What death can teach us about heaven and hell

People are always making assertions about what heaven must contain in order for it to qualify as heaven for them, some of these assertions being more jokes than anything else.

“It’s not heaven without sex.”

“It wouldn’t be heaven if [insert name of favorite pet dog] isn’t there.”

“If heaven doesn’t have Egg McMuffins, I don’t want to go there.”

When people are serious about such assertions, I tend to roll my eyes. Yes, the desired features are (generally) nice, but sometimes I think we have very low expectations of God. Is it really that hard to imagine a state of existence so transcendental that it makes us forget all about these earthly pleasures which seem so essential to our current lives? Can’t we just trust that the God who made us knows how to please us and check our small-minded expectations at the door?

However, I think a legitimate concern revolves around the fate of unbelieving loved ones. Are we really going to be able to be happy if our dear family members and other loved ones aren’t there enjoying eternal bliss with us?

I believe in a permanent hell, as do most evangelicals. However, I don’t view it as a place of literal gruesome physical torture; I see the torment encountered there in terms of dishonor, shame and agency.1 To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, the people in hell are there by choice, and the doors of hell are locked from the inside. I also don’t believe we’ll be able to visit the inhabitants of hell, or vice-versa, for “between [heaven] and [hell] a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from [heaven] to [hell] may not be able, and none may cross from [hell] to [heaven].”2

For Mormons, the situation is less dire depending on your perspective. Some Mormons believe that the opportunity for progression between kingdoms never goes away, therefore there isn’t too much to worry about. If your loved ones don’t make it right away, they will eventually. Others believe that assignment to the lower kingdoms is permanent once someone willfully rejects the gospel and there are no “second chances;” you get one chance, be it in this life or the next. While those in the celestial kingdom should be able to visit with loved ones in the lower kingdoms in either scenario, the latter system still leaves our loved ones trapped in an inferior state due to their own choices. I’ve long felt that such a system isn’t at all unlike my own beliefs about hell as a place of dishonor and shame to varying degrees.

So, with all that in mind, here is what death has taught me about heaven and hell. My mother died last year from pancreatic cancer. She was 51 years old and otherwise in good health prior to being diagnosed. Watching my lovely, radiant mother literally wither away and die because of that awful disease definitely rates as the most painful experience of my life. She was my best friend after my husband (yes, I’m that much of a loser) and a force in my life which constantly challenged me to be a better person than I am. If you had told me two years ago that I would be miring through life right now without her, I wouldn’t have believed it was possible. Not only am I getting through life without her though, I’m learning to be happy and find joy again.

I’ll never understand all the reasons God allows death to reign in this world as He currently does, but I believe we can learn a lot from it. If we can learn to be happy after losing our loved ones here in this life, surely we can learn to be happy in the eternities should we “lose” our loved ones there, for whatever reason.


[1] If you are interested in better understanding my perspective on hell, I would direct you to the following online articles: “The Crucifixion, the Nature of Hell, and Shame” by James Patrick Holding (see the second half of the article), and “Why Is Hell Eternal? Or ‘Will One White-Lie Send Someone to Hell For All Eternity?’” by C. Michael Patton.

[2] Luke 16:26b (ESV), from the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. I’m aware that many scholars don’t regard this passage as referring literally to heaven and hell and, in fact, I think it refers to paradise and Hades myself. However, I do think the chasm statement will hold true for the final destinations of mankind as well.

35 comments for “What death can teach us about heaven and hell

  1. Hell, as a location, as a place, is permanent, but hell as a state of being is not.

    D&C 19: 5-12

    5 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.
    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 arest.
    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.

    And it never made sense to me that a loving God, a loving Father, would not take into account the amount of time spent in “punishment” for sins committed in such a short span of one’s eternal life and warrant full eternal punishment on that individual for those sins. Particularly with an infinite and eternal atonement.

