A Simplified Overview
This past summer, my 11 year old son spent a week with his cousin. One afternoon, they were shooting hoops talking religion when my son took this chance to explain the Mormon’s plan of salvation, shown below. In a nutshell, we believe that we lived as spirits before we were born; that we came to earth to gain a body and life experience and then after death, wait in the spirit world for the resurrection, reuniting our spirit with our physical body. At that time we will experience final judgment confined for eternity,in one of four places: the celestial kingdom where God dwells, the terrestrial kingdom, where good but not quite good enough people go, the telestial kingdom, where pretty bad people go, or to outer darkness where satan and his followers are banished.
This is basically the story I grew up with. There is one reference in Corinthians 15:40-41, that makes a somewhat vague reference to it:
40 There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another.
41 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.
And another reference to the many mansions in God’s house in John 14:2.
But this doctrine does not come from a few verses in the bible. Rather, Joseph Smith received revelation and recorded it as scripture in our Doctrine and Covenants while studying and pondering the New Testament with Sidney Rigdon, So, we do believe in hell, but for only the very worst of us, those rare few who have known and tasted of Christ’s fulness, knowing without a doubt the right path but choosing to turn in open rebellion against it anyways. All of the rest of us are destined toward something wonderful and beautiful, varying only in degrees of glory. I have long cherished this doctrine as a more compassionate, expansive alternative to the traditional Christian view of heaven and hell.
Another Way of Looking at It
But I think there is another, deeper, more meaningful way to look at this piece of Mormon theology. Adam Miller in the chapter on Eternal Life in his book Letters to a Young Mormon, makes an another interesting point inspired from some verses in D&C 19:10-12:
10 For, behold, the mystery of godliness, how great is it! For, behold, I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name. Wherefore—
11 Eternal punishment is God’s punishment.
12 Endless punishment is God’s punishment.
I think the problem with our traditional understanding of the plan of salvation is that we are trying to understand something other-worldly and infinite with our finite, time-bound, this-life brain. Adam Miller puts it this way:
If eternal punishment is God’s kind of punishment then we might, as others have, try this same reading of eternal life. Eternal life is God’s kind of life. Rather than just checking a life span, “eternal” names a certain way of being alive, a certain way of holding life as it passes from one moment to the next. Life itself involves the passage of time and, in order to be faithful to it, we must bless rather than dam that flow.
Rather than trying to overlay our plan of salvation on linear time, perhaps it’s better to think of it as an on-going, ever-present effort to develop and grow until one day we are perfectly in tune with God. In other words, the final judgment may not necessarily be something that happens later, but something that can happen again and again, right here in this life as we learn to live a more abundant, Christ-filled life.
In this way, we do not have to wait for a final judgment to come some time after death. We are instead, various parts of of us and various times in our lives are experiencing all the glories described in this revelation right here, right now and hopefully in moments too rare to speak of, we’ve even felt the pain of total darkness as well. Really, none of us really knows what it will be like after death, but we can know what it means to be alive. Perhaps striving toward celestial glory is something we don’t have to wait for.
Adam Miller in his book Future Mormon, describes what he calls early-onset post-mortality as a way to bring on that judgment now, every single day. This, in his mind, is what repentance is all about:
Repentance—regular, average, everyday repentance—is the practice of early onset postmortality. When you repent, you confess your disobedience. You embrace the law and stop running from it. You step into rather than away from its embrace. Repenting, you submit a request for a speedy verdict and ask for judgment now rather than later. But stepping into the law, your relationship to the law’s demands shift. Rather than living as if your life were given for the sake of the law, you discover that the law was given for the sake of life. You were not made for the Sabbath, the Sabbath was made for you (cf. Mark 2:27). And the law, rather than working as an instrument of condemnation, is rendered inoperative by an excess of grace that both suspends and fulfills it.
The Three Degrees as Spiritual Developmental Stages
With that in mind, I’m going to re-interpret the three degrees of glory as spiritual developmental stages.
Living Life Telestially
Living a telestial life means living a life bound to this earth. Living telestially is our ongoing effort to survive and thrive in a world that can be difficult and painful. It’s living inwardly, caring for our physical needs most of all – feeding, clothing, housing ourselves. At its best, it’s here we learn independence, self-sufficiency, and individualism. We learn what we’re capable of. At its worse, we become selfish, criminal, indulgent, and glutinous. This is a necessary spiritual stage, we all must learn to survive and thrive. We must learn independence before we can truly help others.
People in this spiritual stage may be concerned with law and obedience, but these laws are as earth-bound as they are. Obedience comes as a way to achieve earth-bound goals, to get ahead, to find security. Obedience to law is a means to an end.
