Skip to content

Contrasting a few models of hell

October 4, 2022

On Twitter was written the following:

I recognized where the guy was trying to go with this, because I wrote about this in part about my post on gift giving and receiving. Namely, a conventional understanding and model of hell (a place of eternal conscious torture — a punishment actively inflicted by God) seems incongruous with most definitions of “love” we can come up with.

Although I believe that “love” is an amorphous term and discussions featuring it should quickly reveal that we are talking past one another, I would say that even if humans do not understand the ways of God, we can at least say that we, who are evil, know how to give good gifts (to quote Matthew 7), so it’s difficult to accept that a supposedly all good Father in heaven would give such worse gifts.

So, I tentatively responded to the guy by saying that there are other models of Hell. But this got me thinking (as I did when I learned about the difference between classical theism and theistic personality)…is this an area where modern conventional understanding is overwhelmingly overdetermined by Protestantism?

I don’t think this is the case, but let me try to think out loud…

To oversimplify, the “conventional” model of hell of one of eternal conscious torment has implications that this is something that God intentionally and purposefully sends someone to. There is an implication further that the torment is an intentional act and not simply a consequence of some other act. So, the argument against it goes something like, “Why would God choose to go out of his way for this?”

“An Angel Leading a Soul into Hell” – Anonymous, Follower of Hieronymous Bosch, circa 1450 – 1516

For an alternative model not to fall prey to the same critique, then the main differences that have to exist are pulling this away from God’s actions, and then changing the torment part away from God’s doing or responsibility.

(P.s., I know that there are other models such as universalism, annihilationism, and so on. I will not discuss those.)

As far as I’m aware, Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and even Mormonism/Latter-day Saint theology attempt to address this. I am going to gloss over things but try to present an understanding in a way that would still be recognizable to believers. If I make any mistakes, then it’s probably my ignorance.


Catechism paragraph 1033 states:

We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: “He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.”

This establishes a few things:

  1. Heaven is the result a choice by humans (to love God)
  2. Hell is similarly a choice of self-exclusion from that communion

There are of course, certain actions required to make those choices. Grave/mortal sin is incompatible with loving God, for example.

In this way, I could see a Catholic might attempt to say, “see, it’s not on God, it’s on people.”

If I had to give an analogy thus far, it might be something like: Heaven is like a banquet with family. God is calling humanity to join the banquet and come to dinner.

But like…if you don’t like your family, don’t like the food that will be served at the dinner, etc., you might say, “Nah, I’m going to pass.”

…I would like to make some conclusions here, but I’m not sure that the conclusions of the analogy work. For example, I would like to say that the “natural conclusion” of avoiding dinner is simply that the person ends up alone and hungry. This would seem pretty bad, and it would fit with the self-selection.

However, I’m not sure if that is all hell is, at least even under Catholicism’s own terms. Catholicism still agrees (as far as I’m aware) that there will be torment and hellfire, which seems to me to be “above and beyond” natural consequences of simply “being hungry”. Like, “why though???”

Like, the images of hellfire didn’t originate with Martin Luther and onwards, so this isn’t just a Protestant invention, as far as I’m aware. (I guess I could end the post here, but I’ve got a couple other models to discuss…)


My understanding of Orthodoxy is that it’s a little bit different. Rather than having a separation from God, my understanding is that Orthodoxy preaches that God is ever present, and heaven or hell is the human response to that presence. The common analogy is God is like the sun, and the sun can either be comforting or burning depending on our frame of reference. (sorry, i couldn’t find anything equivalent to a catechism for a direct, authoritative quote, but I hope this is acceptable.)

God himself is both heaven and hell, reward and punishment. All men have been created to see God unceasingly in His uncreated glory. Whether God will be for each man heaven or hell, reward or punishment, depends on man’s response to God’s love and on man’s transformation from the state of selfish and self-centered love, to Godlike love which does not seek its own ends.

