Because the Universalists were claiming that man would not receive eternal punishment for his sins, the question of justice and mercy was a burning issue during Joseph Smith's lifetime. Evangelist Charles G. Finney tells of an incident that took place in the 1820s:
... a Universalist minister came in and began to promulge his objectionable doctrines.... there was a large number that seemed to be shaken in their minds, in regard to the commonly received views of the Bible.... The great effort of the Universalist was of course to show that sin did not deserve endless punishment. He inveighed against the doctrine of endless punishment as unjust, infinitely cruel and absurd.... how could a God of love punish men endlessly? ...
When the evening came for my lecture, the house was crowded. I took up the question of the justice of endless punishment, and discussed it through that and the next evening. There was general satisfaction with the presentation (Charles G. Finney, pp. 48-49).
Like Charles G. Finney, Joseph Smith originally took a very strong stand against the doctrine of the Universalists. When we examine the Book of Mormon we see that it is filled with this controversy. In Alma 1:3 we read of a wicked man who "had gone about among the people, preaching to them that which he termed to be the word of God." In the fourth verse of the same chapter it becomes clear that this man was a Universalist in his doctrine: "And he also testified unto the people that all mankind should be saved at the last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble, but that they might lift up their heads and rejoice; for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men; and, in the end, all men should have eternal life" (Alma 1:4).
The reader will notice that this wicked man taught that "all
mankind should be saved at the last day." In the Universalist publication, Gospel Advocate, we find many similar expressions: "The Universalists believe ... all men will ultimately enjoy happiness ..." (Gospel Advocate, Feb. 17, 1826, p. 47). "... he both can and will save all mankind with an everlasting salvation..." (p. 47). "... all men will finally be saved" (p. 178).
The Universalists taught that "the devil is a nonentity, and an endless hell of brimstone a bug-bear..." (Gospel Advocate, August 25, 1826, p. 245).
The Book of Mormon, on the other hand, warns against such a teaching: "And behold, others he flattereth away, and telleth them there is no hell; and he saith unto them: I am no devil, for there is none—and thus he whispereth in their ears, until he grasps them with his awful chains,... and all that have been seized therewith must ... go into the place prepared for them, even a lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment" (2 Nephi 28:22-23).
Although Joseph Smith vigorously opposed the doctrine of the Universalists and supported the orthodox position concerning hell in his Book of Mormon, within a year he had completely changed his mind concerning this matter. In a revelation given to Martin Harris in March, 1830, Joseph Smith proclaimed: "Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment" (Doctrine and Covenants 19:6). Smith goes on to explain that "endless punishment" does not mean that the sinner will suffer the punishment eternally. B. H. Roberts explained: "Christians believed that to receive eternal punishment was to be punished eternally. This popular Christian error was corrected in a revelation to Martin Harris ..." (Outlines of Ecclesiastical History, p. 408).
Joseph Fielding Smith likewise stated: "We learn from the Doctrine and Covenants that eternal punishment, or everlasting punishment, does not mean that a man condemned will endure this punishment forever ..." (Doctrines of Salvation, vol. 2, p. 160).
When Joseph Smith became converted to the ideas of the Universalists he completely repudiated the teachings of the Book of Mormon. It would almost appear that he had completely forgotten what he had previously written. In his later theology he taught that eternal punishment would eventually come to an end, but in the Book of Mormon he stated that eternal punishment is as eternal as the life of the soul: "Now, repentence could not come unto men except there were a punishment, which also was eternal as the life of the soul
should be, affixed opposite to the plan of happiness, which was as eternal also as the life of the soul" (Alma 42:16).
In Mosiah 2:38-39, we read that it is a final doom: "Therefore if that man repenteth not, and remaineth and dieth an enemy to God.... mercy hath no claim on that man; therefore his final doom is to endure a never ending torment." In 3 Nephi 27:11 and 17, it is made clear that the wicked can never return: "... and by and by the end cometh, and they are hewn down and cast into the fire, from whence there is no return.... And he that endureth not unto the end, the same is he that is also hewn down and cast into the fire, from whence they can no more return, because of the justice of the Father."
Although at first it seems almost incredible that Joseph Smith completely reversed his position regarding eternal punishment, we must remember that he did this with regard to many other doctrines and practices. For instance, he condemned polygamy and secret societies in the Book of Mormon, yet he became a polygamist and a Mason before his death. Also, he originally taught monotheism but completely turned to polytheism. Joseph Smith may have changed his mind with regard to eternal punishment because of his friendship with Universalists. At one time Joseph Smith lived with Joseph Knight and his family who "were Universalists in their faith" (Comprehensive History of the Church, vol. 1, p. 200). It has been discovered that even Joseph Smith's own father was a member of "a Universalist Society in 1797" (The Ensign, February 1971, p. 16). It is reported also that Martin Harris, the man to whom Joseph Smith gave the revelation denying eternal punishment, was at one time a Universalist.
Although Joseph Smith took a great deal of space in the Book of Mormon to warn against an "awful hell," toward the end of his life he seemed to be indifferent and even flippant concerning this matter (see Mormonism—Shadow or Reality?, p. 198).
The fact that Joseph Smith completely changed his position concerning hell has led to a great deal of confusion among the Mormon people. Brigham Young taught that there would probably be no women in hell: "I doubt whether it can be found, from the revelations that are given and the facts as they exist, that there is a female in all the regions of hell" (Journal of Discourses, vol. 8, p. 222).
Apostle John A. Widtsoe taught that "very few will be so condemned" as to become the "sons of perdition" because "very few have the knowledge required." Apostle Widtsoe went on to state: "All others, who are not classed as sons of perdition, will be 'redeemed in the due time of the Lord'; that
is, they will all be saved. The meanest sinner will find some place in the heavenly realm.... In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there is no hell. All will find a measure of salvation.... The gospel of Jesus Christ has no hell in the old proverbial sense" (Joseph Smith—Seeker After Truth, pp. 177-78).
It is interesting to note that the Book of Mormon claims it is the devil who will say there is no hell. In 2 Nephi 28:21, 22 we read:
And others will he pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well—and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell. And behold, others he flattereth away, and telleth them there is no hell;... and thus he whispereth in their ears, until he grasps them with his awful chains, from whence there is no deliverence.
It is certainly strange that Apostle Widtsoe would teach the very thing that the Book of Mormon so strongly condemns.
Milton V. Backman, assistant professor of church history at Brigham Young University, admitted: "Joseph Smith ... accepted the Roman Catholic concept that there was an intermediate or preparatory stage between death and a final judgment" (Seminar On The Prophet Joseph Smith, BYU, February 18, 1961).
Joseph Fielding Smith taught that "It is the duty of men in this life to repent. Every man who hears the gospel message is under obligation to receive it. If he fails, then in the spirit world he will be called upon to receive it..." (Doctrines of Salvation, vol. 2, p. 183).
On page 220 of the same book President Smith claimed: "Even the wicked of the earth ... shall at last come forth from the prison house, repentant and willing to bow the knee and acknowledge Christ...." President Smith also stated: "It is decreed that the unrighteous shall have to spend their time during this thousand years in the prison house prepared for them where they can repent and cleanse themselves through the things which they shall suffer" (Doctrines of Salvation, vol. 3, p. 60).
Heber C. Kimball, who was a member of the First Presidency under Brigham Young, added:
That is loving the wicked, to send them there to hell to be burnt out until they are purified. Yes, they shall go there and stay there
and be burnt, like an old pipe that stinks with long usage and corruption, until they are burnt out, and then their spirits may be saved in the day of God Almighty" (Journal of Discourses, vol. 4, p. 223).
You have often heard me talk about my kindred.... they will be saved as I have told you many of this people will; they will first go to hell and remain there until the corruption with which they are impregnated is burnt out; and the day will yet come when they will come to me and acknowledge me as their savior, and I will redeem them and bring them forth from hell to where I live and make them my servants; and they will be quite willing to enter into my service (vol. 3, p. 109).
In accepting the Roman Catholic concept of a purgatory or preparatory stage between death and a final judgment," the Mormon church leaders have had to lay aside the teachings of the Book of Mormon. In Alma 34:32-35 it is made very clear that there is no chance for repentance after death:
For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors.... I beseech of you that ye do not procrastinate the day of your repentance until the end; for after this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed.
Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis, that I will repent, that I will return to my God. Nay, ye cannot say this; for that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world.
For behold, if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death, behold, ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil, and he doth seal you his; therefore, the Spirit of the Lord hath withdrawn from you, and hath no place in you, and the devil hath all power over you; and this is the final state of the wicked.
Degrees of Glory
On February 16,1832, Joseph Smith gave a revelation which states that there will be three different degrees of glory after the resurrection ( see Doctrine and Covenants, section 76). In the History of the Church, it is taught: "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God ... A man may be saved, after the judgment, in the terrestrial kingdom, or in the telestial kingdom, but he can never see the celestial kingdom of God, without being born of water and the Spirit." (vol. 1, p. 283).
Joseph Fielding Smith claimed that "Those who reject the gospel, but live honorable lives, shall also be heirs of salvation, but not in the celestial kingdom. The Lord has prepared a place for them in the terrestrial kingdom. Those who live lives of wickedness may also be heirs of salvation, that is, they too shall be redeemed from death and from hell eventually" (Doctrines of Salvation, vol. 2, p. 133).
This doctrine of three degrees of glory is certainly not in harmony with the teachings of the Book of Mormon. In 1 Nephi 15:35 we read that there is only a heaven and a hell: "And there is a place prepared, yea, even that awful hell of which I have spoken, and the devil is the foundation of it; wherefore the final state of the souls of men is to dwell in the kingdom of God, or to be cast out because of that justice of which I have spoken."
In Alma 5:24, 25, and 39, we read that those who are cast out of the kingdom of heaven are of the kingdom of the devil:
Behold, my brethren, do ye suppose that such an one can have a place to sit down in the kingdom of God... I say unto you, Nay; except ye make our Creator a liar from the beginning,... ye cannot suppose that such can have place in the kingdom of heaven; but they shall be cast out for they are the children of the kingdom of the devil (vv. 24-25). And now if ye are not the sheep of the good shepherd, of what fold are ye? Behold, I say unto you, that the devil is your shepherd, and ye are of his fold; and now, who can deny this? Behold, I say unto you, whosoever denieth this is a liar and a child of the devil (v. 39).
Apostle Orson Pratt had to admit that the Bible and Book of Mormon did not lend much support to the doctrine of three degrees of glory: "Then again, what could we learn from either the Bible or Book of Mormon in regard to three glories—the celestial, the terrestrial and the telestial glories? What did we know concerning those that should inhabit these various worlds of glory? Nothing at all" (Journal of Discourses, vol. 20, p. 70).
The Mormon church uses the statement made by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:40 to try to prove there are three degrees of glory: "There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another."
The first thing that should be noted about this verse is that it does not use the word "telestial"; this is a word that was made up by Joseph Smith. Bruce R. McConkie, who is now an Apostle, maintains that "The fact that some of these are telestial bodies has been lost from the King James Version of the Bible" (Mormon Doctrine, 1966, p. 777).
Apostle McConkie and other Mormon writers are, of course, unable to furnish any evidence that this has been deleted from the Bible or even that "telestial" is an actual word.
The second thing that should be noted is the meaning of the words "celestial" and "terrestrial." The American College Dictionary tells us that the meaning of celestial is "pertaining to the spiritual or invisible heaven; heavenly..." The word terrestrial means "pertaining to, consisting of, or representing the earth...." So we see that the word celestial simply means "heavenly" and the word terrestrial means "earthly." In Young's Literal Translation of the Holy Bible, the original Greek words are rendered as "heavenly" and "earthly" instead of "celestial" and "terrestrial": "... and there are heavenly bodies, and earthly bodies; but one is the glory of the heavenly and another that of the earthly...."
The third thing that should be noted concerning this verse is the context it appears in. A careful examination of the context, verses 35-54, reveals that Paul was comparing our earthly body with the body we shall receive in the resurrection; he was not speaking of three kingdoms in heaven. All of us now have a terrestrial or earthly body, but in the resurrection we shall have a celestial or heavenly body. Verse 44 makes it clear that Paul was speaking of the difference between the body we now have and the body we shall receive in the resurrection: "It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body."
Therefore, we see that the doctrine of three degrees of glory cannot be supported from the Bible, nor can it be supported from the Book of Mormon. Both books condemn this teaching.
The reader will find a chart on page 561 [Appendix A—see first image below] illustrating the Mormon plan of eternal progression.
Artist Rendering of Eternal Progression
[Not part of Changing World]