Eternal progression after death is fun speculation for Mormons

(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here) A key difference between Latter-day Saints and many other Christian churches is that Mormons believe that there are various post-judgment kingdoms in the outskirts of heaven. There’s the Telestial Kingdom, for anyone from Hitler to that lawyer who’s cheating on his wife. There’s the Terrestrial Kingdom, for those decent folks who said “not now” when the missionaries came by the door. And then there’s the Celestial Kingdom, the jackpot prize.

But even the Celestial Kingdom comes in degrees. According to Joseph Smith, there are three degrees of glory in the Celestial Kingdom. So there’s the big leagues, triple-AAA ball, and AA ball in the Celestial Kingdom. The Terrestrial Kingdom is eternal single-A ball while Telestial Kingdom folks are damned to the rookie leagues forever.

And there’s a reason I say leagues, because Mormon pop theology also flirts with the idea of progression within the lesser kingdoms … and even from kingdom to kingdom.

I refer to one of the more obscure B.H. Roberts’ books, ”Outlines of Ecclesiastical History,” first written in 1893, but my edition is from 1927. The copy I have was used by an LDS missionary of that era. Roberts was one of the “progressive model” Mormon leaders of the first half of the 20th century. He favored a more expansive interpretation of Mormon doctrine. It was a doctrinal battle that Roberts and others would eventually lose, mostly snuffed out by Joseph Fielding Smith and the rise of ultra-conservative church leaders.

Anyway, Roberts, on page 416, parts 19 and 20 of The Restoration of the Gospel section, writes:

The question of advancement within the great divisions of glory celestial, terrestrial, and telestial; as also the question of advancement from one sphere of glory to another remains to be considered. In the revelation from which we have summarized what has been written here, in respect to the different degrees of glory, it is said that those of the terrestrial glory will be ministered unto by those of the celestial; and those of the telestial will be ministered unto by those of the terrestrial — that is, those of the higher glory minister to those of a lesser glory. We can conceive of no reason for all this administration of the higher to the lower, unless it be for the purpose of advancing our Father’s children along the lines of eternal progression. Whether or not in the great future, full of so many possibilities now hidden from us, they of the lesser glories after education and advancement within those spheres may at last emerge from them and make their way to the higher degrees of glory until at last they attain to the highest, is not revealed in the revelations of God, and any statement made on the subject must partake more or less of the nature of conjecture.

20. But if it be granted that such a thing is possible, they who at the first entered into the celestial glory — having before them the privilege also of eternal progress  — have been moving onward, so that the relative distance between them and those who have fought their way up from the lesser glories, may be as great when the latter have come into the degrees of celestial glory in which the righteous at first stood, as it was at the commencement: and thus between them is an impassable gulf which time cannot destroy. Thus: those whose faith and works are such only as to entitle them to inherit a telestial glory, may arrive at last where those whose works in this life were such as to entitle them to entrance into the celestial kingdom – they may arrive where these were, but never where they are.

Now here is where things get really interesting. I went to an online archive of Roberts’ 1893 book for the last quote. And “… where they are” is where section 20 ends. However, if I go to the 1927 edition of “Outlines of Ecclesiastical History,” which I am holding in my hands, Roberts continues with this fascinating “conjecture”:

But if it be granted that the chief fact about Intelligences is that they have power to add fact to fact and thus build up knowledge, and through knowledge have wisdom, and thus make progress; and if to such intelligence there is granted eternal life — immortality — then it is useless to postulate any limitations for them; for in the passing of even a few thousands of millions of years, even if progress be very slow — there will come a time when these intelligences — men and women of even the telestial glory — may become very acceptable characters, and very important personages.”

This is radical doctrine, and exciting to read. It brings Mormonism back to its most progressive roots. But, today, web searches include only the 1893 edition. Roberts’ speculation from 1927 is not there.

And since 1927, the idea of eternal progression toward exaltation has became a pariah. I came of age as a young Mormon in the 1970s and I recall more than one teacher telling classes that the idea that you could progress from any of the lower kingdoms to exaltation was damnable to consider. In fact, I recall teachers citing Bruce R. McConkie, who described the idea as one of the “Seven Deadly Heresies.” (here)

What is included in Roberts’ 1927 version  was part of Mormonism’s move to more speculation of doctrine, more discussion. It was not to last, though. I have no idea of if the propensity to seeing the 1893 version of “Outlines …” online is due to disapproval of the 1927 edition, but I would not be surprised.

Today, if you go to the LDS apologetics group FARMS’ internal Wiki page on eternal progression between the three kingdoms, you get an odd non-answer that translated, more or less reads, there is no official church position on this, but it probably isn’t true.

Going back to Roberts’ book, section 7, page 408, of The Restoration of the Gospel,” he writes:

Naturally the question arises why was the gospel preached to the spirits in prison who had once been disobedient if there were no means by which it could be applied to them for their salvation. We can scarcely suppose that Messiah would preach the gospel to them if it could do them no good. He did not go there to mock their sufferings or to add something to the torture of their damnation by explaining the beauties of that salvation now forever beyond their reach! Such a supposition would at once be revolting to reason,  insulting to the justice of God, and utterly repugnant to the dictates of mercy!”

