Tabletalk #3: On Mormonism’s Hellish Heavens and Heavenly Hells

Direct link to MP3

My Skype recording application, Pamela, kept acting weird so this talk is three smaller files stitched together.

Some questions I have for Mormons:

  • If Joseph Smith and Mormonism already believe that the only explicit post-resurrection hell, outer darknesss, is never-ending, and if the only main New Testament terms that correlate with a post-resurrection hell are Gehenna and lake of fire (and those, not Hades, are described as eternal/everlasting and “forever and ever”), then why did Smith attempt in D&C 19 to redefine the language used in the phrase “eternal damnation”, etc.? Hades, the term for the preparatory holding place of hell, is never described as eternal or everlasting or “forever and ever”, so there was no need for Smith to reorient the plain language. It seems Smith’s teaching was partly based on an ignorance of what particular hell the New Testament spoke of as eternal.
  • If I heard him correctly, Ralph spoke of the bottom two heavenly kingdoms as where one experiences the “second death”, where one suffers eternal punishment, spiritual torment, and the wrath and fury of God. If that’s the case, then why even speak of these places in “heavenly” terms? That people in such hellish heavenly kingdoms are happier than those in outer darkness does not sufficiently address the incoherence.
  • If, of those who come to earth to experience mortality, only a few dozen people—those who commit the unpardonable sin—will actually go to Gehenna (the only explicit post-resurrection hell; “outer darkness” in Mormonism), why does Jesus so widely warn about the threat of Gehenna for those who do not fight lust and anger, and for those who lead children astray (i.e. Matthew 5:22,29-30)? Why does he so widely warn people to “fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna” (Matthew 10:28). Why does he denounce the general groups of the scribes and Pharisees, “How will you escape being condemned to Gehenna?” (Matthew 23:33) Modern Mormonism, contra Jesus, seems to teach that nearly all Pharisees and the scribes will end up in a heavenly kingdom, not Gehenna.
  • Some modern Mormons believe that the Celestial kingdom has three partitions, only the top of which, “Church of the Firstborn”, entails the fullness of progression and exaltation. The bottom two Celestial kingdom-partitions seem to entail a cessation of progression and a lack of participation in enjoyments that the more privileged Celestial partition has. If this is the case, and if “damnation” is correctly defined by Mormons as the cessation of progression, then how are the bottom two partitions of the top Celestial Kingdom not a form of damnation? Again, isn’t it odd to speak of people in heaven being damned forever, especially when those people are in the highest of the three general heavenly kingdoms?

Addendum 1

Ralph argues that D&C 19 is intended to reinforce and undergird the everlasting duration of hell, but I disagree. On an experiential note, I have simply never heard this kind of Mormon approach to D&C 19. In all my years of interacting with Mormons it has always been used to argue for the temporality of pre-resurrection spirit prison hell.

Notice how George Q. Cannon speaks in Journal of Discourses, v. 24, p. 374, alluding to D&C 19:

“Joseph Smith taught a different doctrine even before the Church was organized. He taught the doctrine, in a revelation given to Martin Harris—it had to be given with great care, because it was entirely different to what was generally believed—that ‘eternal punishment is God’s punishment;’ but it does not follow that those who come under God’s punishment are to be punished throughout the endless ages of eternity. He taught that grand truth in the year 1829. Then it was followed up by the Vision, which explained in the most wonderful manner the goodness of our God, and showed Him to be the being that He is described to be by all the holy Prophets—a being just and merciful, a being who labored to save His children, and had their salvation at heart continually.”

He also alludes to the language of D&C 19 in Journal of Discourses, v. 22, p. 182:

Persecutors generally believe that those whom they persecute are doomed to spend the endless ages of eternity in hell fire, unless they can be made to repent of their errors. Persecution becomes, therefore, with them, in many instances, a highly justifiable and meritorious method of saving souls. This has been the feeling which has impelled many persecutors in every age—a holy, burning zeal to snatch souls from perdition. The men who have been most zealous in hailing men to prison and inflicting torment, have been as a rule, men zealous and sincere in their religion. They thought it better to destroy the body than that the soul should be consigned to hell; they thought it better for heretics to burn an hour or too on earth than that they should burn eternally. But the Latter-day Saints have no such views respecting future punishment? We believe there is an endless hell. We do not, however, believe that human beings are consigned to it eternally. The hell may be endless and the punishment endless, but it does not follow that they who are consigned there are to remain in it eternally. We believe men will be rewarded for the deeds done in the body, and we therefore can afford to be liberal in our views in this respect.

Consider how Joseph Fielding Smith’s interacts with the text:

“Eternal punishment, or endless punishment, does not mean that those who partake of it must endure it forever. ‘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. . . . 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 19:6–12.]