    Alma 34: 14-16

    14 And behold, this is the whole meaning of the law, every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice; and that great and last sacrifice will be the Son of God, yea, infinite and eternal.
    15 And thus he shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance.
    16 And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety, while he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice; therefore only unto him that has faith unto repentance is brought about the great and eternal plan of redemption.

  2. Touché!

    What’s so interesting about your post, I think, is that you’re using Mormonism’s existentialism against us–you’re noting your own ability to find joy without your mother and abstracting from this to envision a happy heavenly experience without what we here and now think we need. I wonder if you would feel the same way should you envision your mother descending into a permanent hell. At any rate, you’re absolutely right that if Mormonism takes this life as our model for understanding the next, we need to consider that most amazing of our human capacities: adaptability.

    I would note, however, that the Mormon conception of heaven doesn’t have to be seen as endorsing the idea that “I couldn’t be happy in heaven without X,” but rather that heaven couldn’t be heaven without exalted family and social relationships. We certainly believe that God’s “lower” kingdom’s are kingdom’s of glory–residents there are in a kind of heaven, not a kind of hell. They’re surely happy. And surely they adapt to those circumstances through the grace of God and partake fully of the joy and glory available. We claim, however, that minus your familial relationships (such as those with your mother, and perhaps more especially your/an husband) you can’t reach your full, exalted potential. There are no individual Gods.

  3. “Which Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God infinite and eternal. Amen”. (D&C 20:28, emphasis added)

  4. If we can learn to be happy after losing our loved ones here in this life, surely we can learn to be happy in the eternities should we “lose” our loved ones there, for whatever reason.

    Perhaps. But the way many learn to be happy after losing a loved one in this life is to believe they will see that person again in the afterlife. If you lose someone in the afterlife, there is no comparable consolation.

  5. Heaven is lossless. No more death, no more permanent separations. I think this is the Mormon definition. We have no hell, but only eternal happiness, whatever the form. “(people) are that they might have joy.”

    There is no eternal canker that eats at our insides forever because of loss. We are who we are in eternities and we like that. It is a Zen state.

  6. #1 Dan ~ I can see resistance to a doctrine of hell if it’s seen as a punishment God foists on unwilling people whose true desire is to be with Him, but what if it’s seen in terms of agency (which seems to be a central theme in Mormonism)? Is God forcing people to be reconciled to Him? Can people not choose not to be with God?

    #2 James ~ Are the TKs supposed to be so pleasant that people there completely don’t mind having missed out on the CK? I personally find that hard to imagine. And if there is regret and anguish in the TKs over having missed out on the CK, is it really incorrect to consider that a type of hell?

    #4 Last Lemming ~ Not everyone expects to see their loved ones again in the next life. Evangelical Christians whose relatives rejected the gospel and atheists are two examples.

  7. And if there is regret and anguish in the TKs over having missed out on the CK, is it really incorrect to consider that a type of hell?

    Keep in mind that this question implicitly assumes no progression from TK to CK when you speak of having “missed out.” For those who believe eternal progression includes progression for those in the CK, the idea that there is a more exalted state to which one may advance in the future is not necessarily the cause of regret and anguish. After all, if there is progression in the CK then by your standard it would be hell as well.

  8. Jack, there are Mormon statements that go along with your idea of hell. Stuff to the effect that, whatever regret people in the lower kingdoms have will not be some sort of physical punishment but a self-inflicted regret for missed opportunities, or something like that. (I’m too lazy to try to find these statements, but I’m sure they exist.)

  9. Bridget,


    But if people choose out of their own free will not to be with God, would not that be considered something else than “hell?” How is it hell if it is a choice I freely make?

    Personally I don’t know enough of the afterlife to know how free we are to choose of our own free will to not be with God, even if we are eventually forgiven for our sins. That’s a question I’ve never seen broached by any prophet, ancient or modern. Can we choose of our own free will not to be in heaven if God gives us permission to enter into his rest?

  10. Joseph Smith said that “that the punishment of hell was to go with that society who have obeyed not [God’s] commands”.

