Early Christianity and the (Restored) Concept of Three Degrees of Glory

A page in Barry Bickmores’ “Mormonism and Early Christianity” site provides some information from early Christian writings that are consistent with the Latter-day Saint doctrine of three degrees of glory in heaven (see Doctrine and Covenants 76). I recommend reading that source to gain further insights into this distinctive doctrine.

Some Christians assume that we derive that doctrine from 1 Corinthians 15:40-42, but in fact it is based on modern revelation that is consistent with Paul’s teachings. What Paul teaches in 1 Cor. 15:40-42 can be interpreted in various ways, but we understand that it refers to the differences in glory among those who are resurrected, indicative of the different kingdoms of glory that God has prepared. The highest degree, the Celestial Kingdom, with the glory of the sun, involves dwelling in the presence of the Father, and is reserved for those who truly accept and follow Jesus Christ and receive of the full blessings of the Gospel that He offers us. Here is what Paul wrote:

40 There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another.

41 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.

42 So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption:

Some argue that we have misinterpreted this, claiming that it only applies to heavenly and earthly bodies and not the concept of the Resurrection itself. Perhaps, but many early Christians apparently understood that passage in much the same way Latter-day Saints do today. Barry Bickmore made the following comments (used with permission) in 2003 in e-mail correspondence to someone questioning the standard Latter-day Saint interpretation of 1 Cor. 15:40-42:

Consider the following commentary by Origen:

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

Consider also the following by John Chrysostom:

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. [John Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Corinthians 41:4, in NPNF Series 1, 12:251.]

I can give you many other early Christian references to degrees of glory, but 2 Corinthians 12 ought to be sufficient.

You are right that, on its face, the passage seems to be just talking about heavenly vs. earthly bodies. However, the passage also has this little enigmatic reference to “one glory of the sun, one glory of the moon, and one glory of the stars,” and one star differs from another in glory. What does that mean? Most people would just skip right over it, but the early Christians seem to have placed great significance on it, taking it to mean that there are degrees of reward and punishment in heaven and hell. Whether he was actually restoring lost text, or not, Joseph Smith restored the basic meaning that early Christians attached to the passage!

Another interesting ancient passage on this topic comes from The Testament of Levi, as discussed in “The 12 Patriarchs and 3 Degrees of Glory”:

8. Then there fell upon me a sleep, and I beheld a high mountain, and I was upon it.
9. And behold the heavens were opened and an angel of God said to me, Levi enter.
10. And I entered from the first heaven, and I saw there a great sea hanging.
11. And further I saw a second heaven far brighter and more brilliant, for there was a boundless light also therein.
12. And I said to the angel, Why Is this so? And the angel said to me, Marvel not at this, for thou shalt see another heaven more brilliant and incomparable.
13. And when thou hast ascended thither, Thou shalt stand near the Lord, And shalt be His minister, And shalt declare His mysteries to men, And shall proclaim concerning Him that shall redeem Israel.
14. And by thee and Judah shall the Lord appear among men saving every race of men.
15. And from the Lord’s portion shall be thy life, And He shall be thy field and vineyard, And fruits, gold, and silver.
16. Hear, therefore, regarding the heavens which have been shown to thee.
17. The lowest is for this cause gloomy unto thee, in that it beholds all the unrighteous deeds of men.
18. And it has fire, snow, and ice made ready for the day of judgement, in the righteous judgement of God; for in it are all the spirits of the retributions for vengeance on men.
19. And in the second are the hosts of the armies which are ordained for the day of judgement, to work vengeance on the spirits of deceit and of Beliar.
20. And above them are the holy ones.
21. And in the highest of all dwelleth the Great Glory, far above all holiness.
22. In [the heaven next to] it are the archangels, who minister and make propitiation to the Lord for all the sins of ignorance of the righteous;
23. Offering to the Lord a sweet-smelling savour, a reasonable and a bloodless offering.
24. And [in the heaven below this] are the angels who bear answers to the angels of the presence of the Lord.
25. And in the heaven next to this are thrones and dominions, in which always they offer praise to God.
Source: Levi 1:20-25, The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, The Forgotten Books of Eden (Alpha House, Inc.: Newfoundland, 1927), p. 227.)

No, that proves nothing, but there are at least reasons to accept the Latter-day Saint interpretation of 1 Cor. 15:40-42 as being reasonable enough to be shared by early Christians. So, I find it interesting. Many thanks to Barry Bickmore, once again.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

12 thoughts on “Early Christianity and the (Restored) Concept of Three Degrees of Glory

  1. One of the most important lessons I came away with from the FAIR conference this year is that apologetics is about providing an explanation that makes LDS interpretations and beliefs plausible, that provides them with a context that is believable.
    What apologetics isn’t supposed to do, is to ‘prove’ anything. I think Bickmore does a great job of presenting our interpretation as a viable, plausible interpretation without pushing the ‘prove’ angle too much.

