Middle Ground or No-man’s Land?

Middle Ground or No-man’s Land? November 26, 2006

I know that I’ve promised to do a post on predestination and the vessels of wrath in Romans 9, a post that will be at least two entries since we need to discuss how Mormons misunderstand Paul’s predestination first before we talk about important pots, but I was reading in D&C 76 today in church when I was struck again with strangeness of the description of the Terrestrial glory.

Please note that this post is listed under speculation. This is largely because I find that when I compare a close reading of the text with the understanding that I’ve garnered growing up in the church I get some mixed results and I’ve drawn a few conclusions that may not be familiar or even sit well (hopefully not) with some Saints. No faith was destroyed and no testimonies were lost in the creation of this post.

The term terrestrial is found in three pericopes. First in 1 Cor. 15: 40-42 (including the JST); second in D&C 76:71-80, 91, 97; and finally in D&C 88:21-24, 30. The bulk of our understanding of this glory, and the part that I will focus on, is found in section 76. For convenience I am going to give you the relevant verses in a block quote.

71 And again, we saw the terrestrial world, and behold and lo, these are they who are of the terrestrial, whose glory differs from that of the church of the Firstborn who have received the fulness of the Father, even as that of the moon differs from the sun in the firmament. 72 Behold, these are they who died without law; 73 And also they who are the spirits of men kept in prison, whom the Son visited, and preached the gospel unto them, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh; 74 Who received not the testimony of Jesus in the flesh, but afterwards received it. 75 These are they who are honorable men of the earth, who were blinded by the craftiness of men. 76 These are they who receive of his glory, but not of his fulness. 77 These are they who receive of the presence of the Son, but not of the fulness of the Father. 78 Wherefore, they are bodies terrestrial, and not bodies celestial, and differ in glory as the moon differs from the sun. 79 These are they who are not valiant in the testimony of Jesus; wherefore, they obtain not the crown over the kingdom of our God. 80 And now this is the end of the vision which we saw of the terrestrial, that the Lord commanded us to write while we were yet in the Spirit.

Hopefully I did that right. Now, let’s get down to business. Terrestrial folk are introduced as people not as good as Celestial folk, their glory is not as good as the Celestial glory, it’s like the glory of the moon, blah blah blah blah. We know this and I’m not going to contest it. Verse 72 is where things get interesting. Here we begin with an extended description of those who qualify for a Terrestrial glory starting with ” those who died without law.” No problem here, yet. Verse 73 continues, in the same sentence, with the phrase “and also they who are the spirits of men kept in prison, whom the Son visited, and preached the Gospel unto them.” It’s quite probable that our friends in prison here are one and the same with those referred to in 1 Peter 3:19-20; 4:6. (Sorry, no tag, I haven’t learned how to do that yet) But wait, the first guys mentioned, the ones who died without law, are they the same people or a different group? Must be a different group right? After all, Noah had 120 years to preach before the flood so they could hardly be considered as having “died without law,” right? Probably, but not necessarily. It’s true that 1 Peter 3:20 says the spirits in prison were at one time disobedient but I doubt that Noah got to everyone, even with 120 years to do it, so it’s possible that some people died in the flood without having had the law. Here is the introduction to the problem: are the descriptions given in section 76 mutually exclusive or do people have to fit all of them? Can they even fit all of them? I don’t think that they can. I believe that these are descriptions of different groups of people who will qualify for the Terrestrial reward. And yes I’m sure that some people may fit into more than one at a time.

Here I have to insert the thought that really got me thinking about these verses and my understanding of them. Without this thought, I would probably have brushed over everything and never paid any attention to these verses. The thought was this: “Wait a minute. Don’t we believe that the souls visited by Christ in the spirit prison are capable of repenting and receiving a Celestial glory?”

Hmmm. Now I have to evaluate more closely what I really know about the topic. I always thought that they could become Celestial, just like anyone who died without the Gospel (a.k.a. “died without law”). The two groups are put together in the very same sentence! I’m sure that those who died without having ever heard the Gospel (again, “without law”) could definitely receive a Celestial glory. Am I misunderstanding the meaning of “without law”? It can’t mean the Mosaic Law, it wasn’t even given by then and everyone who died in the Flood died without it including Noah. So why aren’t these souls able (apparently) to receive Celestial bliss?