    The real question about what that will be like depends on the degree of divine subsidy we all get here. If we are on a divine welfare plan here as part of our probationary state, then the withdrawal of that subsidy might make life without it rather more unpleasant than pretty mean circumstances here.

  11. Thanks for the opportunity to think this through.

    My religious beliefs were not shared by my Father, who passed away last year. However, he sacrificed much for me and my siblings during his life; and most of what made me want to join the LDS church came from lessons that I learned from him. Likewise, many of my faults are earily similar to his own. Dad would have never considered joining the church in his life due to many complicated issues. He did, however, bless my membership and was glad that four of his grandkids would grow up in the church.

    Assuming that my religious views are correct and his are incorrect, I cannot accept the idea that I would reside in a Heaven that he was ineligible for-and I don’t think that I would just learn to adapt. My relationship with the Lord was just too informed by my relationship with my parents. That is why the doctrine of vicarious work and sealing is so important and precious to me. We are much too linked to those who came before. If I deserve to be anywhere near The Father, so does dad.

    I hope this makes any sense at all.

  12. I suspect the sting of death is the loss of our six senses and the rich stimulation they provide to our spirits. Death leaves us with little input unless we have developed a spiritual side. Our individual perceptions of heaven vs. hell will likely be colored by this experience.

  13. “Is it really that hard to imagine a state of existence so transcendental that it makes us forget all about these earthly pleasures which seem so essential to our current lives? Can’t we just trust that the God who made us knows how to please us and check our small-minded expectations at the door?”

    I’ve had similar feelings when people talk about the afterlife. The idea that the spirit world is just a better neighborhood than the one we currently live in seems lacking in vision and understanding about the creations and abode of an eternal, omniscient God.

    Published visions of the afterlife (some canonized) seem strikingly similar to our mortal existence, and it must be that the near-post-mortal existence is such a place. After all, much work remains to be done regarding ordinances for the dead.

    However, I think the ultimate destiny of God’s spirit children is far beyond our ken, just as the true nature of God is beyond our understanding. The revelations can hint, but I’m thinking that the reality cannot be put into words and ideas that our tiny brains could comprehend. God gives us the light and truth that we need to live a mortal life guided by faith, but we must wait for the eternities to learn and understand what we can become.

  14. Some times we tend to over analyze issues and add from our own limited perspective rather than using the scriptures to solidify our understanding.

    Once we pass from this life, whatever level of spiritual insight and attained intelligence we achieved on the earth will carry with our spirits into the next way station. The essence and substance of that station is not very explicitly described in the scriptures. But something is clear, we are to remain there to await the resurrection and it will be our very last chance for progression. By the time Judgment Day and Resurrection morning comes along, it is just too late for anything else. The choices have been made, agency exhausted and the consequences “afixed”.

    We desperately seek for comforting alternatives and jubilant outcomes to our less than perfect social connections and relationships her on earth in the world to come. I am not so certain.

  15. Jack,

    Your post seemed to be a set up for this final line: surely we can learn to be happy in the eternities should we “lose” our loved ones there, for whatever reason.

    Do you expect your mother is in hell right now?

    If not then do you expect to see her again when you die?

    Unless you expect to never see her again throughout all eternity the point you seem to be trying to make in this post fails completely.

  16. Hmmm… I worded that last comment too strongly.

    I mostly meant that tolerating a temporary separation from a loved one (even if it lasts decades) with the expectation of a reunion someday is VERY different than expecting never to see that loved one again throughout all eternity.

  17. sparsile: “… However, I think the ultimate destiny of God’s spirit children is far beyond our ken …”

    So … you’re saying there’s no hope for me? :-( (And, by the way, how, exactly, did I become “your Ken”? Not that I’m complaining, you understand, I might be perfectly happy to be your Ken, but don’tcha think we at least ought to get to KNOW one another a little better first?) ;-D

    (Sorry … couldn’t resist. ;-D We now return you to your regularly-scheduled, on-topic programming.)

