The traditional view of the Celestial Kingdom divided into three subdivision and its respective requirements (D&C 131:1-4) appear to be problematic, specifically the interpretation of “In the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees; And in order to obtain the highest …”
What we have here is something called “doctrines in transition.” I’ll explain this in a moment.
But first let’s review two absolutes we do know: the atonement and agency. These two concepts are eternal and have been promised for our salvation. You cannot have one without the other. A good test of pure doctrine is to ask yourself if this "doctrine" contradicts the doctrine of atonement and agency. The traditional reading of D&C 131, would suggest the only way for one to obtain the Celestial Kingdom, would be dependent on the choice of a future spouse. This seems to contradicts the Plan of Salvation and its fundamental law of agency.
Additionally, this traditional idea seems to promote a type of gospel perfectionism that makes even the most faithful members and believers in Christ wonder if they have "done enough." The Atonement is infinite in its power, and God has made it possible for us all to return in the FULLNESS of his Glory, IF you accept Him — not if your spouse (or lack of one) chooses otherwise.
It’s important to understand that agency, must remain to correctly understand this scripture. As such, the traditional interpretation of this passage — being that the Celestial Kingdom is divided into three sub-degrees of glory — and its requirement of eternal marriage — making your salvation dependent on another’s covenant keeping — seems to negate agency.
Although it is possible for the celestial glory to be divided into MANY different “kingdoms” or levels (as in “In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you”), John 14:2 however, doesn’t say exactly what this means. But in the context of D&C 131:1-4, it has transitioned over the years and morphed into concepts never taught by Joseph Smith. The fact that Joseph Smith didn’t teach it doesn’t mean modern-day revelation can’t clarify the teaching. But there has never been further “revelation” on the topic, only “logical” conclusion, which is based off a potentially faulty understanding of the passage. Let’s look at the first verse a little differently.
“In the celestial glory …”
To correctly understand, we first need to understand a common fallacy called is “presentism”, which is the act of applying current understanding and word meanings to historic events. In other words, words don’t have the same meaning throughout history. It’s a logical fallacy to read this scripture, specifically “celestial glory” with its NOW concrete definition, as though Joseph Smith also had that same definition. Not the case. “Celestial glory” was an expression of what we now refer to as the universe or all the space above. Also, if he was referring to the specific kingdom, Joseph Smith would have used the same language as he did in every other mentioning of it: “celestial kingdom” not “celestial glory.”
“there are three heavens or degrees”
With the understanding of word usage and presentism, we can now clearly see Joseph Smith’s usage of “three heavens or degrees.” Let me write the scripture in modern day language. “In the celestial glory (the plan of salvation, this universal creation) there are three heavens or degrees (God created three degrees of heaven/glory).” Furthermore, if there were “subdivisions” and it was important enough to not only mention it, but as you’ll see in the next part, Joseph Smith says there is a strict condition for obtaining the “highest” degree within the Celestial Kingdom. It would be logical to believe he would have clarified — or at the very LEAST alluded to this concept in D&C 76 or any of his other sermons — but it’s not mentioned anywhere.
What I believe confuses the topic and potentially perpetuated and continued to solidify this mistaken idea is what the scripture says next: “And in order to obtain the highest, a man must enter into this order of the priesthood [meaning the new and everlasting covenant of marriage]; And if he does not, he cannot obtain it.”
One can still conclude with the understanding of presentism/word usage interpret this second verse correctly. But this concept of “marriage” is added! Then it’s further reinforced with, “If he does not, he cannot obtain it.” We learn in D&C 76 and other teachings that baptism (acceptance of Christ) is required for Celestial Glory. But this “additional” requirement seems to make it sound like there are further levels that we have to qualify within the Celestial Kingdom. This is problematic because it places your eternal salvation on the righteousness of your spouse — that is if you ever marry in the first place.
This would suggest, for example, that if never get married you (or any other righteous, covenant keeping individual) would never reach the highest glory within the Celestial Kingdom. This concept seems to negate our personal agency, no matter how righteous we are. In another example, if you were married in the temple to your spouse for 40 years (or any length of time) — all the while covenants are kept— but then your spouse leaves The Church, you are no longer qualified for eternal glory in the highest Celestial Kingdom?
Sure, we can qualify this condition by supposing, “God will make it right it the eternities and bless the spouseless with an eternal companion.” Is it possible? Of course, God is God. But nowhere is that reveled and is complete speculation, used to fill the gap of our understanding.
Two things about this second and third need to be understood. First, “meaning the new and everlasting covenant of marriage” was NEVER in the revelation. The words in the brackets were added by and from William Clayton’s journal, where they were only one notation of his thoughts on the revelation. Not Joseph Smith’s actual words. These words represent comments on the priesthood from Joseph to Benjamin F. Johnson and his wife on May 16, 1843, at the home of William G. Perkins in Ramus, Illinois, as recorded by William Clayton in his journal — which is the source for them. This material was first published in the Deseret News on September 24, 1856, and was included in the 1876 edition of the D&C (which is when the bracketed editorial insertion was also made).
The second thing is that “order of the priesthood” does not mean specifically “the new and everlasting covenant of marriage.” Additionally, it is doctrinally redundant and possibly confusing to refer to marriage as the “the new and everlasting covenant of marriage.” Because marriage is only one of the things within the new and everlasting covenant, marriage is NOT the entirety of the new and everlasting covenant. I’ve included quotes below that support this idea.
