When we draw the plan of salvation we put the three degrees of glory at the far right, one kingdom above another, with the Celestial Kingdom at the top and the Telestial at the bottom. If we’re on the artsy side, we might even draw a sun in the top circle, the moon in the middle circle, and stars in the bottom. If you grew up in the church or have taken lessons with missionaries you’ve seen this depiction of the Latter-Day Saint version of heaven.
Before we reach those eternal homes, and after we leave our bodies through the process of physical death, there is a place prepared for our spirits. In the drawing, there are actually two places. A paradise and a prison. The paradise is said to be a place of rest and peace, while prison is not that. But it’s not really a place of torment as much as a place of learning (Doctrine and Covenants 88:99). It is the very place Christ visited after his death and before his resurrection (Doctrine and Covenants 76:73). He taught the people there, and he liberated many of the captive.
When Christ died he went to spirit prison. But this isn’t where he said he was going to go.
And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.
And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise (Luke 23:39–43).
The wicked men who hung with Jesus were told that not only he would go to paradise, but they would too. Yet, he spent at least almost all of his time ministering to the imprisoned in the spirit world. Three days he spent with them, all of those who had this place of learning prepared for them, including an entire earth-full of people who were moved to this post-mortal school during the days of Noah (1 Peter 3:19–20). A good portion of these people believed their Savior, found their paradise, and were crowned with glory when Christ was resurrected (Moses 7:56).
So, which was it? Did he go to paradise, or did he go to prison? Maybe he went to paradise, and then he went to prison. Maybe he went to prison, and then he went to paradise. Or maybe, they are the same place.
I’ve had moments where I plod slowly through suffering, mine or someone else’s, and somehow midst the pain there is peace and rest, and this subtle awareness that everything is okay. It is right and good. And I can smile through the trial. My heart feels light, the yoke feels easy, and I know that with Christ I can do all things. It feels like paradise, and yet from any other perspective it’s hell.
What if these spirit worlds are not two distinct worlds, but they are one world with many perspectives, not unlike this world we live in now. How is it that one child can happily take out the trash while the other groans and labors under the weight of it? It’s perspective. It’s the light we hold in our heart that inspires joy, or the wallowing in pain which provokes sadness and anger, regardless of the outward conditions. Two spirits can live in the same spirit city and yet one is in paradise and the other in prison. Then it makes perfect sense for Jesus to say he’s going to paradise and also go to prison. For Christ, it is paradise, and to those who he is ministering to it is prison. It was the same place.
“The righteous in spirit paradise will serve missions to spirit prison.” That’s just our Saint-speak for this idea that those who have chosen Christ, who emulate his love, will be both in a state of paradise and will also be found loving those who have not found it yet. This is the nature of a Christian, to not be content with only our own salvation, but to work for the eternal exaltation of all mankind. This is the divinity within us, which we strive to cultivate and set free as we practice our Christianity.
Who we are in this world carries with us into the next world (Doctrine and Covenants 130:18). The same temptations to believe the lies of the Accuser are always there, to believe that we are unworthy, to deny our divine potential. After all, Satan is always doing in the current world what has been done in other worlds. It is the first and ever-present lie. When we come to understand deep in our souls that this is not the truth, that we really are divine beings of light, and we begin to act as such, then we have joy. Godly joy. And we desire all to receive it.
As joint-heirs with Christ, or in other words, as Christs ourselves, we will naturally want to liberate the captive from the pain of Satan’s lies. I imagine that if heaven and hell were two distinct places, then heaven would be empty, as those who have inherited a heavenly home because of their love and light would not be found sitting around basking in their own glory.
After ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good—to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted (Jacob 2:19).
No, we wouldn’t be content with only our reward. Not until all of our brothers and sisters have found the freedom and peace that comes through knowing who they are and reaching their full potential. After all, they are also Christs, just waiting to be discovered and set free as we were.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me (Matthew 25:37).
If heaven and hell, paradise and prison, are distinct and separate places, then it would follow that heaven and paradise would be empty, the hosts having left to bring love and light to others. Why prepare a place that would, by its very nature, always be empty? Paradise and Prison must be the same sphere, inhabited by the spirits of humans temporarily separated from their bodies.
