"IN the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees; and in order to obtain the highest, a man must enter into this order of the priesthood [meaning the new and everlasting covenant of marriage]; and if he does not, he cannot obtain it. He may enter into the other, but that is the end of his kingdom; he cannot have an increase."(D&C 131:1-4)
Nearly all Christian churches teach that when we are resurrected those who believe in Jesus Christ will go to heaven while everyone else will go to hell. However the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that God has revealed there are three degrees of heaven, known as the celestial, terrestrial, and telestial kingdoms. Concerning those who inherit the celestial kingdom the Lord has revealed, "They are they who received the testimony of Jesus, and believed on his name and were baptized after the manner of his burial, being buried in the water in his name, and this according to the commandment which he has given." (D&C 76:51). These are they who were valiant in the testimony of Jesus and therefore will obtain a crown in the kingdom of God. These are they into whose hands the Father has given all things. "They are they who are the church of the Firstborn." These are they of whom it is written "they are gods, even the sons of God." (D&C 76:54,58). This degree of heaven is known as exaltation.
Although those who inherit the celestial kingdom will all share the same glory, not all will wear crowns and inherit exaltation. This distinction belongs only to those who have been sealed together as husband and wives and have remained valiant in their testimony of Jesus Christ.
But what is to become of those who are worthy to enter into the celestial kingdom but who have not been sealed to a spouse before the resurrection? The Lord has revealed that they "are appointed angels in heaven, which angels are ministering servants, to minister for those who are worthy of a far more, and an exceeding, and an eternal weight of glory." (D&C 132:16). According to this statement, single people don't become gods. Instead, their fate is to become angels to those who are worthy of inheriting a far greater "weight of glory." Put in simpler terms, they will become servants to the gods.
The Lord has further revealed that in the celestial kingdom there are three degrees or levels and it is in the highest degree where the gods reside. That means that the lower two levels are where the angels live. But why are there two levels instead of one?
And then there is a more interesting question to consider. Those who inherit the celestial kingdom are those who have kept the commandments of God and one of those commandments is to marry and have children. In fact, that was the first commandment given to man when he was put on the earth. But if someone is faithful enough to want to keep all of God's commandments then why would they not want to keep this one?
Perhaps it is possible there are people who love the Lord with all of their heart but who are afraid of taking on the responsibility of married life and deliberately choose not to marry. However, judging by what we see in the Church today, it appears that the vast majority of adults are married. If that is the case, then it would seem that the greatest number of faithful saints who are worthy to inherit the celestial kingdom will become exalted, which would then leave only a very small percentage of people to be ministering angels. In that case, instead of many angels ministering to the needs of one exalted couple, there would be many exalted couples being served by one angel. But if that is true, then why is two-thirds of the celestial kingdom reserved for ministering angels who are unmarried beings?
There are members of the LDS Church who make the assumption that by the time the resurrection comes those who have been faithful to the Lord will immediately become exalted. Since it has often been said that the atonement of Christ makes up the difference for our failures, some reason that as long as we strive to keep the commandments of God then when we stand before the bar of Christ on the last day He will forgive us of all of our sins. It is sometimes then assumed the when that happens we will immediately become perfect and enter into our exaltation. But if that is true, then what about the doctrine of eternal progression?
Eternal progression is defined as "striving towards perfection." As such it is a process we go through. Rather than becoming perfect all at once, we grow to perfection in small progressive steps. It happens a little at a time, line upon line and precept upon precept, as we learn and then keep the laws of God. And it is generally understood that when we finally reach perfection we will then have become worthy to inherit all that God has, which is the definition of exaltation.
It has been said many times that it doesn't so much matter how fast we are progressing towards perfection as it is that we are heading in the right direction. After all, we have all of eternity to get there. However, it is obvious that the faster we progress in our quest for perfection the sooner we will achieve it. We also know that we will not reach perfection in this life, therefore it is just as obvious that our journey to perfection will continue after our bodies have been laid in the grave. That means, when we enter the spirit world after death we will still continue to progress towards perfection.
