The Mormon View of Salvation and the Afterlife


What is the Mormon view of salvation? Mormons typically define “sin” as a wrong judgment, a mistake, an imperfection, or an inadequacy, thereby diluting its moral weight. Instead of embracing the concept of original sin, which posits that all people are born inherently sinful, Mormons assert that children are “innocent” until they reach the age of accountability, typically around eight years old, suggesting innate goodness in children from birth.[1]

Given this nuanced perspective on sin, the significance of Jesus’ role in salvation is notably diminished within Mormonism. Here, Jesus’ atonement primarily refers to His conquest over physical death for humanity, ensuring that all individuals will rise from the grave. His accomplishment enables resurrection for everyone, underscoring His designation as the “Savior” in Mormon theology.

When Mormons speak of “salvation” or “general salvation,” they essentially refer to resurrection. Jesus’ role as the Savior lies in rescuing humanity from permanent physical death. This achievement is pivotal because, without a resurrected body, individuals cannot progress to becoming gods and birthing spirit children, a central tenet in Mormon belief.

However, Jesus’ accomplishment does not negate the necessity of good works. While he fulfilled his part, Mormons believe it is incumbent upon individuals to prove themselves worthy of exaltation to godhood through their own efforts.[2] Rejecting the doctrine of justification by faith, Mormons emphasize the importance of personal actions.

In Mormon theology, grace is understood as God’s enabling power, aiding individuals in attaining eternal life and exaltation after exerting their utmost efforts.[3] Grace facilitates personal striving towards perfection, as indicated in Matthew 5:48. Nevertheless, salvation is not solely conferred through grace; it necessitates personal merit achieved through obedience to gospel laws.[4]

Salvation, in its fullest sense, equates to exaltation as a god and entails inheriting a place in the highest of three heavens.[5] This journey towards godhood spans multiple phases, encompassing actions undertaken in premortality, mortality, and postmortality.

During mortal life, people must continually strive for perfection while in their physical bodies, confronting and surmounting physical temptations and trials. Put another way, the progression toward godhood involves spiritual children temporarily inhabiting human bodies to undergo moral development and advance toward their divine potential.

Mormons often reference biblical passages such as Matthew 5:48 and James 2:17,26 to underscore the importance of striving for perfection and the necessity of good works in achieving salvation. Matthew 5:48 instructs, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” James 2:17,26 likewise instructs, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead… As the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.”

Baptism is a crucial element in the salvation process according to Mormon doctrine. Mormons cite Acts 2:38, which emphasizes repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins and the reception of the Holy Spirit.

As for the afterlife, people will be assigned to one of three kingdoms of glory at the end of the world: the celestial, terrestrial, or telestial kingdom, based on their personal worthiness.

The celestial kingdom represents the highest degree of glory, reserved for faithful Mormons who have diligently kept the commandments and been cleansed of sin. Children who die before reaching the age of accountability also inherit this kingdom, where they will dwell with Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, ultimately achieving exaltation to godhood.[6]

The terrestrial kingdom is designated for non-Mormons who live moral lives, as well as for Mormons who are less than entirely faithful to their church’s expectations.

Most people are expected to reside in the telestial kingdom, the lowest of the three degrees of glory. Reserved for those who lived carnally and sinfully, entrance into this kingdom follows a period of suffering in hell or “outer darkness” because of their sins.

Mormons believe there is support in the Bible for these three kingdoms of glory in 1 Corinthians 15:40-42 (King James Version): [7]

There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. 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. So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption.

Mormons also cite 2 Corinthians 12:2 to support this doctrine: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows.” Mormons argue that there could not be a third heaven unless there were a first and second heaven as well.[8]

Sin Is Not Just a Mistake

In contrast to the Mormon perspective, Scripture reveals that sin is not merely a “mistake” but rather a condition that enslaves and leads to death, stemming from moral rebellion against God. While Mormons believe they can achieve perfection and attain exaltation as gods on their own, Jesus’ teachings firmly refute such notions. Jesus emphasized the inherent evil within humanity (Matthew 12:34) and its capacity for great wickedness (Mark 7:20-23). He proclaimed humankind’s utter lostness (Luke 19:10), its sinful nature (Luke 15:10), the necessity of repentance before a holy God (Mark 1:15), and the need for spiritual rebirth (John 3:3,5,7).