And if Paradise and Prison are the same sphere, the same world, inhabited by people who differ not in location but in perspective, then can the same understanding be applied to the three degrees of glory? Perhaps these are not three separate kingdoms as much as they are three ways which we will perceive our glory after the resurrection.
The second coming of the Lord will be accompanied by a resurrection of all beings. Things get a little messy here because we have a few contradicting description of what the Millennium will be like as far as the timing of resurrections. I’ll come back to this later. Right now I want to talk about the idea that at some point we will all be resurrected and move into this world where our spirits are reunited with our bodies in a new way.
Resurrection isn’t just resuscitation. Through the power of resurrection, our spirits and our bodies enter into a holier sphere and reunite forming a new being. There is a place prepared for this type of being too. The Celestial, Terrestrial, and Telestial Kingdoms make up this new world, made specifically to be home to resurrected beings. And by the same understanding of Paradise and Prison, it would also make sense that these kingdoms are not three distinct places, but the same place, the same world, inhabited with people who have differing perspectives.
Unto what shall I liken these kingdoms, that ye may understand?
Behold, all these are kingdoms, and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power.
I say unto you, he hath seen him; nevertheless, he who came unto his own was not comprehended.
The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not; nevertheless, the day shall come when you shall comprehend even God, being quickened in him and by him.
Then shall ye know that ye have seen me, that I am, and that I am the true light that is in you, and that you are in me; otherwise ye could not abound (Doctrine and Covenants 88:46–50)
God is in all of the kingdoms. They are all the same place. What differs is what the people who live there are able to perceive. Can they comprehend the fullness of his presence because they are like him? Or can they only comprehend a portion of his light because they’ve chosen to deny the Christ, both Jesus Christ and the Christ within themselves? To some, this world is like the glory of the sun. To others, the moon. And to still others, the stars.
Nevertheless, the day shall come when they shall comprehend. With all of these glorious resurrected beings dwelling together, healing will come. None are lost. Eventually, all shall know Christ, that they are forever part of him, and that Christ is that light that is in them. In the meantime, only those of the Celestial Kingdom will know the fullness. Their love will inspire them to reach out to those of the other glories who live among them, who cannot merely perceive the higher glory at will because of the choices they are making. I believe this is where we got this idea that those in the Celestial Kingdom can visit the lower kingdoms but those in the lower kingdoms cannot simply visit the Celestial. They just don’t comprehend it.
That’s okay. Give it time. Well, really, give it eternity, but that’s hard for our minds to understand. We don’t do well with words like infinite and eternal. Giving it time serves its purpose…
Behold, I will liken these kingdoms unto a man having a field, and he sent forth his servants into the field to dig in the field.
And he said unto the first: Go ye and labor in the field, and in the first hour I will come unto you, and ye shall behold the joy of my countenance.
And he said unto the second: Go ye also into the field, and in the second hour I will visit you with the joy of my countenance.
And also unto the third, saying: I will visit you;
And unto the fourth, and so on unto the twelfth.
And the lord of the field went unto the first in the first hour, and tarried with him all that hour, and he was made glad with the light of the countenance of his lord.
And then he withdrew from the first that he might visit the second also, and the third, and the fourth, and so on unto the twelfth.
And thus they all received the light of the countenance of their lord, every man in his hour, and in his time, and in his season—
Beginning at the first, and so on unto the last, and from the last unto the first, and from the first unto the last;
Every man in his own order, until his hour was finished, even according as his lord had commanded him, that his lord might be glorified in him, and he in his lord, that they all might be glorified.
Therefore, unto this parable I will liken all these kingdoms, and the inhabitants thereof—every kingdom in its hour, and in its time, and in its season, even according to the decree which God hath made (Doctrine and Covenants 88:51–60).
Eternity becomes the space given for the Lord to reach us all, each in their appointed hour. None will be forgotten or left behind. Those who have discovered their inner Christ and are living the glory of their exalted selves will labor alongside the Savior in this mighty work of salvation. All will be glorified. The Lord glorified in them, and they glorified in their Lord. All. They are all living in the same world, occupying the same sphere. If not, the Celestial Kingdom would be empty. And an empty heaven isn’t part of the plan.
