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How can you believe in a God who would send His children to an eternal hell?

By Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson

The following is from chapter 18 in Answering Mormons’ Questions (Kregel, 2013). To get additional help in answering LDS questions, we recommend purchasing the book. Click here to see more

The traditional view of eternal punishment in hell is rejected in Mormon theology. Apostle John A. Widtsoe said, “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.”[1] Apostle Bruce R. McConkie  added, “To believe that in eternity all men will go either to a heaven of eternal bliss or a hell of eternal torment is a doctrine that offends the sense of justice of every reasonable man.”[2]

While Mormonism denies its existence, there is a redefined concept of hell that is a part of LDS theology: “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.”[3]

The first definition means that people can create their own hell on earth; that is, by willfully disobeying God’s law, they suffer the consequences of committing such sins as adultery, cheating on taxes, or living a life of lies. However, since the worst “hell” possible in this temporal world is nothing compared to eternal separation from God, this cannot be what the Bible describes as eternal hell. The second definition refers to a spirit prison, where deceased, disobedient humans will be held in a temporary state. When living Mormons perform works in temples on behalf of the dead, an opportunity to accept the gospel is made available to them. The third aspect is outer darkness, which will be discussed later in this chapter. A fourth possible meaning is the regret those relegated to lower kingdoms will have for eternity.

President Joseph Fielding Smith said,

Of course, those who enter the telestial kingdom, and those who enter the terrestrial kingdom will have the eternal punishment which will come to them in knowing that they might, if they had kept the commandments of the Lord, have returned to his presence as his sons and his daughters. This will be a torment to them, and in that sense it will be hell.[4]

The Encyclopedia of Mormonism defines damnation as “falling short of what one might have enjoyed if one had received and been faithful to the whole law of the gospel. In this sense, all who do not achieve the highest degree of the Celestial Kingdom are damned, even though they are saved in some degree of glory. They are damned in the sense that they will not enjoy an eternal increase or the continuation of the family unit in eternity (D&C 132:4, 19).”[5]

Some Mormons hope that over time progression from a lower to a higher kingdom can be achieved. President Brigham Young) speculated that this could be possible.[6] However, presidents such as George Albert Smith) and Spencer W. Kimball denied this possibility, as did Apostle Bruce R. McConkie.[7] Joseph Fielding Smith concluded that the idea of progressing from kingdom to kingdom “is false reasoning, illogical, and creates mischief in making people think they may procrastinate their repentance, but in course of time they will reach exaltation in celestial glory.”[8]

Hell According to the Bible

While eternal punishment may not be a popular doctrine, it is necessary because God is holy (Isa. 6:3; Rev. 4:8) and just (2 Thess. 1:6). Indeed, sin has consequences, including eternal death (Rom. 6:23). The Bible is very clear that those who have spurned God’s sacrifice and refused the gift of His Son will spend eternity in endless torment. It reveals only two options: heaven or hell.

Jesus said in Matthew 18:8, “It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.” In Matthew 25:46 Jesus said, “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.” And He said in Luke 13:28 that “there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” when those who thought they belonged in heaven based on their good works are sent away.

The Epistles tell the same story. Second Thessalonians 1:8–9 says that those who do not know God will “be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord.” Second Peter 2:9 says unforgiven sinners will have a “day of judgment to be punished.” And Revelation 20:15 declares, “Whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.” This state will last throughout eternity (cf. Matt. 3:12; Mark 9:43; Jude 7, 12–13; Rev. 14:11).

Hell According to LDS Scriptures

This portrait of hell is not limited to the pages of the Bible. Consider some passages from the Book of Mormon:

  • 2 Nephi 9:19: “O the greatness of the mercy of our God, the Holy One of Israel! For he delivereth his saints from that awful monster the devil, and death, and hell, and that lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment.” 144 Answering Mormons’ Questions
  • 2 Nephi 9:26: “For the atonement satisfieth the demands of his justice upon all those who have not the law given to them, that they are delivered from that awful monster, death and hell, and the devil, and the lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment; and they are restored to that God who gave them breath, which is the Holy One of Israel.”
  • Jacob 6:10: “And according to the power of justice, for justice cannot be denied, ye must go away into that lake of fire and brimstone, whose flames are unquenchable, and whose smoke ascendeth up forever and ever, which lake of fire and brimstone is endless torment.”

Alma 34:35 offers this stern warning to the “wicked” who put off repentance: “For behold, if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death, behold, ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil, and he doth seal you his; therefore, the Spirit of the Lord hath withdrawn from you, and hath no place in you, and the devil hath all power over you; and this is the final state of the wicked.”