Let’s persevere. As we continue through the pericope we see that nearly every verse contains what could be descriptions of different groups of Terrestrial qualifiers: those receiving the testimony of Jesus in death after they rejected it in life (vs. 74), honorable people blinded by craftiness (vs. 75), those who receive not the Father but do receive the Son (questionable, vs. 77), and those not valiant in their testimonies of Jesus (i.e. didn’t endure to the end, vs. 79). So we have five, maybe six, descriptions of people who will be awarded Terrestrial glory. And they seem to continue in the pattern I noticed in verses 72 and 73: those I expected to have a chance to receive Celestial salvation (the blinded guys), those I expected to end up where they are (didn’t endure in their testimonies), and those that could go either way (don’t accept in life, do accept in death). Ummm, what gives?

The Terrestrial glory receives the shortest description of the four groups mentioned in section 76 (Celestial, Terrestrial, Telestial, Outer Darkness). The other three seem fairly straightforward (I will generalize for the sake of length). For Celestial, you make and keep all of the covenants the Lord requires and endure to the end. The Telestial guys are generally bad folk who know God (by this point) and don’t deny what the Spirit tells them he is and bow the knee to Christ but are unwilling to live a holy life and make and keep covenants. OD peoples, knowing exactly who God is, tell God where to go and how to get there (the irony being they end up there themselves). But these Terrestrial ladies and gents are strange. They’re sorta good, sorta bad, basically luke-warm. So they get spewed, whatever that means.

So now to another preconceived notion from my upbringing: Once you’re in a kingdom, you can’t go anywhere, up or down. But then I got to thinking, who said this? It isn’t in the scriptures that I can find. I have failed to locate a prophet or apostle who said so (maybe you all can help me here). It’s just what I was brought up to believe. So why can’t people move? Have they really discovered their true selves and are unwilling to change anymore, either to improve or to regress? Is their agency limited in some way that they can’t improve? Has God forever set their bounds so that they can no longer pass them regardless of what they do? Is there any scriptural support for any of this? Will I ever stop asking rhetorical questions?

The rest of the verses concerned with things Terrestrial deal largely with law and glory. The JST of 1 Corinthians is of no help on this subject. So also the rest of Section 76. D&C 88:22-23 says that Terrestrial guys can’t abide a Celestial law but are able to live a law higher than Telestial guys. Not really a big help. They are the ultimate inbetweeners. So what is the deal with them? In wrestling with this mystery I’ve had several thoughts. I’ll share with you the one I’m currently favoring right now.

I believe that the Terrestrial glory is a way point in the path of eternal rounding. I don’t believe that anyone’s agency is ever taken away and I doubt that God would limit a person’s progression to wherever it is that they want to be. I don’t think the statute of limitations applies to the atonement of Christ and I suspect that whenever a person wishes to access it, either in this life or the next, the door is open. (This is contra Alma 34:32-35 where this life is the life to prepare to meet God. But I also think that things aren’t as cut and dry as Alma and Amulek are painting it for their new converts/reactivated backsliders. You can disagree with me here of course.) I think that souls who find themselves in Terrestrial glory are really just figuring out still who they want to be. I think that people are probably migrating north and south from the Terrestrial places all the time. I have a friend who once suggested that this is why the glory of this place is compared to the moon. Besides being between sun and stars, the light of the moon waxes and wanes, possibly like the faith of the people who are there. I took it to the next level and said perhaps the waxing and waning is symbolic of the number of people in these worlds. There is the influx of newly resurrected souls judged as worthy of this kingdom coming in and the outgoing of souls choosing to aspire to higher or to descend to lower. My observation of human nature leads me to believe that ultimately most people will eventually suck it up and claim the awaiting glory they can have in the Celestial Kingdom or lapse into passivity and descend into the Telestial. And, of course, I think that there are people who are truly flakey and luke-warm at their core and will spend an eternity in Terrestrialness, but I suspect these people are few.

This probably blatantly goes against some widely held ideas. Let me say that I have not made my bed here, so to speak. I’m willing to revise my views based on further evidence. I just thought that I’d point out that the description of Terrestrial people is a little unusual and probably deserves a closer look. Feel free now to throw your proverbial rotten tomatoes and legumes.

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