Joseph Smith describes it as having the glory of the stars, here we shine a self- generating light, but its dim, enough light to shine in a sea of other lights. It’s a necessary first step. And one we may never fully grow out of in this life. There are some things I’m still striving to learn – how to keep my house clean, how to stay organized, how to get things turned in on time. These are telestial concerns. Important, necessary, but only a first step.
As we gain self sufficiency, we start to get a little confidence, acquire a bit of a surplus, we have room to let others in. We take to heart our responsibilities for others, obviously, those we love, but even those we hardly know and even some we have trouble with. We want to be good, we want to do good. We want to fix the world. Our motives may not always be pure, maybe we want others to notice us, to feel a bit of respect, to feel meaningful. This is is also an earth-bound effort, though I think we also begin to think about what comes next, but often in ways that compel us to “work out our salvation”.
Spiritual laws start to have greater meaning in our lives. We strive to be sexually pure because we love our spouses and our family and cherish and want to hold onto them. We pay tithing because we feel devotion to our church. We keep the Lord’s sabbath and worship because we’ve been asked to by leaders we trust.
At its worst, living terrestially can be stressful and a guilt-filled experience. Because no matter how hard we try, we will always at times succumb to our telestial impulses. And the burdens of the world are too big for our puny arms to carry. We will never accomplish as much as we set out to, no matter how hard we try. We risk falling into depression or cynicism. We risk falling back into a more tellestial life-style.
Joseph Smith describes those in the terrestial as having the glory of the moon. It’s a brighter light, but it’s a reflected one. We begin to shine in ways that are helpful and good, but not nearly bright enough to turn the night into day.
A celestial life is a God-filled life, one sanctified by grace and motivated with love. As we are able to transition into a celestial life, it’s here we start to fulfill the law. In Future Mormon in the chapter “A General Theory of Grace”, Adam Miller puts it this way:
Our love must be practiced with a kind of disregard for the law. A perfect love is lawless in the way that God’s love is lawless: a perfect love loves its enemies. Like God’s love, this love isn’t partial or divided or intermittent. It doesn’t play favorites. God’s love is, rather, impartial: it is whole or complete or perfect (teleios). It doesn’t cease to give itself. It doesn’t circumscribe its field. This love is like the sun: it shines on the evil and on the good. This love is like the rain: it rains on the just and unjust. This love is, as John indicates, fearless. And, because it is fearless, this love becomes capable of grace.
In this stage, we complete the law by practicing love. We are consumed by grace, or rather grace consumes us and we no longer think or care about justice. We love our enemies, we lose our fear and we engage with the world as it is with perfect love. James Fowler would refer to this as someone entering a stage 6 faith.
I’m not quite sure how to get into a celestial spiritual stage, but I have a feeling it comes as a gift of the spirit only after one yearns, seeks and strives for it. I think you can only get into the celestial through the terrestial. It takes both personal effort, sacrifice and a sanctifying unity with God. It’s where we truly experience atonement as we fully become one with God in our lives.
This spiritual stage is the glory of the sun. It’s here, finally, when we can turn the night into day, provide warmth to those around us. It’s here, truly, where we really begin to radiate light and warmth that can truly, deeply bless another.
A Couple of Examples
Someone with a telestial relationship with food, might become obsessed with diet or they might use food to cope with stress. After a transition into terrestial, the individual might start thinking of others, fast offerings might be paid, they might donate to a food-bank. Celestial eaters learn to love food, they eat mindfully, they avoid junk food, not because they are afraid of gaining weight, they just prefer and cherish food that nourishes their body and spirit. They suffer with others who hunger and with love strive to end hunger.
A telestial relationship with sex would seek after sex for pleasure and enjoyment for themselves primarily and perhaps to have children to expand their progenity. Terrestial sex begins to be relational and rule-based. No sex outside of their marriage, sex to have children, sex to express closeness with a spouse. Celestial sex is pure intimacy, an act and an expression of deep love for one’s partner.
I think as Mormons, we live a life of rules and checklists. Believing if we can only be Mormon more perfectly we can find peace now in eternal life in the next. Sometimes we do this selfishly, yearning to move up Mormon authority positions or sincerely, believing in the utility of the church to help others. Mostly, we get caught up in Mormondom as salvation. If we live can check-off every item on our list and we do it successfully enough, we believe we can finally end our lives having fought the good fight and to be welcome back into God’s rest in celestial glory. But I think there’s a better way. We don’t have to wait. A celestial life is a life consumed with love and real sanctification. Love transcends the law, obedience becomes both inoperable and unnecessary.