55 minutes ago
“Building on Paul, “The Vision” made the three resurrected glories of sun, moon, and stars into three heavenly realms…[Joseph Smith was not alone in believing thinking that] the sharp division of the afterlife into heaven and hell underestimated God’s desire to bless his children…Joseph later taught that there were three “heavens or degrees” within the celestial kingdom, further dividing the economy of God.
“The most radical departure of “The Vision” was not the tripartite heaven but the contraction of hell. In Joseph[‘s] economy of God, the sinners ordinarily sent to hell forever remained there only until “Christ shall have subdued all enemies under his feet”. Then they are redeemed from the devil in the last resurrection to find a place in the telestial kingdom. Only those rare souls who know God’s power and reject it suffer everlasting punishment. God redeems all save these sons of perdition, “the only ones on whom the second death shall have any power”.
“The doctrine recast life after death. The traditional division of heaven and hell made religious life arbitrary. One received grace or one went to hell. In Joseph’s afterlife, the issue was degrees of glory. A permanent hell threatened very few. The question was not escape from hell but closeness to God. God scaled the rewards to each person’s capacity. Even the telestial glory, the lowest of the three, “surpasses all understanding”.
“A later revelation further softened divine judgment. In December 1832 the elders were told that glory was granted according to the law each person could “abide”, whether celestial, terrestrial, or telestial. One’s glory, it was implied, was tailored to one’s capacity. “He who is not able to abide the law of a celestial kingdom, cannot abide a celestial glory.” The glory one received was the glory on found tolerable. “For what doth it profit a man,” the section concluded, “if a gift is bestowed upon him, and he receive not the gift? Behold he rejoices not in that which is given him.” One’s place in heaven reflected more one’s preference than a judgment. “Intelligence cleaveth unto intelligence; wisdom receiveth wisdom; truth embraceth truth”. The last judgment matched affinities.
“The three degrees doctrine resembled the Universalists’ belief that Christ’s atonement was sufficient to redeem everyone, or, alternately, that a benevolent God would not eternally punish his own children. No sinners were beyond salvation. The Universalists derived their name from the doctrine that salvation was as universal as Christ’s atoning sacrifice was powerful. Though sinners might be punished for a time as a form of discipline, Christ would ultimately save everyone. Joseph’s grandfather Asael Smith was among many small farmers and workers attracted to Universalist doctrine. In a sense, “The Vision” perpetuated Smith family doctrine.
“Strange to say, the Book of Mormon argued against universal salvation. A teacher of universalist doctrine, Nehor, was labeled a heretic in the Book of Mormon, and his followers, a band of rebellious priests called the Order of Nehor, disrupted Nephite society. Alma, a preeminent prophet, refuted universal salvation in a discourse to his son Corianton, and another prophet, Lehi, delivered an elaborate philosophical discourse to show that the law must impose punishment on transgressors or good and evil had no meaning. In opposition to universal salvation, the Book of Mormon envisioned the afterlife as heaven or hell.
“In a perplexing reversal, a revelation received in the very month the Book of Mormon was published contradicted the book’s firm stand. The revelation said that the phrase “endless torment” did not mean no end to torment, but that “Endless” was a name of God, and “endless punishment” meant God’s punishment. Torment for sins would be temporary, just as the Universalists taught. In this tug-of-war between the Book of Mormon and the revelations, “The Vision” reinforced the Universalist tendency against the Book of Mormon’s anti-universalism.
“Where was Joseph Smith coming down on the question of universal salvation? Contradictory as they sound, the Universalist tendencies of the revelations and the anti-universalism of the Book of Mormon defined a middle ground where there were graded rewards in the afterlife, but few were damned. “The Vision” did not actually endorse universal salvation any more than the Book of Mormon did. It imposed permanent penalties for sinning, rewarded righteousness with higher degrees of glory, and assigned the sons of perdition to permanent outer darkness. But “The Vision” also eliminated the injustices of heaven-and-hell theology. The three degrees of glory doctrine lay somewhere between the two extremes.”
Dear President Smith:
Thanks for your letter of April 15, 1955. I am happy that you read my letter, which you refer to, as it expresses accurately my point of view. Considering the difference in training of the members of the Church, I never cease to marvel at the degree of agreement found among believing Latter-Day-Saints. So far from being disturbed to find that Brother Talmage, Brother Widtsoe and yourself didn't always see scientific matters alike, this situation seems natural and as it should be. It will be a sad day for the Church and its members when the degree of disagreement you brethren expressed is not allowed.
I am convinced that if the Lord required that His children understand His works before they could be saved that no one would be saved. It seems to me that to struggle for agreement on scientific matters in view of the disparity in background which the members of the Church have is to put emphasis in the wrong place. In my judgment there is room in the Church for people who think that the periods of creation were (a) 24 hours, (b) 1000 years, or (c) millions of years. I think it is fine to discuss these questions and for each individual to try to convert the other to what he thinks is right, but in matters where apparently equally reliable authorities disagree, I prefer to make haste slowly.
Since we agree on so many things, I trust we can amicably disagree on a few. I have never liked, for example, the idea that many of the horizontally lying layers with their fossils are wreckage from earlier worlds. In any case, the Lord created the world and my faith does not hinge on the detailed procedures. Thanks again for your kindly, thoughtful letter.
Sincerely your brother,