  18. “I believe in a permanent hell, as do most evangelicals. However, I don’t view it as a place of literal gruesome physical torture; I see the torment encountered there in terms of dishonor, shame and agency. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, the people in hell are there by choice, and the doors of hell are locked from the inside. I also don’t believe we’ll be able to visit the inhabitants of hell, or vice-versa,”


    I’m curious about something. When you say “I believe X” what do you mean precisely? Do you mean something like “I have a hunch that X” and “based on my limited understanding of the scripture, X seems the most plausible of the many possible interpretations I can imagine”?

    Or do you mean something more like, “X is a core component of my faith, and I just cannot conceive of any reasonable way I could be wrong about this” or (to say something similar in Mormon-speak) “I have a firm testimony of X, and I bear solemn witness that I know X to be true”?

    Would you say, “I am sure that heavenly joy will be undiminished by the loss of a loved one to hell” or “I concede there is a chance that the anguish is co-mingled with the joy and in fact the anguish part will be truly and eternally awful even (especially?) for the righteous”? Would you say “I am sure that the people in hell are there by choice” and “I am sure there is no literal gruesome torture” or “You know, I really could be wrong about this too”?

    I’m a Mormon, but I generally feel that I have very little sense of what the afterlife will really be like or what the emotional state of the non-saved souls will be in a million years, or how the saved and not saved will relate to each other, etc. I like the Mormon talk about eternal progression and family togetherness, but I feel that there are many even more basic things that are far from clear. (The Great Divorce characters seem like cartoons to me, not at all like real humans… of course, it is meant to be allegorical, but it seems at best a rather strange guess about how things will be…)

    So anyway I’m curious to know where “I believe” comes from for you.

  19. Geoff J ~ In the case of my mother, she was a believer, so I do expect to see her again. However, as strange as it may seem, that thought never brought me much comfort after she died. I was overwhelmed by the permanence of my loss in this life. Seeing my mother in heaven again wasn’t going to fix the fact that she wouldn’t be there on my daughter’s first day of kindergarten, that she wouldn’t get to hold any of her other grandchildren, or that she’d never get to feel her daughter’s big pregnant belly (we were in different states for the duration of my last pregnancy). I actually got really annoyed at people who tried to cheer me up by pointing out that I’d see her in the next life. It didn’t negate the fact that I’d lost her for good in this life.

    I’ve lost other relatives and friends who weren’t (to my knowledge) believers at the time they died, but I don’t really have any expectations about whether they’re in heaven or hell. How do I know what passed between them and God in the last hours of their lives? Rarely do I feel it’s my place to judge that. Maybe I’ll see them, maybe I won’t.

    Timer ~ I’m not claiming to have a sure testimony of the things I believe about hell. I believe my ideas are supported and hinted at in the Bible, but I’m open to them being wrong on some levels.

  20. Jack,

    I don’t doubt that the promise of a post-mortal reunion served as cold comfort immediately after your mother passed. But that doesn’t mean it offers no comfort. I suspect that it will be a greater and greater comfort over time to you.

    Unless you are saying you are so over it that you would be just fine never seeing her again throughout all eternity then the main point of this post (as described in the last sentence) is obliterated.

  21. I kinda agree with #23: I know what it means losing a love one in this life. But I don’t know how important the reunion will be with them in the next world. I guess (?), we also will reunite ( if one believes in a pre mortal life) with love ones or family who we haven’t seen in 70 years, but may have been close to them for billions of years(?)

  22. Geoff J. ~ You seem to be asserting that if my mother wasn’t a believer, and I expected her to be in hell, I never would have learned to be happy again in this life. While I have no personal experience with this, I’ve had plenty of Christian friends who lost loved ones who openly rejected the Gospel yet they have done just that, so I’m inclined to reject that premise. Hope of being with lost loved ones again is far from necessary for a believing Christian to find comfort and fulfillment in God in the wake of loss.

  23. Jack: You seem to be asserting that if my mother wasn’t a believer, and I expected her to be in hell, I never would have learned to be happy again in this life

    That’s actually not what I’m asserting. Rather I am saying your point in the final sentence of this post is not supported by the the evidence you have provided.

