What is the meaning of the Book of Mormon scriptures on eternal hell for the wicked?
In the , professor of Ancient Scripture, Brigham Young University.Book of Mormon, “hell” is the destination of the wicked following death. Among these are “the wise, and the learned, and the rich, that are puffed up in the pride of their hearts, and all those who preach false doctrines, and all those who commit whoredoms, and pervert the right way of the Lord.” (2 Ne. 28:15; see also 2 Ne. 9:34, 36; Luke 16:19–25.) Matthew indicates that hell awaits those who habitually turn away from their fellowmen in need. (See Matt. 25:40–46.)
Nephi calls hell “spiritual death” (2 Ne. 9:12), a place where the wicked are “cast off … as to the things which are spiritual, which are pertaining to righteousness. …
“Wherefore there must needs be a place of filthiness prepared for that which is filthy.” (1 Ne. 15:33–34.)
The prophet Alma explains that the wicked “shall be cast out into outer darkness; there shall be weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth, and this because of their own iniquity, being led captive by the will of the devil.” (Alma 40:13.)
On the other hand, “the spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness, which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care, and sorrow.” (Alma 40:12.)
These statements may seem to reflect the traditional Christian view of heaven and hell. (See Matt. 13:36–43.) But the Book of Mormon takes us a step farther. It describes these conditions as being, for most of mankind, temporary. Alma, for example, states: “Now this is the state of the souls of the wicked, yea, in darkness, and a state of awful, fearful looking for the fiery indignation of the wrath of God upon them; thus they remain in this state, as well as the righteous in paradise, until the time of their resurrection.” (Alma 40:14; italics added.)
The Bible alludes to that fact in a number of places. David is promised that his soul would not remain in hell (see Ps. 16:10; Acts 2:27, 31), and it was promised that others as well would be delivered from spirit prison (see Isa. 49:8–9; John 5:25). This, in fact, happened when Christ opened the doors of hell to missionary work among the dead. (See 1 Pet. 3:18–19; 1 Pet. 4:6; D&C 138:6–37.)
Those who hear and accept the message of salvation, whether in this life or in the spirit world, are raised “unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.” (John 5:29.)
At their resurrection, Nephi explains, all men “must appear before the judgment seat of the Holy One of Israel; and then … must they be judged according to the holy judgment of God.
“And assuredly, as the Lord liveth, for the Lord God hath spoken it, … that they who are righteous shall be righteous still, and they who are filthy shall be filthy still; wherefore, they who are filthy are the devil and his angels; and they shall go away into everlasting fire, prepared for them; and their torment is as a lake of fire and brimstone, whose flame ascendeth up forever and ever and has no end.” (2 Ne. 9:15–16; see also Rev. 22:11.)
In the Book of Mormon, therefore, as in the Bible, two distinct states are referred to as “hell.” One is the temporary condition of the wicked between death and the resurrection. The other is the never-ending state of the wicked for whom there is no mercy because they, “like unto the son of perdition” (3 Ne. 29:7; John 17:12), have rejected the mercy of Christ and would sell him “for silver and for gold, and for that which moth doth corrupt.” (3 Ne. 27:32.) These are they, called perdition and the sons of perdition, who come out “in open rebellion against God” and “listeth to obey the evil spirit, and becometh an enemy to all righteousness. …
Some readers of the scriptures wonder why the Lord often uses phrases like eternal damnation and endless torment to refer to the kind of punishment he administers.
The Lord explains that “every man must repent or suffer, for I, God, am endless. …
“Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment.
“Again, it is written eternal damnation; wherefore it is more express than other scriptures, that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men, altogether for my name’s glory.
“Wherefore, I will explain unto you this mystery, for it is meet unto you to know even as mine apostles. …
“For, behold, the mystery of godliness, how great is it! For, behold, I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name. Wherefore—
“Eternal punishment is God’s punishment.
“Endless punishment is God’s punishment.” (D&C 19:4–12.)
These verses go far to help clarify some statements in the Book of Mormon and the Bible which refer to the temporary hell as being endless.
