D&C 76 and 1 Cor 15

There’s no doubt that the three kingdoms in D&C 76 have terminology related to 1 Cor 15. However the tendency of Mormons to read 1 Cor 15 in terms of D&C 76 is unfortunate. While they’re related somewhat they’re ultimately addressing very different topics. 1 Cor 15:39-44 is about the nature of resurrected bodies. D&C 76 is about the kingdoms and who is in them. That’s somewhat tied to resurrection since one goes to a kingdom after the resurrection but we should keep the two somewhat separated.

The word “terrestrial” in 1 Cor 15 doesn’t mean the terrestrial kingdom. Rather it means earthly or mortal. So verse 40 talking about “celestial bodies and bodies terrestrial” is literally talking about resurrected heavenly bodies and earthly mortal bodies. People get confused because terrestrial or earthly is also the name D&C 76 gives to the middle kingdom.

Now contrary to some critics, this doesn’t mean the Mormon use of 1 Cor 15 is far fetched. Far from it. For one the glory or splendor of the heavenly bodies is given in verse 41. It’s true one could read 41 as just saying that just as the sun, moon and stars differ in glory so too does a resurrected body from a mortal body. However if that were the only comparison, why list all the heavenly bodies plus the differing lights of the stars? I think the better reading is that verse 41 is distinguishing the types of bodies among the heavenly bodies. That is the resurrected bodies.

An important context for 1 Cor 15 is 2 Cor 12. At the time of Paul apocalyptic literature like 1 Enoch was extremely popular. These usually involved a major figure like Enoch, Isaiah, or Abraham ascending to heaven. Each level involved a new heaven or at least new chamber. As the ascent progresses each level is accompanied by a higher degree of glory. As one ascends one becomes more and more like God. Often as one goes through each step one receives new garments. Those are typically symbolic of a new type of body.

Many scholars tie 2 Cor 12 where Paul seems to be asserting that he ascended to paradise, the third of seven heavens.[1] Many scholars see a close similarity between Paul in 2 Cor 12 with the apocalypse The Ascension of Isaiah (6-11).[2] 1 Cor 15 is frequently seen as apocalyptic in nature and derived from apocalypses like Dan 7 & 12. We use the term kingdom rather than heaven (as is typical in apocalypses) but the idea is the same. Given 1 Cor 15 is apocalypse influenced and 2 Cor 12 is as well, it is most likely that the ascent through heavens also involves bodies as well. The afore mentioned Ascension of Isaiah has Isaiah receiving new garments at each heaven during the ascent. These clearly are bodies and it also seems like his earthly body has been left on earth during the ascent.

So while it’s fair to rib Mormons a bit for misusing the term “terrestrial” in 1 Cor 15 to apply to the terrestrial kingdom and the associated resurrected body, the general thrust Mormons take from the passage seems correct. That is Mormons take there to be multiple heavens tied to the heavenly bodies of the sun, the moon, and the stars. Heavenly ascents, whether Christian, Jewish, or pagan, often tie the heavens to these heavenly bodies. They often differ in how these are used of course, but D&C 76’s use is actually pretty in keeping with the culture of Paul.

Likewise the idea that those less righteous are kept at the lower levels of these heavens is fairly common in apocalypses. So for instance in the third heaven many apocalypses not only locate paradise, where the righteous go after they die, but also a place for the torment of dead humans. What we’d call hell.[3] Now D&C 76 while it talks of hell and paradise as the intermediate location people await the resurrection doesn’t technically locate them in any of the kingdoms.[4]

Overall while there are there are a few oddities to D&C 76 it really is quite in keeping with the late antiquity context to Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. The biggest issue is using “terrestrial” to apply to one of the kingdoms and then the neologism of “telestial” to apply to the lowest kingdom. While there have been lots of theories to the naming, it seems likely “terrestrial” gets adopted from 1 Cor 15 but it’s not clear why.

There are a few theories for the origin of telestial. Kevin Barney takes it as just meaning “far” or far from God. He also notes that with a cosmology of underworld, earth, and heaven that terrestrial and celestial would make sense with the underworld having a teles term. I confess that while that makes some sense, the problem is that the telestial kingdom is a heavenly kingdom and not the underworld out of which people are taken. Steve Flemming has suggested that telestial comes from telestic in the platonism of Iamblichus as translated by Thomas Taylor. While I was initially taken with that as I’ve thought more about it I have a harder time reconciling it with what’s described in D&C 76.

Even if we can’t really explain the terminology we’ve adopted, the underlying ideas of Mormon thought do seem to line up with Paul fairly well.

[1] Joseph actually said that while Paul had ascended to the third heaven, Joseph had ascended higher. Further Joseph explicitly connected 2 Cor 12 to 1 Cor 15.

[2] See for example Gooder’s Only the Third Heaven?: 2 Corinthians 12.1-10 and Heavenly Ascent. It is a common connection to 2 Cor 12 though.