Let me see if I can illustrate this a little clearer for those of us who are visual learners. Here’s what our drawing of the Plan of Salvation typically looks like all broken down so it can be easily taught…
Now, let’s experiment with the concept of an “empty heaven”, which leads us to understand that some of these distinct realms are actually occupying the same world, by imagining this diagram with three dimensional spheres and then looking at it from the top down. It would look something like this…
Now we’re seeing that all of these words are very similar. We have different perspectives, work to do, the need for Christ, and space for attaining the love and light of God in each of these spheres. The only things that really separate the beings in these worlds from each other are veils, or in other words, some sort of inability to see each other. And if we could see what God sees, we wouldn’t be set back by these veils at all.
Let’s imagine this diagram as three dimensional spheres again, and look at it from the perspective of the One who has been through it all. Let’s look at it as if we are at the end of it all looking back…
Kinda looks like one eternal round, doesn’t it? All truth is circumscribed into one great whole. And it’s all happening right here, on Earth.
When the spirits leave their bodies, … they are prepared then to see, hear and understand spiritual things… If the Lord would permit it, and it was his will that it should be done, you could see the spirits that have departed from this world, as plainly as you now see bodies with your natural eyes (Brigham Young, DBY, 376-377).
We believe … that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and, that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory (Article of Faith 10).
Verily I say unto you, the earth abideth the law of a celestial kingdom, for it filleth the measure of its creation (Doctrine and Covenants 88:25).
Earth will receive a Celestial glory, fit to be the dwelling place of Celestial beings for eternity. Those with eyes to see will see. And those without the eyes to see will not perceive it as such, but they will dwell here too in their respective glories.
And Latter-Day Saints aren’t the only ones to have understood these things. Paul mentioned it in his letters to Corinth. John mentions it, too. Even St. Gregory of Sinai who lived at the turn of the 13th century, smack dab in the middle of the “dark ages”, said:
By ‘many dwelling-places’ (John 14:2) the Savior meant the differing stages of spiritual ascent and states of development in the other world; for although the kingdom of heaven is one, there are many different levels within it. That is to say, there is place for both heavenly and earthy men (1 Cor. 15:48) according to their virtue, their knowledge and the degree of deification that they have attained. ‘For there is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars, for one star differs from another star in glory’ (1 Cor. 15:41); and yet all of them shine in a single divine firmament.
Now, the Millennium. The Millennium appears to be some sort of transitional time prior to Earth receiving her paridisiacal glory when things are perceived to operate on Earth with the characteristics of both mortal embodied beings and resurrected embodied beings. Enoch’s city will join with the Kingdom of God on Earth. Those who die will be instantly caught into a resurrected state. Peace will reign as those who would unbind Satan will only dwell in the post-mortal unembodied sphere, apparently not in the Millennial state of the other spheres, awaiting their resurrection. Earth will rest and Christ will reign.
Then, right before Earth is perfected, Satan will be unbound, maybe because that post-mortal unembodied spiritual sphere will join the other two as the last remaining veils are removed. The final great war against the devil will commence, probably figuratively and more within us than without. This time, the power of righteousness will pervade all of existence due to millennial preparations and the light of Christ will persuade all men to assume their divinity. The family of Adam will then be free of the spirit of the Accuser forever.
Of course, I don’t know if any of this is technically and perfectly accurate. I’m not interested in declaring new dogmas. I’m only piecing together the tidbits of truth we’ve received through the ages. Our broken down and drawn out version of the Plan of Salvation is useful and informative, but incomplete. The imagery of one eternal round is beautiful and complete, but less informative. It seems the great plan cannot be contained within the scope of diagrams.
What I sense as I ponder on the nature of the heavens is the subtle idea of an “empty heaven”, because the righteous will desire to be found among the wicked, thereby creating conflated worlds of glory. And I feel the presence of those who have lived here before, with all of their various perceptions and dwellings, making the whole world a sacred space if we choose to see it as such. Earth is our home, for time and all eternity.
Going back to the Lord’s words in Section 88, when you find time to wonder in awe at all of creation, ponder on the nature of eternity and ask the Lord to guide you.
Verily I say unto you, my friends, I leave these sayings with you to ponder in your hearts, with this commandment which I give unto you, that ye shall call upon me while I am near— (Doctrine and Covenants 88:62)