Question: Do the Latter-day Saint "Three Degrees of Glory" have a basis in the Bible?

Question: Do the Latter-day Saint "Three Degrees of Glory" have a basis in the Bible?

It is clear that Joseph Smith went far beyond the information found in the Bible concerning the degrees of glory in the resurrection

It is claimed that the doctrine of three heavens has no basis in the Bible.

It is clear that Joseph Smith went far beyond the information found in the Bible concerning the degrees of glory in the resurrection. However, it is equally clear that many of those extra details he included are corroborated by the testimony of the early Christian writers—and this to such an extent that it is hard to explain the phenomenon as mere coincidence.[1]

The Bible makes clear that all mankind will be "judged. . . according to their works." (Revelation 20:12) And if so, won't everyone's rewards be different one from another? Jesus insisted that in His "Father's house are many mansions" (John 14:2), and Paul wrote that in the judgment a person's works might be added to his reward or burned up, but either way he might still be saved: "If any man's work abide which he hath built [upon the foundation of Jesus Christ], he shall receive a reward. If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire." (1 Corinthians 3:14-15) Paul also indicated that he had seen a vision of "the third heaven." (2 Corinthians 12:2) Therefore, one might logically conclude from these passages that recipients of salvation will be allotted varying rewards within at least three different "heavens" or "degrees of glory." However, it must be admitted that this fact is not really made explicit in the Bible, so it is understandable that the Christian world has for many centuries been content with the doctrine of one heaven and one hell.

The Mormon doctrine of degrees of glory

While pondering the significance of certain of the aforementioned passages in the Bible, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon were given a most striking vision of the fate of mankind after the general resurrection and judgment, which included a description of the three principal kingdoms of glory. (D&C 76) They found that the first kingdom, called the Celestial, will be inhabited by those who have overcome by faith in Jesus Christ (D&C 76:50-70, 92-96), including children who have died and those who would have accepted the gospel in this life, but were not given the chance until they reached the spirit world. (D&C 137:1-10) The second kingdom, called the Terrestrial, will be inhabited by good people who were just and kind, but were not valiant in their testimony of Jesus. Those who rejected the gospel in this life, but afterwards received it will be given a reward in this kingdom, as well. (D&C 76:71-80,91,97)[2] The third, or Telestial, kingdom will be given to the generally wicked masses of the earth who spent their entire residence in the Spirit World in Hell, and so were not worthy of any higher glory. (D&C 76:81-90,98-112)

Another distinction between these kingdoms is that those who receive Celestial glory will reside in the presence of the Father Himself, while those in the Terrestrial kingdom will receive the presence of the Son, and those in the Telestial will have the Holy Ghost to minister to them. (D&C 76:62,77,86)

Sun, Moon, and Stars as Types of the Degrees of Glory

What marvelous light this vision has thrown upon obscure Bible passages! For example, what good does it do to know that there are three heavens if one does not know anything about them? Another example of a passage illuminated by this revelation is Paul's description of the glory of the resurrected body:

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. So also is the resurrection of the dead. (1 Corinthians 15:40-42)

In the vision of the kingdoms of glory, the Lord revealed that this passage is not just a comparison of earthly bodies with heavenly, but also a reference to the fact that there are three different major levels of glory to which a body can be resurrected:

And the glory of the celestial is one, even as the glory of the sun is one. And the glory of the terrestrial is one, even as the glory of the moon is one. And the glory of the telestial is one, even as the glory of the stars is one; for as one star differeth from another star in glory, even so differs one from another in glory in the telestial world. (D&C 76:96-98)

Origen, in the early third century, revealed that the early Church interpreted this passage in essentially the same way:

Our understanding of the passage indeed is, that the Apostle, wishing to describe the great difference among those who rise again in glory, i.e., of the saints, borrowed a comparison from the heavenly bodies, saying, "One is the glory of the sun, another the glory of the moon, another the glory of the stars."[3]

He further explained that the highest of the three degrees is associated with the Father, and the second degree with the Son:

And some men are connected with the Father, being part of Him, and next to these, those whom our argument now brings into clearer light, those who have come to the Saviour and take their stand entirely in Him. And third are those of whom we spoke before, who reckon the sun and the moon and the stars to be gods, and take their stand by them. And in the fourth and last place those who submit to soulless and dead idols.[4]

We shall see that Origen's doctrine of a fourth degree for the very wicked is fairly consistent with LDS belief, as well.