However, there are those who think that by the time the resurrection happens we will have had enough time to reach our goal or that Christ will make up the difference if we haven't quite measured up to perfection by then, thereby allowing us to become exalted immediately upon rising from the grave. But that may not be a correct assumption.
We know from the scriptures that the resurrection will happen at one point in time. In other words, the resurrection is not an on-going process that happens to each person individually as they become perfect. Those who are worthy to inherit the celestial kingdom will come forth in what is called the first resurrection or the resurrection of the just (Revelation 20:5-6, Luke 14:14). When that day comes, all those who are worthy will rise from the grave at one time. The rest of the dead must wait until the second resurrection, or the resurrection of the damned, at which time they will all rise from the grave at once.
It is only logical to assume that when the first resurrection occurs there will be those who will have had thousands of years to progress towards perfection while there will be others who will only have had a few years. Given the fact that not everyone is progressing at the same rate, it is only logical to assume that not everyone will be perfect by the time of the first resurrection. If that is true, then what happens after the resurrection to those who are worthy to inherit the celestial kingdom but are not quite perfect enough to enter into exaltation? And will Christ's death on the cross make us perfect at that point?
To better understand the answer to these questions we need to realize that our eternal progression did not start with our life on earth. There was a point in time when we were born to our Father in heaven as a spirit child. From that very moment, we began our journey to perfection under the guidance and tutelage of God. From that first birth we were taught to progress in the same way fathers and mothers on earth teach their new-born children. It is the parents who teach their children how to talk, walk, get dressed, tie their shoes, read, write, and many other things essential to their intellectual and physical growth. They also provide their children with a formal education, usually beginning around the age of five or six and continuing until they have reached a point where they are ready to live life on their own. And even then, parents still continue to offer their children counsel and advice.
Our Father in heaven behaves no differently with His children. While we lived with Him in heaven we were taught those things necessary for us to advance in our spirituality but there came a point when we needed to learn more than what heaven could provide. Therefore, He sent us away to school, here on earth, to learn such things as the knowledge of good and evil, sickness and health, pain and pleasure, sorrow and joy, all which is necessary for us to progress in our spiritual development. However, our training doesn't end when we place our mortal bodies in the grave. Our spirits then move into another realm where we continue our spiritual progression.
Then, at some point during this journey of learning, we will become resurrected.However, that doesn't stop our progression. All it does is usher us into a different environment. If we have not advanced far enough to reach perfection by the time we are resurrected then we must continue moving forward until we do. And when we finally reach that point, those who are worthy of inheriting the celestial kingdom and have been sealed to a spouse for all eternity will then become exalted.
But what about the atonement of Christ? Isn't that necessary for our spiritual perfection? Certainly it is, but the atonement only wipes away our sins. Since no unclean thing can enter the kingdom of heaven, Christ died to make it possible for us to inherit eternal life by makings us spiritually clean. However, being sinless and being perfect are not the same thing.
While it is impossible to be perfect without being cleansed from our sins, we can be sinless without being perfect. In our effort to learn how to become perfect we are going to make mistakes. But even if we commit just one sinful mistake we have become unclean and therefore unworthy to live in the sinless realm of heaven. Christ's atonement makes it possible to have our sins erased as though we had never made them. But doing that doesn't mean we have learned how to behave perfectly. What Christ's atonement does is make it possible for us to continue progressing in our quest for perfection despite our sinful mistakes. There's no sense in progressing if, by the time we finally learn how to be perfect, we're denied entrance into heaven because of our sins.
To be valiant in the testimony of Jesus Christ means that we are striving to do those things that lead to perfection and exaltation. When we stop being valiant then we have also stopped progressing spiritually. That is why those who are not valiant in the testimony of Jesus cannot enter the celestial kingdom because only in the celestial kingdom can progression lead to perfection. If a person doesn't want to pursue a path that leads to perfection then there is no sense having them spend eternity in heaven with a perfect God.
