Does Humanity Deserve Hell?

Scene from Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”

I’m not much of a theologian. Some of this is part Joseph Smith saying that if you stared into heaven for five minutes you would know more than has ever been said on the subject, and some of it is Aquinas’ cryptic comment near the end of his life after some sort of numinous experience that all of his work was straw. It also just seems very convenient for intellectual types that God’s system lends itself to the kind of puzzles and mind games that they find interesting.

But I can speak from my gut, and sometimes what makes sense intuitively is at variance with what theologians say, with a prime case of this being Julian of Eclanum’s response to Augustine (that I discuss in another post) that his conclusion that unbaptized babies are burning in hell “is beneath argument.” He doesn’t try to systematically challenge Augustine’s arguments based on shared premises or scriptures, but simply points out that the idea of ridiculous on the face of it regardless of his reasons.

Similarly, another notion that never sat well with me is the idea that our default as humanity without the divinity of the atonement and God’s grace is hell, that we’re inherently so depraved that we all “deserve” to be tortured for eternity, consigned to outer darkness, or what have you. It reminds me of a famous/infamous bit by the comedian George Carlin (who mocked religion before it was cool) where he states that there is an “invisible man” who, if you don’t do what he says, will send you to a place of crying, screaming, torture, fire, brimstone and hell for all eternity…but he loves you.

I suspect the depravity of humanity is so pointedly emphasized in some religious rhetoric so as to more strongly juxtapose God’s glory with our own fallen nature. But God’s glory doesn’t need our own sniveling worm-ness to make His seem great by comparison, it just inherently is. To be clear, I am not saying that we can be exalted by our own efforts, by muscling our way into the celestial kingdom. We basically “deserve” the milquetoast lives we have in our own fallen world. Nothing great but nothing horrible.

To take the next step in our development as Gods we do need the atonement and God’s grace, and that’s so important because of how magnificent it is compared to our lone and dreary world; but without it we are not consigned to a blowtorch in our face for all eternity. (Sorry to be graphic. Although we’re talking about a very mainstream belief that people have simply habituated to, it’s important to not mince words about what we’re talking about). I am fine with the default being the sort of telestial hell C.S. Lewis depicts in The Great Divorce, where miserable people live together and make each other miserable, and if they want to step out and up using the ladder of the atonement they can, but the religious rhetoric strongly emphasizing our low and fallen state per se, not just our low and fallen state relative to God, seems to be the kind of religious belief for which humanism adds corrective light and knowledge.

15 comments for “Does Humanity Deserve Hell?

  1. I think I agree (unlike Raymond Winn, who is quite certain he agrees, but I can’t tell whether he is responding to the title question or to your answer–I’m agreeing with your answer.)

    The Church has done a generally poor job of addressing the issue of hell. As a child, I was told that we don’t believe in hell. In retrospect, I understand that that meant that we don’t believe in the version of hell you describe above.

    In contrast, a class member in our HP group once stated that as far as he was concerned, anything but the highest degree of the celestial kingdom was hell. I find that to be a very unhelpful definition of “hell” as I don’t believe that the lower kingdoms will be places of suffering, but rather places of glory.

    In fact, we do believe in hell–we just believe that it is a temporary condition that ends before any assignment to kingdoms is made. It’s closer to the Catholic purgatory than to the traditional hell. But we really don’t talk much about that. I suspect we don’t because it forces us to confront the fact that “eternal” (as in eternal damnation) does not mean what we think it means (D&C 19:6-12). And if eternal damnation does not mean what we think it means, does eternal life mean what we think it means? Best just to leave it alone and let “eternal damnation” work upon the hearts of the children of men without further elucidation.

  2. OMG – I realize (thx, LL), that my post was terribly inadequate. I completely agree with the OP, and wanted to signal such. (sigh)

  3. Lol, I thought the same thing. As if to the question”Do we deserve Hell?” you were responding “yes, yes we do.”

  4. “I suspect we don’t because it forces us to confront the fact that “eternal” (as in eternal damnation) does not mean what we think it means (D&C 19:6-12).”

