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The Mormon View of Heaven and Hell

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The Mormon View of Heaven and Hell

The Bottom-Line Guide to Mormonism, Part 15
Robert M. Bowman Jr.

Joseph Smith rejected the idea that all people go either to heaven or to hell. Instead, he taught that there are three heavenly kingdoms where nearly all people will be saved for eternity, while only a very tiny number of people will not be saved. LDS teaching on these subjects is found especially in Doctrine & Covenants 76, 88, and 132. 

Historic Christian View of Heaven and Hell

LDS View of Heaven and Hell

One heavenly kingdom (the new heavens and new earth) with varying degrees of rewards

Three heavenly kingdoms (celestial, terrestrial, and telestial)

All saved people will live forever in the presence of God the Father

Only those who make it to the celestial kingdom will live in the Father’s presence

Two possible futures for all people: the new heavens and new earth, or hell (outer darkness)

Four possible outcomes for all people: the three heavenly kingdoms and outer darkness

All unrepentant sinners (which will be many) will suffer forever in the outer darkness

Only a tiny number of persons who reject their spiritual “testimony” will go to outer darkness

Those who reject Christ in this life will suffer in hell forever, with no possibility of release

Those who reject Christ in this life may accept him in the spirit world—and even if they don’t, they can suffer for a while in hell and then go to the telestial kingdom

According to Mormon doctrine, the highest of the three heavenly kingdoms is called the celestial kingdom. This is a realm where Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost live. We also lived there as spirit children of our heavenly parents before coming to this earth as physical beings in order to progress toward Godhood. Our goal in this mortal life is to make sufficient progress to return to the celestial kingdom and be reunited with Heavenly Father. To do this, according to the LDS Church, we must believe in Jesus Christ, be baptized in the LDS Church, continually repent, sustain (support, agree with) the LDS prophets, receive the LDS ordinances (such as baptism for the dead and eternal marriage in a Mormon temple), and live faithfully according to the commandments. Those who do all these things, as best they can, will be given grace for any shortcomings and be granted entrance into the celestial kingdom. Those who never heard the LDS gospel during their earthly lives but who accept it in the afterlife may have access to the celestial kingdom, providing that faithful Mormons in this life undergo the ordinances (especially baptism) on their behalf. This is the basis for the well-known LDS practice of baptism for the dead. The celestial kingdom is itself divided into three “degrees” or levels, the highest of which involves becoming gods.

A second heavenly realm in Mormon teaching is the terrestrial kingdom. This is a place for those honorable people who are deceived into rejecting the LDS gospel in their mortal lifetimes but who afterward accept it in the spirit world. It is also the place for those who accept the Mormon gospel as mortals but who do not live “valiantly” according to LDS teaching. Jesus Christ will visit them in the terrestrial kingdom, but Heavenly Father will not.

The third heavenly realm is the telestial kingdom, the destination of the innumerable multitudes of wicked people who reject the LDS gospel both in mortality and in their afterlife in the spirit world. Before anyone goes to the telestial kingdom, they are sent to “hell,” where they suffer for their sins before being released after the end of the Millennium. The term hell, then, according to LDS teaching, does not refer to a place of eternal punishment. The Holy Ghost will visit the residents of the telestial kingdom, but neither the Father nor the Son will do so.

What Christians traditionally call hell Mormons call outer darkness (a term that Jesus did use for the place of eternal punishment). Also as in Jesus’ teaching, Mormons believe that Satan and his angels will suffer forever in outer darkness. However, according to Mormon doctrine, very few human beings will end up in outer darkness. Only those who knew that the LDS faith was true because they had “testimonies” from the Holy Ghost, and yet rejected it, will go there.

Ultimately, then, in Mormon doctrine nearly everyone will be saved. Even the telestial kingdom, the least glorious of the three heavenly realms, is far more glorious than our present earth, though its inhabitants will first have to suffer for their own sins before getting there. Its residents, like those of the terrestrial and celestial kingdoms, will live forever in resurrected, immortal bodies in a world far more wonderful than the one we know. Very few humans will suffer everlasting punishment. Thus, the Mormon doctrine of salvation comes very close to a form of universalism, the doctrine that everyone will be saved. In effect, everyone is saved, but then a very tiny number of people choose deliberately to reject their salvation.

The LDS Church tries to find some support for their doctrine in the Bible, but such support is extremely weak. Paul says that he “was caught up to the third heaven” (2 Cor. 12:2), but he equates this third heaven with “paradise” (v. 4), which in LDS doctrine is not heaven at all but that part of the spirit world where the righteous await their resurrection. Paul’s use of the term “third heaven” probably contrasts that spiritual realm with the physical sky around the earth and the realm of the astronomical bodies. In his “translation” of the Bible, Joseph Smith added references to “telestial” bodies alongside Paul’s reference to terrestrial (earthly) and celestial (heavenly) bodies (1 Cor. 15:40), an addition for which of course there is no support in any Greek manuscript of the passage. In context, Paul was not talking about different heavenly kingdoms, but rather was contrasting the bodies of creatures here on earth with the astronomical “bodies” of the sun, moon, and stars (v. 41).

The New Testament is clear that the eternal state of all human beings will be either eternal life in the new heavens and new earth or eternal punishment in hell (Gehenna in Greek), also known as the outer darkness, the lake of fire, and the second death. Using varying terms of description, the New Testament consistently speaks of these two, and only these two, final outcomes, for two kinds of people: the righteous or believing, and the wicked or unbelieving. It also makes it clear that “many” people will be found in both categories (Matt. 3:12; 7:13-14, 24-27; 13:37-43; 25:31-46; Mark 9:43-49; John 3:16-18; 5:29; 12:25; Acts 24:15; 26:18; 1 Cor. 1:18; 2 Cor. 6:14-18; Col. 1:13; 2 Thess. 1:6-10; Rev. 20:10-21:8). According to these passages, the new heavens and new earth will be a perfect, glorious world in which God’s people will live forever in immortal, glorious bodies with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Hell will be a state of exclusion from all life, light, and goodness, away from the presence of God, a state of unending regret, anguish, and loss, with no possibility of escape. The Bible knows of no alternative to these two eternal states. Christ himself also warns that those who reject him in this life have no hope (Matt. 10:32-33; Mark 8:33; John 3:18, 36; 8:24, 28).