Is it possible to progress between kingdoms of glory in the eternities? Latter-day Saints believe in eternal progress, but can that progress move a person from one kingdom to a different one? And how do we see the love, wisdom, and goodness of God in the answer to those questions?
Some Latter-day Saint leaders have believed that it was possible to progress from one kingdom to another in eternity; other have taught that it was not. Let’s consider the arguments and their merits.
Those who believe that it is possible to progress to a higher kingdom are embracing the cherished doctrine of eternal progression. They see God as advancing His children in amazing ways—which is a manifestation of both His ability and His love! Some believe that this progress may include advancing from telestial to terrestrial and maybe even celestial glory! Given the expanse of eternity, God may reform even lesser or reluctant souls. (For more in favor of progression between kingdoms, see Givens, 2015 and 2021.)
But the argument is not as simple as it may appear.
It requires significant logical gymnastics to tame D&C 76:112 into submission when it speaks of those who inherit telestial glory. “And they shall be servants of the Most High; but where God and Christ dwell they cannot come, worlds without end.” Since Jesus presides over the terrestrial kingdom and God over the celestial kingdom, it appears that telestials will remain in the telestial kingdom “worlds without end.”
Is this fair? Doesn’t Heavenly Father want all of His children back with Him? Won’t He do everything in His power to refine and ultimately exalt every one of His children?
It is my view that there are at least three faulty assumptions behind the belief that progress between kingdoms is essential to God’s plan and purposes.
1. Latter-day Saints keep thinking of the telestial kingdom as a lesser hell. We often talk about the regret felt by those who find themselves in a lesser kingdom. This talk is completely unscriptural.
And thus we saw, in the heavenly vision, the glory of the telestial, which surpasses all understanding; (D&C 76:89).
The glory of the telestial kingdom surpasses all understanding! In our finest earthly moments, in our times of greatest joy and exultation, we cannot comprehend how joyous the telestial kingdom will be! The least of the eternal opportunities is beyond our comprehension.
Regret is not the mood in this lowest degree of glory. Amazement and delight are!
Telestials are “they who are liars, and sorcerers, and adulterers, and whoremongers, and whosoever loves and makes a lie” (D&C 76:103). These people did not dabble in sin in mortality. They were career sinners! Yet God will allow them to repent of their sins in the spirit world (either by passing their sins to Jesus or suffering for them themselves), and then, having been cleansed, will be glorified with a telestial glory! Every morning they will wake up dumbfounded by God’s grace and their eternal opportunities!
We are told that telestials will minister. I feel sure that each will be allowed to minister in the way that brings them the greatest joy, satisfaction, and growth. The telestial kingdom is a degree of glory. It is a heaven. It is not a punishment. It is a manifestation of God’s love for even those who never fully embraced His goodness.
2. As those in lesser kingdoms (telestial and terrestrial) progress, will they advance to the celestial kingdom? I think this hierarchal, linear way of thinking misunderstands God’s creation.
If a person lives in Logan and wants to go to Bryce Canyon, how long will they have to drive toward New York City to get there? Or a better example, how long does a person need to rocket toward the northern pole star Polaris to get to the southern pole star Polaris Australis? As far as we can tell, you will never get there. Each is a worthy goal. You may make remarkable progress, toward the star of your choosing but, when you are headed to one star, you will never reach one in a different direction. You are simply not headed that way.
A different metaphor. How long would a person need to study medicine to become a great engineer? How long would you need to study astronomy to become an amazing dietician? A person can make remarkable progress in any area of study but that does not make them proficient at something very different.
It is not, in this example, that one career is better than another. That is hierarchal thinking. It is that we don’t become proficient in one thing by investing in something completely unrelated. So, while those exalted in the celestial kingdom will be busily studying under God’s tutelage how to save souls, those in other kingdoms will be studying other things that are of keen interest to them! Just as I have no interest in becoming an attorney but find enormous joy in being a family scientist, so a person in the telestial kingdom who loves creating brackens and small shrubs will find perfect joy without doing the same work that someone else does.
Our assumptions are often painfully simplistic and hierarchal. We assume that everyone wants to be on the top of the pile. Nobody wants to be less than someone else! But God teaches something entirely different. We are each to fill the measure of our creation and have joy therein. I find immense joy in the work I do. I do not have to be an accountant to be happy.
