Sunday, December 09, 2007

Rethinking the Eternal: Part 2 – Oh My Heck

“What is hell?” I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.

-Father Zosima, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment.

-D&C 19:6

This month’s Harper’s Monthly features a selection from the philosopher, David Lewis’s “Divine Evil” that criticizes any theology which contains a belief in eternal, endless suffering.

The punishment is to go on forever, and the agonies to be endured by the damned intensify, in unimaginable ways, the sufferings we undergo in our earthly lives. In both dimensions, time and intensity, the torment is infinitely worse than all the suffering and sin that will have occurred during the history of life in the universe. What God does thus is infinitely worse than what the worst of tyrants have done. (Emphasis added)

While traditional Mormon theology has done away with the traditional concept of hell – those pesky fires have been replaced with ‘outer darkness,’ a sort of purgatory, and a glory that most would die for – ‘hell’ is still a prevalent concept throughout LDS scriptures and teachings (a quick search on brings up 1537 results). So, along with Father Zosima, I must ask, “What is Hell?”

Before discussing what is hell, I think it’s best to point out what eternal hell is not. As pointed out in the previous post, eternal hell is not endless duration. Furthermore, eternal hell should not be understood as any sort of intensified physical pain. For most Latter-day Saints, a post-mortem hell is usually identified with one of three things: ‘outer-darkness’ – where Satan and pals who never received bodies reside; ‘spirit prison’ – where the un-evangelized await a resurrection; and ‘telestial glory’ – a haven for the less-glorious resurrected beings. For the first two, the idea of physical punishment is senseless because the unembodied spirits inhabiting those spheres do not have physical bodies to experience physical pain. In the latter, while a resurrected body experiencing physical pain is theoretically possible, it does not seem to fit within the discourse of resurrection in any Mormon theological discussion (though I believe this is an interesting and important issue in a discussion of resurrection). Similarly, Alma the Younger experienced his ‘eternal torment’ in state of unconsciousness, void of actual physical experience. Finally, as emphasized in the previous post, hell is not just experienced after death, but can and is experienced in our mortal lives. Ammon affirms this aspect of hell when he recounts his and his brothers’ missionary labors among the Lamanites: “Behold, how many thousands of our brethren has he loosed from the pains of hell; and they are brought to sing redeeming love, and this because of the power of his word which is in us, therefore have we not great reason to rejoice? Yea, we have reason to praise him forever, for he is the Most High God, and has loosed our brethren from the chains of hell.” (Alma 26: 13-14).

[* Furthermore, it is important to note what the church’s official website,, says about hell. According to its topical index, “Latter-day revelations speak of hell in at least two ways. First, it is another name for spirit prison, a temporary place in the postmortal world for those who died without a knowledge of the truth or those who were disobedient in mortality. Second, it is the permanent location of Satan and his followers and the sons of perdition, who are not redeemed by the Atonement of Jesus Christ.” I am unaware of any scriptural justification for either of these notions of hell. The New Testament’s use of hell (hades) comes close to the idea of a spirit prison; however, hades in the NT is not just a place for the unevangelized, but is the resting place of all of the dead. On the other hand most uses of hell in the scriptures (especially in the Book of Mormon) describe a state of suffering and anguish that is feared by many, a state that many fear and are redeemed from during their lifetime – hardly descriptive of the LDS views of the spirit prison, outer darkness, or the least of resurrected glories.]

If hell is not a post-mortem infliction of endless pain, what is it then? While it may seem simplistic at first, I believe Father Zosima, in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, has the right answer. In one of his sermons to his fellow priests he teaches,

Fathers and teachers, I ponder, "What is hell?" I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love. Once in infinite existence, immeasurable in time and space, a spiritual creature was given on his coming to earth the power of saying, "I am and I love." Once, only once, there was given him a moment of active lifting love, and for that was earthly life given him, and with it times and seasons. And that happy creature rejected the priceless gift, prized it and loved it not, scorned it and remained callous. . . .

They talk of hell fire in the material sense. I don't go into that mystery and I shun it. But I think if there were fire in material sense, they would be glad of it, for I imagine that in material agony, their still greater spiritual agony would be forgotten for a moment. Moreover, that spiritual agony cannot be taken from them, for that suffering is not external but within them.

For Father Zosima, there are two types of persons who are in hell: those who fail to love, and those who reject the love offered to them. And these, I believe, are what it is to be in eternal hell – for if God is love and God is eternal, then eternal torment is the lack and rejection of God’s love. While these two often come together, they are not necessarily the same.

