“From Whence They Can No More Return”: What Lehi Teaches Us About the Book of Mormon’s Harsh Language on Hell

The Book of Mormon’s teachings on hell sometimes sound much harsher than what we understand from modern revelation. From Joseph’s Smith’s revelations, such as his vision on the three degrees of glory in Section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants and his revelations pertaining to the salvation of the dead and baptism for the dead, we know that many who die without having accepted Christ or without even having heard of Him will have a fair chance to hear and accept the Gospel. We also know that for almost all the wicked who have lived on this planet, the place or condition we call hell is ultimately only temporary for them, though the concept of hell itself is eternal and language about eternal punishment is ambiguous on purpose to stir men up to repentance, as explained in Section 19 of the Doctrine and Covenants (but yes, those who go to the Telestial Kingdom after suffering for their own sins in hell are eternally cut off from the presence of God and Christ, and do not return to them in the Celestial Kingdom).

It is only the sons of perdition who seem to be cast into hell forever, those who fully know the reality of God and Christ and openly fight against them and consent to the killing of Christ–but even then we don’t actually know what their end is, if any, so it may not be fair to assume their suffering is endless. Section 76 tells us that the sons of perdition go “into everlasting punishment, which is eternal punishment” (Doctrine and Covenants 76:44). Here we must note that God’s punishment by definition is “eternal punishment” since God is eternal, as explained in Section 19, but that doesn’t mean that those who suffer such punishment suffer it forever.  Is that the case here as well? We don’t know, for the next verse tell us this about their torment: “the end thereof, neither the place thereof, nor their torment, no man knows” (Doctrine and Covenants 76:45). If we don’t know the end, it’s possible there is one. We don’t know. 

Likewise, the warning against falling into “eternal death” (2 Nephi
2:29) does not mean one will never be resurrected, but that one is cast
out from God’s presence and will “die as to things pertaining to things of righteousness” (Alma 40:26), things which I suggest relate to the majesties of the Celestial Kingdom that the unpenitent wicked will not experience. 

I raise these points because language in the Book of Mormon seems to reflect the view that there is either eternal heaven or eternal hell. Perhaps the strongest language on this point speaks of “never returning” from that state. For example, King Benjamin in Mosiah 2 said:

23 And now I have spoken the words which the Lord God hath commanded me.

24 And thus saith the Lord: They shall stand as a bright testimony
against this people, at the judgment day; whereof they shall be judged,
every man according to his works, whether they be good, or whether they
be evil.

25 And if they be evil they are consigned to
an awful view of their own guilt and abominations, which doth cause them
to shrink from the presence of the Lord into a state of misery and
endless torment, from whence they can no more return; therefore they
have drunk damnation to their own souls.

26 Therefore,
they have drunk out of the cup of the wrath of God, which justice could
no more deny unto them than it could deny that Adam should fall because
of his partaking of the forbidden fruit; therefore, mercy could have
claim on them no more forever.

27 And their torment is
as a lake of fire and brimstone, whose flames are unquenchable, and
whose smoke ascendeth up forever and ever. Thus hath the Lord commanded
me. Amen. 

Then in 3 Nephi 27, Christ says something similar. Speaking of those who build up false churches not founded upon His Gospel and in His name, He said:

11 But if it be not built upon my gospel, and is built upon
the works of men, or upon the works of the devil, verily I say unto you
they have joy in their works for a season, and by and by the end cometh,
and they are hewn down and cast into the fire, from whence there is no

 Then speaking of the day of judgment, He said:

16 And it shall come to pass, that whoso repenteth and is
baptized in my name shall be filled; and if he endureth to the end,
behold, him will I hold guiltless before my Father at that day when I
shall stand to judge the world.

17 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. 

So it sounds like those who build up false churches or those who fall away from and reject the Gospel will suffer in hell forever. Isn’t that rather harsh? How can that be squared with the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ?

Please note that these scriptures may be examples of the forceful but ambiguous language Doctrine and Covenants 19 speaks of. In fact, they do not say that the wicked or those who rebel will be in hell forever. They will be cast into the fire/torment/hell, but rather than saying they remain forever, instead these verses declare that they don’t return. Return? Return to where? This is a critical issue for understanding the scriptures. The verb return requires a frame of reference. Return to where? If I leave Wisconsin by going to China and never return, that doesn’t require that I stay in China forever. I may be in China for a week, then go to Europe or New Zealand for years. 

The Book of Mormon concept of “from whence” one does not “return” has to be considered in light of the earliest use of this language in Father Lehi’s farewell speech: 

Awake! and arise from the dust, and hear the words of a trembling
parent, whose limbs ye must soon lay down in the cold and silent grave,
from whence no traveler can return
; a few more days and I go the way of
all the earth.  (2 Nephi 1:14)

Lehi is bidding farewell to his family and speaks of going soon to the grave, “from whence no traveler can return.” So did Lehi mean that for him there would be no resurrection? That he would be dead forever? If so, why did he then go on to bear witness of Christ and the Resurrection, telling us that Christ would “bring to pass the resurrection of the dead” (2 Nephi 2:8)? But here it is clear what Lehi’s frame of reference is: the mortal world. Lehi will die and will never return to be among his family and be part of this mortal life. But he knew that he would rise again and have eternal life. But once he died, he would never return to mortality.

