I read a fascinating piece from a website, whatchristianswanttoknow.com, on hell. It was titled, “Are There Different Levels of Hell and Heaven.” (Read) Frankly, the part about hell interested me more. I think that’s human nature; most of us are fascinated with hell, a place we’re more or less certain we will avoid. As for heaven, yeah, we’re pretty sure we’ll make it there and are more willing to be surprised.
We Mormons have an interesting take on hell (more on that later). A traditional view from others of hell, to me, has always been this line that separates the heaven-bound from the hell-bound. Don’t step to the left or you’ll fall into that pit of eternal fire. Keep to the right and you can hang out in beautiful gardens with Jesus Christ. Another traditional view of hell has been that even the sweetest grandmother will roast for eternity unless she accepts Christ as her savior in a manner consistent with what’s preached in the “Left Behind” books.
And that’s why I found the whatchristianswanttoknow article interesting. It differed in that it surmised that there must be a variety of sufferings in hell, based on an individual’s knowledge of the Gospel. This scriptures from Luke chapter 12 is quoted: “… the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful. That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”
The writer still separates residents of hell as “unsaved,” meaning the loathsome “sweet grandma in hell” theory holds in the post. That is because traditional Christianity refuses to assign any “good works” as credits toward ascension to heaven. However, the “good works” theory appears to factor into the levels of punishment theory. The author writes: “While the Bible doesn’t address this specifically, we do know that some who are more evil in this life will have to suffer more for their sins. Hitler will suffer more than the person who lived a pretty good life. The consequences of sin for the unsaved will be attributed to the degree to which they suffer.”
The author adds, “He is saying that the more a person knows about Christ and still refuses to do anything about it, the more they will be held accountable. More so than the native in the Amazon who has never heard the name of Christ. To hear the gospel time and time again and not respond to it will be to regret it forever. The more light a person has been given the more they will be held accountable.”
Frankly, the article, which assures its readers that the biblical description of hell exists, is pretty muddled about hell. It’s hard to find any mercy or distinct sufferings in hell when your theology describes it as a “lake of fire” where your “worm” burns for eternity. But I give credit to the author for at least contemplating that there may be cooler areas in the “lake of fire.”
Back to Mormonism: Its version that fits closest to a traditional biblical version of hell, with some type of suffering, is probably “spirit prison,” in which persons are rewarded or punished after death while awaiting a final judgment. Catholicism sees a place called purgatory, in which persons deemed worthy of salvation suffer for a time prior to admittance to heaven. The Mormon spirit prison is also a place for individuals to be taught about Christ and eventually declare Him as savior.
The Mormon concept of hell might surprise persons who are critical of the church’s strict adherence to traditional concepts of morality. Hell, which is called “Perdition,” is reserved for persons who have received a full knowledge of the Gospel and willfully rejected it and worked to persecute those who follow Christ. (In the knowledge sense, it bears similarity to the whatchristianswanttoknow.com blog.)
Although with these subjects, lore sometimes mixes with doctrine, I have been taught that a virtual few will inhabit the Mormon hell of perdition. So we’re talking about the level of Cain, Judas, and maybe John C. Bennett, if I’m allowed a little Mormon levity. In any event, I don’t think the average Latter-day Saint who leaves the church and joins Ex-Mormons for Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, etc. is a candidate for Perdition, although perhaps more conservative members might disagree with me.
The progressive aspect of Mormonism is that it sends everyone, sans Judas, Cain, …, to a reward. There’s the Celestial Kingdom (heaven) and it has several levels. Then there’s the Terrestrial Kingdom, which has several levels, and the Telestial Kingdom, which has several levels. (This is likely a myth but I used to hear in church that Joseph Smith once said that the glory of the Telestial Kingdom was so great that a person would be tempted to commit suicide to inherit it.)
In any event, Mormonism is pretty close to universal salvation. I hope I don’t get my hand slapped for this, but even your garden variety mass murderer will inherit some level within the Telestial Kingdom, as I understand it.
The kingdom degrees of glory doctrine is tied to the Mormon belief in the family being eternal. One part of Mormons’ belief is that an individual can visit persons who exist in lower degrees of glory. Besides the old joke that the Mormon bishop who cheated on his taxes gets a visit from his Celestial Kingdom wife once a week, this doctrine comforts faithful Mormon parents who are discouraged over their children who reject their beliefs. This belief assures them, that if they remain faithful, they will still be able to be with their children, visiting them in the afterlife.