I like what you’ve written to me about the need for faith, but I still find myself surrounded by evidences that God, as a supreme controller of all things (nature, human affairs, etc.), is cruel and unfair. For one, he put you and I into this cold and lonely world and then gave us sickness and infirmity, old age and all manner of undeserved harshness, on top of that.
If this is what it means to be “created in his image,” then why have him as my father? All he appears capable of producing is a sad world of hurt.
“And verily I say unto thee that thou shalt lay aside the things of this world, and seek for the things of a better” (Doctrine and Covenants 25:10).
The commandment above is the theme of my letter to you, Thomas, and your ability to fulfill it will be at the root of your possible reconciliation with God. I assure you that at some day (hopefully sooner than the “last day”), you will recognize that our Father in Heaven is neither ‘cruel’ nor ‘unfair,’ but fair, loving, and wise in all his affairs with his children, whose names and circumstances he knows, including yours.
But his knowledge of even all things does not diminish or absolve your responsibility to choose him and to set aside your sins that you may regain his presence.
Now, there is a question found in the Bible whose answer, I believe, will help you understand how it is that God will be called “just” by all his Children at some future day. It was a question that Paul endeavored to answer, telling the Christians at Corinth that this question was going to arise among them (disclaimer: I’m going to assume in all of this that you understand that what is meant by “the resurrection” is a return of the spirits of all mankind to their bodies, per Christ’s actual, physical resurrection):
“But some man will say, How are the dead raised up? and with what body do they come?” (1 Corinthians 15:35).
To which question Paul gives a terse but revealing answer regarding the nature of our short, mortal existence:
“Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die” (1 Cor. 15:36).
Question: as humans what do we sow? Answer: other humans (children), who are then racked with ‘sickness and infirmity, old age and all manner of undeserved harshness,’ as you pointed out in your letter. Sowing seed as an analogy of human reproduction is key to understanding the rest of what Paul is talking about, as you will see.
Also note: what does it mean to be ‘quickened’? The Greek term is ζῳοποιέω zóopoieó, which means “to vivify” or “to animate,” and it is often used in reference to the notion of being alive.
With this understanding, let’s rephrase the above verse in extremely plain terms remembering that Paul is answering the question of the nature of a resurrected body:
“Thou fool, [the bodies] that are produced in our lifetimes are not fully alive unless they [first] die.”
This seems to be a strange state of things: our bodies are not alive unless they are first dead? What could Paul mean? Luckily he continues his explanation:
“And that which thou sowest, thou sowest not that body that shall be, but bare grain, it may chance of wheat, or of some other grain:
“But God giveth it a body as it hath pleased him, and to every seed his own body” (1 Cor. 15:37-38).
When a man plants a seed in a field, it is beyond plain that he is not sticking the final result into the ground (e.g. a stalk of wheat, or some other grain) but the necessary beginning of that which shall be. According to Paul, it is the same with our mortal bodies: they are the seeds to something greater that is yet to be, and yet mortality is necessary (on multiple levels, if you recall). Moreover, whatever that thing ‘to be’ is, it is given of God—and not to man—’to every seed his own body.’
A little later in the chapter, Paul continues to drive the point home that the species of man is not and can not be fully developed in mortality (i.e. before death; before resurrection), and he does so with the sustained motif of our current bodies being mere seeds. In fact, he goes on to say that our present state, besides being temporary—or preparatory—is also marked by its weak and frail setting, which shall not always abide:
“[The body] is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption:
“It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory:
it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power:
“It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:42-44).
(Take solace in at least that knowledge, Thomas: ‘sickness and infirmity, old age and all manner of undeserved harshness’ is temporary! You will one day see that the suffering in body you go through now is not only a brief moment in grand scheme of things but also very instructive.)
But what shall this seed of a body eventually become? If we are merely in “seed form” (or, more aptly, embryo) at this time, ‘with what body shall [we] come’ when we are ‘quickened’ after death? Paul explains:
“All flesh is not the same flesh: but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds.
“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 Cor. 15:39-41, italics added).
