Joseph and Sartre on Hell

Sartre once remarked that “hell is other people.� The remark, I think, is revealing. In a sense the brand of existentialism pushed by Sartre represents the apotheosis of individualism. In the end, he offers nothing beyond the authenticity of personal choice, which becomes the ultimate source of meaning and value. His view of hell suggest that within this vision of heroic intellectual and moral self-sufficiency lies a rather nasty strand of misanthropy and solipsism. Joseph Smith’s vision of hell, I think, is equally revealing.

As I have observed elsewhere, it is very hard to be damned in any real sense in Mormon theology, and hell seems to be a very small place. The closest that Joseph Smith ever got to offering a really robust notion of hell was “Outer Darkness.� We don’t get to learn all that much about this place or the ultimate fate of its inhabitants, but we do learn that it is characterized by loneliness. In that sense it is the antithesis of the celestial kingdom, a place that is defined almost entirely in terms of eternal connections (sealing). In other words, Joseph seems to offer a vision that is the antithesis of Sartre. For him hell is the absence of other people, while heaven is the extension of love and friendship forever. (Joseph used to say that friendship was the fundamental principle of Mormonism.)

Negotiating Mormon heaven is a bit tricky. Eternal connections could be smothering, I suppose, and powerful communities can act as solvents that destroy the individuality of their members. I can’t help but thinking, however, that this is not what Joseph had in mind. He seems to have genuinely loved people in their particularity, which – of course – requires some measure of individualism. Here again, he provides a startling image: sealing is a form of welding.* Two objects that are welded are connected in a permanent and powerful way, but they remain in some sense themselves. (Compare Joseph’s image of welding with another image coming out of 19th-century America: the melting pot.)

*All of my thinking on Joseph and welding is but a shallow recapitulation of things I learned from Jared Hickman over many lunches in Cambridge.

29 comments for “Joseph and Sartre on Hell

  1. Did Joseph Smith assert that Outer Darkness is characterized by loneliness?

    I’m drawing on things that I haven’t thought much about for 10 or so years (so sources and concepts are not as clear to me), but isn’t there the whole thing about Cain having dominion of the enemy because he is resurrected?

  2. Nate, I think the opposition you’re setting up here is a false one to a certain extent. Sartre’s statement in No Exit shows that the fake, imposed choices of society are hell. Hell isn’t the mere presence of other people, but rather the way in which human foibles and artifice are barriers to real freedom. In my mind, mormon concepts of agency and accountability fit in well with existentialism when viewed on this level. Heaven or hell in mormondom is the result of one’s own choices, not the product of some system out of our control.

    I much more agree with your welding metaphor as a concept of heaven.

    Of course, Sartre & Joseph wouldn’t have gotten along for many other reasons, not the least of which would be Sartre’s atheism.

  3. This morning I was pondering this and what it might have to do with the Mormon conception of hell:

    Doctrine and Covenants 19
    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—

    If the experience of the unrepentant sinner in the afterlife is anything like the bludgeon-crushing experience Jesus had in Gethsemene — then how could the telestial kingdom be a place of glory, a place where (if we knew about it now) we’d prefer to be?

    It has occurred to me even as I’m writing this that perhaps a person suffers first, before they receive any degree of glory. Once the sinful soul is purified by suffering, then perhaps their soul is deposited in a kingdom of glory? (unless it’s outer darkness)

    Much of this is based on the idea I heard once that if we were to perceive the telestial kingdom, we would see such a fabulous place that we’d commit suicide to get there. Does this actually have any basis in the Teachings of Joseph Smith or anyplace else? I feel like I need to verify this teaching somehow.

  4. Steve: I will defer to your expertise on Sartre. On the other hand, I think that it is difficult to truely be involved with people without having them in some sense impose “fake” choices on you. Having people around is not the same as being welded to them, and it is possible to live in splendid isolation amidst the crowd. I am a bit skeptical that the doctrine of agency has much to do with an existentialist notion of freedom. For starters, it seems that the scriptures on agency generally assume that it is important based on its relationship to something else, such as God or his laws, rather than being important based on the absence of ralation to something else. Again, however, I am willing to defer to those who have spent more time with Sarte than I…

  5. “I am a bit skeptical that the doctrine of agency has much to do with an existentialist notion of freedom”

    Rightly so — there’s only so far that the two can walk together. But ultimately, any notion of choice will rely on some sort of stimuli or outside basis of choice. For Sartre, making choices based on God is unacceptable. But hey, nobody’s perfect.

