Do People Believe in Hell?

God it is, you say, who judges in this way; he is the persecutor of newborn children; he it is who send tiny babies to eternal flames… It would be right and proper to treat you as beneath argument: you have come so far from religious feeling, from civilized feeling, so far indeed from mere common sense, in that you think that your Lord God is capable of committing a crime against justice such as is hardly conceivable even among the barbarians.

-Julian of Eclanum in response to Augustine. 

If there is a God who will damn his children forever, I would rather go to hell than to go to heaven and keep the society of such an infamous tyrant. I make my choice now. I despise that doctrine. It has covered the cheeks of this world with tears. It has polluted the hearts of children, and poisoned the imaginations of men…. What right have you, sir, Mr. clergyman, you, minister of the gospel to stand at the portals of the tomb, at the vestibule of eternity, and fill the future with horror and with fear? I do not believe this doctrine, neither do you. If you did, you could not sleep one moment. Any man who believes it, and has within his breast a decent, throbbing heart, will go insane. A man who believes that doctrine and does not go insane has the heart of a snake and the conscience of a hyena.

-Robert Green Ingersoll, “The Liberty Of All” (1877)

In my opinion the most atrocious theological belief possible is the idea of a hell of eternal, conscious, physical torment. While it is a common belief, when you stop to imagine 1) how long eternity is (Steven Peck’s A Short Stay in Hell is great for that purpose), and 2) how intense refined torture is (there are a multitude of powerful accounts, but I recommend William Schulz’s The Phenomenon of Torture: Readings and Commentary) it becomes quickly apparent that there is little else imaginable that is as dark and depraved as the classic idea of hell. Ultimately, I’m sympathetic to the new-atheisty idea that, while we rightfully condemn tyrants who use torture on earth, that a God who condemns people to a such a level of punishment for all eternity should be considered even more malicious.

That is not to say that I hold to a model where there is no “bad place.” I Iike the CS Lewis-type version of hell in The Great Divorce, where hell is essentially miserable people sucking the light out of each other as they spiral downwards and downwards into a state of absolute darkness (sounds like some places on Twitter). Also, while in theory I have a problem with the dichotomization of afterlife belief (you missed heaven and eternal glory by two inches, eternal torture for you!) the idea that people are either ascending or declining, so if you keep running the program they’ll either place themselves in supernal glory or outer darkness given enough time kind of makes sense. Still, I’m thankful for the gradations provided by the framework restored by Joseph Smith. 

I get morose when I think about the mother in 6th century Egypt who thinks that her newborn is screaming while roasting over a spit for all eternity (sorry to be graphic, but I think it’s important to not euphemize away what we’re talking about here) because she didn’t get him baptized in time; but then things become more cheerful when I think about her moment when she crosses over the veil and sees her child. I think the people who started challenging the belief in classical physical hell or the “false priests who oppress” who leveraged it for their own power should be considered some of the greatest moral innovators of history. While many rebels risk earthly torture and death, those who knowingly risked eternal torture are in a category of their own.  

I think that I’m on fairly solid ground saying that Latter-day Saints don’t believe in the eternal-physical-torture kind of hell. (However, one verse of restoration scripture that never sat well with me on this point is, when talking about the sons of Mosiah going on their missions, that “even the very thoughts that any soul should endure endless torment did cause them to quake and tremble” [Mosiah 28:3]. I would like to believe that “endless torment” here is a kind of spiritual outer darkness. Still, given the era it is at least likely that they had motivators of the red hot pincer-variety for their missionary work, which seems wrong on a number of different levels). 

Of course, Catholic theology includes concepts such as purgatory and the Vatican II idea that non-Christians can be saved, and many conservative Protestant Christians accept a more nuanced version of hell, so my point shouldn’t be seen as anti-any particular religion, and I don’t want to caricature.  

During my postdoc I became interested in how many people believed in hell as a place of eternal physical torment. I also had some interest in the paradox of some of the authentically nicest people I knew possibly believing that I will be racked for eternity because of my non-trinitarian heresies (Sam Harris pointed out that if a heretic is threatening to cause your children to get a blowtorch in their face for all eternity, again, sorry to be graphic, then torturing heretics makes logical sense). If you took the implications of the belief in classic hell to it’s logical conclusion it’s hard to see why people aren’t wouldn’t be both as religious and intolerant of the wrong beliefs as possible.  

