What Do Mormons Believe About Hell?

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate 

Q. What do Mormons believe about hell, and who is going there?


Short answer: Mormons believe in hell, but our conception of hell is different than the one that generally springs to mind, and we use the word to mean different things in different contexts.  For us, there are two “hells”, really.  One is a state of pain, guilt, and anguish where the spirits of the wicked will be after they die but before the final judgment (we often call this state spirit prison).  The other is an everlasting state of hell reserved for a few truly wicked (we commonly refer to this one as outer darkness).  Because the second state only applies to few, for the majority of people hell will not last forever: after the final judgment most people will receive some degree of glory.

Long answer: I wrote this post because I’ve found that people assume we believe in the traditional hellfire and damnation, and that causes a lot of misunderstanding. For instance, we claim to be the only religion with the “fullness of the gospel,” and that you have to be baptized by someone authorized by God (only in the LDS church) in order to be saved. People hear that and assume that we therefore believe that everyone else is “going to hell” in the sense that most modern Christians would use the phrase. That isn’t our belief, however.

What is hell? The word hell in the Bible is the English translation of the Greek word hades or the Hebrew word sheol. It originally referred to a temporary dwelling of spirits of all dead people, both righteous and wicked, and not solely as a place of punishment.  The word hell didn’t evolve the sense of being a place of everlasting punishment until later (see reference 1, or click the word hades above for further reading).

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place of suffering, however. We believe that when we die, our spirits go to a place that we call the Spirit World to await the resurrection and judgment. Furthermore, the Spirit World is divided into two general states: paradise and prison, depending on how you have lived your life (see Megan’s two-part summary of the afterlife). In the Spirit World, everyone gets an equal chance (if they didn’t have it on earth) to hear and accept the gospel. Unrepentant people will still suffer, and we still refer to their suffering as “hell.”


What is hell like? The torment of the wicked isn’t described in much detail in the Bible, but King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon taught that the knowledge of our guilt would be our torment:

Therefore if that man repenteth not, and remaineth and dieth an enemy to God, the demands of divine justice do awaken his immortal soul to a lively sense of his own guilt, which doth cause him to shrink from the presence of the Lord, and doth fill his breast with guilt, and pain, and anguish, which is like an unquenchable fire, whose flame ascendeth up forever and ever. (Mosiah 2:38)

Alma (also in the Book of Mormon) wrote that we will not be able to look up to God, “and we would fain be glad if we could command the rocks and the mountains to fall upon us to hide us from his presence” (Alma 12:14)

It’s important to know that this suffering, while agonizing, will not last forever. Of those who would eventually inherit the lowest degree of glory, Joseph Smith taught:

These are they who are liars, and sorcerers, and adulterers, and whoremongers, and whosoever loves and makes a lie. . .These are they who are cast down to hell and suffer the wrath of Almighty God, until the fullness of times, when Christ shall have subdued all enemies under his feet, and shall have perfected his work; (D&C 76:103, 106)


What about the sons of perdition? We believe that one day “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess” that Jesus is the Christ. With a few exceptions  everyone will be redeemed. Death and Hell will deliver up their captive spirits (2 Ne 9:12, Rev 20:13), all men will be resurrected and be brought forth to be judged and receive a degree of glory. The few exceptions I mentioned are called “sons of perdition.”

Sons of perdition are the truly evil. They are those that want no part in salvation. They deny the truth and defy God’s power, and crucify the Savior unto themselves, and put him to an open shame. They are the only ones who shall not be redeemed in the due time of the Lord (D&C 76:31-38). They do not inherit a glory at all, but rather dwell with the devil and his angels forever. Their state is sometimes referred to as “hell” also, or “outer darkness,” though both of those words also refer to the temporary state. It’s hard to be a son of perdition. Really hard. Cain and Judas hard. For all intents and purposes, it’s not even an option for the majority of humanity.

If everyone will just be saved, why does anyone’s conversion even matter? I thought you’d never ask! It matters for two reasons: 1) The wicked will still suffer. A lot. Enough that no amount of raucous fun you could have on earth would ever possibly be worth it. And 2) There are very different degrees of glory that you will inherit forever, based on how much you were “willing to receive.” But that’s a topic for a different day.

