What do Mormons believe happens to us after we die? Do Mormons believe there are levels of heaven? If so, how does that work? Who goes where?
In the LDS faith, death is viewed as a necessary step forward in what is known as the “Plan of Salvation” or the “Plan of Happiness.” We believe that we lived with God before we were born, we were given agency (the freedom to choose) and sent to Earth to be tried and tested, and when we die we can return to live with God again.
At the time of death, our spirit is separated from our physical body. Our spirit enters a probationary state where we can rest from the pain and sorrow of this mortal world and participate in continued learning and preparation to live in God’s presence, especially for those who didn’t have the opportunity to learn about Jesus Christ during their mortal lives or who chose not to follow Him (1 Peter 4:6). At the time of Jesus Christ’s second coming, all who have died will be resurrected, meaning their spirit will be restored to its physical body, but in a perfected state (1 Corinthians 15:20-22). Christ will reign on the earth, and Satan will be bound for a period of time, allowing truth and peace to abound on the earth. This time is known as the Millennium, and the Final Judgment does not take place until the end of this period, when we will be judged according to our works and the desires of our hearts.
LDS theology differs a little from more mainstream views of heaven and hell, and yes, we do believe in three levels of heaven, or kingdoms of glory. They are known as the Celestial Kingdom, the Terrestrial Kingdom, and the Telestial Kingdom, and the glory of each in respect to the others is compared to that of the Sun, the moon, and the stars respectively (1 Corinthians 15:40-42).
The Celestial Kingdom is the highest level of heaven, or degree of glory, and is where God and Jesus Christ dwell. The righteous who have accepted and lived the gospel of Jesus Christ will enter into the Celestial Kingdom and will live with God forever, knowing complete joy.
The Terrestrial Kingdom will be reserved for those who chose not to accept the gospel of Jesus Christ but who nevertheless were good people who lived good lives.
The population that will dwell in the Telestial Kingdom is unrepentant sinners, so in that way it is closest to what other religions would classify as Hell. However, in Mormon theology, this is still referred to as a kingdom of “glory.”
(More information on each kingdom can be found here.)
We know that each degree of glory will differ from one another, with each kingdom greater than the one below it. But knowing what that means or what that really looks like would be speculation.
“Life on earth is of limited duration. There comes a time for all of us when the spirit and the body are separated in death. But because of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, we will all be resurrected, regardless of whether we have accomplished good or evil in this life. Immortality is the gift to every mortal child of our Father in Heaven…But the glory we attain to in the next life will depend on our performance in this life. Only through the gift of the Atonement and our obedience to the gospel can we return and live with God once again.” (L. Tom Perry, “The Plan of Salvation”)