Heaven and hell were easy to understand growing up. There was the devil on Bugs Bunny’s shoulder that tempted him to do bad, and the angel that tried influencing good. The devil was always gruff, focused on fun, and sinful, encouraging Bugs to lean into his appetites. The angel was always pious, innocent, naive, and focused on self-denial and sacrifice, with a few dire warnings of the consequences of sin.
Bad people went to hell (which was a curse word unless you were referring to the place) and good people went to heaven. And I was one of the good people. Born Mormon, I was baptized at age 8, and my path to heaven was assured, so long as I followed the rules and repented.
But the older I got, the more complicated heaven and hell became. I soon understood them to mean multiple things. Heaven and hell, for example, are both literal and figurative.
Hell can mean being sad or in a place of misery, something that happens even while alive. Hell was both the dwelling place of the devil and those who followed him, and the punishment for those who sinned in life. Hell was the end of progression, an Outer Darkness, a place where humans were unhappy spirits, severed from their bodies, trapped by their addictions, unable to have relationships. Hell was the end of existence. Hell was a place with lakes of fire, the smell of brimstone, and the unending screams of humans. Hell was where everyone ended up automatically because they had already sinned by being born, and only Jesus and his atonement could save them. But hell could also mean being in prison as a spirit before the final judgment. (More on that in a minute).
Heaven, meanwhile, was mirrored on earth in places like church, temple, and home, with worthy families united by religious bonds. Heaven was both the dwelling place of god and those who followed him, and the reward for those who were obedient in life. In addition, heaven was a planet, something called Kolob, but it was also the final state of the earth we dwelled on after god transfigured it into perfection somehow. Heaven also represented those who were in the spirit world after death but before the final judgment, those who were righteous and not in prison. In heaven, family bonds could exist, marriages between men and women (sometimes men and multiple women), who could go on having more children, and who maintained their relationships to the children they had on earth. God himself led this charge, with many wives and many children, as he was the father of every son and daughter on earth and also those in hell who never made it to earth.
I was very young when I learned that heaven and hell had origin stories. But there were origins before that origin as well. God used to be a man. He was a mortal named Elohim who made good choices and made it to his own heaven before he got his own planet, then he was eventually to make his own earth, the very one we lived on. But before god created earth, he had all his billions of children around him in heaven, and he wanted them to be more than spirits (cause god had a body but his children did not). So Jesus made one plan, to make the earth and test men, and Lucifer had another plan, and God liked Jesus’s plan, so Lucifer and all those who followed him (a full third of God’s children) started a war and they were all kicked out and sent to hell (which might be on earth in a spiritual form but could also be somewhere else). They would never get bodies and they would spend thousands of years trying to tempt the other children of god, the ones who did get bodies.
Simple, right? I was born to follow god, to obey all the rules, to make good choices, and then to go to heaven afterward where I could eventually become a new god. See? Simple.
Except as I grew older, it grew more complicated again. The prophet Joseph Smith, in expounding on heaven, revealed that there are multiple levels. Celestial is up on top, and underneath it are terrestrial and telestial, which are like lesser versions of heaven but also kind of versions of hell because they aren’t the top version of heaven. The celestial realm itself was split into thirds, and only those in the very very tip-top most worthy realm had the maximum heaven benefits, like family, eternal marriage, eternal progression, and presumably billions of spirit children and godhood and their own planets. Varying levels of happiness. Varying levels of misery.
But before heaven was the spirit world, the place that souls dwelled until the final judgment. There was a mini-judgment that placed souls in spirit paradise (the good place) and spirit prison (the bad place). Another heaven and hell.
Then it got more complicated again. There were ordinances that had to either be done while living, or in proxy for a human soul after they died, in order to get them into heaven. Baptism, the conferring of the holy ghost, and the temple endowment. In the endowment, I learned of all the sacred laws I had to follow, the covenants I had to keep, and all of the sacred/super-secret signs and tokens that I needed to know to access heaven itself. I got a new name. There were handshakes and whispered code words, a parting of an ethereal veil, a welcoming by god into the new realm.
As I look back on all I used to believe, I scoff. I balk. I swallow a stone. It’s a complex fantasy realm with competing realities. It’s allegory and fable interpreted literally. Transfigured planets, polygamist gods, new names, secret handshakes, lakes of fire, and a war of spirits.
But as a child, this mythos held so much power over me. Earth-life was but a blip. I was temporary, yet all of my choices had staggering potential consequences. I had to conform, follow the rules, stay focused, so that I could be with my family. Sinning, turning from god, and even being gay would mean that I lost everything. Were I to sin, were I to screw it all up, perdition would be the result. Sacrificing my happiness and enduring to the end meant vast eternal rewards. Sinning and being true to myself meant letting down everyone I had ever known and willfully breaking the bonds that held us together. Forever.
I regularly see clients in my therapy office who are so afraid of coming out, of doubting their religion, of divorcing. They are afraid of the consequences, the judgments of god. But they are often even more afraid of their parents, their faithful Mormon parents, finding out about their secret shames. They keep it hidden, often for years. And so often, when the parents do find out, their response is something like this.
“I don’t care that you are gay/sexually active/marrying a non-Mormon/divorcing/smoking pot (fill in any old sin here) so long as you stay in the church.” So long as you stay in the church. So long as we can know that there is a chance you will be part of our family in the eternity to follow. Because leaving the church, losing your belief, that would be the worst thing of all, because we lose our soul to hell. Whatever hell is.
I’m 40 now, and I don’t really believe in heaven and hell. I think every human is inherently good and evil both, and I think both of those words are hard to define, and are easily influenced by culture, morals, ethics, psychology, sociology, and history. I do believe in human potential to be happy, to strive for more, to be good, to be christian even. And if you were to ask me what I believe regarding what comes after death, I’m happy to report that I have no idea.
Perhaps death is a great unknowing void. Perhaps the soul returns in a new form. Perhaps the human spirit is absorbed back into the earth. Perhaps there is a great reckoning and an eternal punishment or reward. Perhaps death is a door to a great mystic realm of fantasy. Perhaps the most righteous souls, the ones who know the names and the handshakes, access the top third of the top third of heaven get to become gods themselves. But I do believe the soul finds peace.
And I believe that it is my duty to myself to find that peace right now, balancing the heaven and hell within me, making me the best person possible. An ethical, good, valuable life on my terms, one that is good to the world around me. And in that, I find all the love and peace that I need.