Wanted: More People in Hell

This morning my wife went with the sister missionaries to teach a discussion. The investigator was an intelligent, well-educated woman who was quite religious and very biblically knowledgeable. (We live in the South.) She had an interesting concern when the sisters taught her the plan of salvation: Not enough people were going to hell.

Previously on this blog, Jim Faulconer has mentioned how liberating he finds the quasi-universalism of Mormon theology. Heaven is very large, hell is very tiny and it is quite difficult to get in. The woman my wife spoke with, however, illustrates the other side of this coin. There is something unseemly about the idea that Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol-Pot will be resurrected to enjoy a never ending life of happiness far exceeding anything that we enjoy here on earth. Where is the justice in that?

My understanding is that this concern with the tiny size of hell has been a recurring problem in Mormonism. David Whitmer – one of the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon – eventually left the Church. His complaints were legion: Joseph was interfering in “temporal” affairs, the creation of the office of High Priest and with it the rise of hierarchical priesthood structure rubbed all of his protestant and democratic sensibilities the wrong way, etc. etc. Among his stumbling blocks was the 76th section of the Doctrine and Covenants. For him, the vision of the three degrees of glory represented a slide into Unitarian-style, namby-pamby universal salvation. A serious religion required a serious God who was serious about the consequences of our actions. In short, it required a robust hell.

Something to think about.

27 comments for “Wanted: More People in Hell

  1. Kristine
    March 27, 2004 at 2:36 pm

    Nate, I think contemporary Mormons reproduce this woman’s concern in a milder form–most discussions of Section 76 I’ve been involved in in Sunday School end up being heavily focused on whether particular groups of people will end up in the terrestrial or telestial kingdom, and we’re endlessly fascinated with Sons of Perdition. There’s something really satisfying about thinking of oneself as one of x number of people who will be REALLY God’s favorites, where x

  2. March 27, 2004 at 3:09 pm

    I think we also see it in our concern with whether it will be possible to move from kingdom to kingdom in the hereafter. The usual argument against the belief is that it is unjust: someone has to end up damned forever for it to have been worth the trouble to be righteous here.

    I don’t know whether there is progression betweeen kingdoms, and don’t care very much, but I think it is a mistake to believe that righteousness is something we should seek merely for prudential reasons, which is what seems to me to be behind the idea that there isn’t enough room in hell or there can’t be progression: people who sin here and eventually end up with same reward as a person who lived righteously have an advantage. They got to eat their cake and keep it too. But that means that righteous is only (or at least primarily) to be desired for the reward that it brings and not in itself.

  3. Ivan Wolfe
    March 27, 2004 at 3:46 pm

    It depends on how you define Hell.

    If Hell is defined as going to the same place as Satan, then yes, Hell is very small in Mormon Theology.

    But if you pay attention to how Hell is used in LDS discourse, sometimes Hell is implicity defined as “seperation from God/Heavenly Father”

    Thus making everything but the Celestial Kingdom Hell.

    Of course, there’s not much suffering going on in those “hells” so I think what we need is to be very careful to define exactly what we mean by Hell when we speak or write.

  4. March 27, 2004 at 4:01 pm

    I’m not sure why people wish hell on others so devilishly, both within and outside of our religion. I’m pretty sure much of it has to do with our sense of justice. We want the wicked to pay. One of the comforting(?) aspects of Christianity is that we rest assured that everyone receives their due reward for their evil actions on earth.

    But at the same time we all seek mercy for our own evils. None of us wants to experience the full retribution of a just God, so we seek mercy in Christ. Through his grace we avoid eternal punishment. Why is it so hard to believe that even the most wicked people (except for those who chose perdition) receive a portion of that grace too? Would we rather believe in a God who is merciful or one who is infinitely just? Or why not believe in a God who satisfies both conditions and grants portions of heavenly bliss, depending on our level of acceptance of Christ’s grace?