But what happens to a couple if one is more valiant in their efforts to become perfect than their spouse? In such a case, one marriage partner will reach perfection before the other one does. Since husbands and wives can only become exalted together as a couple that means the one spouse cannot enter into exaltation until their partner has also reached perfection. That is why the Lord has said that a man and a woman must become one. They must work together as one as they strive to reach perfection because one without the other cannot obtain exaltation. This is what Paul meant when he said, "neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord." (1 Corinthians 11:11)
If eternal progression continues even after the resurrection this raises the question of what do we do in the celestial world in order to become perfect? The answer is: The same as we do in this life. The greatest commandment is to love God with all of our heart, mind, and soul and the next greatest commandment is to love our neighbor the same way we love ourselves. The apostle Paul explained that "the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." (Galatians 5:14) "Now the end of the commandment is charity (i.e., love, see 2 Nephi 26:30) out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience." (1 Timothy 1:5) That is why Paul said that "love is the fulfilling of the law." (Romans 13:10) Since God's work is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of His children, then the way we show our love to God is by helping Him save His children. And in order to do that we have to show the same kind of love towards our neighbor as God does. That is why these two great commandments are often mentioned together.
Moroni taught that charity is defined as "the pure love of Christ." (Moroni 7:47). "Wherefore, except men shall have charity they cannot inherit that place which [Jesus] hast prepared in the mansions of [His] Father." (Ether 12:34). It is only those who have developed within themselves the same kind of pure love that Christ has who will inherit all that the Father has. They are the ones who will be exalted above all the angels of heaven.
And often times that kind of love is developed and demonstrated through service to others. In fact, true service cannot be done without demonstrating our love to those whom we serve. Paul taught that the reason why Christ organized a church is "For the perfecting of the saints"(Ephesians 4:12,13). And the way the Church helps us to become perfect is through service to others. And the more we serve with pure love the more we measure up to the full stature of Christ.
Jesus taught, "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13) Christ's atonement was the greatest act of service ever performed but it was by no means His only service in our behalf. Both before, during, and after His life on earth, Christ has dedicated His life to serving us. In the same way, every calling in the Church gives us the opportunity to sacrifice a little bit of ourselves to not only be of service to God but, in one way or another, to others as well. And the more valiant we are in serving others the more we become like Christ and the closer we get to becoming perfect.
With this in mind, notice who the scriptures say will inherit the lower levels of the celestial kingdom. These are they who "are ministering servants, to minister for those who are worthy of a far more, and an exceeding, and an eternal weight of glory." In other words, these are those angels whose duty it is to serve those who have reached perfection and have become exalted.
But the scriptures also tell us that those who are in the terrestrial kingdom will be ministered to by those angels from the celestial kingdom who are appointed to minister for them. Likewise, those in the telestial kingdom will also be ministered to by those angels who are appointed to minister unto them (see D&C 76:87-88).
It is in serving both God and man here on earth that we learn how to become perfect. The more diligent we are in keeping the law of love through service the quicker we will progress. But that kind of service can only be found in Christ's Church. It is service to God in helping Him perfect His children that helps us become perfect in the same way our Father in heaven is. And it is that kind of love that qualifies us for exaltation.
And the same is true of the angels in heaven after the resurrection. It is through serving those both above and beneath them that they will continue to have the opportunity to progress towards perfection. But that service is connected with the Church of Jesus Christ, the Firstborn of God. The Church of God has always existed and always will exist. It is the means by which men learn how to become perfect. Since that learning began in our pre-mortal life then the Church of God had to exist there as well. Since the teaching of perfection will continue into the eternities, then the Church of God will likewise exist forever.
The scriptures tell us that those who come forth in the first resurrection and are worthy to inherit the celestial kingdom "are they who are (i.e, belong to) the church of the Firstborn" (D&C 76:54). These are they who "are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angles, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect." (Hebrews 12:22,23). When Paul talks about the spirits of just men who have been made perfect he is talking about those who are worthy to become exalted. That means those who were valiant in their service to God in the Church of Jesus Christ here on earth will still belong to and participate in that same church even after the resurrection whether they are angels or gods.
The doctrine of eternal progression doesn't end with the death of our body nor does it end when our bodies are made alive again. Those who have been valiant in the testimony of Jesus Christ but who have not become perfect by the time of the resurrection will have the opportunity to continue their spiritual journey until they have prepared themselves to enter into the highest degree of heaven.