There’s a joke that Mormons are the only people in the world who can communicate a profound spiritual sermon by drawing three circles in a row. This traditional paradigm for teaching the gospel—with its circles for the premortal world, Earth life, the spirit world, and the three degrees of glory—has served very well as a visual aid of the plan of salvation.
Here, I propose a new way of visualizing these things. Instead of the narrative flowchart model, I’m going to describe a great, eternal chiasm. Yes, chiasmus as in the ancient Book of Mormon writing style where a series of ideas or phrases are given and then repeated in reverse order, to contrast parallel variations in the elements of the story and to highlight the central turning point.
Chiasms are typically shown as the left side of a letter X, looking like an arrow pointing to East on a map. This one will be depicted as a letter V, because I want us to see the turning point as the end of a long descent and the beginning of an ascent. You’ll see why shortly.
This new paradigm was inspired by the temple. I won’t make any overt references to the basic floor plan of the average temple or to the content of the endowment, but the reader who is familiar with those things is encouraged to consider how they suggested the ideas presented below.
The elements of this story can be understood as following the ideal progress of each individual person or of “the whole human family of Adam” (Mormon 3:20).
A and A’: The Celestial Kingdom
Our journey, as far as we understand it, both begins and ends in the Celestial Kingdom. This is where, from our point of view, our “descent” begins and our “ascent” ends.
That we lived in the Celestial Kingdom before the advent of Earth is amply attested to in scripture; consider Abraham 3:22-26:
Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones;
And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.
And there stood one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell;
And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them;
And they who keep their first estate shall be added upon; and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever.
And where do the victorious faithful go to receive glory after this second estate? The other side of this coin is described in Doctrine and Covenants 76:62, 66, 69-70:
These shall dwell in the presence of God and his Christ forever and ever.
These are they who are come unto Mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly place, the holiest of all.
These are they who are just men made perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, who wrought out this perfect atonement through the shedding of his own blood.
These are they whose bodies are celestial, whose glory is that of the sun, even the glory of God, the highest of all, whose glory the sun of the firmament is written of as being typical.
Notice the emphasis on the Celestial Kingdom being the abode of God the Father. This is His natural environment, and anything else that wants to be in that place must also be in that condition.
And thus we saw the glory of the celestial, which excels in all things—where God, even the Father, reigns upon his throne forever and ever (D&C 76:92)
As Joseph Smith taught:
God Almighty Himself dwells in eternal fire; flesh and blood cannot go there, for all corruption is devoured by the fire. “Our God is a consuming fire” [Hebrews 12:29] … Some dwell in higher glory than others. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 367)
B and B’: Jesus Christ as Creation Agent and Judgment Advocate
After our initial existence in the Celestial Kingdom, this Earth was created in accordance with our Father’s plan for us. It’s significant that the key agent of action here, the laborer on behalf of humanity, was Jesus Christ:
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:3)
Hearken, O ye people of my church, to whom the kingdom has been given; hearken ye and give ear to him who laid the foundation of the earth, who made the heavens and all the hosts thereof, and by whom all things were made which live, and move, and have a being. (D&C 45:1)
Why is this so significant? Because at the parallel point in our story—just before we return to the Celestial Kingdom—Jesus Christ again is the key agent of action, laboring on behalf of humanity. That time, he’ll be acting as our advocate with the Father during the Judgment:
Listen to him who is the advocate with the Father, who is pleading your cause before him—
Saying: Father, behold the sufferings and death of him who did no sin, in whom thou wast well pleased; behold the blood of thy Son which was shed, the blood of him whom thou gavest that thyself might be glorified;
Wherefore, Father, spare these my brethren that believe on my name, that they may come unto me and have everlasting life. (D&C 45:3-5)
And the judgment is an opportunity we’ll have thanks only to another gift from Jesus Christ, the great atoning sacrifice:
And because of the redemption of man, which came by Jesus Christ, they are brought back into the presence of the Lord; yea, this is wherein all men are redeemed, because the death of Christ bringeth to pass the resurrection, which bringeth to pass a redemption from an endless sleep, from which sleep all men shall be awakened by the power of God when the trump shall sound; and they shall come forth, both small and great, and all shall stand before his bar, being redeemed and loosed from this eternal band of death, which death is a temporal death. (Mormon 9:13)
C and C’: The Terrestrial Kingdom
Humanity’s first stage of Earth existence was in the Garden of Eden, which we know was a “paradise” with no death:
For the Lord shall comfort Zion: he will comfort all her waste places; and he will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody. (Isaiah 51:3)
For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.