  5. March 27, 2004 at 4:30 pm

    I think Jim’s comment is an important one. Sin is its own hell. I have learned to pity the vicious and violent at least as much as the victim. I have long since given up the desire for sinners to suffer some retributive justice. I have witnessed the profound self-loathing and weeping, death-seeking despair that accompanies serious sin. I honestly believe that such have experienced the bitter depths of hell itself. All I can feel for these is unspeakable love.

    Even in lesser instances, to the extent that we have lived with hard feelings, with anger, with malicious intent, with selfishness, resentment, hatred or fear, we too have already tasted of hell.

    Does that mean that God won’t punish Stalin and the likes? I don’t know exactly. It seems to me that the punishment for wickedness is becoming the kind of person who would necessarily cower and shrink from the presence of God and wish that the mountains would come and cover you. I don’t think that God will banish anyone from his presence–those that cannot bear to be there, will flee.

    Living in this world without feeling the enveloping love of God, without the expansive sweetness of His Spirit is the most isolating anguish–more than being punished in some remote other-wordly hell.

  6. March 27, 2004 at 4:37 pm

    “If Hell is defined as going to the same place as Satan, then yes, Hell is very small in Mormon Theology.”

    Isn’t it at a minimum 1/3 of all people? Something to think about…

  7. Adam Greenwood
    March 27, 2004 at 4:39 pm

    Most of us who feel the injustice of things, Brayden, feel them pretty deep, our own injustices not excepted.

  8. March 27, 2004 at 8:08 pm

    Well, a little off topic, except the link to the topic won’t let me post … some good books:

    A Heritage of Faith (copyright 1988), the BYU Women’s Conference Volume I enjoyed most. Some of those books are very, very good.

    Life in the Law, Answering God’s Interrogatories. I was on the selection committee and still like the talks reduced to writing.

    I like the talk at http://adrr.com/living/001w.htm from the 1997 Women’s Conference. Ok, I’m very partial to my wife, but I still think it is an excellent talk.

    I think that every adult should read The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense at Work, The Gentle Art of Communicating with Kids or How to Turn the Other Cheek and Still Survive in Today’s World (one of those three books by Suzette Haden Elgin needs to be read by almost every adult).

    Anyway, my two bits where the software will let me post them.

    Stephen (Ethesis)

  9. Ivan Wolfe
    March 28, 2004 at 10:38 am

    Clark –

    That is something to think about. If we decided to count the premortal spirits that fell with Satan, then Hell overflows with residents.

  10. March 29, 2004 at 1:49 am

    “It depends on how you define Hell.”

    One of the things about Mormonism that fascinates me is that we have dozens of definitions when most other religions have one or two. Hence, many of you have heard me speak on what I like to call “superlative disorder”. It really depends on the focus of any GA talk in question. Depending on what the brethren want us to hear in General Conference, hell is either very large (translation: we need to be careful, we are sinning) or very small (translation: there is power in repentance).

  11. March 29, 2004 at 1:53 am

    I meant to add that the “dozens of definitions” in Mormonism extends far beyond hell. Is this just the nature of what we in the Church like to call “modern revelation” (aka our leaders’ sermons)? Whereas other members of other churches just listen to their leaders speak and think of it as, well, their leaders speaking rather than modern revelation?

  12. Gary Cooper
    March 29, 2004 at 3:41 am

    One point that seems to get missed here, but it is a key point of LDS doctrine, is the fact that the truly wicked DO suffer in Hell, they just don’t suffer (sons of perdition excepted) FOREVER. The fact that there is an eventual end to the sufferings of the those worthy of only a telestial glory is key, I think. A response to the good Christian investigator that Nate talked abouyt in his post might be, “Sister, I understand how you feel, but we must remember that those who go to the telestial kingdom HAVE truly suffered for their sins, and that suffering is so horrible that we can’t even begin to imagine it. It caused Christ himself to bleed at every pore. It isn’t that God isn’t giving the truly wicked what they deserve, it’s just that, unlike many of us, God knows when the sinner has truly suffered enough, and when even the Hitlers and Stalins of the world have “paid the uttermost farthing”, and have finally been forced to “bow the knee to Christ”, God in mercy will release them. Still, they will always know what they COULD have had, but rejected in mortality, and I doubt they will ever truly feel “happy” in that sense.”