Since all men will see God, no religion can claim for itself the power to send people either to heaven or to hell. This means that true spiritual fathers prepare their spiritual charges so that vision of God’s glory will be heaven, and not hell, reward and not punishment. The primary purpose of Orthodox Christianity then, is to prepare its members for an experience which every human being will sooner or later have.

“Franks, Romans, Feudalism and Doctrine”, Part 2: Empirical Theology vs Speculative Theology, John S Romanides

So, keeping to the analogy, Heaven is like a banquet with family. You’re already at the banquet, eating the food. You cannot leave the banquet.

But, if you don’t like your family and the food, then while everyone else is enjoying themselves, you will be fuming inside, wishing you could leave.

This explains the hellfire as not a separate external thing, but as the same glory of God just interpreted differently.

(For whatever its worth, I think the Orthodox presentation works a little better. Hell is not “extra” here. I can totally relate to the idea of suffering internally because I’m utterly unprepared to face an unavoidable meeting.)


If I think about LDS views of heaven and hell, with multiple kingdoms of heaven followed with a (hopefully sparsely populated) Outer Darkness, there are some similarities to the Catholic model, at least at a rough sketch. First, a discussion of the Sons of Perdition:

31 Thus saith the Lord concerning all those who know my power, and have been made partakers thereof, and suffered themselves through the power of the devil to be overcome, and to deny the truth and defy my power—

32 They are they who are the sons of perdition, of whom I say that it had been better for them never to have been born;

33 For they are vessels of wrath, doomed to suffer the wrath of God, with the devil and his angels in eternity;

34 Concerning whom I have said there is no forgiveness in this world nor in the world to come—

35 Having denied the Holy Spirit after having received it, and having denied the Only Begotten Son of the Father, having crucified him unto themselves and put him to an open shame.

36 These are they who shall go away into the lake of fire and brimstone, with the devil and his angels—

37 And the only ones on whom the second death shall have any power;

Doctrine & Covenants Section 76: 31-37

In this case, certain variants are that this state is reserved to those who knew God’s power, were partakers thereof, and then after that denied and defied that power. Maybe this is similar to the Catholic concept of mortal sin (which requires full knowledge of the gravity of the action), but in an LDS context, I think the conventional understanding is that very few actions can occur with that level of knowledge, and very few people will reach that level of knowledge to be able to perform that blasphemy against the Holy Ghost.

So, what about everyone else?

LDS theology has concepts of temporary spirit prison and so on that (at first glance) do seem to match up somewhat with Catholic concepts like purgatory, but the LDS innovation (…depending on if you think theology needs ‘innovation’, i guess?) is on multiple levels of kingdoms within heaven. D&C 76 goes on at length about those bodies are “celestial” vs “terrestrial” vs “telestial”, and I won’t write so much for this, except to say that when discussing the telestial, D&C 76 says:

82 These are they who received not the gospel of Christ, neither the testimony of Jesus.

83 These are they who deny not the Holy Spirit.

84 These are they who are thrust down to hell.

85 These are they who shall not be redeemed from the devil until the last resurrection, until the Lord, even Christ the Lamb, shall have finished his work.

86 These are they who receive not of his fulness in the eternal world, but of the Holy Spirit through the ministration of the terrestrial;

87 And the terrestrial through the ministration of the celestial.

88 And also the telestial receive it of the administering of angels who are appointed to minister for them, or who are appointed to be ministering spirits for them; for they shall be heirs of salvation.

89 And thus we saw, in the heavenly vision, the glory of the telestial, which surpasses all understanding;

Doctrine & Covenants Section 76: 82-90

Later on (verse 103) helpfully adds that “these are they who are liars, and sorcerers, and adulterers, and whoremongers, and whosoever loves and makes a lie.”

