Mormonism and Early Christianity:

The Three Degrees of Glory and Outer Darkness

by Barry Bickmore

©1997. All Rights Reserved.

Reference Info - glossary of ancient Christian writers and documents, guide to abbreviations, bibliography.

Quick Index

Degrees of Glory

The Bible makes clear that all mankind will be "judged... according to their works."1 And if so, won't everyone's rewards be different one from another? Jesus insisted that in His "Father's house are many mansions,"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."3 Paul also indicated that he had seen a vision of "the third heaven".4 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.

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.5 They found that the first kingdom, called the Celestial, will be inhabited by those who have overcome by faith in Jesus Christ6, 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.7 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.8 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.9

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.10

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.11

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.12

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."13

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.14

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

This doctrine goes back much further than Origen, 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."15

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."16

    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.17

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.18

Indeed, 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.19

Jesus, in the Epistle of the Apostles, makes a distinction between the "elect" and "most elect":

    And he said to us, " Truly I say to you, you and all who believe and also they who yet will believe in him who sent me I will cause to rise up into heaven, to the place which the Father has prepared for the elect and most elect, (the Father) who will give the rest that he has promised, and eternal life."20

The Doctrine of Translation

One final point of contact exists between the doctrine of three degrees as revealed to Joseph Smith and that preserved in ancient Christian circles. That is, Joseph Smith taught that the paradise of Eden was in a Terrestrial state, and also those persons who have been translated, or taken up to heaven without tasting death, are preserved also in a terrestrial state until they are resurrected. Compare the Prophet's doctrine of translation with that preserved in another fragment attributed to Papias:

    Many have supposed that the doctrine of translation was a doctrine whereby men were taken immediately into the presence of God, and into an eternal fullness, but this is a mistaken idea. Their place of habitation is that of the terrestrial order, and a place prepared for such characters He held in reserve to be ministering angels unto many planets, and who as yet have not entered into so great a fullness as those who are resurrected from the dead.21

    Where, then, was the first man placed? In paradise certainly, as the Scripture declares "And God planted a garden [paradisum] eastward in Eden, and there He placed the man whom He had formed." And then afterwards when [man] proved disobedient, he was cast out thence into this world. Wherefore also the elders who were disciples of the apostles tell us that those who were translated were transferred to that place (for paradise has been prepared for righteous men, such as have the Spirit; in which place also Paul the apostle, when he was caught up, heard words which are unspeakable as regards us in our present condition), and that there shall they who have been translated remain until the consummation [of all things], as a prelude to immortality.22

Outer Darkness

It should be noted here, however, that there is a hell after the resurrection, and the promise of eternal punishment for the enemies of God is very real. The Lord revealed to the Prophet that those who deny the Holy Ghost, and thus commit the unpardonable sin, will be given a kingdom of no 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.23

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)."24

    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.25

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.... [T]he 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....26

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 therof, 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.27

    ... 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.28

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 Revelation 20:12.

2 John 14:2.

3 1 Corinthians 3:14-15.

4 2 Corinthians 12:2.

5 D&C 76.

6 D&C 76:50-70, 92-96.

7 D&C 137:1-10.

8 D&C 76:71-80, 91, 97.

9 D&C 76:81-90, 98-112.

10 D&C 76:62, 77, 86.

11 1 Corinthians 15:40-42.

12 D&C 76:96-98.

13 Origen, De Principiis 2:10:2, in ANF 4:294.

14 Origen, Commentary on John 2:3, in ANF 10:324-325.

15 Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5:36:1-2, in ANF 1:567.

16 D&C 76:58.

17 Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 6:14, in ANF 2:506.

18 ANF 2:506.

19 The Lost Books of the Bible, p. 240.

20 Epistula Apostolorum, in NTA 1:210.

21 Smith, ed., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 170.

22 Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5:5:1, in ANF 1:531.

23 D&C 76:31-35.

24 The Gospel of Philip, in , Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English, p. 140.

25 The Pastor of Hermas, Sim. 9:19, in ANF 2:50.

26 Origen, De Principiis 2:10:8, in ANF 4:296.

27 D&C 76:45-48.

28 The Gospel of Bartholomew, in ANT, p. 173.