    Here again is what you said:

    If we can learn to be happy after losing our loved ones here in this life, surely we can learn to be happy in the eternities should we “lose” our loved ones there, for whatever reason.

    The problem is that your “IF” does not support the “THEN”. Nobody disputes that people can and often do enjoy happiness in this life after loved ones die. But it is anything but “sure” that one could or would be truly happy throughout all eternity in the absence of ones most beloved family and friends. Yet that is what your post is asserting.

  24. Geoff J ~ I would call this post a personal speculation. It was never meant to be an argument or an assertion of anything; I figured I could get away with one “theological musing” post while I was here.

    I’m not sure what evidence you think I could submit which would qualify as supporting my theory short of flying you up to heaven and showing you people who are happy there in spite of loved ones not making it. It was pointed out by Last Lemming in #4 that many people derive comfort in the wake of death from the hope of seeing their loved ones in the hereafter, and I responded that isn’t true for everyone and gave the example of atheists (who don’t believe in the afterlife) and Christians who believe their loved ones aren’t saved. Any religion which teaches non-believers in that religion will go to hell would also qualify. People in those systems who find happiness in the wake of death in spite of viewing their loved ones as lost forever is the closest thing to evidence I can submit.

    I suppose what I should have said in the last paragraph was, “If we can learn to be happy after losing our loved ones here in this life, sometimes with no expectation of ever seeing them again, it’s entirely possible we can learn to be happy in the eternities should we ‘lose’ our loved ones there, for whatever reason.” Would that be more to your agreement?

  25. Yeah Jack, I think that last version is more defensible.

    With these sorts of speculations the problem is with using words like “we” to mean all people. To one person, perhaps an eternal separation from their most beloved family and friends would be hunky dory. To others heaven really could not be accurately called heaven if they could not share it with their most beloved family and friends.

  26. I understand your post as an expression of faith. And it inspires me.

    Here’s my best paraphrase of the post, as I understand it:

    “I’m not sure what heaven is like, but I trust God. It is not for me to put conditions on heaven—God is heaven’s architect and I’m sure it is a wonderful place. While in this life we suffer great loss. At the time of loss it is incomprehensible how a person could find joy or meaning again in this life. But even then, even in loss, God can bring joy into our lives. Surely if God can touch my soul with happiness, even in times of sorrow, God can handle heaven. As a matter of faith, I don’t need to know right now who will be there to share it.”

    There. That’s my understanding. After writing it out, it sounds about right to me. I’ll have to think about it some more. Thanks for the post.

  27. The Doctrine and Covenants mentions two ways that the people in the CK will be able to “see” their loved ones in the lower kingdoms.

    In section 76 it states that those in the CK will “minister to” the people in the Terrestrial Kingdom. I assume that includes face-to-face visits. But it doesn’t specifiy if all, or which, of the 3 degrees in the CK can bop on down to the Terrestrial for a visit.

    (Section 76 states that the Telestial kingdom is ministered to by the Terrestrial, implying that those in the CK won’t make visits to the Telestial.)

    The other way, and I forget if it’s in Section 76 or another, describes the celestialized earth as a “sea of glass” or a giant Urim-and-Thummim in which the inhabitants of the CK can “view” lower order or lesser kingdoms. I’m assume the lesser kingdoms include the Terrestrial and the Telestial. It doesn’t specify, but I assume that the viewing goes just one way.

  28. There also comes up the question if Hell is eternal.

    Acts 2:27 “Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell…”, a quote of Psalms 16:10. And, this seems to refer to David, a murderer & adulterer, very serious sins.

    Then, Revelation 20:13:”…and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them…”. So, an empty hell at that point?

    John 5:28-29:” 28 Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice,
    29 And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.”

    Empty out hell, resurrect those people, then toss them back into hell? Or, somewhere else?