  6. I never really could handle Sartre (or Tillich for that matter). I’m not sure I quite appreciated his view of authenticity. I might be wrong, but didn’t he arrive at it via a misreading of Heidegger’s Being and Time?

    With respect to outer darkness, what is the source for it being loneliness? There was a tradition, especially promulgated by Brigham Young, which taught that outer darkness was dissolutionment. (i.e. having the community of “entities” which make up you dissolved and each becoming an individual) Of course that view, in all its various incarnations, hasn’t really been taught for a century. But I always assumed that at least some kernel of it arose out of Joseph’s teachings in Nauvoo. If you have some quotes on the loneliness bit, I’d be very interested.

  7. A couple of footnotes to the real question, not an attempt to hijack the thread:

    Clark: I think I too have occasionally said that Sartre’s Being and Nothingness was just a bad paraphrase of Being and Time, and it would follow from that that his notion of authenticity was a bad reading of Heidegger’s notion of Eigentlichkeit. There is some truth in that, but I’ve realized that it is too flip and, so, misleading. There is no question that Sartre is inspired by Heidegger. Sartre’s title alone says as much. But it is probably unfair to say that Being and Nothingness isn’t anything more than a rewrite of Heidegger’s work. However, all that said, I don’t think Sartre’s book holds up in the end. Much of Levinas’s work is, I think, an indirect attack on Sartre’s view, and I think Levinas gets closer to being right than Sartre does. Unfortunately, I think Levinas understood Heidegger in the same way that Sartre did–perhaps because Levinas is the one who turned Sartre on to Husserl and Heidegger.

    Nate and Steve: There is no question that Sartre was an atheist, but it isn’t clear that he remained one. He was studying for conversion to Judaism when he died. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he was no longer an atheist. He may have wanted to become part of the culture even if he didn’t believe. But de Beauvoir thought he was losing his mind, and seems to have “worried” that perhaps he was becoming a believer of some kind.

    Something actually on the thread

    Here is a thesis I have argued, but for which there is not room to argue here: Individuals are necessarily individuals in relation; relation is necessarily a relation of individuals.

    If that thesis is true, then the sealing power takes on an interesting cast, for sealing guarantees our individuality. Our individuality becomes eternal in relations with others that cannot be dissolved. As we lose relation to others, which may be one way to understand the differences in degrees of glory (decreasing degrees of relation) as well as Outer Darkness (absence of relation), we lose our individuality. We become more and more merely something like “das Man.”

    This doesn’t take into account J. Stapley’s remark about Cain. I’m not sure what to do with that, and it may mean that everything I’ve suggested here is simply wrong.

  8. One of the interesting things about the way that the Three Degrees of Glory is that they get defined in terms of relation. Those in the celestial kingdom recieve the visitation of the father, son, and holy ghost. Those in the telestial kingdom recieve the visitation of the son and holy ghost. Those in the terrestial kingdom recieve only the visitation of the holy ghost.

    The sealing theology gets grafted onto this later, and it is less clear how it tracks. We know, however, that the highest level of the celestial kingdom is defined by the New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage. We also learn that the sealing together of mankind is necessary for “salvation.”

    In each case, increased glory is associated with increased levels of relation.

    There is another way of looking at this:

    The Mormon account of origins (or at least a Mormon account of origins) is extremely individualistic, positing that intelligences are co-eternal with God, without any beginning or point of origin other than themselves. Salvation consists of overcoming this primal individualism through successive layers of connection and relation, until we finally reach the ultimate goal of Zion, which is by definition a form of community and relation.

  9. Jim, I like your thesis. I’m in favor of the preservation of the individual. Indeed, I would feel betrayed if the individuals that comprise the family that I love so dearly were to lose their individuality. That kind of loss would be Hell.

  10. Jim, what you say sounds right. You ought to write up something for the Philosophy and Theology conference on the phenomenology of sealings. I think that the various “sons of perdition,” whether Satan, Cain or others, aren’t dealt with consistently in LDS theology. My sense is though that a spirit as a spirit body is a spirit body because of a “sealing” among its parts making it a whole. Orson Pratt definitely moves in that direction with his odd atomism. I suppose that in that case Cain has more sealings and is thus more of an individual than the devil. But the problem of how Brigham Young and most of his contemporaries viewed sons of perdition suggests that they are eventually sent back to their component parts. However there are other takes on it, including some rather odd ones from Heber C. Kimball and others that appear possibly tied to the old Kabbalistic notion of Gilgul which is a kind of quasi-reincarnation. I don’t believe that, of course. But then I admit to having problems with Brigham Young’s view as well. I tend to take most 19th century theology with a pinch of salt. It’s very interesting to read, but it is hard to tell what is speculation from what is more grounded.

