Mormon teaching concerning the eternal destinations of heaven and hell provides another significant doctrinal divide between Latter-day Saints and Christianity. Christians believe that following the final judgment, heaven and hell are the only two eternal destinations determined by God. Mormonism, however-although it affirms eternal hell-has constructed a complex belief system in three heavenly divisions identified by Joseph Smith as the Celestial, Terrestrial, and Telestial kingdoms that contain various degrees of eternal glory. Mormonism understands these three heavenly kingdoms as representing descending degrees of eternal glory-the Celestial being the highest and the Telestial being the lowest-and compares their divisions of heavenly glories to the natural distinction existing between the brightness of the sun, stars, and moon.
Here it is explored how Mormonism's three kingdoms of glory directly correspond to the general categories of Mormon salvation-universal, partial, and exalted.
It is essential that we first understand what the LDS Church really means by the word salvation itself. Otherwise, things can become very confusing and puzzling, especially for Christians. Without this clarity of terminology, Mormon salvation cannot be properly understood and contrasted with biblical salvation in the God-accepted righteousness of Jesus Christ alone.
One category of salvation within Mormonism is so-called universal salvation. Clarity and focus are very important when speaking about the Mormon teaching of general or universal salvation. Appealing to 1 Corinthians 15:22, "For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive," Mormons understand universal salvation as salvation from physical death for everyone. Mormons teach that because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, all humans will be bodily resurrected from the dead and united with their spirits.
By universal salvation the LDS Church does not mean that everyone will experience the fullness of eternal exaltation in the highest Celestial kingdom, but that every person-whether good or evil-will simply experience bodily resurrection from the dead and receive endless life, nothing more. In Mormonism, immortality itself is salvation from the grave. Through the atonement of Jesus Christ, everyone will receive this gift of immortality.
Christians should be aware that Mormons identify only universal salvation as being salvation by grace alone. Humanity's experience of universal salvation from the dead is a total gift from God, and it requires no obedience to LDS gospel covenant laws. When Mormons write or say that they believe in salvation by grace alone, they are referring only to universal salvation.
Joseph Smith's vision description of the Celestial kingdom is found in Doctrine and Covenants 76:50-70, 92-96. It is imperative to understand that according to Mormonism, the Celestial heavenly kingdom contains three primary levels, and it is only in the highest Celestial level that worthy Mormons will experience exalted salvation and eternal life. It is also essential for Christians to understand that for Mormons the phrase eternal life in the Bible refers only to exalted salvation in the highest level of the Celestial kingdom. In exaltation, faithful Mormons experience the fullness of God's life and salvation. The LDS Church identifies eternal life as life with and like God. It is God's life. This is how the official LDS Web site defines eternal life:
Eternal life is the phrase used in scripture to define the quality of life that our Eternal Father lives. Eternal life, or exaltation, is to live in God's presence and to continue as families.
For further clarification, as Dr. Robert Millet states below, the words salvation, exaltation, and eternal life are synonymous in Mormon terminology and salvation theology:
To possess exaltation is to possess eternal life, to be entitled to the blessings of the highest degree of the celestial kingdom. The word exaltation lays stress upon the elevated and ennobled status of one who qualifies for the society of the redeemed and glorified. Essentially, salvation, exaltation, and eternal life, in their purest sense, are synonymous terms.
All sincere Mormons today focus on exalted fullness in the highest level of the Celestial kingdom as their life's one salvation goal. For Mormons, entrance into the highest Celestial heaven is the ultimate prize of salvation because the highest Celestial kingdom is the true Mormon heaven. Mormons are indoctrinated their whole lives not to settle for any less eternal aspiration or dream. To fall short of earning eternal life and exaltation would be a real sense of personal failure and guilt for a well-meaning, earnest Mormon. In Mormonism, the primary purpose of the gospel of Christ is to enable one to get back home to live again with Father God. For Mormons, exalted salvation is understood as returning back home to their Father God. They return back to their premortal home of existence. Only in the highest Celestial heaven do God the Father and Jesus Christ dwell in fullness.
Although salvation in the highest Celestial heaven is what Mormons strive throughout their lives to achieve, the LDS Church is clear that many Latter-day Saints will never actually experience exalted salvation. According to Mormonism, only a rather small remnant of worthy Mormons will actually experience eternal salvation-salvation in fullest glory-and return to live in the immediate presence of Father God. These elect Mormons who are deemed worthy and qualified through full obedience to enter the highest Celestial heaven are called the Church of the Firstborn. The Mormon members of the Church of the Firstborn are the Latter-day Saints who have kept all the Celestial laws and commandments. These Mormons are the ones who remained fully worthy and obedient to the end of their mortal lives and even beyond death in the spirit-world's paradise.
The Church of the Firstborn consists only of Mormon men and women who have experienced an eternal Celestial marriage in the LDS temple and embrace the blessings of eternal progression and increase through giving birth to spirit-children. In the highest Celestial heaven, the LDS family has the opportunity to live forever as a family unit and can continue to grow as an eternal family. Only in the highest Celestial heaven will Mormons be empowered to continue their eternal progression toward becoming gods. Mormonism also teaches that infant children-including the mentally impaired-who die before the age of individual accountability of eight years old will also be raised by their exalted parents.
Mormonism teaches that any person failing to merit the fullest reward of exaltation in the highest level of the Celestial heaven will experience only a partial or incomplete salvation outside of the immediate presence of Father God in one of Mormonism's lesser degrees of eternal glory in the lower Celestial, Terrestrial, or Telestial kingdom.