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RS/MP Lesson 18: “Beyond the Veil: Life in the Eternities” (Joseph Smith Manual)

Posted by joespencer on September 12, 2008

The great majority of this lesson is drawn directly from “The Vision,” D&C 76. There is, as a result, a good deal of the lesson that is relatively familiar to the average Latter-day Saint. Hopefully, though, I’m able to offer a few reflections that will be somewhat new.

From the Life of Joseph Smith

The introduction, this time, is little more than (1) a contextualization of the vision’s historical situation and (2) a statement made by the Prophet about the vision as such. The context, of course, was work on the New Testament JST project, as the revelation itself describes: Joseph and Sidney were at work on John 5:29 when the vision burst upon them. The statement, though, deserves a bit of attention.

The statement about the Vision comes from Joseph’s history, begun in 1838, that went on to make up the first volume of the History of the Church. He is describing the Vision itself. “Nothing could be more pleasing to the Saints upon the order of the kingdom of the Lord, than the light which burst upon the world through the foregoing vision.” This is definitely in hindsight! The Vision was actually received with some indifference by most of the saints: it was perhaps a bit too violent a shift in understanding, and it received relatively little attention at first. Its “popularity,” though, grew. He goes on: “Every law, every commandment, every promise, every truth, and every point touching the destiny of man, from Genesis to Revelation, where teh purity of the scriptuers remains unsullied by the folly of men, . . . witnesses the fact that that document is a transcript from the records of the eternal world.” Though this is perhaps a bit effusive, there is something very important to recognize in it: Joseph seems to have privileged this revelation in his own thinking to some extent.

Of course, it is important to ask why: What about this particular revelation made Joseph prize it so? Though he goes on to say that “the sublimity of the ideas; the purity of the language; the scope for action; the continued duration for completion . . . ; the rewards for faithfulness and the punishments for sins” all deserve praise and recognition, there seems to have been more than just this to it. Why does Joseph seem to attribute to this particular revelation such a crucial role in his history?

To some extent, this question can only really be answered after addressing the content of the lesson itself. As such, I’ll postpone any answer until after making other comments.

God has prepared three degeres of glory for His children

This first section of teachings gathers together a few statements by the Prophet about the fact that there are three degrees of glory. They are, I think, relatively straightforward. I’ll pass over them more or less without comment here.

Those who receive the testimony of Jesus, receive the ordinances of the gospel, and overcome by faith will inherit the celestial kingdom

The first four paragraphs of this section are drawn directly from D&C 76, and the fifth paragraph is drawn from D&C 131. Only the last three paragraphs come from non-canonical sources (two of them from the King Follett Discourse, the other from another discourse). I will comment on them in order, attempting to glean from them some understanding of what the celestial kingdom really amounts to. I should state from the outset that I think it is easiest to make sense of these things by beginning with the terrestrial, then moving to the telestial, and then jumping over the celestial. But I’ll follow the order laid out in the lesson.

The first thing to note in the first paragraph is its careful referentiality. Joseph and Sidney “saw and heard” the following specifically “concerning them who shall come forth int he resurrection of the just.” This is important, since it refers back to D&C 76:17, the JST for John 5:29 (the text they were pondering). Whereas the original speaks of the “resurrection of life,” the JST given to Joseph and Sidney rather speaks of the “resurrection of the just.” Interestingly, though the Vision makes all of this a question of three glories and a fourth, somewhat shady, category, the JST of the verse remains within what appears to be a simple dichotomy: there is the resurrection of the just, and there is the resurrection of the unjust. Whatever should be made of this, it is clear that the vision of the celestial kingdom is to be tied to the one term, “the resurrection of the just.”

The remainder of the paragraph deals with baptism and the Spirit. The language hovers—as so much of it does in D&C 76—between the relatively simple talk of 1832 Mormonism and the drastically theological talk of Nauvoo Mormonism. On the one hand, everything is a question of baptism, keeping the commandments, and receiving the Holy Spirit by the laying on a hands. But on the other hand, this is a question of baptism “after the manner of his burial” (cf. D&C 128), of being “washed and cleansed” from the blood and sins of one’s generation (cf. Joseph’s many discussions of the Nauvoo endowment), of receiving the Spirit under “the hands of him who is ordained and sealed unto this power” (cf. D&C 132), and of being “sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise” (again cf. D&C 132).