So I interviewed and surveyed various groups of people, and found out that the physical torture hell hadn’t completely faded away with modernity. While previous surveys have asked about belief in “hell,” they did so without defining it, so it was hard to know what to make of those results. (Christianity Today reported on our paper, and my coauthor and I were interviewed about our paper on a liberal Christian podcast).

To share a narrative-breaking anecdote for a moment: my son the other day came to my wife and I and started asking us questions about hell and what kind of things happened there. Worried that he was exhibiting some anxiety about it we asked whether he was afraid that he was going to go to hell. His demeanor immediately changed, “oh no, I’m worried about Levi [his little brother]”. His sweet concern actually mirrors what we found in our study; the more hellfire your belief is, the more sure you are that you aren’t going there. 

While my study was a convenience sample that largely dealt with Christians, if I’m recalling my Islam and Politics class correctly from many years ago, the more nuanced belief in hell is probably more of a rarity in the Islamic world, so between (some) Muslims and (some)  Christians the most atrocious of all beliefs is still held by a significant number of people worldwide. 

However, I suspect that this is because they haven’t quite sat down to think about it. If the implications of this belief were fully appreciated conservative religionists would be constantly wracked with anxiety, and surveys generally find the opposite to be true. I am grateful for the pushback against classic, physical torture hell that has been happening since it was first formulated (see quote above), even if its implications aren’t fully internalized, and it goes without saying that I am quite grateful for the body of Latter-day Saint doctrine and Midrash that emphasizes the relatively “happy hell” of the Telestial Kingdom, the temporary nature of spirit prison, the general emptiness of Outer Darkness, and the (more arguable point) that the Sons of Perdition kind of intentionally chose their own final location. This all sits well with me, and avoids a belief that might intellectually cohere with some scripture, but in the process leads us to a belief that is actually quite “far from religious feeling.”

30 comments for “Do People Believe in Hell?

  1. I think the Book of Mormon generally falls in nicely — when speaking of the torments of hell — with D&C section 19. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that in many instances those who spoke of it (in the BoM) were aware of that interpretation–Jacob especially comes to mind.

    As to the idea of suffering per se: I think the scriptures overall are clear that some folks might suffer through a relatively short albeit severe bout of shame. But this is not something that the Lord imposes upon us. It is a deep regret that we experience because of our own behavior. And so, in a certain sense, the atonement saves us from ourselves more than anything else.

    That said, I can’t help but drift toward becoming a near universalist the more I contemplate the restored gospel. I’m open to the idea of there being mobility between the kingdoms in the afterlife. But even if I were to learn that such is not the case — that our inheritance is “fixed” within a specific degree of glory — I’ve no doubt that the “final” outcome will be beyond fair and just–it will be merciful beyond our comprehension.

  2. I’m lifelong LDS and I worry about hell all the time. It’s a really terrifying thought.

    As a male, if I miss my opportunity to marry in this life, I will be damned for eternity anyway. Very frightening.

  3. On a more serious note, I take a lot of comfort from that “endless and eternal” are my name, and so endless/eternal punishment means God’s punishment.

    CS Lewis was wiser than he knew. I think we’ll be surprised how close he was. Of course, there will be degrees of difference, but I like the idea that some people will just forever punish themselves, whereas others will actually get and take the chance to advance.

    I’m not quite sold on the “eventually everyone gets to the Celestial Kingdom” idea, but I am very open to idea some people who don’t go there are first will eventually work their way up.

    And, frankly, if someone is afraid they will burn in hell because they aren’t married, they aren’t paying attention in Church or at General Conference. No General Authority teaches that.

  4. What if you’re in hell right now and this is your second shot at the celestial kingdom?

    Make the most of it.

  5. SoG: thank you for your kind response.

    I want, to the point of nausea, to agree with you. However, as far as I can tell, a man cannot progress eternally without being married.

    I am anxious to read arguments against this.

  6. Anonymous,

    “President Young said there would be men saved in the Celestial Kingdom of God with one wife, with many wives & with no wife at all.” (Recorded in Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 12 February, 1870).

