Most Christians think of Heaven or Hell as an either/or proposition. Not so. Latter-day Saint scripture reveals that there is a lot more to Heaven, and a lot more to Hell than one typically thinks. This article will look at just what Hell is, how long it lasts, and who actually need worry about going there.
Classic view and definition of Hell
When most people think of Hell the image consists roughly of a giant pit or lake of fire and brimstone (burning sulfur), often filled with the tortured souls of the damned, along with Satan’s devils, whose sole purpose is to punish these same tortured souls as much as possible. In Dante’s Inferno, there are seven rings or layers of Hell, each successive layer with a more exquisite form of punishment, with the last layer being a form of outer darkness. In this layer resides Satan himself, and betrayers like Judas Iscariot, all of them frozen in ice, conscious, yet unable to act in any way, and in complete darkness for all eternity. At least that is how I remember reading the book.
In all Christian faiths, except for the Lord’s restored Church, Hell is permanent, and the only option after this life to Heaven. Like I said, it is an either/or proposition. What puzzles me is why the pleasantries I’ve heard other Christians describe Heaven to include never match up to the pains and torments described for Hell. One would think that as bad as Hell is for the damned, Heaven would offer up equally sweet delights. I spoke with one Christian who’s sole hope for Heaven is to spend the rest of eternity paving the streets with gold. His view of Heaven didn’t extend beyond doing street work forever and ever. But we’ll deal with Heaven in another article. Suffice it to say that I don’t pretend to have an exhaustive knowledge of Heaven or Hell and that I present here what information I do have, and have included a video from Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles about the same subject. So don’t just take my word for it, watch the material at the end of the article as well.
If you are like most people, who only think of one form of Hell, then prepare to rethink your definition of Hell. In the Lord’s restored Church Hell refers to at least two states and places. I’ll cover each of them.
Description in modern revelation
Most people think of Hell being where the wicked are assigned to go after the judgment. This is a permanent state and place that cannot be undone and is often the primary motivator for repentance in this life. Actually, when we die there is a mini judgment that takes place. The righteous go to paradise (Alma 40:12) to rest from earthly sorrows and perform God’s work until the actual final judgment. Those who are wicked (Alma 40:14) or at least do not yet qualify as righteous go to what we generally call Spirit Prison, but which can also be called Hell. It can be called Hell because there is no rest here for those who were disobedient during mortality. For those who never heard of Christ in mortality, it is also a time when they can be taught Christ’s gospel and given the opportunity to accept the saving ordinances of salvation.
Duration of Hell and why it is temporary
If the gospel of Christ is accepted by those who, for whatever reason, did not accept it in mortality, they can move out of Hell or spirit prison into paradise and find rest from their sorrows. In this sense, Hell is temporary, and based only on the length of time it takes for the individual to learn about and accept the gospel of Christ. Since no one can be saved without baptism and the other saving ordinances, we search out our kindred dead and go to the temple to do their baptism and ordinances in their names. If they choose to accept Christ and his gospel in the next life, then the work has to be performed for them by someone living here in mortality. The Lord recognizes vicarious work for others when it is done by his ordained servants, and in the manner He, himself has prescribed. There is a lot of emphasis in the Lord’s Church on performing saving ordinances for our kindred dead, our ancestors. We don’t believe that we can be saved without our families, so we need to do this work for those who have died in generations past in order to save ourselves.
This worldview is unique to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We truly believe that we are all children of God. That means we are brothers and sisters. So when we say that God is unchanging and the same yesterday, today, and forever, we mean it. He loves our forefathers every bit as much as he loves us. If he requires baptism and other ordinances from us, they are required for our ancestors as well. Unfortunately, our ancestors are no longer able to receive the saving ordinances for themselves, since they are already dead. God has placed us under strict instructions that we are to work with Him to save all the children in the family. This is what I mean when I say that in the spirit world, those who did not accept the gospel of Christ will be taught his gospel and can accept it on the other side of the veil (the spirit world). Accepting Christ’s gospel as a spirit will open the door for them to get out of Hell and go into paradise.
When does time in Hell take place?
For those who still do not repent in the world of spirits, they have the thousand years of the Millennium to pay for their sins. Since they would not accept Christ’s atoning sacrifice before the Millennium, during this thousand years they will suffer as though no atonement had been made for them. Christ says in the Doctrine and Covenants 19:15–19
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.
