"Wherefore, he saves all except them [the sons of perdition] -- they shall go away into everlasting punishment, which is endless punishment, which is eternal punishment, to reign with the devil and his angels in eternity" (D&C 76:44).
According to LDS beliefs, all people will be saved and go to heaven except those who have become the sons of perdition. Since the name "Satan" means "perdition", to be a son of perdition means to become like Satan, i.e., to hate all that God stands for and to actively and consciously rebel against Him with a clear and full knowledge of His plan. However, not very many people fit that description, which means that the vast majority of those who have ever lived and will yet live on this earth will receive salvation, regardless of what they have believed about God, or have done in their life.
The reason for this understanding is because of a vision which the Lord gave to Joseph Smith in 1832. It is through this revelation, found in the 76th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, that we learn about the three degrees of heaven -- the Celestial, Terrestrial, and Telestial. Joseph Smith not only saw these three kingdoms, but the Lord also gave him a clear explanation of the differences between each one.
However, in explaining the relationship between these three levels or degrees of heaven, the Lord also gave us some interesting insights into the people who will live in each one. Concerning those who are worthy to receive a celestial glory, He said, "They are they...who have received of his fullness, and of his glory... These shall dwell in the presence of God and His Christ for ever and ever" (vs 56,62). Concerning those who inherit the terrestrial kingdom, He said, "These are they who receive of his glory, but not of his fullness. These are they who receive of the presence of the Son, but not the fullness of the Father" (vs 76,77). Concerning the inhabitants of the telestial kingdom He said, "These are they who receive not of his fullness in the eternal world, but of the Holy Ghost through the ministration of the terrestrial. And the terrestrial through the ministration of the celestial. And also the telestial receive it of the administering of angels who are appointed to minister for them, or who are appointed to be ministering spirits to them; for they shall be heirs of salvation" (vs 86-88).
Although all but the sons of perdition will be heirs of salvation, we also know that there will only be a small percentage of our Father's children who will inherit the celestial kingdom. In fact, this section of the Doctrine and Covenants indicates that the vast majority of people will live in the telestial kingdom. According to the above statements, it would seem that those who live in the celestial world can dwell within the presence of the Father, but those of the terrestrial and telestial worlds will never be able to look upon their heavenly Father for all eternity. When we consider we came to this earth as part of a plan to help us return back to that celestial home where we once lived, it seems a rather harsh punishment to say that salvation for most people will mean being banished from the presence of their loving and kind Father, even though they are "saved" and living in "heaven".
The question has been asked by critics of Christianity: How can a God of love consign his own creations to the torments of hell for all eternity, despite whatever sins they may have committed during their short time here on earth? I guess it could also be asked of Mormons: How can a loving Father refuse to allow His children access to Him through all eternity despite what they may have done during their short time here on earth?
The answer is that each of these three degrees of heaven are governed by immutable laws which God Himself must obey. As He explained in another revelation, "Unto every kingdom is given a law, and unto every law there are certain bounds also, and conditions" (D&C 88:37). But what are these laws, and what are their bounds and conditions?
I've heard it said that the Father cannot visit the lower two degrees of heaven because He is prevented from doing so by law. Such a view implies that our heavenly Father is just as cut off from His children as they are from Him, so that He suffers their loss as much as they suffer His absence. This seems to me a rather odd condition of heaven. What kind of paradise is it where both father and children are forbidden to enjoy the company of each other?
Based on the above quotations from D&C 76, I've also heard it said that in the Godhead, only the Son will visit the terrestial world, while only the Holy Ghost will visit the telestial realm. But if the Father, Son and Holy Ghost all have the same fullness of glory, how is it that two of the Godhead can go where the Father can't?
However, upon a careful reading of the scriptures we see that this is not what these verses say. The Father has all power, and can go wherever He wants. The Father can go to the terrestial and telestial worlds, and He can visit His children. However, it is His children who cannot endure His presence. In other words, He can see them, but they can't look upon Him. His glory is too great for them. Notice that the scriptures say, "These are they who receive of his glory, but not of his fullness." Those of the terrestial world can "receive of the presence of the Son, but not the fullness of the Father," while those of the telestial world receive" the Holy Ghost through the ministration of the terrestrial."
The word "receive" means to accept, take in, admit, welcome or embrace. Those who inhabit the lower two kingdoms of heaven don't have the ability to accept, welcome or embrace the Father. Those of the telestial kingdom don't have the ability to accept, welcome or embrace the Son or the Holy Ghost. As much as these members of the Godhead would like to appear before these souls and tend to their needs, these people cannot accept, or receive them into their presence.
