The Celestial, not the Terrestrial, Inherit the Earth?

“Also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial, and bodies telestial; but the glory of the celestial, one; and the terrestrial, another; and the telestial, another.
There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory” (JST 1 Corinthians 15:40-41).

The prophet Joseph Smith indicated that 1 Corinthians 15:40 should include not only the Latin words “Celestial” and “Terrestrial” but also the never-before-seen “Telestial.” This turn of events is rarely paused at by LDS students of scripture because, after all, those are the names of the three degrees of the kingdom of heaven described in modern revelation:

“And the glory of the celestial is one, even as the glory of the sun is one.
“And the glory of the terrestrial is one, even as the glory of the moon is one.
“And the glory of the telestial is one, even as the glory of the stars is one; for as one star differs from another star in glory, even so differs one from another in glory in the telestial world” (D&C 76:96-98).

A study of the contents of that section of scripture reveals that, “if God rewarded every one according to the deeds done in the body, the term ‘Heaven,’ as intended for the Saints’ eternal home, [included] more kingdoms than one” (see section heading). Of those levels of Heaven, the one termed “Celestial” is the highest and most glorious. From this information alone, a mere linguistic hobbyist would naturally conclude that the highest degree of Heaven must be in the heavens, whereas the intermediate degree, the “Terrestrial,” would in some way be upon the earth, as the following table demonstrates:

º of GloryLatin/Paul/JSTEnglish Translation
3rd Heaven (high)CelestialOf the heavens
2nd Heaven (mid)TerrestrialOf the Earth
1st Heaven (low)TelestialOf the ???

But further study of modern revelation proves this conclusion flawed. It was later revealed through Joseph Smith that:

“After it hath filled the measure of its creation, [the Earth] shall be crowned with glory, even with the presence of God the Father;
“That bodies who are of the celestial kingdom may possess it forever and ever; for, for this intent was it made and created, and for this intent are they sanctified.
“And they who are not sanctified through the law which I have given unto you, even the law of Christ, must inherit another kingdom, even that of a terrestrial kingdom, or that of a telestial kingdom” (D&C 88:19-21).

Did you catch the near-180º twist on the previous, linguistically-derived conclusion? Those who are “of the heavens” (Celestial) will possess the earth, albeit in a glorified state; those who are “of the Earth” (Terrestrial) will inherit ‘another kingdom.’ Seems a little backward at the moment—and we haven’t even accounted for the glory of these kingdoms being compare to the sun, the moon, and the stars!

So what’s going on? Let’s review what we know so far:

º of GloryLatin/Paul/JSTEnglish TranslationLocaleSymbol
3rd Heaven (high)CelestialOf the heavensEarthSun
2nd Heaven (mid)TerrestrialOf the EarthElsewhereMoon
1st Heaven (low)TelestialOf the ???ElsewhereStars

Paul and Joseph Smith have actually given us the information we need to solve this little puzzle all along, and it just takes reading the whole text in context (I know, I know—I didn’t begin this whole post with in the context either, but that’s to make the point: we often take for granted the depth of the Gospel by truncating our source material and in the process of memorizing something easily we lose the depth of the heritage that made the information worth studying in the first place).

Joseph Smith once taught, “I have a key by which I understand the scriptures. I enquire, what was the question which drew out the answer, or caused Jesus to utter the parable?” (Scriptural Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith [STPJS], pp. 276 – 277). If we apply the same to Paul, we will discover just what he meant by sun, moon, and stars or Celestial, Terrestrial, Telestial. Was Paul answering questions with these statements? Yes. Matching the statements to the questions gives us the key of understanding; only a few verses earlier Paul says:

“But some man will say, How are the dead raised up? and with what body do they come?” (1 Corinthians 15:35).

