On Matt’s “crazy things you believe” thread several people mentioned that they don’t believe there are actually three degrees of glory, but instead see the three degrees of glory from D&C 76 as being symbolic of an infinite gradation of glory in the world to come (as Matt suggested in #5 of the original post). Although I have argued for an infinite gradation of glory in the next life, I have not abandoned the traditional three degrees. Here’s why.
I view salvation as a fundamentally social endeavor. Sanctification, in my mind, is primarily about learning to live with other people. The problem is that societies cannot progress beyond certain points without eventually setting some minimum requirements for membership. If you let in all the riffraff they will hose things up. Case in point: Earth.
Have you ever stopped to think about how much society is affected by the riffraff? People steal things, so we have to put locks on virtually everything. People murder strangers, kidnap children, and sell bogus stuff on eBay. Identity theft costs society tens of billions of dollars every year. I don’t pick up stranded people because it is too dangerous to invite a stranger into my car. There is enough food to feed the hungry people in the world and people willing to donate it, but corrupt governments prevent aid from being delivered to the people who need it. Ethnic wars ravage countries for decades, destroying the lives of countless people.
Of course, if we were to able to annihilate all the thieves, murderers, racists, rapists, dictators, and people who sell bogus stuff on eBay, we would still have problems in society, but a whole bunch of the problems we have now would simply disappear. A whole host of possible solutions to current societal problems would open themselves up if we didn’t have to worry about malicious people coming along to thwart our efforts. We become so accustomed to the world as it is that I don’t think we stop to realize how often we are governed by the lowest common denominator.
The application to degrees of glory should be fairly obvious. If salvation is a social enterprise, then people of (infinitely) varying degrees of glory in the afterlife still need to have a sphere in which they interact with other people and these spheres can’t always include everyone. This naturally leads to the idea of groups of people at roughly the same level of progression. Thus, while I expect there is effectively an infinite gradation of glory for individuals, I also expect that there are major divisions which govern the societies in which an individual can participate. Celestial society simply ceases to be celestial if there is someone in there backbiting and trying to manipulate everyone else to their own advantage.
It is interesting that D&C 76 speaks of the celestial participants saying that “they see as they are seen, and know as they are known, having received of his fullness and he makes them equal in power, and in might, and in dominion. And the glory of the celestial is one” (D&C 76:94-96). We get a picture of unity, harmony, oneness, openess, and benevolently wielded power. By contrast, those in the telestial glory differ in glory, “for as one star differs from another star in glory, even so differs one from another in glory in the telestial world” (D&C 76:98). In one of my favorite passages of scripture, D&C 121 explains that God can only entrust us with power if we are prepared to exercise that power through principles of righteousness: persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, love (unfaked), kindness and so forth. The reason we have been called but not chosen, it says, is that we have failed to learn that one lesson.
We live in a telestial world where people vary tremendously in their levels of righteousness. If what I’ve been told about the ushering in of the millennium is to be believed, even God cannot make this world terrestrial without first clearing out some of the riffraff (D&C 43:30-33). And so, I see the three degrees as serving a valuable purpose in teaching us about the nature of salvation and progression. Even if people’s individual glory is infinitely graded, I think the three degrees of glory play an important role in our soteriology, reminding us that we cannot be saved alone and that heavenly society requires every person to be heavenly.