By Eric Johnson
Note: This is taken from chapter 30 of Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson’s book Answering Mormons’ Questions (Kregel, 2013)
The three heavens described in Doctrine and Covenants section 76 are called the celestial, terrestrial, and telestial kingdoms. First Corinthians 15:40–41 is used to support this idea. It reads, “There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. 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.” In appealing to this passage, a missionary manual explains,
Because God rewards everyone according to deeds done in the body, there are different kingdoms of glory to which we may be assigned after the Judgment. Those who have repented of their sins and received the ordinances of the gospel and kept the associated covenants will be cleansed by the Atonement of Christ. They will receive exaltation in the highest kingdom, also known as the celestial kingdom. They will live in God’s presence, become like Him, and receive a fullness of joy. They will live together for eternity with those of their family who qualify. In the scriptures this kingdom is compared to the glory or brightness of the sun. People who do not accept the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ but live honorable lives will receive a place in the terrestrial kingdom. This kingdom is compared to the glory of the moon. Those who continued in their sins and did not repent in this life will receive their reward in the lowest kingdom, which is called the telestial kingdom. This kingdom is compared to the glory of the stars.
Another biblical passage used to support this teaching is 2 Corinthians 12:2, where Paul wrote, “I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.” Is it possible the Bible teaches three separate levels of heaven?
The Biblical Meaning of the “Third Heaven”
While Paul certainly referred to a “third heaven” in 2 Corinthians 12:2, there is no reason to believe he was referring to one of three distinct eternal destinations of mankind. To properly interpret Scripture, the context of a passage must be grasped, including what the listeners of Paul’s day would have understood it to mean. It is likely they would have interpreted Paul’s three heavens as the atmospheric heaven, the celestial heaven, and the believer’s heaven. Scripture supports this assertion. For example, Deuteronomy 11:11 refers to the atmospheric heaven, where rain and clouds are formed: “But the land, whither ye go to possess it, is a land of hills and valleys, and drink eth water of the rain of heaven.” Psalm 147:8 likewise describes God as He “who covereth the heaven with clouds, who prepareth rain for the earth, who maketh grass to grow upon the mountains.” Matthew 24:30 tells about Christ’s return through this heaven: “And they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” Genesis 1:14 speaks of the celestial heaven, the abode of the sun, moon, and stars: “And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years.”
Finally, there is the heaven the Bible calls the “dwelling place” of God, which is referenced many times in the Old Testament. Isaiah 63:15 says, “Look down from heaven, and behold from the habitation of thy holiness and of thy glory: where is thy zeal and thy strength, the sounding of thy bowels and of thy mercies toward me? are they restrained?” Psalm 102:19 says, “For he hath looked down from the height of his sanctuary; from heaven did the Lord behold the earth.” And 2 Kings 2:11 says it was into this heaven that “Elijah went up by a whirlwind.”
New Testament commentator Philip E. Hughes agrees with the above assessment, writing, “The probability is that Paul had in mind the conception of the heavens as threefold. Thus [Johann Albrecht] Bengel explains that the first heaven was that of the clouds, that is, of the earth’s atmosphere, the second that of the stars (cf. the appearance of ‘the lights in the firmament of heaven’ on the fourth day of creation, Gen 1:14), and the third a heaven which is spiritual” (Hughes, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, p. 433).
Another passage Mormons use to support their view is John 14:2. Here Jesus says, “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.” Quoting this verse and then referring to revelations given to Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith, Area Authority B. Renato Maldonado said, “The Prophet Joseph Smith explained that ‘mansions’ may be understood to mean ‘kingdoms’—those kingdoms in which we will dwell in the life after this. . . . The Lord has said that we will be blessed and will live in a degree of glory in the next life according to the eternal laws we obey in mortality” (B. Renato Maldonado, “The Three Degrees of Glory,” Ensign, April 2005, p. 62).
A simple reading of chapters 13 and 14 of John can help the reader understand what Jesus meant. The Savior had just washed the disciples’ feet (13:1–17) and foretold His betrayal (vv. 18–30). He then told Peter he was going to deny his Lord three times (13:31–14:4). Thomas asked Jesus how His followers could know the way to truth (14:5–7), and Philip asked Jesus to show them the Father (vv. 8–14). In light of this context, John 14:2 describes the encouragement Jesus was giving to Peter and the others as He promised His friends He would not abandon them, even after His death. In John 14:2, the Greek word rendered “mansions” by the seventeenth-century King James Version translators might suggest that there are separate locations, or levels, involved. However, the word is better translated “rooms,” as it is used in modern versions such as the New International Version and the English Standard Version. Commentator Merrill C. Tenney writes, “The imagery of a dwelling place (‘rooms’) is taken from the oriental house in which the sons and daughters have apartments under the same roof as their parents” (“John,” in Gaebelein, The Expositors’ Bible Commentary, 9:143).
“Dwelling places” (“rooms”) is a very different concept from what is offered by LDS leaders, who insist that humans who achieve godhood will rule their own worlds, just as they believe Elohim, or Heavenly Father, rules this one.6 In the words of Jesus and Paul, there is no implication at all that there are three degrees of heavenly glory. The interpretation of three levels of heaven as separate eternal destinations has been forced upon biblical passages that were never intended to support such an idea.
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