Question: What is the Mormon concept of Hell?


Question: What is the Mormon concept of Hell?

Critics of Mormonism make some or all of the following attacks on Latter-day Saint doctrine regarding "hell"

  1. Members of the Church don't seem to have any clear understanding of the doctrine of Hell since they can be found using it in multiple senses.
  2. Members of the Church don't believe in Hell.
  3. Members of the Church believe, contrary to the Bible, that Hell is not eternal.
  4. Members of the Church believe, contrary to the Bible, that Hell is not burning.
  5. Members of the Church believe, contrary to the Bible, that the punishments of Hell are temporary.
  6. Members of the Church believe, contrary to the Bible, that good but unbelieving people can escape Hell (i.e., they won't end up in Outer Darkness or even in the Telestial Kingdom but will live with Jesus in glory).
  7. Members of the Church believe, contrary to the Bible, that man's eternal destiny involves more than two alternatives (Heaven and Hell).

Criticism #1: Different meanings for "hell"?

Latter-day Saint doctrine and scripture does use the term "hell" in a few different senses. This does not mean, however, that members are unclear about their doctrine, or that the particular use of the term "hell" cannot be determined by context.

The Encyclopedia of Mormonism notes, in part:

Latter-day scriptures describe at least three senses of hell:

  1. that condition of misery which may attend a person in mortality due to disobedience to divine law;
  2. the miserable, but temporary, state of disobedient spirits in the spirit world awaiting the resurrection;
  3. the permanent habitation of the sons of perdition, who suffer the second spiritual death and remain in hell even after the resurrection.

Persons experiencing the first type of hell can be rescued from suffering through repentance and obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. The Savior suffered so that he could deliver everyone from hell (Alma 7:11-13; Alma 33:23). Those who do not repent, however, may experience the pains of hell in this life as well as in the next (D&C 76:104; 1 Nephi 16:2; Alma 40:14). The Prophet Joseph Smith described the true nature of hell: "A man is his own tormenter and his own condemner. Hence the saying, They shall go into the lake that burns with fire and brimstone. The torment of disappointment in the mind of man is as exquisite as a lake burning with fire and brimstone".[1] Thus, hell is both a place, a part of the world of spirits where suffering and sorrow occur, and a state of mind associated with remorseful realization of one's own sins (Mosiah 2:38; Alma 36:12-16).

A second type, a temporary hell of the postmortal spirit world, is also spoken of as a spirit prison. Here, in preparation for the Resurrection, unrepentant spirits are cleansed through suffering that would have been obviated by the Atonement of Christ had they repented during mortality (D&C 19:15-20; Alma 40:13-14). At the last resurrection this hell will give up its captive spirits. Many of these spirits will enter into the Telestial Kingdom in their resurrected state (2 Nephi 9:10-12; DC 76:84-89,106; Revelation 20:13). References to an everlasting hell for these spirits are interpreted in light of the Doctrine and Covenants, which defines Endless and Eternal as referring not to the length of punishment, but rather referring to God's punishment because he is "endless" and "eternal" (D&C 19:4-13). Individual spirits will be cleansed, will cease to experience the fiery torment of mind, and will be resurrected with their physical bodies.

The Savior's reference to the "gates of hell" (Hades, or the spirit world; Matthew 16:18) indicates, among other things, that God's priesthood power will penetrate hell and redeem the repentant spirits there. Many have been, and many more will yet be, delivered from hell through hearing, repenting, and obeying the gospel of Jesus Christ in the spirit world after the death of the body. LDS doctrine emphasizes that after his mortal death Jesus Christ went to the spirit world and organized the teaching of the gospel there (D&C 138:; cf. Luke 23:43; 1 Peter 3:18-20). The Athanasian Creed and some forms of the "Apostles"' Creed state that Christ "descended into hell." LDS teaching is that Jesus entered the spirit world to extend his redemptive mission to those in hell, upon conditions of their repentance....

A third meaning of "hell" (second spiritual death) refers to the realm of the devil and his angels, including those known as sons of perdition (2 Peter 2:4; D&C 29:38; D&C 88:113; Revelation 20:14). It is a place for those who cannot be cleansed by the Atonement because they committed the unforgivable and unpardonable sin (1 Nephi 15:35; D&C 76:30-49). Only this hell continues to operate after the Resurrection and Judgment.[2]

Criticism #2: Don't believe in hell?