    I’m sure God won’t damn a man for simply not being lucky with the ladies. He recognizes our efforts, even when we fall short. That’s the power of grace my friend.

  7. Southern Saint: I appreciate it.

    Saved, yes, but not able to progress eternally.

    I may be mistaken. I hope I am.

  8. I completely agree that “there is little else imaginable that is as dark and depraved as the classic idea of hell.” And I don’t think you have to go all the way to the Inquisition to see how the concept warps the way its believers interact with others. Why have respect or empathy for someone if God will have neither? Why have a pluralistic society where people can live according to the dictates of their own conscience if suppressing beliefs that will lead people to hell might save a few people from going there?

    But one reason the concept sticks around is that we feel deeply there must be severe consequences for the evil we see in this world. I believe there will be, and that we take “spirit prison” much too lightly. “Sheol” is better, as Joseph Smith called it. “Hell” would be appropriate except that it would get confused with the classic idea of hell. It’s my belief, based on D&C 19 (unrepentant sinners will suffer as Christ did), Alma 7 (Christ experienced all the pain and misery we experience in this life), and a bit of independent moral reasoning (people are only responsible for their own actions), that unrepentant sinners will experience all the misery they inflicted on others. And that’s going to be awful for some people. But it will only last long enough for them to learn from the experience and repent (i.e. change). Then they’ll be prepared to enter the Telestial Kingdom, a wonderful place where people don’t make each other miserable any more–which is why they can’t be admitted until they do change.

    As for Outer Darkness, it seems to me that one of the bedrock principles of the plan of salvation is that people get what they truly want. Unfortunately, it appears that what some people truly want is to exercise unrighteous dominion and make other people miserable. So God in his mercy and in deep sorrow gives them what they want–but he won’t let his innocent children be their victims any longer. They can exercise unrighteous dominion over each other and make each other miserable for as long as they want to, though I hope they can eventually learn to want something better.

    I think that applies to the other kingdoms of glory as well. My pet theory is that the Telestial Kingdom is for people who mostly want selfish (but harmless) pleasures, the Terrestrial Kingdom is for people who want to do good, and the Celestial Kingdom is for people who want to do what our Heavenly Father and Mother do now. But whether that’s all true or not, I am very confident that everyone who truly wants the Celestial Kingdom will get it. Anonymous, if it’s true that an eternal companion is a requirement to live the life and do the work our Heavenly Parents do (and I agree that appears to be the case), then somehow or other everyone who wants that life will have an eternal companion. If it were otherwise that would go against what I think are bedrock principles of God’s love and his plan for us.

    I’m really not sure about progressing between kingdoms. If it really does come down to what people want, then the big question is whether people can change what they want. On the other hand, all the kingdoms of glory were designed by our Heavenly Parents to make their children happy, so it’s a wonderful outcome even if people stay in the kingdoms they start in.

  9. Anonymous, one more thought: I have a brother who died at 16. He was, unsurprisingly, not married. Did he “miss [his] opportunity to marry in this life” and thus can never progress? Of course not–that would clearly be unjust. We have no doctrine for how or when people like him will marry, but unless we abandon the idea that children are exalted, there must be a way for people to marry who did not marry in this life. (Knowing my brother I rather suspect he’s charmed an eternal companion already. I look forward to meeting her.)

    So what if he had died single at 21? 25? Is there a threshold where he would have missed his opportunity to get married in this life and lost his chance to progress? (The “menace to society” line?) If a monk receives the Gospel at age 80, how long does he have to get married before he loses his chance?

    More broadly: getting married in this life is not fully under our control. To make our exaltation contingent on getting married in this life would violate our agency. And that’s the one thing we know God will never do. I don’t know how this will be worked out (though it’s not hard to imagine possibilities) but I know that it will.

  10. @Jack:
    I’ll have to go back and read the relevant BoM passages more carefully with D&C 19 in mind.

    @RLD: I more or less agree with your positions. It’s interesting that a body of General Authority midrash hasn’t grown up around D&C 19 where the unrepentant sinners will suffer “even as [Christ].” That’s not anywhere in our little Plan of Salvation diagrams, and I’m not quite sure where it fits or what is meant by it.
    With people getting what they want I’m reminded of the CS Lewis quote (again, sorry): either we say to God thy will be done, or God says to us they will be done.

