A Three Degrees Paradox

In January 1836, Joseph Smith was in the Kirtland Temple preparing for the upcoming dedication when he had a vision of the celestial kingdom. In that vision, Joseph sees his deceased brother, Alvin, in the celestial kingdom.

D&C 137:5-8
I saw Father Adam and Abraham; and my father and my mother; my brother Alvin, that has long since slept; and marveled how it was that he had obtained an inheritance in that kingdom, seeing that he had departed this life before the Lord had set his hand to gather Israel the second time, and had not been baptized for the remission of sins.

Thus came the voice of the Lord unto me, saying, “All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God; also all that shall die henceforth without a knowledge of it, who would have received it with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom.”

We love this message. All those good people who didn’t receive the gospel, but would have if they had had the opportunity, will inherit the celestial kingdom. We know this vision was of the future, because Joseph’s mother and father, whom he saw in the celestial kingdom, were very much alive on earth with Joseph at the time of this vision. So Alvin wasn’t in the celestial kingdom yet, but would be at some point in the future.

D&C 76 also talks about people who didn’t receive the gospel in this life, but receive it later:

D&C 76:72, 74
72 Behold, these are they who died without law;
74 Who received not the testimony of Jesus in the flesh, but afterwards received it.

This describes Alvin, who died in 1823, many years before Joseph would start baptizing people with authority. The problem is, D&C 76 says people like Alvin are in the terrestrial glory, not the celestial glory.

Did God get confused? Did he forgot in 1836 what he said in 1832? Three degree orthodoxy teaches that once you are assigned to a level of glory, you stay there forever. So which is it? Are people who don’t receive the gospel in this life sent to the terrestrial kingdom? Or are they sent to the celestial kingdom? According to the orthodox interpretation of the three degrees of glory, both these sections of the Doctrine and Covenants cannot be true.

Is D&C 76 teaching false doctrine? Should we repudiate it and embrace D&C 137?

Is D&C 137 teaching false doctrine? Should we repudiate it and embrace D&C 76?

Or are both these revelations true and their traditional interpretation is the false doctrine that we should repudiate?

6 thoughts on “A Three Degrees Paradox

  1. “Received not” can be interpreted in a couple of ways. Maybe it means there was no opportunity to receive, but maybe it means rejected or refused.

    How would you define the “testimony of Jesus” in this context? Like Rev. 19:10?

    1. Revelation 19:10 says “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” Alma 6 says that Alma preached “according to the spirit of prophecy which was in him, according to the testimony of Jesus Christ.” We have so diluted the meaning of the word testimony that we think a 4-year-old saying “I know Jesus is real” is a testimony of Jesus, when the scriptures make it clear it is something far more miraculous. We are taught that anyone who believes in Christ has a testimony of him. But that doesn’t match the scriptural definitions. How many people with a “testimony of Jesus” also have the spirit of prophecy?

      2 Nephi 25:4 says that “the words of Isaiah are not plain unto you, nevertheless they are plain unto all those that are filled with the spirit of prophecy.” How many members of the Church can easily explain the words of Isaiah? Alma 9:21 says “having been visited by the Spirit of God; having conversed with angels, and having been spoken unto by the voice of the Lord; and having the spirit of prophecy, and the spirit of revelation, and also many gifts, the gift of speaking with tongues, and the gift of preaching, and the gift of the Holy Ghost, and the gift of translation.” How many member of the Church have these gifts? Jacob 4:6 says “we have many revelations and the spirit of prophecy; and having all these witnesses we obtain a hope, and our faith becometh unshaken, insomuch that we truly can command in the name of Jesus and the very trees obey us, or the mountains, or the waves of the sea.” How many members of the Church are able to command the trees, mountains, and seas and have them obey? Once we have the fullness of the gospel, we will start seeing those things again, but we don’t have them today.

      As for “received not”. D&C 76:51- talks about the Celestial people who “received the testimony of Jesus, and believed on his name and were baptized after the manner of his burial, being buried in the water in his name, … receive the Holy Spirit by the laying on of the hands of him who is ordained and sealed unto this power; and who overcome by faith, and are sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, which the Father sheds forth upon all those who are just and true.” I don’t see “receiving” the gospel or the testimony of Jesus as just hearing the message, but truly living it and receiving all the promised blessings.

      It seems to me that the Terrestrial category are those who either never had the message preached to them, or accepted the message but didn’t fully embrace it. The Telestials seem to be the ones who had it taught to them and refused or rejected it.

      If this higher-level reception is what is required to obtain the celestial kingdom, then we must conclude that except for a brief 3.5 year period from 1831 to 1834, there was not enough of the truth available for ANYONE to obtain the testimony of Jesus, and no one with the power to lay hands on others for the gift of the Holy Ghost. Which means that basically no one in the past ~1,500 years has qualified for the celestial kingdom. The best we can hope for right now is the terrestrial kingdom, because we know not where to find the fullness of the gospel. Which is why the (real) Restoration and the Millennium is so important.

  2. Interesting observation about the discrepancy between the two sections. I always believed a just God would allow progression between kingdoms, and this seems to imply that there is. By the way did you guys not do an ironrod podcast this week?