This claim is false. LDS scripture repeatedly refers to hell, as does the Bible, and as demonstrated above, the LDS have a clear use of hell in their theology.

Criticism #3: hell is not eternal?

Some critics claim that the LDS doctrine of hell violates the Book of Mormon and the Bible, because the Church does not teach a hell of endless duration. For example, Jerald and Sandra Tanner wrote:

All others, who are not classed as sons of perdition, will be "redeemed in the due time of the Lord"; that is, they will all be saved. The MEANEST SINNER will find some place in the heavenly realm...

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, THERE IS NO HELL. ALL will find a measure of salvation, ... The gospel of Jesus Christ has NO HELL in the old proverbial sense. (Joseph Smith--Seeker After Truth, Salt Lake City, 1951, pp. 177-178).

The Apostle John A. Widtsoe seemed to be teaching the very thing that the Book of Mormon condemned![3]

This quotation, however, does not fairly represent either Elder Widtsoe's views or the LDS doctrine he is explaining.

Note how Elder Widtsoe is trying to explain the differences between the sectarian vision of hell and the LDS one. He nowhere claims that sinners get a 'free ride' into heaven, and even opines that LDS understanding of punishment may be worse, in some ways. Note too the author's tendency to distort and obscure meaning through ALL CAPS and emphasis.

  • The quotes in context:

To illustrate the definite break with the Christianity of the day, [consider a doctrine] foreign to the truth of the gospel but taught almost vehemently over centuries by the priests of an apostate Christianity...that sinners will be sent to hell, there to remain in torture throughout eternity....In Joseph's day preachers still taught the proverbial hell of everlasting torture. In the text books of his day, in many nations, were pictures of devils with pitchforks pushing sinners into the flames of hells, there to suffer the agony of being burned, but never consumed. With one hand the preacher offered a fragment of God's love, and with the other, the torment of an unutterable never-ending hell provided by an angry, unforgiving God. Under such a cruel doctrine men would be frightened, so it was hoped, into a righteous manner of living. How men could devise so horrible a future for any one of God's children is a striking evidence of the apostasy from the simple loving gospel of Jesus Christ...the breaking of any law brings punishment which however may be paid for through repentance. If repentance does not follow sin, full punishment inevitably follows......In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there is no hell. All will find a measure of salvation; all must pay for any infringement of the law; but the payment will be as the Lord may decide. There is graded salvation. This may be a more terrible punishment: to feel that because of sin a man is here, when by a correct life, he might be higher. The gospel of Jesus Christ has no hell in the old proverbial sense.[4]

Criticism #4: hell is not burning?

LDS scripture says of those in hell that "their torment is as a lake of fire and brimstone" (2 Nephi 9:16, italics added). Thus, LDS scripture sees the burning of hell as metaphorical. This does not, however, mean that LDS doctrine devalues or downplays the suffering of hell. The resurrected Christ told Joseph Smith that:

15 Therefore I command you to repent—repent, lest I smite you by the rod of my mouth, and by my wrath, and by my anger, and your sufferings be sore—how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not.

16 For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;

17 But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I;

18 Which suffering caused 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—

19 Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.

20 Wherefore, I command you again to repent, lest I humble you with my almighty power; and that you confess your sins, lest you suffer these punishments of which I have spoken, of which in the smallest, yea, even in the least degree you have tasted at the time I withdrew my Spirit. (D&C 19:15-20)

Criticism #5: punishments are temporary?

See #3, above.

Criticism #6: good but unbelieving people can escape hell?

LDS doctrine anticipates that not all people will have a full and complete chance to accept the gospel of Jesus Christ before their death. Thus, in LDS doctrine those who have not yet accepted Christ may do so after death, but before the resurrection.

Criticism #7: humanity's eternal destiny involves more than "just" heaven or hell?

It is true that the Church believes that there is more to the final judgment than just a heaven/hell split. This difference derives in part from changes made to Christian doctrine in the first centuries after the death of the apostles.

For a discussion on changes from the early Christian conception of sin, death, hell, and salvation, see:

  • Barry R. Bickmore, "Salvation History and Requirements," in Restoring the Ancient Church: Joseph Smith and Early Christianity (Redding, CA: Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, 1999).

Christian view of Hell

Critics manage to mangle the Christian view of Hell as badly as they do with the correct, authentic and original Christian view of Heaven.