Jesus metaphorically described sin as blindness (Matthew 23:16-26), sickness (Matthew 9:12), enslavement (John 8:34), and dwelling in darkness (John 8:12; 12:35-36). He taught that sin is a universal condition, indicting all people as guilty (Luke 7:37-48). Furthermore, He asserted that both inner thoughts and external actions render individuals culpable (Matthew 5:28). 

Sin has affected the entire human race, contrary to Mormon teachings. Scripture upholds the doctrine of original sin. In Psalm 51:5, David confessed, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” This sinful nature is inherited from conception, as noted in Ephesians 2:3, where we are told that we are “by nature objects of wrath.”

The apostle Paul elaborated on the origins of sin, stating that “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). Since the time of Adam, all humans are born into a world tainted by sin.

This concept of original sin is reinforced in Romans 5:19, affirming that “through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners.” Similarly, 1 Corinthians 15:21-22 affirms that “death came through a man…in Adam all die.” None of us are exempt. 

Jesus’ Atonement

The Mormon view of atonement bears little resemblance to the atonement described in the Bible. Jesus Himself provides the definitive understanding of His atonement. Given His authority, His explanation carries weight. Biblically, Jesus taught that His mission was to offer a substitutionary atonement on the cross, wherein He would die in place of humanity. Through this act, He provided complete redemption for humans, a feat they could not achieve on their own. His aim wasn’t solely to ensure resurrection but to eliminate the barrier of sin, thereby enabling full restoration to God and eternal life in heaven.

Jesus explicitly stated that His purpose in coming to the world was to die (John 12:27). He viewed His death as a sacrificial offering for humanity’s sins, stating that His blood would be poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:26-28). Aware that without Him, humanity faced certain perdition and eternal separation from God in a place of torment, Jesus took His sacrificial mission with utmost seriousness (Matthew 16:25; John 3:16; Matthew 10:28; 11:23; 23:33; 25:41; Luke 16:22-28).

Jesus succinctly summarized His mission as one of service and ransom, aiming to seek and save the lost rather than to condemn (Matthew 20:28; Luke 19:10; John 3:17). He likened Himself to a good shepherd who willingly gives His life to save His sheep (John 10:11, 18), mirroring His actions at the cross (Matthew 26:53), where He laid down His life to atone for humanity’s sins.

This understanding of Jesus’ mission was evident to others as well. When Jesus commenced His ministry and approached John the Baptist at the Jordan River, John identified Him as the Lamb of God, who would remove the sin of the world (John 1:29), echoing the prophetic imagery of Isaiah 53:7.

Through Jesus’ atonement, reconciliation with God becomes attainable for all who believe in Christ. While resurrection is part of the broader package, redemption encompasses forgiveness of sins (Ephesians 1:7), justification or being declared righteous (1 Corinthians 6:11), reconciliation with God (Colossians 1:20), and adoption into God’s eternal family (Romans 8:14). What a wondrous salvation we have in Jesus! 

Salvation Is Entirely by Grace

In Mormon theology, salvation isn’t solely by God’s grace; one must labor toward ultimate exaltation. In contrast, the New Testament underscores that salvation is solely by grace, independent of adherence to the law or good works:

• Ephesians 2:8-9 asserts, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”  

• Titus 3:5 states, “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.”

• Romans 3:20 emphasizes that “no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law, we become conscious of sin.”

• Galatians 2:16 underscores, “Know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.”

Grace (God’s unmerited favor) and meritorious works are mutually exclusive. Romans 11:6 articulates, “If by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.” It’s one or the other. As defined in the New Testament, salvation is entirely by God’s grace.