(1) See Frederic W. Farrar, Eternal Hope (1892), xxxvi-xlii

Baptisms for the Dead

Q. What happens to people who die without being taught/accepting baptism in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

Heavenly Father has prepared another chance for them to hear the gospel and choose to accept or reject it.

The official Church website explains:  “Jesus Christ taught that baptism is essential to the salvation of all who have lived on earth (see John 3:5)  Many people, however, have died without being baptized.  Others were baptized without proper authority.  Because God is merciful, He has prepared a way for all people to receive the blessings of baptism.  By performing proxy baptisms in behalf of those who have died, Church members offer these blessings to deceased ancestors.  Individuals can then choose to accept or reject what has been done in their behalf.”

Baptism is the first ordinance of the gospel.  It is so important that even Jesus Christ asked to be baptized in order to fulfill all righteousness.  Because Heavenly Father desires for us all to return to Him, He has made it possible for the dead to have the same opportunities as the living through the temple ordinances.

Some have the misconception that this temple work forces the deceased persons into covenants against their will.  This is entirely false.  All spirits maintain their free will after death and can opt to accept or refuse the ordinance of baptism.  When a living person is baptized and receives the Gift of the Holy Ghost in behalf of a deceased person, it is only to give the deceased person the opportunity – the option of redemption.

LDS.org also reveals:  “Many in the spirit world embrace the gospel. However, they cannot receive priesthood ordinances for themselves because they do not have physical bodies. In holy temples, we have the privilege of receiving ordinances in their behalf. These ordinances include baptism, confirmation, Melchizedek Priesthood ordination (for men), the endowment, the marriage sealing, and the sealing of children to parents. The Lord revealed this work to the Prophet Joseph Smith, restoring a practice that had been revealed to Christians shortly after the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (see 1 Corinthians 15:29).

Part of the mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is to Redeem the Dead.  Because of this, we participate in genealogy/family history work to find our ancestors who were not able to hear and accept the gospel while on earth.  Many in my family are involved in this work because of our desire to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the children to their fathers as mentioned at the very end of the old testament.

I love going to the temple.  There is such a special feeling that accompanies me when I’m in the House of the Lord.  Doing the physical ordinances for my ancestors who have passed on is an amazing experience because I know that many of them have been waiting for hundreds of years to finally have their baptism performed.  Being a part of their spiritual progression is remarkable.  I know that God is merciful and mindful of each of us because He gives everyone a fair chance at accepting or rejecting the message of the gospel.

What Happens at Funerals?

Q. What happens at LDS funerals?

casketI imagine that the flavor of the funeral might change in different cultures so I will zero in on American and more specifically-Utah Mormon funerals. Following is an overview of the typical funeral (keeping in mind, of course, that each one is different because every family is different). When a person dies the Bishop will be called, he will help the family make arrangements and offer the services of the ward (the local congregation). The family will contact the local funeral home and make arrangements for a viewing, the funeral, and the interment. The Bishop (leader of the ward) and Relief Society President (leader of the women of the ward) will stay in contact with the family throughout the week finalizing plans and offering help or suggestions.

Three to six days after the death the funeral will be scheduled to fit into the schedule of the funeral home and the traveling restraints of the family. They often aim for a weekend. The church building is offered, free of charge, but other arrangements can be made depending on the connection the person might have in the area and the size of the family. The first thing scheduled is the viewing, which will usually be held at the funeral home for a couple of hours the evening before the funeral. The next morning the body will be transported by the funeral home directors to the church where another one to two hour viewing will be made available for friends and neighbors who wish to pay their respects and offer comfort to the family. The viewing is held in a larger room in the church building but not the chapel.

About 15 minutes before the funeral starts the family will gather in the room with the casket. A member of the family will offer a family prayer, and the directors will close the casket after the family has had their final chance to say their goodbyes. The funeral will be held in the chapel. When the family is ready to enter the chapel, the person conducting the funeral (generally the Bishop) asks everyone to rise while the closed casket is wheeled in and positioned in the front of the chapel with the family following and taking their seats in the front and center pews. The chapel is decorated with the flowers people have sent to the family.

