I used to think that "outer darkness" was someplace God sent the sons of perdition.
Do you remember seminary teachers and Sunday School teachers drawing on the chalkboard the "Plan of Salvation," depicting a sun, a moon, and a star as the kingdoms of glory ― and, there at the very bottom, they wrote "Outer Darkness" for those who do not inherit a glory.
I kid you not, I even heard a teacher joke once that sons of perdition go to "O.D." (outer darkness) because they "O.D.'d" (over dosed) on wickedness.
Well, how is it possible that all of my teachers were wrong?
Because Outer Darkness is NOT where the sons of perdition go.
Lost in Translation
The reason I am bringing up outer darkness is to illustrate this point:
Sometimes we are taught things (yes, even in Church) that are not in accord with the word of God.
I mean, I am on my guard with my hackles up when I study Sigmund Freud or read CNN. My discernment-radar is on high-alert.
But in Church? I let my guard down. I assume I am going to hear the word of God. That Church is, or ought to be, a "safe place."
Well, maybe we need our discernment-radar even (especially) in Church.
For our purposes, let's colloquially call these things we're taught (that are not strictly correct) "traditions."
Lost in Traditions
The "tradition" of calling the place into which sons of perdition are cast "outer darkness" is forgivable.
After all, someone at some point took a scriptural term and sloppily misapplied it, and then it gained traction in our modern parlance. But I am sure their intentions were innocent (just like the monks in the middle ages, right?).
I've done much worse.
But our job is to find out what the scriptures actually say. That's one way we show respect for Him who is the Word.
The phrase "outer darkness" is used in the standard works only 6 times:
Bible: 3 times Book of Mormon: 1 time Doctrine and Covenants: 2 times Pearl of Great Price: 0 times
Jesus gets credit for the heaviest usage of the term (surprise!). All three "outer darknesses" in the Bible were uttered by the Savior.
The first time we encounter outer darkness is when a Roman Centurion approached Jesus and asked him to heal his servant. Jesus comments that this pagan's faith was greater than Israel's, throwing a monkey wrench into the Jewish notion of lineage-superiority.
If a pagan could be saved in Christ, what profit was there in being a child of Abraham?
Jesus turned everything on its head and says that we all can be children of Abraham.
When Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.
And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven.
But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Notice who Jesus says goes into outer darkness? Not sons of perdition, but "the children of the kingdom" who do not have faith in Him.
Many Are Called, But Few Are Chosen
Guess what? We bump into outer darkness next in the parable Jesus taught about "many are called, but few are chosen."
The context is fascinating, and a little perplexing to find our old friend, outer darkness, in this parable of the wedding feast where the Savior starkly juxtaposes the light and happiness of a wedding celebration with the suffering of outer darkness. Yikes!
A king sends his servants to invite his friends to a wedding feast for his favored son. The messengers call the guests to come to the party, but everybody has an excuse not to come. They're too busy to be bothered.
And to make things worse, some of the servants are slain by the people they were inviting to the feast (maybe this is where we get the saying, "Don't kill the messenger").
It reminds me of when Samuel the Lamanite told the Nephites how their fathers of old killed the prophets, which offended the Nephites who-would-never-ever-in-a-million-years-slay-the-prophets-of-God as they launched arrows at Samuel.
Anyway, the king is furious. He's been stood up and his faithful servants have been slain, and his invited guests have refused to honor his son.
So the king cancels the black-tie affair and decides instead to have a feast with the poor, destitute and deplorable ― both "good and bad" ― to furnish his party with guests.
And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment:
And he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless.
Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
For many are called, but few are chosen.
Of course this poor fellow was not a son of perdition ― far from it. He was a hungry, homeless man had who refused the master's garment, showing a disregard for his host.
And look at this: twice now we've been told that outer darkness is accompanied by weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Lost in Talents
The final time Jesus used the term outer darkness was in his parable of the talents.
A man gave his three servants some money. The first two guys invested the money and made a profit for their master.
But the third servant buried his talent in the dirt, hiding his Lord's money.
So when the master returns from his trip, he congratulates the first two, saying, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things" (Matthew 25:21).
But then the reckoning comes for the poor fellow who had buried his money, who pleads for mercy:
I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth.
The master replies:
Thou wicked and slothful servant. . . Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents.
For unto every one that hath shall be given. . . but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.
And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Seeing a theme yet? The poor guy was a servant to the Master, not a son of perdition. And why does the master take from the poor guy and give to those who already have? That seems like a regressive policy, right?
Finally, why is there is so much weeping and gnashing?
Alma Takes the Stand
Me: Please state your name for the record.
Alma: Alma. Sometimes called 'Alma the Younger.'
Me: Alma, sir, have you been taught by angels?
Alma: I have.
Me: And did these divine messengers teach you anything about the spirit world?
Alma: I don't know what you mean by 'spirit world,' but yes, I inquired diligently of the Lord to know what becometh of the souls of men between death and resurrection.
Me: Can you tell the court what befalls the spirits of righteous men and women after they die?
Alma: Yes, I can. The spirits of the righteous are received into a state of happiness.
Me: And what is this condition, or state of happiness, called?
Alma: It is called paradise.
Me: Can you describe what paradise is like?
Alma: Paradise is a state of rest, a state of peace, where they rest from their labors and from all care and sorrow.
Me: That sounds wonderful. And what happens to the spirits of the wicked when they die?
Alma: Well, I prefer not to speak about that.
Me: Why is that?
Alma: Because it pains my soul to describe their suffering.
Me: Even so, this is important. Please proceed.
Alma: The spirits of the wicked, who are evil ―
Me: [Interrupting] Excuse me. It's important to maintain an accurate record. How do you define "evil?"
Alma: Evil means they have no part nor portion of the Spirit of the Lord, having chosen evil works rather than good.
Me: And what happens to those spirits?
Alma: Well, it is terrible. They are possessed ― their house is possessed by ― the spirit of the devil.
Me: And where do these spirits go? Do they go to paradise, too, awaiting the resurrection?
Alma: No. They are cast into outer darkness.
Me: What is outer darkness?
Alma: It is a condition of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth where our spirits are led captive by the will of the devil.
Me: And so outer darkness, as you call it, is the same as . . . spirit prison? A lake of fire and brimstone?
Alma: Again, I don't know what you mean by 'spirit prison.' Outer darkness, though, is where the spirits of the wicked suffer while awaiting the resurrection. They remain in darkness, in a state of awful, fearful looking for the fiery indignation of the wrath of God upon them, and they remain in this state until the time of resurrection.
Me: And do these spirits leave outer darkness when they're resurrected to a kingdom of glory? Does outer darkness have an exit as well as an entrance?
Alma: That's my understanding.
Me: Thank you.
So What is Outer Darkness?
What have we learned from the word of God?
1. Outer darkness is hell.
2. Hell is awful.
3. Hell is being captive to the will of the devil.
4. Hell is temporary.
5. Hell is something Jesus rescues us from.
6. The conditions of hell that exist in spirit prison also exist now in hell-here-on-earth, where we find wailing, weeping and gnashing of teeth in abundance.
7. The sufferings we experience in spirit-prison-hell, though, is magnified because we no longer have a physical body, which is a shield and protection against the spirit of the devil.
8. In the resurrection, all shall be redeemed from outer darkness except for the sons of perdition (D&C 76:37-38), who go to a place with no name.
It is fitting that we have no name for the place sons of perdition are banished to.
Wherefore, God saves all except them― they shall go away into everlasting punishment, which is endless punishment, which is eternal punishment, to reign with the devil and his angels in eternity, where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched, which is their torment.