“The laws of God are immutable, and from this explanation we learn that the same punishment always follows the same offense, according to the laws of God who is eternal and endless, hence it is called, endless punishment, and eternal punishment, because it is the punishment which God has fixed according to unchangeable law. A man may partake of endless torment, and when he has paid the penalty for his transgression, he is released, but the punishment remains and awaits the next culprit, and so on forever” (Doctrines of Salvation, 2:228).

Of all the LDS resources I have poured over (which is a lot; I only list a few), I have not found one example of a Mormon leader interpreting D&C 19 like you have, that it somehow is reinforcing the eternal duration of post-resurrection hell (outer darkness) instead of implicitly ascribing temporality to the pre-resurrection hell of spirit prison. I have even found examples of Mormons using D&C 19 to imply that outer darkness may not be truly everlasting (cf. Brigham Young’s belief that the spirits of men were recycled in outer darkness), but have found none that use the passage to reinforce the everlasting length of one’s time in outer darkness. Again, the majority of sources I have found use it to argue instead for the temporality of the pre-resurrection spirit prison hell.

All that said, I still think you need to explain the part in 19:6 which states, “it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment”. What was the point, the meaning, in writing that?

I sympathize with your desire to take the terms “everlasting” and “eternal” and “endless” at face-value, but that is not what Mormonism has traditionally done in this case. In interacting with Mormons who take the traditional position (that “eternal punishment” refers to a temporary punishment meted out by an eternal God), I wrote elsewhere recently:

It’s hard for me to take a religion seriously when they move the modifying direction of adjectives around like a magician with a ball and three stackable cups. “Eternal life” describes, directly, life. “Eternal punishment” describes, directly, punishment. Mormons (and anyone else) should tremble when garbling God’s grammar.

Take care,


Addendum 2

GB asks, “Could you provide Biblical support for the assumption that Gehenna is a post-resurrection hell? And also that it is ‘the only main’one ‘described as eternal/everlasting and “forever and ever”.

Thanks for asking the fair question.

When the Bible uses the terms Hades or Tartaros, it never describes them with phrases translated as “eternal”, “everlasting”, “endless”, or “day and night forever and ever”, etc. Revelation 20:13-15 teaches that, after the resurrection, those negatively judged out of Hades are thrown along with Hades and Death into the lake of fire, which was described earlier in verse 10 as where people are tormented “day and night forever and ever”. Fire and burning sulfur are the content of the metaphor of Gehenna used (derived from the Valley of Hinnom; read more on the background of that here).

Also, intertestamental Jews considered Gehenna (not Sheol or Hades) as the place of final punishment for the wicked. The first century, Palestinian (somewhat Hellenized) Jewish context of the New Testament is the backdrop and context for the language and cultural categories Jesus appeals to to teach theology.

All that said, I think one is textually and historically driven to make a clear distinction between Hades and Gehenna. The only way one could begin to correlate Mormonism with this distinction is to parallel Hades/Tartaros with spirit prison and Gehenna with outer darkness. I know of no other viable alternatives. Please suggest one. Mormons need one, because correlating Gehenna with outer darkness poses all sorts of theological problems for Mormonism.

Please tell me if I’m not making sense.

Take care,


This entry was posted in Podcasts, Tabletalk and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

57 Responses to Tabletalk #3: On Mormonism’s Hellish Heavens and Heavenly Hells

  1. Ralph, wouldn’t you agree that mainstream, historic Mormonism places all three kingdoms under the general term “heaven”?

  2. GRCluff says:

    We are in agreement with regard to one aspect of heaven or hell. Heaven is a place were we are privledged to be in the presence of God, hell is a place were God is not.

    If we put Mormon theology into that context, then all 3 kingdoms have some portion of heaven included. Celestial is to be in the presence of God, regardless of which part of the kingdom you reside. Terestial is a place where Christ will visit, and Telestial is a place where the Holy Spirit will visit. A God will have presence in each kingdom.

  3. faithoffathers says:


    Not all three kingdoms are considered “heaven.” This is simply not the case. When somebody in the church refers to “heaven,” they are referring to the Celestial Kingdom.

    Also- I dont’ remember who said it, but I disagree that those who go to outer darkness ever will inherit a kingdom of glory. I do not believe there is any evidence for this in our scripture or elsewhere. D&C 76 says of these folks:

    “They are they who are the sons of perdition, of whom I say that it had been better for them never to have been born;

    For they are vessels of wrath, doomed to suffer the wrath of God, with the devil and his angels in eternity;

    Concerning whom I have said there is 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.

    These are they who shall go away into the lake of fire and brimstone, with the devil and his angels—

    And the only ones on whom the second death shall have any power;

    Yea, verily, the only ones who shall not be redeemed in the due time of the Lord, after the sufferings of his wrath.”

