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One must ask, "How did Mormonism come up with the belief that there are three heavens instead of just one heaven, as taught in Christianity?" We find the answer in Joseph Smith's 1832 revelation that Mormons today call "the Vision of the Glories" or simply "the Vision." The rather perplexing details of the Vision are presently recorded in section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants. The Vision was one of several revelations by Smith that emphasized the doctrine of heavenly exaltation and out of which the totally new Mormon understanding of eternal salvation emerged.
The Vision-supposedly unveiling a vision of the three heavenly kingdoms and eternal hell-occurred suddenly when Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon were actively revising the Bible and contemplating the meaning of John 5:28-29, "Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment."
Joseph Smith describes the situational context behind the Vision in the preface of Doctrine and Covenants 76:
Upon my return from Amherst conference, I resumed the translation of the Scriptures. From sundry revelations which had been received, it was apparent that many important points touching the salvation of man had been taken from the Bible, or lost before it was compiled. It appeared selfevident from what truths were left, that if God rewarded every one according to the deeds done in the body, the term "Heaven," as intended for the Saints' eternal home, must include more kingdoms than one. Accordingly, while translating St. John's Gospel, myself and Elder Rigdon saw the following vision.
Complicating things even further, Latter-day Saints also claim that there are numerous internal hierarchical dwelling places within each of Smith's three heavens. Dr. Stephen Robinson describes each of these three heavens as being very internally expansive and broad, and attempts to support his position by quoting Jesus' statement found in John 14:2, "In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?" As a result of this odd interpretation, Mormons teach that inside each of the three heavenly kingdoms are many degrees of glory to which every person will be permanently assigned following God's final judgment based on his or her behavior in mortality. Dr. Stephen Robinson writes:
After the resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked all human beings will be consigned to their final and permanent fate. From that verdict there will be no appeal or hope of release.
Latter-day Saints believe that each person's eternal destiny will match what he or she has merited through good or bad works; the person will be rewarded or condemned according to what God determines he or she deserves.
Smith's Revision and Reinterpretation of 1 Corinthians 15:35-49
In order to support his three-heaven theory in the afterlife, Joseph Smith revised and reinterpreted 1 Corinthians 15:40. In the Bible this verse reads:
There are heavenly [celestial] bodies and earthly [terrestrial] bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one kind, and the glory of the earthly is of another.
But this is how it reads in the Joseph Smith Translation:
Also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial, and bodies telestial; but the glory of the celestial, one; and the terrestrial, another; and the telestial, another.
As can be plainly seen, Joseph Smith rewrote the Bible. A basic reading of the biblical context of 1 Corinthians 15:35-49 shows that the apostle Paul is contrasting earthly and heavenly bodies in this Bible passage and not eternal distinct heavenly kingdoms as taught by Mormonism today.
The Lower Celestial Kingdom
As stated earlier, the LDS Church teaches that the Celestial kingdom has higher and lower levels. The highest level of the Celestial kingdom is the fullness of heaven, but those who inhabit the lower Celestial level will experience only a partial or lesser salvation. This is important to understand because Mormon writings often simply speak about the Celestial kingdom without distinguishing between the higher and lower levels existing within it, which can lead to significant confusion.
The eternal residents of the lower Celestial level will consist of single Mormons who lived a worthy life of obedience, yet are disqualified from the highest Celestial heaven because they were never married in the temple. Along with worthy single Mormons, good people-including Christians-who did not have an appropriate opportunity to hear and accept Mormonism on earth but would have received it if they had a chance, and accept the Mormon gospel in spirit-prison, will also dwell in the lower Celestial level.
But these residents in the lower Celestial kingdom will be eternally separated from the immediate presence of God the Father and dwell separated from their families forever. They will be "damned," meaning that their progress toward godhood will end, and they will never experience increase by birthing spirit-children. They will also be disqualified from becoming gods, instead having to settle for becoming angelic servants to the exalted Mormons dwelling in the highest Celestial heaven.
The Terrestrial Kingdom
Everyone assigned to the Terrestrial heaven will experience even a lesser degree and condition of glory than those in the lower Celestial level, as detailed in Joseph Smith's vision description recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 76:71-80, 91, 97.
The eternal residents of the Terrestrial heavenly kingdom will consist of unworthy or unfaithful Mormons. Although these Mormons accepted the LDS plan of salvation in their mortal lives, they were not sufficiently "valiant" in obeying all the principles and ordinances of the LDS gospel. These Latter-day Saints were inactive, lukewarm, and nominal; they are often called Jack Mormons. Along with unworthy Mormons, the Terrestrial degree of glory will also be inhabited by good and honorable men and women who understood and intentionally rejected the so-called restored Mormon gospel on earth, but eventually accept it in spirit-prison after they die.
These eternal residents in the Terrestrial kingdom will suffer forever and be filled with regret and misery, knowing that they could have earned a greater reward in glory. They will be tormented by the knowledge that they fell short of the requirements for Mormon exalted salvation, but in the end were just not good enough. They will be eternally plagued with the consciousness that they just never measured up.
They will also be eternally separated from the direct presence of Father God, although Jesus will make periodic appearances. And they will live forever, separated from their family members, and have no opportunity to progress into godhood and birth spirit-children.
The Telestial Kingdom
As described by Joseph Smith in Doctrine and Covenants 76:81- 90, 98-112, the Telestial kingdom is located at the bottom rung of the spiritual ladder of glory in Mormonism's three heavenly kingdoms, and is compared merely to the brightness of the moon. Mormonism emphasizes that the great majority of those who inhabited and suffered in spirit-prison will eventually enter the Telestial kingdom.
The eternal residents of the Telestial kingdom will consist of extremely wicked people-adulterers, liars, thieves-who rejected the restored Mormon gospel in spirit-prison. They experience suffering and pain in paying for their sins. Those dwelling in the Telestial kingdom will be eternally separated from the presence of God the Father and Jesus, but will experience the presence of the Holy Spirit and angels.