I set out to determine whether one may progress in the hereafter between the three degrees of glory. Unfortunately, the answer seems to be that we simply don’t know yet.
There are basically three possible answers: (1) That progression between degrees of a kingdom and progression between kingdoms is possible, (2) That progression is not possible, and (3) That while progression is possible in the afterlife, that those placed in higher kingdoms initially will always be ahead of others.
Having spent many nights studying the scriptures and words of modern prophets to better understand this issue that truly is so central to Heavenly Father’s plan, I have come to believe–I think–that progression between the kingdoms will be provided for. Ask me the same question tomorrow and I will likely have been convinced otherwise, but for now, I believe it is part of Heavenly Father’s great plan.
So that the message is not lost in this rather lengthy post, I’ll summarize it in a few words. In short, there is no official doctrine on the point of whether we can progress between kingdoms in the afterlife. Prophets and prominent church leaders have theorized on both sides of the discussion, but it remains a mystery of God.
Not surprisingly, the scriptures lend strong support for the position that there will be no progress between kingdoms in the hereafter; however, no scripture states this position with enough specificity to rule out the notion that the scripture is only referring to those in Outer Darkness, where there is no doubt that progress is impossible.
One of many examples of this type of scripture is Alma 34:34-35, which seems to strongly assert that no progress can be made in the hereafter. Put in its context, however, verse 35 seems to imply that the passage only applies to those in Outer Darkness. The scripture reads: “Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis, that I will repent, that I will return to my God. Nay, ye cannot say this; for that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world. For behold, if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death, behold, ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil, and he doth seal you his; therefore, the Spirit of the Lord hath withdrawn from you, and hath no place in you, and the devil hath all power over you; and this is the final state of the wicked.” Alma 34:34-335 (emphasis added).
However, Melvin J. Ballard understands Alma 34:34-35 to answer this question. In response to the anticipated question of whether progression between the Kingdoms can occur, he said: “I have just read the answer, so far as the Telestial group is concerned. ‘Where God and Christ dwell they cannot come, worlds without end.’ I take it upon the same basis, the same argument likewise applies to the Terrestrial World. Those whose lives have entitled them to terrestrial glory can never gain celestial glory. One who gains possession of the lowest degree of the Telestial glory may ultimately arise to the highest degree of that glory, but no provision has been made for promotion from one glory to another.” Melvin J. Ballard, Three Degrees of Glory, a discourse delivered 22 September 1922 (Independence, n.d.), pp. 26-27.
Still, however, this leaves open the possibility that if they ceased to be Telestial beings by progressing to the glory of a Terrestrial or Celestial being, they could then move up to another kingdom. There are countless scriptural references that can be construed to lend support to one position or another, but none goes so far as to spell out whether progress between the kingdoms of Heaven is, in fact, a possibility.
In the Old Testament, Jacob had a dream of a ladder on which he saw angels ascending AND descending. Marion G Romney said he thinks of the rungs of that ladder as representing covenants and ordinances that we much climb. To me, this gives support to their being progression (and regression) between kingdoms. This may seem odd at first, but at least in my life, there have been many times where I’ve made great progress, and others where I backslide.
The Church has no official position on whether or not there will be progression between kingdoms. In response to a question regarding progression between kingdoms, the First Presidency directed their secretary In 1952 and, again, in 1965 to respond: The Brethren direct me to say that that the Church has never announced a definite doctrine upon this point, though some have held the view that it was possible in the course of progression to advance from one glory to another, invoking the principle of eternal progression; others have taken an opposite view. Cited in Dialogue, Vol.15, No.1, pp. 181-182.
Although the Church has not announced an official position, many church leaders have opined on the topic because the quotes are numerous, they are included in somewhat of chronological order in an attempt to show trends.
Franklin D. Richards kept a small book in which he recorded quotes from Hyrum and Joseph Smith. In it, he wrote, “Hiram [Smith] said Aug 1st. Those of the Terrestrial Glory either advance to the Celestial or recede to the Telestial or else the moon would not be a type, [because] it ‘waxes & wanes.’” Words of the Prophets, p. 24, Church Historians Office. Hyrum Smith’s concept is novel and insightful. Applying this interpretation of the astronomical symbols is fitting because the Sun, representing the Celestial Kingdom, neither waxes nor wanes—showing no possibility
Joseph Smith also adds insight to the discussion, but falls short of the type of specificity required to clearly show Joseph Smith’s belief on the topic. His famous “learn our salvation” quote shows that we can progress in knowledge in the hereafter, but not that such knowledge would propel one from a lower kingdom to a higher kingdom: “When you climb up a ladder, you must begin at the bottom, and ascend step by step, until you arrive at the top; and so it is with the principles of the Gospel you must begin with the first, and go on until you learn all the principles of exaltation. But it will be a great while after you have passed through the veil before you will have learned them. It is not all to be comprehended in this world; it will be a great work to learn our salvation and exaltation even beyond the grave.” Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith , 348.
