Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Three Levels of Heaven? - Vintage
11/11/2012 - James White
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints teaches that there are three levels of heaven: the celestial (the highest), the terrestial (the middle), and the telestial (the lowest). The clearest teaching concerning this is found in section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Mormons refer to 1 Corinthians 15:40-41 as Biblical support for this teaching. But did Paul believe in three levels of heaven? Lets examine that.
The King James Version translates this passage as follows:
“There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory.”
The Mormon church has latched on to the terms “celestial” and “terrestial” in its teaching of various levels of heaven. The third word, “telestial” is not even an English word, but was created by the imagination of Joseph Smith by combining the first two letters of “terrestial” with the last seven letters of “celestial.” A much clearer translation of the above passage is provided by the New American Standard Bible:
“There are also heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one, and the glory of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.”
No Bible text can be understood outside of the context in which it is found. Such is also the case here. 1 Corinthians 15 is known as the “resurrection chapter.” Paul is here discussing the topic of the resurrection of believers. Notice the two questions he has addressed in this chapter so far; verse 12 addresses those who did not believe in resurrection, and verse 35 asks the question, “with what kind of body do they come?” Paul is still answering this question in verses 40 and 41. What, then, is Paul’s point?
Paul is here discussing the connection between our physical body, and the spiritual body we will have at the resurrection. He maintains that there is definitely a connection between the two, but the future, glorified body will far transcend our current physical body in so many ways. To make his point, he brings in a number of illustrations. One is the seed and the plant (vs. 36-38), another that of the flesh of the animal kingdom (v.39). When we come to the verses under discussion here, we see that he is continuing with the same train of thought here comparing the glory of heavenly bodies with the glory of earthly bodies. This verse simply continues his comparison - there is no reason to believe that all of a sudden he decides to talk about different levels of heaven! The very next verse substantiates this quite well:
“So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.”
Notice the continued parallelism - perishable, imperishable; dishonor, glory. Since it is therefore obvious that Paul is describing the nature of the resurrection body, and not different levels of heaven, what about the passage at 2 Corinthians 12:2?
This passage reads, in the New American Standard Bible, “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago - whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows - such a man was caught up to the third heaven.” Then, in verse 4 Paul identifies this “third heaven” as “Paradise.” What is the third heaven?
The Bible does describe three heavens. The first heaven is that of the sky above us - the atmosphere of the earth. The second heaven is the abode of the stars and earth - “space” as we know it. The third heaven, however, was always the abode of God Himself, “heaven” as we would use the phrase. This was a common conception in Paul’s time, and was a convenient way of describing things. Hence, Paul was caught up into the presence of God, into the “third heaven.”
The teaching that there is a special place reserved only for people who have completed certain ceremonies and endowments in a temple on earth, who themselves will progress to becoming gods themselves, is completely without support in the Bible, and in fact is flatly and utterly contradicted by the teachings of God’s Word, the Bible.