I love this question because it gets to the heart of the unique LDS beliefs about the afterlife. One of the wonderful things about the restored gospel is the understanding of where we came from, why we’re here, and where we are going. The answers to those three questions constitute what Mormons refer to as “the plan of salvation.” This plan of our Heavenly Father was designed to allow us to leave a pre-mortal world and journey to earth to receive a body and be tested to prove ourselves worthy of returning to Father and inheriting a glorified, resurrected body, and an eternity of possibilities for growth. For a short video explaining this in more depth, please visit this page (plan of salvation).
One of the most satisfying doctrines (to me at least) is the notion that when Christ said, “in my Father’s house there are many mansions” he literally meant it as “there’s a place for just about everyone.” That’s not to say that everyone gets the same reward no matter what they’ve done in life, because actions have consequences in the eternities. However, God’s great love for all of his children will allow them to have a place to dwell in which they will be comfortable.
The notion of “degrees of glory” was first expressed by the apostle Paul. In 1 Corinthians 15, he begins by talking about the resurrection of Christ and then discusses how God gave to every creation a body which will someday be “quickened” or resurrected (including the animals which have an eternal home with God as well for fulfilling the measure of their creation). Then Paul describes the human body and how there are differing degrees of glory that are as different as the sun is from the moon and the stars. He says it this way:
40 There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another.
41 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.
42 So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption:
Later in 2 Corinthians 12, Paul says
2 I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.
What does Paul mean by these things? Obviously he has something very specific in mind about at least 3 heavens and 3 types or classes of resurrected bodies.
If all we had to turn to were these few verses, we would dwell in confusion. Thankfully, in our day God called the Prophet Joseph Smith to restore the gospel and the understanding of these things. Joseph received a revelation now published in a book we refer to as the Doctrine and Covenants, which contains modern day revelation just as ancient revelation and teachings were written and recorded in the Bible and Book of Mormon.
This revelation explains that a loving God established 3 degrees of glorious heavens for his children to inhabit, contrasted by a place of outer darkness which is hell. Those who inhabit these kingdoms of glory and hell differ in the following meaningful ways.
Celestial kingdom: Likened to the glory of the sun. The Father dwells here in everlasting glory but straight is the gate and narrow the way which leads to this kingdom of glory (Matt 7:14). Only the humble followers of Christ may enter here after having made covenants (promise between God and man beginning with baptism) by the proper priesthood authority which God bestows on men he calls (Hebrews 5:4). The reward of the celestial kingdom is that of eternal life, or life as God lives (Philippians 3:14).
Terrestrial kingdom: Likened to the glory of the moon. This kingdom is a place for all the good and noble people of the world who loved the Lord and tried to do their very best to live according to the light they possessed. They failed to attain the celestial kingdom by rejecting the messengers of salvation who legally and lawfully administer God’s covenants. Throughout all eternity they will be damned, or stopped in their upward progression and never attain to the presence of the Father, but they may from time to time enjoy the presence of the Son, whom they loved in life, but not enough to take his name upon them through covenants. This kingdom will also accept of the “heathen” nations those who lived a good and moral life according to the amount of light and truth God saw fit to bestow upon them.
Telestial kingdom: Likened to the glory of the stars. This kingdom is a place where the wretched and wicked of this world will eventually dwell after they pay the price of their sins through torment and suffering and finally accept the atonement of Jesus Christ. This will still be a place of glory, but as Paul declares it differs in glory as the sun does from the stars, which is obviously an incredible difference, yet to those who inhabit this place, they will be grateful and filled with the joy they are able to obtain at this level of glory. These too are damned and may not progress to any higher kingdom. In this, they will not complain but with those in the Terrestrial kingdom, may feel a longing and sorrow over their separation from their Heavenly home and parents. They will never receive the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ, but may from time to time receive the presence of the Holy Ghost to comfort them.
Those in a higher kingdom may visit those in a lower kingdom, but there is no way for those in a lower to attain to a higher kingdom.
Outer darkness: This torment is reserved for those miserable souls who were once fully enlightened by the gospel, embraced the covenants of salvation which would lead them to the celestial kingdom, and then so fully rejected the light, they become as Judas, willing to see their Lord crucified and turned to persecuting their Lord and His followers. Those for whom this terrible judgment is pronounced upon will be cast out into a realm devoid of light.
To me, there is no more tolerant concept of heaven available on earth than in the LDS faith. A loving Father in Heaven desired all of his children to return and live with him, yet in order to do so, they must prove themselves willing to make sacred promises and then fulfill them, in preparation for life in a Celestial world. No one in that realm can make a promise and not keep it or they would not be worthy of such a glory. Covenants such as baptism help prove us worthy of inheriting such a place as this. God maintains his status as God because his word is always good. For every law there is an associated blessing, and rejection of the law means there is a consequence of not receiving the blessing.
To read the actual revelation Joseph Smith received on these kingdoms of glory, please visit this link (kingdoms of heaven).
If you have questions, please feel free to ask us a question and we will try to answer it for you.