The Spirit World
As Latter-day Saints, we are fortunate to have four books of scripture, as well as latter-day prophets, to help us understand doctrines that have confused Christianity for centuries. We understand, for example, that the spirits of all who die enter the spirit world to await their resurrection. But even though the righteous enter a state of happiness, rest, and peace, they feel confined. The large assemblage of spirits who awaited Christ’s visit to them shortly after his crucifixion were anxiously anticipating their “deliverance.” The Doctrine and Covenants explains that “the dead had looked upon the long absence of their spirits from their bodies as a bondage.” (See D&C 138:49–50.)
Thus, the peace that the righteous experience in the spirit world is not the ultimate state of happiness most of Christianity think of as heaven. It is only when the spirit and body are “inseparably connected” that mankind can “receive a fulness of joy. And when separated, man cannot receive a fulness of joy.” (See D&C 93:33–34.) In this context, all spirits between death and resurrection are in confinement.
Release for the righteous spirits comes at the beginning of the millennium. At this time, the heirs of the celestial kingdom will come forth from paradise and receive glorified, celestial bodies in the “morning” of the first resurrection, the resurrection of the just. (See 1 Cor. 15:20–42; D&C 88:97–98; D&C 76:17; Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1938, pp. 295–96.) Following the glorious resurrection of the celestial candidates, the heirs of the terrestrial glory will be resurrected. Their resurrection too, though later, is still considered a part of the first resurrection. (See D&C 76:71–80; 2 Ne. 9:26.) Elder Bruce R. McConkie stated that the terrestrial heirs will come forth in “the afternoon of the first resurrection” which takes place after the “Lord has ushered in the millennium.” (Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966, p. 640; see also D&C 88:99.)
The Temporary Hell
Among those at death who are assigned to hell are the heirs of the telestial kingdom and the sons of perdition. These spirits will remain in hell, or spirit prison, suffering “the wrath of Almighty God” until the millennial reign is over. (See D&C 76:106.) At that time, they will be resurrected in the last resurrection, the resurrection of the unjust. (See D&C 76:16–17, 81–85; John 5:28–29.)
Those who inherit the telestial kingdom constitute the filthy of the earth—the sorcerers, the adulterers, the whoremongers, “and whosoever loves and makes a lie.” (See D&C 76:103.) But through the mercies of God, even these people will be given a degree of glory. They will be “heirs of salvation,” capable of being instructed by the Holy Spirit and by ministering angels. (See D&C 76:88.)
Elder McConkie wrote that even most murderers will come out of hell, or the spirit prison, in the last resurrection to live in telestial glory:
“When the Lord paraphrases the language of Rev. 21:8 in latter-day revelation (D&C 63:17–18 and D&C 76:103–106) he omits murderers from the list of evil persons. Their inclusion here by John, however, coupled with the fact that only those who deny the truth after receiving a perfect knowledge of it shall become sons of perdition, is a clear indication that murderers shall eventually go to the telestial kingdom, unless of course there are some among those destined to be sons of perdition who are also murderers.” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965–73, 3:584.)
Hell, then, is a temporary quarter of the spirit world where the wicked are restrained in order for justice to be served and to give them a chance to repent. The Lord’s promise is that all who do repent will receive a kingdom of glory, according to his judgment of their works. Even those who merit no kingdom of glory will be resurrected, for Christ’s atonement broke the bands of death for all mankind. (See 1 Cor. 15:22; 2 Ne. 9:14–16.) Following the resurrection, then, that temporary quarter of the spirit world called hell will no longer be necessary. “After all men are resurrected,” wrote Elder McConkie, “the [post-earthly] spirit world will be without inhabitants.” (Mormon Doctrine, p. 762.)
The Hell That Has No End
The three degrees of glory provide eternal homes for the vast majority of God’s children who merited earth life. There is a fourth destination, however, for those “comparatively few” who cannot abide even a telestial glory. The Lord explains that the destiny of the sons of perdition is a kingdom without glory (see D&C 88:24), and “the end thereof, neither the place thereof, nor their torment, no man knows,” only those “ordained unto this condemnation” (see D&C 76:43–49). These are they who “cannot repent.” They “sin against the Holy Ghost” and “put Christ to open shame.” (See Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56, 1:47–49.)
