I recently was caught up in a story featured on the radio show This American Life, it's the story of the former pentacostal preacher Cartlon Pearson and how he begins to question the doctrine of eternal damnation and suffering in hell - a doctrine he had been preaching to huge congregations for over 25 years. Come Sunday - a new movie was just released on Netflix that tells the story of his courageous journey and the repercussions that followed.
Speaking as one who served my LDS mission in the bible-belt of the southern U.S. (Florida & Georgia), this movie took me right back to my time working there.
It's well worth watching, and I was particularly struck by how Bishop Pearson approaches the important questions of salvation. The radio interview makes clear that he had already been struggling with certain aspects of the bible, it's history and contradictions, when he had a defining experience. One day while sitting with his 9-month old child watching news footage of starving children and the food crisis in Africa during the 1980's, he wondered how it was that God could be a just God, and send these millions of "unsaved" people to hell.
If hell is a place where the wicked are tortured and burning for all eternity, how is God just or loving if He would send people there who have never had even the opportunity to accept Christ? These children who died of starvation or war, these people living in villages, and people like them all around the world - Hindu's, Muslims, Buddhist, and so many others.. good people, kind people, they go to hell? Millions have lived and died having never even heard of Christ or his message.
He has an inner dialog with God that goes something like this:
"How God, how can you justify pulling all these people to hell?"
He hears God's voice in his mind respond, "That's what you think I'm doing? Pulling people down to hell?"
"That's what I've been taught, yes. They haven't been saved."
"If that's what you believe then put your baby down and take the next flight to Africa and go save them".
"But God, that's impossible, I can't take save the whole world".
"That's right, you can't save the world - I've already done that. These children are recieved up to be with me. They don't need to be saved."
This idea strikes such a chord in me as a Latter-day Saint. It is really this exact question that is answered by our doctrine and practice of work for the dead. I wish I could have met Bishop Pearson at this critical moment when he was struggling with these questions, to show him scriptures in the bible like 1 Cor 15:29, or 1 Peter 4:6, which hint at the work of baptism for the dead and how the gospel is preached and received by those who die without a knowledge of Christ. I wish I could explain to him what God revealed on this subject to the young prophet Joseph Smith, and other modern prophets, about how the gospel is taught in the world of spirits, and how everyone will eventually have the knowledge and ability to choose to repent and accept Christ, and to accept baptism done vicariously by the living.
His experiences lead him to believe the universalist doctrine that there is no such thing as hell, and that the God he's been preaching about all this time, who would torture someone for eternity -- such a God would be a monster.
Pearson believes now that God saves everyone. Latter-day Saints would say that's not exactly the complete picture, but that he's correct in a way. I found his courage and his journey to be admirable, but I also feel the movie is attempting to use his journey to push a certain social platform. It obviously springs directly from our current social & political climate, and is trying to make the case for inclusion and diversity and unconditional love in the church. Which is fine, I don't have a problem with that. God does love everyone, and we all need to show more love and acceptance to everyone, regardless of race, gender or sexual preference.
But there are some obvious theological problems with the idea that God saves everyone regardless of their beliefs, actions, or how they lived. Murderers, child abusers, rapists, etc.. everyone gets saved? How is that just?
Okay that's pretty much the end of the movie review, except to say that I did really enjoy it. Now I'm going to venture into some doctrinal / scriptural territory and explain the Mormon concept of hell, at least as I understand it -- so if you want to bail out, fair warning.
Mormons believe in a hell that is really only eternal in name, as God explained to the prophet Joseph Smith in one of our revelations:
6 Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment.
7 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 name’s glory.
8 Wherefore, I will explain unto you this mystery, for it is meet unto you to know even as mine apostles.
9 I speak unto you that are chosen in this thing, even as one, that you may enter into my rest.
10 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—
11 Eternal punishment is God’s punishment.
12 Endless punishment is God’s punishment.
God's given himself an out here on a bit of a technicality. It's "endless punishment" because it's punishment from Him, and his name is Endless. Perhaps this seems like a stretch but I like it. It pulls back from the idea of a God who would torture someone forever!
The bible clearly teaches about hell and damnation. Very similar scriptures are found in the Book of Mormon. But in the above verses God is God is basically saying, Look - I don't really mean people are going to suffer for all of eternity, it's just a way of phrasing it so that you get how serious I am!
Mormon's do believe in hell, just not a forever hell -- at least that's true for the vast majority of people who lived on the earth.
We believe nearly all people, except those termed "sons of perdition", will eventually inherit one of 3 various degrees (or kingdoms) of heaven. Paul spoke of being "caught up to the third heaven" (2 Corinthians 12:2) and he also spoke of how in the resurrection, some would come forth with bodies of varying degrees of glory - some with "celestial" bodies, some with "terrestrial", (1 Corinthians 15:40-41). Mormons believe in a separate heavens for these groups.. a celestial, terrestrial, and telestial glory.