[3] This is common in many apocalypses but Apocalypse of Abraham 15:7 has men in the fires of Gehenna in the third heaven. In the Testament of Abraham he sees the salvation and punishment of souls (11:1-12:18)

[4] Outer darkness is the exception. D&C 76 basically presents hell as the waiting place as drawing out its dead as they accept Christ in varying degrees. Those who refuse to fully accept him ever basically are taken out of hell at the end of everything and put in the telestial kingdom. However there are those who remain there with the devil and are never redeemed.

13 comments for “D&C 76 and 1 Cor 15

  1. What do we do with the fact that the JST adds “telestial bodies” to Paul’s statement that there are bodies celestial and bodies terrestrial? Since Paul is talking about heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, what does the addition mean in context? Or did JS get this wrong?

  2. I don’t think the JST is typically restoring an original text but is more akin to a pesher or targum. That is it’s more riffing on the text than necessarily correcting it. So I’d say the JST basically lines up with what I said. It uses odd terminology to emphasize types of resurrected bodies, not kingdoms. It just adopts the naming of D&C 76. We don’t know when he worked on 1 Cor 15 but D&C 76 & 77 come in response to working on John. So it’s certainly translated afterwards and thus using the information in D&C 76.

    But of course someone who takes a more literalistic take of the JST might disagree. I just think Joseph recognizes that, as it is, terrestrial and celestial bodies only is two types, not three. So he adds telestial in light of D&C 76. Which even if not necessarily true to the text is certainly not incorrect in terms of the theology, as I mentioned.

    Unfortunately it still doesn’t give us much information about why Joseph used the words he did.

  3. I agree that “terrestrial” in 1 Corinthians 15 probably means “earthly” in an ordinary sense, and I have assumed that there is a relationship between this meaning of “terrestrial” and D&C 76:75 (“These are they who are honorable men of the earth, who were blinded by the craftiness of men.”), but that may not have been the original intent, and “earth” also shows up in verse 104 about the telestial kingdom.

    A number of years ago, a classics-major acquaintance of mine told me that she thought “telestial” might be related to “telos,” meaning “initiation.” One context where this makes sense is the progression toward the celestial kingdom in the temple endowment. Some other potential explanations were suggested at https://bycommonconsent.com/2010/01/27/the-etymology-of-telestial/ and its comments.

  4. It makes sense to me that “telestial” means distant, based on my understanding of what Elder Nelson said about the word telios. https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1995/10/perfection-pending?lang=eng

    When I think about the labels (cele=sky, terra=earth, tele=distant) they help describe the kind of attitudes and behaviors for inheritors of each kingdom. A celestial person would be oriented toward higher things, and lifting others up. A terrestrial person would be oriented on things immediately around them, the cares of this world. And a telestial person would orient toward things (lying, adultery, etc.) that distance themselves from God and from other people.

    The sealing ordinance and our emphasis on families implies that we won’t inherit the celestial kingdom alone. The sun is the most massive object in our solar system, and that’s worth remembering when comparing it to the celestial kingdom. The simple fact that the majority of humans who have lived on this earth died before reaching the age of accountability ought to tell us which kingdom will have the most people in it.

    One of the most obvious attributes about stars is that they’re very far away. Some stars are close to other stars, and some stars are brighter and more massive than our sun, but from the perspective of the Son (the perspective that matters) they’re as impressive as they might want you to believe.

  5. Just to clarify, in that post I argued that telestial came from Andre Dacier’s 1701 2 volume THE WORKS OF PLATO ABRIG’D. There’s tons of Mormonism in those books and I argue that THE WORKS OF PLATO ABRIG’D was a major source of Joseph Smith, second only to Jane Lead. The Iamblichus stuff was my earlier musing.

  6. Whoops. I’d somehow linked to the right article and then remembered our discussion on Iamblichus and wrote that. Thanks for correcting that. Although the two uses are basically the same. The main difference is the whether the word is a noun or not. I think I was remembering my comment in the linked post about how the upper levels for Iamblichus illuminate the lower, which is also what D&C 76 describes.

    The reason I became much more skeptical sense then is that it just doesn’t make sense to me to call the telestial kingdom that because of the purified. Especially when the examples, both in the Phaedo and Iamblichus, are about great people being purified in a platonic sense. That is if Joseph were latching onto that word, it doesn’t seem to work that well to describe those who refuse to be purified in that sense through the atonement. I suspect the root word is significant, but I am now betting it’s coming from a very different source.

    Part of me wonders if “telestic madness” which is the kind of hedonism that arises from Dionysian inspiration might be a more likely source. Now of course that’s tied to the Platonic sense of divine madness as purification and prophecy. However it does pop up in a more negative context. It still has problems. However if the telestial kingdom is those overcome by inspiration not of God, then that might fit. Now again this is a related sense but one that could more easily come up in a book in a very negative context – something neither Iamblichus nor Plato give the term.

