Sartre once remarked that â€œhell is other people.â€? The remark, I think, is revealing. In a sense the brand of existentialism pushed by Sartre represents the apotheosis of individualism. In the end, he offers nothing beyond the authenticity of personal choice, which becomes the ultimate source of meaning and value. His view of hell suggest that within this vision of heroic intellectual and moral self-sufficiency lies a rather nasty strand of misanthropy and solipsism. Joseph Smithâ€™s vision of hell, I think, is equally revealing.
As I have observed elsewhere, it is very hard to be damned in any real sense in Mormon theology, and hell seems to be a very small place. The closest that Joseph Smith ever got to offering a really robust notion of hell was â€œOuter Darkness.â€? We donâ€™t get to learn all that much about this place or the ultimate fate of its inhabitants, but we do learn that it is characterized by loneliness. In that sense it is the antithesis of the celestial kingdom, a place that is defined almost entirely in terms of eternal connections (sealing). In other words, Joseph seems to offer a vision that is the antithesis of Sartre. For him hell is the absence of other people, while heaven is the extension of love and friendship forever. (Joseph used to say that friendship was the fundamental principle of Mormonism.)
Negotiating Mormon heaven is a bit tricky. Eternal connections could be smothering, I suppose, and powerful communities can act as solvents that destroy the individuality of their members. I canâ€™t help but thinking, however, that this is not what Joseph had in mind. He seems to have genuinely loved people in their particularity, which â€“ of course â€“ requires some measure of individualism. Here again, he provides a startling image: sealing is a form of welding.* Two objects that are welded are connected in a permanent and powerful way, but they remain in some sense themselves. (Compare Josephâ€™s image of welding with another image coming out of 19th-century America: the melting pot.)
*All of my thinking on Joseph and welding is but a shallow recapitulation of things I learned from Jared Hickman over many lunches in Cambridge.