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The Book of Mormon and Three Degrees of Glory

By Bill McKeever

Note: The following was originally printed in the September/October 2020 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here.

A criticism that I share with many Christians is the lack of unique Mormon doctrine in the Book of Mormon. If Nephites really existed, why is it we do not see them believing like modern-day Latter-day Saints? Concepts like a tri-theistic godhead, a god who was once a man, and the ability of men becoming gods are just a few of the teachings we do not find within the pages of the Book of Mormon. I would also add to this list the notion that God has prepared three degrees of glory and how what people have done on earth will determine which kingdom awaits them after death.

Mr. Oak Norton, the creator of the pro-Mormon website scripturenotes.com, claims to believe that the three degrees of glory are, in fact, mentioned in the Book of Mormon. In an article titled, “Are the Three Degrees of Glory Mentioned in the Book of Mormon? Yes,” he seems to offer some encouragement to his LDS readers, but in the second paragraph, it is almost as if he is preparing them for disappointment. He argues that the “Nephite library of scripture was vast,” so when Mormon, the man believed to be the compiler of the Book of Mormon, “had to take from all their library of revelation and put together the things that would be MOST helpful to us in our day. Would every cool piece of doctrine help us? No.” At this point I find myself asking, “But isn’t the three degrees of glory kind of a big deal in LDS theology?”

He suggests doing a “deductive study,” though he admits that “doing this can introduce a risk.” He goes on to explain that “sometimes a person will search the scriptures trying to find an answer, and then they find something that fits a preconceived notion and think they’ve found their answer even though it’s out of context and they haven’t consulted all the other verses that talk about the subject.” No argument here.

He writes, “We have amazing revelations in Doctrine & Covenants (D&C) 76, D&C 131, and a couple statements of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, and 2 Corinthians 12. These are the primary sources of knowledge which specifically talk about this doctrine.” True, Doctrine and Covenants 76 does specifically mention the celestial, terrestrial and telestial kingdoms. Section 131 is a bit more vague, for it merely says that if a man does not qualify for the celestial, “he may enter into the other.” To get the passages from 1 Corinthians 15 and 2 Corinthians 12 to support this LDS teaching, one must come to the table with numerous preconceived notions, something Mr. Norton warned against at the beginning of his piece.

Mr. Norton states, “We know that bodies are resurrected (1 Cor. 15) to various levels of light based on the light they were willing to receive in life… we also have Paul’s statement in 1 Cor. 15:41-42 that in the telestial, ‘one star differs from another star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead.’” First of all, 1 Corinthians 15, while it does confirm that resurrection is a reality, does not say that resurrected persons will achieve “various levels of light they were willing to receive in life.”

It is also important to note that 1 Corinthians 15 has nothing to say about a “telestial” kingdom. Paul did mention “celestial bodies” and “bodies terrestrial” (heavenly and earthly bodies), but no mention of the word “telestial” can be found. Joseph Smith inserted this word in his Joseph Smith Translation (1 Corinthians 15:40); however, no known Greek manuscript of the New Testament contains such a word. Smith’s insertion of the word telestial also tends to undermine the point Paul was making when he mentions the differences between earthy bodies and heavenly, or spiritual bodies. As Paul states, we now bear the image of an earthy body, but we shall one day bear the image of a heavenly body.

Mr. Norton states, “The first thing we have to recognize is that what has been revealed to us that pertains to this sphere of existence, is that there are 3 kingdoms of glory and 1 place of darkness that have been revealed to us. These 4 places create a type of categorization of people even though within them, there may be many more gradations.”

With this mind he turns his attention to Jesus’ parable of the sower, or the parable of the soils, and concludes that each type of soil represents the three kingdoms of glory, as well as outer darkness. His analogy is as follows:

Celestial: Good ground

Terrestrial: Ground with thorns

Telestial: Seed that fell by the wayside

Outer Darkness: Stony places

I think you would agree that such  a conclusion is a far cry from the more traditional understanding that each soil speaks more to how people relate to the gospel message and not post mortality destinations. Still, what does this have to do with the Book of Mormon? That connection, he believes, comes from Mormon 9:14. It reads:

And then cometh the judgment of the Holy One upon them; and then cometh the time that he that is filthy shall be filthy still; and he that is righteous shall be righteous still; he that is happy shall be happy still; and he that is unhappy shall be unhappy still.

Fitting what he calls his “Patterns of 4,” Norton assumes that these four conditions/emotions also speak of destinations. He asks, “Could this fit into the paradigm? I believe so.” Using his “Patterns of 4” analogy, he then makes this comparison:

Righteous: Celestial

Happy: Terrestrial

Unhappy: Telestial

Filthy: Outer Darkness

One can only wonder how a person could arrive at this conclusion without using preconceived ideas to force such an assumption.

Ironically, after telling his readers that this doctrine is in the Book of Mormon, he concludes with this perplexing conclusion: “Personally, I believe they [the Nephites?] did have this doctrine but Mormon wasn’t inspired by the Lord to put it into the Book of Mormon. The Lord knew we would have a great revelation on it and we didn’t need it in this record.”

So, his title insists that the LDS doctrine of the three degrees of glory is found within the Book of Mormon, but in his conclusion he concedes that it really isn’t. I admit it is difficult to take this kind of reasoning seriously. Hopefully, members of the LDS Church who read this piece will arrive at the same conclusion.


For a Crash Course Mormonism on the Three Degrees of Glory, click here

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