in the next verse by “earthly bodies.”

Now we come to verses 40-41, which Joseph Smith interpreted to refer to three kinds of resurrection bodies inhabiting three different heavenly realms in the future. In context, though, Paul is still giving analogies for the idea of the resurrection body being very different from the mortal body. Here Paul contrasts two, not three, categories of bodies: earthly bodies and heavenly bodies. The King James Version uses the words “terrestrial” and “celestial,” but these are simply older English words that mean earthly and heavenly (and so do the Greek words, epigeios and epiouranios). The term “terrestrial body” simply means any “body” down here on the earth, while a “celestial body” is any “body” up in heaven—and heaven here means the sky, or more specifically what we call outer space. We know this because Paul goes on immediately to mention three kinds of heavenly bodies: the sun, moon, and stars. The fact that Paul says these three kinds of heavenly bodies differ from one another in glory does not mean they represent three kinds of human resurrection bodies living in three different future worlds. Remember, these are all explicitly called “celestial” (i.e., heavenly) bodies. It simply will not work in this context to make the moon and stars analogies for bodies excluded from the celestial realm, because Paul explicitly includes them in the category of the celestial: they are simply different kinds of celestial bodies.

 

Paul’s Analogies
1 Corinthians 15:39-41

Joseph Smith’s Doctrine
Doctrine & Covenants 76:50-112

Earthly Bodies
(Terrestrial)

Heavenly Bodies
(Celestial)

Three Kinds of Resurrection Bodies
(and three different worlds)

Humans, animals, birds, fish

sun

Celestial (comparable to the sun)

moon

Terrestrial (comparable to the moon)

stars

Telestial (comparable to the stars)

 

Only beginning with verse 42 does Paul describe directly what the differences are between the mortal and resurrection bodies of believers. Verses 36-41 have simply developed analogies from the different kinds of objects in the natural realm to establish the principle that the resurrected human body will be different and more glorious than in its mortal state. So, after finishing his comments about the varying glory of earthly and heavenly bodies, Paul concludes: “So it is with the resurrection of the dead” (verse 42a ESV). From the second half of verse 42 through verse 49, Paul presents a sustained contrast between the two kinds of human bodies: our present mortal bodies and our future immortal bodies.

 

Present vs. Future Body: 1 Corinthians 15:42b-49 (ESV)

Verse

Present Mortal Body

Future Immortal Body

42

What is sown is perishable;

what is raised is imperishable.

43a

It is sown in dishonor;

it is raised in glory.

43b

It is sown in weakness;

it is raised in power.

44a

It is sown a natural body;

it is raised a spiritual body.

44b

If there is a natural body,

there is also a spiritual body.

45

Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”;

the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.

46

But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural,

and then the spiritual.

47

The first man was from the earth, a man of dust;

the second man is from heaven.

48

As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust,

and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven.

49

Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust,

we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.

 

Our present bodies are perishable, dishonorable, weak, natural, and of dust; our future resurrection bodies will be imperishable, glorious, powerful, spiritual, and of heaven. Our present bodies will be like the first man Adam’s body after the fall; our future bodies will be like the body of the last Adam, Christ, after his resurrection. There are not three types, kinds, categories, or glories of immortality here; there is only one, that of the resurrection of those who are united to Christ, of those who are promised that they will bear his image.

Paul concludes his discussion of the nature of the resurrection body by explaining that those who are alive when Christ returns and raises the dead will have their living, mortal bodies likewise transformed:

I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:50-54 ESV)

Our bodies now are mere “flesh and blood,” meaning that they are perishable and mortal; in the resurrection they will become imperishable and immortal. This “victory” over death is not enjoyed by all people, but only by those who are saved by the redemptive work of Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection:

“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:55-58 ESV)

If we read 1 Corinthians 15:40-41 in the context of the whole chapter, then, we find that it simply does not mean, and could not ever have meant, that virtually all people will be resurrected with immortality to live in worlds of varying degrees of glory. Paul’s whole point throughout the passage is to show that those who are “in Christ” are assured that he has won victory over death on their behalf, so that they will be raised from the dead to immortal, glorious life with bodies like that of the risen Christ. The “celestial bodies” of verses 40-41 are not bodies in the uppermost tier of the celestial kingdom. They are the astronomical bodies of the sun, moon, and stars, illustrating the point that God can make all sorts of different bodies and so will have no problem making our resurrection bodies far more glorious than the mortal, corrupt bodies in which we currently find ourselves.