Paul wants to make it abundantly clear that what will be—what we will be—is, to borrow the modern phrase, “an entirely different animal” from what we are now. And he literally uses the examples of various classes of animal life to reinforce the idea. In effect, he says that as things now stand we have humans, which are a thing different from bears, which are a thing different from dolphins, which are a thing different from sparrows. And where does all this lead? It leads to the continued statement that inasmuch as those things are wholly different from one another (though all are forms of ‘flesh’), there will be different types of ‘bodies’ given to mankind in their resurrected, final state that will be things wholly different from one another, here described as ‘celestial,’ ‘terrestrial,’ and ‘telestial’ bodies (note that this last term is added by Joseph Smith through divine revelation).
Now, these three differing ‘glories’ of bodies (as Paul puts it) provide the answer to the two questions he first predicted would be asked of him: ‘ how are the dead raised up? and  with what body do they come?’ Let us consider his answer to the latter first (number two).
We’ve already established that Paul considers our present bodies to be the embryos of something mature to come, and now he is telling us that this full-grown form will come in one of at least three general kinds. He continues to elaborate on their distinguishing feature—their degree of glory—by comparing each one to the apparent magnitude of easily differentiated luminaries: the sun (by and far the brightest), the moon (far less bright), and the stars (quite dim). We are to understand, by further revelation, that this is a reference to the very nature of resurrected bodies, some being of a higher quality or power than others:
“And they who are not sanctified through the law which I have given unto you, even the law of Christ, must inherit another kingdom [other than the celestial kingdom], even that of a terrestrial kingdom, or that of a telestial kingdom.
“For he who is not able to abide the law of a celestial kingdom cannot abide a celestial glory.
“And he who cannot abide the law of a terrestrial kingdom cannot abide a terrestrial glory.
“And he who cannot abide the law of a telestial kingdom cannot abide a telestial glory…” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:21-24, emphasis added).
Borrowing the names Paul uses in describing the degrees of resurrected glory (i.e. celestial, terrestrial, and telestial), the above revelation states that the type of body one receives at the resurrection will determine the level of Heaven one can be admitted to (Paul spoke of the “third heaven” once, which corresponds to the ‘celestial kingdom’ named above; I have written to you about these levels or degrees before).
Now that we have it established that our fully grown stature will be one of three general forms—with the kind designated as celestial being the greatest of all of these (by a long shot if we’re talking about a difference commensurate to the change in magnitude between the sun and moon), terrestrial being the middle, and telestial the least—we can turn to Paul’s answer of the first question he posed for himself (number , above): ‘how are the dead raised up?’ The answer is in the names he gave the types of bodies that will be in the resurrection: celestial, terrestrial, and telestial.
The original Greek that Paul used for these words is known for two of the words, namely: celestial and terrestrial. Those words were ἐπουράνια epourania (“heavenly”) and ἐπίγεια epigeia (“earthly”), respectively. The King James translators, for whatever reason, rendered these instances of the words in their Latin/Old French forms, familiar to us today for their continued usage in modern English, but in other places in the King James Version of the Bible the words are rendered as heavenly and earthly, respectively, as they literally mean such.
The third term, however, telestial, is, as mentioned before, a product of revelation through the prophet Joseph Smith. The term first appears (in conjunction with the other two, known terms) in a revelation he received concerning the resurrection of the dead while revising the Bible where necessary, going through it verse by verse, through direction from God. Sometime later, when reaching the verses of 1 Corinthians chapter 15, the word again appeared in its already understood place.
That said, the word has proven to be somewhat problematic for scholars who refuse to recognize the calling of the prophet Joseph. For one, it is not a word that exists in our known English lexicon; furthermore, the word is set inline with two other known terms that, though their meanings are clear, go against any perceivable pattern that Joseph Smith seemed to establish.
For example, the three degrees of Heaven refer to the eventual glorified destination of us, God’s children: the celestial inheriting as their kingdom, in fact, the earth on which we now live (though glorified—do you remember that?). Based purely on lexical meanings, it would seem more appropriate for the earth to be associated with the middle kingdom, the terrestrial kingdom (after all, it does mean “earthly”) and not the celestial. Nevertheless, the revelations state that righteous will inherit the earth as the kingdom of the celestial.