    Also, in regards to the state of the unmarried: “There is no Latter-day Saint who dies after having lived a faithful life who will lose anything because of having failed to do certain things when opportunities were not furnished him or her. In other words, if a young man or a young woman has no opportunity of getting married, and they live faithful lives up to the time of their death, they will have all the blessings, exaltation, and glory that any man or woman will have who had this opportunity and improved it. That is sure and positive” (Teachings of Lorenzo Snow, 138).

    Now, for people who fundamentally would rather have a pet and hangout with their friends than be married, I have no compunction reading Latter-day Saint theology to say that they will not be exalted while in that state of mind, but I’m assuming that’s not the case here.

  11. I’m with RLD on this and that is we will go where we feel comfortable or the ‘glory” that we can stand/handle. If there is still “evil” in us we will not want to live with those that are pure or in the presence of God. We do this now for the most part here on earth. I also grew up hearing that if I, as a male, chose to not get married, that it would not be a nice place for me after death. Not sure if I believed that or not but that’s another story. I have a hard time with any leader and what they say after Joseph Smith so these quotes from BY or whoever I dont take as doctrine, at least not 100%. To the single males, if you tried and failed, your ticket is punched. If your gay and dont want to try, your ticket is punched. I think try should last all your life tho. For the first 120+ years we preached polygamy was the ticket and we dont say that anymore. So, who really knows. One last thing….all my life they told the sisters that were not married, would have a chance in the next life. I would guess that goes for the brethren too. As for Hell, I am in the camp that there is one for the same reasoning that you go where you want to be and some want Hell. Some deserve Hell as well. My guess not many tho.

  12. Stephen C.,
    I have a simple interpretation for D&C 19, but since I am simple-minded it works for me. D&C 19 basically teaches that sin brings pain. I interpret that to mean that sin is a poison that inflicts pain upon the souls of the sinful. Repentance allows the healing power of Christ’s Atonement to destroy that poison or negative energy. Sin/poison makes sense when one thinks of Gethsemane. Christ felt the effects of that sin/poison as he atoned for the sins who had died previously to his life. Blake Ostler has a nuanced explanation in his writings.

    I think the Protestant concept of Hell is baggage we should discard. With work for the dead, a different interpretation of God’s punishment and a process for salvation/exaltation, it simply is not helpful. God heals and lifts people. We just have to trust Him in His work.

  13. No one has yet even mentioned the fact that many women think the CK as it appears to be in Mormon doctrine, sounds like hell for women. Personally, I have zero desire to live in a situation of a million women harem, and be eternally pregnant so that my husband can populate a planet and he is the only one allowed to talk to MY children. I suspect a woman who has a limited number of children will love them, and know them far better than the polygamous father who has a million wives, and so many children he can’t even count them. How can he even know and love a million wives, let alone all of their various children. And the idea that my children will be forbidden to talk to me during their mortal probation, well, what the blankety blank kind of father forbids his children from talking to their mother. If my husband EVER suggested that I should not talk to my children, well, by-by husband. It isn’t that I love them more than him, but I don’t think THAT is love at all.

    So, sorry that I can’t exactly feel sorry for anonymous who fears “what if I can’t find a woman” when “the plan” is to make her miserable by marrying a few thousand besides her, and keeping her barefoot and pregnant. Nope, don’t even feel sorry for a guy who wants to do that to another human being. But then, he probably has not considered “hell” for a woman is eternally barefoot and pregnant, subject to a man

    Nope, I have totally rejected the Mormon version of the CK. Besides, I have a gay daughter and daughter in law that I love, an asexual grand daughter who plans to never marry, a brother and sister who never married because of an extremely unstable childhood and the resulting mental health issues. On, my sister was given a chance to marry of a guy in love with her, so she doesn’t qualify for “never had the chance.” At 60 and 65 my younger sibs are barely healed enough from our crappy childhood to be capable of a relationship, so for people who know they are not marriage material and so don’t make someone miserable by inflicting their baggage on them, did they choose not to marry, or love the guy too much to torture him?