    That’s a fun passage. The rhetorical two-step there is that the “eternal” in “eternal damnation” is a reference to the Lawgiver, God. “Endless punishment is God’s punishment, etc.” This doesn’t say that eternity is finite, though: it just converts an attribute of God into the Divine Name. God is still eternal in the conventional sense, which has not lost its meaning.

    1. God promises that we will have eternal life.
    2. “Eternal life” is traditionally defined as living the life God lives.
    3. Eternal nature is an attribute of God.
    4. Therefore, eternal life is actually eternal.

    Imo God is being misleading here in the strict sense, but I try to have empathy for God’s position. He has truths. We exist in cultural and social situations which are very far from those truths. Furthermore, we have a tendency to reject movements towards those truths if they clash too much with our temporal situation. So His approach to us has to resemble a benevolent case of frog-boiling which may need to go with “technically-incorrect-but-closer” over “correct-but-impracticable.” Hence the wink-and-a-nudge “eternal damnation.”

  5. The idea that God tortures people for eternity is abhorrent and warps those who believe in it. I’m very glad Joseph Smith revealed that it’s not true. But I’ve never considered the question of what we do deserve. Interesting.

    My first thought was “whatever we could accomplish without God’s help” and something like the hell of The Great Divorce seemed about right. But, if I’m remembering it right, the hell of The Great Divorce is actually a good bit better than what many people experience here on earth. It’s been a while since I read it, but I don’t recall any concentration camps, torture chambers, etc. (The hell of The Screwtape Letters is another matter, but that’s tongue-in-diabolical-cheek.) “People who don’t torture don’t deserve to be tortured” seems reasonable enough, but given our track record it seems we’d need divine aid just to manage that. So I’m going to have to reject my initial thought–we need God’s help just to get what we deserve.

    Fortunately, God will give all of us (“with exceptions too limited to consider here” as President Oaks put it) far better than we deserve. I have to disagree with characterizing the hell of The Great Divorce as Telestial: people in the Telestial Kingdom will have been through the real hell if necessary (as Last Lemming mentions) and learned not to make other people miserable. And they’ll have the companionship of the Holy Ghost–the very thing we Church members aspire to in this life. We’re told the glory of the Telestial Kingdom surpasses all understanding, and I don’t think the Lord was exaggerating. We sell him short if we don’t recognize that his plan for his children is about making all of them gloriously happy, not just those in the Celestial Kingdom.

  6. You’re right re “Telestial,” I guess I meant the world in which we now live, but you’re right that the telestial still has unimaginable glory, so it wasn’t a good descriptor for the CS Lewis hell.

  7. Hoosier,

    The logic of your third point is circular. Your fourth point does not follow.

  8. Great post. Since we’re discussing hell and eternity, I can’t recommend highly enough Steven Peck’s A Short Stay in Hell.

  9. Most people are good, and don’t deserve any punishment. Just glory and joy.

    At present we have examples of wilfully evil leaders in the world. And if there are leaders there will be others. They must be irredeemable. I will not be the judge; but those who abuse their wives and children leading up killing them are irrideemable too.
    Putin has a reputation for killing his opponents. An ex Australian prime minister said watching trump with putin was like watching a 12 year old with his hero.
    Netinyahu has killed 30,000 people 20,000 of them women and children, and is refusing to let aid in so 2 million people are starving, while he bombs them.
    I struggle to see the goodness in these people. So most people are good, but some are evil. Those people who support the evil ones must bear some responsibility too.

  10. I’m of the opinion that the wicked will suffer for the duration of the Millennium–but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it’ll be after the Lord’s time: 1000 years being a day unto him. And if so, they’d suffer for about as long as the Savior did–a day or so. But, boy, it’ll be a day that they won’t want to repeat. Of course, that’s not to say that that’s all there is to being prepared for a kingdom of glory. My guess is that even after the worst of their suffering has passed there’ll still be plenty for them to do in order to be prepared for a glory that surpasses all understanding.