That part of Roberts’ teachings remains Mormon doctrine. It’s a reminder that the LDS belief that God does not have a “line” that divides all in a “heaven” and “hell” is still evidence of the faith’s exciting, progressive roots.

So, despite the JFS and BRM efforts to make progression within kingdoms a “sin” to speculate about, we Mormons do still wonder about these issues, and even discuss them among ourselves from time to time. (To read a fascinating article on Roberts’ and others debates within the LDS leadership over doctrine, go here).

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13 Responses to Eternal progression after death is fun speculation for Mormons

  1. hawg says:

    “for anyone from Hitler to that lawyer who’s cheating on his wife”

    I don’t think the lawyer has to cheat on his wife, I think simply “being” a lawyer about covers it.

  2. Jim Baugh says:

    I wonder if there will be exceptions for getting into the Celestial Kingdom. Like if someone has an exceptional skill or is fantastically good looking.

  3. LasvegasRichard says:

    The other part of this argument that is ignored is the family relationship. The fact should be that simply time or circumstance can never change the fact that my mortal family will always be my eternal family. So then why is the ‘sealing’ of families even necessary ? Nothing forever will ever change who my father , mother , brothers , sisters are. As far as the schism in kingdoms , it will most likely be like a country club membership. You won’t be granted access to closed doors.

  4. harrystamper says:

    Joseph Fielding Smith did teach eternal progression……”"There is rejoicing in heaven over every sinner who repents; but those who are faithful and transgress not any of the commandments, shall inherit `all that the father hath,’ while those who might be sons, but through thee `riotous living’ waste their inheritance, may come back through repentance to salvation to be servants, not to inherit exaltation as sons.” (Joseph Fielding Smith, The Way to Perfection, pp. 21-22.)
    Meaning, if you are sealed to your parents and they reside in the Celestial Kingdom, there may come a day where you will dwell with them, not as a son (exaltation) but as a servant (member of the celestial kingdom).

    • Erick says:

      Bruce R. McConkie – was clear to state, in a talk titled “The Seven Deadly Heresies”, that a belief in progression from Kingdom to Kingdom was a damnable belief. I’m not sure how he squares that with Joseph Fielding Smith’s statement, but must of his views were adopted directly from Joseph Fielding Smith.

      • harrystamper says:

        “The Prophet Joseph Smith declared—and he never taught a more comforting doctrine—that the eternal sealings of faithful parents and the divine promises made to them for valiant service in the Cause of Truth, would save not only themselves, but likewise their posterity. Though some of the sheep may wander, the eye of the Shepherd is upon them, and sooner or later they will feel the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them and drawing them back to the fold. Either in this life or the life to come, they will return. They will have to pay their debt to justice; they will suffer for their sins; and may tread a thorny path; but if it leads them at last, like the penitent Prodigal, to a loving and forgiving father’s heart and home, the painful experience will not have been in vain. Pray for your careless and disobedient children; hold on to them with your faith. Hope on, trust on, till you see the salvation of God” (Orson F. Whitney, in Conference Report, Apr. 1929, 110).

        reprinted, Ensign Sept 2002

  5. Gil M says:

    BY taught in the JDs that the only mortals that attained to Godhood and would have their families and eternal increase for eternity would be those who lived celestial/plural marriage. If BY was right, what does that make all the milions of men who have been sealed in the LDS temples to only ONE wife for time and eternity? Left handed?

    • harrystamper says:

      Salvation or Exaltation is not predicated on plural marriage being practiced. The sealing to one spouse satisfies the commandment. In a situation where the Lord commands plural marriage to be practiced, then it’s your obedience being tested. Since 1890, there is no such requirement.

  6. Ryan says:

    Consider these verses: D&C 29:27-29; 76:112; 132:16-17. This life and the coming realm in the spirit world seem to be very important places of preparation.

  7. Steven Janiszewski says:

    To gain an existential understanding of the cult that produced Mitt Romney, and to get your socks scared off, read The Assassination of Spiro Agnew, available in paperback and e-book on Amazon:

    Its unwilling, part-Mexican Mormon assassin dramatizes the Mormon superiority complex, manifesting it as racism, sexism, jingoism and an anti-federal government temperament. His research in the new library reveals ominous similarities between Islam and Mormonism. The spiritual power behind the cult, which is not the Holy Ghost, acts out.

    “With a clarity of language and vision unsurpassed in contemporary American prose, Steven Janiszewski’s Assassination of Spiro Agnew takes us into a U.S. mazed with madness and Mormonism and all things Utah, a U.S. that was then and still is. Do we need a novel, even as brilliant as this one, about a young man on a divine mission to assassinate the Vice President because he is too liberal? Yes, now more than ever. Readers, welcome to a masterpiece.”
    Tom Whalen

    Read The Assassination of Spiro Agnew.

  8. Sam says:

    Peristaltic pabulum

  9. Greggo says:

    Mainline denominations shudder to think they have anything in common with LDS but such speculation goes back to Origen and other church fathers

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