In response to these two questions, Paul gives two respective answers (the verses quoted at the start of this essay) summarized in the following table:

Question (v. 35)Response (vv. 40 – 41)
How are the dead raised up?Bodies Celestial
Bodies Terrestrial
Bodies Telestial
With what body do they come?Glorious as the sun
Glorious as the moon
Glorious as the stars

So per Paul’s referenced questions and Joseph Smith’s inspired addition (‘bodies Telestial’) we can see that there is a parallel structure to these answers but the key is that they address two different qualities concerning resurrected bodies: the first is their manner of resurrection, the second is the type of body that they receive. The latter point seems natural enough—to say that resurrected bodies will differ in glory like comparing the light seen from earth of the sun, moon, or stars—each symbol stepping down in apparent magnitude, among other aspects. But it is the former quality—the manner of their resurrecting—that requires more exposition to understand; after all, what is ‘telestial’ anyway?

This question cannot be positively answered by an appeal to manuscripts or ancient language lexicons because it does not show up in the records presently extant. The best we can do is attempt a corroboration between etymologies and revelation. With that in mind, there is a very striking solution that rings true in the presence of what we have to work with:

τῆλε têle is an ancient Greek adverb that means “distantly,” “far off,” and is related to τέλος (télos), which means “end” (see the Wiktionary entry for τῆλε). Applied to the context of the question of how bodies are resurrected, this etymological application would answer, “Distantly; at the end.” But can that be corroborated with revelation? Let us take a look at the Lord’s description to Joseph Smith of how bodies will be resurrected:

“Speaking of the resurrection of the dead, concerning those who shall hear the voice of the Son of Man and shall come forth; they who have done good, in the resurrection of the just; and they who have done evil, in the resurrection of the unjust….
“[The Celestial] are they whom [the Lord] shall bring with him, when he shall come in the clouds of heaven to reign on the earth over his people.
“[The Celestial and Terrestrial] are they who shall have part in the first resurrection….
“[The Terrestrial] are they who receive of the presence of the Son, but not of the fulness of the Father.
“Wherefore, they are bodies terrestrial, and not bodies celestial, and differ in glory as the moon differs from the sun….
“[The Telestial] are they who shall not be redeemed from the devil until the last resurrection, until the Lord, even Christ the Lamb, shall have finished his work” (D&C 76:16 – 17, 63 – 64, 77 – 78, 85).

Also described in another section:

“And the saints that are upon the earth, who are alive, shall be quickened and be caught up to meet him.
“And they who have slept in their graves shall come forth, for their graves shall be opened; and they also shall be caught up to meet him in the midst of the pillar of heaven
“They are Christ’s, the first fruits, they who shall descend with him first, and they who are on the earth and in their graves, who are first caught up to meet him; and all this by the voice of the sounding of the trump of the angel of God.
“And after this another angel shall sound, which is the second trump; and then cometh the redemption of those who are Christ’s at his coming; who have received their part in that prison which is prepared for them, that they might receive the gospel, and be judged according to men in the flesh.
“And again, another trump shall sound, which is the third trump; and then come the spirits of men who are to be judged, and are found under condemnation;
“And these are the rest of the dead; and they live not again until the thousand years are ended, neither again, until the end of the earth” (D&C 88:96-101).

Did you note it? The Telestial come forth in the ‘last’ resurrection when the work of God on the earth is ‘finished,’ not until ‘the end’ of the earth. That is a perfect match for the proposed meaning of Telestial based on the ancient Greek τῆλε têle (“far off, distantly”). And if you were paying attention to those verses you would also discover that the other two manners of resurrection are touched upon too.

Let’s sum up and review with a final set of tables for clarity:

º of GloryCalledHow?Body?Final Locale
3rd Heaven (high)CelestialComing in the heavens or caught up to the heavensBright as the sunThe resurrected earth
2nd Heaven (mid)TerrestrialComing out of the grave and remaining on the groundBright as the moonNot yet revealed
1st Heaven (low)TelestialComing forth at the end, at a far off timeDim as the starsNot yet revealed

In conclusion, Joseph Smith the Seer was not messing around when he inserted a missing word into Paul’s letter to the saints at Corinth. Neither could the rough, unschooled plowboy have calculated so perfect a loanword from the ancient Greek to flesh out the doctrines revealed to him or Paul concerning the resurrection of the wicked dead.

For the righteous who are inducted into the science of theology through the ordinances instituted therein and are faithful to their covenants, the promise is that they will be caught up in the sky when Christ comes and will rule with him as kings and queens, eventually making the world their final, glorious home. All the rest do not have that promise.

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