There are those who will say, "But wait! Doesn't the scripture say that the Holy Ghost ministers to the inhabitants of the telestial kingdom? Then how can you say that these people can't accept Him into their presense?" The scriptures say that those of the terrestrial kingdom can receive the "presence of the Son", but the same scriptures omit the term "presence of the Holy Ghost" when referring to those of the telestial kingdom. Rather, it says that the Holy Ghost ministers to such people "through the ministration of the terrestrial." In other words, the Holy Ghost ministers to, or takes care of the needs of those in the telestial kingdom by organizing terrestial people who are willing to go to the telestial world and attend to their spiritual needs. The scriptures further state, "And also the telestial receive it of the administering of angels who are appointed to minister for them, or who are appointed to be ministering spirits to them." Thus we see that the spiritual needs of those in the telestial kingdom are met, not directly by the Holy Ghost, but through the efforts of intermediaries from the terrestrial world acting under His direction.
But what about the spiritual needs of those in the terrestrial kingdom? Who ministers to them? The Lord explained that they will have their needs met "through the ministration of the celestial." I think it's safe to assume that angels from the celestial world can be assigned to visit and attend to the needs of those in the terrestrial world, just as people from the terrestrial world can be appointed or assigned to perform like duties for those in the telestial world. And, of course, the Son is from the celestial world, so He too can come and visit and minister to those in the terrestrial world. But those of a celestial order cannot minister to those of a telestial order, therefore, neither the Father, Son or Holy Ghost can personally appear before them.
The real question is why can't these people receive the fullness of the Father and thereby receive His presence? First of all, it should be noted that the Lord never uses the term "punishment" when referring to the lower two degrees of heaven. The word "punishment" however is used for Satan and his followers who receive no degree of glory or salvation. Rather, the term "reward" is used to describe the place we inherit in heaven. Thus we receive our reward (Luke 23:41). In other words, we accept, welcome and embrace that which we have rightly earned.
The story of the three pigs is a good analogy of this principle. Once there were three little pigs who each had equally as much time to do as they wanted. On little pig chose to spend his time building a house out of brick. This took up a considerable amount of his time and energy, but he did so because that was what he wanted to do. The second little pig didn't want to waste all of his time working, so he built his house out of sticks because it took less effort and afforded him more time to spend having fun. The third little pig was even lazier. He didn't want to spend any effort working, so he put forth the least amount of energy needed to meet his housing needs. Even though the unsturdy houses blew down when the winds came, each little pig still had gotten out of life what they wanted.
Each of us in this life have the same amount of opportunity to inherit the celestial kingdom. Some people chose to spend their life serving God. Then there are others who want to be somewhat righteous, but also want to enjoy the things of this world. Lastly, there are those who don't want to be bothered by any moral constraints, so they live a life of immorality.
No matter what decision we make, there is a negative and a positive consequence we must face for each of our actions. The pig who built his house out of brick had to pay a negative consequence of hard work, long hours and little fun, but it was worth it to him to enjoy the positive consequence of having a sturdy house to live in. The other two pigs had to pay a negative consequence of their homes not standing up to the wind, but it was worth it to them for the positive consequence of spending a considerable amount of their time having fun. Thus, in the end, each little pig was happy with their reward because they got what they wanted out of life
Let's use another analogy. In a free society, everyone has the same opportunity to acquire wealth. Some people choose to use that opportunity to work hard and take risks to start their own business. Even when they fail, they continue pursuing their dream of financial independence. When they succeed, they work even harder to enlarge their business. As a result, they often have a large amount of cash in their bank accounts and can afford the nicer things of life, but it comes at the expense of long hours and uncertain results.
Then there are those who like the idea of a safe, steady paycheck that comes from performing an hourly job. Although they don't make as much money as the risk taker, they prefer working only 40 hours a week with lots of vacation time. But there are others who don't like to work at all, and would rather live on government welfare so they can spend their time sitting around the house watching TV or hanging around the bars with their friends.
Although the person who doesn't want to work is jealous of the man who lives a luxurious life, yet he has no desire to do what it takes to reach that level of financial achievement. Even if such a person were given an large, beautiful house, it would only take a short time before they had it looking as bad as the place they already live in. Furthermore, even though a lazy person is envious of the lifestyle of the rich, they would not want to associate with the rich because they wouldn't feel comfortable being around them. On the other hand, the rich man couldn't live the lifestyle of the lazy person, even if he was forced into it, because it goes against his nature.
As a result of our own desires, each person is the way they are because that is the way they want to be. Thus, the reward we get for our labors is that which we strive for.
Each of us have set a goal for ourselves, and we consciously work toward that goal as we pursue our own desires, whether those desires are noble or base. As a result, in the end, each person is rewarded with that which he has earned, or more accurately stated, achieved through his efforts. Thus, in the end, each person is happy with their reward, because it is what they desired and consciously worked for.