Brigham Young expressed the view that it may be possible for some to advance to a higher degree of glory: “He [Brigham Young] though they [those in lower kingdoms] would eventually have the privilege of proving themselves worthy and advancing to a celestial glory but it would be a slow process.” Quoted by Wilford Woodruff in his Journal, August 5, 1855, Church Historians Office.
Lorenzo Snow’s comments on the topic are somewhat vague, but seem to provide support for progress between kingdoms. “That sacrifice of the divine Being was effectual to destroy the powers of Satan. I believe that every man and woman who comes into this life and passes through it, that life will be a success in the end. It may not be in this life. It was not with the antediluvians. They passed through troubles and afflictions; 2,500 years after that, when Jesus went to preach to them, the dead heard the voice of the Son of God and they lived. They found after all that it was a very good thing that they had conformed to the will of God in leaving the spiritual life and passing through this world.” Lorenzo Snow, MS 56:49-53; Collected Discourses 3:364-65.
Joseph F. Smith’s view on the topic seems somewhat illogical. He stated, “Once a person enters these glories there will be eternal progress in the line of each of these particular glories, but the privilege of passing from one to another (though this may be possible for especially gifted and faithful characters) is not provided for.” Joseph F. Smith, Improvement Era 14:87 [November 1910]. This view seems illogical because, if one were especially gifted and faithful, why would they be in the Telestial or Terrestrial Kingdoms in the first place?
B.H. Roberts expressed a more complete theory on the topic. This theory is sometimes explained by the symbol of a train’s wheel. “If one point is ahead of another on a train’s wheel, then both points will advance along the track, but the point which started behind the other point will never catch up to its predecessor. Brother Roberts stated: “[I]t 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. I 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. 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. Thus: Those whose faith and works are such only as to enable them to inherit a Telestial glory, may arrive at last where those whose works in this life were such as to enable them to entrance into the Celestial kingdom. They may arrive where these were, but never where they are.” B.H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God 1:391-392.
Joseph Fielding Smith said, “It has been asked if it is possible for one who inherits the Telestial glory to advance in time to the Celestial glory? The answer to this question is, No! The scriptures are clear on this point.“ (Doctrines of Salvation 2:31).
President Spencer W. Kimball concurred. He wrote, “No progression between kingdoms. After a person has been assigned to his place in the kingdom, either in the Telestial, the Terrestrial, or the Celestial, or to his exaltation, he will never advance from his assigned glory to another glory. That is eternal! That is why we must make our decisions early in life and why it is imperative that such decisions be right.” The Miracle of Forgiveness, pp. 243-244. (Also cited in The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p.50; and Search These Commandments, 1984 ed., pp.81-82.)
J. Reuben Clark is a firm believer in the “Second Chance Theory.” He wrote, “I am not a strict constructionist, believing that we seal our eternal progress by what we do here. It is my belief that God will save all of His children that he can: and while, if we live unrighteous here, we shall not go to the other side in the same status, so to speak, as those who lived righteously; nevertheless, the unrighteous will have their chance, and in the eons of the eternities that are to follow, they, too, may climb to the destinies to which they who are righteous and serve God, have climbed to those eternities that are to come.” J. Reuben Clark, Church News, 23 April 1960, p. 3.
One of the most telling evidences of the differing opinions of church authorities is found in the successive editions of Talmage’s The Articles of Faith. The first edition of the book states in part: “[I]t is reasonable to believe, in the absence of direct revelation by which alone absolute knowledge of the matter could be acquired, that in accordance with God’s plan of eternal progression, advancement from grade to grade within any kingdom, and from kingdom to kingdom, will be provided for. But if the recipients of a lower glory be enabled to advance, surely the intelligences of higher rank will not be stopped in their progress; and thus we may conclude, that degrees and grades will ever characterize the kingdoms of our God. Eternity is progressive; perfection is relative; the essential feature of God’s living purpose is its associated power of eternal increase.” Articles of Faith, James E. Talmage, 1899 First Edition, pps. 420-421.
In 1917, the words “within any kingdom, and from kingdom to kingdom,” were replaced by the words “within each of the three specified kingdoms.” Finally, in the 12th edition of 1924, this line was changed once again. The words “from grade to grade” and “But if the recipients of a lower glory be enabled to advance, surely the intelligences of higher rank shall not be stopped in their progress; and” were entirely deleted. In place of the second set the following was added: “though as to possible progress from one kingdom to another the scriptures make no positive affirmation, eternal advancement along different lines is conceivable.” Cited in Dialogue, Vol.15, No.1, pp. 181-182.