    Alma refers to the spirit prison as outer darkness, but this is not the same place as THE outer darkness of which we speak. The two are different places and the outer darkness where satan and his angels dwell is of a completely different nature. So, again, I do not believe people can move from THE outer darkness mentioned in D&C 76 to the Telestial Kingdom.

    Also- on D&C 19- my reading is a little different than yours. When Christ says, “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,” I think He is referring to the modern day scripture which explains the context of former scripture. He is saying that modern scripture is given “that it might work upon the hearts…” Not the other way around- that He was unclear in old days in order to scare man into obedience. Rather- He shared more with Joseph so that the additional information might soften hearts. Make sense?



  4. Enki says:

    Hello Everyone,
    I just did a reading of D&C 19. This isn’t really part of the topic, but did anyone catch the plug for getting funds for printing the Book of Mormon?

    D&C 19:26
    “And again, I command thee that thou shalt not covet thine own property, but impart it freely to the printing of the Book of Mormon, which contains the truth and the word of God— ”

    Is this a recurring thing in the D&C to request funds for various projects? I know there was a reference in other segments asking people to buy up property in Jackson County Missouri. Was there a prior plug asking for money to print the BOM?

    I don’t know if this changes the dynamics at all of the discussion, but I found it interesting that D&C 19 was written about the same time the BOM was being printed, or just prior. D&C 76 was written two years later. During this time Joseph was working on translating the Bible. The vision which inspired D&C 76 occured after translating John 5:29. D&C 73 and D&C 90 also mention Joseph Smith translating the bible.

    Is there a description of exactly how Joseph did this translation? Was it by comparing original texts, by visions, inpiration or by the Urium and thumin? In’t it called the inspired version?

    For the most part isn’t the Joseph Smith translation not used by the LDS body? Except for a section in the pearl of great price, its not cannonized? Another interesting note is that the Book of Abraham was said to be translated in 1835. Joseph was certainly a busy person, reguardless if it was indeed translating, inspired or manufactured.

    Is it my imagination, but does it seem like the more time goes on, the LDS scriptures seem to get more and more imaginative? And also depart more and more from traditional christianity?

  5. FoF,

    Not all three kingdoms are considered “heaven.” This is simply not the case. When somebody in the church refers to “heaven,” they are referring to the Celestial Kingdom.

    This not only contradicts my accumulative experience in talking with thousands of Mormons, it also contradicts what LDS leaders and significant LDS authors have traditionally taught. Sometimes they speak of three kingdoms (Celestial, Terrestial, and Telestial) of “heaven”, and other times they speak of three “heavens”. For example,

    “To the Corinthian saints, he explained that after the resurrection, there were three heavens or degrees of glory—the telestial, terrestrial, and celestial. In modern revelation, Joseph Smith amplifies these truths. All good people of every nation will be saved in one of these kingdoms, but neither Paul nor Peter nor modern prophets, nor the Lord himself, has ever promised celestial life or eternal life to any soul who does not live celestial laws” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p.69).

    See also this. This is the kind of stuff I’ve been hearing for years from Mormons.

    In any case, if the bottom two kingdoms are not “heaven”, then there is only one other Biblical category they fit in: hell. It seems the reluctance to call the bottom two kingdoms part of “heaven” is an ad hoc way of dealing with the objections I have raised. in fact, the last time I heard this it was from Allen Wyatt on Temple Square, who was responding to my observations about the hellishness of these kingdoms.

    As for your novel take on D&C 19:7, I would simply point you to the second “it” in the verse, which refers back to “it is written eternal damnation” in the earlier clause. This is obviously referring to scripture outside of D&C 19, particularly scripture that mentions eternal damnation (or things like it, such as eternal punishment). This is how this passage has be consistently used by Mormons in my on-the-street interactions.

    Grace and peace,


  6. I have not yet had sufficient time to study the issue; therefore I don’t have an informed opinion on the matter.

    So I will refrain from answering the questions you asked (”Do you think Gehenna is equivalent to the pre-resurrection, pre-final-judgment Hades? If so, why?”
    “Do you think Gehenna is another hell that is categorically distinct from Hades or the lake of fire?”)

    Besides, my opinion on this matter is irrelevant to the exchange at hand, and you asking for it is a red herring.

    GB, until you take a position on what Gehenna actually correlates with, I’m not going to keep engaging you over the topic.

    Grace and peace,


  7. Lautensack says:

    GRCluff Wrote
    We are in agreement with regard to one aspect of heaven or hell. Heaven is a place were we are privledged to be in the presence of God, hell is a place were God is not.

    Actually we dont even agree here, those in hell will experience the wrath of God in the presence of God’s angles and the Lamb. (Revelation 14:10) In Christian theology it is the presence of God’s mercy they are without but not the presence of God as they are drinking the wine of His wrath.


Leave a Reply