But we also believe that all those who refuse to accept Christ in this life, those who die in their sins, who had the knowledge and opportunity to accept the Lord but refused to do so.. these individuals will have to pay the penalty for their sins. The Lord has said that if people do not accept his sufferings for their sins, they will have to suffer for them:
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;
They will suffer in a place we refer to as "spirit prison" until the time they are resurrected. And for the really bad people - that will be a while. The D&C speaks of those who inherit the lowest heaven as having to wait in prison until the end of the millenium, a thousand years of suffering in prison.
100 And again, another trump shall sound, which is the third trump; and then come the spirits of men who are to be judged, and are found under condemnation;
101 And these are the rest of the dead; and they live not again until the thousand years are ended, neither again, until the end of the earth. (D&C 88:100-101)
If you really think about it, a thousand years is a very long time. I'm sure it would feel much like eternity to those who must endure it. Can we even imagine being kept in prison for 100 years? How would that change you? How would it affect your family relationships, or friendships?
These individuals lose out on the glory that might have been possible for them. They can never be with God again. They can never have eternal family, or achieve the potential growth and glory they might have acheived. This opportunity is forever lost to them. They are damned -- in the sense that a river is damned. Their progress is stopped. And that judgment is final and eternal.
But they will inherit at last some glory. They are not tortured forever. God is no monster.
Now what about the people who didn't have the opportunity to hear the gospel of Christ, or who died young? What of those who were good, but died without a knowledge of essential ordinances like baptism? There are literally millions of people in this condition. What of them?
This is where the work for the dead comes in. The sweetest doctrine ever revealed through the prophet Joseph Smith is that we can learn about our ancestors, research our family tree, find their names and then go inside holy temples to be baptized on their behalf! They are not gone forever, they live on in the spirit world. We believe that many will hear about the gospel and accept it, and they will desire to be baptized. They have the choice of course. We do their temple work, but it's entirely up to them to either accept or reject it.
Work for the dead is absolutely the most wonderful news on the planet! If you don't know about this doctrine, please take the time to learn more about baptism for the dead.
Now there are some few sons of perdition who's ultimate fate is unknown, but very tragic. These are individuals like Cain in the bible, who were well-acquainted with God. They knew him, and then rejected him -- even betrayed him. The prophet Joseph Smith taught:
All sins shall be forgiven, except the sin against the Holy Ghost; for Jesus will save all except the sons of perdition. What must a man do to commit the unpardonable sin? He must receive the Holy Ghost, have the heavens opened unto him, and know God, and then sin against him. After a man has sinned against the Holy Ghost, there is no repentance for him. 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; and from that time he begins to be an enemy. This is the case with many apostates of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
When a man begins to be an enemy to this work, he hunts me, he seeks to kill me, and never ceases to thirst for my blood. He gets the spirit of the devil—the same spirit that sins against the Holy Ghost. You cannot save such persons; you cannot bring them to repentance; they make open war, like the devil, and awful is the consequence.
- Joseph Smith from the King Follet Sermon
So there you have it, our beliefs about hell and damnation. I could say more but I fear it would be only speculation on my part. I'm not quite sure what to do with the Prophet's comment about the apostates in his day. I don't know that I would judge them quite so harshly, but I didn't live in his day, and they weren't trying to kill me. Perhaps they are sons of perdition, some of them... but they would have had to have the heavens opened to them. They would have had to have a knowledge born from the Holy Ghost and then turned against it. In the vast scheme of things, this would have to be a very small group of people.
Section 76 of the D&C (often referred to simply as "the vision") records a shared vision that was experienced by both Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon where they were permitted to see into heaven. It contains descriptions of the various kingdoms of glory, and also a description (to a point) of what fate awaits the sons of perdition.
32 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;
33 For they are vessels of wrath, doomed to suffer the wrath of God, with the devil and his angels in eternity;
34 Concerning whom I have said there is no forgiveness in this world nor in the world to come—
35 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.
36 These are they who shall go away into the lake of fire and brimstone, with the devil and his angels—
Again, as we understand it this is a very small group. The great masses of humanity, the vast majority, all will one day inherit one of the 3 kingdoms of heaven. Some, perhaps many, will need to suffer for their sins first in "prison" (or hell) -- but ultimately they will be resurrected and inherit a glory.
I'm sure I've written far more than you wanted to know, so I should probably stop here. I hope I've helped someone see a little more about what we believe, and how it makes so much more sense. God is both absolutely fair and just, and also abundantly merciful.