What is Heaven? What is Hell?

AndrewHappiness, inter-faith, LDS, love, Mormon, mormon, Mormons, obedience, salvation 26 Comments

We pray. We read scriptures. We go to Church. We fulfill our callings. We obey our Church leaders. As much as we’d like to think that what we do is based on selfless, altruistic motives, I think an honest self-examination will reveal that many of our choices are motivated by our desire for an eternal reward in the hereafter, or to avoid an eternal punishment. But what exactly is the eternal reward we are seeking, and what is the eternal punishment we are trying to avoid?

In the scriptures, “Heaven” is the word most often used to describe the reward that the righteous will inherit in the next life. Joseph Smith once said that if you could gaze into Heaven for five minutes, you would know more about that subject than all that has been written about it. I used to interpret that quote as meaning that Heaven’s glory defies description and can only be comprehended by first-hand observation. But I think what Joseph may have been getting at was that there are precious few descriptions of Heaven in the scriptures. As a result, our eternal goal of Heaven is something we are largely left to speculate about and imagine.

When I was a child, my Primary teachers would often say something like, “if you do [x,y, or z], you can return and live forever with Heavenly Father in Heaven.” This was never a particularly effective form of motivation for me because I couldn’t remember what Heavenly Father was like, and I couldn’t remember Heaven. So the idea of living forever in an unfamiliar place with someone who was now a stranger to me was not particularly motivating. However, the more general idea of Heaven being a place where I’d be happy forever intrigued me.

I remember walking around Disneyland as a child and sometimes wondering: Is what Heaven is like? I imagined Heaven as an even more glorious version of Disneyland, with bigger, faster, and more exciting rides, no lines, and free food, drinks, and candy all day, every day. For me, Heaven would be a Celestial amusement park where I could play all day instead of having to go to school or do household chores or yard work.

When I was a teenager, I was impressed by the scriptural descriptions of Heaven as a place of extraordinary material wealth and beauty. Streets paved with gold! Gates of pearl! Jewel-encrusted walls! I imagined Heaven as a Celestial Ritz-Carlton resort for kings and queens. Who wouldn’t be happy living in the lap of luxury for eternity?

In my college years when I began to feel weighed down by the ever-increasing burdens of adulthood and life in the “real world” away from home, at times I would long for Heaven as a rest from all my Earthly cares. No homework. No exams. No school. No work. I imagined Heaven as a place where I could enjoy all the benefits of life without any of its burdens.

When I became a husband and father and acquired the instinctive fears of losing what was most precious to me, I began to view Heaven as the place where I could spend eternity with my family. It no longer mattered to me what Heaven looked like or what I would spend my time doing there. All I cared about was that I was going to be there with my family. I imagined Heaven as a big, happy, eternal family reunion with grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, spouses, children, etc.

But there came a point when, despite my striving to do everything required to go to Heaven, I was pretty miserable. I was married, I had children, I owned a home in a nice community, I had a terrific ward, I had a great calling, and I was miserable. I was a perfect personification of the line from that Smith’s song where Morrissey croons: “I was looking for a job and then I found a job, and Heaven knows I’m miserable now.” I was “living the dream,” at least on paper; I had a good-paying job that financed my family’s comfortable but not extravagant lifestyle. But supporting our family as the sole income-earner was destroying my own quality of life.

Eventually I got to the point where I was questioning what good it was to “follow the plan” by being a responsible husband, father, and Church member if, ultimately, I was still miserable. Was I just supposed to endure a life of hell and unhappiness in hopes of attaining the promised heaven and happiness in the next life? This internal debate got me thinking a lot again about eternal rewards and punishments, and about Heaven and Hell.

Because the scriptures I’d relied upon my whole life didn’t seem to be providing me the answers, I started to look elsewhere. I read the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Dhammapada, and other non-Judeo-Christian scriptures. I read some writings of great spiritual minds of other faiths; great souls like Thomas Merton, the Dalai Lama, and Thich Naht Hahn. As I studied their writings, I felt like they were opening my eyes to truths in Mormonism that I had not fully grasped previously.

One common truth among the great world religions is that our spirits will continue to live after the physical death of our bodies. Although we differ in our understandings about what physical state of being we’ll have in the next life, we essentially agree that we will continue to have the same qualities of mind and heart that we possess in this life.