John Chrysostom was another witness to the fact that the early Church considered this passage to be a reference to degrees of reward in the afterlife:

And having said this, he ascends again to the heaven, saying, "There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon." For as in the earthly bodies there is a difference, so also in the heavenly; and that difference no ordinary one, but reaching even to the uttermost: there being not only a difference between sun and moon, and stars, but also between stars and stars. For what though they be all in the heaven? yet some have a larger, others a less share of glory. What do we learn from hence? That although they be all in God's kingdom, all shall not enjoy the same reward; and though all sinners be in hell, all shall not endure the same punishment.[5]

More Ancient Witnesses to the Three Degrees of Glory

This doctrine goes back much further than Origen and Chrysostom, however. Irenaeus preserved the same tradition which had supposedly come from the elders who knew the Apostles. Many think he received it from Papias:

And as the presbyters say, Then those who are deemed worthy of an abode in heaven shall go there, others shall enjoy the delights of paradise, and others shall possess the splendour of the city; for everywhere the Saviour shall be seen according as they who see Him shall be worthy. [They say, moreover], that there is this distinction between the habitation of those who produce an hundred-fold, and that of those who produce sixty-fold, and that of those who produce thirty-fold: for the first will be taken up into the heavens, the second will dwell in paradise, the last will inhabit the city; and that was on this account the Lord declared, "In My Father's house are many mansions." For all things belong to God, who supplies all with a suitable dwelling-place; even as His Word says, that a share is allotted to all by the Father, according as each person is or shall be worthy. And this is the couch on which the guests shall recline, having been invited to the wedding. The presbyters, the disciples of the Apostles, affirm that this is the gradation and arrangement of those who are saved, and that they advance through steps of this nature; also that they ascend through the Spirit to the Son, and through the Son to the Father, and that in due time the Son will yield up His work to the Father, even as it is said by the Apostle, "For He must reign till He hath put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death."[6]

Clement of Alexandria also expressed belief in the three degrees, and echoed the Lord's revelation to Joseph Smith that those in the highest degree "are gods, even the sons of God." (D&C 76:58)

Conformably, therefore, there are various abodes, according to the worth of those who have believed . . . . These chosen abodes, which are three, are indicated by the numbers in the Gospel--the thirty, the sixty, the hundred. And the perfect inheritance belongs to those who attain to "a perfect man," according to the image of the Lord . . . . To the likeness of God, then, he that is introduced into adoption and the friendship of God, to the just inheritance of the lords and gods is brought; if he be perfected, according to the Gospel, as the Lord Himself taught.[7]

Clement also preached that the three gradations of glory are procured by virtue of three types of actions:

[Clement of Alexandria] reckons three kinds of actions, the first of which is . . . right or perfect action, which is characteristic of the perfect man and Gnostic alone, and raises him to the height of glory. The second is the class of . . . medium, or intermediate actions, which are done by less perfect believers, and procure a lower grade of glory. In the third place he reckons sinful actions, which are done by those who fall away from salvation.[8]

Other Systems of Multiple Heavens

Actually, there were several schemes for the structure of the heavens, with different numbers of heavens which varied also in their contents.[9] But even where three degrees were not specifically mentioned, it was maintained that various gradations of the elect exist. For example, Similitude 8 in the Pastor of Hermas discusses various types of elect. The editors of one collection of early Christian documents preface the chapter with this summary: "That there are many kinds of elect, and of repenting sinners: and how all of them shall receive a reward proportionable to the measure of their repentance and good works."[10]

Jesus, in the Epistle of the Apostles, made a distinction between the "elect" and "most elect."[11] And consistent with this, the Jewish Christian Clementine Recognitions reduced the number of heavens to two.[12]

One of the most popular schemes was that of seven heavens. Daniélou asserts that the idea of seven heavens was first introduced by certain Jewish Christian groups and "derives from oriental, Irano-Babylonian influences," while the older Jewish apocalyptic tradition and many other early Christian groups held to the three heavens scheme.[13] However, it appears that the seven heavens may originally have been consistent with the three heavens doctrine. For example, we have seen that Irenaeus preserved Papias's doctrine of three heavens, but in another passage he asserted that "the earth is encompassed by seven heavens, in which dwell Powers and Angels and Archangels, giving homage to the Almighty God who created all things . . . ."[14] As Daniélou points out, since the seven heavens were the dwelling places of angels, they probably were thought to have been gradations within the second of the three principal heavens.[15]

Outer Darkness

As we noted in the discussion of the nature of the spirit world, both the Latter-day Saints and the early Christians have taught that the "hell" associated with the spirit world will have an end. It should be noted here, however, that there will be an everlasting hell after the resurrection, and the promise of eternal punishment is very real for those who in this life and the next not only reject Christ and His Kingdom, but who consciously fight against it once they have received a witness of its truth. The Lord revealed to the Prophet that those who deny the Holy Ghost, and thus committing the unpardonable sin, will be given a kingdom of totally without glory called "outer darkness":

Thus saith the Lord concerning all those who know my power, and have been made partakers thereof, and suffered themselves through the power of the devil to be overcome, and to deny the truth and defy my power--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. (D&C 76:31-35)

Similarly, both the gnostic Christian Gospel of Philip and the Pastor of Hermas describe the denizens of "outer darkness" as those who have made a conscious and specific choice to rebel against God:

An Apostolic man in a vision saw some people shut up in a house of fire and bound with fiery chains, lying in flaming ointment . . . . And he said to them, "[Why are they not able] to be saved? [They answered], "They did not desire it. They received [this place as] punishment, what is called 'the [outer] darkness,' because he is [thrown] out (into it)."[16]

From the first mountain, which was black, they that believed are the following: apostates and blasphemers against the Lord, and betrayers of the servants of God. To these repentance is not open; but death lies before them, and on this account also are they black, for their race is a lawless one.[17]

Origen taught that the wicked in outer darkness would be devoid of intelligence, and possessed of bodies stripped of all glory.

