Three Heavens in Joseph’s Environment

We all know that revelation frequently requires study. Many of the key doctrines of the restoration came from revelations given to Joseph as he was going through and modifying the Bible by way of command. Some of these were treated as modifications of the Biblical texts (such as in our Book of Moses) while others were treated as independent visions or revelations (such as D&C 76). The key part though was studying. (See D&C 9:7-8) We even know that during the work on the New Testament that Joseph began consulting a copy of Clarke’s Bible Commentary and using some of its suggestions. (Probably more interesting than where he followed Clarke are the places where he differs greatly from him) While we know that the command to work on a Bible “translation” was the catalyst for many aspects of these revelations, there were other influences as well.

Steve Fleming, over at Juvenile Instructor, has done some amazingly interesting work over the past few years on some of these influences. One source of influence he’s focused on are the translations of various Platonic works by Thomas Taylor. Steve has found many places of parallel. Some texts, like D&C 93 or 88, have a rhetoric that is extremely platonic. Steve’s even suggested some terminology may have arisen from Taylor’s translations. He’s suggested, for instance, that the mysterious term “telestial” may have come from “telestic” in certain Platonic translations. (Especially those of Iamblichus)[1]

I was browsing old texts for something unrelated to these topics and accidentally came upon another Thomas Taylor text that seemed very relevant to D&C 76 and the JST of 1 Cor 15. The text is Works Not Thitherto Published.The interesting part is the discussion of the third heaven. Now much of this is standard classic neoplatonism. However it has bearing on the shape of D&C 76, which is a significant revision to the doctrine of the afterlife taught in the Book of Mormon. (I’ve modernized spelling in the below and italicized important parts)

What is meant by Heaven and Earth?

Not only those two vast bodies which we see above and below us, but by a metonym of the subject, all their plenitude, fulness, and furniture.


The visible heavens are two.

1. the air with all her regions, reaching up to the Moon. […]

2.The vast expanse region, in which are the stars and planets of this heaven. […]

What are the invisible Heavens, which we see not?

That is the place whither Christ ascended far above all aspectable Heavens, Eph 4:10. This is called the third Heaven, the seat of the blessed Saints, of the Elect Angels, and happy souls which are dead in the Lord, called also Abraham’s bosom, Luke 16.[…]


That the third Heaven, in which God is said to dwell and reveal his glory immediately to the Saints, is the creature of God, and made in the beginning.


1. We have a ground of comfort that God made the third Heaven for our rest and habitation, wherein to enjoy fully the blessed and glorious presence of God. John 14:1-2. Let not your hearts be troubled, in my Father’s house are many mansions. 2 Cor 5:1 When this house of our earthly tabernacle shall be dissolved we have a building given us of God.


Again to be clear, I have no problem with this as an influence. I think as we study we have information the Holy Ghost can work with, telling us what’s true and telling us where to inquire further. Later on Joseph moves beyond a “three heaven” model into recognizing the 1st century view of multiple heavens. (Usually seven, with Eden as a terrestrial kingdom in our parlance as the third heaven) I do think though that the above forms and important context for our D&C 76 especially with how it expands beyond the presentation in Alma 42.

1. I should note that while I was initially sympathetic to the telestic as the source for telestial I’ve come to be more skeptical.

9 comments for “Three Heavens in Joseph’s Environment

  1. In my ignorance I am uncertain the information you are communicating through this post. You did motivate me to read the D and C tonight, though, so thank you.

  2. The main idea is that D&C 76 was a big change in theology over what was found in the Book of Mormon. We know it was in part prompted by his translation work on John 5 for the JST. However what’s mysterious is where this idea of three heavens came from and where did the term “telestial” come from? People have speculated a lot about the latter but there’s no clear answer. For the former though there appears a good answer. The other part, I should note, is 2 Cor 12 where Paul is caught up to the third heaven. However contextually that’s usually seen as the third of seven heavens and isn’t saying there’s only three heavens. Joseph later on recognizes this and claims he (Joseph) had been to higher heavens.

  3. In time we will come to find the Book of Mormon regarding heaven and hell is spot on. In that process our view of section 76 will be greatly modified to come in line with the Book of Mormon.

  4. The main difference between the Book of Mormon and D&C 76 relates to the notion of hell or what we consider spirit prison prior to judgment. In the Book of Mormon most of those in spirit prison are put back there after judgment. In D&C 76 only the sons of perdition are with most of the wicked going to telestial glory. Critics tend to see this as a change from anti-universalism to universalism. I don’t buy that but there definitely is a difference.

    In D&C 76 almost everyone experiences salvation in some degree. Hell as spirit prison is transformative in that sense. Further the Book of Mormon other than a few hints really doesn’t have a theology of work for the dead nor progression after death. So while it shares with D&C 76 (and most Protestants) the idea of a kind of preparatory judgment prior to final judgment, that preparatory judgment gets mirrored in the final judgment. For Alma 41-2 repentance is primarily something that only the living do. So judgment is just about works “in this life” (41:3) Likewise Alma 34:33-34 emphasizes that spirits can’t repent. It’s something done by the living. The big progression in D&C 76 over the Book of Mormon is the idea that the dead can accept Jesus. (D&C 76:74) While this is before the revelations of work for the dead, the basic idea is there. Prior to D&C 76, D&C 19 takes a view of hell as transformative. While eternal the eternity is not infinite in duration but in kind.