Gifts cannot be earned—only wages can. Romans 4:4-5 explains, “Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.” Since salvation is a gift received through faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9), it cannot be earned.

Justification by Faith

A key component of biblical salvation is justification by faith. Romans 3:28 asserts, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law,” while Romans 5:1 similarly emphasizes: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The New Testament consistently underscores that salvation is attained not through works but by placing personal faith in Jesus Christ. Nearly 200 times in the New Testament, salvation is proclaimed as by faith alone, devoid of works. Here are three representative verses:

• John 3:15 assures that “everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

• In John 11:25, Jesus declares: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.”

• John 12:46 echoes this sentiment: “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.”

If salvation were contingent upon anything beyond faith alone, then Jesus’ message in the Gospel of John, as demonstrated in the above quotations, would be misleading. More to the point, it would be misleading to specify a single condition for salvation when allegedly there are two—faith and works.

To be justified means to be “declared righteous” by God. Consider this analogy: If we look through a piece of red glass, everything would appear red. If we were to look through a piece of blue glass, everything would appear blue. If we were to look through a piece of yellow glass, everything would appear yellow. Likewise, when we believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior, God looks at us through the Lord Jesus Christ. He sees us in all the white holiness of His Son. 

When we trust Christ for salvation, our sins are transferred to Christ’s account, while Christ’s righteousness is credited to ours. Hence, the Scriptures affirm that there is no condemnation—literally, no punishment—for those in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).

Sinless Perfection Impossible

The interpretation of Matthew 5:48 by Mormons, suggesting that perfection is a prerequisite for salvation, is a misunderstanding. While Jesus indeed stated, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” it’s crucial to grasp that this doesn’t imply humans can achieve sinless perfection in this lifetime. This concept not only diverges from the immediate context of Matthew’s Gospel but also the broader context of all of Scripture.

Foundationally, 1 John 1:8 cautions, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” As this epistle addresses Christians directly, it’s evident that attaining moral or spiritual perfection in mortal life, as Mormons aspire, is unattainable.

Moreover, notable figures in the Bible acknowledged their inherent sinfulness (Isaiah 6:5; Daniel 9:4-19; Ephesians 3:8). Even individuals like Isaiah, Daniel, and the apostle Paul couldn’t achieve perfection due to the persistent presence of their sinful nature (Ephesians 2:3).

Given the gravity of humanity’s sin problem as portrayed in Scripture, Matthew 5:48 cannot be interpreted to mean that humans can attain sinless perfection in this life. So, how should we understand this verse?

Contextually, this verse is found in a section of Scripture dealing not with the issue of sin but with the law of love. The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day had taught that we should love those who are near and dear to us (Leviticus 19:18) but hate those who are enemies. Jesus refuted this idea, instructing us to love even our enemies. After all, Jesus said, God’s love extends to all people (Matthew 5:45). And since God is our righteous standard, we should seek to be as He is in this regard. We are to be “perfect” (or complete) in loving as He is perfect.

James 2:10 says, “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” In view of this verse, efforts to reach perfection by self-effort are doomed to fail. We need only Christ, who was perfect on our behalf and wiped away all our sins by His death on the cross.

Hebrews 10:14 highlights Christ’s role in our perfection, stating, “By one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” Christ’s sacrifice accomplishes our eternal perfection, eliminating our imperfections (sins). Christ has done it all. 

Good Works Not a Requirement

Mormons misinterpret James 2:17,26 to argue that good works are necessary for salvation. While it’s true that James 2:17,26 suggests faith without works is dead, Martin Luther rightly observed that James 2 isn’t teaching salvation by works. Instead, it teaches that a person is “justified” (declared righteous before God) by faith alone, but genuine faith is never alone—it always produces good works in the believer’s life.

