We believe that after the final judgment there are four places to which a person may be sent. They are the celestial kingdom, the terrestrial kingdom, the telestial kingdom, and outer darkness. The first three are referred to as the three degrees of glory, often compared to the sun, the moon, and the stars (D&C 76:70, 78, 98).
The celestial, terrestrial, and telestial are kingdoms of glory. Outer darkness is not a kingdom of glory. Any person who inherits one of the top three kingdoms is technically saved; and they are saved through the power of the Atonement of Christ.
In common usage, the word “saved” typically refers to going to the celestial kingdom and “heaven” refers to the celestial kingdom.
So, what are these three heavens? And who goes where?
The celestial kingdom: the highest kingdom of glory
Those who are most valiant and obedient receive the celestial kingdom and enjoy the presence of God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ. They have been faithful in all things and have overcome the sins of this world through the power of the Atonement of Christ.
The celestial kingdom is divided into three subdivisions, but no terminology has been adopted to refer to them (D&C 131:1-4)–We know nothing about the two lower divisions. For a person to inherit the highest division he/she must (1) qualify for celestial glory and (2) be married for eternity, which means being married in a temple. If so, “they are gods, even the sons of God–Wherefore, all things are theirs…they are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (D&C 76:58-59; see also D&C 132:15-17).
The word exaltation refers to receiving the highest level in the celestial kingdom. To be exalted one “must enter into this order of the priesthood [meaning the new and everlasting covenant of marriage]” (D&C 131:1-4; brackets original). We believe God’s work and glory is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39), which is also the work and glory of those who are exalted; they will work to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of their own spirit children. (See Heavenly Mother.)
In Mormon terminology the word “damned” does not imply hell. It means they cannot progress any further. Any person who does not inherit the highest level in the celestial kingdom is technically damned, meaning they cannot have an “increase.” (Matthew 24:3 speaks of “greater damnation” so it stands to reason there is a lesser one.)
The Encyclopedia of Mormonism reads,
Just as there are varying degrees and types of salvation, coupled with eternal progression in some areas…so are there varying degrees and types of damnation…Individuals are damned whenever they are prevented from reaching their full potential as children of God” (“Damnation”).
Hence in his book Mormon Doctrine Apostle Bruce R. McConkie speaks of “full salvation” (“Salvation”).
Our scriptures tell us,
All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God; Also all that shall die henceforth without a knowledge of it, who would have received it with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom…[also] all children who die before they arrive at the years of accountability are saved in the celestial kingdom of heaven. (D&C 137:7-10).
The terrestrial kingdom: the second kingdom of glory
Those who go to the terrestrial kingdom are basically good people: they might have known about all the commandments of God but chose to live the basics only; or had the opportunity and spiritual witness to accept Jesus through baptism and decided not to take it. The scriptures tell us they were not “valiant in the testimony of Jesus” (D&C 76:79). They are “[the] honorable men of the earth, who were blinded by the craftiness of men” (D&C 76:75). They receive a portion of the Father’s glory but not His full glory. They are also denied the presence of the Father, though they do receive visits from the Son Jesus Christ, who, in many respects is like the Father (John 14:9).
The telestial kingdom: the third kingdom of glory
The word telestial was, I believe, derived from the Greek word telos meaning last in a series. Those who go to the telestial kingdom are the really bad people. They “received not the gospel of Christ, neither the testimony of Jesus” (D&C 76:82)–not in this life, nor in the next. They are “liars, and sorcerers, and adulterers, and whoremongers, and whosoever loves and makes a lie” (D&C 76:103).
Because they committed such grievous sins in mortality, and because they rejected Jesus who could have forgiven those sins, they must suffer the agony of their sins (Rev. 20:3; D&C 88:101). Only after their suffering will they inherit the lowest kingdom of glory. It appears that their suffering takes place in the spirit world (see Spirit World) and they are released from their torments at resurrection. What is their suffering like?
How sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not. For behold, I, God [i.e. Jesus Christ], have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I; Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit. (D&C 19:1-18)
We believe this suffering is what Jesus was speaking of when he said, “Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing” (Matt. 5:26).
After their torment they are freed from their punishments and inherit telestial glory. They enjoy the presence of the Holy Ghost but not of the Father or the Son.
The glory of this lowest kingdom is said to surpass all understanding (D&C 76:89).
Why three degrees?
Men will “be judged according to their works, and every man shall receive according to his own works, his own dominion, in the mansions which are prepared” (D&C 76:111). “For the Son of man shall…reward every man according to his works” (Matt. 16:27). Or, as it is described in the Book of Mormon:
…is the meaning of the word restoration to take a thing of a natural state and place it in an unnatural state, or to place it in a state opposite to its nature? …the meaning of the word restoration is to bring back again evil for evil, or carnal for carnal, or devilish for devilish–good for that which is good; righteous for that which is righteous; just for that which is just; merciful for that which is merciful. (Alma 41:12-13)
A few years ago I came up with a generic way of explaining why three degrees of glory. There are two kinds of commandments which God gives: the ones that say, “thou shalt”; and the ones that say, “thou shalt not.” Those who go to the celestial kingdom obeyed both; those who go to the terrestrial kingdom obeyed the thou shalt nots but neglected the thou shalts; and those who go to the telestial kingdom neglected both.
