There’s a quite misguided article on hell by some member at the Huffington Post (thanks to Dan Peterson’s blog for the link), in which she basically claims we don’t believe hell exists (“The short answer to this is simple: No”). She admits that while Mormons “casually” refer to hell, and even concedes that the Book of Mormon “mentions” it. However, she claims that really it’s used either in a metaphorical sense, refers to “spirit prison” (which she claims “is also not a place that God has created for sinners” but “is a place where those who die in ignorance of Christ go”), or lastly “outer darkness” as a destination for the devil and his angels and unspecified “sons of perdition”. “God does not punish us” claims the author.
There’s bits of truth here mixed with folk doctrine and some real misconceptions, but these are widespread misconceptions. I remember as a missionary teaching around one family’s home, where my companion at the time (a good man and teacher – I enjoyed serving with him) made the claim that we did not believe in hell. After the discussion when we were alone again I brought it up. “Er… we do believe in hell. In fact we believe in lots more hell than most people. We just don’t think most people are going to be there permanently”. More recently I’ve had the opportunity to notice that despite it being more than a decade since I got home from my mission, the same phrases keep getting repeated (such as “spirit prison isn’t a place of punishment, it’s simply a place of learning), even though they cannot be found in either the scriptures or things like Preach My Gospel (which basically paraphrases Alma 40 on the issue). On a side issue, finding out how such notions get transmitted nearly word for word despite zero official support would be an interesting topic in itself.
However, it is on hell itself that I address myself. The following points seem to be misunderstood, and yet easily established from scripture:
A) God does punish sinners
Perhaps the most fundamental misunderstanding here. The author of the linked article bluntly claims the opposite, but this is (as also noted by one commentator on Daniel Peterson’s blog, who quotes some of the same passages) quite unscriptural. Take the following scriptures:
And because of the intercession for all, all men come unto God; wherefore, they stand in the presence of him, to be judged of him according to the truth and holiness which is in him. Wherefore, the ends of the law which the Holy One hath given, unto the inflicting of the punishment which is affixed, which punishment that is affixed is in opposition to that of the happiness which is affixed, to answer the ends of the atonement—
Now, repentance could not come unto men except there were a punishment, which also was eternal as the life of the soul should be, affixed opposite to the plan of happiness, which was as eternal also as the life of the soul.
Now, how could a man repent except he should sin? How could he sin if there was no law? How could there be a law save there was a punishment?
Now, there was a punishment affixed, and a just law given, which brought remorse of conscience unto man.
For, behold, the mystery of godliness, how great is it! 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.
And I will punish the world for evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will cause the arrogancy of the proud to cease, and will lay down the haughtiness of the terrible
At present this punishment is largely deferred (thankfully!) as we are experiencing a probationary state to give us time to repent (Alma 12:24). But God most certainly will punish wickedness; in fact to do otherwise is to be merciless to the victims of sin.
B) Hell Exists, and God has prepared it for those who do not repent
Hell is not just “mentioned” in the Book of Mormon: the word is used 59 times, more than in the Old Testament and New Testament combined (31 and 23 times respectively). Both the Book of Mormon and other latter-day scripture speak of it being prepared by God for the wicked:
Yea, they are grasped with death, and hell; and death, and hell, and the devil, and all that have been seized therewith must stand before the throne of God, and be judged according to their works, from whence they must go into the place prepared for them, even a lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment.
And, behold, there is a place prepared for them from the beginning, which place is hell.
Wherefore, they have foresworn themselves, and, by their oaths, they have brought upon themselves death; and a hell I have prepared for them, if they repent not;
(1 Nephi 15:35 speaks of the devil being the “preparator” of hell, but Royal Skousen argues – quite convincingly in my opinion, in the light of passages such as Moses 6:29 and D&C 29:38 – that this is a scribal error and “proprietor” is intended).
C) Hell does sometimes have a broader meaning
“Hell” is sometimes used in other senses. Thus we find it used as a label for the forces of the opposition (as in D&C 6:34 or 88:113), or some other despairing situation (as by Jonah in Jonah 2:2). Jacob uses the term hell to mean “the death of the spirit” (2 Nephi 9:10). One particular notable use is by Alma when teaching the people of Ammonihah:
And therefore, he that will harden his heart, the same receiveth the lesser portion of the word; and he that will not harden his heart, to him is given the greater portion of the word, until it is given unto him to know the mysteries of God until he know them in full.
