Evangelical Questions: Why do you believe in Levels of Heaven?
by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about the 3 kingdoms of Heaven. As you know we’re going through the Come Follow Me readings and addressing common questions that Evangelicals ask about our faith as we go along. Our purpose here is not to fuel debate but to help you understand where your Evangelical friends and family are coming from so that you can have better conversations with them, and perhaps even be able to offer them a bit of our faith in a way they can understand.
Quick announcement for you first: This coming weekend, Friday Sept 22 – Saturday Sept 23 is an online only conference put on by FAIR and the focus is evidence for the Book of Mormon. I am not presenting at this conference but I do get to help out a bit with introductions and questions which I am thrilled to death over because it means I get to hang out with some very smart people all day long. The Friday evening presentation is none other than Richard Bushman. On Saturday there are a number of speakers including Stephen Smoot – he’s the most up-to-date scholar on issues surrounding the Book of Abraham; a presentation by my 2 favorite Spencers – Spencer Marsh and Spencer Kraus – which I think has been jokingly titled, “Revealing the One True Spencer” but in reality is about 2 Nephi 19:1, which is rather a puzzling verse. Several good talks on archeology challenges and ancient artifacts. I’ll be there live with the speakers, but the conference is online only and you can stream it on the FAIR YouTube channel.
Okay, we’re going to talk about the levels of Heaven. Our jumping-off verse is 2 Corinthians 12:2:
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows.
And I’ve noticed that Latter-day Saints sometimes are confused about why Evangelicals don’t accept this idea, it’s in the Bible after all. I want to talk through how and why Evangelicals see this verse in 2 Corinthians the way they do, and then we’ll talk about some intersections with our faith and where you might go in conversation about this topic.
I don’t have research to point to that backs this up, but my sense is that if you asked most Evangelicals what Paul means by “the 3rd Heaven” they wouldn’t even understand the question. It’s considered an obscure verse that they generally don’t spend a lot of time on so the average Evangelical person might not even know it’s in scripture. But, for those who do, they have a very concrete (meaning physical) explanation for it – rather than a spiritual one. Which brings up a bigger question: Why do we – why does anyone – take some verses literally and some spiritually? Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints use both techniques, but at different times and for different reasons. The cynical explanation is that the other group, the group that is opposite of you, does this at their own convenience only to fit their doctrine in. But I think it’s more complex than that. Both Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals (as well as every other denominational group or religion out there) are heavily influenced by a set of interpretative rules called hermeneutics. The hermeneutic you use – here the choices are physical or spiritual, but there are lots of others – determines how you will interpret a passage. Let me make an analogy to help you understand.
In English, there is a proper order for adjectives in a sentence. An adjective is a descriptive word and if you string them together in the wrong order your sentence won’t sound right. However, if you ask almost any native English speaker to name that order, they can’t do it. I can’t do it. I had to look the order up for this talk to make sure I got it right – it’s a rule I follow, but don’t even know I’m following it. I just know it sounds right. The order is Quantity, Quality, Size, Age, Shape, Color Proper adjective (often nationality, other place of origin), and Purpose. A classic example of getting this order correct is the sentence, “I love that really big old green antique car.” If you’re a native speaker, this sounds right to your ears while, “I love that antique, green, old, big car,” just doesn’t sound right. You follow this rule without even knowing the rule exists. And hermeneutics are like this. Knowing when to read literally or physically and when to read spiritually is a rule that you follow without even knowing there is a rule. And Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints use different rules. So when they interpret something, it doesn’t sound quite right to our ears – and vice versa.
What are the Evangelical rules for the interpretation of a verse like this one in 2 Cor? They interpret this verse literally by saying that the first heaven refers to the atmospheric where the birds live (and yes, this is how it’s normally phrased.). The second heaven is the area of the stars and planets. The third heaven is the dwelling place of God and Heaven. But why?
So, I think the tendency here is for Latter-day Saints to claim that Evangelicals get it wrong because they don’t have the Spirit and therefore can’t interpret correctly. But that’s not a very satisfying answer and it probably breeds more us-them than is good for anyone. So let me offer a couple different ways to understand what’s happening here.
First, you remember from past episodes that the Evangelical movement is not even 100 years old, and it really came of age alongside the Baby Boomers. It is very much a post-WW2 American invention. The cultural mix at the time was encouraging everyone to move into the modern world with all its conveniences. And they didn’t want to be seen as old fuddy-duddies. If you’re close to my age, our family lines probably play out in a similar fashion. My mother was born in the first wave of the baby boom, but her parents were both born in the 19-teens, and all 4 of her grandparents were born in the 1800’s. The Evangelical movement rose up with these baby boomers whose parents and grandparents seemed to be from an entirely different era. So they wanted an entirely different version of church than what their parents and grandparents had which was now out of fashion for being too fundamentalist and strict. They found what they were looking for in the Evangelical movement. The Evangelicals were a reaction to the fundamentalists who came before them.
