Although my family joined the LDS Church when I was a young child, I was raised around people of many different Christian faiths. My father’s family were Catholics (if you really pressed the issue). My grandfather on my mother’s side was a Methodist minister (with a curious agnostic streak). Much of the rest of my mother’s family leaned towards various Evangelical churches (or, in a pinch, sometimes set up their own).
Despite this religious diversity, my family members had at least one thing in common: Their view of Heaven or Hell. More accurately, although they might differ about the nature of Heaven and Hell, they at least agreed that those were the only two options after this life. If you lived a good life, you went to Heaven, doing heaven knows what, but it most likely involved harps. If you lived a bad life, you went to Hell, which promised some combination of fire, brimstone, and bad Chinese food.
In truthfulness, everything I have heard from other Christian churches about what happens to us after this life is unsettling, either because it is vague or because it seems…well…unfair. Even at a young age I wondered why God wouldn’t give us a better picture of the benefits of keeping his commandments. But I was more troubled by the notion of a God that would, if Christian beliefs about the qualifications for Heaven are accurate, consign the vast majority of his creations to an eternity of fire and horror. Couldn’t a perfect, all-knowing God come up with a better plan than that?
The Mormon view of the afterlife is considerably different and distinctly more hopeful. It is based upon Christ’s promise that in His Father’s house there are many mansions, the writings of Paul, and most centrally upon a revelation given to Joseph Smith and Sydney Rigdon in 1832. This revelation can be found now in the 76th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants, which is a collection of revelations given to LDS prophets, primary Joseph Smith. You can read it at www.lds.org, if you are curious about the full text.
In this revelation, Joseph Smith was shown three “degrees of glory” much as Paul records being caught up into the “third heaven” in the 12th chapter of his second epistle to the Corinthians. These he designated as “Celestial,” “Terrestrial,” and “Telestial,” with the Celestial being the highest. Paul described the resurrection in similar terms of differing types of glory (See 1 Cor. 15:40-42).
Given the length of the revelation, I won’t try to drill down to too many details here. But there are two basic principles that will help you understand Mormon doctrine on this issue.
First, we believe that virtually all mankind will receive some kind of glory in the resurrection. There is a discussion of “outer darkness,” to which Satan and those who with him were cast from God’s presence ultimately will be consigned. We believe that only a small number of mortals risk such a faith. Everyone else receives some level of reward in the afterlife. Even people who drive and text at the same time. What’s remarkable is that Joseph Smith taught that the glory of the even the lowest kingdom “supasses all understanding.” (D&C 76:89).
Second, we believe that people will receive different rewards based upon their faithfulness. Those who have fully accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ and have lived valiant lives of obedience will receive a celestial glory, compared figuratively to the light of the sun. Here they dwell with Father in Heaven and Jesus Christ and are able to continue in their progression throughout eternity. They also will have the blessing of having their earthly family relationships continue forever. Those who do not accept the fulness of the gospel receive a terrestrial glory, where they can receive the presence of Christ, who presides there (although himself a Celestial being). This is compared to the light of the moon. Those who live disobedient lives receive a telestial glory, outside the presence of the Father or the Son.
So, what the heck happened to Hell in Mormon theology? Well, if you are looking for something akin to Dante’s Inferno, you won’t find it. However, there may be a corollary if you step back a bit from the final judgment. Mormons believe that between the time of death and resurrection, our spirits are separated from our bodies and go to one of two places, which we call Paradise and Spirit Prison. Paradise is where those who have accepted and lived the Gospel will go, and there they happily await the resurrection, and may perform other work, such as teaching the gospel to those in the Spirit Prison.
Those who don’t meet these conditions go to the Spirit Prison, the nature of which admittedly isn’t perfectly clear. What we do understand is that the spirits in this “prison” are taught the gospel and given an opportunity to accept or reject it. (See I Peter 3:18-20, which discusses Christ preaching to the “spirits in prison”). This is the basis of our belief in proxy baptisms for the dead, because we believe that those who receive the gospel after this life still need the benefit of ordinances, like baptism, that only can be performed here on Earth.
Those who reject the atonement of Christ, we are told, do have to endure some of form of suffering, which is figuratively compared to a lake of fire and brimstone. Here, then, is something analogous to Hell, but Mormons believe that any such suffering will have an end, and that ultimately such persons would receive the lowest degree of glory. As a consequence, the Mormon view of life after death contains some degree of hope for pretty much everybody.
So what about those Baptists? Or Methodists, or any other Christian sect? This is the point at which Mormons and other Christians might not be aware that they agree. In the Mormon view, good people who do not accept the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ will inherit the Terrestrial Kingdom, where they will live as resurrected beings in the presence of Christ, free from earthly worries or cares, but with no expectation of anything more. In other words, they receive almost exactly what they were expecting.
The difference in Mormon theology is the concept that there is something more that our Father in Heaven has in store for us (which I discuss in more detail in the two posts on “Do Mormons Really Think They Can Become Gods?”). In all honesty, Mormons cannot really dispute that other Christian Churches can deliver on their promises. We just think those promises are more narrow than what our Father in Heaven has prepared for us.
This brief discussion hardly does justice to the subject, but I hope it provides at least a basic understanding of Mormonism’s unique view of the afterlife. It is a doctrine that, in my view, gives us a glimpse of a loving God who set up a Plan of Happiness, by which there would be some degree of hope for all of His children. It is a Plan by which we have the hope for glorious blessings that, prior to the revelations given to Joseph Smith, we might never have imagined.