    The problem is that, as Quinn pointed out long ago, you do find the list “celestial, terrestrial, infernal” rather regularly. It’s rather common, particularly in the 17th century. So why use this “telestial” rather than “infernal” — it’s a bit of a mystery.

    kamschron, yes in platonic and late pagan uses tesletic is a kind of ritual tied to prophesy and often music. Those practicing this are telestae.

  7. How then does Purgatory align, if at all, with LDS cosmology? I admit my main understanding of Constantinian Christian cosmology comes from Dante Aligheri’s literary trio.

    I thought it interesting that my English professor specifically brought attention to Virgil’s place in Inferno, a city of peace for the honorable non-Christian dead, where, while not tortured, such souls weren’t in Paradise either, nor was this a place of purging toward eventual paradise.

    Virgil’s home of honorable souls was permanent, not transitional nor preperatory. I can’t help but think such a place wasn’t entirely an invention of Dante, but an alternative concept aligned with the terrestial order/kingdom, a place for honorable souls in a cosmology centered on free will.

    Telestial seems a bit up-for-grabs, though LDS cosmology does not seem to have an Inferno that would seem to align with telestial as a place of eternal consequence for hedonistic souls.

    In all of this, I remember that eternal doesn’t mean never-ending. It means determined by God, as per D&C 19.

  8. There’s really no purgatory as such in Mormon thought. What we have is actually not that different from traditional protestantism. At death those who haven’t accepted Christ go to hades (what we call spirit prison) and those who have accepted Christ go to paradise. There’s then a later judgment and resurrection. The big debate in Protestantism was whether the soul slept during this time, was destroyed and then recreated, or if the soul lived in a halfway state. Most Protestants adopted the latter. D&C 19, as mentioned, adopts a theology somewhat similar to Gregory of Nyssa’s where punishment isn’t retributive but really is transformative. As soon as those accept Christ fully and willingly, they come forth in the first resurrection and celestial glory. Those who won’t accept Christ on those terms go to terrestrial glory. Those who refuse to ever accept Christ until the very end of creation have Christ fully revealed by God and they bow and accept him, even though it’s basically at the point where it’d be completely irrational not to accept him. Those who still don’t accept him stay there in hades/hell with Satan. That’s outer darkness.

    So there’s no Catholic purgatory as such, although the Mormon conception of hades/sheol ends up having some similarities.

    Dante’s Divine Comedy ends up using a lot of the heavenly ascent literature’s imagery. So the upper level of hell where Virgil ends up ends up being pretty similar to those who will be raised to terrestrial glory. The difference is that for Mormons since this is all transformative they still get a glory surpassing anything in this world. For Dante, punishment is ultimately retributive and his hell is for after judgment and not before.

    Mormonism doesn’t really have an infernal region where there’s retributive punishment. I have a half finished post on all that from before I got sick back in February. I’ll try to finish it up as the differing conceptions of punishment are really quite interesting. I’d add that if there’s not retributive punishment but rather a Gregory like transformative punishment then a lot of the Mormon arguments for Open Theism fall apart (IMO).

    With regards to D&C 19 I think the main point is that endless and eternal shouldn’t be taken as temporal, as you note. I’m not sure it means determined by God, although that’s certainly a valid reading. Rather I think they’re talking about the nature of the suffering as transformative. I think the transformative aspect is part of D&C 19 since it suggests that even Christ had to do it, and that Christ’s sufferings enable our transfiguration through him. That is it’s all about transfiguration and not penal punishment. This is important since many somewhat understandably read the Book of Mormon as pushing a penal theory of atonement. Yet D&C 19 occurs during the work on the Book of Mormon – likely around the time of translating 3 Nephi but before 1 Nephi – Omni are done. That’s significant if what is revealed in D&C 19 shapes the Book of Mormon translation.

  9. Thanks for this post. I recall working through 1 Cor 15 a few years ago and being surprised how differently Paul and Joseph Smith were using the terms terrestrial and celestial.

    “That is Mormons take there to be multiple heavens tied to the heavenly bodies of the sun, the moon, and the stars.” In what sense do you see the degrees of glory tied to Paul’s celestial bodies? Is it just the symbolism of a graded sequence, or something more?

  10. I don’t think Mormons take the multiple heavens as tied to heavenly bodies except in a metaphoric sense. Some hermetic and platonic texts and perhaps some gnostic or apocalyptic texts take it more literally. But I have a very hard time accepting that especially since it’s dependent upon the old classic geocentric conception of the universe or its variants.

  11. The description in Corinthians as has been disected by many a scholar is quite clearly correct. LDS interpretation confuses things. Telestial should be interpreted as initiatory or “beginning”. Celestial is thus heavenly or “finished”. Thus its not hard to put together our progression from telestial to celestial beings.

  12. Telos = Gr. “end, or goal”. Taking all non-exalted spirits out of their time of probation to their final, end state sounds a lot like finishing a goal or an end. He’s finishing up this round of The Plan by clearing out the Spirit World and getting them all appropriate physical tabernacles and being done with the Earth as a testing ground.

Comments are closed.