An Apologetic for Heaven and Hell

Adam Greenwood argues in his post “An Apologetic for the Three Degrees of Glory“, that the Mormon system of three degrees of glory is more fitting than the traditional “binary” system of one Heaven and one Hell, because “God’s creation of multiple human creatures, endowed with multiple gifts and passions, in a world itself created in many facets, makes for decisions and relations much more complex than [C.S.] Lewis’ simple relation of the soul to God and the single decision yes or no.”

Adam is talking about the LDS (Mormon) doctrine of the Three Kingdoms or Degrees of Glory in the afterlife. In a nutshell, after this life you can go to “outer darkness” if you’re really, thoroughly bad and deliberately, explicitly and thorougly reject God. But most people aren’t like that and go to one of the three Kingdoms of heaven, the Terrestrial, the Telestial or the Celestial Kingdom; the Celestial, of course, being the highest and the one in which its inhabitants dwell in the very presence of God. (No doubt I’ve butchered the description somewhat, if so I apologize.)

Here is my apologetic for just one Heaven:

To be saved requires that you (1) repent, (2) believe and (3) be baptized.

Each of these is binary — a one or a zero: You repent or you don’t; you believe or you don’t; and you’re baptized or you’re not. Each is required: each must be a “one” and not a “zero”. Hence, salvation itself is binary: you’re saved or you’re not — all three boxes are checked, or they’re not.

What does it mean to repent? You’re not only sorry for past sins, but you resolve to sin no more. This resolution covers venial as well as mortal sins: you don’t resolve merely to avoid the “major” sins, but sin itself. Another way of saying this, is that you resolve to submit your will to God’s: “Be ye perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect”. Mt. 5:48.

Translating this into Adam’s “yes or no” language, repenting or submitting your will to God’s (as also believing and being baptized) is a “yes” to God and to Heaven. Is it true that due to life’s complexities, there are also “no’s” mixed in with these “yeses”?

I would say that it’s true in a sense, and false in a sense. As stated, your repentance must be unconditional. You’re not merely repenting of “really bad” sins, while allowing for the continuance of “not so bad” sins. You’re repenting of sin itself, of placing your will above God’s.

Yet Christians still sin. I don’t deny this, but neither do I contend that venial sins negate one’s repentance. I may speak harsh words to my wife in a moment of anger, or lust after a passing woman, or say something untrue in order to spare someone’s feelings, yet remain in the “state of repentance”. I might die having committed such sins and still go to Heaven. Thus, our doctrine allows for life’s complexities, for a mixture of yeses and no’s.

But some sins do negate our repentance, and these are what we call mortal sins: Sins which involve grave matter, which are done with awareness of their sinful character, and with the full consent of the will. Thus for example deliberate murder or adultery. In this case we’re not talking about things done inadvertently or in the midst of an emotional fit, or involving trivial matters such as taking a pencil home from work; but gravely sinful acts done deliberately and in your right mind, like planning to meet someone and take them to get an abortion.

Such things do result in the negation of your repentance, because they are a deliberate placing of your own will above God’s. They convert the “one” of your repentance into a “zero”. Accordingly, your salvation also changes from a one to a zero, i.e. you forfeit Heaven through your own deliberate act.

Again, I contend that this system of doctrine does allow for differences or degrees of glory: Some may be saved who habitually give in to fits of anger, while others strenuously resist such emotions. Some may tell white lies for the sake of preserving feelings or keeping the peace, whereas others are scrupulously truthful in all things, while yet maintaining a spirit of charity. In short, some are holier than others, and will experience a greater glory. They will know God more fully because they have a greater capacity to know him. Everyone’s glass will be full, but some will have larger glasses than others.

There will in fact be not three degrees of glory, but an infinite number. And those who are most holy (with the biggest glasses) will have chosen God not merely as the only alternative to hell, but as more important than bodily pleasures, or indeed safety; more important than prestige and honors; more important than pleasing others to avoid disturbance: more important, in short, than any other consideration they may encounter in the course of their earthly lives.

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4 thoughts on “An Apologetic for Heaven and Hell

  1. So, if you miss any one of the three you are damned, right? What of those who believe but are not baptized. What of those who don’t commit any mortal sins, and yet don’t believe?

    The three degrees of glory teach us that the Celestial Kingdom is Heaven and is for those who complete all three. The terrestrial is for those who believe but either do not repent or are not baptized. The Telestial is for those who neither repent nor are baptized.

    Don’t think of the degrees of glory as degrees of heaven. They are degrees between heaven (the best) and hell (the worst).

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  2. Shematwater:

    Thanks for your comment.

    “Don’t think of the degrees of glory as degrees of heaven. They are degrees between heaven (the best) and hell (the worst).”

    Well, I suppose that’s the crux of the difference between us: With us, you are either alive or dead. Among those that are alive, there are an infinite number of degrees of life. But there is no halfway between life and death.

    An illustration is Jesus’ saying that “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.” Jn. 15:5-6.

    If you are attached to the vine ever so tenuously, by God’s mercy you live. But you’re either attached or you’re not. You can’t be attached to the vine while withholding faith; you can’t be attached to the vine without repenting; and you can’t be attached to the vine while refusing baptism.

    I will qualify this by saying that God can save people in any way he chooses, therefore we can’t say whether any particular person or group is damned. But these are the ways that he has revealed to us by which we are to be saved, and he has revealed no other.

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  3. I understand your position, I was just trying to clarify ours.

    Of course, to fully understand the doctrine of the degrees of glory one must understand the doctrine of the Godhead. People think that only those in the Celestial Kingdom will see God, but that is not true. They are the only ones to see the Father, but the Son will visit and minister to the Terrestrial Kingdom, and the Holy Ghost to the Telestial. So everyone who is not cast out into outer darkness will be in the presence of God, and thus will have a measure of life.

    In truth the two doctrines are incredibly similar when fully understood.

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