Having said that, I should emphasize that this should not be taken too far; it is only a generic way of looking at it.
Those who were so wicked that they have completely separated themselves from the redemptive power of Christ becomes Sons of Perdition. They suffer spiritual death (also called the second death) — the first death being death of the physical body. They receive a kingdom that has no glory (D&C 88:22-24). (See “Sons of Perdition,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism.)
All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come (Matt. 12:31-32).
We sometimes refer to that blasphemy as the unforgivable sin (or the unpardonable sin).
In Mormon teachings it is not easy to qualify for perdition. Joseph Smith explained,
What must a man do to commit the unpardonable sin? He must receive the Holy Ghost, have the heavens opened unto him, and know God, and then sin against Him. After a man has sinned against the Holy Ghost, there is no repentance for him. He has got to say that the sun does not shine while he sees it; he has got to deny Jesus Christ when the heavens have been opened unto him, and to deny the plan of salvation with his eyes open to the truth of it. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 358).
Some general comments
Mormons believe it would be terribly unfair if there were only one heaven and one hell. What about people are are basically good but didn’t try to be better? What about really good people who are not Christian? We wonder how their condemnation could be reconciled to the love of God–Is Gandhi in hell? We believe that missionary work continues in the next life; so it is possible that those really good non-Christians will be exalted. And, those people who could have lived a more virtuous life and chose not to, they don’t suffer eternally in hell either. Eternal hell is very difficult to qualify for. Only a very few people will not receive some glory.
According to Mormon beliefs the celestial kingdom is a physical place–actually it’s spread out into many places. We believe that eventually this earth will die and be reborn: The earth “shall be quickened again…and the righteous shall inherit it” (D&C 88:25-26). What this means is that the earth will become a “celestial kingdom” for those righteous persons who lived upon it. This is a literal interpretation of Jesus’ saying, “the meek…shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). We also believe the sea of glass mentioned in Revelation (Rev. 4:6; Rev. 15:2) is “the earth, in its sanctified, immortal, and eternal state” (D&C 77:1). Because we believe there are many inhabited worlds (Moses 1:33-35) we also believe there are potentially many celestial kingdoms, where each celestialized world is the celestial kingdom of those who lived upon it during their mortal life. (See What is Kolob?)
Each celestial kingdom is a perfected planet. But speculating more is tempting but useless: Does it remain in this universe? Or does it go into a parallel God-verse. Before the advent of modern cosmology Mormons generally believed that everything took place in this universe. Early Apostle Orson Pratt, known for theological speculations, said in 1878,
Now, supposing we were immortal beings, and we stood upon one celestial world, away in a distant part of space, and others dwelling upon another celestial world innumerable miles distant from us, there may be a process by which we could communicate one to another, and ideas be exchanged, from world to world…This is the destiny of these worlds that twinkle in the firmament of heaven; they will finally arrive at that state of perfected existence…they will be full of light, like unto the sea of glass, that John the Revelator saw…What a happy state and condition, not only to study these things pertaining to this little world we inhabit, but to extend our researches to our neighboring worlds, learning the laws, institutions, and governments of the peoples that inhabit them, also their history, and everything pertaining to them, and then extend our researches still further. (JD, 19:292-293)
The above statement is not authoritative but I believe it represents what many early Mormons believed. Today the celestial kingdom is still understood to be physical planet-like sphere, a resurrected world. But most Mormons refrain from speculating more.
The New Testament
There are only intimations of the three degrees of glory found in the New Testament. The most commonly quoted scripture used to support our view is 1 Corinthians 15:40-41:
There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is 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. So also is the resurrection of the dead.
Most non-Mormons interpret “celestial bodies” as heavenly bodies: sun, moon, and stars. And interpret “bodies terrestrial” as the earthly bodies of men and beasts. And interpret the glory of the sun, moon, and stars as meaning “…when they rise, [they] will be so far changed, that they will be fitted for the heavenly regions, and that there will be a variety of glories among the bodies of the dead, when they shall be raised, as there is among the sun, and moon, and stars, nay among the stars themselves” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary).
But Mormons understand the Corinthians passage in this way: just as there are glories among resurrected bodies there are three glories in which they abide. The Joseph Smith translation (See Mormons and the Bible: Part II) reads a little differently.
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. So also is the resurrection of the dead. (JST, 1 Cor. 15:41-42)