You’ve heard it spoken (or read it written) that there are Iron Rods and Liahonas. In the spirit of oversimplifying the differences among believers, I submit that there are two types of religious people: those who are motivated to righteousness by hope for a better world to come, and those who are motivated by fear of a worse one. In other words, those who are looking forward to a better life in heaven, and those who are just doing their best to stay out of hell. I call these folks “Carrot People” and “Stick People.” I am a Stick Person.
I’d like to think that I do good because good is its own reward–which it is–but the fact is, most often I do good because when I don’t, I feel guilty. I don’t like feeling guilty. It’s uncomfortable, and I hate being uncomfortable. Also, there’s always hell. Hell is a bad place. I don’t want to go there.
Mormons don’t talk much of hell. Maybe this is a good thing, overall. I don’t know. I did a quick search of General Conference talks at lds.org, and there just isn’t much there. In fact, one of the search results was actually referencing the word “he’ll.” We Mormons are very pleased with our three-degrees-of-glory cosmology and tend to disdain the heaven/hell dichotomy found in traditional Christianity. For us, this life is no pass/fail endeavor. You get actual grades. Star students go to the Celestial Kingdom, average students to the Terrestrial, and layabouts to the Telestial. Those who do fail go to Outer Darkness, i.e. Hell, but you have to get up pretty early in the morning to fail your Second Estate, aka Mortality. You have to acquire the greater light and then sin against it; really, who has the time for that? So I imagine most people who grow up Mormon don’t spend a lot of time worrying that they’ll end up in Outer Darkness because to stay safe, you just have to not deny the Holy Ghost. It’s easy; all you do is nothing.
On the other hand, when you consider that only those who make it to the Celestial Kingdom get to have personal communion with God and enjoy the same sociality that they do in mortality and inherit worlds without end, etc., anything less than the highest tier of the highest kingdom seems like a kind of hell in comparison. There is, of course, that old Mormon legend about the Telestial kingdom being so wonderful that you’d kill yourself to get there, but I always thought that sounded too good to be true. Even if it were true, though, with the grass always being greener and suicidal folks unlikely to be stripped of envy, wouldn’t the Telestial kingdom eventually look pretty shabby next to the others? You’d be kicking yourself for drinking that hemlock then.
So I’m a simple girl. I tend to think of just heaven and hell. I don’t care what you call your version of the afterlife. I just want to be happy—or more specifically, I don’t want to be unhappy–and to me, heaven=happy, hell=unhappy. Therefore, I don’t want to go to hell. Everything good that I do in life, and especially all the bad stuff I don’t do, it’s all motivated by this strong desire to not go to hell. Hopefully I become a better person in the process, but that’s secondary; Not-Hell is always the primary goal. That’s why I’m a stick person.
I’m continually amazed by the number of Mormons who believe that a loving God couldn’t suffer his children to be condemned to hell (or a hell-like existence) for eternity—that no matter what you do or what kingdom you inherit after the Final Judgment, God must allow for you to eventually repent and continue to progress in your eternal journey. I suppose if you imagine God as a loving parent, it’s hard to imagine a parent ever giving up on a wayward child. I know I would never give up on a wayward child. (Unless the child turned evil. I’m talking Hitler-evil. I have no idea what I’d do then. Hopefully I don’t raise any Hitlers. That might land me in hell.)
But back to the subject (before I got distracted by the fate of my immortal soul). This idea that it is never too late—even after this life is over and the Final Judgment’s been judged and we’re all moving in to our respective rooms in our Father’s many mansions—I have a bit of a problem with it. I have no problem whatsoever with the idea that God is actually pretty lenient, or that he grades on a curve, as it were. I mean, I try to live my life on the assumption that God has set the bar pretty darn high, but if I turn out to be mistaken, no one will be more pleased than I. It’s just that when the scriptures say that the wicked will suffer everlasting torment, I don’t see a lot of room for interpretation. If the Final Judgment isn’t Final, why do we call it the Final Judgment? Is this one of those deals where we make up a new meaning for a word just for the pleasure of still using it (*cough*”preside”*cough*)? If it’s just a temporary judgment, shouldn’t we call it something that doesn’t mean the opposite of “temporary”? The “Post-Mortal Judgment,” perhaps? I’d be cool with that. I just want us all to be on the same dictionary page. Same dictionary, anyway.
But I admit I do have another problem. It’s this idea that God is too nice to send people to hell forever. I am inordinately annoyed by Sunday School discussions that try to explain away the use of the word “fear” in the Bible, as in “fear of God”—that to fear God doesn’t mean what it says, that “fear” in this context really means more like “respect.” Well, yes. Nothing commands respect quite like the power to condemn you to an eternity of hellfire. That’s what I always say. I’m sure someone can tell me that the original Hebrew and Greek are some wonderful words that mean something much nicer than “fear”—something like “I love Daddy so much that I’d do anything to please him”—but the fact is, I myself have no problem with the word “fear,” nor with its traditional meaning. I do fear God. He’s all-powerful: that’s not a cat I want to mess with. As the proverb says, “Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” I like that proverb. It makes sense to me.
I said that I am a stick person. My children are apparently stick people, too. You could promise them a one-way trip to Disneyland and all the ice cream in the world if they cleaned their rooms and refrained from punching each other in the guts, but it wouldn’t do any good. I understand that enlightened parents don’t punish; they provide “consequences.” Well, in our house Consequence is applied with a big (metaphorical) Stick, and it is the font of all goodness. Carrots tend to be useless at best. They sure don’t inspire “respect.”
It is easier for me to understand grace in the context of hell and fear. How meaningful is grace when hell isn’t real and fear is unwarranted? God will forgive whom he will forgive; far be it for me to tell him his business. But I have to believe there are some he won’t forgive. If not so, this life seems rather pointless, a sort of sick joke. When I think of the evil in the world and of all the suffering in evil’s wake, I want God to apply a Consequence. I want him to apply it with a Big Stick. I don’t want the evil to suffer the way they made others to suffer; I want them to suffer the perfect knowledge of their own guilt. That’s the only misery that could possibly surpass the misery they caused in life. Would it be enough if the misery only seemed like forever, without actually being forever? I think not. To me it seems that pain is largely about perspective. Nothing’s quite so bad when you know it’s going to end. But then, I’m a stick person. Who’s probably going to hell, for all she knows.
EDIT: Sometimes I don’t know where I’m going with a post or why I’m going anywhere with it until I get people’s reactions to it. I’m still not sure what this post is all about, but while I was writing it I kept thinking of Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” I read it in high school, and my idealistic teenage self, nurtured by years of kinder, gentler Mormon cosmology, was just scandalized that people would go to church to be abused this way. This is what a lot of people have against Christianity (stepping outside the Mormon world and into the world at large): this idea that we’re only good because we hope for a reward, or alternatively, that we fear a punishment. They argue specifically that a belief in hell (and any accompanying fear thereof) renders us a) not truly good and b) not truly free to choose. They don’t consider that perhaps it isn’t the motivation that really matters, that the motivation isn’t an end in itself. Carrots and sticks aside, what matters is where it leads us. And personally, as I’ve gotten older and matured (ugh, that word) spiritually (ugh, that other word), I’m not hating on the stick so much.