Here I go again. Another of my once-in-a-blue-moon religious posts. When stuff is weighing on my mind or heart, I put together a post like this. Partly for catharsis, and on the off chance that you find it interesting. My sentiments are my own and may not always accurately reflect the beliefs or doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, of which I'm a believing member. But one of the many beauties of the LDS faith is that you can work this stuff out in your mind and heart over time.
Last weekend, there was a tragic ending to a national news story with local ties. In a nutshell, a man named Josh Powell -- the "person of interest" thought to have been responsible for the disappearance of his wife, Susan -- took his own life, and the life of his two little sons by attempting to bludgeon them to death or unconsciousness before setting his house ablaze with all three inside. All three were presumed dead upon arrival of authorities. There are a lot of articles about this as a recent news story. Here is just one of them.
I've followed this story with some interest since its beginning a couple years ago. Not long after the wife's disappearance, it became obvious that to me that Josh was behind it. For the record, Susan's death has never been confirmed, and Josh was never officially charged or convicted with it. But, I'll say that it is my opinion that he was involved and responsible for her disappearance and death.
But I've been experiencing a range of emotions about this whole thing. I have desperately wanted the police to find the "smoking gun" that would put Powell behind bars, his wife's remains to rest, and his sons in safer hands. I support "innocent until proven guilty" as it pertains to our legal system, but his guilt was so obvious to me no matter what the law said, and his recent murder of his sons only sealed my convictions.
I've read a lot of comments online from people expressing their anger and sorrow at these events. Sentiments are shared such as "Now he will rot in hell for eternity." Or "I hope he suffers forever with a (noun) shoved up his (censored) in hell for what he did."
That's not the kind of language I think most people throw around on a daily basis. I chalk it up to:
a) Rash and knee-jerk judgements based on the horror of the situation
b) A way for people to express sorrow and anger they're feeling inside
So from that standpoint, I understand. I've definitely had sentiments of my own wherein I want Josh to "get his." How do I really feel about what sort of torment someone like Mr. Powell should be subject to? I probably don't have a complete answer for that, but I want to get a few thoughts down about post-mortal judgement in general...
Within Mormonism there are plenty of references in scripture and other doctrinal resources that talk about the afterlife. If you want a primer, start with the LDS notion of the "Plan of Salvation." That's the basics to "who are we?" "Why are we here?" "Where are we going?" I believe in the church's teachings on this subject, but there is still room to wonder and speculate.
From here on I won't spend the time to document or cite each reference I make to official doctrine, but I'll try to spell out when I'm giving my opinion.
This is a weighty topic, so let me start here: I've been asked before by friends of other faiths if Mormons believe that anyone who is not Mormon will go to hell. Short answer: nope. I think this is one of the greatest and unfortunately unknown pieces of Mormon doctrine. By my estimation and understanding of it, almost no one will "eternally burn in hell." In fact, by many Judeo Christians' own definition of heaven, that's where most folks will end up -- if not something much better.
Yes, I just said that:
According to my understanding of Latter-Day Saint doctrine, virtually everyone, I'll just call it 99.999999% of people you and I know, will go to "heaven." Let's just define heaven loosely as a post-mortal and eternal state of happiness, peace, and joy surrounded by God's love -- exponentially more than you or I can experience or even comprehend here on earth. I know that's very general, but short of notions of harps, clouds, and angels, isn't that generally how most folks would define heaven?
What do you think of this so far? Sound good? Not a bad deal, eh? Who wouldn't sign up for that right now? (Which makes me wonder why so many folks slam their doors in our 19-year old faces when we come a-knockin' on Saturday morning... ha-ha).
So, do Mormons believe in hell?
Well, the short answer is, yes, we believe in hell. But upon closer inspection, we depart from most Judeo Christian notions of it.
In my opinion, we believe in two iterations of hell; one is relatively temporary, and the other is of the eternal sort. I'll address the latter first.
Just above, I referred to 99.9999999% of people not going to hell. Let me address that unfortunate 00.0000001%. In the LDS faith, we do believe that there are those people in this life who have done something so horrible that they have "damned" themselves for eternity. Who are these folks? In a nutshell, these are people who knowingly and completely reject God. That's the simplest way to put it. And by that, I'm not talking about your atheist friend or agnostic buddy; far from that. I'm talking about the rare handful of men or women who have a literal knowledge of God (as in, based on fact, not faith) who then reject God, and precede to denounce his authority, power, and majesty (these are my own words--not scriptural).