  11. I also like Jim’s thesis. The promise of the “same sociality” in heaven as we enjoy in our happiest moments here is one of the cosmic lynchpins of Mormonism for me, and “sociality,” as I understand that rather quirky term, relies on individuality–on encounters with people delightfully unlike me in some way.

  12. BTW – regarding Sartre, I think there is one sense in which his view of authenticity and the Heideggarian view are similar. In both you are looking at the “excess” of what is beyond people as mere things. However I think Heidegger wants us to also move beyond thinking of them as things “ready at hand” i.e. tools. I don’t recall how Sartre deals with that as I admittedly haven’t read him since college.

    Still, I must confess that I think there is some truth in a “general” Sartre approach. I remember many conversations back in college (before I’d read Being and Time or understood Heidegger in the least) where I used the example of a waiter. Do you overlook them and treat them just as a tool to get food? If you notice them, are they just a thing? Or do you recognize in them their humanity? That they are far more than a waiter but are someone with fears, hopes, desires and so forth. I really affected how I interacted with people, especially people in the service sector. (Not just waiters) I used that a lot in church talks as well.

    However I do agree that Levinas is probably a better philosopher for that. Although I think Levinas can frequently be as difficult to read as Derrida – especially with all the Talmudic and Kabbalistic asides and so forth.

  13. Nate, I like your comment, but I wonder if we’re really in the process of ‘overcoming’ our primal individualism. I think we’re in a process of magnifying it, if anything. To, one day, “see as we are seen and know as we are known” implies a relation to a larger or higher persona and therefore magnifies the individual because he/she indentifies him/herself with that greater persona. The final reward of the faithful is to recieve all that God has. And, I believe that the title to the estate is shared by all “through [the] successive layers of connection and relation” right down to the individual.

  14. Clark: I may write something up, but it won’t be in time for the conference. And I think you are absolutely right about Sartre’s examples. He was better at giving examples than any 20th century philosopher I know of, Continental or otherwise. The waiter example is the best known, but not the only one.

  15. I accept Jim’s thesis. However, I’m not sure that I accept his application. My reading of it would lead me to believe that there is more to his thesis than is explicit. For discussions sake I will delineate the post-mortal abodes: Celestial: Those who Christ Redeemed and have been Valiant (only the top strata of the kingdom requires the sealing power, albeit everyone there is sealed to each other). Terestrial: Those who Christ Redeemed. Telestial: Those who paid for themselves. Outer Darkness: (1)Those who paid for themselves and were not willing to accept a glory and (2)Those who did not keep their first estate.

    There are two problems I see:

    (1)While I accept that there is a disparity in relationships between deity and those of different kingdoms, there are relations to Deity nonetheless. Even when one is in outer darkness there is a relation (it is just that the relation is one absent of relationship). This problem could just be in my understanding of what Jim F. connotes as a relation.

    (2)I don’t see why the type of relation would affect the magnitude of individuality. Discounting the issues of problem (1), there will still be a sociality in any of the given spheres.

  16. J. Stapley: You’re right. I have to think about what it means that a member of the Godhead is associated with each degree of glory. That could be what knocks the props from underneath this idea.

    However, I don’t understand what it means to have a relation that “is one absent of relationship.” How is a relation without relation different than no relation? I suspect that we are using terms differently here and, so, passing by each other at this point.

    As to your 2nd question: I’m not confident, just floundering about at this point. But it seems to me that if my thesis is true, that an individual is only an individual because it/she/he is in relation, and a relation is only a relation because it has individuals “at each end” of the relation, then individuality and relation are mutually defining. Relation is like a non-infinite line: the end-points define the line and, equally, the line defines the end points. If that is the case, then to the degree that a relation is attenuated, so is the individual qua individual.

  17. Nate: The Mormon account of origins (or at least a Mormon account of origins) is extremely individualistic, positing that intelligences are co-eternal with God, without any beginning or point of origin other than themselves.

