Mormonism and the Bible/Scripture interpretation

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Biblical scripture interpretation

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Question: When the Bible talks about being "born again," what does this mean?

Latter-day Saints have unknowingly had the same interpretation as those early writers who came after the Apostles

These authors may have had a more clear picture of the apostles' interpretation of Scripture than a modern reader does.

To be sure, baptism must be accompanied by faith in Christ and repentance of sins, or it is of no worth.[1] But, to argue that baptism is unnecessary, or only a formality, does not seem to be in keeping with either scriptural or early Patristic testimony.

A witness of the Spirit pushes those who are truly born again to repent, change their lives, and obey the Lord's commandments insofar as they are able to do so: e.g., be baptized. This witness by the Holy Ghost of the truth of the restored gospel has been shared by millions of people of all nations, ethnic backgrounds, cultures and tongues, and is the primary reason that thousands choose to join the Church even in the face of defamatory material published against it.

1. Baptisms

Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.(John 3:3-5)

Latter-day Saints believe this scripture should be interpreted as saying a man must be baptized in order to enter into the kingdom of God, while some conservative Christians often interpret this as saying that one need only believe in Jesus Christ to enter into the kingdom of God.

It is interesting to note that the LDS interpretation concurs with what the ancients taught and believed. Justin Martyr (100-165 A.D) said the following:

For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, "Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.[2]

Irenaeus wrote:

‘And dipped himself,’ says [the Scripture], "seven times in Jordan." It was not for nothing that Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his being baptized, but [it served] as an indication to us. For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean, by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from our old transgressions; being spiritually regenerated as new-born babes, even as the Lord has declared: ‘Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’[3]

The Clementine Homilies reads:

And do not think, though you were more pious than all the pious that ever were, but if you be unbaptized, that you shall ever obtain hope. For all the more, on this account, you] shall endure the greater punishment, because you have done excellent works not excellently. For well-doing is excellent when it is done as God has commanded. But if you will not be baptized according to His pleasure, you serve your own will and oppose His counsel. But perhaps some one will say, What does it contribute to piety to be baptized with water? In the first place, because you do that which is pleasing to God; and in the second place, being born again to God of water, by reason of fear you change your first generation, which is of lust, and thus you are able to obtain salvation. But otherwise it is impossible. For thus the prophet has sworn to us, saying, "Verily I say to you, Unless ye be regenerated by living water into the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.[4]

The Apostolic Constitutions says:

Nay, he that, out of contempt, will not be baptized, shall be condemned as an unbeliever, and shall be reproached as ungrateful and foolish. For the Lord says: "Except a man be baptized of water and of the Spirit, he shall by no means enter into the kingdom of heaven." And again: "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned."[5]

2. A "born again" experience?

In some religious traditions the term “born again” often refers to a strong emotional experience that is interpreted in that tradition as a manifestation that he or she who has experienced it has been saved. Latter-day Saints do not accept the idea that one can enter the kingdom of God on this basis alone; but do not deny the sincerity of those who feel that the experience is sacred to them.

It is not uncommon for a Latter-day Saint to have a personal spiritual experience, or witness, which is often intense but differing from mere emotion. This experience is often life-changing, affirming, and strengthening to those that experience it. Occasionally members of other religious traditions tell a Latter-day Saint who has had such a spiritual witness that he or she has instead had a “born again” experience, inferring that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is false.

On the contrary, an actual spiritual experience affirms to the Latter-day Saint the truth and efficacy of the restored gospel. Latter-day Saints believe in all of the gifts of the Holy Ghost, and that these may be experienced by any Latter-day Saint as appropriate to his or her faith and circumstance.

People who are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but are investigating its truth may also experience a witness from the Holy Ghost that what they are being taught by missionaries, members, or the Book of Mormon is true. This enables them, by faith, to follow the Lord’s teachings and be baptized, receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, and become members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


Question: Was the Gospel of Christ a mystery that was unknown until the advent of Christ?