The world’s great religions also seem to agree that there are some basic, unalterable laws of the universe: anger, hatred, greed, jealously, lust, selfishness, impatience, refusal to forgive, pride, and a host of other negative qualities of mind and heart naturally make us human beings miserable. By contrast, love, kindness, generosity, selflessness, humility, patience, forgiveness, and a host of other positive qualities of mind and heart naturally make us happy. Think about it: have you ever known an angry, hateful person who was happy? Have you ever known a kind, loving soul who was chronically miserable?

Considering these truths together, we recognize that to a large extent, God doesn’t even need to condemn and punish us; we condemn and punish ourselves. If I am an angry, hateful, greedy, selfish, impatient, unforgiving person in this life, then I will be mostly miserable in this life, and because I will continue to be the same person after death, I will continue to be miserable in the next life (at least until I can rid myself of those negative qualities of mind and heart). By contrast, if I am a loving, kind, generous, selfless, patient, and forgiving person in this life, I will be mostly happy in this life, and because my positive qualities of mind and heart will continue with me after my death, I will continue to be happy in the next life as well.

My previous understanding of Heaven was that it was a place where I would be happy because of external factors: because it would be a beautiful place, a place with an absence of hardship, and a place where I could be with the ones I love. But as I read other books of scripture, they opened my eyes to the truth that Heaven is largely an internal state of being. I came to understand that the person we become in this life is largely our eternal reward or punishment, our Heaven or Hell.

That’s not to say that “good” people will always be happy, or that “bad” people will always be miserable. We all need to struggle with difficulty and hardship because it enables them to develop the humble, forgiving, patient, and loving qualities of mind and heart that are essential prerequisites for our happiness. And a life of “happy” enjoyment of ease and comfort can turn us into greedy, selfish, impatient people who will ultimately become miserable.

What all of this does mean to me, however, is that:

  • More than a glorious and beautiful kingdom, more than an absence of earthly cares, more than the persistence of family bonds, Heaven is a state of mind, a state of heart, and a state of Being. That being the case . . .
  • I need to shatter the idea that entrance into Heaven is some external reward that is bestowed in exchange for my obedience to a set of rules, strictures, commandments, etc. Rather, I need to continually remind myself that . . .
  • Following rules, commandments, and admonishments is effective in leading me to Heaven only to the extent that I am developing the qualities of mind and heart that naturally create happiness from within: love, kindness, generosity, patience, humility, forgiveness, etc. And lastly . . .
  • I myself am incapable of developing these qualities of mind and heart of my own will; but by the grace of God, all things are possible.

With these thoughts in mind, it’s now so much easier for me to visualize my eternal reward or punishment, my Heaven or Hell. I need only look in the mirror and take a deep look within.

Comments 26

  1. Andrew,

    Applying Kant’s moral dictum that we ought to consider what kind of world would be created if everyone were to act as we do, what do you imagine the results would be if your understanding of heaven and hell were at the very least the commonly taught version in the LDS Church? Feel free to brag, humble one 🙂

  2. #4 – It is the commonly taught version. It might not be the commonly believed version – but it’s becoming more and more the commonly believed version. I have seen a marked shift in this direction over the past 10-15 years.

  3. Bruce (1): Ha ha, no, Valoel and I didn’t plan to do posts on the same topic, but pretty interesting how it worked out that way.

    Ray (2) and Arthur (3): Thanks gents.

    John N. (4): Interesting question. I haven’t thought much about whether or how it would change the Church to adopt a similar viewpoint. I suppose that’s because I believe what I’ve written above is, in fact, LDS doctrine, but that perhaps I’ve simply formulated it or worded it a bit differently than we commonly hear. But I can tell you how this “re-formulation” (for me anyway), has helped me. The greatest benefit I’ve experienced is that it has eliminated my former practice of “Checklist Religion,” by which I mean the system of thought that life is, at its core, a test of obedience, and that the more obedient you are to the myriad of rules and regulations, the greater reward or the lesser punishment you’ll receive. I prefer the formulation that life is an opportunity to develop divine attributes that naturally create happiness, the most important attribute being love.