Is it still possible that there are multiple levels or glories? Sure, its possible. But this is not evidence of that doctrine or teaching. As a result of the traditional teaching, this concept of “Doctrines in Transition” has occurred — more correctly, doctrines morphing into speculation. I’ve included quotes below that show how leaders of the church have “supposed” that if there are three degrees in the Celestial Kingdom, then it’s logical to conclude there are three in each kingdom … do you see how this is perpetual and speculative?
What Is The New And Everlasting Covenant?
President Joseph Fielding Smith defines the new and everlasting covenant in these words:
“What is the new and everlasting covenant? I regret to say that there are some members of the Church who are misled and misinformed in regard to what the new and everlasting covenant really is. The new and everlasting covenant is the sum total of all gospel covenants and obligations, and I want to prove it. In the 66th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, verse 2, I read: ‘Verily I say unto you, blessed are you for receiving mine everlasting covenant, even the fulness of my gospel, sent forth unto the children of men, that they might have life and be made partakers of the glories which are to be revealed in the last days, as it was written by the prophets and apostles in days of old.’
More definitely stated is the definition of the new and everlasting covenant given to us in section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Now I am going to say before I read this that marriage is not the new and everlasting covenant. If there are any here that have that idea I want to say that right to them. Baptism is not the new and everlasting covenant. In section 22 of the Doctrine and Covenants the Lord says that baptism is ‘a new and an everlasting covenant, even that which was from the beginning.’ Marriage in the temple of the Lord for time and for eternity is ‘a’ new and everlasting covenant. (Doctrine of Salvation, 1:156.)”
As to why it is called a new covenant, President Smith wrote,
“Each ordinance and requirement given to man for the purpose of bringing to pass his salvation and exaltation is a covenant. Baptism for the remission of sins is a covenant. When this ordinance was revealed in this dispensation, the Lord called it ‘a new and an everlasting covenant, even that which was from the beginning.’
This covenant was given in the beginning and was lost to men through apostasy, therefore, when it was revealed again, it became to man a new covenant, although it was from the beginning, and it is everlasting since its effects upon the individual endure forever. Then again, whenever there is need for repentance, baptism is the method, or law, given of the Lord by which the remission of sins shall come, and so this law is everlasting. (Doctrines of Salvation, 1:152.)”
This covenant includes all ordinances of the gospel— the highest of which are performed in the temple. To quote President Smith again,
“Now there is a clear-cut definition of the new and everlasting covenant. It is everything — the fulness of the gospel. So marriage properly performed, baptism, ordination to the priesthood, everything else — every contract, every obligation, every performance that pertains to the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise according to his law here given, is part of the new and everlasting covenant. (Doctrines of Salvation, 1:158)”
Three Degrees In Each Kingdom???
Here are a couple of quotes that indicate that this would seem to be the case:
Elder James E. Talmage
“The three kingdoms of widely differing glories are organized on an orderly plan of gradation. We have seen that the telestial kingdom comprises several subdivisions; this also is the case, we are told, with the celestial; (D&C 131:1, 2 Cor 12:1-4) and, by analogy, we conclude that a similar condition prevails in the terrestrial. Thus the innumerable degrees of merit amongst mankind are provided for in an infinity of graded glories. The celestial kingdom is supremely honored by the personal ministrations of the Father and the Son. The terrestrial kingdom will be administered through the higher, without a fulness of glory. The telestial is governed through the ministrations of the terrestrial, by “angels who are appointed to minister for them.” (D&C 76:86-88) 1
Bruce R. McConkie
“Glory of the stars: Telestial glory found only in the telestial kingdom. ‘In the infinite mercy of a beneficent Father it [telestial kingdom] surpasses all mortal understanding, and yet it is in no way comparable to the glory of the terrestrial and celestial worlds. Telestial glory is typified by the stars of the firmament, and ‘as one star differs from another star in glory, even so differs one from another in glory in the telestial world’ (D. & C. 76:81-112; 1 Cor. 15:41), meaning that all who inherit the telestial kingdom will not receive the same glory.’” 2
“Rewards granted individuals in eternity will vary between and within kingdoms. Only those who are sealed in the new and everlasting covenant of marriage and who thereafter keep the terms and conditions of that covenant will attain the highest of three heavens within the celestial kingdom. (D. & C. 131:1-4.) Inhabitants of the telestial kingdom will differ in glory among themselves “as one star differs from another star in glory.” (D. & C. 76:98; 1 Cor. 15:41.) Similar variations will exist among inheritors of the terrestrial kingdom. (D. & C. 76:71-79.)” 3
John A. Widstoe
“These gradations in salvation may be innumerable, since all members of the human family are different. The many gradations are however reduced to three classes: (1) the celestial, the highest, as of the sun in glory; (2) the terrestrial, the next, as of the moon; (3) the telestial, the lowest, as of the stars.” 4
Elder James E. Talmage
“The three kingdoms of widely differing glories are severally organized on a plan of gradation. The Telestial kingdom comprises subdivisions; this also is the case, we are told, with the Celestial; and, by analogy, we conclude that a similar condition prevails in the Terrestrial. Thus the innumerable degrees of merit amongst mankind are provided for in an infinity of graded glories. The Celestial kingdom is supremely honored by the personal ministrations of the Father and the Son. The Terrestrial kingdom will be administered through the higher, without a fulness of glory. The Telestial is governed through the ministrations of the Terrestrial, by “angels who are appointed to minister for them.” 5
1. James E. Talmage, The House of the Lord [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1968], 83. In the 4th printing of this book (the 1962 printing) this quote is found on page 99.
2. Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed., p. 778.
3. Mormon Doctrine, p. 420.
4. John A. Widstoe, Evidences and Reconciliations, p.199.
5. James E. Talmage, Articles of Faith, p. 409.