[Note one: This week I'm going to be putting up a short series of posts about things I believe that (I think) are outside the norm for Mormonism and why I believe them. YMMV (and I hope it does because otherwise this will be a boring series). Please understand that I am not actually interested in creating a new doctrine/church/calling-for-myself. I (obviously) think these ideas are interesting and therefore seek to foist them upon you. Believe at your own risk]
[Note two: I am totally stealing this from an aborted series by Ronan and I may abort it for the same reason. We'll see.]
We have far too many heavens in Mormonism. More than we need in eternity, at least. If we, as a church, regard the stereotypical Protestant or Catholic heaven as a bunch of people wasting a bunch of time, why is the way we envision the Terrestrial and Telestial kingdom superior? Although I tend to not think of God as an economist, it seems an awful lot of waste.
Part of the problem is that I tend to pay more attention to scripture and less attention to church history and modern revelation. So, I privilege (in my own mind) the accounts of the afterlife in the Bible and Book of Mormon over accounts in the D&C and other such (Revelations of Joseph Smith, the Journal of Discourses, etc.). In the Bible and the Book of Mormon, we get along perfectly well with a heaven and a hell. Heck, for much of the Old Testament, we don’t even have that distinction. The categories that render the Terrestrial and Telestial Kingdom necessary (mostly good, mostly bad) don’t factor into the prophecies or moral instruction in any of these Testaments of Christ. You are either in or out.
A couple caveats: I know about Paul. But Paul’s description of the glories of the sun, the moon, and the stars in 1st Corinthians could as easily reflect the three heavens this one guy he knows saw in 2nd Corinthians (which we usually interpret as proof of the three degrees of glory in the celestial kingdom). Well, why do we have to have both? Couldn’t they both be referring to the same thing (gradations of some sort within the celestial kingdom)? There may not (emphasis on me) be movement between kingdoms, but within? I can work with that.
The second caveat: I know about the Doctrine and Covenants (well, mostly). Therefore I am familiar with Sections 76 and 131, which clearly delineate the three kingdoms (and the three degrees (or kingdoms) within the highest). There is nothing within D&C 131 (which, according to the D&C, came from a revelation in 1843) which prevents conflation with the heaven structure in D&C 76 (or 1st Corinthians). Sure it says “In the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees” which could reasonably refer to the entire afterlife. The passage itself is unclear on what it means.
Speaking of D&C 76, there is a portion of the afterlife that it clearly got wrong. It was revealed in 1832 and it puts everyone who didn’t receive the gospel in this life in the terrestrial kingdom, even if they receive the gospel in the afterlife (D&C 76:71-75). However, four years later, in 1836, Joseph received D&C 137, wherein he is surprised to find his brother, Alvin, in the celestial kingdom. Why is he surprised? Because, as I just said, D&C 76 says he shouldn’t be there. We tend to conflate D&C 76 and 137, saying that the really righteous will wind up in the celestial kingdom no matter what (because we are now, apparently, Calvinists), but still clinging to the usefulness of a kingdom where most of its members just disappeared and whose primary explanation just became mostly irrelevant due to later revelatory correction. I say just do away with the whole thing.
So, you may ask, why do we still have the thing around? Well, it comes up in General Conference (3 times in the last ten years, 11 times in the past 40 (note: numbers come from skimming a search for “terrestrial” at lds.org; trust at your own risk). However, it doesn’t come up often enough, I think, to consider it anything but a legacy belief. In fact, it is more often mentioned to explain why belief in the belief is biblical (comparing D&C 76 and 1st Cor 15) than it is ever used to explain anything about the afterlife (in General Conference (manuals do use it to explain things in the afterlife, but I’m excluding them because I think General Conference drives manuals, not the other way around)). If we lost the doctrine entirely, what would we lose?
Two things: First, we’d lose the ability to judge others based on where we think they will wind up in the afterlife. The real criminals of the last century (Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Casey Anthony) will either go to heaven (with us good people) or to hell (with those bad people). We won’t get to pat ourselves on the back for extending a little compassion to Hitler (or some such), thinking about what a great person we are. It’s a lot or nothing (well, sorta I think, but that’s a heresy for later in the week).
However, we’d also lose the comfort of knowing that those we love who have made wrong choices aren’t going to “hell hell.” Our grammas, our children, our best friends from high school, lots of people we care about don’t do all the stuff that should be done (or, worse, do stuff that shouldn’t). We like the idea that, if they don’t make it to the Celestial Kingdom, at least they’ll be somewhere nice. Worst of all, we start to thinking that, although it might be a disappointment, a little cottage in the Terrestrial Kingdom might be alright, leading us to justify sinning a little here or there, digging small pits for our neighbors (a little), and so forth.
We are all internet denizens here and we all love to rank. Top 5 lists drive our little ecosystem. The three degrees allows us to rank ourselves and our neighbors and, I suspect, we do it, forgetting that it isn’t our job. Doing away with two of those degrees would take care of the problem and move us farther away from being the Zoramites we become at our worst moments.
Of course, I could be dead wrong. But, if I am, I don’t think believing in this way hurts your chances of getting into the highest glory. We’ll get into why that is tomorrow. We’ll get into why I think that you don’t have to worry about your Granpa who smoked the next day. And we’ll get into why I think that Hitler will get what he deserves on Wed. After that, I might quit. We’ll see if I can gin up a few more heresies between now and then.
In the meantime, I’m very open to being entirely wrong on this front (D&C 76 is fairly important and dismissing large chunks of it could be wresting scripture or some such). Please show me the error of my ways or, at least, provide your thoughts on the purpose of the terrestrial and telestial kingdom below.