  11. My pet theory, based on D&C 19 (the wicked who refuse to repent will suffer like Christ suffered), Alma 7 (Christ experienced the suffering of all humanity), and a little supposition (it’s neither just nor useful for people to experience suffering they had nothing to do with), is that those who will not change in any other way will experience the suffering they inflicted on others. For some that will be the suffering of a messy divorce, or of day-to-day interactions handled poorly. For others it will be everything we traditionally associate with hell. But they can take themselves out of the category of “the wicked who refuse to repent” at any time. Even for the worst of the worst, the Hitlers and Putins, mercy has overpowered justice. This is a learning experience, not retribution, and will last no longer than it needs to.

    I doubt that this process will instill a desire to serve others where one does not exist already, and thus any interest in participating in God’s grand work. That’s what puts them in the Telestial Kingdom. But with help from the Holy Ghost they’ll get to the point that they can avoid harming others. I don’t think God will withhold anything from them other than opportunities they don’t want anyway (but possibly some things that would harm them or others). So all the recreational activities they can imagine (I’ll throw out there, though I don’t pretend to know what it means, that in the temple the law of chastity is described as a law of the Terrestrial Kingdom). I presume the arts and literature of the Telestial Kingdom will be a marvel (though perhaps missing something that’s present in the best arts and literature). And then add to that all the things that surpass our current understanding.

  12. That makes sense. It’s clear that there isn’t some clear schematic (simple, geometric missionary flowcharts notwithstanding) delineated in scripture for how exactly it will all shake out, but we get little hints here and there in scripture.

  13. My personal experience might be of some use here. I think Joseph Smith stated the greatest punishment is suspense, waiting for the retribution that we deserve (sorry I dont have a source)? Not the penalty itself but the dreadful anticipation. A few years ago my wife was charged with a felony for a non-violent crime of which she had no intention of committing; she was given bad advice by someone who knew better and foolishly she followed through without verification. After 10 months of investigation she was charged. Then going through the court system for another 18 months with delays due to COVID, she finally accepted a plea deal for a misdemeanor, just to be done with the hemmhoraging of money through legal fees. After 1 year the charges were dropped. The hell of that hanging over our heads was awful. Just the waiting and wanting closure ate us constantly. So I have to wonder if part of hell is the waiting for our “day in court”.

  14. My response to George Carlin would be that we humans spend a lot of effort putting ourselves in hell, and that a loving God does everything he can to liberate is from the hell of our own making.

    On the question of whether humans are inherently good or inherently evil, I’m with King Benjamin “the natural man is an enemy to God.” Our natures must be radically changed–converted–for us to inherit ANY kingdom of glory. Jacob is very clear about this in 2 Nephi 9. In the absence of the Atonement, we would all become devils.

    I think where this rubs people the wrong way is they look around and see lots of human beings doing both good and bad things. So in practice people look like a mixed bag with the capacity for both good and evil, where the role of Jesus is more incremental and less radically transformative. What gives? I think the answer is found in 2 Nephi 2, where Lehi explains that the Savior, through a gift of grace, imbues us with enough of His power that we are able to choose good. Without this grace, or light of Christ, we would all be incapable of choosing good. Thus our agency is a gift made possible by the Atonement. We need that initial infusion of grace so that we can start exercising agency and learning to abide by eternal law. Without the Atonement, we would be incapable of abiding by ANY law and would therefore be consigned to a kingdom that is not a kingdom of glory (D&C 88). So when you see your neighbor doing something virtuous, you’re witnessing the influence of Jesus Christ’s Atonement on him. Yes, he exercised agency, but that agency was only made possible by a big initial helping of grace.

    Is this a dim view of humanity? I think it’s a realistic view. And personally it helps me to have much more compassion for and patience with my fellow man (and myself). I’m a mess. You’re a mess. We all desperately need Jesus. I’m not shocked when people sin. I’m thrilled when they repent! And if they often vacillate between virtue and vice, well that tells me that Jesus has begun converting their natures, although the process is not yet complete.

    Is this a dim view of God? Not at all! We put ourselves in hell. God delivers us. He loves us, not because we are especially loveable, but because He is infinitely loving. And he sees something in us worth saving, not because our potential is so obvious, but because He sees and comprehends all things. Because of His infinite love, infinite wisdom, and infinite power, I trust Him to transform me into a new creature. But it’s going to take awhile.

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