Recenly, I read a comment that the realm of “Outer Darkness” does not really qualify as “Hell” because there will be “so few” who inherit it, probably about 6 or 7 people in total. Not only does this border on unitarian universalism, but we would be making a mistake, I believe, in completely dismissing the word “Hell” from our vocabulary as a substitute for “Outer Darkness.” The word “Hell” comes in handy when teaching discussions as a missionary and in discussing soteriology with non-Mormons. Among other members, the term “Outer Darkness” functions just fine.
But why the idea that so few will go there? I scoured the scriptures and the teachings of JS and came up empty-handed on this idea. Furthermore, I believe that there will be many who wind up in that dreadful place (maybe even me), and that to indicate that one knows the exact number of folks who go there is not only passing judgment on others (and therefore putting judgment in God’s mouth where none was invited), but also an admission that God’s punishment is fixed and knowable to the finite mind.
Here are some of the tidbits that I found:
“Evidently many among us have made a dreadful mistake, but not unpardonable, in thinking that the sons of perdition will be very few. We have heard it said at times that they will be so few that they probably could be “counted on the fingers of one hand.” Where this thought originated we may not know. From the reading of the scriptures it appears that there will be a large number; far too many even if there were but one, for their punishment is most severe without any question.” Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, 5 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1957-1966), 1: 78.
44 Wherefore, he 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—
45 And the end thereof, neither the place thereof, nor their torment, NO MAN KNOWS;
46 Neither was it revealed, neither is, neither will be revealed unto man, except to them who are made partakers thereof;
47 Nevertheless, I, the Lord, show it by vision unto many, but straightway shut it up again;
48 Wherefore, the end, the width, the height, the depth, and the misery thereof, they understand not, neither any man except those who are ordained unto this condemnation.(Doctrine and Covenants | Section 76:44 – 48)
It seems from this that for one to know how many people are going to be in Outer Darkness serves as a qualifier for candidacy therein.
It is commonly believed, and I think correct to say, that those who find themselves in this place have commited the unpardonable sin. About that JS said that “this will be the case with many apostates of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (TPJS, 358).
Regardless of who qualifies as an apostate doomed for outer darkness, it seems clear that in the early days of the church, this notion that one could count the people who will wind up in that place on the fingers of one hand did not exist. Perhaps this notion ought to be re-examined.