    I agree with this interpretation of the teaching, but why does an absence of origin mean mere individuality? If intelligences and other “things” can have existed from eternity, why can’t relation also have existed from eternity? If they have, it is a matter of changing or sealing those relations (which creates new ones) rather than creating relation itself ex nihilo. In that case, it would be a matter of changing our individuality–or increasing it, given the hypothesis I’m sporting right now–rather than overcoming it.

  18. Jim F.: I tend to look at a relation from a quasi-mathematical perspective in which someone in OD still has a relation to Deity, it is just that Deity is absent (i.e., no relationship in the familiar sense). This is where I could be totally misconstruing your thesis.

    And as for problem 2: if we acknowledge that there is a society in each of the kingdoms, then there are plenty of those finite lines between peers.

  19. J. Stapley: Your interpretation of OD as a place where Diety is “merely” absent is equally as plausible as mine, given how little we know about OD. However, I wonder what it means to say that there is a place where he is absent, given other doctrines about the omnipresence of his influence. If Diety is absent from a place, is that in fact a place at all?

    RE 2: I use the line analogy, but it breaks down for me in that it requires a third dimension, quality, that I can’t figure out how to get into the analogy. But if we add that quality to the relation, then it seems to me that the relation changes as the quality changes and, therefore, so does the individuality. Perhaps adding brightness to the line would make the analogy work: a sealed relation is analogous to a perfectly bright line, a relation that cannot end and, therefore, full individuality. The other kingdoms are each less bright than the former one and, so, less individuality because less relation. (This ignores, for the moment, the problem you introduced by reminding us that the members of the Godhead have relation with the various kingdoms.)

  20. Jim: I agree that it is possible that relation has existed from all etenity. However, I do find the arc of the narratives interesting. In the Brigham-B.H. Roberts formulation you get something like this.

    Primordial egos –> spirit birth –> council in heaven –> physical birth –> covenants with community (baptism) –> sealing

    It seems to me that at each stage the individual becomes embedded in a richer set of relationships. Furthermore, again in the Brigham-B.H. Roberts formulation, intelligences become simpler and simpler as one goes farther and farther back in time, and hence, presumeably, capable of simpler and simpler relationships. Finally, self-existence suggests at least the possibility of indepedence. If we are truely creatures of God this is not even a logical possibility.

  21. I know that a lot of people interpret our uncreated unoriginated state as entailing a kind of primordial ego. Especially, as Nate pointed out, in the very influential B. H. Roberts formulation. (I’d not equate Roberts and Young though — Roberts held the ego to basically be a Cartesian mind. Were I to hazard a label for Young it would be more neoPlatonic – but I’d not feel very confident defending that assertion)

    If, however, our unoriginated “source” isn’t a Cartesian mind, then it may be that individuality is something we develop or perhaps are given. Orson Pratt, with his atomism, takes individuality as always a fact. The job is to develop communities of individuals into a new kind of individual by becoming one. However if you reject Pratt’s atomism and take a view of self more akin to what we find in Nietzsche or perhaps even Ricouer, then individuality is a matter of overcoming or making individual. Individuality isn’t basic. I think that works better than Pratt’s view or B. H. Robert’s somewhat similar view.

  22. Danithew wrote: Much of this is based on the idea I heard once that if we were to perceive the telestial kingdom, we would see such a fabulous place that we’d commit suicide to get there. Does this actually have any basis in the Teachings of Joseph Smith or anyplace else? I feel like I need to verify this teaching somehow.

    The origin of this idea, I believe, comes from a statement made by Wilford Woodruff at a Sunday School meeting on August 19, 1877. It was recorded by Charles Lowell Walker.

    “Br. Woodruff spoke. . . . He refered to a saying of Joseph Smith which he heard him utter (like this) That if the People knew what was behind the vail, they would try by every means to commit suicide that they might get there, but the Lord in his wisdom had implanted the fear of death in every person that they might cling to life and thus accomplish the designs of their creator” (Diary of Charles Lowell Walker, ed. by A. Karl Larson and Katherine M. Larson [Logan, Ut.: Utah State University Press, 1980], vol. 1, pp. 465-66.)