Clearly, we should not think of exalted activity as comparable to some earthly profession. My point is that we have different aptitudes and preferences. God provides us opportunities to do the things we most enjoy. It is a very flat and linear world in which only those “at the top” are happy and fulfilled. God presides over a complex, multi-dimensional world in which He will find the perfect opportunity for every one of His children.
It is my opinion that we may all mingle together in the eternities in a way that is similar to the way we mingle in this world—each going about their specialized work and each finding great satisfaction in the work that suits them perfectly. Each person can progress immensely and eternally while remaining in the same degree of glory.
3. We misunderstand human development.
The prominent psychologist Salvatore Maddi undertook a study of personality theories—the different ways we make sense of people’s behavior. He found that very few of the theories passed the tests of research. The most prominent theory to pass the empirical tests were fulfillment models in which each person “express[es] to an ever greater degree the capabilities, potentialities, or talents based in one’s genetic constitution,” or “strive[s] for what will make life ideal or complete” (Maddi, 1989, p. 97).
Maddi’s observations fit beautifully with the prominent developmentalist’s statement that our job as parents and teachers is to help children become themselves (Scarr & McCartney, 1983). Themselves! Not to become some model of perfect humanity that we have in mind but to become themselves.
While psychologists and developmentalist may think in terms of fulfilling our biological capacity, Latter-day Saints think in terms of fulfilling the measure of our creation—expressing the blueprint in our spirits. A unique and extraordinary contribution of the Restoration is the understanding that we humans are not merely God’s shop projects but are co-eternal with Him! We have always lived with a unique set of talents and dispositions and God is fully dedicated to helping us express and enlarge our capacity. God is committed to the fulfillment of the abilities and interests of each of His children.
So, life is an unfolding. Each of us develops in a unique way.
The evidence for diversity of human gifts is all around us. Not only will I never be an Olympic ski jumper, I never could have been. I do not have the physical or emotional qualities essential to excel in this activity. Yet, I rejoice as I discover God helping me become more and more of what my spirit yearns to be!
Most of us are fascinated by personality tests because we want to understand the unique gifts we have. Jesus taught that “In my Father’s house are many mansions . . . I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2). Jesus is creating for each of us the perfect eternal opportunity. It is customized to our eternal natures and preferences. When a person is established in their perfect home, they will not be grumbling that they don’t have the house just up the street. Jesus creates for each of us the eternal opportunity that perfectly suits us!
Not only does He provide us the perfect house but also a customized career. We will get to do exactly those things that fill the measure of our creation and fill us with joy. And a person who loves perfecting new varieties of dragonflies will not be grumpy that she does not get to create volcanoes. She loves her work more than any other!
So, the idea that people in the eternities will be anxious to be doing what the celestials up the street are doing rings hollow. While each of us will progress within our natural careers, we will not be jealous of those who are suited to different work. Each heaven is a glory perfectly suited to those who choose it. We may trust God to help every one of His children find the perfect eternal career and custom mansion.
Let me hasten to note that the Church leaders have declared that the idea of progress from kingdom to kingdom remains unsettled. I do not intend to impose my views on the Church. However, I am very glad to declare that the doctrine of progress between kingdoms is not necessary to appreciate the immense love of God, the growth opportunities in eternity, or the marvels of human potential.
God is blessing each of His children to find their perfect place.
Invitation: Learn how the gospel of Jesus Christ combines with good research to chart a path of family effectiveness. My latest book, Discoveries: Essential Truths for Relationships, is available LDS booksellers or Amazon.
Givens, T. L. (2015). Wrestling the angel: The foundations of Mormon thought: Cosmos, God, humanity. New York: Oxford University Press. See especially pp. 312-314
Givens, T. L. (2021). How limited is postmortal progression? In E. A. Eliason & T. L. Givens (Eds.), Yet to be revealed: Open questions in Latter-day Saint theology (pp. 127-138). Provo, UT: BYU Studies.
Maddi, S. R. (1989). Personality theories: A comparative analysis, Fifth edition. Chicago, Ill: The Dorsey Press.
Scarr, S., & McCartney, K. (1983). How people make their own environments: A theory of genotype→ environment effects. Child development, 424-435.