"Mystery" denotes a knowledge available only through revelation: There is clear Biblical evidence that some before Christ knew of Jesus

Members of the Church believe that the gospel of Christ has been known since the days of Adam. However, it is claimed by some Christians that the New Testament teaches that the Gospel of Christ was a mystery unknown until the advent of Christ. (In defense of this claim, they often cite such scriptures as Romans 16:25; 1 Corinthians 2:7, 1 Corinthians 4:1; or Ephesians 3:1-10;

"Mystery" denotes a knowledge available only through revelation. There is clear Biblical evidence that some before Christ knew of Jesus. If Moses, for example, had this mystery revealed to him, then it is fallacious for one to claim that no other pre-Christian prophets could have known of Jesus and his saving gospel.

It is an error to assume that the term "mystery" has the same meaning to the New Testament writers as it does to the modern creedal Christian

As a non-LDS Bible reference explains:

[A "mystery" is] [s]omething revealed by God, at least to a few. The meaning is different from the usual English sense of an unsolved problem....

Its principal occurrences [in the NT] are in Pauline literature, where it is found 21 times....

Paul's use of the term...[connects] it with Jesus' crucifixion rather than with esoteric forms of knowledge (1 Corinthians 1:23; 1 Corinthians 2:1-7). For Paul the mystery that has been revealed is God's plan of salvation. In Ephesians 6:19 he speaks of the mystery of the gospel. Similarly, in Colossians 2:2 he calls God's mystery Christ himself. The mystery is ancient. According to Romans 16:25 it was kept secret for long ages, but in the following verse and in Ephesians 3:9-10 Paul indicates that it was revealed int he fullness of time. The mystery relates to the inclusion of the Gentiles as well as the Jews in God's plan of salvation (Romans 16:25-26, Colossians 1:26-27, Ephesians 3:3-6....

The word "mystery" is also used in a derivative sense in several passages where the terms to which it applies are significant in the divine plan of salvation which has been revealed....[6]

The LDS Bible Dictionary gives a similar perspective:

[The word "mystery"] [d]enotes in the N.T. a spiritual truth that was once hidden but now is revealed, and that, without special revelation, would have remained unknown. It is generally used along with words denoting revelation or publication (e.g., Rom. 16:25–26; Eph. 1:9; 3:3–10; Col. 1:26; 4:3; 1 Tim. 3:16). The modern meaning of something incomprehensible forms no part of the significance of the word as it occurs in the N.T."[7]

Thus, a mystery is not necessarily something that is unknown or unknowable. Rather, it is truth that is known only through revelation. As the first quote indicates, one of the mysteries that Paul claims has been hid is the extension of gospel blessings to all, both Jew and Gentile. This does not mean, however, that the entire gospel was hid even from the covenant people of the pre-Christian era.

Indeed, the NT is clear that at least one Old Testament figure knew of Christ:

By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter; Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompence of the reward. (Hebrews 11:24-26} (italics added)

How can Moses have chosen the "reproach of Christ" if he did not have a knowledge of Christ? Yet, that knowledge was a "mystery"—a knowledge which could only be known through revelation.


Question: How did the authors of the Bible view the earth and the universe?

The authors of the Bible believed that the moon, sun, and other luminaries are fixed in a curved structure which arches over the earth

The standard reference work, the Anchor Bible Dictionary writes:

The variety in date, origin, and scope of the Hebrew Bible's cosmological materials means that achieving a single, uniform picture of the physical universe is hardly possible. Still, sufficient overlap does obtain between the many accounts of the universe, however these may vary in their details, to allow for a few generalizations. The earth on which humanity dwells is seen as a round, solid object, perhaps a disk, floating upon a limitless expanse of water. Paralleling this lower body of water is a second, similarly limitless, above, from which water descends in the form of rain through holes and channels piercing the heavenly reservoir. The moon, sun, and other luminaries are fixed in a curved structure which arches over the earth. This structure is the familiar "firmament" (raqiya) of the priestly account, perhaps envisioned as a solid but very thin substance on the analogy of beaten and stretched metal. Though some texts appear to convey a picture of a four-storied universe (Job 11:8-9 or Psalms 139:8-9), the great majority of biblical texts assume the three-storied universe so clearly assumed in other, ancient traditions. Thus, the Decalog's prohibition of images specifies "heaven above," "earth below," and "water under the earth" as the possible models for any such forbidden images (Exodus 20:4). If we understand the common term "earth" (erets) as designating at times the "underworld," then the combined references in Psalms 77:19 to heaven, the "world" (tebel), and the "earth" ('erets) are another appeal to the universe as a three-storied structure (for other texts where 'erets may refer to the underworld, see Stadelmann 1970: 128, n. 678). Clearer reference still to the same structure is to be found in Psalms 115:15-17, where we find grouped together "the heaven of heavens," "the earth," and the realm of "the dead" (cf. Psalms 33:6-8 snf Proverbs 8:27-29).

The curving, solid structure which arches over the realm of humanity is sometimes called a "disk" or "vault" (hug; Isaiah 40:22, Proverbs 8:27). That which allows the heavenly abyss to water the earth are occasional interruptions in this solid structure, openings called variously windows, doors, or channels. In some texts, that which suspends the habitable earth above the underworld's waters (see 1 Samuel 2:8 for another reference to these rivers) are pillars or some such foundational structures. These seem envisioned in Job 38:4-5; Psalms 24:2; 104:5; Proverbs 8:29, and elsewhere. Finally, the realm beneath the arena of human activity is not only imagined as one of watery chaos but also given the specific designation "Sheol" (she'ol), usually translated "the underworld." In the different elaborations upon just what one should imagine Sheol as including, again there is little consistency. At times, Sheol is personified, with a belly or womb and a mouth (Jonah 2:3-Eng 2:2); Proverbs 1:23; Proverbs 30:16; and Psalms 141:7), while at others Sheol is rather more architecturally portrayed (Isaiah 38:10; Job 7:9-10; Job 14:20-22; Job 17:13; Job 18:17-18), as a dark and forgetful land or city (Stadlmann 1970: 1666-76).[8]


Question: Does the Bible condemn genealogical research?

The Bible rejects the use of genealogies to "prove" one's righteousness, or the truth of one's teachings

Critics charge that the Bible condemns genealogy, and therefore the Latter-day Saint practice of compiling family histories is anti-Biblical, often citing 1 Timothy 1:4 or Titus 3:9.

The Bible does not condemn all genealogy per se. Rather, it rejects the use of genealogy to "prove" one's righteousness, or the truth of one's teachings. It also rejects the apostate uses to which some Christians put genealogy in some varieties of gnosticism.

Latter-day Saints engage in genealogical work so that they can continue the Biblical practice of providing vicarious ordinances for the dead

Latter-day Saints engage in genealogy work so that they can continue the Biblical practice—also endorsed by Paul—of providing vicarious ordinances for the dead, such as baptism (See 1 Corinthians 15:29) so that the atonement of Christ may be available to all who would choose it, living or dead. See: Baptism for the dead

The Bible clearly does not reject all uses of genealogy

This can be seen through its many genealogical lists, including two such lists for Jesus Christ Himself. (See Matthew 1:1–24 and Luke 3:23–38.)

The condemnation of "genealogies" in Timothy and Titus likely came because:

  • the Christians perceived a Jewish tendency to be pre-occupied by "pure descent" as a qualification for holding the priesthood. Since only pure descendents of Levi could hold the priesthood, there was endless wrangling about one's pedigree—since Paul considers the Aaronic Priesthood to have been superceded by Christ, the great High Priest like Melchizedek (see Hebrews 5), this probably strikes him as pointless.
  • some Jewish scribes and other teachers claimed that their "traditions" were directly descended from Moses, Joshua, or some other prominent leader, and thus superior to the Christian gospel.[9]
  • some gnostic sects had involved accounts of the descent of the Aeons (up to 365 "generations" in one scheme) and other mystic or pagan variations thereon.[10]

Since all these genealogies were either speculative or fabricated, they could cause endless, pointless debate.[11] Rather Paul wants the faith (in Christ) which builds up ("edifying") testimonies and lives.