The program of the funeral will have been worked out by the family with the aid of the Bishop. There are a few suggestions: 1. The funeral is opened and closed with prayer. 2. The goal is to have the service completed in about an hour. 3. The music should follow the guidelines outlined for other church meetings, no drums or horns, respectful and with a spiritual theme. The talks celebrate the life of the deceased- they might be given by the children or other family members or close friends. One talk is designated as the spiritual message and is often given by a church leader or other active member who knows the deceased but is also comfortable with the doctrine of the church. This talk will include a message of hope about the plan of salvation and the promise of the resurrection. It is somewhat doctrinal in nature.

Following the service the audience will be asked to stand again while the pall bearers move the casket out of the chapel to the hearse, followed by the family. Family and close friends go to the cemetery for the burial. When everyone is gathered and the casket is placed on the straps above the grave, a priesthood holder offers a prayer that dedicates the grave as a safe resting place for the deceased until the resurrection. Some families choose to release balloons or have another musical number before they disperse. If the deceased has served in the military a 21 gun salute can be given at this point.

While all this has been going on the Relief Society of the ward has been busy setting up a luncheon for the family. Some aspects of it have become pretty uniform: Ham or chicken, green salad, rolls, “funeral” potatoes, and cake for dessert.

The separation caused by death is difficult for those left behind and the funeral is a rite designed to give comfort and assurance to the family and friends. The LDS funeral is a fairly simple affair due to the belief that the spirit of the person no longer inhabits the body. It is a time of reflection on the life and relationships of the departed as well as a time to consider the grand plan of happiness that God has offered to all of his children. It encourages the individuals of the congregation to reflect on their own progress as well as their relationship with the departed and their relationship with their Lord.

Shalt thou kill?

Q. I was reading 1 Ne 4:13 last night and have a question. “Killing in the name of religion” is a popular topic amongst religious naysayers. This verse talks about how God only commands killing with the “kill one, save a thousand” mentality. Did God only command this in Bible & Book of Mormon days, or does he still do it now? If not, why? Why not for 9/11? My question is… what’s the answer to someone who fires in at me with, “Thou shalt not kill!? Such hypocrisy! More killing has been done in the name of religion than anywhere else.” – Molly M.

This is a good question. Molly, thank you for bringing it up. I’ll quote the verse you mentioned:

13 Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.

nephi_labanIn this chapter the Lord commands Nephi to slay Laban to obtain the brass plates (basically the Old Testament up to that point in time — approx. 600 B.C.), so Nephi’s descendants would have the Law of Moses. But why kill Laban? He was passed out in the gutter; Nephi might have taken his clothes and his sword and left the drunk tyrant naked in the street. The short answer is ‘because God commanded it.’ I’ll get to a plausible long answer in a moment.

God’s view is much different than ours. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8-9). Jesus Christ can see into eternity. He knows each of us by name, by face, and by who we are and what we will become. Any time He issues a command, it is with infinite foresight (see D&C 29:34), and with the intent to help and protect His sons and daughters (see Moses 1:39). On rare occasions this might mean dispatching one of His children for the greater good of many. We must remember that to Him, death is not the end of anyone. Laban lives on as a spirit, and perhaps this is for his ultimate betterment.

Has God ever issued such a command in modern times? Not to my knowledge, and it would surprise me if He did. John Welch writes in Legal Perspectives on the Slaying of Laban that Nephi was justified under Jewish law (as set forth in the Torah) to take Laban’s life. The Spirit’s persistent whisper of “the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands” is a nearly verbatim quote from Exodus 21:13, which outlines an exception to “Thou shalt not kill” in the previous chapter. Since we are now subject to different laws, and God has encouraged us to abide by the laws of man (see Articles of Faith 12), it is unlikely He will command it. (But I can never rule it out).

But doesn’t that possibility open the floodgates for villains to falsely claim divinely inspired violent crimes? Yes. Unfortunately, Satan and his followers have the uncanny ability to twist true, godly practices toward their own ends. We can avoid being deceived by receiving the Holy Ghost and praying for the gift of discernment. This is yet another important reason to be baptized by the water and the Spirit.

So what do we say to the charge that religion causes widespread death and dying? Yes. Religion has done some of that, but not all religions are owned and operated by God (see above paragraph). It is just as careless to say that all foods cause obesity or the internet is basically pornographic. Just because many religions have bloodied their hands, does not imply that God’s are stained. The instances in which God has legitimately called for mortals to put someone to death are few and far between. They get written up in scripture mainly because of their highly exceptional status. “Thou shalt not kill” remains the rule in full force for Jews, and Christians alike.