They don't start off well, confusing both the New Testament concepts of Hell in the sense of "hades" or "sheol" (spirit prison) and "gehenna" (everlasting burning)-terms with completely different meanings-and using the terms interchangeably, blissfully ignorant of the distinctions LDS (and the Bible, and most other Christians) make between the two. While it is probably true that, as they say, "...many [Latter-day Saints] find the [Biblicist] view of hell (eternal punishment with no second chances) to be both unfair and offensive," what offends us even more is that such an oversimplification is not Christian doctrine. Oddly enough, they are not even representing normative Protestant doctrine when they fail to make a difference between hades/sheol and gehenna.

As Innes explains,

"Hell" in the AV normally renders one of the three words, Sheol, Hades, and Gehenna.

Sheol...is the word [that] is used in the Old Testament for the place of the dead. In general, we may say that it is the state of death pictured in visible terms....In the later Jewish literature we meet with the idea of divisions within Sheol for the wicked and the righteous, in which each experiences a foretaste of his final destiny (Enoch xxii. 1-14). This idea appears to underlie the imagery of the parable of Dives and Lazarus in the New Testament.[5]:518

"Hades" is the Greek term used to translate the Hebrew word "sheol" in the New Testament. Innes again:

In the LXX [6] it almost always renders sheol, and in the New Testament the Pesh.[7] renders it by shyul. It is used in connection with the death of Christ in Acts ii. 27, 31, which quotes Ps. xvi. 10. In Mt. xvi. 18 Christ says that the gates of Hades (cf. Is. xxxviii. 10; Pss. ix. 13, cvii. 18) shall not prevail against His Church. As the gates of a city are essential to its power, the meaning here is probably the power of death.[5]:518

With respect to Gehenna, Innes goes on to explain,

In later Jewish writings Gehenna came to have the sense of the place of punishment for sinners (Assumption of Moses x.10; 2 Esdras vii.36) The rabbinic literature contains various opinions as to who would suffer eternal punishment. The ideas were widespread that the sufferings of some would be terminated by annihilation, or that the fires of Gehenna were in some cases purgatorial. But those who held these doctrines also taught the reality of eternal punishment for certain classes of sinners...The teaching of the New Testament endorses this belief.[5]:518

In the New Testament, the Hebrew word is usually transliterated as ge'enna, but on occasion the general (i.e., non-Judaeo-Christian) Greek word Tartarus is also used. "Gehenna" comes from the imagery of a continuously smoldering garbage pit in the Valley of Hinnom in New Testament Jerusalem. Tartarus is a classical Greek word for the son of the god Chaos but came to mean that part of the afterworld where the wicked suffered for their sins. So we have two pairs of Greek/Hebrew words used in the New Testament: Sheol/Hades for the afterworld in general, and Gehenna/Tartarus for the place of eternal punishment. But as noted, Tartarus is a rarely used word in the New Testament (originally written, of course, in Greek).

Given such a fundamental and critical failure to distinguish between very clearly different concepts in the New Testament, precious little of the authors' commentary on the Gospel's beliefs regarding Outer Darkness, Perdition, Spirit Prison and the Telestial Kingdom makes any sense whatsoever and the critic of their work wonders where to even begin to approach it. A basic primer in Christianity (let alone its restored form) is needed by the authors.


Notes

  1. Joseph Smith, Jr., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected by Joseph Fielding Smith, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976), 357. off-site
  2. M. Catherine Thomas, "Hell," in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols., edited by Daniel H. Ludlow, (New York, Macmillan Publishing, 1992), 2:585–586.
  3. Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Mormonism—Shadow or Reality?, 5th edition, (Salt Lake City: Utah Lighthouse Ministry, 1987), 198.
  4. John A. Widtsoe, Joseph Smith: Seeker after Truth, Prophet of God (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1951), 173-178. GL direct link
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 D.K. Innes, "Hell," The New Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 1962)
  6. LXX is the commonly used abbreviation for the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament written in Alexandria, Egypt, several centuries before Christ. It's the tradition of the Old Testament Christ and the Apostles (as well as the Jews of the day) used; at the end of the first century A.D. Jewish scholars rejected the LXX tradition and developed a new one, one that took over half a millennium to compile-this new one is known as the MT, or Masoretic Text, and is the one most modern Christian Old Testaments, including that in the King James Version, are based on.
  7. Pesh. is, like LXX, an abbreviation for a version of the ancient Bible. In this case it stands for "Peshitta," the Old Syriac version still used today by Lebanese Marionite Christians and Palestinian Christians.