 

C.     The Two Ways

The Bible consistently, repeatedly, and emphatically teaches that human beings are following two divergent ways, one of which leads to eternal life with God and the other of which leads to eternal separation from God. It knows nothing of the idea that a large number of people will enjoy immortality in some glorious world but will not live in the presence of God the Father. Immortality, eternal life, the kingdom of God, the presence of the Father—these are all part of the same “package deal” that God offers by his grace and mercy as a free gift to those who will humble themselves to accept it from him on the basis of what his Son Jesus Christ has done for us. The alternative is eternal condemnation, perishing, the second death, the lake of fire—it has many names, none of them comforting. Some of the most famous and beloved verses of the Bible express this all-important truth of the gospel (all quotations from the ESV; emphasis added):

  • “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
  • “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23).

John 5:29 presents these same two stark alternatives:

  • “…those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:29).

Joseph Smith found this troubling, which led him to produce Doctrine & Covenants 76 and to rewrite John 5:29 to say “the resurrection of the just” and “the resurrection of the unjust” (JST). This change really doesn’t negate the fact that according to Christ in this verse, human beings face two possible futures, a point made by Christ repeatedly in the Gospels and in many ways. Here are just ten of the many examples

  • “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13).
  • “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:11-12).
  • “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30).
  • “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:46).
  • “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35).
  • “And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire” (Mar 9:43).
  • Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:20, 24).
  • “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11; 18:14).
  • “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36).
  • “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24).

Some New Testament Terms for Our Eternal Futures

Salvation

Condemnation

New heavens and new earth
Kingdom of God
Kingdom of heaven
Kingdom of God’s beloved Son
Abraham’s bosom
New Jerusalem
Life
Eternal life
Immortality

Lake of fire and brimstone
Outer darkness
Gehenna (“hell”)
Domain of darkness
Eternal fire
Wrath of God
Death
Eternal punishment
Second death

 

It strains all credibility to claim that all of these verses, and the many others like them found throughout the New Testament (see, for example, Acts 26:18; 1 Corinthians 1:18; 2 Corinthians 6:15; Colossians 1:13), all reflect some corruption or omissions in the biblical text. (In most of these texts, by the way, the JST has no significant changes.) We must conclude that the New Testament does in fact teach that human beings face two possible futures: eternal condemnation away from the loving presence of God and eternal life in his loving presence. The New Testament uses a variety of terms for these two eternal futures, but the pattern exemplified by the above passages is very clear. This is why it is a mistake to try to force artificial distinctions between, for example, immortality (which LDS doctrine says is a free gift that inhabitants of all three glorious kingdoms receive) and eternal life (which it claims only inhabitants of the celestial kingdom can prove worthy enough to receive).

It was, frankly, a grave error for Joseph Smith to try to “fix” such passages as John 5:29 and 1 Corinthians 15:40-41 to make them more palatable theologically. In doing so, Joseph simply demonstrated that he did not understand the teaching of Jesus Christ and the rest of the New Testament on this subject—and that his claim to be a prophet of God authorized to produce such revelations was false.

 

For Further Reading

Boa, Kenneth D., and Robert M. Bowman Jr. Sense and Nonsense about Heaven and Hell. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007. Clear, easy to follow book that gives a detailed overview of what the Bible does and does not teach about life, death, the afterlife, resurrection, heaven, hell, and related topics. Available from IRR.

Groat, Joel B. Joseph Smith’s “Inspired” Revisions to the King James Bible. Condensed version of a thesis showing that the JST is not a restoration of the original text of the Bible as Mormons traditionally have believed.