This ambivalence in the language perhaps points to a kind of breaking point in Joseph’s revelations. Before this revelation, things remain relatively pedestrian and local: revelations tend to be what Martin Harris called “commandments,” individualized bits of instruction that aim at getting the practical work of the kingdom done. Emerging here and there before this but becoming something of a leitmotif with this revelation is a series of revelations and visions that lay out the doctrines of the kingdom and the complexities of the eternities. Indeed, this revelation contains the earliest talk in the D&C of the Melchizedek Priesthood, for example, as well as of the Church of the Firstborn, etc., etc., etc. There is a kind of limit that is crossed with this vision.

That crossing becomes almost fully explicit in the next paragraph: “They are they who are the church of the Firstborn. They are they into whose hands the Father has given all things—they are they who are priests and kings, who have received of his fulness and of his glory; and are priests of the Most High, after the order of Melchizedek, which was after the order of Enoch, which was after the order of the Only Begotten Son.” Every phrase in this passage points away from the earliest “restorationist” or “primitivist” era of Mormonism to the doctrinal complexities of Nauvoo.

All of this, though, provides a rather clear picture of what the celestial glory is. First, it is a question of the church of the Firstborn. Does that have reference to Christ or to Adam? Joseph’s focus at the time (in 1832) was quite heavily on Adam-ondi-Ahman, and many of the revelations surrounding the Vision discuss the importance of that event, that place, that particular figure that is Adam. Eventually, Joseph’s talk of the Church of the Firstborn would center entirely around the event of Adam-ondi-Ahman. And Joseph seems not to have had anything to say about Christ as the first born among Heavenly Father’s children for a long time, if ever. I can only imagine that this is a reference to the gathering at Adam-ondi-Ahman, the Church of Adam/the Firstborn.

The celestial kingdom, then, would seem to be inseparable from that event. This makes sense in light of what follows: they are priests and kings (and priestesses and queens), those who have received of God’s “fulness” (cf. D&C 93), and who are specifically engaged in the Melchizedek order. All of this is a question of Adam-ondi-Ahman and what happens at that council.

And then this is radicalized in the next paragraph: “as it is written, they are gods, even the sons of God.” The emphasis on the written continues in the paragraph after that as well: “These are they whose names are written in heaven,” a theme that is completely tied to Adam-ondi-Ahman (cf. D&C 85).

Written? Written where? Where is it written that “they are gods, even the sons of God”? I can’t figure out what text this would have reference to, except perhaps Psalm 82, but that doesn’t, I think, work in the end. Should the two mentions of “written” be tied together? It is written in heaven that they are gods; that is, they are gods precisely because it is written that they are? There names, as the text goes on to say, are written “in heaven.” In the book of life? That book that gathers together all books (cf. D&C 85 and 128)?

Whatever is implied in all of this, it must be recognized that the celestial kingdom is quite radical: it is not here presented as a place of simple felicity, but as a place of complex work. It is not a place of reward, but a place to do what God does, to be gods. This is radicalized a bit further with the quotation of D&C 131: the celestial kingdom is a question of marriage. I should note here that I do not read this passage as claiming that there are three degrees within the celestial kingdom, but as describing the three degrees of glory generally (taking “celestial” in its common meaning, “heavenly,” such that the passage reads: “In the heavenly glory there are three heavens or degrees, namely, the celestial, terrestrial, and telestial”). What this means is that to be celestial is always a question of being irreducibly two, of being sealed to another, to have one’s weakness (or dependence) perpetuated to eternity.

The celestial is not a rest from one’s difficulties, nor is it a place where one’s weaknesses or dependencies are at last overcome such that one becomes independent at last; rather, it is a place where all those weaknesses are affirmed eternally, where one is bound to another in radical dependence and enjoined to self-abandonment continually. As such it is a question of priest/priestesshood, and so on. The celestial, it would seem, is a place of radical or revolutionary action.

The final three paragraphs of the section emphasize the radicality of all of this: Joseph’s teachings in the KFD on becoming gods are highlighted. One must attain to that radical a station, etc. But the point is, I hope, already clear: the celestial is a kind of exceptional position, one of subjectively radical work. It is a mistake, it would seem, to understand it to be a kind of rest (in the sense of ataraxia, for example) or as a kind of eternal family home evening. Rather, it is an infinitely affirmed weakness or dependency, a joint work that stretches forever, that of doing what God does, etc. All of this will ultimately only take shape, as I suggested before, by making reference to the other degrees of glory.

