Mormons have always believed in a God who refuses to dispatch anyone to an everlasting hell, which is a critique Bell makes again and again of traditional evangelical views. (Bell asks us which is "more terrifying to fathom: the billions who burn forever or the few who escape this fate?") In this way, Mormon universalism is not unlike the universalist views that swept the early American nation in the generation before Joseph Smith. Clearly, Smith imbibed the waters that had also nurtured earlier New England universalists like Charles Chauncy and Benjamin Rush.
Like some of that generation, Mormon theology also embraces the idea that this short human life is not our only chance to make decisions that may affect eternity. After this life, people who never got the chance to hear God's good news, or who rejected God for reasons that made perfect sense at the time, will have the opportunity. And in Mormonism, everyone means everyone, from serial killers to soccer moms. The Mormon God is a god of second, third, and fourth chances . . . unto eternity. That doesn't necessarily mean that punishment for sin does not exist—the 18th-century Universalists entertained the idea of a temporary "hell" that would purge evil and purify a person to dwell with God, and Mormons speak of a comparably short-lived "spirit prison" in which individuals may learn, repent, and eventually cross over into paradise.