For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15:21-22)
After the Second Coming of Christ but before the final judgment lies the stage of our eternal journey that parallels the Garden of Eden: the Millennium. We’re told specifically that this will be a restoration of the Edenic world:
We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent; that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and, that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory. (Article of Faith 10)
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. (Revelation 21:4)
As the Celestial Kingdom is the abode of God the Highest, note that the scriptures teach that Jesus Christ, even though he is also a fully exalted being just like the Father (D&C 50:43), governs the terrestrial glory:
These are they who receive of the presence of the Son, but not of the fulness of the Father. (D&C 76:77)
In order for us to dwell with Christ in the Millennial, Neo-Edenic world, we must become as pure as he is pure:
Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.
And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure. (1 John 3:2-3)
Indeed, that’s the very purpose of the cleansing of the world immediately preceding the Savior’s return, to eliminate impurity and finish preparing it to receive the glorified Lord:
For the hour is nigh and the day soon at hand when the earth is ripe; and all the proud and they that do wickedly shall be as stubble; and I will burn them up, saith the Lord of Hosts, that wickedness shall not be upon the earth;
For the hour is nigh, and that which was spoken by mine apostles must be fulfilled; for as they spoke so shall it come to pass;
For I will reveal myself from heaven with power and great glory, with all the hosts thereof, and dwell in righteousness with men on earth a thousand years, and the wicked shall not stand. (D&C 29:9-11)
Perhaps we can understand one of the mortal Savior’s pronouncements better in light of these ideas:
And he said unto them, Ye are from beneath; I am from above: ye are of this world; I am not of this world. (John 8:23)
D and D’: Earth’s Baptism by Flood and by Fire, as Warned by Prophets of Jesus Christ
Speaking of cleansing the Earth, that constitutes the next great parallel in this map of our journey.
After Eden came the Fall, which was closely followed by a great cleansing of the Earth by water:
The earth was corrupt before God, and it was filled with violence.
And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth.
And God said unto Noah: The end of all flesh is come before me, for the earth is filled with violence, and behold I will destroy all flesh from off the earth. (Moses 8:28-30)
President Brigham Young taught that this cleansing by immersion in water constituted a “baptism” of the Earth:
This earth, in its present condition and situation, is not a fit habitation for the sanctified; but it abides the law of its creation, has been baptized with water, will be baptized by fire and the Holy Ghost, and by-and-by will be prepared for the faithful to dwell upon. (Journal of Discourses 8:83)
As President Young said, the twin ordinance of that baptism comes with the Earth’s cleansing immersion in fire:
For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch. (Malachi 4:1)
Behold, now it is called today until the coming of the Son of Man, and verily it is a day of sacrifice, and a day for the tithing of my people; for he that is tithed shall not be burned at his coming.
For after today cometh the burning—this is speaking after the manner of the Lord—for verily I say, tomorrow all the proud and they that do wickedly shall be as stubble; and I will burn them up, for I am the Lord of Hosts; and I will not spare any that remain in Babylon. (D&C 64:23-24)
Just as the Earth’s baptism by water closely followed the Fall, its baptism by fire will be closely followed by its rise to its previously held station as a paradise, a world without death, a terrestrial kingdom.
Jesus Christ’s role in these events is clear and, as in the rest of our journey, powerfully positive for humanity. He not only carries out these responsibilities for our own good, he inspired prophets to warn us of their destructive effects so that we might avoid them.
For example, Noah communed with God and then warned the world about the impending flood, urging repentance and obedience to the commandments:
And the Lord said unto Noah: The daughters of thy sons have sold themselves; for behold mine anger is kindled against the sons of men, for they will not hearken to my voice.
And it came to pass that Noah prophesied, and taught the things of God, even as it was in the beginning.
And the Lord said unto Noah: My Spirit shall not always strive with man, for he shall know that all flesh shall die; yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years; and if men do not repent, I will send in the floods upon them. (Moses 8:15-17)
And Joseph Smith did the same with regards to the impending burning of the world:
And that every man should take righteousness in his hands and faithfulness upon his loins, and lift a warning voice unto the inhabitants of the earth; and declare both by word and by flight that desolation shall come upon the wicked. (D&C 63:37)
E and E’: The Telestial Kingdom
Which brings us to where we are.
In the first line of his October 2008 General Conference address, “The Ministry of Angels,” Jeffrey R. Holland observed where this mortal existence fits into the eternal scheme of things:
When Adam and Eve willingly stepped into mortality, they knew this telestial world would contain thorns and thistles and troubles of every kind.
Our telestial world is not a place where generally can be felt the influence of the Father or of the Son, but that of the Holy Ghost. While we are required to become more righteous and pure to be with the Father or the Son, the effects of the Holy Ghost are available to all in mortality, today. Interestingly, one of the Holy Ghost’s primary functions here is to bring us closer to Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, by inspiring faith and obedience, that we may rise above the world:
As well as those who should come after, who should believe in the gifts and callings of God by the Holy Ghost, which beareth record of the Father and of the Son (D&C 20:27)
So if humanity is in a telestial world now, and the Father and the Son exist on higher levels—levels which we would need to become deeply cleansed first in order to view—then how have they ever visited people here?