  13. Ivan Wolfe
    March 29, 2004 at 9:46 am

    Gary –
    are you espousing the doctrine that even those in the lower kingdoms will be celestialized?

    Just curious – its one I don’t agree with, but I’ve heard it before (Hartman Rector Jr. once went so far as to say even the sons of perdition will eventually inherit the Celestial Kingdom).

  14. Thom
    March 29, 2004 at 10:52 am

    If I am understanding Gary Cooper correctly, I thik he is talking about the difference between the temporary holding tank of “spirit prison” versus the final reward of ending up in one of the three kingdoms. It has always been my understanding that the traditional Christian view of heaven and hell refers only to the bifurcation between spirit paradise and spirit prison, where each of us who dies prior to the final judgement will await it.

    To that extent, “hell” (spirit prison) will be large and robust, in that it will contain all the souls who will likely end up in the telestial and perhaps terrestrial kingdoms. I think the difference in Mormon thinking is that each of the three kingdoms is in fact a good place, a true reward for His children who kept their first estate. Ultimately, everyone who doesn’t renounce their second estate (or become a son or daughter of perdition) will inherit a DEGREE OF GLORY, after having done some time in spirit paradise or prison.

    The extent to which repentence and acceptance of Christ and the atonement while in spirit prison is capable of helping someone end up in a kingdom that is higher that they would have merited had they not worked at repentence there is unclear to us. I tend to agree with Melissa though, that people will ultimately sort themselves into the kingdoms in which they are the most comfortable, based on the character each built for themselves in this life, and how comfortable they are in the presence of the Lord.

  15. Gary Cooper
    March 29, 2004 at 11:14 am


    Thanks, you answered Ivan’s question of my thread, which I was about to respnd to, nicely. I was referring to the temporary nature of “spirit prison”, not the idea of progression between kingdoms (which I do not accept). By the way, you mentioned “sons and daughters of perdition”. I do not believe there will be “daughters of perdition”, just as I do not believe there were any women amongst the 1/3 who failed their first estate. However, I don’t know if any general authority or church leader has ever said such or not. Anybody out there ever hear something like that?

  16. March 29, 2004 at 11:16 am

    This is a great topic, Nate, and the comments have been very interesting, too.

    One aspect of this debate has long bothered me, and it was touched on first in Ivan Wolfe’s initial comment: namely, that being in one of the lesser kingdoms is “hell.” I do not doubt that we have some support for this proposition, but many seem to have this image of people milling around the telestial kingdom, looking up with envy at the celestialites. The telestialites, of course, will suffer eternally because they blew it during their time here on earth. The lesson, therefore, is that we should be good.

    Jim raised the issue of progression between kingdoms. The image that I just described depends on no progression between kingdoms, and it seems nothing short of cruel. It is a very traditional Christian notion, rather than a near-universalist notion, which also has substantial support in LDS teachings. (By the way, another way to reconcile no progression between kingdoms with the idea that each kingdom is a “glory” is to assume that people in the lower kingdoms are ignorant of the other kingdoms. But this does not seem to gibe with the idea that we will remember all things.)

    The reason many Christians cannot get on the universalist bandwagon is that they do not have a robust concept of premortal existence. If we understand this life as one stage in a much longer, multi-stage journey, then universalism makes a lot of sense.

    Finally, as long as we are out on a limb, do we have any idea what will ultimately happen to the sons of perdition? Is it possible that Lucifer and the spirits who followed him will simply be destroyed? That seems a fitting contrast to eternal progression.

  17. March 29, 2004 at 11:30 am

    Gary, I have only been a member of the Church for 22 years, but that idea about women not being “sons of perdition” or among the third of the host of heaven is brand new to me. Are you just making this up on your own? Or did something in the scriptures/GA talks prompt this thought?