To add to this seeming inconsistency on the part of Joseph Smith’s revealed eschatological system, the connection between 1 Corinthians 15 verses 40 and 41, is further derided by critical scholars in that Paul connects the light of the sun as being typical of this celestial degree of glory and not the earth, and the terrestrial seems to lose all relatedness when the moon is set forth as its symbol.
But symbol of what? It would be well for the student of the scriptures to remember that Paul is here answering specific questions. We will return to this in a moment.
The claim put forth by Joseph Smith is, in essence, that Paul’s original letter contained a third term in the Greek that we are not now familiar with: telestial. That word can be demonstrably shown to be derived from τέλος telos, which means “an end” or “consummation” (see Strong’s Greek Concordance, 5056). It is related to the English word “telescope,” whose function is not fully realized until the tool is extended to its ‘end.’ The Latin/Old French suffix “-al” is imposed on the Greek τέλος telos to produce an unfamiliar but agreeable new adjective to describe the lowest form of resurrected bodies.
But how do we reconcile celestial (“heavenly”), terrestrial (“earthly”), and telestial (“final”) as descriptors of these bodies? Again, we turn to the question Paul is endeavoring to answer all along (question , above): ‘how are the dead raised up?’
Through a revelation from the prophet Joseph Smith, we find the key:
“[Regarding those who obtain celestial bodies:] these shall dwell in the presence of God and his Christ forever and ever.
“These are they whom he shall bring with him, when he shall come in the clouds of heaven to reign on the earth over his people.
“These are they who shall have part in the first resurrection….”
“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” (Doctrine and Covenants 76:62-64,70, emphasis added).
Beside the celestial, who will come from heaven, all other resurrections will take place upon the earth, the terrestrial coming forth in the first resurrection (see John 5:29; also Doctrine and Covenants 76:17), the telestial at the second, which will be at the end of the earth’s temporal history:
“[Regarding this who obtain telestial bodies:] these 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” (Doctrine and Covenants 76:85, emphasis added).
So let’s recap: the first resurrection will take place at Christ’s coming, the celestial coming in from the clouds “of heaven” (ἐπουράνια epourania) and the terrestrial coming forth out of their graves on the earth (ἐπίγεια epigeia); then the telestial will come forth after the millennial reign of Christ, at the world’s end or consummation (τέλος telos). That is ‘how’ the ‘dead are raised up,’ and their respective glories (as discussed above) are ‘with what body’ they do ‘come.’
Thus, the adjectives Paul ascribes to the third, second, and first heavens represent the manner of resurrection its inhabitants will go through; whereas the symbols of the sun, moon, and stars represent the kinds of bodies, in terms of glory or power, that its inhabitants will possess.
So back to your original question:
“If [sickness and infirmity, old age and all manner of undeserved harshness] is what it means to be ‘created in his image,’then why have him as my father?”
The point of this whole explanation is to show you that what you are now is not God’s final creation—in other words, you are not yet in ‘his image,’ but you may become such when you, as a seed, die and then resurrect. How can it be said that you are ‘created in his image’? Because this is the way that he was made, to quote the prophet Lorenzo Snow, as also Joseph Smith:
“As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may become.”
“Where was there ever a son without a father? And where was there ever a father without first being a son? Whenever did a tree or anything spring into existence without a progenitor?”
Paul makes this point also, pointing to the great head of our human family on earth, Adam, and how it was that he too underwent this process, and that we too will undergo it:
“And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit.
“Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual….
“And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly” (1 Cor. 15:45-46,49).
Thomas, there is a path established by God whereby you too can obtain a resurrected body of celestial glory—to ‘bear the image of the heavenly’—which body will come from the heavens with the Son when he comes to reign in glory. This path has been made clear by the words of living prophets, and it all begins by following the example of the Savior by going down into the waters of baptism to be born of water by an authorized minister—someone who holds the true priesthood delegated from Jesus Christ himself.
For each of us, the commencement of this path begins with faith, and the fruits of faith is repentance, and the fruits of repentance are in the saving ordinances, beginning with baptism. Do everything in your power, Thomas, to obtain that celestial body through the sacred ordinances that have been brought from heaven for that purpose, for it is what your Father has done, and it is what He asks you to do.