The “hororable men of th eearth,” those who are not valiant int he testimony of Jesus, will inherit the terrestrial kingdom

This section is drawn entirely from D&C 76. Its description, then, is relatively familiar. I want only to highlight a couple of subtle points.

First, I find it fascinating that the terrestrial world is a question of “the honorable men of the earth.” Those who receive this glory, it would seem, could be said to be the ethical: they were no radicals, never becoming valiant in the testimony of Jesus, but they were good, honest people. These are the people who lived good lives, honest, upright lives. In some sense, the terrestrial kingdom seems to be the traditional heaven of Christianity: people who are generally good or who want to do good go there. It is only the celestial glory that is radical, that goes beyond this. And there in the terrestrial, the good people of the earth get exactly what they’re looking for: the presence of the Son.

But what is less than exciting about the way this revelation describes things is that the terrestrial kingdom seems also to be a question of those taught in the spirit world: “these are they who died without law; and also they who are the spirits of men kept in prison,” etc. In the end, I don’t know exactly how to think about this. D&C 137 says quite clearly that those who would have been celestial will be celestial, so this can’t be understood to be all-encompassing. But nonetheless, there seems to be good reason to think carefully about what work for the dead really amounts to. Again: I don’t have any answers to these questions yet; I’m just recognizing a tension in the scriptures on this point. What is to be said about it?

Those who are wicked and do not receive the gospel or the testimony of Jesus will inherit the telestial kingdom

This section is also entirely drawn from D&C 76. It is also relatively familiar: the telestial kingdom is made up of the sinners, those who were not very interested in repentance.

And yet things are a bit more complex than just that: “These are they who say they are some of one and some of another—some of Christ and some of John, and some of Moses, and some of Elias, and some of Esaias, and some of Isaiah, and some of Enoch,” etc. What is at work in this passage besides an obvious reference to 1 Corinthians?

Factionism, obviously, is a major part of the problem here: claiming fidelity to a particular figure rather than to the event behind all of Mormonism. But there is more still, I think. I wonder if there isn’t a kind of aestheticism behind the telestial glory. That is, I wonder whether there isn’t a kind of death-drive, an artistic self-invention or self-definition that cannot be disentangled from a kind of suicidal tendency, that underlies the telestial person. I’m not sure I know exactly how to explain that yet, but it is a possibility I want to raise: why else the emphasis on being for this or that person, being a part of this or that definition?

But the point seems relatively clear on the whole: the outrightly rebellious are the telestial.

I should note also that there is an important difference between the desciption of those in the telestial glory and those in the other two glories: the other two have bodies mentioned, but this one does not. I don’t know that I mean to suggest thereby that there are not telestial bodies. But I do mean to point out how this corresponds to 1 Corinthians 15:40-42 as it actually stands in the text (not in the JST, that is): there are bodies celestial and bodies terrestrial, but there is not mention of bodies telestial, just as in the Vision. What can be read into that?

The torment of the wicked is to know they have come short of teh glory they might have enjoyed

A final section sums things up by offering a bit of description of what it means to suffer torment. They are ideas that are quite familiar: disappointment is hell. But it should be noted that all the disappointment spoken of in these few gathered quotations is described as taking place in the spirit world; none of it seems to be beyond the resurrection. I don’t see that I need to say anything else in particular about these passages.

By way of conclusion…

The question that came out of the introductory material: Why does Joseph lay such heavy emphasis on this revelation? In part, this can be drawn from the previous lesson: Satan’s plan was to keep things limited to a “traditional” heaven/hell dichotomy, but Christ said that He planned to radicalize things a bit, making not only the celestial kingdom but outer darkness a real possibility. It is only with this revelation, this Vision, that Joseph has a document that shows that.

But further implications can be drawn from that point. The radicalization of things means that there is reason to begin talking of the Melchizedek Priesthood, of becoming kings and queens, priests and priestesses, of the Church of the Firstborn and Adam-ondi-Ahman, etc., etc., etc. It was time to stop making the Church into another religion to make people happy, since there was reason to speak of a radicalization: not only terrestrial (heaven in the traditional sense) but celestial.