Bruce R. McConkie called the Second Chance Theory a heresy in a BYU devotional address. “Heresy five: There are those who say that there is progression from one kingdom to another in the eternal worlds or that lower kingdoms eventually progress to where higher kingdoms once were. This belief lulls men into a state of carnal security. It causes them to say, ‘God is so merciful; surely he will save us all eventually; if we do not gain the Celestial kingdom now, eventually we will; so why worry?’ It lets people live a life of sin here and now with the hope that they will be saved eventually. The true doctrine is that all men will be resurrected, but they will come forth in the resurrection with different kinds of bodies–some Celestial, others Terrestrial, others Telestial, and some with bodies incapable of standing any degree of glory. The body we receive in the resurrection determines the glory we receive in the kingdoms that are prepared.” “The Seven Deadly Heresies,” Bruce R. McConkie, Brigham Young University Devotional Address, 1; June 1980.
Support for the Second Chance Theory comes from Boyd K. Packer in October 1995. He recounted the following story. Some years ago I was in Washington, D.C., with President Harold B. Lee. “Early one morning he called me to come into his hotel room. He was sitting in his robe reading Gospel Doctrine, by President Joseph F. Smith (1838– 1918), and he said, “Listen to this! ‘Jesus had not finished his work when his body was slain, neither did he finish it after his resurrection from the dead; although he had accomplished the purpose for which he then came to the earth, he had not fulfilled all his work. And when will he? Not until he has redeemed and saved every son and daughter of our father Adam that have been or ever will be born upon this earth to the end of time, except the sons of perdition. That is his mission. We will not finish our work until we have saved ourselves, and then not until we shall have saved all depending upon us; for we are to become saviors upon Mount Zion, as well as Christ. We are called to this mission.’ The Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “All are within the reach of pardoning mercy, who have not committed the unpardonable sin.” “The Brilliant Morning of Forgiveness,” Boyd K. Packer, Conference Report October 1995.
An important note regarding the quote from Elder Packer above is that the words “redeemed and saved” are used rather than “exalted.” Obviously, we will not stop doing missionary work until all of Heavenly Father’s children are saved from outer darkness and placed in one of the kingdoms of glory. So sticking strictly to the quote, it neither supports nor disproves the idea of progression between the kingdoms.
My Current Theory
You didn’t read this blog post to get my take, as I sit here in my pajamas on a chair in my office on a lazy Sunday morning. However unqualified I may be, it may be helpful to see at least one person’s harmonization of all of these quotes. Take it as an opinion.
I believe that we are God’s children. He took our intelligences (whatever that means) and gave us his potential. It was like taking elements and a tree making those elements into an oak seed. He made us his species. An oak seed will either die completely, or it will become an oak. It cannot be a maple or a cherry or anything else. God made us his. Oaks. I believe that’s what it means to be a son or daughter of God.
It seems logical that scriptures would focus on the finality of death and importance of preparing now. God wants us to progress in our growth. There is little point in assuring the mortal, lazy man of the eternal time period available for growth–not when there’s a phone in his hand that is much more enticing in the moment.
Without question, there is progress in the afterlife. Why would Christ have gone to preach to those in prison if they would never progress anyway? The real question is, will it continue after the “final judgment”?
I believe it will. Jacob’s ladder envisioned angels ascending and descending as they slowly progressed upward. That feels like my life. I try to ascend, but I also have periods where I backslide and need to restart. Hyrum Smith’s description of the moon waxing and waning as a type for those in the lower kingdoms is also instructive to me.
Joseph F Smith’s vision of the afterlife in Doctrine and Covenants 138, taken as a whole, describes to me an afterlife filled with eternal progress and learning–not just a short time while in spirit prison. “And after they have paid the penalty of their transgressions, and are washed clean, shall receive a reward according to their works, for they are heirs of salvation.”
My opinion is that we are oaks. Eternally. The only way we can stop being God’s children is to reject our destiny to become as He is, and forever give up the desire for good and growth. Those are they who will inherit outer darkness. But other than those, we will all eventually end up as God.
So why three degrees of glory? We know those distinctions are a way to classify but aren’t absolute. After all, the Doctrine and Covenants describes degrees WITHIN the highest degree. But I personally view them all as stages with certain privileges and requirements, rather than eternal abodes.
It’s only my theory. Either way, I am very far from matching up to where I need to be. As long as I wake up each morning and try my best, and reach out to my Savior to help me to learn my salvation, I believe I can someday have a fullness of joy.