“Contrary to the views found in the uninspired teachings of the creeds of modern Christendom, there are in eternity kingdoms of glory to which resurrected persons…will eventually go. These are named: celestial, terrestrial, and telestial – the glory of each being beyond mortal comprehension” –McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, p. 420.
I don’t think I have to say too much to show that this is radically different from the Christian (or any other theistic faith out there for that matter) conception of heaven. Not to mention the bit about “the uninspired teachings of the creeds of modern Christendom”. Keeping on track, just what are these different kingdoms of heaven, also called the “Degrees of Glory”?
A nice description of these kingdoms can be found in Doctrine and Covenants 76: 50-112. I’ll point out the important verses, but feel free to look up this section on your own.
Let’s begin at the top: the Celestial Kingdom. This is where God the Father resides. It is what all other religions call “heaven” (assuming their religion has a heaven). Perhaps more important than the question “what is it?” is the question “who gets there?”. “They are they who received the testimony of Jesus, and believed on his name and were baptized…That by keeping the commandments they might be washed and cleansed from all their sins…These shall dwell in the presence of God and his Christ forever and ever…unto the city of the living God, the heavenly place, the holiest of all…These are they whose bodies are celestial, whose glory is that of the sun, even the glory of God, the highest of all…”
Next is the Terrestrial Kingdom. It is where people who lived before Christ, moral non-Mormons and Mormons who don’t keep the law are held. Beginning with verse 17, “And again, we saw the terrestrial world, and behold and lo, these are they who are of the terrestrial, whose glory differs from that of the church of the Firstborn [those in the Celestial Kingdom] who have received the fullness of the Father, even as that of the moon differs from the sun in the firmament [sky]. Behold these are they who died without law…These are they who are men of the earth, who were blinded by the craftiness of men. These are they who receive of his glory, but not of his fullness…wherefore, they are bodies terrestrial, and not bodies celestial…These are they who are not valiant in the testimony of Jesus…”
Then, there is the Telestial Kingdom, whose glory is better than mortal humans, but not as great as the other two degrees of glory. “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 [sky]…These are they who received not the gospel of Christ, neither the testimony of Jesus…These are they who are thrust down to hell…These are they who are liars, and sorcerers, and adulterers, and whoremongers [immoral people], and whosoever loves and makes a lie. These are they who suffer the wrath of God on earth. These are they who suffer the vengeance of eternal fire…until the fullness of times [ie. not for all eternity], when Christ shall have subdued all enemies under his feet, and shall have perfected his work…”
Finally, we have Outer Darkness, those who reject the Holy Spirit after it has been revealed to them, which is described earlier in D&C 76, in verses 30-49. “…They are they who are the Sons of Perdition, of whom I say that it had been better for them never to have been born; For they are vessels of wrath, doomed to suffer the wrath of God, with the devil and his angels in eternity; Concerning whom I have said there is no forgiveness in this world nor in the world to come– 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...”
I’d like to mention something interesting about these Degrees of Glory: not once are they mentioned either in the Bible, nor, more strikingly, the Book of Mormon. Considering that the Book of Mormon is “the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book”, isn’t it curious that a precept of this importance is absent from it?
Let’s return our thoughts on the highest Kingdom: the Celestial. Perhaps the question more important than “what is it?” is the question “how does one gain admittance?”. Essentially, as the verses I cited show, there are three things you need to do to get into the Celestial Kingdom: believe on the name of Jesus, be baptized, and keep the commandments. As far as the first is concerned, it lines up with Christianity: “For everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Romans 10:13). Mormons then take this two steps further. They insist that one must be baptized in a Mormon temple. This is a literal baptism, unlike the kind seen in Christianity that only manifests itself in physical form in order to be a symbol of an internal, spiritual change. Finally, we have “keeping the commandments”. Now, I’m going to have to unpack Mormon salvation in another post, but for now I’d like to briefly look at what this entails. “Keeping the commandments” means just how it sounds: adhering to all (read: every) commandments in the Bible, Book of Mormon and Doctrine & Covenants, all the time. Is it even possible to do this?
To put it differently, God the Father cannot be in the presence of sin, which is why those in the Terrestrial and Telestial Kingdoms do not have access to him. This means that in order to gain access to the Celestial Kingdom, one has to be completely sinless. Thus, an important question arises for members of the LDS Church: are you (or anyone you know), or have you become, completely sinless?
To quote Bruce McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine again, “An inheritance in this glorious kingdom is gained by complete obedience to the gospel or celestial law. By entering the gate of repentance and baptism [by one in authority] candidates find themselves on the straight and narrow path leading to the celestial kingdom. By devotion and faithfulness, by enduring to the end in righteousness and obedience, it is then possible to merit a celestial reward.” (emphasis added)
In Part 2, we'll take a look at what the Bible has to say about heaven.