Most Church members make explaining Mormon doctrine on salvation and heaven much more complicated than it needs to be. By the mainstream Christian perception of salvation and heaven (by mainstream, I mean what most Christians actually believe, not what theological school graduates claim Christian doctrine is), Mormon doctrine is incredibly easy to understand.
To wit: “A loving God would not create human beings to send them to Hell. Only the worst people, those who repeatedly reject God even after they know Him, go to what Christians describe as Hell. The rest of us go to a kind of Heaven, a place that is much better than Earth and where you will feel joy.”
Here is how the Encyclopedia of Mormonism explains it:
Some degree of salvation will come to all of God’s children except for the sons of perdition.
Or we can look at D&C 76:43–45:
43Who glorifies the Father, and saves all the works of his hands, except those sons of perdition who deny the Son after the Father has revealed him.
44Wherefore, he saves all except them—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, where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched, which is their torment—
45And the end thereof, neither the place thereof, nor their torment, no man knows;
So, to be clear, the only people who are going to Hell are the really, really bad folks. The rest are saved (by the common definition of salvation). D&C 76 says:
36These are they who shall go away into the lake of fire and brimstone, with the devil and his angels—
37And the only ones on whom the second death shall have any power;
38Yea, verily, the only ones who shall not be redeemed in the due time of the Lord, after the sufferings of his wrath.
39For all the rest shall be brought forth by the resurrection of the dead, through the triumph and the glory of the Lamb, who was slain, who was in the bosom of the Father before the worlds were made.
Why do I highlight the seemingly obvious? Because I repeatedly see and hear Mormons saying you are only saved if you are baptized in the Church. People saying this are getting themselves into the same logical dead-end that Calvinists were in for centuries, ie, why would a loving God create billions of people and save only a small number of them?
No, a loving God knows that it will take a lot of time for many people to accept Him. With endless patience, He gives them free will and allows them to consider the alternatives. He knows that, with patience, most of His children will want to follow Him.
Therefore, we are given this description of the telestial kingdom, the very lowest kingdom a soul can go to:
thus we saw, in the heavenly vision, the glory of the telestial, which surpasses all understanding.
So clearly the telestial glory is better than our current Earth and is a kind of heaven.
Now let me make it perfectly clear that I don’t think we should encourage people to settle for either the telestial or terrestial heavens. The point of accepting the Gospel is that you are ready to make a change. You are ready to put behind you the natural man and draw closer to God.
I see accepting the telestial or terrestial kingdoms kind of like accepting living on an oasis when you could really live in the marvelous city just over the hill. The oasis looks really good compared to the desert, but not so good compared to the alternative on the other side of the sand dune.
But in talking to the rest of the world, we must learn to use language they understand. Just as we learn Portuguese when performing a mission in Brazil and Romanian when going to Romania, we must learn the language that everyday people use when discussing “being saved.”
Most Christians believe you must accept Jesus Christ to be saved. Once you accept Jesus Christ you go to Heaven. But there is a wide variety of discussion in the mainstream Christian world on this issue. There is no central authority telling all Christians what to believe (although obviously about half of Christians are Catholics and look to the Catholic church for guidance — nevertheless the Catholic position on this is murky, see below).
Therefore, belief runs the gamut from “everybody is saved” to “only people who go to my church are saved.” Some churches say you must be baptized, others say you don’t need to. In addition, there has been pressure on mainstream Christians to define what happens to non-Christians. This is why you can have the Pope say that non-Christians can be saved. I personally have discussed this with Catholic priests in Latin America who have told me that they believe almost everybody is saved but that the Catholic church is the best vehicle for being saved.
I don’t think it behooves Mormons to say, “well, you must be baptized in our church to be saved.” Instead, the argument should be: “This is the way you continue your journey of drawing closer to God and feeling the Spirit on a more regular basis. This is only the beginning — there are marvelous things to come.”