    So how does this affect my “day to day”? I’ve stopped doing things because it’s my “responsibility” or “duty” or “obligation” to do them, or because I’ve been “commanded” or “instructed” to do them. I’ve stopped doing things because I feel like my salvation depends on my following the orders of my superiors with exactness. In short, I’ve stopped doing things because I believe I’m “supposed to” do them.

    So take something like home teaching for example. Before, I probably would have done it because I’m “supposed to.” I probably wouldn’t have gotten much out of it, other than perhaps the satisfaction of knowing I had been obedient, which I would have translated as meaning I’d be better off in the afterlife.

    Now, I try to focus myself on how it is an opportunity to develop a friendship with someone, to serve and show kindness to someone, and to make someone feel like someone else cares about them. When I do that, I get a lot more out of what I do, I enjoy it more, it feels like I’m in control and making my own decisions, instead of just doing something that someone else told me I had to do to avoid punishment. I guess you could say I feel like I’ve finally been able to transition from a motive of fear to a motive of love, which is intensely liberating and so much more fulfilling.

    So I guess my overall goal in writing this is to present the formulation that works for me in helping me focus on the true goal of obedience: (love and happiness), rather than losing sight of the forest through the trees by emphasizing obedience for the sake of obedience, or obedience to receive an external reward or to avoid an externally-imposed punishment.

  4. #5 – I agree with Ray that what Andrew is outline is the commonly taught version.

    Is it commonly believed? That’s harder to say. The problem is that a sublime concept like this is very difficult to teach people and have them internalize.

    If you sit down with the average Mormon who still views their relationship with God in a “checklist” sort of way, like Andrew describes, you can ask the questions and they will always deny they see it as a checklist. Instead, they will repeat what they heard in church. Things like:

    “Heaven is having the kind of life God has. It’s being like Him.”

    “No one who wants to go to the Celestial Kingdom will be denied there, they’ll choose on their own to not go.”

    etc. etc.

    In short, when we speak of people that view it as a checklist, we speak of a category that denies they are a part of that category (though they always know someone else that is just like that.) But then they will go right back to treating it like a checklist.

    Making this more difficult is that we are surrounded by a larger Christian culture who has a strong vocal element that does not believe this way about heaven yet uses many of the same terms we do. It’s hard to not pick up on this and speak in such protestant terms.

    For example, I often hear Mormons say something like “she/he died on went to heaven.” Yet techincally this is Protestant doctrine, not Mormon doctrine. (Although I’ve heard many Mormons later explain: “well, I feel ‘heaven’ is a proper name for ‘spirit paradise.’) My point being that it’s nearly impossible to shake the feeling that heaven is a place instead of a state of being no matter how it’s taught because a) it is *also* a place, b) it’s hard to understand ‘a state of being’ so you have to dumb it down to yourself as ‘a place’ a some point until ready for more, c) Protestant culture tends to get co-minglinged in our beliefs and manner of speaking.

    I’d also add “you have to teach it like a place to a child because state of being is beyond their comprehension.”

    I just did a lesson on this on Sunday. I started with Helman 5 about being saved “from our sins” rather than “in our sins.” I drew this around to the idea that salvation was not going to heaven or even being forgiven of your sins (like many vocal protestants insiste they believe) but was actually gaining God’s character. Thus to be saved “in your sins” is to be saved without being saved. It’s a contradiction. There is no salvation but “from your sins.”

  5. I noticed that you said very little about hell, and focussed almost entirely on heaven.

    Please consider the following quotes from the bible:

    2 Cor. 11:3-4 “But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he who comes preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted — you may well put up with it.”

    Gal 1:6-9: “I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel:Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.”

    Quote from Andrew Ainsworth, “With these thoughts in mind, it’s now so much easier for me to visualize my eternal reward or punishment, my Heaven or Hell. I need only look in the mirror and take a deep look within.”

    I would kindly suggest that you don’t visualize Heaven or Hell, or look in the mirror and take a deep look within. You should study God’s word (the bible) to determine what Heaven and Hell are really like, and make sure you are are confident of your own destination. Maybe also pray to God that he show you the way thru his Word?