When asked what was the greatest of the commandments, Jesus answered that it was to love. Love is central to the Gospel. It’s what binds Zion and the Kingdom of God. The gospel, the sacraments, the atonement, the temple, all of it is about uniting everyone – about creating a community. This is why Paul kept referring to the body of Christ. This is why we take on the same name of Christ. Zion is what it is because everyone is of one heart and mind, living in equality (righteousness) (Moses 7:18). The converse of all this would be the failure to love, disunity, and isolation. You do not go to hell for these things, you are in hell with these things. It is our failure to love that separates us from the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick, and the prisoners (Matthew 25). Our failure to love leaves them in a state of hell as well, alone and suffering. Lying, stealing, disloyalty, objectification of others, abuse, slavery, oppression, racism, sexism, and all other sins are manifestations of our failure to love and states of hell. A post-mortem hell would merely be a continuation of these same things, a continuation of our failure to love resulting in isolation and a lack of community.

But hell is not just our failure to love, but is also our failure to accept love. When asked what he needed to do to enter the kingdom of heaven – to enter the community of God – the young rich man was told by Jesus that he needed to love. He needed to sell his luxuries to help out the poor. The rich young man walked away in hell, loving his possessions more than those around him.

The plight of this rich young man hit me hard the other day. In a discussion on another blog, someone asked for ideas on how we could better fulfill our duties to help out the poor. I found myself wanting to ignore the request. I knew that if I joined in the discussion that I would then feel even more obligated to use what luxuries I have to help those in need. I didn’t want to because I, like the rich young man, love my possessions more than others.

It is for this reason that Jesus said that it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. It is for this reason that Jesus’ apostles asked “Who then can be saved?” The apostles knew, just as we all do, how powerful the temptations are that pull us away from love, and the weakness of humanity in freeing ourselves from those chains.

“With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.”

Alone, we can be powerless. But with God, all things are possible. This is the grace of God that we need in our lives. It is the love that God gives us that enables us to love. It is the love of God that saves us from hell and our sins. “It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (Nephi 25:23). Yes, the rich man loved his possessions. But all he needed to do to free himself from those chains were to ask God for his grace. Yet, like the rest of us, he rejects that offer. And in doing so, he remains in hell, unable to love.

This same rejection of God’s loving grace is evident in other states of hell we may be in. The chains of hell are our inabilities to free ourselves from those things which separate us from a loving community and true happiness. They are our addictions to drugs, gambling, alcohol, television, sex, and all other things that isolate ourselves and/or hurt others. Hell is the despair that we cannot free ourselves from these chains, and at the same time refusing to ask for God’s grace to deliver us.

What are the moral implications of this concept of eternal hell? First and foremost, we should not view eternal hell as some state that awaits others at some point after death. We need to view eternal hell as states that people are in right now. We shouldn’t worry that Billy will go to hell, we should worry that Billy is in hell right now. Our hearts and actions should look to the present condition of ourselves and those around us. To be saved from our sins is not to have some metaphysical sin-stain bleached away, but is to be freed from the isolation, suffering, and despair brought on by a failure to and an rejection of love.


  1. Great post, as usual. Of course the description you give will not satisfy a lot of people, whose main view of Hell is a place where "THOSE PEOPLE" (evildoers of various kinds & according to various definitions of evil) will be PUNISHED.

    Most people's reaction to a criminal who says, "You couldn't punish me any more than I've already punished myself" is to say, "Oh, I'm sure we can come up with SOMETHING. . ." (^-^)

    Congratulations on the GRE results. Good luck in grad school. . .

  2. I really like this idea in context with the rest of the post.

    "We shouldn’t worry that Billy will go to hell, we should worry that Billy is in hell right now."

  3. Excellent, Loyd. The narrative flows well, ties your idea together, and ultimately has a strong conclusion...

    Our hearts and actions should look to the present condition of ourselves and those around us.

    Such a true, and very important statement of fact.

  4. Excellent. We can see Hell as a secular concept, if we work in a similar vein to this blog. I enjoy your viewpoint. You bring great discussions to play.

    Love ya.

  5. Compelling post.

    If you haven't seen it yet, I recommend you go rent two French films, "Jean De Florette" and "Manon of the Spring". They represent the perfect metaphor of Hell (make sure you get and watch both of them, it's a two-parter).

  6. I was just surfing around and found your blog. My frame of reference is different, since I’m not LDS, but you make some good points; I’ll have to come back to read your next two installments. (And you’ve made me really want to read The Brothers Karamazov here soon.)


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