  18. Thom
    March 29, 2004 at 12:10 pm

    Gary Cooper, sorry to step on your post and steal your thunder. As to the question regarding “daughters of perdition” I was just trying to be inclusive of our posters who like to focus on perceived gender inequalities. Don’t want to appear sexist or leave anyone out, especially when referring to outer darkness.

    In other words, I was just trying to be cute. I have no knowledge of doctrine indicating that there will be no women in outerdarkness. It sounds like a novel idea. I think its plausible, but in saying so I only increase the likelyhood of nastygrams I anticipate receiving.

    Gordon Smith said: “another way to reconcile no progression between kingdoms with the idea that each kingdom is a “glory” is to assume that people in the lower kingdoms are ignorant of the other kingdoms. But this does not seem to gibe with the idea that we will remember all things.”

    Your comment implies that if people in the telestial kingdom know about what’s really going on in the Celestial, they will be really jealous and feel left out for eternity.

    What each kingdom really is a great place and a true reward, and people really do sort themselves into the kingdom in which they feel most comfortable? If a telestial person would rather have mountains fall on him than be in the direct presence of the Lord, what makes you think they would not prefer to be hanging out with others like them in a place that is a GLORY that has been prepared just for them, and their wants and their needs? Why would they want to be in the Celestial kingdom or feel left out of the “holier-than-thou” elitists way up there?

  19. Thom
    March 29, 2004 at 12:13 pm

    Sorry, “What IF each kingdom really is a great place and a true reward, and people really do sort themselves into the kingdom in which they feel most comfortable?

  20. March 29, 2004 at 12:19 pm

    Thom, that was a great response. You might be right, but my sense is that among members of the Church, envy is the predominant image of punishment for those in the lower kingdoms. Maybe it is as simple as being comfortable on the outside (as Melissa seems to imply), but I have a hard time imagining the glory in this. Is is like being happy just to win a game in the NCAA basketball tournament (BYU) versus expecting to win the whole thing (Duke)?

  21. Thom
    March 29, 2004 at 1:07 pm

    Gordon Smith,

    I have this personal theory that perhaps God does not actually punish us at all. That is to say, He’s not in the retribution business. Rather, I think we only ever punish ourselves.

    I think He created us, this world, and the plan of salvation to bless ALL of His children, and help as many as would become just like Him and inherit his glory. Becoming like Him means becoming capable of being a god ourselves, with all its attendant responsibilities, for eternity. This is an extremely difficult undertaking that requires the ultimate sacrifice possible, both on our part and on God’s.

    It is clear that many of his children will not ultimately do what is necessary to qualify to become gods themselves. I find it hard to believe that an all-loving God simply intends to eternally punish all His children who fall short of Godhood.

    Instead, I believe He wants to bless each of his children to the greatest extent possible, perhaps based on what we will accept from Him. HE has created three kingdoms that are all truly great places to spend eternity. Each is a wonderful, eternal reward. People who end up in the Telestial Kingdom will truly be happy there, because God has designed it that way.

    Each kingdom will likely be full of people who think the same way and enjoy the same things, so it will be fun for eternity. Granted, each kingdom has its own degree of glory, but perhaps that’s because in each successive kingdom, the people believe and enjoy higher and more glorious things. The folks who believe and enjoy the highest things, the things most completely in line with God’s truth and wisdom will live directly in his presence, and become gods themselves.

    Ultimately, the only way not to inherit a fabulous, eternal reward will be to so thoroughly reject God in this life that we literally abandon our second estate and the hope of any other by completely removing ourselves from the plan of salvation. We must blaspheme against the Holy Ghost and crucify Christ afresh to do this. The folks who end up in outer darkness have made themselves such an ENEMY to God that they would rather banish themselves than accept enough of the Lords help and authority be able to remain and inherit the Telestial Kingdom. In other words, they select to go to where others believe and enjoy what they do.