Question: Why did Joseph describe the United Order in revelation as "everlasting" and "immutable and unchangeable" until Jesus comes?

The United Order is an "everlasting" covenant because it comes from God, reflects his purposes, and is attended by promised blessings for all who obey

This does not mean—just as with biblical examples which use identical language—that "everlasting" is a prophecy about its practice or implementation.

The relevant scripture reads (color emphasis added for clarity):

1 Verily I say unto you, my friends, I give unto you counsel, and a commandment, concerning all the properties which belong to the order which I commanded to be organized and established, to be a united order, and an everlasting order for the benefit of my church, and for the salvation of men until I come—

2 With promise immutable and unchangeable, that inasmuch as those whom I commanded were faithful they should be blessed with a multiplicity of blessings;

3 But inasmuch as they were not faithful they were nigh unto cursing.

4 Therefore, inasmuch as some of my servants have not kept the commandment, but have broken the covenant through covetousness, and with feigned words, I have cursed them with a very sore and grievous curse.

5 For I, the Lord, have decreed in my heart, that inasmuch as any man belonging to the order shall be found a transgressor, or, in other words, shall break the covenant with which ye are bound, he shall be cursed in his life, and shall be trodden down by whom I will;

6 For I, the Lord, am not to be mocked in these things—(DC 104:1-6)

Several points need to be made:

  • the practice of the Order is not prophesied to be "immutable and unchangeable." Rather, the Lord says that the promise is "immutable and unchangeable"—and, that promise is that "inasmuch as those whom I commanded were faithful, they should be blessed with a multiplicity of blessings.
  • the United Order is to be everlasting—that is, it is always the Lord's highest law. Temple-worthy Latter-day Saints promise to observe the law of consecration. They are not, at present, commanded to enter the United Order, but covenant to do so if asked.
  • the Lord makes it clear (verses 3-6) that some might break the covenant, and suffer the penalty. Thus, failure to live the law is not failure of a prophecy, but failure to live a commandment.

Biblical parallels: similar uses of the term "everlasting" that describe the importance and efficacy of certain commandments or ordinances

There are similar uses of the term "everlasting" that describe the importance and efficacy of certain commandments or ordinances. Yet, Christians do not believe they are bound to continue to observe these ordinances and covenants at all historical times. For example (emphasis added in all cases):

  • Aaron and the Levites are given an "everlasting priesthood throughout their generations" (Exodus 40:15, see also Numbers 25:13). Yet, modern day Christians (like many of our critics) do not seem to believe that the only legitimate priestly authority persists with Levitical descendants, or that such descendants currently enjoy divine sanction.
  • Circumcision is described as "a token of the covenant betwixt me and you" that "my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant." Those who are not circumcised "shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant" (Genesis 17:10-14). Yet, modern Christians do not believe that circumcision continues to be binding or necessary.
  • Likewise, the "bread for a memorial" is commanded to be "set...in order before the Lord continually," since it is "taken from the children of Israel by an everlasting covenant" (Leviticus 24:8). Do the critics likewise believe that this ought to be continued in unbroken succession to the present for it to be a valid commandment from God?


Question: Why do Mormons use the Aaronic Priesthood, since Hebrews 7 states that the Aaronic/Levitical Priesthood was "changed" to the unique priesthood "after the order of Melchizedek" held by Jesus Christ?

The idea that the Melchizedek Priesthood superseded the Aaronic Priesthood is a correct one, but this does not necessarily imply that there is no Aaronic Priesthood

As other Christians see it, the Aaronic Priesthood is like a small glass of water that is replaced by a fruit juice (the Melchizedek Priesthood). They are distinguished from each other, in most Christians' eyes, as quite separate things.