“All who partake of this, the greatest of sins, sell themselves as did Cain to Lucifer. They learn to hate the truth with an eternal hatred, and they learn to love wickedness. They reach a condition where they cannot repent. The spirit of murder fills their hearts and they would, if they had the power, crucify our Lord again, which they virtually do by fighting his work and seeking to destroy it and his prophets. …
“Before a man can sink to this bitterness of soul, he must first know and understand the truth with a clearness of vision wherein there is no doubt. The Change of heart does not come all at once, but is due to transgression in some form, which continues to lurk in the soul without repentance, until the Holy Ghost withdraws, and then that man is left to spiritual darkness. Sin begets sin; the darkness grows until the love of truth turns to hatred, and the love of God is overcome by the wicked desire to destroy all that is just and true. In this way Christ is put to open shame, and blasphemy exalted.
“How fortunate it is that in the mercy of God there will be comparatively few who will partake of this awful misery and eternal darkness.” (Ibid, p. 49.)
Thus, hell has an end for all consigned to it except the sons of perdition. They alone remain in a hell which has no end.
Will you explain these Bible references in view of the Latter-day Saint doctrine that works are necessary for salvation: Ephesians 2:8–9; Titus 3:5; Romans 4:5?
To understand these three scriptures from Paul’s writings, we need to understand that what Paul referred to as “works” is different from what we mean by “works.” To Latter-day Saints, “works” refer basically to two things: , associate professor of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University and a stake patriarch.
1. Accepting and complying with the principles and ordinances of the gospel of Christ which admit us to membership in his church and qualify us as candidates for the kingdom of God.
2. Enduring to the end of our probationary period by striving to live the commandments that Christ has given us. When our lives fall short of this goal, we repent and again endeavor to keep his commandments. As we do so, going from “grace to grace,” receiving “grace for grace,” the Savior sanctifies us through the ministrations of the Holy Spirit. (See D&C 93:11–20; 2 Thes. 2:13–17; Titus 2:11–14.)
The scriptures are very explicit on the need for the ordinances of the gospel and for obedience to God’s commandments. The Lord himself said, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5.) And “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matt. 7:21.)
Those who quote such scriptures as the three mentioned in the question above usually do so to argue that faith alone is sufficient to save us. All we need do, they explain, is to confess verbally or mentally that we accept Christ as our Savior. Since Paul is the principal writer they use to support this idea, let’s look at some other statements Paul makes which teach that salvation depends on more than confession of faith. Consider the following statements by Paul.
On the nature of faith:
“Without faith it is impossible to please [God]: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Heb. 11:6.)
“Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,
“Why tarriest thou? [Ananias told Paul after Paul’s vision of the Savior on the road to Damascus] arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.” (Acts 22:16.)
To those Ephesians who had been baptized “unto John’s baptism” but had not been given the gift of the Holy Ghost, Paul said:
“John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.
“When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
On the need for righteous activity following faith in Christ:
“Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.
“For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.
“And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.” (Gal. 6:7–9.)
“[God] will render to every man according to his deeds:
“To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life:
“But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath.” (Rom. 2:6–8.)
When discussing a gospel concept, we must read all that is written about the subject and not just quote an isolated verse or concept. Isolating verses this way has led to the multiplicity of doctrine taught by the numerous Christian denominations in the world today.
The confusion in Paul’s writings about whether works are necessary for salvation stems from a widespread misunderstanding of his use of the word works. Throughout Paul’s ministry, he waged a constant fight against false doctrine. In the early years of his ministry, most members of the Church were Jews; hence, the false doctrine he had to contend with was largely Jewish. Predominant among these doctrines was the idea that, even though Christ had come, obedience to the “works” of the law of Moses was still necessary for salvation. These works involved the outward performances of the Law, such as circumcision and animal sacrifice.
A similar idea involved the Jewish notion that salvation depends on the treasure of good and bad works one lays up for himself during his life. If there were more good works than bad in your store, you were considered righteous; but if you had more bad works on the ledger than good, you were condemned. Furthermore, your good works could be supplemented by the surplus of good works performed by the patriarchs in their lives; this “credit” of works could then be transferred to you in order to tip the balance in your favor. “It was taught that the whole transaction was a matter of contract, God owing a debt to man for goodness.” (Dictionary of the Bible, ed. James Hastings, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944, p. 693.)
