An Expansive Heaven: Mercy in the Plan of Salvation

An Expansive Heaven: Mercy in the Plan of Salvation

6 min read

In section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord uses a metaphor to compare the differences in glory between the kingdoms of God.

70 These are they whose bodies are celestial, whose glory is that of the sun, even the glory of God, the highest of all, whose glory the sun of the firmament is written of as being typical.

71 And again, we saw the terrestrial world, and behold and lo, these are they who are of the terrestrial, whose glory differs from that of the church of the Firstborn who have received the fulness of the Father, even as that of the moon differs from the sun in the firmament.

81 And again, we saw the glory of the telestial, which glory is that of the lesser, even as the glory of the stars differs from that of the glory of the moon in the firmament.

D&C 76:70-71, 81

So, we have the Celestial kingdom’s “glory is that of the sun” (v70), the Terrestrial kingdom’s “glory differs” even as that of the moon differs from the sun” (v71), and the Telestial kingdom’s glory is “even as the glory of the stars differs from that of the glory of the moon” (v81).

What is generally interpreted by this mapping of the Lord’s kingdoms to objects we observe in the sky is that 1) The power and glory of the Celestial kingdom is infinite and 2) God’s other kingdoms will have a wide range of types of people in them and that the idea of one universal heaven and one universal hell is a false dichotomy. An interesting question to ask ourselves is whether we treat this stratification of God’s kingdoms as an expanded heaven or expanded hell? How does doing so affect our culture and church? How do we view people differently when we see the plan of salvation as inclusive or exclusive? And does it cause our love to expand, or contract?

There’s a another, very powerful lesson that can be learned which I believe shows how we can approach this as an expansion of heaven rather than an expansion of hell. And this lesson comes with a little help from astronomy.

Norman Pogson
Norman Pogson

In the 19th century, during the 1830s, it was discovered that the eye detects light intensity logarithmically rather than linearly. This combined with the need to have a universal way to measure and compare the intensity of light from objects observed in the sky lead the astronomer Norman Pogson to propose that a star that has a magnitude equal to 1 is 100 times brighter than a star of magnitude 6. This lead to the standard that a difference in 1 magnitude translates to 2.512 times in brightness or intensity.

Since then, astronomers have charted the brightness of objects they observe in the sky. An interesting fact emerges when one looks at these charts and calculates the difference in brightness between the sun, moon, and stars.

On this scale, the sun has a magnitude value of -26.74. The moon has a magnitude value of -12.74. Therefore the difference in brightness between the sun and the moon is 2.51214, which is a factor of 398,359. Put another way, the sun is 398,359 times brighter than the moon.

Following this method of calculation, the following results can be determined for different kinds of objects in the sky:

Object Magnitude Scale
Full moon -12.74 Sun is 394,359 times brighter
Sirius (brightest star) -1.46 Sun is ~12.95 billion times brighter
Faintest observable by human 8 Sun is ~78.82 trillion times brighter
Faintest observable (natural light) 36 Sun is ~12.51 septillion times brighter (1.25 x 1025)

Abraham was promised, “I will multiply thee, and thy seed” and if thou canst count the number of sands, so shall be the number of thy seeds” (Abr. 3:14). In Doctrine and Covenants 76 verse 109 it says, “we saw the glory of the inhabitants of the telestial world, that they were as innumerable as the stars in the firmament of heaven, or as the sand upon the seashore.”

Globular cluster Messier 56
Globular cluster Messier 56

It is interesting to note that rough calculations of things such as the number of grains of sand on earth or the number of stars in the universe are estimated in the 1018 to 1022 range, close to this same septillion scale. The same scale involved in those metaphors is the same scale involved in the metaphor of the sun, moon, and stars. These numbers are so large that they begin to blur the line between the quantifiable and the infinite.

Now, while numbers, estimates, and calculations are interesting and informative, we should avoid getting too caught up in the exactness of them since our mortal view of the universe will always be imperfect. It’s important to note that the Lord prefaces this by rhetorically asking, “Unto what shall I liken these kingdoms, that ye may understand?”, so this metaphor is only to relate something beyond our understanding into something that we have some understanding about.

So, what does this all have to do with the kingdoms of God? This view from astronomy projected onto the metaphor of heavenly kingdoms teaches us that God’s plan is large enough for each and every one of us. The plan of salvation is infinitely diverse to fit God’s infinitely diverse children. So when we say, “God has a plan for you.” we’re not just saying something trite or platitudinous. We’re not even saying that plan is exactly the same for every person. Rather we say this with the faith that the scale, scope, diversity, and glory of heavenly kingdoms are large enough for all.

This expansive view of the plan of salvation gives us hope and joy for all. In this view, the varying kingdoms of heaven expand to reach God’s children rather than contract away from them. And likewise we can learn to expand our love to the diversity of God’s children rather than contract away from those different from us.