The LDS would use a different metaphor to explain things: they might compare the Aaronic Priesthood to a glass of water that is filled only part way. Instead of being replaced by an entirely different drink, more water is poured into it until it is a full glass (the Melchizedek Priesthood).

From a Mormon perspective, the two priesthoods are really the same substance: the power of God delegated to man

From whence do the two priesthoods originate? The same source—God. What is the purpose of the two priesthoods? They bring mortals to the Lord (note that only the Melchizedek Priesthood can do so entirely—see Hebrews 7:11—but the Aaronic Priesthood was instrumental in keeping ancient Israel holy and pure). The Aaronic Priesthood is merely a limited form of the Melchizedek Priesthood, or (as LDS scriptures call it) an "appendage" to it (D&C 107:13–14).

Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles illustrated the doctrine clearly:

Since all priesthood is Melchizedek, the Aaronic Priesthood being a portion of it, one does not lose the Aaronic Priesthood when he is ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood [...][12]

Why does the Aaronic Priesthood persist in the Church?

So, if the Church possesses the Melchizedek priesthood, then why would the Aaronic Priesthood persist today? The Aaronic priesthood serves as a 'preparatory priesthood' (see D&C 84:26.) Just as the Levitical authority in ancient Israel acted as a "schoolmaster" to prepare Israel to receive Christ (see Galatians 3:24–25), in the modern Church the Aaronic priesthood serves to school young men for service in God's kingdom on earth.

The modern Aaronic priesthood's organizational structure follows the pattern established by the New Testament Church, and consists of Deacons (see Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:8,10,12–13), Teachers (Acts 13:1,1 Corinthians 12:28–29), and Priests (see Acts 6:7), and countless references in the Old Testament to Levitical/Aaronic 'priests').

Each Aaronic priesthood office is trusted with more responsibility, providing LDS young men with the opportunity to progress and mature until they are ready to receive the priesthood in full—the Melchizedek Priesthood.

Aaronic priesthood duties and function similar to ancient Israel

Despite some modern differences from ancient Israel, the Aaronic Priesthood is not much different compared to ancient times.

The Aaronic priesthood performs two ordinances (some Christian groups would call these 'sacraments').

  1. Baptism: John the Baptist held the Aaronic Priesthood, which holds the keys of baptism, and baptism is of course a fundamental part of salvation through Christ (see Acts 2:38).
  2. Sacrifice: The modern Church does not, of course, sacrifice animals because Jesus Christ sacrificed Himself for us, giving us the last great sacrifice (see Ephesians 5:2). Yet, the Church rejoices in and recalls His sacrifice for us by partaking of the sacrament ("communion" or "the Lord's supper" in other denominations) Matthew 26:26-29). Thus, the modern priest repeats a ceremony of atonement and sacrifice through the sacrament of the Lord's supper; this plays a similar theological role to the animal sacrifices offered by Aaronic priests anticipation of Christ's atonement and resurrection.

Separation of priesthood duties in the New Testament Church

It should be noted that all priesthood was not equivalent in the New Testament Church either. For example, many members had been baptized with water (an ordinance of the Aaronic priesthood) but had not yet received the Holy Ghost until one of the apostles laid hands upon them (a Melchizedek priesthood function). (See Acts 8:15–19, Acts 19:2–6).


Question: Why do Mormon's believe that ongoing divine revelation is necessary?

If revelation was meant to cease, it would have ceased after Jesus ascended to heaven, but the Bible teaches that revelations and visions didn't cease

It is claimed that there is no need for on-going divine revelation; some even charge that claims of visions from God or revelations to a modern prophet is a blasphemous idea. According to one ministry:

Jesus Christ, the final and complete revelation of God (Hebrews 1:1-3) has made "further revelation" obsolete and unnecessary. To claim to have such a "revelation" is to say that Jesus really wasn't what and who He said He was, and who the Bible describes Him as being. In actuality, it is the simple fact that Mormonism's teachings cannot be supported from the Bible that drives the leadership to find another source of authority. Everything that has ever claimed to be "further revelation" has failed the test of Scripture, including the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price

—Copyright 2005-2006 Alpha and Omega Ministries

If revelation was meant to cease, it would have ceased after Jesus ascended to heaven, but the Bible teaches that revelations and visions didn't cease.

