Mormons and Hell

This touching (and well-written) article — from Jennifer Pemberton, a woman who is not LDS but who has LDS relatives — got me thinking about Hell, something else that divides us from most conservative Christians. She talks about the conflicts between her grandmother (not LDS) and her great aunt (LDS) over religion, and her great-aunt’s final health decline and death:

Aunt Ruth died a week later. My grandmother was inconsolable — a complete surprise. “There’s no relief,” she said over the phone. “We can’t say, ‘She’s with the Lord now.’ I can’t help but think of her burning in hell, and there’s nothing we can do about it now.” How could I console her? “We don’t know that,” I said. “More likely she’s with Wendell and Richard and Grandpa. It’s one big family reunion up there for the Mormons.” I shouldn’t have included my grandfather in the mix, but she let it slide.

“I hope you’re right,” she said, with a laugh.

“At least if the Mormons are right, we’ll all be safe,” I said.

We were joking again, irreverent at the most inappropriate times — the only way we knew how to make sense of things.

“It wouldn’t hurt to invest in a pair of that holy underwear,” I added. “Just in case.”

Just about the same time I ran across this article, I also ran across this video mashup of Jack Chick’s ‘Titanic‘ tract using footage from James Cameron’s movie by the same name. Between the two, I was struck anew at how stark much of conservative Christian theology is regarding the concept of Hell and the significant (and often radical) differences in the LDS concept of Hell. (More after the jump.)

As I’ve written earlier, much of Christian theology — both Catholic and evangelical — condemns forever to Hell (or, in some cases, Limbo) those who did not perform or receive the saving act — baptism, for the Roman Catholic Church, or confession of Christ as one’s Savior, for the evangelicals. This introduces the problem of the unevangelized — that is, what is the fate of the billions who through no fault of their own found themselves at a time and place (e.g., Central Asia 3000 years ago or, for that matter, just 30 years ago) where they had no opportunity to receive/perform the saving act. It also introduces questions as to the actual nature of Hell, a topic of some dispute in both Catholic and evangelical theology.

I see no faults in the Church, and therefore let me be resurrected with the Saints, whether I ascend to heaven or descend to hell, or go to any other place. And if we go to hell, we will turn the devils out of doors and make a heaven of it. — Joseph Smith, History of the Church 5:517.

In LDS doctrine (but see this), there are in effect three types of Hell, only one of which is permanent (and Brigham Young expressed his doubts about that). Upon death, our bodies stay here but our spirits go to a location generally referred to as “the spirit world” (cf. this entry for more on where the spirit world may be located). We generally talk about the spirit world having (at least) two major divisions: paradise, where the righteous go, and spirit prison, where everyone else goes. Most everything we know about this state comes from two scriptural passages: Alma’s discourse to his son Corianton (Alma 40:11-21 in the Book of Mormon) and Pres. Joseph F. Smith’s vision of the redemption of the dead (D&C 138). There is a lot of additional unofficial or “folk” doctrine regarding what things are like in the spirit world, but the truth is that for the most part, we just don’t know.

At least one reasonable speculation, though, is that those who have not yet accepted the gospel are in a setting that allows free agency in doing so. In other words, as I’ve previously discussed, LDS doctrine states that all those who did not have an opportunity to accept the gospel (as we define it) in this life will have that chance in the next life — in other words, we believe in postmortem evangelization. We believe that this is what Peter was referring to in 1 Peter 3:18-20, 4:6, just as we believe that Paul was referring to proxy baptism for those same postmortem converts in 1 Corinthians 15:29. If it is blatantly obvious what that choice is, then there is really no room for agency (though see C. S. Lewis’s wonderful work The Great Divorce for a discomforting but probably quite accurate view on just how stubborn we might be when confronted with the reality of God after this life).

Even so, there will be those in the spirit world who know full well what path they have chosen and who (as Alma put it) will be “in darkness, and a state of awful, fearful looking for the fiery indignation of the wrath of God upon them; thus they remain in this state, as well as the righteous in paradise, until the time of their resurrection.” (Alma 40:14). What is not completely clear, even in LDS scriptures and doctrinal authorities, is if and exactly how the various groups in the spirit world — including the ‘merely’ unevangelized, the ones had an opportunity in this life but passed it by, and the actively wicked — are distinguished in their circumstances and opportunities. We just don’t know.

Here’s a case in point. Unofficial LDS doctrine states that those in the spirit prison who have accepted the gospel still can’t transition over to the ‘paradise’ side of things until their vicarious ordinance work (baptism, etc.) in done in the temple. This is commonly cited in sermons to members regarding the need to do their family genealogy work. Yet of the 100 billion or so people who have ever lived upon the early, only a small fraction has left behind sufficient genealogical information for such vicarious work to be performed– so this doctrine would consign all the rest to wait in spirit prison until the necessary information can be made known (e.g., via divine intervention after the start of the millennium).

