The question was about hell.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently asked Americans, "Do you think there is a hell, where people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished?" Of those who identified themselves as Mormon, 59 percent said "yes."

However, Robert L. Millet, professor of ancient scripture and former dean of religious education at Brigham Young University, would have answered "no."

"Do I believe in hell where people will dwell for committing all their sins and not feeling sorry about them — forever?" Millet said, restating the question. "No. But that is the problem with that kind of question."

Millet explained that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do not believe in the common concepts of heaven and hell assumed in the survey question. Asking the question in the way Pew did left members of the LDS Church without the ability to answer the question accurately — and gave a false impression of what their doctrine truly teaches.

Millet explained that Mormons believe that after a person dies, they will be in a temporary condition or place awaiting judgment and resurrection. This place is sometimes called the spirit world. Millet described the spirit world as having two dimensions: one called "paradise" and the other called "hell" or "outer darkness." Usually Mormons use the phrase "spirit prison" instead of "hell" to refer to this darker place of the spirit world.

But even this spirit prison or hell is not of eternal duration.

"You certainly would have people (in spirit prison) who were wicked and who felt no remorse, etc.," Millet said, "but even they will come forth to a degree of glory and be cleansed from their sins. If they did not apply the Atonement, then to some extent they would suffer for their own sins, but even they will not come forth to an eternal hell. They will come forth to a degree of glory."

Millet admitted that this could almost be seen as believing in a type of universal salvation. It doesn't mean, he said, that everyone will live in "the presence of God and the Son evermore," but it means that everyone will receive some degree of a heavenly reward. This is an important difference from the Pew survey's "eternally punished" language.

LDS scripture distinguishes the concepts of "eternally punished" from "eternal punishment." "Eternal punishment" refers not to the duration of the punishment, but to the type of punishment (See Doctrine and Covenants 19:10-12).

Millet quoted LDS Church founder Joseph Smith on the nature of that punishment: "A man is his own tormenter and his own condemner," Joseph Smith said. "Hence the saying, 'They shall go into the lake that burns with fire and brimstone.' The torment of disappointment in the mind of man is as exquisite as a lake burning with fire and brimstone."

But there is an exception to this broad and general rule: the "sons of perdition."

"From our perspective," Millet said, "the doors of hell are boarded up at the time of the second resurrection. It is closed down and boarded up, and the only persons who know such a thing (as an eternal hell) are the sons of perdition."

Joseph Smith said a son of perdition is one who would "say that the sun does not shine while he sees it; he has got to deny Jesus Christ when the heavens have been opened unto him, and to deny the plan of salvation with his eyes open to the truth of it."

"(The sons of perdition don't) just deny — they defy," Millet said. "It is not just a person who loses his or her testimony. It's not just a bitter person, it's a person who is so bitter that knowing what they know they have become a vicious enemy to the cause of truth and fight it."

This is a much stricter standard of entrance than the Pew survey's "people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry."

Even though the temporary condition of the wicked in the spirit world could be called hell and the condition of the sons of perdition could also be called hell, contemporary Mormons do not really use the term.

"Because our notion of hell is so distinctive, so as not to be misunderstood, we don't use it very much," Millet said.

Ironically, even though members of the LDS Church almost never use the term hell, one of the more common things that members of the LDS Church do say may be taken as if they were telling others they were going to hell.

"I have no question but that members of the LDS faith will occasionally say, 'Well, ours is the only true church,"' Millet said. "That, of course, is as strikingly painful as telling someone they are going to hell. Because, what for them we are saying, 'We, Latter-day Saints, are the only true Christians.' And whether we realize that's what we are saying or not, that's what we are saying to them — that is how we are read."

Millet explained that except for perhaps the Roman Catholic Church, most Christians would never say their church was the "true church" but would say, "Christianity is true."

"When I am asked by persons of other faiths, 'Is your claim that you are the only true church really a statement that we are not Christians?' I am bold to say, 'Of course not, of course I know you are Christians,"' Millet said.

Millet, however, is used to being told he is going to hell. "I often say to people, 'You seem to be delighted about that. Is that something you are thrilled about? That I shall go to hell?"' Millet said. "'Perhaps I will, but I really don't think you are in a position to judge the depth of my commitment to Christ in my heart — are you?"'

He prefers the attitude of Father Richard John Neuhaus, a popular Catholic priest and author, who has written that he hopes hell will be empty.

"No true Christian would ever desire that any living soul would go to hell," Millet said. "Anybody who delights in the idea of somebody going to hell to suffer endlessly is no true Christian. There is nothing in the world about that that Jesus would be happy about. Why would anybody be happy about that?"


E-mail: mdegroote@desnews.com