What is this final state of the wicked? It seems very clear that this includes the Lord’s Spirit being withdrawn from them so that the devil has all power over them and the ability to claim them as his own. Nowhere does this passage imply that this situation ever changes since it is considered “final.” Referring to this passage, Marion G. Romney, a member of the First Presidency, said, “I have never found anything in the scriptures nor in the teachings of the prophets which encourages me to believe, that those who have the gospel taught to them here will be able to make up their loss if they choose to wait for the next life to obey it. I would not advise anyone to take that chance. As I understand the scriptures, taking such a hazard would be fatal.”[9]

For those who deny the reality of hell, 2 Nephi 28:21–22 provides a warning: “And others will he pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well— and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell. And behold, others he flattereth away, and telleth them there is no hell; and he saith unto them: I am no devil, for there is none—and thus he whispereth in their ears, until he grasps them with his awful chains, from whence there is no deliverance.”[10] Doctrine and Covenants 63:17 describes the “lake which burneth with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”

Outer Darkness

One LDS church manual reports that “the word hell is used to refer to outer darkness, which is the dwelling place of the devil, his angels, and the sons of perdition.”[11] Doctrine and Covenants 133:73 says that this is a place of “weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth.” Joseph Fielding Smith wrote,

Outer darkness is something which cannot be described, except that we know that it is to be placed beyond the benign and comforting influence of the Spirit of God—banished entirely from his presence.[12]

The punishment here is severe and, by all accounts, final and eternal in its length. According to Mormon teaching, there are two classes of spirits who end up in outer darkness. The majority will be the one-third of the hosts of heaven who chose the side of Lucifer in the preexistence and fought against God in the war in heaven. That conflict arose when Lucifer objected to Jesus’ appointment to be the Savior of the world. As punishment for their rebellion, they were denied physical bodies and became the demons, haunting the world with no hope of redemption.

According to Doctrine and Covenants 29:38, they are destined for hell, which “is a place prepared for them from the beginning.” The irony is that these hosts, who are literally spirit sons and daughters of the Mormon God, are doomed in eternity to outer darkness for what appears to be one sin in the preexistence. In an LDS context, this should not seem fair, since even the best of Mormons living today would have to admit that they have committed far more than one sin in their lifetimes.

Doctrine and Covenants 76:35–36 describes the sons of perdition as “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. These are they who shall go away into the lake of fire and brimstone, with the devil and his angels.”

While it is not always clear in Mormon writings just who qualifies to be a “son of perdition,” there seems to be some common characteristics. For one, the person had to have once been a member of the LDS Church. According to Joseph Smith, another trait is that such a person is stubborn because “he has got to say that the sun does not shine while he sees it; he has got to deny Jesus Christ when the heavens have been opened unto him, and to deny the plan of salvation with his eyes open to the truth of it.”[13] Joseph Fielding Smith reiterated this concept when he said that a son of perdition “must first know and understand the truth with a clearness of vision wherein there is no doubt.”[14]

In other words, a former member would still have to know the LDS Church was true but continue to fight against it. We have to wonder how many diabolical people there are in the world who (1) are former Mormons; (2) left the “one true church,” even though they knew it was true; and (3) while believing it to be true, fight against it.

The former members we know— whether atheist, Christian, or now an adherent of some other religion—all seem to be adamant in their denial of Mormonism. However, it is not uncommon for current LDS members to use the title “son of perdition” as an intimidation tactic to prevent struggling Latter-day Saints from leaving the faith.

It could be argued that the Bible’s graphic descriptions of hell are mere metaphor. But then we must ask, “A metaphor for what?” If a metaphor is a figure of speech that uses a comparison between two things that have something in common, how is this supposed to put a person at ease? Such language hardly describes what many Mormons understand to be a “heavenly” existence.

[1] Widtsoe, Joseph Smith, 178.

[2] McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 468.

[3] M. Catherine Thomas, “Hell,” in Ludlow, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 2:585.

[4] Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, 2:210.

[5] Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, “Damnation,” in Ludlow, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1:353.

[6] Woodruff, Waiting for World’s End, 167.

[7] Conference Reports, October 1945, 172, as cited in Search These Commandments, 1984, 81; Kimball, The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, 50; Bruce R. McConkie, “The Seven Deadly Heresies,” BYU Fireside, June 1, 1980

[8] Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 2:31.

[9] Conference Reports, April 1954, 134.

[10] While this passage says it is Satan who tells people there is no hell, let’s not forget that John A. Widtsoe and Bruce R. McConkie also have said hell does not exist, as noted above.

[11] True to the Faith, 81.

[12] Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 2:220.

[13] Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 358.

[14] Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 1:49.

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