When God warned Abraham that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah would be destroyed, Abraham pleaded with Him to spare the righteous. God agreed. If there be ten righteous people in those cities, He promised, I will not destroy them. (See Genesis 18:17-32.)
Messengers from God subsequently warned Lot and and his family to leave the city of Sodom. As his family escaped, “The Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven” (Genesis 19:24).
Brimstone is an antiquated name for sulphur. It is derived from words that mean “burning stone.” When sulfur burns, it generates sulfur dioxide, which irritates the skin and particularly the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. The imagery suggests not only destruction but also severe pain.
Moses later warned the children of Israel that if they didn’t keep their covenants, their whole land would be “brimstone, and salt, and burning…like the overthrow of Sodom, and Gomorrah” (Deuteronomy 29:23).
King David taught that “upon the wicked,” God would “rain snares, fire and brimstone, and an horrible tempest” (Psalm 11:6).
In the Book of Mormon, the image of a lake of fire and brimstone is referenced by Nephi (2 Nephi 28:23), Jacob (2 Nephi 9:16, 19, 26, Jacob 3:10, Jacob 6:10), King Benjamin (Mosiah 3:27), and Alma (Alma 12:17). These prophets associated that lake with spiritual death and taught that God’s redemption could deliver us from that torment.
After Alma taught this principle in the city of Ammonihah, his antagonists, with cruel irony, burned innocent women and children in a large fire. The chief judge then asked, “After what ye have seen, will ye preach again unto this people, that they shall be cast into a lake of fire and brimstone?” (Alma 14:14). As Kylie Nielson Turley has pointed out, Alma never again used that phrase, at least in the record we have. In fact, the phrase doesn’t appear again in the Book of Mormon. After that horrific event, both Alma and subsequent prophets used other terminology and imagery to teach that principle. (See Alma 1-29: a brief theological introduction, Maxwell Institute, November 2020.)
But the phrase does appear twice in modern revelation. In August 1831, the Lord warned members of the church in Ohio that sinners “shall have their part in that lake which burneth with fire and brimstone, which is the second death” (Doctrine and Covenants 63:17). Six months later, after describing various kingdoms of glory, He declared that some people, who He called “sons of perdition” will “go away into the lake of fire and brimstone, with the devil and his angels.” He said that these are “the only ones on whom the second death shall have any power” (Doctrine and Covenants 76:36-37).
What does this fire and brimstone represent? Joseph Smith taught:
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 [see Revelation 21:8]. 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.Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, Chapter 18: Beyond the Veil: Life in the Eternities
So the pain represented by brimstone is self-inflicted. It represents our own disappointment when we recognize how far we have fallen short. Our Heavenly Father can help us overcome that pain, not by ignoring it, but by addressing its root causes. He can help us overcome the weaknesses and sins which inevitably result in shame and sorrow. But we have to be willing to accept His help.
Today, I will seek and accept God’s help as I strive to improve and to grow. Instead of dwelling on my shortcomings, I will exercise faith that God can help me overcome them.