Biblical history has recorded many instances of God speaking to prophets, and it also tells of many instances of apostasy. To end each period of general apostasy, God has shown His love for His children by calling another prophet and giving him priesthood authority to restore and teach the gospel of Jesus Christ anew. In essence, the prophet acts as a steward to oversee the household of God here on earth. Such periods of time headed by prophetic responsibility are called dispensations.[13]

Matthew 28:19-20

19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:

20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.

Mark 16:15

15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.

John 20:30-31

30 And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book:

31 But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.

We have the teachings of Jesus in the four gospels, why do we need the Book of Revelation, or the epistles of Paul? LDS scriptures clarify the importance of revelation.

What about Hebrews 1:1-3?

1 GOD, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets,

2 Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds;

3 Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high;

It is true that Jesus' coming in the flesh was the most complete revelation of the divine nature. But, these verses do not say that revelation thereby ceased. None of the New Testament was written until well after Jesus died and was resurrected—the early Christians do not seem to have regarded his coming as a bar to on-going revelation and scripture. Even after Jesus' ascension, he continued to give revelation to those chosen to lead his Church. For example, the Lord revealed to John, "Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter" Revelation 1:19

What about 1 Corinthians 13:8?

This scripture is not talking about the last days.

Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away (KJV)

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away(NIV)

Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away(NASB)

Our jobs will not be eternal; much of our formal education will be forgotten; our Church callings will come to an end[14]

Why do we need revelation today?

  1. New revelations and visions are necessary for our progression: time and circumstances always change
  2. So that we can have success in our own time and circumstances
  3. Despite the best efforts of Christian believers, the Bible has not proved capable of answering all questions in a universal way.[15] There are thousands of Christian groups, and each understands some scriptures differently than others. The unity that should prevail among believers does not, despite their best efforts. Clearly more revelation is needed.


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.[16]

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)[17] 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."[18]

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.[19]

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.[20]

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."[21]

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.[22]

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.[23]

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.[24] 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."[25]

Jesus, in the Epistle of the Apostles, made a distinction between the "elect" and "most elect."[26] And consistent with this, the Jewish Christian Clementine Recognitions reduced the number of heavens to two.[27]

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.[28] 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 . . . ."[29] 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.[30]

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)."[31]

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.[32]

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 . . . .[33]

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.[34]

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."[35] Therefore, once again an older Christian doctrine was replaced by the speculations of a Greek philosophical school.


Question: Does the biblical story of Peleg describe the separation of the continents?

Some Latter-day Saint thinkers have understood the matter as referring to the sudden separation of the continents in a catastrophic event. Others have regarded this as a misunderstanding of the text

Does the biblical story of Peleg describe the separation of the continents? There is a reference to this event in DC 133:.

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here


The Church does not take an official position on this issue

This is one of many issues about which the Church has no official position.

Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church. With divine inspiration, the First Presidency...and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles...counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This doctrine resides in the four “standard works” of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith. Isolated statements are often taken out of context, leaving their original meaning distorted.

—LDS Newsroom, "Approaching Mormon Doctrine," lds.org (4 May 2007) off-site]


Some Latter-day Saint thinkers have understood the matter as referring to the sudden separation of the continents in a catastrophic event. Others have regarded this as a misunderstanding of the text. The Church has no official position on the matter, and it does not play much of a role in LDS thought or discourse.

Genesis 10:25 contains a passing reference to man called Peleg, who received his name because "in his days was the earth divided". The Hebrew verb פלג (palag) means "separate" or "divide."