    A BYU talk given by LDS Patriarch Eldred G. Smith on March 10, 1964, is often cited as a source for the statement as it’s usually expressed today:

    “The Lord has told us of three degrees of glory. There are three ‘heavens,’ as it is often referred to. We call them the telestial, terrestrial, and the celestial. I cannot for a minute conceive the telestial being hell, either, because it is considered a heaven, a glory. The Prophet Joseph Smith told us that if we could get one little glimpse into the telestial glory even, the glory is so great that we would be tempted to commit suicide to get there.

    Then if the telestial is such a glorious occasion, a glorious heaven to get into, then how much greater would be the terrestrial, and still how much greater the celestial.”

  23. Thanks Justin for providing those quotes. I wouldn’t have been able to locate both of them as quickly as you did.

    I think those quotes leave room for a final destination that is glorious yet lonely (as suggested by Nate in his post)?

    The reason I’ve been pondering this is because I’ve been studying Quranic verses that describe hell as a Dantean type of place, where people suffer a wide assortment of tortures that are often somehow based on the sins that landed them in hell. I couldn’t help but try to understand the Mormon conception of hell would be.

    I was thinking originally that the D&C 19 verse we have (that I quoted in comment #3) would have to mean that tortuous pain is in fact a part of Mormon hell. But perhaps this description of hell refers not to the final destination but rather the place/experiences souls undergo until they are purified from sin? We have heard promises to sealed parents that their unrighteous/unrepentant children would have to walk a “thorny path” but that once they had suffered they would be rejoined with their parents (in the celestial kingdom?). So perhaps there is a sort of intermediate state of suffering that we could call hell, and those who are in that intermediate state suffer pains like Jesus suffered on the cross … then once they are purified they are placed in telestial, terrestrial or celestial kingdoms depending on what covenants they have made in mortality.

    Again, this would be excepting the “Outer Darkness” consignation, which is something altogether horrific and unimaginable to us … this seems to denote two types of hell described in Mormon theology or just a single one.

    Alll of these thoughts are things I’ve been pondering and I’m trying to resond to Nate’s idea about whether the hell described in Mormon theology is “robust” or not. If the unrepentant suffer even as Christ did in Gethsemene, then that is certainly robust. But how long does that last? I suppose however long it lasted it would feel like an eternity … but there seems to be a sense that these pains are not unending — perhaps infinite in intensity but not in duration.

    I hope this comment is fitting as a response to the post. I know next to nothing about Sartre.

  24. danithew: As for duration of the torment I am not certain, though the Prophet stated it as such: “…murderers shall welter for ages in torment, even until they shall have paid the uttermost farthing.� Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Section Six 1843-44 Pg.359
    While this pays the price for sin, I’m not sure that it is a purification. I would say that after it is over, the Atonement is still requisite for a purification in preparation for the reception of Glory. This jives reasonably well with the Hell/spirit prison described by Young and the latter Smith (though they disagree on the details).

    As far as the sealing power is concerned: If we take Brigham Young’s idea of welding together links into a chain/fabric and contrast that to the recent statement you mentioned, it seems to me that the any who receive a glory are sealed to eachother (?) and to those of other glories (?)

  25. A metaphor that works for me is heaven as a computer network. Every soul is an individual that can link up with an eternal network of exhalted beings. Every time a soul joins the network, the total knowledge, wisdom and experience of the network increases. Also, that soul, while remaining an individual (like a single computer dialed into the Internet) takes on the entire experience and power of the network. On earth, the best we can do is experience brief and sketchy connections via a defective 11k modem. Perhaps exhaltation is the process of getting our own fully dedicated T1.
    Hell, then, would be a single, isolated computer with no means or desire to tap into a network, like my crappy computer at home–which is as close to Hell as I have come…

  26. “…why does an absence of origin mean mere individuality? …why can’t relation also have existed from eternity? …in [which] case, it would be a matter of changing our individuality–or increasing it…”

    I like this.

    I ask myself: what is it about us that God love’s so much? I ask myself the same question about the love I have for my children. The only thing I can say, is that I hope that who they are at the core never changes in a qualitative sense. That kind of change would be utterly horrifying. It would be akin to extinction. However, I’m all in favor of change in a quantitative sense. I look forward to seeing my children magnified as they mature and suprise me with new wonders about themselves. Most likely they will marry and have children of their own. These new relations in their lives will add new dimentions to who they already are, thus magnifying them in my eyes. It’s (ideally) a win win situation, because as they grow they find new avenues for experiencing happiness – which in turn makes me happy. I find my love for them is magnified because there is more of them to love.

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