James addresses Jewish Christians (the “twelve tribes” mentioned in James 1:1) who were at risk of merely paying lip service to Jesus. His aim is to differentiate true faith from false faith, showing that genuine faith naturally results in visible works, serving as evidence of its presence. In essence, good works serve as vital signs indicating the vibrancy of faith. 

Some of these Jewish Christians falsely claimed to have faith. James condemns this empty boasting, emphasizing that works evidence genuine faith. He likens faith devoid of works to a lifeless corpse—it doesn’t move, and it has no vital signs. James uses this analogy to illustrate that, like a body without a spirit, faith without works is dead and unproductive.

Mormons may rebut by pointing to Philippians 2:12: “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” However, Scripture consistently emphasizes that works play no role in salvation (see Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 3:20,28). Thus, interpreting Philippians 2:12 in light of Scripture as a whole, it cannot mean that works are necessary for final salvation.

Many scholars believe that Philippians 2:12 addresses not the assurance of individual believers’ final salvation but rather the collective “salvation” of the Philippian church. This church faced internal strife, Judaizing influences, and moral laxity, hindering its spiritual growth. Therefore, the church as a whole needed “salvation” in the sense of overcoming these challenges to achieve spiritual health and unity. The verse lends no support to the Mormon interpretation. 

Baptism Not a Requirement

Contrary to Mormon doctrine, Acts 2:38 does not assert baptism as a prerequisite for salvation. Admittedly, this verse can be challenging to understand. However, a fundamental principle of biblical interpretation is that complex passages should be understood in light of clearer, more straightforward verses. Constructing theological beliefs solely on hard-to-understand passages is ill-advised.

The overwhelming majority of New Testament passages concerning salvation affirm that faith alone is the means to salvation. A prime example is found in John 3:16-17: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” Given such lucid passages, how should we interpret Acts 2:38?

A crucial clue lies within a single word in the verse. It reads, “Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ FOR the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (caps added). Scholars of the Greek language frequently note that the word “for” (eis) in Greek can denote either causality (“in order to attain”) or result (“because of”).

An example of using “for” in a resultant sense is the sentence, “I’m taking an aspirin FOR my headache.” Obviously, this means I’m taking an aspirin because of my headache. I’m not taking an aspirin to attain a headache.

An example of using “for” in a causal sense is the sentence, “I’m going to the office FOR my paycheck.” Obviously, this means I’m going to the office to attain my paycheck.

In Acts 2:38, “for” is used in a resultant sense. The verse could be rephrased as, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ because of—or as a result of—the remission of sins.” It does not suggest, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ in order to attain the remission of sins.” Thus, properly understood, this verse implies that water baptism follows the experience of salvation.

Paul elsewhere indicates that baptism is not a requirement for salvation: “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel” (1 Corinthians 1:17). Paul makes a clear distinction between baptism and the gospel. Since it is the gospel that saves (1 Corinthians 15:12), it’s evident that baptism is not a prerequisite for salvation.

There Are Not Three Kingdoms of Glory

Earlier, we highlighted that Mormons use 1 Corinthians 15:40-42 to support the notion of three kingdoms of glory in the afterlife. The passage reads: “There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. 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. So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption” (KJV).

Notice that this passage doesn’t mention the word “telestial.” It solely references “terrestrial” and “celestial.” Thus, this passage cannot be considered to support the existence of a telestial kingdom. Mormons are injecting a concept into the passage that isn’t present.

The context of 1 Corinthians 15:40-42 is established in verse 35, where two questions are posed: “How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?” The subsequent verses of 1 Corinthians 15 aim to answer these inquiries. Paul was addressing the concept of resurrection bodies, not kingdoms.

Contextually, “celestial” refers to heavenly, while “terrestrial” denotes earthly. Paul discusses the heavenly body versus the earthly body in this passage. As the passage continues, the earthly body is portrayed as fallen, temporal, imperfect, and weak (1 Corinthians 15:42-44). In contrast, the heavenly body will be eternal, perfect, and powerful (see 2 Corinthians 5:1-4).

