I have spent the past six years serving as a volunteer at the local Juvenile Detention Center. One day, in what they call a “clergy visit,” I was spending time with a young offender who had committed a particularly heinous crime. Fortunately, his victim had suffered no serious effects from the crime, but certainly might have. The young man was very distraught by the predicament he was in.
He turned to me in tears and asked, “Am I going to Hell?”
I replied, “My dear friend, aren’t you already there?”
He wept and told me, “I’ve been there most of my life.”
He told me of a horrendous childhood of abuse and neglect. The wounds he’d suffered were still open and raw. Much of his misbehavior came as a result of trying to cope with all that pain and terror. I explained to my young friend that the misery he was in was a result of the poor choices he’d made while trying to find a way to cope with his pain. Remember, Satan desires we might become as miserable as he is. There is nothing Satan would rather see than someone treating the symptoms rather than the causes of their pain. Treating the symptoms leads to a frantic search for an anesthetic, if you will, and masking the pain only leads to further complications with the root problem. Pain is unpleasant and can be humbling, but misery is Hell.
My young friend was keenly interested in this. He could easily see the connection between misery and the hell he was experiencing in his young, troubled life. What a joy it was to tell him of a way to heal the pain so he no longer needed to take drugs and participate in other misbehavior in order to artificially deal with it.
I’ve thought a lot about hell since that day. I strongly suspect that the difference between hell on earth and hell in Spirit Prison is pretty simple. In both places we experience pain. But in mortality we have myriad methods by which we can anesthetize the pain. Primarily we are speaking of spiritual and emotional pain here, but physical pain comes into play as well. The problem is that the anesthetic response just turns our pain into misery. After this life, when we have lost our bodies, we will no longer have a means to self-medicate. In spirit prison the pain will be raw and full and no doubt, agonizingly miserable.
The good news is that in the hell of Spirit Prison, relief from that kind of miserable discomfort comes in the same way as it does here in mortality. It comes of allowing the Master to heal all our wounds. You see, the occupants of Spirit Prison will be visited by harbingers of joy not unlike those of us who visit the Detention Center. These bearers of truth will carry the good news of the Gospel to those in the agony of their pain and help them drop their burdens at His feet, just like we may here in mortality.
Years ago a dear friend suffered the amputation of his lower right leg due to cancer. I went to see him in the hospital. As I entered his room I found him with the stump of his leg pointed toward the ceiling and he was pounding on his remaining thigh.
“What on earth are you doing?” I asked.
“My foot itches!” he agonized.
“You don’t even have a foot.” I complained.
“My brain doesn’t know that yet!” was his aggravated reply.
Have you ever had an itch on the bottom of your foot that was so intense that you had to rip your shoe off and just claw at it? That was the way he described his discomfort. His brain and severed nerves had not yet adjusted to the missing limb and his brain would not be persuaded that his foot didn’t itch.
Another friend once explained his motivation for finding recovery from alcoholism and drug abuse. He told me, “I didn’t want to arrive in the Spirit World with an itch I couldn’t scratch.” That would indeed be hell. That, I believe is the “thorny path” which Joseph Smith reportedly spoke of when he encouraged parents of wayward children.
“The Prophet Joseph Smith declared—and he never taught more comforting doctrine—that the eternal sealings of faithful parents and the divine promises made to them for valiant service in the Cause of Truth, would save not only themselves, but likewise their posterity. Though some of the sheep may wander, the eye of the Shepherd is upon them, and sooner or later they will feel the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them and drawing them back to the fold. Either in this life or the life to come, they will return. They will have to pay their debt to justice; they will suffer for their sins; and may tread a thorny path; but if it leads them at last, like the penitent Prodigal, to a loving and forgiving father’s heart and home, the painful experience will not have been in vain. Pray for your careless and disobedient children; hold on to them with your faith. Hope on, trust on, till you see the salvation of God.”
I suppose that enduring the untamed, raw pain of our lives in Spirit Prison will be a thorny path indeed. I suppose that the misery will be an enormous distraction that will make it difficult to hear, trust and accept the message of Salvation, but I also suppose that it will be unbearable enough that those suffering such agony will be willing to do whatever it takes to be relieved of the pain. How wonderful to know, because of our experience laboring for them in the Temples, that there is an end to their suffering, that there is yet a chance to enter into that healing, perfecting covenant of Salvation with the Lord.
Having spent four years ministering to prisoners in jail and another six doing the same thing in juvenile detention, I’ve come to love and feel for these suffering souls. I hope that once I’ve crossed to the Spirit World that I will yet again, be called to labor in Prison. In fact, the love I feel for these brothers and sisters of mine has spawned a hope that, if I am permitted to tarry, I’d like to remain in Hell, to share the message of the Atonement, until the last of us comes forth into the joy of redemption.