    In the Bible hell is a place of eternal punishment. Jesus used the perpetual fire of Jerusalem’s garbage dump in the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna) as a vivid illustration of what he called “hell fire” (Matthew 10:28; 18:9; 23:33; Mark 9:23).

  6. “God” by John Lennon comes to mind. “God is a constant by which we measure our pain”

    I like your thinking process.

    Going on a deconstructing “Dark Night of the Soul” journey is one reason I gravitated to my present theology and affiliation. I found enough abstractness, paradox, mystery, liberty and structure within to feel free to see God, Heaven, His Kingdom, His Church, etc., in a way that makes me feel part of something bigger. I came to value my personal worth, and what I think Grace says about God. Yet I came to have a greater urge toward seeing my individual self as second to seeking more interconnectedness with humanity and its potential. It may or may not be the strength of the theology per se. It is possible it was the mere act of changing my faith from something that felt familiar, traditional, institutional, and imposed toward something intentionally chosen, unfamiliar and less certain, yet irresistibly more authentic to how God seems to be drawing me.

  7. Andrew – “As I studied their writings, I felt like they were opening my eyes to truths in Mormonism that I had not fully grasped previously.” This is my view. The more I read some non-LDS writing, the more I understand our actual theology.

    One of the most important LDS concepts to me is eternal progression, which IMO has nothing to do with “checklist” mentality. You simply can’t checklist your way into being more like God. You have to fill yourself with the good things (forgiveness, patience, humility, intelligence) and let go of the bad things or at least not entertain or feed them (anger, self-righteousness, judging, pride). It’s the only way to scrub your soul clean so it can be filled with light. That is Heaven. Hell is polluting your soul with negativity and dark, base emotions.

  8. I agree, Joe, with your appealing to the Bible as a trustworthy source for us to look toward. Yet I think it is haphazard to blindly trust interpretations. Could it be that the questions and transformative journey to which it breathes in us, and leads us, are at least as important as being certain about our interpretations and answers?

    Jesus’ words are colored by the culture and community for whom each Gospel was written. To me, Hell teachings are important where they teach us transmutable values that shape our spiritual humanity, such as reliance on God over individual self, of the importance of rooting ourselves in Him in this life, of the reality of lasting pain if we reject Him, etc. However, it cannot be denied that cultural imagery, even Pagan culture, greatly colors traditional views of Heaven and Hell. Therefore if Andrew takes his journey with God and finds other metaphors, other narratives for Heaven and Hell besides Gehenna, for example, that speak to him, that direct him to place his faith and loyalty, then I respect that mythic, human voyage.

    I don’t disagree at all that we should continually strive to keep our spiritual growth biblically rooted.

  9. With these thoughts in mind, it’s now so much easier for me to visualize my eternal reward or punishment, my Heaven or Hell. I need only look in the mirror and take a deep look within


  10. Amen and thank you. I think the following passage is consistent with your explanation and my understanding:

    But learn that he who doeth the works of righteousness shall receive his reward, even peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come. D&C 59:23

    In my mind spiritual and emotional “peace” or “serenity” in this world are like eternal life in the world to come. Perhaps they are the same thing.

  11. Quix: I’m discovering much of the same, but without having to leave. (It did take a crisis to get me started – perhaps that’s the catalyst *I* needed.) I’d have to sum it up as “hope”. This church has it doctrinally more than socially. I’ve had to extricate myself from many of my old ideas, and I mostly manage that by studying the scriptures without the biases I learned in my upbringing. My greatest question now is how to pass *these* biases on to my children when social pressure at church may hand them something else….

    Andrew: Fantastic post.

    Checklists are terrible, and we love them. I think part of the problem is that we feel a need for some objective standard to judge ourselves by rather than simply turning judgment over to God.

  12. Trousers – I think you will find that parents still have more influence on their kids’ dispositions than well-meaning but misguided adult leaders at church do.