Here, we get the sense of hell meaning a couple of things. In this telestial sense, it is temporary (“they who shall not be redeemed from the devil until the last resurrection”)…but in the unending sense, it is reserved more for those who denied the Holy Ghost after having full knowledge. (This set of scriptures also allows us to question whether “eternal” may not represent an unending duration of time…as those who ultimately go to the telestial kingdom will nevertheless “suffer the vengeance of eternal fire” (D&C 76:105)

Apocryphally, Mormons tend to assert that the Telestial Kingdom isn’t that bad. It’s hard to nail down theology, but the quote I recall is:

The Lord has told us of three degrees of glory. There are three “heavens,” as it is often referred to. We call them the telestial, terrestrial, and the celestial. I cannot for a minute conceive the telestial being hell, either, because it is considered a heaven, a glory. The Prophet Joseph Smith told us that if we could get one little glimpse into the telestial glory even, the glory is so great that we would be tempted to commit suicide to get there

Eldred G. Smith, BYU Speeches, March 10, 1964, p. 4, as quoted on

The reason I put all of these up is that because when I was growing up, I got the sense that Mormonism was trying to prove that it could “address” the issues and shortcomings of other Christian denominations. Since the doctrine of hell is seen as a major issue, the various kingdoms of heaven are intended as a revealed “solution”.

(Obviously, people can have varying degrees on whether these things were issues in need of a solution, or if Mormonism actually engages the topics well enough to provide a reasonable answer. That’s not the purpose of this post.)

What strikes me is that even when talking about Outer Darkness and trying to make things be very much about human action and response, there is still the language about the “lake of fire and brimstone.” But again…like, why?

At the same time, the musings on telestial kingdom are supposed to assure us that even those we would conventionally recognize as bad (e.g., liars, adulterers, ….sorcerers?) will go to a place that is still of glory. In this sense, we can start to envision that maybe the telestial kingdom is like life on earth in a way — and here, we could easily envision how that could have its own problems (by definition, all of my anxieties and fears and issue are things I’ve faced on earth.)

Yet, it seems that even in these supposedly alternative models of hell, there is still an aspect of people being subject to hellfire — at least for a time.

My thoughts

I know, as a reprobate vessel of wrath fitted for destruction, that my thoughts have no significance. How dare the clay say to the potter, “What are you making?”

But, nevertheless, I cannot make the leap to hellfire. Positioning the consequences of our lives in terms of natural consequences makes sense to me. Positioning the consequences of our lives in terms of lack of development or preparation makes sense to me. Positioning the consequences of our lives in terms of an eternal “fear of missing out” or “regret of missing out” makes sense to me.

But that doesn’t get me to hellfire.

I have heard the problem of a fallen nature described in the sense of someone throwing themselves off a cliff. When someone does this, they cannot undo this. They will hurtle to the a painful, deadly landing to whatever lies below, and they cannot save themselves from this. They need to be saved from this fate.

So, to the extent this is what hell represents, then I could get that.

And similarly, I understand intuitively (ask me how I know!) of the anguish that comes from having unresolved anxieties, fears, guilt, etc., So, to the extent that this is what hell represents, then I could get that.

…but…it doesn’t feel like that is all people are trying to say Hell is, even when it is couched as a place of separation from God, or a place of an adverse reaction to God, etc., Hell in terms of fire and brimstone doesn’t feel like the rocky ground that gravity is inexhaustibly pulling one towards. It doesn’t feel just like guilt. It feels…extra.

I have some thoughts on why this “extra” thing is needed. I imagine that some people may commit crimes and sins that they never regret, that they never feel guilty for. That they never experience any other adverse natural consequence for. I can understand why someone would want to posit hell to catch these cases.

…and yet, that feels like addressing things from a finite human perspective. In other words, we humans have primarily retributive punishment systems because we have not evolved socially out of vengeful thinking — it’s harder to accept that our carceral systems represent the highest potential moral thinking on the matter, and yet, essentially, we’re supposed to envision that this in fact is such.

From → Uncategorized

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: