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Interpreting Interpreter
A History of Degrees

This post is a summary of the article “Degrees of Glory: A Brief History of Heaven and Graded Salvation” by Jim Hansen in Volume 59 of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship. All of the articles may be seen at An introduction to the Interpreting Interpreter series is available at


The Takeaway

Hansen reviews historical conceptions of heaven, placing the Restoration’s view of the three degrees of glory in the context of a graded understanding of heaven that took shape in the centuries before Christ.


The Summary

In this article, Jim Hansen tracks the various understandings of heaven represented in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and as recorded in biblical and extrabiblical literature. In contrast with the current mainstream conception of a binary heaven and hell, these ancient views often treat heaven as being divided into grades or degrees, consistent with Paul’s framing of heaven and the resurrection in 1 Corinthians. Progressing from early, cosmological views of heaven (i.e., physical descriptions of heavenly cosmology) and an underworld-based state of death, this graded view first appears in the apocalyptic literature written in the centuries before and after Christ. Though early Christians would adopt and expand on graded conceptions of heaven, this view would be rejected by the protestant reformers who denied that mortal effort could merit greater degrees of glory. It would not be until the Restoration Movement in the nineteenth century that Paul’s view of a graded heaven would reappear.

The historical views of heaven and the resurrection recounted by Hansen include:

Hansen also describes Joseph’s understanding of heavenly Degrees of Glory, as recorded in D&C 76. This includes his view of a celestial glory, which is itself divided into several degrees (and which happens to align in important ways with the Parable of the Sower), a terrestrial glory which may allude to Judeo-Christian views of a future “new earth” that would be inherited by the saints, and the innovatively-termed “telestial” glory, which may represent a heavenly abode “far away” (i.e., the meaning of the Greek root tele-) from God’s immediate presence. These views would eventually become firmly established in the doctrine and culture of the restored church.


The Reflection

I appreciate Hansen gathering these ideas and sources all in one place—it’s fascinating to watch these heavenly views morph and progress throughout the ages (though the Book of Abraham is a conspicuous omission). One thing that strikes me is how much each view seems to mirror the common astrological and theological views of their respective era, as if humanity’s own understanding is an anchor from which revelation can only provide incremental insight. It makes sense, of course, that God would tend to work within a framework that the ancients would already understand and be familiar with, and would use that understanding as a foundation from which to build and teach. I just wonder to what extent D&C 76 functions from that same premise—as a view through a darkened glass at a heavenly framework that surpasses our mortal comprehension. That view was certainly more detailed than what came before it. But I have the feeling that all of us will feel a degree of surprise and awe at what God ultimately has in store for us.

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