Because spiritual levels are binding on flawed mortals only, not on perfected, exalted beings. As Doctrine and Covenants 67:11 puts it:
For no man has seen God at any time in the flesh, except quickened by the Spirit of God.
That “except” is very important here.
What does it mean to be “quickened by the Spirit of God?” It means to be transfigured, as at different times were Moses (Moses 1:11), Peter, James, and John (Matt. 17:1-8), and Joseph Smith (JS-H 1:16-17). God will sometimes temporarily empower people to discern reality at a higher level than the telestial.
As exalted, celestial beings, like the Godhead, may visit those at lesser levels, so may those who attain the celestial or terrestrial levels similarly visit others at lower levels; indeed, the Doctrine and Covenants teaches that there will be ministries founded on such movement:
These are they who receive not of his fulness in the eternal world, but of the Holy Spirit through the ministration of the terrestrial;
And the terrestrial through the ministration of the celestial.
And also the telestial receive it of the administering of angels who are appointed to minister for them, or who are appointed to be ministering spirits for them; for they shall be heirs of salvation. (D&C 76:86-88)
So are we now at the lowest level of existence, then? Is this telestial world the rock bottom of eternity?
No, that distinction belongs elsewhere.
F: Outer Darkness and The Atonement of Jesus Christ
The Atonement of Jesus Christ is quite literally the turning point in eternal history, both its central and lowest point:
…after he came in the meridian of time… (D&C 20:26)
He that ascended up on high, as also he descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth (D&C 88:6)
And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46)
That last quote is expanded and explained by Jeffrey R. Holland in his April 2009 General Conference address, “None Were With Him,” when he says this:
Nevertheless, that the supreme sacrifice of His Son might be as complete as it was voluntary and solitary, the Father briefly withdrew from Jesus the comfort of His Spirit, the support of His personal presence. It was required, indeed it was central to the significance of the Atonement, that this perfect Son who had never spoken ill nor done wrong nor touched an unclean thing had to know how the rest of humankind—us, all of us—would feel when we did commit such sins. For His Atonement to be infinite and eternal, He had to feel what it was like to die not only physically but spiritually, to sense what it was like to have the divine Spirit withdraw, leaving one feeling totally, abjectly, hopelessly alone.
It is one of the profound ironies of reality that the best person to ever walk this Earth, the one who most deserved any reward and least deserved any punishment, voluntarily took onto himself an infinite degree of suffering, so that the rest of us might escape it. As the Redeemer himself put it to the Nephites:
And my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me, that as I have been lifted up by men even so should men be lifted up by the Father, to stand before me, to be judged of their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil— (3 Nephi 27:14)
The irony is explicit here: the Savior’s “lifting up” as part of the Atonement was a descent into infinite darkness, and he underwent this torture that mankind might ascend and be “lifted up” to enjoy the Father’s infinite light.
If the three degrees of glory—the three general levels at which the Earth and humanity have and will exist—are led and ministered to by the three members of the Godhead, respectively, then who reigns over this nadir of the universe, this plane devoid of all light, which the Savior still successfully conquered? The scriptures answer:
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— (D&C 76:44)
Though Jesus Christ has been the key agent at every level of this journey, here he is most magnificently supreme. Truly, the whole point of the Savior descending to this realm is to offer us the chance to avoid it. Though he has led humanity along the way, doing the crucial work at every stage, here he goes into the hardest part completely alone, so that we won’t have to:
For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;
But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I;
Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—
Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men. (D&C 19:16-19)
Our journey, then, might be conceived as an adult helping a blind child to walk through a dangerous wilderness to return home, holding her hand the entire time. However, at the very worst part in the path—a deep, dark pit filled with poisonous creatures and ravenous monsters—he jumps into it and carries her over the opening, so that the child may pass by, unharmed. Then, miraculously, our hero somehow climbs out to guide the child the rest of the way.
Truly, that child would never even be able to comprehend what had been done in her behalf.
Though humanity as a whole will continue along the Father’s planned path, upwards through the Earth’s baptism by fire, the Second Coming, the Millennium, the Judgment, and our eternal reward, what that eternal reward will entail for each of us, as individuals and as families, is now in our own hands.
Will we choose to obey the laws that lead to the Celestial Kingdom, or will we settle for a lesser glory?
Will we choose to accept the Savior’s offer to bypass that unimaginable lowest level, or will we reject him and experience that dark pit, also?
As these six levels have been marked with sequential letters, starting with A, the central point is thereby labeled with an F. If we choose to enter that level, this “F” will represent the same thing it did in school: failure.
From the perspective of Jesus Christ, though, that “F” represents the same thing that motivated his work at every level: “For us.”