  3. I suspect it’s somewhere in the third option and we aren’t fully understanding how to interpret them. That being said, section 137 gives me a lot of heartburn. How is it that God will simply reward people by understanding their hearts and yet he puts us all through this time of probation? Why bother with probation at all? If God is simply going to read our hearts and assign us to the appropriate kingdom, then none of this makes any sense.

    I don’t have a ton of scriptures to rely on, but merely my poor logic. God put Abraham to the test with sacrificing Isaac. I have read that the purpose of this wasn’t for God to find out what Abraham would do. That’s ridiculous, because God is omniscient. Rather, the purpose was for Abraham to discover what he would do. God put Abraham to the test so that Abraham would KNOW that he would follow God no matter what. It was for the purpose of Abraham growing and gaining that knowledge about how faithful he would be, for Abraham to understand his commitment to God.

    God knew all about it. But Abraham did not. Thus, the probation is not for God, it is for us. We grow by proving to ourselves where our heart is. Maybe these points were part of my past indoctrination, but it seems pretty consistent with the gospel.

    So how does 137 fit with God reading our hearts and us not actually being put to the test? How do we grow to know that we are faithful to God? If we are all living during a time of apostasy, and we don’t have access to the law and the fullness of the gospel, then will we have grown enough to be confident in our faith?

    If we take the Divine Council view and believe that God intends for some of us to replace members on His Divine Council, how does that work for those who died without the law, without the testimony of Christ? How would we serve as council members without having lived like Abraham, Nephi, and other prophets who had the testimony of Christ? My poor logic makes me think that those who live and die without the truth on the earth would make poor members of that Council.

    How might all of this come together with a better interpretation? Again, I don’t know that I have any scriptural basis for this, but I ponder what is the purpose of Satan and his angels being released at the end of the millennium? I don’t think there’s any scriptures that explain the why of it, just the fact of it. So what is the purpose? If we have gone through the first 7,000 years of probation, why do we need to have another season where Satan is unleashed?

    My speculation is that the purpose of this is to give everyone the opportunity to prove themselves in their own minds. Those who did not have a chance to choose between the law and Satan during the first 6,000 years will have that chance after the millennium. During that time both the gospel and the adversary will be competing for people. Those who missed that opportunity the first time will have it the second time. They will have that chance to choose and to know in their own minds that their faith is secure in Christ.

    Finally, D&C Section 128 offers us a clue that there is more to the story than just Sections 76 and 137.

    D&C 128:5 You may think this order of things to be very particular; but let me tell you that it is only to answer the will of God, by conforming to the ordinance and preparation that the Lord ordained and prepared before the foundation of the world, for the salvation of the dead who should die without a knowledge of the gospel.

    The record keeping Joseph talks about is a part of the plan for the salvation of those without a knowledge of the gospel. How is this? Also, the baptism and the welding link are an important part of this. There is more to it, but I don’t know if it has yet be fully revealed.

    1. I’ve had similar thoughts. Wouldn’t it be better to have died as a child than to live as an adult? That doesn’t seem “fair” that children get all the blessings without any of the work or risk. Surely that can’t be how the just and merciful plan that works.

      From what I see in the scriptures, these children will be raised from the dead at the beginning of the Millennium and grow up being taught the fullness of the gospel (as will all the terrestrial adults). Then as you pointed out, when Satan is released he tempts and leads people astray once again. Life returns to being a probationary period, but now everyone is on equal footing – they’ve all had the truth and been in the presence of Christ, now if they turn away from that and hearken to Satan, when the final judgment comes they will have no excuse. I’ll get to that in one of the upcoming posts.

  4. And another wrinkle to the tapestry:

    LoF 6: 7 Let us here observe, that a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things, never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation; for from the first existence of man, the faith necessary unto the enjoyment of life and salvation never could be obtained without the sacrifice of all earthly things: it was through this sacrifice, and this only, that God has ordained that men should enjoy eternal life; and it is through the medium of the sacrifice of all earthly things, that men do actually know that they are doing the things that are well pleasing in the sight of God. When a man has offered in sacrifice all that he has, for the truth’s sake, not even withholding his life, and believing before God that he has been called to make this sacrifice, because he seeks to do his will, he does know most assuredly, that God does and will accept his sacrifice and offering, and that he has not nor will not seek his face in vain. Under these circumstances, then, he can obtain the faith necessary for him to lay hold on eternal life.

    8 It is in vain for persons to fancy to themselves that they are heirs with those, or can be heirs with them, who have offered their all in sacrifice, and by this means obtained faith in God and favor with him so as to obtain eternal life, unless they in like manner offer unto him the same sacrifice, and through that offering obtain the knowledge that they are accepted of him.

    12 But those who have not made this sacrifice to God, do not know that the course which they pursue is well pleasing in his sight; for whatever may be their belief or their opinion, it is a matter of doubt and uncertainty in their mind; and where doubt and uncertainty is, there faith is not, nor can it be. For doubt and faith do not exist in the same person at the same time. So that persons whose minds are under doubts and fears cannot have unshaken confidence, and where unshaken confidence is not, there faith is weak, and where faith is weak, the persons will not be able to contend against all the opposition, tribulations and afflictions which they will have to encounter in order to be heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ Jesus; and they will grow weary in their minds, and the adversary will have power over them and destroy them.

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