  2. I’m very fond of these quotes (both from “The Fathers of the Church”) :

    St. Irenaeus
    “Against Heresies”
    Book V, Chapter 36

    “2. [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. John 14:2 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 .”


    Clement of Alexandria
    The Stromata, or Miscellanies
    Book VI

    “Conformably, therefore, there are various abodes, according to the worth of those who have believed. To the point Solomon says, “For there shall be given to him the choice grace of faith, and a more pleasant lot in the temple of the Lord.” For the comparative shows that there are lower parts in the temple of God, which is the whole Church. And the superlative remains to be conceived, where the Lord is. 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. And the likeness is not, as some imagine, that of the human form; for this consideration is impious. Nor is the likeness to the first cause that which consists in virtue. For this utterance is also impious, being that of those who have imagined that virtue in man and in the sovereign God is the same. “Thou hast supposed iniquity,’ He says, ” [in imagining] that I will be like to thee.” But “it is enough for the disciple to become as the Master,” saith the Master. 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”.


  3. For some reason Star Wars Ep III came to mind…I know I know, bear with me though, Anakin says “You are either with me or against me.” And Obi-Wan says “Only a Sith believes in absolutes.”
    That’s how I feel about the whole Heaven-Hell thing. Many Christians beleive that there either one or the other. Black-White, one or the other, and to me that’s a Sith way of thinking. I always refer to what the Savior said to his Apostles, that He was preparing a place for them, because in the Kingdom of His Father there are many mansions, and then He goes on to say, “If it were not so, I would have told thee.” So….don’t be a Sith.

  4. What a lovely website!! I read the Salt Lake Tribune on line and the comments get so ugly so fast that I come away despairing for humanity. But the calm, well-thought-out, loving discourse here is refreshing and nourishing. Thanks to you, Jeff, and to all who comment here. Gives strength and energy (and ideas) to go forth and try to balance out the negatives so prevalent in public forums.

  5. Patrick: “But the calm, well-thought-out, loving discourse here is refreshing and nourishing.”

    Oops. Don’t read any of my comments, or you’ll be disappointed.

  6. Great post Jeff!

    I know I say it a lot but it’s true; when you apply the teachings of the Church to scriptures, they really do make much more sense.

  7. Great post Jeff!

    I know I say it a lot but it’s true; when you apply the teachings of the Church to scriptures, they really do make much more sense.

  8. You know, Blogger really annoys me… That double post above was accomplished because Blogger told me I didn’t type the letters right the first time, so I typed them again and resubmitted. It does that a lot btw and I know I’ve typed them properly.

  9. I think we sometimes forget to research things in this way. We Mormons take things at face value much of the time. Unless you are an RM, things like this don’t readily come to mind when people ask about our religion. I was confronted at work, rather rudely, by my boss who asked why the Bible says there’s no marriage in heaven – yet Mormons think their is. I didn’t really know what to say, because honestly I didn’t know the Bible said that. I find myself in these situations often. Then I get home, look it up, and it all makes sense again. It would be nice to see more posts like this!

  10. April,

    If one looks at the scriptures in the gospels that are being referred to:

    Matt. 22: 30
    30 For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven.
    Mark 12: 25
    25 For when they shall rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage; but are as the angels which are in heaven.
    Luke 20: 35
    35 But they which shall be accounted worthy to obtain that world, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry, nor are given in marriage.


    It talks about what happens _in_ and _after_ the resurrection.

    The verb used is “to marry” in all three cases, not an adjective as “married”.

    The three passages say nothing about continuing to be in a married state; only that the people can’t _enter into_ marriage, or _become_ married in or after the ressurection.

    All three passages leave plenty of room for the LDS interpretation, that those who marry for eternity _before_ their resurrection can _continue_ in their state of marriage during and after the resurrection.

    Or in other words, marriages must be performed prior to the couple’s resurrection.


    Another take on those scripture passages is that the Lord is talking only about the specific people in the hypothetical situation posed to him, where the woman belongs to the first husband, and the other marriages are not intended to be eternal.

  11. Years ago I bought a traditional music book called “Songs of the Earth”, compiled by Anna Kealoha. In it I found the following quote from “Life in the eyes of a Tarahumara”. The Tarahumara is a native group that lives in Northern Mexico.

    “If the Dance of Life comes to a halt, our friends and relations will dance and sing to cheer our departing spirit. Three of four days of music make our farewell less painful, for soon we will reach the Milky Way or one of the three floors of heaven and we will remember the songs we sang and the dances we danced.”

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