One could say that it is this revelation that finally provides a reason for the Restoration: Christianity, even as it was in Joseph’s day—indeed, any religion in Joseph’s day—was enough to get people to the terrestrial kingdom. The Restoration, with all its excessive doctrines and revelations, is aimed at producing the celestial glory, etc. And perhaps that paves the way toward the articulation of a kind of “mere Mormonism”: if Mormonism is anything but a move in the direction of the radicalized celestial kingdom, it is completely unnecessary.

Or something along those lines, anyway.

11 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 18: “Beyond the Veil: Life in the Eternities” (Joseph Smith Manual)”

  1. robf said

    Still not sure I buy the celestial=heavenly reading of D&C 131, and will have to think harder about maintaining weaknesses in the CK. But indeed, lots to think about here beyond the flannel board or flip chart version that we normally limit ourselves to.

  2. Floyd the Wonderdog said

    The revelation shakes people out of the stupor that traditional “christianity” has placed them in. They are taught to believe that being good, honorable people is enough. When in reality, Father wants valient people.

  3. Courtney said

    Thank you so much for all of the effort put into the comments made on the lessons. Your site has caused me to look deeper into the lesson and scriptures as well as to reach further into myself as a teacher!

  4. Hailey said

    Thanks for posting this, I’m seeing this lesson clearer now. I’m a little confused on a couple things still, but I have a better footing.

  5. joespencer said

    Always my pleasure.

  6. M.T.W said

    I too want to thank you for posting this. You are AMAZING!!!

  7. Hawkgrrrl said

    Thanks for posting. I too am skeptical about the eternal weakness concept, but I like the focus on action in CK vs the terrestrial in which we are essentially “God’s pets” like in most traditional Christian views of the afterlife. I also like how you draw the communal nature of CK out vs the “solo” nature of telestial (due to rebellion). Much to think about as I prepare.

  8. Geri C said

    I check your blog every month while preparing my lesson. I will be honest and say that I really have struggled with this manual for some reason. You give amazing analytical insight into some very deep and complex concepts that I could never possibly ascertain on my own limited brain power. Thanks. My lessons are better because of your efforts and willingness to share.

  9. Corrado Misseri said

    “But it should be noted that all the disappointment spoken of in these few gathered quotations is described as taking place in the spirit world; none of it seems to be beyond the resurrection.”

    I would agree with your above statement, except, I would you explain the last paragraph of the lesson? “…Some shall rise to the everlasting burnings of God, for God dwells in everlasting burnings, and some shall rise to the damnation of their own filthiness, which is as exquisite a torment as the lake of fire and brimstone.”

    The statement by JS seems to indicate that the disappointment will continue with us after the resurrection.

  10. PeaJay said

    I think the answer to verses 98-100, where some are of one and some of another, lies in the completion of the sentence in verse 101:…”[b]ut received not the gospel, neither the testimony of Jesus, neither the prophets, neither the everlasting covenant.” That is, they say they are disciples of one or another, yet they are not truly, since they do not receive the Gospel or testimony of Jesus, etc. They are the hypocrites, those who draw near with their lips, but teach the commandments of men.

  11. rlegrand said

    “And yet things are a bit more complex than just that: “These are they who say they are some of one and some of another—some of Christ and some of John, and some of Moses, and some of Elias, and some of Esaias, and some of Isaiah, and some of Enoch,” etc. What is at work in this passage besides an obvious reference to 1 Corinthians?”

    I had a thought when reading this – (it’s 5:30AM and I’m preparing for my lesson to be taught at 1PM, TODAY – so my understanding and intelligence might be flawed – and even on my best days, I think that Joe’s understanding of the gospel surpasses my own immensely) –

    I thought of spritually and eternally unimportant labels that people identify with above anything else – Political affiliations, patriotism to your country, ethnicity, careers, looks, money, etc – some title or label or some THING that we believe defines WHO we are, but really has nothing to do with our divine natures. It doesn’t even have to be bad things – but if we are “for the environment” (not a bad thing in itself) but not for obeying God, then it’s just kinda all moot. (my brain isn’t working and I wasn’t able to phrase this how I wanted, but those are my thoughts!)

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