    Will members of lower kingdoms be jealous of those in higher kingdoms? I don’t know. It is clear that the object and design of our existence is to become like God and live with Him for eternity. Will there be some sense of eternal regret and letdown if we fall short of this goal? Probably. But I think regretting that we failed to fulfill our eternal potential by refusing to let the Lord help us is different than jealousy.

  22. March 29, 2004 at 1:35 pm

    Gordon, the idea that sons of perdition were literally sons and not daughters was frequently taught in the late 19th century. I don’t think there is any revelation remotely related to it. Rather it comes from a literalist reading of the texts that say “sons of perdition.” It was primarily used as a justification for polygamy when people brought up the inevitable problem of numbers. It was then used to somewhat justify the “women on a pedestal” idea that women were more spiritual than men. (i.e. not only were no women against God in the pre-existence, but fewer will be here in mortality as well)

    I tend to doubt the idea myself. I suspect “son” was just an way of saying things in a patriarchal rhetoric that tended to ignore women. I’ve no idea what the ration is, or even what gender means in the pre-mortal life. However I suspect that if there is “sex” (not gender) in pre-mortality that the rebellion was likely split 50/50. No real evidence for that mind you.

  23. Gary Cooper
    March 29, 2004 at 1:51 pm


    Clark’s info on the speculation about there being no “daughters of perdition” or female evil spirits is pretty much the same source as my own thoughts. So, it’s just me–an opinion. I had wondered if anyone could find the specific sources, because I had only heard them second and third-hand.

  24. Adam Greenwood
    March 29, 2004 at 3:28 pm

    You seem to be assuming that there can be no real happiness or glory in a kingdom if the inhabitants there have any sense of loss, regret, or incompletion. I just don’t see how that could be true. Happiness and sorrow can and must coexist. Even where the Gods dwell memory can regret roads not taken and hearts can sorrow for the lost.

  25. March 29, 2004 at 9:40 pm

    Adam makes a very good point. Does God feel no sorry, no regret?

    Does the Lord of Heaven weep? Enoch remarked on that, wondering how could God sorrow.

    I think that obviously God feels sorrow and sadness together with all other emotions.

  26. Mark Butler
    March 30, 2004 at 3:47 pm

    Hell, roughly speaking, is spirit prison. Perhaps a better name would be purgatory. It is not a particularly nice place, but it is a place of repentance where the gospel is preached.

    From Rev 20:5 & D&C 76:85, we learn that the inheritors of the telestial kingdom will not be redeemed from the devil until the last resurrection, at the end of the millenium.

    After they have repented sufficiently to be worthy to “be servants of the Most High” (76:112), they shall become “heirs of salvation” in the telestial kingdom with a “glory that surpasses all understanding” (76:89).

    Does anyone suppose there is any salvation without repentance? That there is any glory in sin? The Telestial Kingdom is not a place of punishment. It is a place of true salvation occupied only by those who have been “redeemed of the devil”.

    No one can be redeemed unless they repent and acknowledge Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. “For every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is the Christ” except the sons of perdition who shall be cast out into outer darkness, where there is no ministry of heaven whatsoever, and where the devil reigneth.

    For Jesus Christ “saves all the works of his hands, except the sons of perdition” (76:43). This salvation is far more than simple resurrection, and is only given on condition of repentance and submission to the law of heaven, whether it be a telestial law, a terrestrial law, or a celestial law.

    “For all who will have a blessing at my hands shall abide the law which was appointed for that blessing, and the conditions thereof, as were instituted from the foundation of the world.” (132:5)

  27. John The Prophet
    August 25, 2004 at 3:46 pm

    I think these answers can only come through prayer and faith. Perhaps we all need to be a little more open minded. We are trying to comprehend something much greater than our simple mortal existance. I say read the Book of Mormon and ask God yourself if it is not true. If the Book of Mormon is indeed not true, then everything about our church cannot be true.
    I know that the gospel is true, and all that the Prophet Joseph Smith said was true, but only through plenty of prayer and study.

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