Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Explaining the Three Degrees in Evangelical Terms

A few years ago I took a class at BYU on the Philosophy of Religion, with an emphasis on LDS Philosophy. One of the topics we covered in the class was a discussion on how to create a dialogue between Members of the Church and Evangelicals. Frequently in our discussion and in the books and articles we read the differences and disagreements between the Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals was not due to a difference of belief and practice but rather a difference in the language we both used and the way we chose to define terms. Thus a significant portion of the class was taken up in understanding how other religions define their beliefs and noting the similarities and differences between our belief systems so that if we were ever in a discussion with those of another faith we could find common ground and use language and terms that allowed us to understand each other rather than not.

Of the many doctrines that evangelicals have a hard time understanding is the LDS doctrine of the Three Degrees of Glory. When we try to explain it (using common LDS terms) many Evangelicals are put off by it because from their perspective it appears to deny deeply held beliefs regarding salvation and grace. But recently as I was thinking about it and also discussing it with my wife I hit on an idea that allowed me to explain the doctrine using language common to Evangelicals so that they may have an understanding of what we believe and be able to understand it from our perspective. So here goes:

First we recognize that all men (when I say men I mean both men and women, unless context dictates other wise) are saved by grace. There is no way around it, salvation must come by grace. I must emphasize that everyone is saved by grace, but it is precisely this emphasis that causes some confusion, not only between Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals, but amongst Latter-day Saints themselves, and it is because of this confusion that I am addressing this issue.

The nature of the confusion comes as we explain the Three Degrees of Glory and what we mean by being saved. Generally when we (Latter-day Saints) talk about salvation and being saved, we only refer to entering into the Celestial Kingdom, but if we examine our scriptures we find that all men will be saved from death, thus we can say that all men will be saved. What I mean by this will become more apparent as I continue with this explanation.

In agreement with Evangelicals when men die, the righteous go to heaven and the wicked go to hell. In our theology we typically do not use these terms but rather we say that the righteous (or at least the repentant) go to paradise, and the wicked go to prison (spirit prison). Where we differ in our beliefs with Evangelicals is what happens next. Most in the Christian world believe that heaven and hell (paradise and prison) are the final states for all men, and that when someone goes to hell (or to heaven) they are there for an infinite duration. On the other hand in LDS theology, we say that even though paradise and prison are eternal (and the conditions there are eternal) we do not believe that those who go there will stay there forever, in either heaven or hell.

At this point in the conversation most Christians, and not just Evangelicals would stop and say, "Hold on a second...So you are saying that if we go to heaven or hell, we won't stay there? So God will kick the righteous out of heaven? Then what about the mercy and grace of God? Are we only saved for a time?" These concerns would be well founded if that were all there was, but there is more to the story. At this point we say that all men are saved, that is they are saved from death, through the resurrection. Thus all men do not stay in heaven or hell, and their suffering or bliss there has an end. But at this point comes the final judgment.

In the final judgment all men will appear before God to be judged according to their works in the flesh. Those who are honorable men, that have confessed their faith and have accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior, will be saved and by the grace of God will be allowed to dwell in His presence forever. This we call the Celestial Kingdom.

Those who are honorable men and have kept the commandments of God, but never accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior. These will live in a good place, but will not be allowed to live where God and Christ are, this is to say they will not enjoy the full glory of their presence.

Then rest of men, those who did not keep the commandments, liars, adulterers, oath breakers (false swearers), murderers and the proud, will be given another place in which to dwell for the rest of eternity. These are those who are "thrust down to hell" at the time of their death, but they will be redeemed from that hell (they will be taken from prison) by the power of the resurrection, and after the final judgment will go to a paradise of sorts, but they will not enjoy the glory of God in any measure.

Thus according to LDS theology all men are saved from death by the grace of God. Those that have faith can live in the presence of God and enjoy His glory. As we are told, "now is the time and the day of your salvation; and therefore, if ye will repent and harden not your hearts, immediately shall the great plan of redemption be brought about unto you." (Alma 34:31) And if we are saved it will be known by our godly walk, and our being new creatures in Christ.

I hope some people will find this helpful and informative.

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