You can see why Hell is described as being seared with eternal fire. There are not words in our language to describe the punishment of a guilt-ridden conscience. The scriptures refer to those who go to hell as weeping, wailing, and gnashing (grinding) their teeth (Matthew 24:51). It is not a pretty picture. The suffering of these souls is caused by their realization of the offense they have caused to God, their Father, and from the damage they have done to their own souls, by their own pride and disobedience. The whole purpose of the atoning sacrifice was to save us from this very suffering. Only those who reject Christ’s atoning sacrifice will have to experience this torment for themselves. And even then, after they have suffered all they can suffer, it will be Christ’s atonement that will finally release them from their torment and allow them to move on to a kingdom of glory for the rest of eternity.
I cannot emphasize enough the love our Savior shows to us. To those who accept him and keep his commandments by repenting of their sins, he offers sweet forgiveness and immediate blessings and happiness. Only those who continue in disobedience after knowing the Lord’s plan of salvation for them will have to suffer the pains of hell. But even these who reject Christ’s atoning sacrifice in their behalf, who have to spend time suffering for their own sins, in the end, will be released from Hell and will be given a kingdom of glory anyway, just not the highest degree of glory.
Only those who followed Satan in the premortal world and those who qualify to be Sons of Perdition in this life will be permanently exempt from the mercies of Christ’s atonement. For these people, there is no forgiveness, and their lot is to go into outer darkness, a kingdom of no glory whatsoever, a place void of any light and truth, cut off from all that is good, kind or reassuring, forever and ever. These can never be redeemed. Their punishment is final. This is also known as the second death, meaning that those who experience this separation from God will experience it forever. This is the only kingdom referred to as Hell because for these people the torment never ends.
Atonement means victory over Hell and the grave
The atonement of Christ brought about two main events, the eventual resurrection from the grave all who ever lived in mortality, and the ability for all of us to repent of our sins so we can receive a glorious resurrection and kingdom of glory.
Here is the breakdown of the kingdoms made available because of the atonement:
Those who are obedient and faithful to all covenants they make with God, and are at some time sealed to a spouse in the temple will live with God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit (Holy Ghost), in families for eternity. These are they who will progress to become Gods themselves one day. Those who died before the age of accountability (age 8) are covered by Christ’s atonement and will go here as well. Single people, who prefer not to marry, but are worthy in all respects to live with God, will also be in the Celestial kingdom. Also, those who never heard of Christ’s gospel in mortality, but would have accepted it with their whole heart and soul will go to the Celestial Kingdom. Their glory is compared in the scriptures to that of the Sun.
These are the good people of the earth. This category also includes those who were baptized by God’s priesthood but did not live up to their covenants. These people will enjoy the company of Christ and the Holy Spirit for eternity. Their glory is compared in the scriptures to that of the moon.
These are the people who were liars, murders, whoremongers, etc. In other words, the generally wicked. They will receive a kingdom of glory whose glory is compared in the scriptures to that of the stars. Why they still receive glory in the eternities is a topic for future discussion about the Plan of Salvation.
Damnation is forever. Hell is not.
There is a difference between being damned and being sent to Hell temporarily. Those who have to pay for their own sins, by their own choice, spend time in Hell but eventually are released from their suffering. But anyone who is not in the Celestial kingdom is damned. To be damned is, in the literal sense, to be stopped in one’s progression. Those in the Celestial kingdom progress to become Gods. Their progression is eternal. They will continue to gain glory and honor for eternity. Those assigned to lesser kingdoms will remain in their kingdoms and can never progress to a higher kingdom. In this sense, they are damned or stopped in their eternal progression.
It is important to remember that whether we suffer in Hell is up to each of us. If we suffer in Hell it will be because of our personal choices to refuse the atonement of Christ, and hence the ability to repent. Those who choose to repent will never have to worry about going through Hell because they will have taken advantage of the opportunity to repent of their sins while they had the chance to. Don’t get me wrong, we suffer when we repent, but it is nothing compared to the suffering of those who go through Hell.
Keep these principles in mind when ministering to your friends and neighbors. The classical view of hell is pretty scary, no matter what denomination a Christian belong to, but for those not in the Lord’s restored Church Hell holds a particularly powerful and painful place in their belief system. Though hell is nothing to scoff at, we hold a much more tame view of what happens there and who faces time in hell. Unlike all other Christians, we are the only ones who see a way out of eternal suffering for those who die without knowledge of Christ’s earthly message. Our message of hope and salvation is one that needs to be shared with the rest of the world at large.
Be Not Deceived by DALLIN H. OAKS of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles
This talk discusses at least four ways Satan deceives us into following him so he can cheat us out of our exaltation. It also talks about what happens to us if we get to the judgment before we have repented.