Summary: How should a missionary respond when an investigator asks if there is progression between kingdoms of glory? Short answer: We don’t know. The Church has no official position on the subject. As a missionary, remain neutral but remind them to be prayerful, search the scriptures, and the Spirit of God will lead them to all truth.
Missionary Lesson 2: The Plan of Salvation
Missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have five lessons that they teach to new members of the faith before they are baptized. These lessons contain the basic principles of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, commandments of our religion, and commitments new members should be prepared to make as they prepare for baptism. The second lesson is about The Plan of Salvation, and discusses God’s plan for us, our premortal life, agency, the fall of Adam and Eve, the purpose of life and death, the Spirit World, resurrection, and the three Degrees of Glory (Telestial, Terrestrial, and Celestial Kingdoms).
The plan of salvation drawn many ways over the years, but is often illustrated as a flow chart or series of circles. And while such artistic interpretations have there benefits as a teaching tool, they also have their limitations. You can see some examples of those illustrations above. The one on the far left was part of our official flip chart of visual aids when I served my mission in Argentina, many moons ago. The one on the bottom right is the illustration that is currently in the Preach My Gospel (PMG) Manual, A Guide to Missionary Service.
Preach My Gospel Does Not Answer Every Question. This is One Such Case.
When I was a missionary, I don’t recall ever being asked, during the plan of salvation lesson, if progression from kingdom to kingdom was possible, but I know it is a question missionaries sometimes get from people they teach. In my study of the lesson material the missionaries use for teaching, there is no discussion about this issue. When I widen my search parameters, and look for the Church’s teachings on the subject, it becomes a little murky, with Church leaders falling on both sides of the argument. Ultimately, it appears the Church has no official position on the subject of progression between kingdoms of glory. Which leaves missionaries in the situation where I think they should fall back on something it says in the introduction to PMG: “Preach My Gospel focuses on the essentials of missionary work. It does not answer every question or situation you will encounter. You will be most effective as you follow the Spirit, search the scriptures, keep the commandments, and apply what you learn.”
Therefore, when an investigator asks a question like this, I think it is best to stay neutral, say we don’t know the answer, and refer them to the scriptures, to the words of the living prophets, and to prayer to God who is the source of all truth and can reveal all things through His Spirit. If the friend you are teaching is concerned that it would not be fair for God to force someone to live in a lower kingdom forever without the chance of higher blessings, then I recommend telling them that though you don’t know the specifics, you do know that God is always fair, and he loves his children eternally and provides them with every opportunity possible to receive celestial blessings.
More Background and Info on the Doctrine of Progression Between Kingdoms
The question of progression from one kingdom to another is one that many people have had for many years, and unfortunately, while there are many opinions on it, there the Church has no official position on it. In fact, it’s kind of funny, the Church’s officially stated position is that they have no official position on this subject. In 1952 and again in 1965, the Secretary to the First Presidency of the Church said:
“The brethren direct me to say that the Church has never announced a definite doctrine upon this point. Some of the brethren have held the view that it was possible in the course of progression to advance from one glory to another, invoking the principle of eternal progression; others of the brethren have taken the opposite view. But as stated, the Church has never announced a definite doctrine on this point.” (signed Joseph L Anderson)
The following are some scriptures and authoritative quotes on both side of the issue. If you believe there is no progression between kingdoms, then you can certainly find quotes from modern prophets and their interpretation of multiple scriptures to support their viewpoint. Similarly, people who believe there is progression from one kingdom to another can site their own scriptural support and quotes from modern prophets.
Leaders Who Have Said Progression between Kingdoms Is Not Possible
First, let’s read from people who say progression between kingdoms is not possible. President Joseph Fielding Smith, in his book, Doctrines of Salvation, said, “It has been asked if it is possible for one who inherits the telestial glory to advance in time to the celestial glory. The answer to this question is, NO!”
Similarly, President Spencer W. Kimball, in his book, The Miracle of Forgiveness, said “After a person has been assigned to this place in the kingdom, either in the telestial, the terrestrial or the celestial, or to his exaltation, he will never advance from the assigned glory to another glory. That is eternal!”
