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I Have a Question: What is the meaning of the Book of Mormon passages on eternal hell for the wicked?

TitleI Have a Question: What is the meaning of the Book of Mormon passages on eternal hell for the wicked?
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1986
AuthorsPeterson, H. Donl
Issue Number4
Date PublishedApril 1986
KeywordsHell; Punishment; Spirit Prison

Points out that there are two hells identified in the Book of Mormon writings: one is the intermediate existence between death and the resurrection and the other is the never-ending state of the wicked.


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What is the meaning of the Book of Mormon scriptures on eternal hell for the wicked?

H. Donl Peterson, professor of Ancient Scripture, Brigham Young University. In the 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.)

Two Hells

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. …

“Therefore [their] final doom is to endure a never-ending torment.” (Mosiah 2:37, 39; see also 2 Pet. 3:7; Rev. 20:13–15; D&C 76:31–46.)

For the most part, it is this second hell, or “second death,” to which the Book of Mormon prophets refer when they speak of eternal hell and damnation. (See Jacob 3:11; Alma 12:16–18; Hel. 14:16–18.)

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.