    Of course what D&C 76 does is bifurcate the notion of salvation. Only the highest level of celestial glory is what the Book of Mormon tends to call salvation. What D&C 76 calls salvation is just getting out of hell (spirit prison). Even in D&C 76 it’s not universal since some will continue to refuse to accept Christ up until the end.

    The main response by Mormons towards the view that the Book of Mormon is anti-universalist while D&C 76 is mostly universalist is this emphasis on transformation and its pain. That is God doesn’t just ignore sin. One must repent through the atonement and there is punishment by being in spirit prison until one does repent.

  5. Is our understanding of the B of M only to be through what was feasibly available to Joseph Smith in terms of theological concepts?

    Is it too illogical or inappropriate for the Book of Mormon to contain pre-Advent Christian doctrine that was not necessarily complete, considering continuing revelation?

    Must we continue to view LDS theology through the lens of the Constantinian tradition, as opposed to LDS theology being a restoration of doctrine largely unknown to the Constantinian tradition because such doctrine had been forgotten or rejected?

    I realize the scholarly expectations made necessary by direct engagement external to the LDS “world.”

    I just feel the Constantinian tradition to be, well, obsolete, assuming it maintained any relevant connection to that doctrine taught by Jesus during his earthly ministry.

    I may need further illumination as to the continued relevance of understanding the Constantinian tradition.

  6. Jerry, no, but historians are interested in what may be catalysts. I find it quite interesting myself. What’s unique is that Joseph emphasized three levels which is different from how historically they were usually described. Further later on, as I noted, he also moved away from three levels. Today theologically we typically think that while the three degrees gets at basic divides in practice we tend to assume there’s more variance in glory, based upon the many ways people can be. (And it’s that recognition in John 5 that initially prompted the vision)

    I’d also say that historically it seems like there were many catalysts for Joseph. The U&T could presumably have revealed the Book of Mormon text with no need for the plates. For that matter God could have just dictated theology in toto originally rather than bothering with Mormon’s text and without revealing a little and a time over the years as Joseph built up the Church. Yet it didn’t and it seems like revelations are usually prompted by either study or events. So the Word of Wisdom comes after Emma got frustrated by people spitting chewing tobacco, for instance. Catalysts seem an important part of engaging revelation. Would Joseph have received D&C 76 if he weren’t going through the New Testament carefully and pondering John 5? Probably not.

    All of this is ultimately just my being fascinating by the notion of the spirit world both in ancient texts and the evolution of the ideas in Mormonism. So I recently wrote a post comparing 1 Cor 15 with D&C 76 and seeing the relationship.

  7. Clark, I find it of interest though that a careful reading of the Book of Mormon leaves one to wonder if they had a greater knowledge of the afterlife and a near universalist approach. When I read this passage I can’t help but wonder that they knew more about salvation than is generally portrayed-

    25 And I would that all men might be saved. But we read that in the great and last day there are some who shall be cast out, yea, who shall be cast off from the presence of the Lord;
    26 Yea, who shall be consigned to a state of endless misery, fulfilling the words which say: They that have done good shall have everlasting life; and they that have done evil shall have everlasting damnation. And thus it is. Amen. (Helaman 12:25-26)

    Section 76 actually coincides perfectly with the above. Compare-

    37 And the only ones on whom the second death shall have any power;
    38 Yea, verily, the only ones who shall not be redeemed in the due time of the Lord, after the sufferings of his wrath.
    39 For all the rest shall be brought forth by the resurrection of the dead, through the triumph and the glory of the Lamb, who was slain, who was in the bosom of the Father before the worlds were made…42 That through him all might be saved whom the Father had put into his power and made by him;

    43 Who glorifies the Father, and saves all the works of his hands, except those sons of perdition who deny the Son after the Father has revealed him.
    44 Wherefore, he saves all except them—they shall go away into everlasting punishment, which is endless punishment, which is eternal punishment, to reign with the devil and his angels in eternity, where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched, which is their torment.

  8. Super interesting, Clark, and great find from that Taylor book. Just let me point out that’s a different Thomas Taylor as that book was printed in 1653 by a minister. The Platonist Taylor lived c. 1800 and Taylor saw himself as a Platonist instead of a Christian. But your find demonstrates that discussions of three heavens were around (of course Paul mentions such things).

    Also let me clarify a couple of things. The link to telestic used in describing heavens comes from Andre Dacier’s 1701 translation of the PHAEDO in his THE WORKS OF PLATO ABRIDG’D, not Taylor’s translation. I argue that Smith used both translations but relied more heavily on Dacier.

    So there were a number of references to three heavens in Smith’s environment, but I argue that 76 drew most heavily on Jane Lead and that Lead and Plato were Smith’s most important sources.

  9. Doh. I didn’t look that closely at that. Thanks for catching that.

    Yeah, I remembered your Lead claims. I’d just encountered this purely by chance.

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