Is he going to hell? Will I make it to heaven?
Threats of hell, alongside tremulous aspirations for heaven, have been so common throughout religious history that many people in contemporary America can hardly conceive of a Christianity without angst as a dominant feature.
Perhaps, then, secular observers can be forgiven for presuming that all religious teaching and practice is somehow “fear-based.” It’s hard to imagine anything more terrifying than the possibility of living in a future eternity of tormented brimstone. For a nation acutely tuned to the psychological consequences of overwrought shame and stigma, such talk makes alarm bells go off in all directions. And for good reason.
Enter: Joseph Smith the Prophet. Compared to the young boy who went into a grove of trees in 1820 to inquire about his own salvation, the grown prophet went on to reveal a vision that—when understood properly—not only resolves some of the unsettling angst about heaven and hell, but offers an aspiration that we would argue is both psychologically healthy and eternally hopeful.
First, heaven is a spectrum. During a breakfast conversation years ago, a cherished evangelical pastor friend quieted down and whispered to one of us over the table, “I know you Latter-day Saints believe in multiple heavens . . . well, God has given me a vision where I know that’s true for myself.”
What this open-hearted pastor was referring to was the apostle Paul’s teaching in the New Testament about “celestial bodies and terrestrial bodies” each having a different level of glory: “There is one glory of the sun, another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars” (1 Corinthians 15:39-40).
While many Christian teachers have puzzled over the meaning of that passage—proposing a great many metaphoric and poetic ways to make sense of it—Joseph received vivid clarification of the literalness of these celestial and terrestrial referents as a continuum of future heavenly experiences offered by a loving God. The full account of this exquisite vision also illuminates Jesus’ cryptic teaching that “In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you” (John 14:2).
Many mansions. That’s what Jesus tells us. Not just two mansions – a bad one, and a good one.
And just like that, we can start to breathe a little easier. Truth can often be black or white, but there’s more than a single black-and-white distinction on which our eternal future depends. Among other things, this insight might help us experience more space in everyday life to learn and grow, both for ourselves and people around us needing some gentle compassion. Indeed, no matter where or how someone’s life is right now, followers of Jesus see that same someone as having amazing potential, right up ahead.
While yes, Latter-day Saints also believe in the existence of a hell, the ultimate destination (called “outer darkness”) is only achievable by those perpetuating the most heinous and literally unforgivable of acts. For most of us, the hell of which scripture speaks reflect a painful, temporary remorse of conscience that can prompt us to make needed changes: “A man is his own tormenter,” Joseph said once: “The torment of the mind of man is as exquisite as a lake burning with fire and brimstone.”
Unless we choose to stay in that state, hell can function as a temporary, pained state prompting us to keep growing, learning and becoming happier. Even to our critics, this should be good news!
Compared to the common image of a God hell-bent on keeping unworthy people out of heaven, this also raises a profoundly different view of the Almighty. As Joseph Smith later taught, “While one portion of the human race is judging and condemning the other without mercy, the Great Parent of the universe looks upon the whole of the human family with a fatherly care and paternal regard; He views them as His offspring, and without any of those contracted feelings that influence the children of men.”
“While one portion of the human race is judging and condemning the other without mercy, the Great Parent of the universe looks upon the whole of the human family with a fatherly care.”
Which gets us back to the “contracted” conversation we usually have about heaven or hell. It’s quite remarkable to hear how often people characterize Latter-day Saints as teaching, for instance, that gay people are “going to hell” or “not making it to heaven.”
In a national report on the most recent General Conference, journalist Brady McCombs attempted to paraphrase President Dallin H. Oaks’ teaching by saying, “People should love everyone no matter their difference, but the zeal to achieve that doesn’t mean people should forget the faith’s belief that God’s laws prohibit gay marriage and prevent people in those relationships from receiving heavenly salvation.”
Not quite. Amidst an almost universally black-and-white discourse about heaven (or hell), we understand why the nuance of a heavenly spectrum would escape this journalist. It’s not “salvation,” however, but the highest degree of heaven called “exaltation” that Latter-day Saints believe depends on enriching family relationships.
This is the ultimate concern of the Saints. But that’s not the same thing as saying those opting out of these relationships miss out on any joy at all. As President Oaks also taught: “The righteous—regardless of current religious denomination or belief—will ultimately go to a kingdom of glory more wonderful than any of us can comprehend. Even the wicked, or almost all of them, will ultimately go to a marvelous—though lesser—kingdom of glory.”
While some of our enemies may continue condemning us (and others who disagree with them) to hell, it is the possibility of heaven that animates the Latter-day Saints – including for our critics. And that’s how Latter-day Saints avoid the fear-based minefield—defanging the very “fighting words” that have prompted far too many to relate to Christians as a kind of neighborhood bully.
Latter-day Saints are not offended that others do not share this view of eternity. But they want space to pursue it for themselves and their families, and the freedom to invite others to join them on this challenging but divinely motivated aspiration.
Understanding this bigger picture may allay resentments and suspicion, on the one hand, and shame and fear on the other. By comparison, superimposing the traditional heaven/hell dichotomy onto all conversation about faith can have the effect of heightening tensions unnecessarily and portraying Latter-day Saints as more imperious than the actual doctrine and rhetoric warrant.