I used to think that D&C 19:15 was one of the harshest-sounding scriptures I knew:
“Therefore I command you to repent--repent, lest I smite you by the rod of my mouth, and by my wrath, and by my anger, and your sufferings be sore--how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not.”
On its own, the language in this passage conjures the image of an irascible deity, armed with thunderbolts, ready to strike down any who dare defy his suzerainty. This is the supposedly vengeful god of the Old Testament who sends down fire from heaven to consume unwitting soldiers who were just doing their duty as they tried to arrest Elijah; the god who inexplicably turns Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt for the egregious error of a brief glance over her shoulder at the fire and brimstone raining down on her hastily abandoned home; the god who smites poor Uzzah dead for the supreme affront of steadying the ark when he merely feared it would topple from its ox-drawn cart. This is the angry judge who is going to decree the full measure of punishment possible for those who fail to live up to his impossibly perfect standards, a god of severe justice who has no mercy for any except his favorites whom he has “elected...[to] be saved, whilst all around [them] are elected to be cast by [his] wrath down to hell”1 This is who we’re hearing from in D&C 19:15, isn’t it?
No, of course it isn’t! Such a god doesn’t exist and wouldn’t be worthy of our worship even if he did. We’re listening to the voice of a real Person here, not a god “whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall.” The truly benevolent God of the Old Testament is the same Being whose words are recorded in D&C 19:15--none other than the Great Jehovah, the Lord Jesus Christ--that holy, meek, and loving Son of God who willingly laid down His precious life that we might live.
Like most scriptures, when D&C 19:15 is read out of context it can present a distorted picture of the truths it was meant to convey. Let’s look at this passage in light of the verses that surround it, and in view of the concept of a near-universal salvation for the human family. A belief in near-universal salvation supposes that all except the sons of perdition will be saved and exalted, and that everyone must repent and be made clean before the Judgment Day if they expect to have an inheritance in the kingdom heaven. This paradigm gives us deeper appreciation for what the Lord is attempting to teach us in this revelation, which focuses on the dividing line between the wicked and the righteous in that fateful day to come.
Let’s start at the beginning of Section 19:
“I AM Alpha and Omega, Christ the Lord; yea, even I am he, the beginning and the end, the Redeemer of the world.”2
The Lord identifies Himself as Jehovah, whose mission is to redeem mankind.
“I, having accomplished and finished the will of him whose I am, even the Father, concerning me--having done this that I might subdue all things unto myself--”3
By descending below all, all became subject to Him.4
“Retaining all power, even to the destroying of Satan and his works at the end of the world, and the last great day of judgment, which I shall pass upon the inhabitants thereof, judging every man according to his works and the deeds which he hath done.”5
Here is the setting. We are viewing “the last great day of judgment.” What is spoken of in succeeding verses must be viewed in this context.
“And surely every man must repent or suffer, for I, God am endless.”6
Failure to repent leads to suffering. What is the suffering being spoken of in this verse? We'll find out shortly.
“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.”7
Here is a clear reference to the sons of perdition! They are those who are found on the left hand of God in the Judgment Day.8
“Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment. 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.”9
What torment? The torment of the sons of perdition. What damnation? The damnation of those same wicked souls at the Last Day.
“Wherefore, I will explain unto you this mystery, for it is meet unto you to know even as mine apostles. I speak unto you that are chosen in this thing, even as one, that you may enter into my rest.”10
We are told about this mystery so that we can enter into the rest of the Lord and avoid the awful fate of the sons of perdition.
“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
We can almost hear a drum roll here, fixing our attention on the unveiling of the mystery so long misunderstood:
“Eternal punishment is God’s punishment. Endless punishment is God’s punishment.”12
This is analogous to what is meant by eternal life. Eternal life is God’s life. Endless or everlasting life is God’s life. In this case, though, we’re focusing on the punishment. Who is being punished here? All of us? No, the punishment referred to here is for the sons of perdition only. Keep the context in mind. The torment, punishment, and damnation spoken of throughout these passages is that which is suffered by “those who are found on my left hand”--the sons of perdition. Their torment is their punishment. Their damnation is to be cursed and cast out of the kingdom of God.
The Prophet Joseph Smith observed:
“A man is his own tormentor and his own condemner. Hence the saying, They shall go into the lake that burns with fire and brimstone. The torment of disappointment in the mind of man is as exquisite as a lake burning with fire and brimstone. I say, so is the torment of man.”13
“Wherefore, I command you to repent, and keep the commandments which you have received by the hand of my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., in my name. And it is by my almighty power that you have received them; Therefore I command you to repent--repent, lest I smite you by the rod of my mouth, and by my wrath, and by my anger, and your sufferings be sore--how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not.”13
Now it becomes clear! The wrathful rebuke spoken of in verse 15 is reserved for the sons of perdition! They are the only ones who ultimately refuse to repent. They are the only ones whose “sufferings [will] be sore--how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea how hard to bear you know not.” They will suffer endless torment. They will experience eternal damnation.