Elder Bruce R. McConkie, in a BYU talk in 1980, called it a great “heresy” to say there is progression from one kingdom to another. “There are those who say that there is progression from one kingdom to another in the eternal worlds or that lower kingdoms eventually progress to where higher kingdoms once were. This belief lulls men into a state of carnal security.”
Leaders Who Have Said Progression between Kingdoms Is Possible
So, let’s look at the other side of the argument, because there are plenty of scriptures and quotes from the prophets that support the opposite point of view. The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “There is never a time when the spirit is too old to approach God. All are within the reach of pardoning mercy, who have not committed the unpardonable sin.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith)
Brigham Young said, “None would inherit this earth when it became celestial and translated into the presence of God but those who would be crowned as Gods — all others would have to inherit another kingdom — they would eventually have the privilege of proving themselves worthy and advancing to a celestial kingdom but it would be a slow process.” (Wilford Woodruff Journal, 5 Aug 1855)
James E. Talmage said, “It is reasonable to believe, in the absence of direct revelation by which alone absolute knowledge of the matter could be acquired, that, in accordance with God’s plan of eternal progression, advancement from grade to grade within any kingdom, and from kingdom to kingdom, will be provided for.” (The Articles of Faith [1899 edition])
J. Reuben Clark, of the First Presidency said, “I am not a strict constructionalist, believing that we seal our eternal progress by what we do here. It is my belief that God will save all of His children that he can: and while, if we live unrighteously here, we shall not go to the other side in the same status, so to speak, as those who lived righteously; nevertheless, the unrighteous will have their chance, and in the eons of the eternities that are to follow, they, too, may climb to the destinies to which they who are righteous and serve God, have climbed to those eternities that are to come.” (Church News, 23 April 1960)
Adding Nuance to the Argument: Defining the Word Eternal
Personally, I tend to side more with the people who say progression between kingdoms is possible, though I do not necessarily disagree with the prophets and apostles on the other side of the issue, if you parse their words carefully. For example, President Kimball stresses that the assignment to a kingdom of glory is eternal, but you see, there is a difference between the meaning of “eternal” and “no end”.
In a revelation received by Joseph Smith in 1829, Christ is talking about the judgment at the end of the Millennial reign in which Satan will be destroyed and about the “weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth” of those who are judged and found at His “left hand” (D&C 19:5). Then God says something very interesting: “Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment. Again, it is written eternal damnation” (D&C 19:6-7).
If you read the whole section, God seems to be trying to convey that endless and eternal doesn’t mean that something will not end. Rather endless and eternal are adjectives describing the degrees (D&C 19:20) or depths of the punishment or reward, not its length of time. Since coming to the realization of the difference between “eternal” and “no end”, I have come to view eternal things and the concept of eternity in a whole new way. So if you reread the quotes above in that light, you may come to different conclusions.
Scripture and Temple Patterns Teach Progression
It makes sense to me that there is progression between the kingdoms of glory (telestial, terrestrial, and celestial). In the temple, we are taught that the world we now live in is part of the telestial kingdom and as we make and keep sacred covenants, we can progress from our present existence to one of terrestrial glory, and then ultimately to one of celestial glory. The scriptures teach that within each kingdom are multiple degrees (see D&D 131:1), so to me the pattern is clear–there is a gradient spectrum when it comes to eternal glory and the kingdoms of heaven and we are all moving along it. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the prophets have long taught that wherever we are on that continuum, our direction in that eternal progression is more important than most other factors such as speed or position.
My Conclusion: Progression between Kingdoms Is Possible–But Decide for Yourself
Based on my study of the issue, the words of the scriptures and the modern prophets, along with my own pondering and sorting through the logic of it all, I have come to the opinion that progression from one kingdom to another is possible. Such eternal progress fits in perfectly with what I know of God’s love and plan for us, his children. But you should study the topic for yourself and come to your own conclusion. I think there is still a lot more for all of us to learn, so I look forward to the day when I can study this topic in even greater detail.