    So, I like what sute said about maybe THIS life is our second or third chance at making it to some kind of eternal reward. And absolutely we progress between kingdoms. But there is a sign that points to “this kingdom is for polygamy” and all the greedy selfish men go there, hoping for unlimited sex. There is another sign further along that says “monogamy, heterosexual only!, husbands preside!” and a final sign that says, “all others.” And all the women look at the polygamy sign and say, “anything but,” then they look at the lop sided heterosexual of husband’s preside and wonder if there is better. So they keep going, and wonder what is this “all others” and think it might be worth a try. Some of the men who really love their wife and don’t want her unhappy in polygamy or subservience will go there too, and of course all LGBT. But the greedy men get to the polygamy place and find about two women for every one thousand greedy selfish male jerks. And that is Mormon CK, a whole bunch of men who think they are God’s gift to women and lust after multiple partners they can dominate and no women.

    Now, let’s see if the moderators here have a sense of humor or not.

  14. @Anna: Many of us would clearly disagree with your depiction of the CK, but regardless your response comports with the general sentiment on this thread that we’ll end up in the place that fits our desires best.

  15. Anna,
    Joseph Smith was shocked by what he discovered “line-upon-line” about the afterlife, with a loving God that accounts for the vicissitudes of the mortal experience. I believe we will be also.

  16. I am also in the camp that there is eternal progression.

    That being said, I’m in that camp because I choose to be; I obviously have no proof. I think our current leaders are not on board. When they talk about sad heaven and empty chairs, that to me speaks of a finality. So it seems the jury is still out and perhaps heaven and hell aren’t all that different if you aren’t with the people you value in the end.

    @Anna: I just wanted to validate your thoughts on heaven from the female perspective.

  17. Anna – It appears that you favor the female version of the species and may have issues with the doctrine of polygamy. (sorry, I kid) I believe you are the one that wrote the paper on polygamy that I read recently as well.

    Serious question: I agree with you that the female species is naturally more righteous (if you actually think this way) and they can use that to help us not so righteous men be more righteous. The opposite affect can happen as well. If this is the case, and we must be married for the CK experience, and sisters who cant find marriage in this life will have the chance in the next, then how do you make sure there is a 1 to 1 ratio for men and women who qualify? Polygamy seems to make sense here. Not choosing it also makes sense. If you answered this in your paper and I forgot, sorry.

    I know some LDS women that wish polygamy was a choice right now so they could have a chance to marry here and have that experience. Well not exactly the same experience….Of course there are many LDS women that would rather go to Hell as a virtuous woman than to heaven as a whore. (stoll that from church history… Sister Grant I believe)

    You want a place in the Ck for your gay married daughter (maybe you don’t, not trying to put words in your mouth here) but not a place for me who wants 1000 wives? Doesn’t seem fair to me.

    I would be very surprised if what we think we know about all this is actually what happens. Very surprised.

    Here is what I do know. There is a God and a Jesus and they want me in this church. They know me personally so I am pretty sure they know you personally even though there are billions to know. They have an unconditional love for me, you, and your daughter and daughter in law. All the policies and so-called doctrines we try to figure out here, will get figured out there and I am pretty sure we will be ok with whatever that looks like. It is fun to speculate and talk about and you have very valid points and beliefs, I promise that you will be fine with what it ends up being for you. Perfectly fine. IMO.

  18. Marriage cannot be a barrier to a woman’s eternal progression: every woman could marry the same man, and there is One both perfectly worthy and willing. More men than this One are superfluous.

    By contrast, no worthy man can progress eternally except a woman exercise her agency to marry him.

  19. I agree with Nibley–that marriage will be different in the afterlife than it is here. And that’s not to say that a man having many wives will be the only difference–there’ll be much more to it than that. It won’t be a free-for-all; it will be structured. But there are powers that we barely begin to comprehend in this sphere that will be fully revealed in the world to come–powers that make possible a more joyful way of living with each other.

    Even so, there is one aspect (of that power) that we have the capability of understanding to some degree in this sphere–and that’s love. How might perfect love (in and of itself) prepare us for the unknowns of marriage in the afterlife?

  20. @Anna To misquote Elder Holland, “There’s too much sexism in the Church. Any is too much, and we have too much.” A lot of progress has been made–I honestly think the leaders are ahead of many of the members at this point–but we have a ways to go.