The controversy stemming from these false notions about works and the law of Moses raged for years, even though it had been officially settled by a council of the Apostles in Jerusalem in A.D. 50. The great challenge Paul had was to convince the Jewish converts that they were not saved by the dead works of the law of Moses, nor that salvation was payment owed them by God because of their good works. Salvation, he taught, was a gift made possible only through the atonement of Jesus Christ.
Later in his ministry, as more and more Gentiles joined the Church, Paul also had to contend with pagan—mostly Greek—philosophies and religious ideas. As the Cambridge Bible dictionary points out, the Greeks were “gifted by race with a keen sense of the joys of physical existence, with a passion for freedom and a genius for rhetoric and logic, but reared in the midst of the grossest moral corruption, undisciplined and self-conceited.” (LDS edition of the King James Bible, p. 744.) In New Testament times, most of the world was steeped in Greek culture and practices.
Although gentile converts became deeply conscious of their sins when exposed to the gospel, Greek philosophy often led them into errors similar to the ones the Jewish converts struggled with. One error was the belief that one could “attain moral perfection by mechanical means, the careful observance of external ordinances and ascetic restrictions, coupled with special devotion to a host of angelic mediators.” (Ibid., p. 746.)
It is in this context that Paul wrote his letters. They were written to solve local Church problems and were not intended to present a detailed picture of the plan of salvation. His letters were sent to members of the Church, Saints of God who had already been introduced to the gospel and the doctrines of salvation, many of whom were struggling with false doctrines and traditions. In countering those doctrines which centered on the outward works of the law of Moses or on the belief that a man can save himself through his own works, Paul used the doctrine of faith in Christ as a focal point in his explanations.
1. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:
“Not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Eph. 2:8–9.)
This verse was written to the Saints at Ephesus, which was heavily under the influence of Greek culture. There was also a Jewish element there which emphasized the necessity of keeping the law of Moses. We have previously explained some of the problems Greek culture and Jewish teachings presented for the Church, among them the tendency to glory in one’s abilities and to trust in the law of Moses for salvation. These verses were apparently written to counter the idea that we can save ourselves by our works independent of Christ. As Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote: “No man has power to save himself anymore than he has power to resurrect himself. …
“No matter how righteous a man might be, no matter how great and extensive his good works, he could not save himself. Salvation is in Christ and comes through his atonement. God through Christ reconciles man to himself. But building on the atonement man must perform the works of righteousness to merit salvation, as verse 10 [Eph. 2:10] and the whole passage testify.” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965–73, 2:500.)
2. “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.” (Titus 3:5.)
Rather than supporting the idea of salvation by faith alone, this scripture actually stresses the necessity for the ordinances of the gospel. To Titus, a former missionary companion, Paul mentions again the fact that it is Christ who saves us, not our works. Then he describes how Christ’s mercy is made operable in our behalf—through “the washing of regeneration” and by the “renewing of the Holy Ghost.” The Reverend J. R. Dummelow’s commentary refers to the former as baptism and says that “the baptism to be efficient must be both by water and by the Spirit. It is not a mere outward act.” (A Commentary on the Holy Bible, New York: Macmillan Co., 1936, p. 1008.) That’s familiar doctrine to Latter-day Saints.
3. “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” (Rom. 4:5.)
This verse is part of a long letter Paul wrote to the members of the Church in Rome, a city that was truly a melting pot of nations and beliefs. To the members there, mostly Gentiles but also a Jewish minority, both familiar with Jewish law and history (see Dummelow, A Commentary, pp. 855–56), Paul explains that God’s love and justice are extended to all men, Jew and Gentile alike, and that it is not the law of Moses that saves us, but our faith in Christ, which moves us to righteous works. (Ibid., pp. 858–60.) As an example, he refers to Abraham, who found favor with God by his faith, not by his observance of any outward ordinance.
“For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God.
“For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.
“Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt.
“But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.
“Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works,
“Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.” (Rom. 4:2–7.)
Verse 4 probably refers to the old Jewish belief that a person’s storehouse of good works exacts payment from God in the form of salvation as if God owed the man a debt. If that were so, Paul says in verse 2, Abraham would have something to boast about. But the truth is, “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23; italics added.) We are all “ungodly,” therefore, and must rely on the mercy of God to justify us, to be forgiven of our iniquities. As we have already discussed, this great gift comes to us as we exercise faith in Christ, repent of our sins, submit to the ordinances of the gospel, and thereafter endure to the end in living a Christlike life.
