That's a really good question. And I really appreciate your struggle. I can honestly only imagine how incredibly difficult it would be to move away from the religion you were raised in and which means so much to you and your family. That's not easy at all. There is much about Mormonism that I respect, and I hope you understand that by believing that Mormonism is a false religion I do not mean that everything it teaches is wrong. But I do think that is precisely what makes false religions like Mormonism so... treacherous. It's the mixture, and that mixture is calculated by Satan to deceive people. But when a person leaves Mormonism (or any false religion) they don't have to leave behind their beliefs and practices that are actually true and good. They need to learn how to think about those things in a new way--in accordance with reality and truth.
The question about hell is undoubtedly a hard one. Really hard. But for me what's hard about it isn't in trying to see what the Bible teaches regarding hell. What can be hard is understanding why it teaches it. Hell can seem a harsh, over-the-top punishment without the promise of rehabilitation. It can seem below the God of love to send someone there. It's hard to see how the concept of hell fits with other beautiful concepts given in Scripture. But, there it is in Scripture. If I'm to maintain with myself any intellectual integrity, I can see no other way to look at Scripture than to acknowledge the doctrine of hell. Attempts to see Scripture otherwise always seem to me to mishandle Scripture, cutting corners and evading the straightforward. I know why people do that. One way to look at it is that they are trying to be intellectually coherent regarding everything else the Scriptures teach. The Scriptures teach God is a God of love. It follows, they argue, that a God of love wouldn't send anyone to hell. Therefore it follows that the Scriptures do not teach that God sends anyone to hell. How else can we make sense of Scripture? Yet by arguing this way they must evade clear Scriptural teaching, and say: "I don't know what those Scriptures mean... or, I shall here suspend my judgment on what they mean... or perhaps they mean this far-fetched meaning... I only know they don't teach the traditional doctrine of hell." So a mystery is embraced: we understand a loving God wouldn't send someone to hell, therefore we don't really understand those verses.
I've learned that in whatever system of belief there is, one will always run up against mystery somewhere. There will always be something you don't understand, or at least have great difficulty in understanding. The question is, where do I run into it? Where do I feel comfortable running into mystery? That is, where is it most reasonable to run into mystery?
There is a different way of approaching those verses about hell. This way says: "I know the Bible clearly teaches that God is a God of love. I also know the Bible clearly teaches that God sends unbelievers to hell. I don't understand how that can be, but I trust in the greater wisdom of God who knows all things. In other words, I don't know exactly how God sending people to hell fits with His love, but I do know the Scriptures teach both things, therefore I know the answer cannot be that He doesn't send people to hell." Like the other approach, this approach also acknowledges mystery, but the mystery is not located in the Scriptures. The Scriptures are clear. The mystery is located in the divine nature, in the nature of love and in the nature of sending someone to hell. Which is right? To find the mystery/difficulty in God and in the nature of how love works, or to find the mystery/difficulty in Scripture?
I believe the right thing to do is to accept that the mystery/difficulty is in God and in the nature of love, rather than in the Scriptures. The Scriptures were given to humans by God, in human language, in order to teach and instruct. God hasn't communicated to us in a way that is impossible, or is even that difficult to decipher. The words and manner of speech in the Bible are decipherable, and are intended by God to be believed. It is much more credible to locate the mystery in the nature of God and in love and to confess that our human understanding of these things fall short. It seems right to me (doesn't it seem to you?) to accept whatever God has revealed plainly, even if it is hard to understand, and to submit our finite human wisdom to God's infinite wisdom, rather than to say that what God has plainly revealed is undecipherable because it isn't easily understandable to human finite minds.
Now I'm not saying that there is no way for us to understand these things. I'm only recognizing that they are difficult to understand. This difficultly arises because we don't think like God does. We humans tend to think very differently than God about God, ourselves, the nature of sin, the nature of justice, concepts of love, questions of value, chief ends, good and evil, and so forth. I think if we are honest, we humans are terrible judges of sin. We do not see sin the way God does. We downplay it, or are numb to it, or are enraged about its presence in others but not its presence in ourselves, or are selectively enraged, or are partial to people we like, or all of the above. Likewise we humans are terrible worshipers of God. We are idolaters, experts at ignoring truth, numb or apathetic to the existence of our Creator, clueless about the worth of His glory, and are self-centered rather than God-centered. In other words, we neither "get" God nor do we "get" ourselves. Is it any wonder, then, that we hardly "get" hell? Couldn't our failure to come to terms with the concept of hell lie, not in hell per se, but in our failure to come to terms with the very concepts--the other concepts, of God and man and sin--that make hell intelligible?
L----, I know in my own life that I often fail to grasp the reality and worth of God. I also often fail to grasp the evil of my sin--the sin which sent Christ the Son of God to that horrific death which was required to make atonement for my sins. That tells me something. I am, as a human, generally clueless. It should not therefore surprise me that I find hell so difficult. My view of God, humanity, and sin is skewed.
It's when I'm allowing my mind to be instructed by the Word of God concerning God, humanity, and sin that hell makes perfect sense to me. When Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up (Isaiah 6), he cried out "Woe is me!" Grasping God enabled Isaiah to grasp himself, and in light of these two things he grasped his woe. I find the same thing in my own life. And when I'm struggling with hell, I remind myself... "Eli, you're struggling to see God and man, too. You aren't seeing things as God sees them." So I accept hell as a Christian, not because it always makes sense to me, but because I know that God has revealed it, and I know that God knows better than I do, and I know that I'm usually not the best judge of these matters. Therefore I accept the Scriptural teaching about hell.
While this is not always easy, it does, however, bring with it further important outcomes. Accepting the doctrine of hell means accepting the unspeakable and enormous evil of sin, which in turn means accepting the even more incomprehensible and astounding love of God for sinners (Eph. 3:19). If you think sin is little, then the love of God for sinners is little. If you see sin for what it is (enormous, hell-deserving), you see the love of God for what is (prodigiously gracious, altogether surprising). This has been the experience of Christians throughout the centuries: the love of God is felt to be extraordinary when you realize He has saved you from His real and dreadful eternal wrath (Rom. 5:5-11). It leaves you speechless. Thus, curiously, to get rid of hell in our thinking is in the end to get rid of the unspeakable love of God in our thinking.
Does one have to believe in hell in order to be a Christian?
I believe the answer is yes. I don't mean that a person has to understand all the ins and outs of it, or that they have to have a perfect conception of what hell is (does anyone?). But I do believe that a person--in order to even understand the saving work of Jesus--must understand something about what God is, what man is, what sin is, what the problem is, what Jesus did to solve the problem, and that He is the only way for the problem to be solved. A person puts his faith in Christ for salvation because he know that without faith in Christ he is damned. Because he understands something of the issues, he also knows that Christ is the only way, and that whoever does not believe in Him will--as Jesus taught--perish. If you don't see that God is a God of wrath against sin, how can you understand your sin, and your need for Christ's atoning sacrifice, and your need to put your faith in Him? Being a Christian is not something a Christian sees as optional.
The things we believe reveal more things we believe. Being a Christian means believing in the truth about Christ, as God has revealed it.
Thanks for asking me, L----. I'm humbled that you'd do so. Feel free to share your thoughts.
Your friend, Eli