    I can guess what statements from 19th century Church leaders your perception of “the CK as it appears to be in Mormon doctrine” came from and I don’t think your perception really matches what they had in mind, but I can see where you’re coming from. Seems to me they were looking for speculative reasons to support polygamy, not revealing any actual knowledge of the Celestial Kingdom. I wouldn’t call it established doctrine even then, and it certainly is not now. I don’t think most members believe anything of the kind. But if someone weaponized those statements to justify abuse or make you feel lesser, I’m sorry. And I’ll grant there’s plenty that can be weaponized behind your second door too.

    @REC911 The child mortality rate for boys is consistently somewhat higher for boys than girls, and as far as we can tell it’s always been that way. That means the population of people who go to the Celestial Kingdom automatically because they died before the age of accountability skews male. So even if the population of people who go to the Celestial Kingdom after living to adulthood skews female, and I don’t think we really know that, we still don’t know anything about the overall gender balance.

    @Jack LOL

  21. @RLD The point I am trying to make is that what is the guaranteed plan to reach the CK married? How can God be sure there is an equal amount of qualifying humans (whatever that looks like) to make it work? Only allow those who actually got married and stayed married in? Since we believe that there is a way for singles after this life then again are the last 3 males not allowed in cause we ran out of eligible women? Sorry guys, if there was just 3 more ladies that made it we would let you in but hey enjoy 2nd place until we call you….I personally have always thought that the female was the more likely to “make it in” and IF polygamy is an actual correct doctrine, then this is why in my head. I am so open to being completely wrong as well! :) But hey, full disclosure, I also believe that celestial marriage here is a ticket to re-pick a spouse in the next life if we want. My wife and I, in a sense, earn the right to trade up if we want. I am sure my wife will take that option!

  22. @REC911 I know this is coming late, but just in case you do see it…

    You’re assuming there’s a fixed and finite number of people who want to get married. If everyone who is born on this earth must marry someone else who was born on this earth, then that would be true. But if we can marry anyone from the “worlds without number” that are out there, at various stages of development, and with new worlds created on a regular basis, then the number of available partners is constantly growing and eventually there will be a partner for everyone who wants one.

  23. @RLD

    I hope so, very much.

    However, only those who did not have an opportunity to marry in this life will have an opportunity in the next. As such, a man who returned from his mission 8 months ago, and dies unmarried, would not have an opportunity to marry in the next life, having failed to arrange, purchase, capture, or woo a wife despite an enormous number of “opportunities.”

    Also, after this life, a single woman may delay eternal progression while she waits for a husband, or begin eternal progression immediately by marrying a prophet, apostle, etc., as there is no published maximum number of eternal wives. She has a very strong incentive to marry immediately. Men do not have this option.

    And, per Joseph F. Smith, a woman may refuse any marriage proposal she finds “distasteful,” but men have no such protection, and are not likely to receive such proposals anyway.

    As written, the doctrine is bleak. However, the culture is irrationally exuberant.

  24. “As written, the doctrine is bleak.” What you’re describing is not any doctrine I recognize. Yes, there are some bleak statements out there, directed at young men that prophets feared were not interested in finding an eternal companion. But I very much doubt any of them would agree that if a returned missionary died eight months after returning from a mission without having found a wife he had lost his opportunity forever. (I take it seven months does not constitute “an opportunity to marry”?) That doesn’t pass the common sense test.

    Agency is doctrine. Being punished for our own sins, not for circumstances beyond our control, is doctrine. We’ll be judged by the desires of our hearts, including the desire to marry, whether that desire is granted in this life or not. Yes, a single young man needs to act on their desire to find a wife, but no one can guarantee their actions will lead to success, let alone in eight months.

    “a single woman may delay eternal progression while she waits for a husband” You seem to have a very cramped view of eternal progression. Yes, the great blessing of an eternal marriage is eternal increase, but it will be a long time before we’re ready for that. We have a great deal of “progressing” to do first, most or all of which I imagine can be done while single.

  25. @RLD So you believe in the waiting room doctrine, meaning we dont have a space at the table yet but we will call you. Your thoughts on marrying from other worlds is intriguing. I must have slept through those lessons but I am open to your concept. You could also solve this issue with just the people on this earth by doing polygamy. Yes for this to work there must be more qualified women than men. Looks like every ward I have ever lived in…. ;)

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