The concept of hell is one that religious men and women have used for centuries to scare people into righteous living. It’s a piece of doctrine, however, that is widely misunderstood. Hell, while a reality, is really a part of God’s great plan for our happiness. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (more often inadvertently referred to as the Mormon Church) has specific doctrine on hell—what it is, how it fits into God’s plan, and how to avoid it.
Hell Is Part of the Plan of Salvation
The Plan of Salvation is God’s divine plan to enable the happiness of His children. It began in what Mormons call the premortal existence, the time before we were born to earth in our physical bodies. The key components to the Plan of Salvation are first, our own ability to choose right or wrong (called “agency”), and two, the redemptive power of Jesus Christ.
Throughout our mortal lives we are expected to make moral choices and to make those choices in line with what we understand of the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we don’t know what the gospel of Jesus Christ is, or if we never hear it in this life, our actions here will be judged according to what to know and we will all have the opportunity to learn the gospel at some point, even if it’s in the afterlife.
What Happens after We Die
According to the Plan of Salvation, after we die our spirits will enter either spirit paradise or spirit prison. Spirit paradise will be a place of peace and rest, including rest from temptation. Spirit prison, however, is a place where spirits will be able to feel the full weight of their sins and will be able to be tempted. Spirit prison is a place for those who either haven’t learned or accepted the gospel of Christ. This is also a place of learning. Spirit prison is the place where spirits will be taught the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and they will have the choice to accept it or not. If they choose to reject it –because spirits here can still be tempted by Satan—then they will have to suffer for their own sins (because they rejected Jesus Christ, who could have saved them from the full pain of their own sins). Mormons refer to this state as hell.
For those who reject the Savior’s redemptive power, hell will be a very painful place. Once they have paid for their sins, however, they will be free to enter the lowest kingdom of heaven, because they will be clean. In this definition, hell is surely a painful and agonizing place, but also a temporary one. Note that hell is often described as “endless torment.” The Doctrine and Covenants, a collection of modern revelations, explains this:
Wherefore, I revoke not the judgments which I shall pass, but woes shall go forth, weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, yea, to those who are found on my left hand. Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment.
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. Wherefore, I will explain unto you this mystery, for it is meet unto you to know even as mine apostles.
I speak unto you that are chosen in this thing, even as one, that you may enter into my rest. 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 (Doctrine and Covenants 19:5 – 12).
We should note that Jesus Christ is still the one who makes their redemption possible, but that through their own choices, the spirits in this state do not choose to change.
There is one more component to the Plan of Salvation. After spirit paradise or prison, our spirits will be reunited with our bodies in the resurrection, which will happen after Christ’s Second Coming to the earth. After the resurrection comes judgment day, and after judgment we will enter heaven. (And remember, those who reject Jesus Christ will still be able to enter the lowest tier of heaven after they have paid for their sins. However, their resurrection will be delayed until after the millennial reign of Christ.)
Mormon doctrine teaches of a place called outer darkness. It is the place that is a state of eternal hell. This is the place for those who have had a sure witness and perfect understanding of Jesus Christ and who have chosen to reject it. A sure witness is more than belief or strong faith; it necessitates an actual visit from the Lord, so that the person has sure knowledge that transcends faith. Those who fall to this fate, by their own choices, are not redeemed by the power of the atonement. In the Doctrine and Covenants we read that these spirits will have “no forgiveness in this world nor in the world to come—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” (76:34–35). This is a place of everlasting hell, but it is also one most of God’s children will escape. Most of us will end up in some kingdom of heaven. This is why the prophet Nephi of the Book of Mormon said that “Salvation is free” (2 Nephi 2:4).
God Is Merciful
Remember that God is merciful, that He wants us to be happy and clean. He does everything in His power to save and purify our souls. He blessed us with the ability to make choices, and He has not only given us the tools and knowledge that we need to make good choices, but He also gave us the atonement of Jesus Christ so that we may repent from the bad choices we make.
We need not fear hell if our hearts are intent and humble. Whether we have a testimony of Jesus Christ at this moment or we don’t, we can rest assured that if our intent and seeking is sincere that we will be led to truth. We will not be held accountable for what we do not know, and once we do know truth, we will find strength and empowerment through Jesus Christ to do that which is right. Yes, hell is real, but so is Jesus Christ and His saving power. With the Lord Jesus Christ as our champion, we need not fear death or sin, but can rather rejoice in His freely-offered redemption.