Tuesday, March 16, 2010

What happens to us when we die? Part VI: What is hell?

VI. Hell

Q: How do the traditional Christian concepts of Heaven and Hell fit into this? Is "Heaven" the terrestrial or the celestial kingdom? Or neither?

A: There are actually three kinds of hell referred to in the scriptures.

1) The state of the wicked in the spirit world (or spirit prison) is referred to as hell (see 2 Nephi 9:12; D&C 76: 84,106). This is where those who have not repented will suffer the consequences of their sins as they await judgment.

2) If we fail to obtain celestial glory, we will be shut out of God’s presence, and this is the hell to which most of the sinners of this world will be consigned upon resurrection and judgment. This sense of hell is used to refer to spiritual death (specifically the second death), or separation from God, as Brigham Young explains. “Any person knowing and understanding the Scriptures as they are, and understanding the mind and will of God, can understand at once that when he is shut out from the presence of the Lord, when He does not hear His voice, sees not His face, receives not the ministering of His angels or ministering spirits, and has no messenger from the heavens to visit him, he must surely be in hell.” In my opinion this certainly constitutes hell. Under this definition, even the terrestrial kingdom would be a hell, because God does not dwell there, and we cannot progress once there (making us damned in the literal sense of the term). The telestial kingdom is probably the closest of the three kingdoms to the traditional Christian concept of hell, except for the fact that Satan doesn’t reside there. This sense of the term hell would be the most relevant to you and me, for reasons that I will explain momentarily.

3) Hell is also used to refer to outer darkness. Outer darkness is where Satan and his angels are. They never received bodies, so they cannot be resurrected to any degree of glory. The only way to go here is to commit the unpardonable sin (see Alma 39:6, Matthew 12:31, Mark 3:29, Luke 12:10), and become a son of perdition. What is the unpardonable sin? The Prophet Joseph Smith explains:

“All sins shall be forgiven, except the sin against the Holy Ghost; for Jesus will save all except the sons of perdition. What must a man do to commit the unpardonable sin? He must receive the Holy Ghost, have the heavens opened unto him, and know God, and then sin against him. After a man has sinned against the Holy Ghost, there is no repentance for him. He has got to say that the sun does not shine while he sees it; he has got to deny Jesus Christ when the heavens have been opened unto him, and to deny the plan of salvation with his eyes open to the truth of it; and from that time he begins to be an enemy [to God- (see Mosiah 2:36-39 and Mosiah 16:5)]. This is the case with many apostates of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 6:314).

What then is a son of perdition? The entry under hell on the official church website contains a good explanation of what a son of perdition is, and why someone would go to outer darkness:

“Those who are not redeemed by the Atonement are in outer darkness, which is the dwelling place of the devil, his angels, and the sons of perdition (see D&C 29:36–38; 76:28–33). Sons of perdition are those who receive "no forgiveness in this world nor in the world to come—having denied the Holy Spirit after having received it, and having denied the Only Begotten Son of the Father, having crucified him unto themselves and put him to an open shame" (D&C 76:34-35; see also D&C 76:31–33, 36–37). Such individuals will not inherit a place in any kingdom of glory; for them the conditions of hell remain (see D&C 76:38; 88:24, 32).”

Let me reassure you that you and I will probably never be in any danger of committing the unpardonable sin, because it requires that you have a sure and undeniable knowledge of God and Christ (as opposed to mere faith, which most of us will always have to rely upon in this life), and that you subsequently turn against God and His Son even in the face of that perfect knowledge. As far as I know there are only a handful of these sons of perdition. Cain is one of them, and so is Judas Iscariot (the apostle that betrayed Jesus, see John 17:12). Most of the rest of us don’t have to worry.

The short answer to your questions is that while none of these places will have demons and pitchforks in the traditional sense, and some of the places that I have mentioned will be better than this place (pretty much any degree of resurrected glory is more glorious than this life), the only place that is really worth trying to get to is the celestial kingdom. Anything else represents damnation in my book, because God dwells in the celestial kingdom, and only there can we continue in our progress toward our eternal potential. So I think it's clear that the Celestial kingdom qualifies as "heaven" even by so-called "traditional" standards.

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