From verses 40-50, the apostle Paul draws distinctions between the earthly and heavenly bodies: perishable/imperishable, weak/powerful, natural/supernatural, and mortal/immortal. Contextually, it’s evident that there’s no basis to interpret a theology of three kingdoms from a passage discussing two kinds of bodies: the earthly and the heavenly body.

Mormons often rebut by appealing to Paul’s mention of the “third heaven” in 2 Corinthians 12:2. If there is a third heaven, there must be a first heaven and a second heaven. However, the Bible defines for us what is meant: the three “heavens” are the atmospheric heaven (Deuteronomy 11:11), the starry heaven (Genesis 1:14), and the highest heaven—God’s realm where believers go upon death (Isaiah 63:15). It’s this latter heaven to which Paul alludes in 2 Corinthians 12:2. There is no mention or allusion to three kingdoms of glory. 

Two Possible Destinies

There are only two possible destinies in the afterlife: heaven or hell. The Scriptures consistently categorize people into one of two classes: saved or unsaved, and portray the final destiny of every person as being one of two realities: heaven or hell. Consider these key passages:

• In Matthew 13:30, Jesus, in His parable of the wheat and tares, said, “Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time, I will tell the harvesters: First, collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.” Here, believers and unbelievers are depicted as wheat and tares—two distinct classes. (Notably, the Bible does not mention three categories of wheat, each going to a different barn.) All the wheat is gathered into Christ’s single “barn,” while the “tares” are excluded and “burned.”

• In Matthew 13:49, Jesus said, “This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous.” Once again, two classes are mentioned: unbelievers and believers, referred to as the wicked and the righteous, each destined for a different fate (hell or heaven).

• In Matthew 25:32, Jesus mentioned that following His second coming, “all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” Here, believers and unbelievers are distinguished by the terms “sheep” and “goats.” The sheep, collectively, will enter God’s kingdom (verse 34) and inherit eternal life (verse 46), while the goats will face eternal punishment (verse 46).

In light of such passages, it is evident that there are two classes of people (the saved and the unsaved) and two possible destinies (heaven for the saved; hell for the unsaved). Each person ends up in one of these destinies based on whether they have placed saving faith in Christ during their time on earth (John 3:16-17; Acts 16:31).

To sum up:

• Sin involves moral rebellion against God. All of humanity is fallen in sin.

• Jesus, by His death, has provided complete redemption for those who trust Him.

• Works play no part in salvation.

• Salvation is by grace through faith.

• There are not three kingdoms of glory in the afterlife.

• In the end, there are two classes of people (the saved and the unsaved) and two possible destinies (heaven for the saved and hell for the unsaved). 

There is much more to say about all this. If you’re seeking a comprehensive treatment on this subject, I invite you to consult my rather large book, Reasoning from the Scriptures with Mormons (published by Harvest House). It will not only explain the Mormon view with clarity, but it will also give you the scriptural answers you need to dialog with a Mormon intelligently.

Go Deeper

  1. Gospel Principles (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985), p. 29.
  2. Gospel Principles, p. 17
  3. Holy Bible (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1990), p. 697.
  4. Spencer W. Kimball; quoted in Book of Mormon Student Manual (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1989), p. 36.
  5. Gospel Principles, p. 290.
  6. Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1958), 2:208.
  7. Bruce McConkie, Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1977), p. 420.
  8. LeGrand Richards, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1978), p. 255.

Dr. Ron Rhodes received his Th.M. and Th.D. degrees in systematic theology from Dallas Theological Seminary, graduating with honors. He is currently the president of Reasoning from the Scriptures Ministries, an apologetics organization located in Texas.

The author of more than 60 books, with millions of books in print, Dr. Rhodes is a keynote speaker at conferences across the United States and Canada. As time permits, he also teaches at a number of seminaries, including Dallas Theological Seminary and Veritas Evangelical Seminary. He has been a guest on many national and regional radio and television programs, including the John Ankerberg Show. He and his wife, Kerri, reside in Texas.

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