Those who teach that faith or confession is sufficient for salvation usually teach that those who die without hearing of Christ and having an opportunity to confess faith in his name are consigned to an eternal hell. Justice and the whisperings of the Spirit manifest that such doctrine cannot be true or God could not be a God of mercy and love. Likewise, the whisperings of the Spirit manifest that mere confession without the fruits of righteous living cannot save a person, or God could not be a God of justice.
The Book of Mormon teaches the doctrine clearly:
“Unless a man shall endure to the end, in following the example of the Son of the living God, he cannot be saved.
“Wherefore, do the things which I have told you I have seen that your Lord and your Redeemer should do; for, for this cause have they been shown unto me, that ye might know the gate by which ye should enter. For the gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost.
“And then are ye in this strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life. …
“And now, my beloved brethren, after ye have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say unto you, Nay. …
“Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ. … Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.” (2 Ne. 31:16–20.)
“For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” (2 Ne. 25:23.)
I’ve noticed that the Topical Guide in the new LDS edition of the Bible is different from the concordance we used in our old Bible editions. How do I use this study aid?
The Topical Guide in the LDS edition of the King James , associate professor of religion, Brigham Young University.Bible incorporates the strengths of a concordance, an index, and a topical guide. Because of space restrictions, it wasn’t possible or desirable to include these three study aids separately.
The original Topical Guide, which was published as a separate book before being added to the scriptures, had 640 categories. For the new edition of the Bible, these topics were refined and improved and others were added, making a total of approximately 750. To these were added other items, for a combined total of 3,495 entries (citing about 50,000 verses), which were somewhat more “concordance” in nature. With these modifications, the new Topical Guide is more comprehensive than the old Cambridge concordance used in the Church for many years, plus it has the additional feature of having “topical” characteristics.
Nevertheless, topical references still had to be limited because of the lack of space. Hard decisions had to be made as to what must be left out. This influenced the tendency for some categories to be organized in more generalized ways. Fortunately, few categories present problems. Most are very well defined.
As you use the Topical Guide, consider these guidelines:
1. The Topical Guide is not intended to be comprehensive on any topic. (See its introductory note.)
2. It does not serve as a precise elaboration of any subject.
3. It is an aid to scripture searching, not a short-cut to scripture study.
4. You must examine each scripture in its context. What comes immediately before and after often reflects a specific meaning.
5. Both positive and negative instances are sometimes listed under a topic heading. It may list references that tell what something is, as well as what it is not. For example, Alma 40:12 says righteousness brings happiness, and Alma 41:10 says “wickedness never was happiness.” Both the positive and the negative are listed under the category “Happiness.”
6. References are listed in conjunction with their first occurrence, in this order: Old Testament, New Testament, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price. For example, although the scripture “the just shall live by faith” is found in Romans 1:17 [Rom. 1:17], it is listed in the Topical Guide under Habakkuk 2:4 [Hab. 2:4], because that is the first occurrence of the scripture. The Romans reference is listed in parentheses after the Habakkuk reference. Therefore, if you don’t find a scripture listed where you expected it to be, look back through the earlier references to see if by chance there is an earlier occurrence.
7. Check possible cross-referenced topics—those listed immediately after the topic title—to see if there is a chance that the scripture you are looking for is listed under another topic or if the wording is not exactly as you remembered it.
Since the Topical Guide is not a comprehensive concordance, you might consider adding full concordances to your library, such as Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1890), which includes English-Hebrew and English-Greek dictionaries in the back, and R. Gary Shapiro’s An Exhaustive Concordance of the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price (Salt Lake City: Hawkes Publishing, 1977).
The Topical Guide found in the LDS edition of the King James Bible is a superb aid to the study of the sacred scriptures. There is no better illustration of its significant contributions than in the fifty-three topics on the life and mission of the Savior. Surely this is a powerful witness that his “word also shall be gathered in one” (2 Ne. 29:14), and a reminder that “all things bear record” of Jesus Christ (Moses 6:63).