But like with all reactionary movements, the very thing they’re reacting against often gets smuggled right in any way, and in this case, we’re talking about the temptation to interpret in an overly literal way. They will say things like, “The Bible is the literal word of God.” At face value, what that sentence means is that God’s message to use is found in this book. But what that gets morphed into is something like: everything in the Bible should be taken literally. This leaves you in a weird place if you read in Luke that Jesus says he gathers us like baby chicks under his wings because the rule of “everything should be taken literally” falls apart unless you want to regard Christ as some kind of giant cosmic chicken. So what has happened with Evangelicals is that their interpretative rule is something like: in order to take scripture seriously you have to take it literally whenever possible – and when it is not possible you must find the spiritual meaning instead. In other words, if it can be literal – it should be taken literally. Evangelicals will get a little squirmy if you try to say this plainly. When they ask, “Do you take the Bible literally?” what they’re really asking is, “Do you think the Bible is actually true?” The word “literal” here is morphing in meaning – it’s okay, words do that within the context of a culture. But it leaves Evangelicals with this sense of the literal meaning has to come first.
So, when they look at our verse about the third Heaven in 2 Corinthians their first impulse is to look for a literal meaning. Remember, these rules are often as invisible to people as the English rules of which order adjectives go in – everyone follows the rule, even though most people don’t know it exists. And, Evangelicals have a second interpretation rule here that reinforces the first: If another verse in the Bible mentions the same thing, it should be used to enhance the meaning of the verse in question. So, Evangelicals interpret the 1st Heaven to be where the atmosphere and the birds are and they back that up with a verse like Deut 28:12, “The Lord will open for you His good storehouse, the heavens, to give rain to your land in its season.” And they see this as a perfectly valid explanation. Paul mentions a 3rd Heaven, implying that there are 1st and 2nd Heavens. Can we interpret this literally? Yes, and we have scriptures that do so, a literal interpretation works and therefore should be used.
Latter-day Saints have our own history of why things have been interpreted the way they have. And we face the same reality that Evangelicals do – many of the rules we use for interpretation are rather invisible to us, we just know what sounds right. My experience has been – and I’m sure some of you have had different experiences and I’d love to read about them in the comments – but my experience has been that the hermeneutics Latter-day Saints most often use is something called an emendatory (amendatory) hermeneutic which just means that we have been given additional information or clarity on what the Bible is talking about through either the Book of Mormon or our modern Prophets. In general, we would look at a verse like this one about the 3rd Heaven and easily be able to quote all kinds of modern revelation that help us know what “the 3rd Heaven” actually means. The challenge for Latter-day Saints comes in 2 directions. Either we’re overly quick to jump to, “this part of the Bible is clearly not translated correctly and I don’t have to do any study or work to try and tease out some meaning.” Or, we over-relate a Biblical passage to modern revelation – sometimes making connections that the Prophet himself (whichever one speaking) did not make. Latter-day Saints can also go a little too heavy on literal interpretation just like Evangelicals can simply because we’re impacted by history here too – the early half of the 20th century was dominated by more literal/fundamentalist thinking in our church too.
Okay, so how do you talk about this concept with your Evangelical friends? I have 2 thoughts.
First, Jesus doens’t use the phrase “levels of Heaven” or “Kingdoms of Heaven” but he does talk about varying degrees of reward in Heaven and makes it clear that certain things we do here on Earth will bring more reward, and certain things less reward. For example: Matthew 5 Jesus says there is a great reward for those who are persecuted. Meaning that the people who did not have to face persecution will not be rewarded in that way. Jesus is offering a compensatory reward for suffering faithfully for his name. In the very next chapter Jesus talks about how some folks really want to draw attention to the fact that they’re giving to the poor – Jesus tells us that these people have their reward in full already and this behavior will not get them further reward in Heaven. Romans 2 Paul tells us God will give to every man based on his deeds. In 1 Cor 3 Paul teaches that our works will be judged – some will burn up, and some will endure – those who produce works that endure will be rewarded. All this to say, pointing out that these passages (and many others) describe different degrees of reward and that might open up the conversation really nicely.
My second thought on how to talk with Evangelicals about this: Read the CS Lewis book, “The Great Divorce.” It’s fiction and a rather easy read. The audio book is only about 3 hours. Lewis was not a member of our faith, and at times actually had some rather snarky things to say about our faith, but in The Great Divorce, he sees the same truth we’re talking about. Here is the basic plot: It’s set in the afterlife and people from the lower kingdoms (here represented by a large, noisy city) are given a chance to go on a bus ride to the higher kingdoms. In the book the higher kingdoms are thought of as being closer to God – the countryside is closer to God than the city – and the great mountain is where God lives but its rather steep and hard to get to. However, God reigns over all 3 kingdoms. You might think that when the people from the lower kingdom get a glimpse of the country side and its fresh air that they might awaken their desire to progress. But they don’t. They complain that the color of the grass is such a vivid green it hurts their eyes and feels “too real” when they put their feet on it. They complain that living in the countryside requires too much of them and they want to get back on the bus and go home where it’s comfortable. The point here is that the people who spent their lives preparing to live closer to God are the ones who are best able to adapt to the higher kingdoms. You can’t climb the great mountain without some training. But in the book, progression is possible if you want it. Most people don’t. Lewis never intended this as a pro-LDS book by any means – and yet he is getting at some of the very things we’re saying about 3 Heavens. I actually read this book long before I investigated the church and it was an important thing for me to have on board in my brain as I learned how to adjust to a different way of thinking about eternity.
I hope this episode helps you think through some ways of how to understand your Evangelical friends and how to talk with them about the beautiful doctrine we have about Heaven in a way that they can actually hear.
Next week we’re talking about the phrase, “another gospel” in Galatians. Looking forward to seeing you then.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.