How fierce will burn the fire in their minds at that dreadful day! The prophet Moroni gave a solemn warning to those who are in danger of that dire outcome:
“And now, I speak also concerning those who do not believe in Christ. Behold, will ye believe in the day of your visitation--behold, when the Lord shall come, yea, even that great day when the earth shall be rolled together as a scroll, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, yea, in that great day when ye shall be brought to stand before the Lamb of God--then will ye say that there is no God? Then will ye longer deny the Christ, or can ye behold the Lamb of God? Do ye suppose that ye shall dwell with him under a consciousness of your guilt? Do ye suppose that ye could be happy to dwell with that holy Being, when your souls are racked with a consciousness of guilt that ye have ever abused his laws? Behold, I say unto you that ye would be more miserable to dwell with a holy and just God, under a consciousness of your filthiness before him, than ye would to dwell with the damned souls in hell. For behold, when ye shall be brought to see your nakedness before God, and also the glory of God, and the holiness of Jesus Christ, it will kindle a flame of unquenchable fire upon you.”15
Moroni’s warning gives us clarification concerning how the pain and anguish of the sons of perdition can be considered both self-inflicted (as attested by the Prophet Joseph Smith) and caused by the Lord (as spoken of in the scriptures). When the sons of perdition come into the direct presence of the Savior, they will see themselves in their true condition of spiritual filthiness and utter exposure to the demands of justice. They will see the holiness, purity, and righteousness of Jesus Christ, and will be constrained to acknowledge that He has all power to save them and anyone who repents and exercises faith in Him.16 Their guilt and His physical presence combine to “kindle a flame of unquenchable fire” in their minds, from which they seek relief by retreating again to the sleep of spiritual death, rather than remaining awake and alive with an ever-present reminder of their unworthiness.17
Let’s return to our reading in D&C 19:
“For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I; Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit--and would that I might not drink the bitter cup and shrink--Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.”18
Notice that the Lord says that he has “suffered these things for all”--what things? Understood in context, He is referring to the torment of the unrepentant wicked, the sons of perdition. How astonishing! In atoning for our sins, the Son of God suffered even as the sons of perdition will suffer, drinking the dregs of the most bitter cup in all eternity, a draught so terrible that it is virtually unfathomable to our finite mortal minds! Though He is eternally righteous and did not deserve the punishment He bore, He voluntarily substituted Himself for all of us, so that we need not suffer the penalty for transgressing divine law if we repent and put our trust in Him.
“Wherefore, I command you again to repent, lest I humble you with my almighty power; and that you confess your sins, lest you suffer these punishments of which I have spoken, of which in the smallest, yea, even in the least degree you have tasted at the time I withdrew my Spirit.”19
The revelation in Section 19 was originally directed to Martin Harris through the Prophet Joseph Smith. Both Martin and Joseph suffered intense physical, mental, and emotional anguish “at the time [the Lord] withdrew [His] Spirit” when they transgressed the commandments of the Lord and lost the 116 pages of Book of Mormon manuscript. Martin is reported to have exclaimed: “Oh, I have lost my soul! I have lost my soul!” Joseph likewise lamented: “All is lost, all is lost,” and was inconsolable for a time. Joseph’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, called it “a day of darkness” and said that “the heavens seemed clothed with blackness, and the earth shrouded with gloom.”20 As difficult as that experience must have been, it was only a taste of “the least degree” of woe suffered by the wicked, and of the tribulation our Savior endured in our behalf so that we can avoid a similar fate.
D&C 19:1-20 highlights our absolute need for repentance. Repentance is the only way to evade the doom of the sons of perdition in the Day of Judgment. It is our only escape from the torment of hell. All who are accountable must repent or be subject to the second death. There is no middle ground here. We must submit to Christ and be saved, or reject Him and be damned. With such a crucial choice to make, can’t we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd lovingly imploring us--
Reverently and meekly now,
Let thy head most humbly bow.
Think of me, thou ransomed one;
Think what I for thee have done.
With my blood that dripped like rain,
Sweat in agony of pain.
With my body on the tree
I have ransomed even thee.
...At the throne I intercede;
For thee ever do I plead.
I have loved thee as thy friend,
With a love that cannot end.
Be obedient, I implore,
Prayerful, watchful evermore,
And be constant unto me,
That thy Savior I may be.21
He has paid the terrible price for our sins. He has rescued us from the unyielding grip of the adversary, and has set us free--”free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for [ourselves] and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given...free to choose liberty and eternal life...or to choose captivity and death.”22 Life or death. Which will we choose?
The Lord’s preference in this matter is perfectly clear. He is passionately pleading--’Repent. Come unto me. Let not this terrible suffering come upon you. I have suffered these things for you, because I love you and want to save you. I will encircle you eternally in the arms of my love if you allow me. Oh, repent, I bid you, repent! Receive the crown of everlasting life that awaits you in the kingdom of my Father. Repent and live forevermore!’
1. Alma 31:17.
2. D&C 19:1.
3. D&C 19:2
4. 2 Ne. 9:5; D&C 88:6.
5. D&C 19:3.
6. D&C 19:4.
7. D&C 19:5.
8. D&C 29:26-28.
9. D&C 19:6-7.
10. D&C 19:8-9.
11. D&C 19:10
12. D&C 19:11-12.
13. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 357.
14. D&C 19:13-15.
15. Morm. 9:1-5, italics added.
16. Alma 12:15.
17. It is as if wicked would rather be unconscious than conscious, particularly in the presence of the Lord. Remember Alma’s words: “Oh, thought I, that I could be banished and become extinct both soul and body.” See Alma 36:12-16. They can gain no such relief, however, because they have become immortal with a “perfect remembrance” of their guilt, wickedness, and rebellion. See Alma 5:18; 11:45. Though they remain in torment, the excruciating intensity of their misery lessens to some unspecified degree when they depart from the proximity of the Holy One and associate instead with other damned souls in hell like themselves.
18. D&C 19:16-19.
19. D&C 19:20.
20. Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Rolling Stone, 67-68.
21. Hymn #185, verses 1 and 4.
22. 2 Ne. 2:26-27.