But I digress. Part of Christ’s atonement is to resurrect each one of us and bring us back into the presence of God, whether we are ready and worthy to be there or not. As Alma the Younger so pointedly put it, “Or otherwise, can ye imagine yourselves brought before the tribunal of God with your souls filled with guilt and remorse, having a remembrance of all your guilt, yea, a perfect remembrance of all your wickedness, yea, a remembrance that ye have set at defiance the commandments of God?” (Alma 5:18). Or, as Jacob puts it several centuries earlier, “Wherefore we shall have a perfect knowledge of all our guilt, and our uncleanness, and our nakedness; and the righteous shall have a perfect knowledge of their enjoyment, and their righteousness, being clothed with purity, yeah, even with the robe of righteousness.” (2 Nephi 9:14). And later on: “Prepare your souls for that glorious day when justice shall be administered unto the righteous, even the day of judgment, that ye may not shrink with awful fear; that ye may not remember your awful guilt in perfectness, and be constrained to exclaim: Holy, holy are thy judgments, O Lord God Almighty — but I know my guilt; I transgressed the law, and my transgressions are mine; and the devil hath obtained me, that I am a prey to his awful misery.” (2 Nephi 9:46).

For those of us who have not repented, who have not accepted Christ’s atoning sacrifice, we must then pay for our sins ourselves. As Christ Himself put it, there are two resurrections: the resurrection of life and the resurrection of judgment (John 5:29). And in the resurrection of judgment, we suffer even as Christ did: “But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I; which suffering casued myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit — and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink — nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.” (D&C 19:17-19).

Setting aside the concept of postmortem evangelizing and proxy ordinances, so far this is not that different from ‘conventional’ Christian theology. But now comes the key distinction: with a very few exceptions, this ‘second Hell’ has an end. Quoting from that same section of the Doctrine and Covenants just cited:

And surely every man must repent or suffer, for I, God, am endless.

Wherefore, I revoke not the judgments which I shall pass, but woes shall go forth, weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, yeah, to those who are found on my left hand.

Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment.

Again, it is written eternal damnation; wherefore it is more express than other scriptures, that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men, altogether for my glory’s sake.

Wherefore, I will explain unto this mystery….

…For, behold, I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name. Wherefore —

Eternal punishment is God’s punishment.

Endless punishment is God’s punishment. — D&C 19:4-8, 10-12

In other words, the suffering is of an eternal nature, because God is eternal, but it does have an end. Most everyone who goes through this ‘second Hell’ will end up eventually in a kingdom of glory — the telestial kingdom, whose glory “surpasses all understanding” (D&C 76:89), though still quite dim compared to the terrestrial and celestial kingdoms (stars::moon::sun analogy). Still: “They shall be servants of the Most High; but where God and Christ dwell they cannot come, worlds without end.” (D&C 76:112).

The third, and final Hell is called “outer darkness” or “Perdition”, and those who go there “the sons of Perdition”. As I have discussed in an earlier post, this is reserved for two groups. First is Lucifer and the other premortal spirits who followed him in rejecting God’s plan and offering Lucifer’s own plan instead:

And I, the Lord God, spake unto Moses, saying: That Satan, whom thou hast commanded in the name of mine Only Begotten, is the same which was from the beginning, and he came before me, saying — Behold, here am I, send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor….Wherefore, because that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him, and also, that I should give unto him mine own power; by the power of mine Only Begotten, I caused that he should be cast down. (Moses 4:1, 3)

And this we saw also, and bear record, that an angel of God who was in authority in the presence of God, who rebelled against the Only Begotten Son whom the Father loved and who was in the bosom of the Father, was thrust down from the presence of God and the Son, and was called Perdition, for the heavens wept over him — he was Lucifer, a son of the morning. And we beheld, and lo, he is fallen! is fallen, even a son of the morning! (D&C 76:25-27)

In LDS doctrine, Lucifer — like each of us — is an uncreated, eternal intelligence given a spirit body by God. He is, quite literally, our brother, as is Christ. He apparently had significant talents and commensurate authority, as noted above. But he rejected the atonement, and those who followed him rejected the risk of sinning and having to pay for those sins. This they did in the presence of God and with full knowledge of Whom they were rejecting. By so doing, they forfeited gaining mortal — and subsequently immortal — bodies, as well as any claim at a kingdom of glory. Instead, they go into outer darkness.

They are joined there by a very small group of resurrected humans, called “the sons of perdition” in D&C 76:

Thus saith the Lord concerning all those who know my power, and have been made partakers thereof, and have suffered themselves through the power of the devil to be overcome, and to deny the truth and defy my power — They are they who are the sons of perdition, of whom I say that it had been better for them never to have been born….

Having denied the Holy Spirit after having received it, and having denied the Only Begotten Son of the Father, having crucified him unto themselves and put him to an open shame…

…who deny the Son after the Father has revealed him. Wherefore, 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 — And the end thereof, neither the place thereof, nor their torment, no man knows…

Wherefore, the end, the width, the height, the depth, and the misery thereof, they understand not, neither any man except those who are ordained unto this condemnation. (D&C 76:31-32, 35, 44-45, 48)

Note that even here, for the ‘worst of the worst’, if you will, there is a very deliberate lack of specificity as to the duration of this Hell. Brigham Young speculated that a ‘recycling’ of sorts might occur, but that may have simply been his New England thriftiness speaking.

That covers LDS concepts of Hell in a nutshell. There is real suffering: anguish in anticipation and clear knowledge of our guilt, despair and darkness with the absence of the light of Christ, and actual compensatory suffering for the sins for which we have not repented. And while I personally believe the Catholic/evangelical conception of a never-ending Hell of torment is far darker, crueler, and more unjust than the reality, I also worry that we as Latter-day Saints minimize the reality of the Hells that are and what they may well hold for us should we fail to repent utterly and rely upon the merits of Christ to save us. ..bruce..

[UPDATED 08/16/07 – 2339 MDT]

OK, ran across this cartoon and felt it was too appropriate to pass up:

Heh. ..bruce..