09 10

13 October 2015

The Plan of Salvation: What is Hell?

Recently, I've been asked what the Mormon theology about hell is. This post is an outgrowth of that conversation, which took place on Facebook. The question is this: Do we believe that hell is just a temporary state, or unending torment for the sinner who has rejected God and is consigned to be apart from Him for eternity?

There are two points in what we term the plan of Salvation or the Plan of Happiness that could be thought to correspond to the Protestant/Catholic Hell as it has been explained to me. I am a lifelong Mormon, and no expert in the theology of other Christian denominations, though I have tried to educate myself. I have made a serious study of Mormon theology on these points, but have only passing familiarity with the specifics of other Christian beliefs. Since I do not know your level of familiarity with our doctrine, I will first sketch the whole plan, and the address the question about hell more specifically.

The Plan of Salvation
We believe that we are the children of God (Romans 8:16, Ps. 82:6). That we lived with Him prior to our birth in mortal life (Job 38:7; Jer. 1:5). This is variously called the pre-earth life or the premortal existence in our vocabulary. 

It is our Father's Plan that we should become like Him (Matt. 5:48; Romans 8:17). As a part of this process we have been sent to earth, became mortal (Gen. 2:17), gain physical bodies (Gen. 2:7), and be tested as to our obedience and faithfulness (Romans 6:16).

Knowing beforehand that we would, even the best of us, fall short of perfection (Rom.3:23), our merciful Father arranged for mercy to temper Justice, through the intercession and sacrifice of His Only Begotten Son (John 3:16). Thus, this life becomes a probationary state, and allowing men a space in which to repent (Ps. 38:18; Mark 1:15). 

Upon our death, our body returns to the dust (Gen. 3:19), but the immortal soul continues (Luke 23:46; 1 Kings 17:21). 

Prior to resurrection, the spirits of the righteous and the wicked await judgement (Matt. 7:21-23; Romans 14:10). The righteous wait in paradise, which is a state of rest and peace (Luke 23:43; Rev. 14:13). The wicked wait in what we typically call spirit prison, though it can also be called  hell (1 Peter 3:19; Ps. 16:10), indeed, in the Book of Mormon it sometimes is called hell. The gospel is preached to those in spirit prison (1 Peter 4:6). Baptism being an absolute requirement (John 3:5); those who did not have the opportunity in life may accept proxy baptism for the dead (1 Cor. 15:29).

Then comes the day of judgement (Rev. 20:12). 

We believe that that which is typically called heaven in Protestant/Catholic theology can actually be thought of as three heavens, or degrees of glory, as we usually call them (1 Cor. 15:40-42; 2 Cor. 12:2). Additionally, there is outer darkness, a place of torment with no glory at all (Matt. 8:12) reserved for those who blaspheme against the Holy Ghost and for whom there is no forgiveness (Matt. 12:31).

For clarity, we will sometimes sketch an outline of the plan, like this. Though this is a traditional sketch familiar throughout the Church, it is not without its flaws. It does not show Christ's indispensable role; this sketch is concerned only with our journey. But it is useful to kind of map out where we were, where we are, and where we hope to go.

What is Hell?
There are two places that are, in Mormon theology, both sometimes referred to as hell. These are spirit prison and outer darkness.

We believe that spirit prison is a temporary place. I'm not super familiar with purgatory, but I believe that spirit paradise and spirit prison, together, would be somewhat analogous. However, rather than lumping everyone into a single place, we believe there is a distinction made between those who have done their best to live righteously and those who have not. As we understand it, the ordinance of baptism (I know that some denominations use the word sacrament, rather than ordinance) also plays a role in the separation, with those who have not received baptism being barred from spirit paradise; hence the importance we place on baptisms for the dead. Peter talks about the gospel being preached among the dead in one of his epistles:

For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.
1 Peter 4:6

God's requirement for baptism is absolute (John 3:5), so the justice of God requires that each and every soul must have a meaningful opportunity to hear and accept or reject Christ. Hence, God, in His mercy, has provided a space for those who did not have the opportunity in life to have that opportunity prior to final judgement.

On the other hand, outer darkness we believe to be permanent. That punishment the Book of Mormon describes as being "as eternal as the life of the soul", endless punishment "affixed opposite the plan of happiness". In my opinion, outer darkness is analogous to what Protestant/Catholic Christians refer to as hell, much more so than spirit prison, though both can be, and sometimes are, called hell. This is one reason why most Mormons don't use the term "hell" very often, preferring instead the more specific terms of prison and outer darkness. There is no Mormon belief in "dodging" Judgement; on the contrary, we believe that it will be universal: every single person must account for their choices, including the choice to accept (or not) Christ's mercy.

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