There are those who open a savings account and put away a little money each payday. Then there are many others who spend all they make as soon as they get it. The person who saves his money doesn't have as much to spend on a daily basis, but, in the end, can afford something quite expensive. The person who spends his money daily has fun each day but can't afford anything of great value. Although there are negative consequences to whatever choice we make, in the end each person gets out of life exactly what they truly desired.
Jesus said, "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be" (Matthew 6:21). If our heart is set on the things of this world, we spend all of our treasure enjoying mortality for a short season, but when we get to heaven there is nothing saved up waiting for us. On the other hand, those whose heart is set on the things of God, build up, as it were, a savings account in heaven by denying themselves the things of this world so they can have a more glorious reward in heaven. Based on what we do in this life, after the resurrection some will be able to afford the luxury of living in the celestial kingdom, some will be able to afford only the glory of the telestial kingdom, while others will be glad to take whatever glory they can afford in the telestial kingdom
Therefore, the degree of heaven which we inherit is that which we are willing to receive. Put another way, we qualify ourselves to inherit a certain degree of heaven. Those who inherit the celestial kingdom are not qualified to live in the terrestrial or telestial kingdoms, nor could they live there even if they were forced to do so. Likewise, those who inhabit the terrestrial or telestial glory are not qualified to live anywhere else, and neither would they want to live in any other realm, because they find happiness in being where they are. If they were forced to live in the celestial world, they would feel as uncomfortable and out of place as a farmer going to a black-tie opera. As a result of having nothing in common with the other inhabitants of a different kingdom, they would have no desire to live any place other than what they are willing to receive.
The reason the inhabitants of the terrestrial world can receive the presence of the Son but not the fullness, or presence of the Father, is because that is all they desire to receive. The same is true of why the Holy Ghost must minister to the needs of the telestial world, not directly in person, but through the ministration of those from the terrestrial kingdom.
The Lord explained it this way: "For he who is not able to abide a celestial law cannot abide [dwell within, embrace, be comfortable with] 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, therefore he is not meet for a kingdom of glory. Therefore he must abide a kingdom that is not a kingdom of glory. Your glory shall be that glory by which your bodies are quickened... to enjoy that which they are willing to receive, because they were not willing to enjoy that which they might have received. For what doth it profit a man if a gift is bestowed upon him, and he receive not the gift? Behold, he rejoices not in that which is given unto him, neither rejoices in him who is the giver of the gift" (D&C 88:22-24,28,32,33 ).
We each receive, or accept or welcome that which we are willing to receive. If we were all given the gift of a celestial glory there would be many who would not accept it or welcome it. Therefore they would not rejoice in that which is given unto them, and neither would they appreciate the giver of the gift. And that is why the inhabitants of the terrestrial and telestrial worlds cannot receive the fullness or presence of the Father.
But the 76th section of the Doctrine and Covenants gives us even more insight into these three degrees of glory. There is a concept among most Christians that when we go to heaven, all we will do is sit on clouds, forever playing harps and singing praises to God. This idea envisions a place where we have no cares or worries, but instead are free to do nothing. It's like being on vacation for all eternity. Although that may sound wonderful to some people, the Lord has revealed a very different concept of heaven.
Heaven is a place of work. In it, everyone has assigned duties and responsibilities. Those who achieve exaltation will become kings and priests, and will rule over kingdoms. But there are two other levels, or degrees of the celestial world. Those who reside there "are ministering servants, to minister for those who are worthy of a far more, and an exceeding weight of glory" (D&C 132:16). In other words, they will attend to the needs of those who have achieved exaltation. But, in addition to those duties, some will also be appointed as ministering angels to care for those of the terrestrial kingdom. In the terrestrial world there is also work that must be done, although it's scope and magnitude are not as grand as those in the celestial world. And the same is true of those who live in the telestial realm. Even though their work is important, it is more mundane and less glamorous than that of the other kingdoms.
Therefore, those who go into each kingdom have a work to perform that is suited for the individual who lives there. This is not so hard to understand because the same situation occurs here on earth. There are those who aspire to become the president of the United States, or the king or monarch of a country. Yet there are countless others who don't want the responsibility that comes with such an office, nor do they want to go through what it takes to get to such a position. The same is true of heaven. Each person goes to that place where they feel comfortable, and to which they are best suited. Those of a telestial glory are happy there because they are satisfied doing the work that is required in that kingdom. Furthermore, they wouldn't want to live in any other kingdom because they are unwilling to do the work that is required in another glory. And the same is true of those who live in the terrestrial world and the celestial kingdom.
It is often thought that in the resurrection it is God who assigns us to our eternal dwelling place, based on His righteous judgment. However, the scriptures seem to indicate that it is we who make that determination, not Him. We are the ones who decide where to spend eternity, and we make that choice based on the desires of our heart. God, our Father, merely makes available to us that which we are willing to receive. Thus He has prepared many kingdoms in heaven for the benefit of His children.