Some Latter-day Saints have interpreted this passage with extreme literalness

Some Latter-day Saints have interpreted this passage with extreme literalness, believing that the earth's tectonic plates, which were once a single land mass, all separated into the continents we know today during the life of a single mortal, instead of over hundreds of millions of years as scientists have theorized. Two of these were Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie.

It is more likely that Peleg's name anticipates the division of languages at Babel in the following chapter

But the scripture doesn't require such an extraordinary conclusion: It is more likely that Peleg's name anticipates the division of languages at Babel in the following chapter. (Note that palag appears in Psalms 55:9 to refer to a division of languages.)

In the December 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, 1,000 miles of fault line slipped 50 feet, resulting in a 9.3-magnitude earthquake that created seismic sea waves up to 100 feet high. These tsunamis caused the deaths of nearly 230,000 people. The amount of force required to move the major continents thousands of miles apart in the lifetime of a single individual would cause much worse devastation, a global catastrophe on an unimaginable scale. Thus, to accomplish this without a divine miracle which hid all trace of such an event would be extraordinarily unlikely. But, such a miracle cannot be proven or identified by science or observation. Those who choose to believe that this is what happen can only rely on faith.

If the division is one of language, then DC 133:22–23 would refer to the return to a time when languages no longer divide humankind. This will take place during the 1,000 years of peace when the Savior reigns. Such a return to unity might also symbolize the passing of all the temporary, petty, and earthly matters which alienate humans from each other.


Notes

  1. Articles+of+Faith 1:4
  2. Justin Martyr, "First Apology of Justin," in Chapter 61 Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886)1:183. ANF ToC off-site This volume
  3. Irenaeus, "?," in ? Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886)1:574. ANF ToC off-site This volume
  4. Clementine Homilies, 11:25–26. off-site In Ante-Nicean Fathers 8:223–347. off-site
  5. Apostolic Constitutions, "?," in 6:15 Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff (Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886)7:456–457. ANF ToC off-site This volume
  6. Alice Ogden Bellis, "Mystery," in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, edited by David Noel Freedman, Allen C. Myers, and Astrid B. Beck, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000), 931. ISBN 0802824005.
  7. LDS KJV, Bible Dictionary, "Mystery,", 736. off-site
  8. Anchor Bible Dictionary, at 1:1167-68, s.v. "Cosmogony, Cosmology."
  9. George H. Fudge, "I Have a Question: How do we interpret scriptures in the New Testament that seem to condemn genealogy?," Ensign (March 1986), 49.
  10. John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible, 1811-1817, New Testament, "1 Timothy 1:4" & "Titus 3:9"
  11. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds., The Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968), 353.
  12. M. Russell Ballard, cited in Priesthood (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1981), 72.
  13. Preach My Gospel, 31–46.
  14. Jean Knight Pace, "The Joyful Surprise of Motherhood," Ensign (Jan 2006), 54–57.
  15. Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Brazos Press, 2012).
  16. 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.
  17. 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.
  18. Origen, De Principiis 2:10:2, in ANF 4:294.
  19. Origen, Commentary on John 2:3, in ANF 10:324-325.
  20. John Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Corinthians 41:4, in NPNF Series 1, 12:251.
  21. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5:36:1-2, in ANF 1:567, brackets in original.
  22. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 6:14, in ANF 2:506.
  23. ANF 2:506.
  24. Daniélou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity, 179.
  25. The Lost Books of the Bible (New York: Bell Publishing Company, 1979), 240.
  26. Epistula Apostolorum, in NTA 1:210.
  27. 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.
  28. Daniélou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity, 174.
  29. Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 9, in ACW 16:53.
  30. Daniélou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity, 176.
  31. The Gospel of Philip, in , James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977), 140, brackets in original.
  32. The Pastor of Hermas, Sim. 9:19, in ANF 2:50.
  33. Origen, De Principiis 2:10:8, in ANF 4:296.
  34. The Gospel of Bartholomew, in ANT, 173.
  35. Clark, The Origenist Controversy, 131.