That's not going to be the jerk you bump into at the grocery store or post office. It's not even the town rapist, murderer, or molester. It's probably no one you've known or will ever know. It's such a small group, I almost don't acknowledge it, because it ain't you and it ain't me.
So, I'll leave that "eternal damnation" group there. If you want to learn more, in Mormonism, that group is referred to as the "Sons of Perdition."
Now, a closer look at the "temporary" state of hell. To get into this, I have to do a quick explanation of the LDS "Plan of Salvation." Think of it as the Mormon flow chart of where we came from, where we are, and where we could be headed. Put simply, we believe all mankind who ever was, is, or will be, resided with God before this life. Our souls are his literal offspring. Per His plan, we agreed to come live this earthly life, forgetful of our life with Him before, to be tested in a mortal coil, come to know Him, and become more like him through the trials of earthly mortality. When we die, we don't go immediately to judgement. Rather, we go to the Great Waiting Room in the Sky (my terminology) Mormons refer to at the Spirit World. That's where everyone's spirit or soul (which in death has been separated from the mortal body) goes to wait until the Judgement of all souls.
Now, in this interim resting place of the Spirit World, LDS doctrine dictates that there are two realms: Spirit Prison and Paradise. These two states are the closest notion Mormonism shares with the rest of Christianity about heaven and hell. This may be an oversimplification, but if you lived a good life, you'll go to Paradise. If you lived a life of evil, you'll be in Spirit Prison.
I'm going to go off the rails here a bit and give the "gospel according to Alan" regarding these two states. You may ask yourself, "Who goes to which one?" Perhaps more pointedly "Which one will I go to?"
This is how I think this works...
Spirit Prison and Paradise may or may not be physically different places. I think they are more likely states of mind on one hand, and states of progression on the other.
As I alluded to earlier, the final Judgement (with a capitol "J") doesn't happen in the Spirit World. But there is a form of judgment that happens nonetheless. When we die, I think our conscious is re-awakened. The veil put over us in mortality is removed at death. We remember who we are as souls in an eternal context and as such we'll see our mortal life with a new perspective. We'll find peace in the happiness, the good things, the relationships, and the simple lessons learned in mortality. Since none of us are perfect, we'll have reasons to have sorrow for some of our actions, decisions, and courses in this life.
I think a murderer will have more reason to crawl into a corner and tremble compared someone who cheated on a math test in high school. No sin is overlooked by God, but some have more meaningful consequences -- that, I believe, will be plain.
Imagine a murderer having a seemingly endless amount of time to think about his evil act, with no means to distract him from the thought or the sorrow and pain it inflicted on others. Add to that the anticipation of the justice that will be handed out by God for that act. I shudder to think about it. That, my friends, is hell. That is the reality of some folks in the Spirit World.
Thankfully, that is a temporary state. But can you imagine having to deal with that awareness for an hour, a week, or a millennium?
At some point, though, we reach the "official' Judgement. I have no idea how this will go. I've heard speculations from fellow Mormons about who will be there, who will vouch for whom, how we'll be judged, etc. No one really knows aside from the fact that Christ will be our judge.
In my opinion, it will somehow include Christ taking us into his embrace -- no matter who we are. He will help us shed much of the burdens we carry; more than we deserve or could do on our own. He'll lovingly show us how there are some things that we must face up to and account for. He'll also show us that he loves us more than we can comprehend, and that our value as an individual soul and child of God is more than we can think of. All will be made right in Christ's Atonement -- no matter how evil or foul. That's not to say that our unrepentant deeds are just forgotten, but I do think He consumes them -- all of them, 100%; he already has. But do we acknowledge it? At that point, we realize we are completely in His debt and at His mercy. He will judge us fairly based on our actions and the intents of our heart. We will know we are eternally indebted to Him for an eternal inheritance that will be more than we comprehend, but also, strangely, something that we will lovingly and humbly feel like we deserve because he'll bestow is to us out of absolute love.
This includes you. This includes me. This includes Josh Powell, and his wife, and his sons. Christ will have taken on and defeated all sorrow, pain, and death, and we will all be better for it and able to love Him, and each other in the eternities with a peace and charity that none of us can comprehend today. That will be virtually all of us because we are a family -- a big spiritual family -- that will not feel quite complete if one soul is missing.
This is an oversimplification of things. There is MUCH more than this, but it also spells out the good news. The baseline that there is happiness to be had for all of us based on Christ's infinite and eternal sacrifice.
Thanks friends. As I say at the end of each of these type of posts: "Back to our regular programming...."