But religion is not even nearly the biggest culprit when it comes to rampant killing. “More killing has been done in the name of religion than anything else” is one of the most absurd claims ever made. Sure, it’s easy to see, particularly in light of the conflict in the middle east, that leaders sometimes use religion as a way to inspire people to mindlessly kill others (maybe with promises of a glorious afterlife). But leaders act for political reasons, and they will use anything to inspire the masses to war. Sometimes it’s religion (crusades, jihads), but more often it’s nationalism or race or political ideology with the exact same result.


You don’t even need to look outside of the 20th century to see that the most brutal killing has nothing to do with religion. There are three leaders that are far and away responsible for the most deaths in human history. They are (in order) Mao Tse Tung, Joseph Stalin, and Adolf Hitler. All three were atheists who promoted atheist regimes, and who are responsible for about 100 million deaths among the three of them. After them come Pol Pot in Cambodia, Kim Il Sung in North Korea, Menghistu in Ethiopia, and Kambanda in Rwanda. The claim that “more killing has been done in the name of religion than anything else” is patently false. If anything, it’s just the opposite.

Now, for the long answer. (Yeah, turns out my short answer got pretty long).

God is not the only one to employ the “kill one, save a thousand” mentality. That doctrine is used by almost every head of state. This is the basis for life sentences and capital punishment, as well as sending soldiers to war to protect the freedom of civilians at home. Making such decisions is difficult for leaders, especially those who govern responsibly. This concept becomes even more important in light of Nephi’s intended audience. First Nephi, along with the next five books of the Book of Mormon come to us unabridged, and (in contrast to Mormon’s writings, which were for our benefit) were likely also written for the Nephite people.

Nephi was their first king, and a revered one at that. He wrote the book of First Nephi as a narrative of his rise to the throne. Val Larsen, a contributor to FARMS, wrote an amazing paper detailing this take on the scripture called, Killing Laban: The Birth of Sovereignty in the Nephite Constitutional Order. It is worth reading. Before discovering it (in researching this question), I naïvely thought I understood the Book of Mormon pretty well, but this is a testament to me that there is always more to learn.

Life After Death – Part 1

mary_and_resurrected_lordjpgFirst of all, I hope everyone had a happy Easter!

Recently, there have been a number of articles posted here referring to our eternal nature and I think it’s time we discussed this. So, what do Mormons believe about the afterlife?

We believe, as do other Christians, that Christ died and three days later was resurrected. He overcame death and because He rose again, all mankind is freed from the bondage of death. Regardless of age, race, gender, religious beliefs, good actions or bad actions, everyone will be reunited with their bodies at the time of the resurrection, after Christ’s second coming.

But what happens in the meanwhile? Before becoming resurrected beings our spirits dwell in the spirit world. Those who accepted the gospel of Christ during their mortal lives will be in spirit paradise and those who did not, either due to ignorance or rejection, will be in spirit prison. There will be opportunities for those in spirit prison to accept the gospel of Christ as missionary work continues in the spirit world. It is here, in the spirit world, that Christ spent those three days while His body lay in the tomb (see Doctrine & Covenants 138:29-34).

Dale C. Mouritsen explained, “Peter refers to the spirit world as “prison,” and it is for some. (1 Pet. 3:18–20, 1 Pet. 4:6.) However, it is chiefly a place of learning and waiting, not a place of suffering. Here, those who did not have an opportunity in mortality to receive the gospel and those who had a partial opportunity but rejected it will be taught.” However, for those in spirit paradise, the spirit world will be a place of great activity as they will be the ones on whom the responsibility falls to spread the gospel message. There is much work to be done there!

For further reading, I recommend the following excellent articles:

“Because I live, ye shall live also”, President Ezra Taft Benson, Ensign Apr. 1993, 2

“Salvation for the Dead”, Liahona Jun 1992, 25

“The Spirit World, Our Next Home”, Dale C. Mouritsen, Liahona Dec. 1977, 3

“The Plan of Salvation”

<<Life After Death – Part 2>>