This section discusses repentance and the danger of punishment, even hell, for those who do not accept the grace made possible by the Atonement of Jesus Christ on conditions of repentance. However, we learn that hell, though an eternal and endless institution in God’s eternal and endless work is not endured endlessly for those who are sent there. Here are some relevant verses (read the whole section at LDS.org):
4 And surely every man must repent or suffer, for I, God, am endless.
5 Wherefore, I revoke not the judgments which I shall pass, but woes shall go forth, weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, yea, to those who are found on my left hand.
6 Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment.
7 Again, it is written eternal damnation; wherefore it is more express than other scriptures, that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men, altogether for my name’s glory….
10 For, behold, the mystery of godliness, how great is it! For, behold, I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name. Wherefore–
11 Eternal punishment is God’s punishment.
12 Endless punishment is God’s punishment.
Many Christians over the centuries have struggled with the concept of hell and wondered why God would create endless torment for those who didn’t find their way to Christianity. Part of the problem is the injustice of condemning millions who simply had no chance to learn of Christ and become baptized Christians. That problem, of course, is elegantly and beautifully resolved in the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ when one understands the divine concept of baptism for the dead and the preaching of the Gospel to the dead so that all will have a fair chance to hear and accept the Gospel of Christ. But another part of the problem is this: Why endless torment for those who sin? Mercifully, we learn in Section 19 that suffering of hell is temporary. It is an endless and eternal institution, but one’s passage through hell is temporary. As I understand it, it lasts long enough for one to fully pay for one’s sins, but then, as we read in Section 76, even those who sinned and refused to repent will be released from hell and enter into a decent place, though still cut off from the full glory of God that is reserved for those who loved Him and accepted the grace offered through the covenants of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
While some of us Latter-day Saints read Section 19 and want to rejoice over the mercy shown even toward those deserving of hell, others are troubled by the tactic God has taken. By using words like endless and eternal to describe a temporary hell, isn’t God deliberately deceptive? Doesn’t He admit to playing deceptive mind games in saying “it is written eternal damnation . . . that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men”? If our God isn’t an honest God, can we really trust Him? Does He even exist?
The questions are fair and worth discussing. Unfortunately, this line of reasoning led one acquaintance of mine out of the Church--apparently being the “last straw” or the final catalyst for abandoning faith. I’m writing this post today for her and anyone else struggling with God’s integrity due to this issue. I will share some thoughts that I hope will help, though may not change anyone’s mind. The points I wish to make are that 1) the technical gaps in the basic warnings about eternal torment or endless hellfire may be an appropriate way for a loving parent to simplify complex teachings into a simple message that rebellious kids can grasp (e.g., the pains of hell are very bad, and yes, there are eternal consequences to sin), and 2) long before Section 19 was given, the scriptures already contained hints that the “eternal torment” of hell could be experienced temporarily, as Section 19 indicates.
Parents and Simplified Messaging
When I read Section 19, I do not experience the sense of deliberate deception and lack of integrity from God. I experience the sense of a parent trying to teach rebellious children. Yes, the words used lack technical detail, just as many instructions from a parent are incomplete and even technically inadequate, while adapted for the good of the child.
A big part of parenting is teaching complex things in simple ways. To lead children to the right behaviors and right conclusions, giving the full technical explanation with all the exceptions, theory, qualifiers, etc., is often inadequate. What may be complex often has to be boiled down to a simple concept when people aren’t ready to explore and understand to understand the full details and all the nuances. The simplified, incomplete guidance parents give to young children on topics ranging from safety, diet, and human reproduction is not because parents are inherently deceptive, but because they love their children and are trying to teach them what they can digest in ways that will help them. The oversimplified explanations may be rife with technical gaps that anyone with an advanced degree could point out. God is a heavenly parent teaching often rebellious kids with highly limited comprehension. Mercifully, at the most basic level, the complex story of the various stages of judgment, punishment, paradise vs. spirit prison, resurrection, etc., becomes something like this: "Don’t mess with sin, and don't stay trapped in sin, because the consequences are very bad and very painful. The consequences are eternal. Forever. You really, really, really don't want to go to hell!”
Yes, the consequences are eternal, for being locked out of God's presence and all that joy is eternal. OK, the direct suffering to pay for one’s sins in hell does not last forever, but being out of God’s presence does, and though that is not hellfire, it is tragic. Technically the intense suffering in the darkness of hell is only temporary, mercifully, and then we live eternally in fairly cool kingdoms that, however, are away from God’s presence, which means eternal loss and separation. Not endlessly in hellfire, but endlessly apart, and even a brief touch of hell is eternal enough if we knew what it was like. Given all that, it makes sense that God, the merciful parent faced, condenses the message for us slow learners to inform and motivate correctly, not to deceive, though the condensed message has some technicalities that advanced learners can object to. For the advanced learners, again mercifully, we have Section 19 and Section 76 and Section 138, and more to give us a more nuanced understanding of the afterlife, though still highly incomplete and perhaps rife with other technical gaps that we will appreciate once we ready to understand more.
This could be a case where the more technically nuanced explanation would get condensed in the minds of men to a message that would ultimately be deceptive by leading men to think hell and punishment are not a big deal and everything will be OK in the end, regardless of what they do. After looking at this again, my conclusion might be that perhaps we need to give God the same kind of break that we hope our kids will give us and understand that the answers given to 5-year-olds might have relatively necessary gaps compared to what we can teach later on. Not because we are deceiving, but because we are parenting and loving.
The scriptures contain other examples where wording seems to convey simplified messages that are technically inadequate, but are perfectly adequate for the purpose intended with the target audience. For example, the Creation story speaks of 7 days, and men have naturally understood this to be short days of 24 hours, when the Hebrew word day can also refer to an epoch in time. We are now learning that the earth is very old and that whatever process it has been through to prepare it for life as we now know it, millions and even billions of years were involved. Why didn’t God give us the technically correct data to begin with? Why not explain the Creation in a more scientifically robust manner? Perhaps because the purpose from the beginning has been to let us know that He is the Creator, and the technical details don’t matter much, at least so far they haven’t. Perhaps that is changing and some future revelation will address the science of the Creation more satisfactorily for those who feel they deserve more details. Patience for now, please.
Temporary Tasting of Eternal Torment: A Consistent Message
The concept of experiencing hell temporarily is not new to Section 19. It is part of the ancient Christian concept of the “harrowing of hell” in which Christ bring deliverance to the dead who once were rebellious but hear and accept the Gospel. This concept is hinted at in 1 Peter 3 and 4, and in the early Christian concept of baptism for the dead, but for details on the pervasive extent of this doctrine, see "The Harrowing of Hell: Salvation for the Dead in Early Christianity" by Roger D. Cook, David L. Paulsen, and Kendel J. Christensen.
Perhaps a more directly relevant issue comes from the story of Alma the Younger in the Book of Mormon. In describing his torment for three days and nights after recognizing that he had been fighting against God, he says that he experienced “everlasting burnings” and “eternal torment.” See Mosiah 27:28, 29 and Alma 36:12:
 Nevertheless, after wading through much tribulations, repenting nigh unto death, the Lord in mercy hath seen fit to snatch me out of an everlasting burning, and I am born of God.
 My soul hath been redeemed from the gall of bitterness and bonds of iniquity. I was in the darkest abyss; but now I behold the marvelous light of God. My soul was racked with eternal torment; but I am snatched, and my soul is pained no more.
 But I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins.
Everlasting. Eternal. Temporary. Completely consistent with Section 19.
Alma is not playing mind games either nor being deceptive. The torments of hell are from the Eternal One, the Endless One, and are endless and eternal, though temporary.
For further insights on this topic, see a related article at FAIRMormon.org on eternal punishment.
I would appreciate your thoughts and insights on how to better deal with this topic. It does matter for some people and I would like to find better ways to treat the challenges that some face with this topic.