So what is the frame of reference in the other verses speaking of the wicked never returning? Obviously, once the wicked are judged by Christ, they are sent out of His presence and will not return to Him and the Father. The language in Mosiah 3:25 is explicitly in the context of the day of judgment, where Christ is the judge. The frame of reference is the presence of Christ. 3 Nephi 27:11 is implicitly referring to the results that come on the day of judgement and 3 Nephi 27:17 also follows an explicit reference to the Father and the Son and the day of judgement in the previous verse. 

The wicked who are cast out of the presence of Christ do not return to Him, but that does not mean they suffer as if they were sons of perdition. Their pains will be great (thus Christ begs us to repent that we may be spared from the pain our sins can bring in Doctrine and Covenants 19), their regret may endure, but they will not rot in hell forever and will at last obtain a merciful kingdom of glory, though far short of what the Father hoped they would receive.

Like Lehi never returning from the grave, the language about the wicked never returning from hell needs to be followed by the simple question: return to where? With the right frame of reference, and through considering the Lord’s intent in motivating us to repent, the Book of Mormon’s language may fit the more extensive revelations of the modern Church better than we may have realized. 

Update, Dec. 31, 2020: Mormon 9:13 provides another clear indication about the limits on the words “eternal” and “endless” as Moronu  explains that through the Resurrection of Christ, we will all awake  from the “endless sleep” of death and be freed from the “eternal band of death.” I discuss this in a subsequent post.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

5 thoughts on ““From Whence They Can No More Return”: What Lehi Teaches Us About the Book of Mormon’s Harsh Language on Hell

  1. This is a subject I've wondered a lot about. I hadn't thought of the word "return" in those scripture verses as referring to returning to the Celestial Kingdom. I think it makes sense though.

    It's interesting that Alma says that after seeing the angel, he suffered eternal torment (Alma 36:12; Mosiah 27:29). Since we know Alma suffered for his sins for only a few days, he must have had something different in mind when he used the word "eternal". Perhaps when the Nephites used the term eternal is such instances they were describing the nature or quality of something rather than it's duration? I know that a number of Book of Mormon verses us phrases like: "without end or never-ending". But those could just be different ways to say eternal.

    I've wondered about the verse in D&C: 76:37 that says that the sons of perdition are "the only ones on whom the second death shall have any power." It makes it sound like only the sons of perdition experience any spiritual death at all. It seems that other scriptures support the idea that unless you live with God in the highest degree of the celestial kingdom, you will experience some degree of spiritual death. But one of the possible uses of the word "any" can actually be "all".Like in the phrase: do anything you want. Which turns this meaning of the verse around. It could be rendered as: "the only one on whom the second death shall have all power.

  2. Thanks, Ben. Yes, Alma experienced eternal torment in exactly the sense described in Doctrine and Covenants 19 based on God being eternal, and God's punishment thus being eternal punishment, but that doesn't mean we have to bear it forever. He entered into the state of eternal punishment, divine punishment, and was released when he turned to Christ and accepted His grace.

    Interesting point on Section 76:37. Here the "second death" clearly refers to being cast away from all things godly and into hell. The wicked who are cast into hell are, after they suffer for their own sins, redeemed and brought into a kingdom of glory. The sons of perdition are:
    "the only ones on whom the second death shall have any power;

    "Yea, verily, the only ones who shall not be redeemed in the due time of the Lord, after the sufferings of his wrath.

    "For all the rest shall be brought forth by the resurrection of the dead, through the triumph and the glory of the Lamb, who was slain, who was in the bosom of the Father before the worlds were made."

    Interesting verse. I think "second death" could also be defined as being cast out of the presence of God. With slightly different definitions possible, perhaps it's a matter of semantics as to whether that ends when the wicked are released from hell and brought into the Telestial Kingdom. Not sure.

  3. Thanks for this article, Jeff. I believe that by and large the Book of Mormon prophets are warning us against succumbing to the second death. For instance, King Benjamin's description of the wicked in Mosiah 2 is unmistakably similar to the sons of perdition in D&C 76. The second death occurs after the resurrection of the dead at the "final" judgment (Hel. 14:17-18). Those who are "wicked" and "cast out" at this juncture would seem to be only the sons of perdition–all others are "righteous" and "saved" and have a place in the Lord's kingdom (which I think includes all the degrees of glory).

  4. When making theological arguments based on subtle semantic distinctions, it's best to work from the original language rather than a translation.

    In this case, we not only lack any text in the original language, we don't even know what the original language was.

    Just sayin'.

    — OK

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