But the outer darkness, in my judgment, is to be understood not so much of some dark atmosphere without any light, as of those persons who, being plunged in the darkness of profound ignorance, have been placed beyond the reach of any light of the understanding . . . . The wicked also, who in this life have loved the darkness of error and the night of ignorance, may be clothed with dark and black bodies after the resurrection . . . .[18]

Finally, the Lord told Joseph Smith that He never fully reveals to men the punishments of outer darkness, but only brief visions thereof. Consider the wording of this revelation as compared to that used by Jesus in the apocryphal Gospel of Bartholomew:

And the end thereof, neither the place thereof, nor their torment, no man knows; Neither was it revealed, neither is, neither will be revealed unto man, except to them who are made partakers thereof; Nevertheless, I, the Lord, show it by vision unto many, but straightway shut it up again; Wherefore, the end, the width, the height, the depth, and the misery thereof, they understand not, neither any man except those who are ordained unto this condemnation. (D&C 76:45-48)

And the earth was rolled up like a volume of a book and the deep [hell] was revealed unto them. And when the Apostles saw it, they fell on their faces upon the earth. But Jesus raised them up, saying: Said I not unto you, "It is not good for you to see the deep." And again he beckoned unto the angels, and the deep was covered up.[19]

The Loss of the Doctrine of Degrees of Glory

We have seen that the doctrine of degrees of glory was soon confused so that a number of schemes, notably that of seven heavens, were adopted, but it was always clear to everyone that there were different degrees of glory in the heavens. So how was this enlightening doctrine lost? Its fate is not completely clear, but the example of Jovinian, a monk from Milan who preached around the turn of the fifth century, may be instructive. Clark describes Jovinian's teaching, and Jerome's reaction to it: "Jovinian's view, that there are only two categories, the saved and the damned, is assessed by Jerome as more akin to the philosophy of the Old Stoics than that of Christians."[20] Therefore, once again an older Christian doctrine was replaced by the speculations of a Greek philosophical school.


  1. This response is originally from Barry R. Bickmore, "Salvation History and Requirements," in Restoring the Ancient Church: Joseph Smith and Early Christianity (Redding, CA: Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, 1999). It may have been added to or modified since, by nature of a wiki project.
  2. Note also that the paradise of Adam and Eve was in a Terrestrial state, and translated beings dwell in this sphere awaiting the resurrection, as well. See Chapter Note 2.
  3. Origen, De Principiis 2:10:2, in ANF 4:294.
  4. Origen, Commentary on John 2:3, in ANF 10:324-325.
  5. John Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Corinthians 41:4, in NPNF Series 1, 12:251.
  6. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5:36:1-2, in ANF 1:567, brackets in original.
  7. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 6:14, in ANF 2:506.
  8. ANF 2:506.
  9. Daniélou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity, 179.
  10. The Lost Books of the Bible (New York: Bell Publishing Company, 1979), 240.
  11. Epistula Apostolorum, in NTA 1:210.
  12. Daniélou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity, 174; However, it is clear from the passages which mention two heavens in the Recognitions that the two heavens spoken of are the visible heaven, which men can see, and the invisible, where the angels, etc., dwell. See Clementine Recognitions 9:3, in ANF 8:183; Clementine Recognitions 3:27, in ANF 8:121; Clementine Recognitions 2:68, in ANF 8:116. There is no mention of any division in the invisible heaven, but the following passage may be an oblique reference to the three degrees: "Be this therefore the first step to you of three; which step brings forth thirty commands, and the second sixty, and the third a hundred, as we shall expound more fully to you at another time." Peter, in Clementine Recognitions 4:36, in ANF 8:143. The footnote to this passage makes clear that whatever it referred to was most likely part of the esoteric tradition.
  13. Daniélou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity, 174.
  14. Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 9, in ACW 16:53.
  15. Daniélou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity, 176.
  16. The Gospel of Philip, in , James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977), 140, brackets in original.
  17. The Pastor of Hermas, Sim. 9:19, in ANF 2:50.
  18. Origen, De Principiis 2:10:8, in ANF 4:296.
  19. The Gospel of Bartholomew, in ANT, 173.
  20. Clark, The Origenist Controversy, 131.