    Then the second chance issue. Was Saul given a second chance? He thought what happened to Stephen as a just end. If you believe in the Book of Mormon, what about both Alma’s? Alma the younger had a similar experience to Saul, who became Paul. The moral of this to me is it’s hard to make a final judgment as a mortal.

    There are some comments in “The Three Degrees of Glory”, by Melvin J. Ballard, not doctrinally binding, but of interest, where those who will inherit the Terrestrial Kingdom will be able to be part of what the LDS call Paradise in the spirit world upon sufficient repentance.

    So, these are issues that should be addressed in interfaith dialogs on this subject. I am please that Jack is being rational & sane about this, for in the past most outreach programs were so biased, or knee jerk reaction, that I didn’t see the point of looking at them.

  29. C. S. Lewis has many intriguing things to say about this topic–or rather this cluster of interrelated topics: why there’s a hell, whether it’s eternal, whether redemption from hell is possible, what essentially life in heaven and hell might mean, whether heaven includes or allows for association with friends and family, how different heaven might be from life as we know it here, etc. My comment can only scratch the surface of what he has to say (which of course I look at with the coloring and emphasis provided by my Latter-day Saint point of view). I’ll give here just a few tidbits.

    On family in the afterlife: Besides questioning and deflecting hope of family reunions in the afterlife, Lewis also apparently longed for such a possibility. He wrote in The Four Loves: “We may hope that the resurrection of the body means also the resurrection of what may be called our ‘greater body’; the general fabric of our earthly life with its affections and relationships. But only on a condition . . . : nothing can enter there which cannot become heavenly.” (In LDS terms, a truly celestial marriage could only be a marriage that had become truly celestial.)

    On our “small-minded expectations”: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us. . . . We are far too easily pleased” (“The Weight of Glory”).

    How different heaven might be from life as we know it here: By what Lewis calls “transposition,” all (perhaps) that is familiar to us might continue but be transformed and lifted to transcendence. We may “be hardly more surprised by hitherto unimagined differences than by hitherto unsuspected similarities. . . . When I know as I am known I . . . shall see how the transcendent reality either excludes and repels [the categories/concepts/realities I’m familiar with], or how unimaginably it assimilates and loads [them] with significance. Had we not better wait?”–i.e., wait and see. (All this is from “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism”; see also “Transposition” and much of Miracles.)

    On the same question from LDS sources, I just read a verse the other day that blew me away, though I’ve read it many times before: “For since the beginning of the world have not men heard nor perceived by the ear, neither hath any eye seen, O God, besides thee, how great things thou hast prepared for him that waiteth for thee” (D&C 133:45). So we hope for something far beyond our present capacity to imagine. Yet Joseph Smith also noted the similarities: “that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy” (D&C 130:2).

    On “second chances” with implications for friends and family (this is me now, though Lewis has things to say on this as well): If God is love and if that love is essentially and supremely an absolutely unqualified concern for the welfare of others, then desiring the salvation of all (“not willing that any should perish” [2 Peter 3:9]) is part of what it means to be godly. (By the way, one of my favorite definitions of hell is from The Brothers Karamazov: “the torment of no longer being able to love.”)

    Given God’s power and love, I believe that all will eventually have as many blessings as they can possibly (which among other things means “willingly”) receive. Any sort of permanent hell would thus require a person’s firm, knowing, and irrevocable choice (I believe this view is supported both by the scriptures and, as it happens, by Lewis). Or perhaps a permanent hell might also result as a person, through a series of choices, undergoes such a change of nature as to be unable any longer (ever) to choose to allow God’s redeeming and transforming power to operate. (This last sentence is packed with all sorts of assumptions and speculations–but it does for me hint at what it might mean to be unredeemable.)

    Short of these terrible possibilities, both the scriptures and the Spirit suggest to me that there’s ALWAYS hope. John H. Groberg gave a talk on that theme that repeats the phrase “there’s always hope” 40 times ( http://speeches.byu.edu/reader/reader.php?id=6901 ). I endorse that view and would add, the story’s not over yet and won’t be for quite a while.

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