And they that will harden their hearts, to them is given the lesser portion of the word until they know nothing concerning his mysteries; and then they are taken captive by the devil, and led by his will down to destruction. Now this is what is meant by the chains of hell.
Here Alma is using the “chains of hell” to describe not a place, but a condition, where someone has rejected the word, lost what they already have and is held captive by the devil’s will. However, I’m not sure Alma would quite agree that what he is describing is “metaphorical”. I suspect he would describe it as a very real spiritual phenomena (and one we can see elsewhere in the Book of Mormon).
D) Hell also refers to the destination of the spirits of the wicked go after death
And then shall it come to pass, that the spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness, which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care, and sorrow.
And then shall it come to pass, that the spirits of the wicked, yea, who are evil—for behold, they have no part nor portion of the Spirit of the Lord; for behold, they chose evil works rather than good; therefore the spirit of the devil did enter into them, and take possession of their house—and these shall be cast out into outer darkness; there shall be weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth, and this because of their own iniquity, being led captive by the will of the devil.
We seem to shy away from such descriptions, but Alma does not: indeed he describes the destination of the wicked as “outer darkness” (a term we moderns seem to have solely associated with the sons of perdition, although of the six times the term is used in scripture – Matthew 8:12, Matthew 22:13, Matthew 25:30, Alma 40:13, D&C 101:91, D&C 133:73 – not once is it so associated; in fact all the uses in latter-day scripture clearly have reference to broader groups). This is “spirit prison”. This is hell.
However, there seem to be a misunderstanding that may explain why people try to soften this. As in the linked article, there seems to be this belief that all who are not members of the Church, including those who were simply ignorant, are going to spirit prison. But Alma simply divides between the “righteous” and the “wicked” (indeed “evil”!). He nowhere states that this includes righteous non-members, particular those who simply lack knowledge of Christ. Likewise Joseph F. Smith, in his vision, speaks of the wicked dead to whom Christ did not go in person as “the ungodly and the unrepentant who had defiled themselves while in the flesh” and “the rebellious who rejected the testimonies and the warnings of the ancient prophets” (D&C 138:20-21).
We furthermore have an actual example, in the thief on the cross:
And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us.
But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation?
And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss.
And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.
And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.
It is highly unlikely that the thief on the cross had been baptised or received other essential ordinances, nor presumably had his life been an unspotted one. But Christ tells him: “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise”. Doubtless the thief had a lot more learning to do and things to do to be ready for heaven itself, but it seems his heart was right enough that he could escape hell. There are things to be learned and ordinances to be received, but the righteous dead need not wait for those in hell.
And really, if members think their ancestors are waiting in hell for them to get their baptisms by proxy sorted out, even delaying Temple attendance by 24 hours seems an outrageous sin (and quite unjust)!
E) All are ultimately saved from hell, save the “sons of perdition” and the devil and his angels.
One measure of quite how many people are going to pass through hell is that this is listed as a defining characteristic of those who receive a telestial glory. I’m not exaggerating:
And again, we saw the glory of the telestial, which glory is that of the lesser, even as the glory of the stars differs from that of the glory of the moon in the firmament.
These are they who are thrust down to hell.
However – since again there seems to be some confusion on the matter – this is not a reference to the telestial kingdom itself, the glory of which “surpasses all understanding” (D&C 76:89 – despite hypothetical spiders?). Rather we learn of these people:
These are they who are cast down to hell and suffer the wrath of Almighty God, until the fulness of times, when Christ shall have subdued all enemies under his feet, and shall have perfected his work;
D&C 76:106 (my emphasis)
The telestial kingdom is what comes after hell, and the future inhabitants of the telestial kingdom must spend some time in hell – in spirit prison, awaiting their resurrection – for their sins “until” Christ has perfected his work. But their time in hell will come to an end, because of the efficacy of Christ’s atonement. For:
That through him all might be saved whom the Father had put into his power and made by him;
Who 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.
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;
With the exception of the “sons of perdition”, the devil, and his angels, all mankind will be ultimately saved from hell. This is not because of the article’s mistaken claim that “God does not punish us”, for God is just, and will punish unrepentant sin. There is no cause for complacency, or believing that we can sin “and if it so be that we are guilty, God will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God” (2 Nephi 28:8). God is a holy and a just God, who “cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance” (D&C 1:31). He will require a reckoning from us and we are accountable to him, as much as we will want the same of those who’ve sinned against us. But he couples those traits and holds them in perfection alongside his equally perfect love and mercy: seeking to save, but not permissive and an enabler of evil.