  13. I used to think that heaven was the highest glory. I used to think that hell was Outer Darkness. Heaven for any particular person is really the glory that they gravitate to, where they feel the most comfortable, naturally. I used to feel so much zeal towards trying to force my friends to think the way I do, that going to the Highest glory of the Celestial Kingdom was the best for them. But now, who am I to force them to be something they aren’t. If there is “punishment” associated with not making it to the highest glory, there is also punishment in someone unnaturally trying to make it to that glory if it doesn’t feel natural for them to make it. They wouldn’t feel comfortable, and to make them uncomfortable and force discomfort on them is unnatural. I have a friend that I got going to Church for a while. And then he quit going because it isn’t in his heart. I got mad at him because he stopped going. But then recently, I realized that the fact that it wasn’t in his heart is precisely because he is gravitating towards what is natural for him, and for him to do something unnatural, and for me to try to put pressure on him to do something unnatural is probably wrong, and is probably Lucifer taking advantage of my zeal, trying to tempt me to unrighteously use my peer pressure influence on my friends to unnaturally force them to be better than they are comfortable with. We focus so much on those that are “chosen” who heed the Lord’s voice and be obedient. We may ask, what are they chosen for? They are chosen to gravitate to what they gravitate to. The highest glory. Those that gravitate to other places are chosen for those places as well, where they will literally be the happiest they could be, where it is most natural for them to be. Who am I to fight against their nature? I can continue to invite, but my tendency towards being a zealot to try to force other people to do what I want has evaporated. Now my zeal is to try to get myself and my family back to the Lord, and to influence my kids while they are clay in the hands of the potter. If they gravitate after that to something else, then who am I to force them? The Lord certainly doesn’t force them. Why should I? I should follow his example. This is an insight that I have just barely realized. People that gravitate to other things are happiest where they end up. My friendship with them continues in spite of that.

  14. Thank you for the insights and the the gentle reminder. One place that I have found this idea to be explained well is in the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. His book “Heaven and Hell” particularly drives the point home. He said,”It can never be said that heaven is outside anyone. It is within; because every angel accepts the heaven that is outside in keeping with the heaven that is within. We can see, then, how mistaken people are who think that getting into heaven is simply a matter of being taken up among the angels, regardless of the quality of their inner life, who believe that heaven is granted merely because of the Lord’s mercy. On the contrary, unless heaven is within an individual, nothing of the heaven that is outside flows in and is accepted.” (Swedenborg 113)

  15. Trousers (15): Thanks. And yes, I don’t think that LDS persons who undertake a journey like ours must leave for that to be authentic. That’s where I try to keep my trust in God to work with His as He chooses.

    Hawkgrrrl (16): I think you’re right. However, when children turn between 12-14 they begin to see their reality shaped more by friends, and for adult influences, more by teachers and leaders than parents. Not that parents are useless and summarily dismissed. But the need is real that parents of pre- or young teens should stay wise of the influences in culture and the quality of adult teachers and leadership. It’s one reason of several why we chose to affiliate ourselves with a different denomination. And why we keep a very active relationship with our son’s school and teachers. (‘Course, if Freakonomics is right, his success is more due to the kind of family we are than the kind of school & teachers we’ve chosen. So who knows?) 🙂

  16. I feel like I have ‘grown a lot spiritually’ once I decided that the Gospel is about forging better people, not just asking people to act better. In the same vein, since I have decided that I think “heaven” is living with those better people, I’ve felt a “surety of hope for a better world.”

  17. “Did you and Valoel plan this or what? These two posts are perfect together.”

    🙂 I can hardly coordinate putting matching shoes on in the morning.

  18. “Considering these truths together, we recognize that to a large extent, God doesn’t even need to condemn and punish us; we condemn and punish ourselves.”

    I think these are very true words.

    I personally see Heaven and Hell sort of like they portrayed it in the movie “What Dreams May Come.” We are who we are, even after we die. We might be producing our own reality projection. Being filled with love, beauty and divinity, we will be in a beautiful and divine kingdom. If we are full of anger and lust (for whatever), we will be in a projected kingdom full of that type of darkness. The ultimate destination is to have our projection be in perfect harmony with God’s. Then we will enter His presence and be like him/her/they.

    “The Kingdom of God is Within You” -Jesus Christ

  19. Pingback: Points of Interest #29 « Mind, Soul, and Body

  20. Pingback: Last Chance for Niblet Nominations at Mormon Matters

  21. Pingback: 2008 Niblets: Rock the Vote Here! at Mormon Matters

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *