Rob Bell, a prominent evangelical pastor in Michigan, suggests that heaven may be universal, and that everyone has a place in heaven, whatever that may turn out to be, regardless of his deeds.
Bell may not be happy to hear it, but what he suggests has a certain resonance with Mormon thought about the afterlife, which is actually (and to many people surprisingly) near-universalist.
Mormons reject the classical conception of Hell: a pit of fire and brimstone and place of eternal torment.
Although Mormons do sometimes use the word “hell,” it is usually in one of two much more limited senses.
First, when you die your spirit goes to a sort of waiting room called the Spirit World. The righteous go to Paradise, but those who died without a knowledge of the Gospel or who were wicked go to Spirit Prison. The suffering they experience there is more mental than physical, consisting of guilt and anguish over their misdeeds in mortality.
Sometimes this state is referred to as “hell,” but it is only a temporary state. Upon the final judgment, the soul will be assigned to one of three heavens, or “degrees of glory” (called the Celestial, Terrestrial and Telestial Kingdoms). Having a variegated heaven means that people will receive their just reward for their lives here on earth, but even the lowest of these heavens is still a heaven, not a place of eternal torment.
The other sense in which Mormons sometimes use the word “hell” is as a reference to what they call Outer Darkness, which is reserved for Satan and his spiritual minions, together with a few human beings that qualify as “sons of perdition.”
Although this would be close to the classical conception of Hell, the Mormon belief is that very few will go there, for the bar to be sent there is quite high. One must have a sure knowledge (beyond faith) that Jesus is the Christ, and then reject him anyway in the face of such a knowledge. This is Judas Iscariot territory and really beyond the capacity of the average person to achieve.
Mormons also believe that just because you’re dead doesn’t mean the game is over. They take seriously the Descensus (mentioned in the Apostle’s Creed), and believe that Jesus descended into the Spirit World during the three days that his body lay in the tomb to initiate the preaching of the Gospel to the spirits there, and organized this postmortem evangelization so that it continues even today. So even those who never had an opportunity to hear the Gospel will have such a chance in the next life.
Further, Mormons believe that there are certain necessary, salvific ordinances (what other Christians would call “sacraments”), that one must receive to achieve the Celestial (or highest) Kingdom. That is why Mormons perform these sacraments vicariously for the dead in their temples.
So, for instance, if a deceased person is baptized for the dead, that doesn’t mean that person is considered a member of the Church or a Mormon; it simply means that the sacrament has been performed on his or her behalf and he or she has the option to accept it, but also the freedom of will to reject it.
So Bell’s formulation that “everyone will have a place in heaven, whatever that turns out to be” is one that resonates with me, and I think he’s on the right path.
I don’t believe that a just God would subject people to eternal physical torment for ever and ever, especially when in many cases people simply did not have an opportunity to learn of the Gospel in this life through no fault of their own.
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