Robert Millet, “A Different Jesus? The Christ of the Latter-day Saints ”
Excerpts from CHAPTER 7 (Salvation in Christ) and 8 (Those Who Have Never Heard}
A Broad Concept of Salvation
As early as February 1832 Joseph Smith declared that the life beyond consists of more than heaven and hell. He recorded a revelation known as “The Vision of the Glories” or simply “The Vision” (D&C 76). This vision serves as a type of commentary on the Master’s words that “in my Father’s house are many mansions” (John 14-2) and on the apostle Paul’s passing comment to the Corinthians about types of bodies in the resurrection (i Corinthians 15:40-42). Joseph stated that God revealed to him the concept of three main divisions in the afterlife — in descending order (in terms of the greatest eternal reward), the celestial kingdom, terrestrial kingdom, and telestial kingdom, each of which is a kingdom of glory.
The Latter-day Saints believe that hell has two meanings: (I) that division of the postmortal spirit world where those who have lived wickedly and have spurned morality and decency reside following their death and until the time of their resurrection; and, ultimately, (2) the final abode of those called the “sons of perdition,” persons who deny and defy the truth, who come to know God and then fight against him and his plan of salvation (D&C 76:31-35). The sons of perdition are the only ones who face the second death, meaning the second or final spiritual death. They inherit a kingdom of no glory. Everyone else will come forth from the grave to inherit a kingdom of glory.
In that sense, Latter-day Saints believe in a type of universal salvation, not in the sense that everyone will one day dwell with God and be like God, but rather that all (who do not defect to perdition) will enjoy a measure of God’s goodness and grace through inheriting a heaven of some type.43 For one thing, all persons who have had a physical body will be resurrected, “for as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1Corinthians isizz-za). Or, as a Book of Mormon prophet put it, the day cometh that all shall rise from the dead and stand before God, and be judged according to their works” (Alma 11:41). As stated in the Vision, And this is the gospel, the glad tidings, … that he came into the world, even Jesus, to be crucified for the world, and to bear the sins of the world, and to sanctify the world, and to cleanse it from all unrighteousness; that through him all might be saved whom the Father had put into his power and made by him; who glorifies the Father, and saves all the works of his hands, except those sons of perdition who deny the Son after the Father has revealed him” (D&C
This idea is not totally foreign to other Christians. In the words of popular writer Bruce Wilkinson, “Although your eternal destination is based on your belief [in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior], how you spend eternity is based on your behavior while on earth.” Thus “The Unbreakable Link” is stated as follows: “Your choices on earth have direct consequences on your life in eternity.” Discipleship flows from true conversion. That is, “Doing is a servant’s language of devotion.” In short, “there will be degrees of reward in heaven.”‘” Jonathan Edwards stated that “There are many mansions in God’s house because heaven is intended for various degrees of honor and blessedness. Some are designed to sic in higher places there than others; some are designed to be advanced to higher degrees of honor and glory than others are.”4s Similarly, John Wesley spoke of some persons enjoying “higher degrees of glory” hereafter. “There is an inconceivable variety in the degrees of reward in the other world…. In worldly things men are ambitious to get as high as they can. Christians have a far more noble ambition. The difference between the very highest and the lowest state in the world is nothing to the smallest difference between the degrees of glory.”46
While I was sitting with a group of religious scholars once, they commented to me that the problem with the LDS conception of heaven is that everyone is saved. I thought of that conversation as I later read the following from a Roman Catholic scholar, Richard John Neuhaus: “The hope that all may be saved … offends some Christians. It is as though salvation were a zero-sum proposition, as though there is only so much to go around, as though God’s grace to others will somehow diminish our portion of grace…. If we love others, it seems that we must hope that, in the end, they will be saved. We must hope that all will one day hear the words of Christ, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’ Given the evidence of Scripture and tradition, we cannot deny that hell exists. We can, however, hope that hell is empty. We cannot know that, but we can hope it is the case.”47
While our faith and conduct in this mortal experience are vital, learning and growth and redemption continue well beyond the grave. “When you climb up a ladder,” Joseph Smith explained only two months before his death, “you must begin at the bottom, and ascend step by step, until you arrive at the top; and so it is with the principles of the gospel — you must begin with the first, and go on until you learn all the principles of exaltation. But it will be a great while after you have passed through the veil [of death] before you will have learned them. It is not all to be comprehended in this world; it will be a great work to learn our salvation and exaltation even beyond the grave.”48 As Charles W. Penrose once stated, “While there is one soul of this race, willing and able to accept and obey the laws of redemption, no matter where or in what condition it may be found, Christ’s work will be incomplete until that being is brought up from death and hell, and placed in a position of progress, upward and onward, in such glory as is possible for its enjoyment and the service of the great God.”
A fifth position that has been taken by some Christians in regard to the soceriological problem of evil is what has variously been called future probation, second probation, eschatological evangelism, divine perseverance, and postmortem evangelism. According to this view, those who die without a knowledge of the gospel are not damned; they have an opportunity to receive the truth in the world to come. “God is resolute,” one advocate of this position has pointed out, “never giving up on getting the Word out. In this world God will give us the power to spread the gospel far and wide. But the Word will also be declared to those we can’t reach, even if it takes an eternity.” He adds that “God’s love is patient and persistent. It outlasts us. For the final victory of this powerful patience, however, we must await the end of the story. Only then will the kingdom come — the resurrection of the dead, the return of Christ, final judgment and everlasting life. In the end, God will settle accounts, vindicate the sufferer and validate the divine purposes.”2”
One respected evangelical, Donald Bloesch, has explained: “We do not wish to build fences around God’s grace, … and we do not preclude the possibility that some in hell might finally be translated into heaven. The gates of the holy city are depicted as being open day and night (Isaiah 6o:ii; Revelation 2E25), and this means that access to the throne of grace is possible continuously. The gates of hell are locked, but they are locked only from within. C. S. Lewis has suggested in The Great Divorce that where there is a supposed transition from hell to heaven the person was never really in hell but only in purgatory. This, of course, is interesting speculation, and may be close to the truth. Yet we must maintain a reverent agnosticism concerning the workings of God’s grace which are not revealed in Holy Scripture. We can affirm salvation on the other side of the grave, since this has scriptural warrant.”21
Favorite passages of scripture for this group include I Peter 3:18-20 and I Peter 4:6, which refer to Christ teaching the gospel after his death; John 5:25, in which Jesus states that the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and Ephesians 4:8-9, which speaks of Christ descending to the “lower parts of the earth.” One critic of the doctrine of postmortem evangelism declared that such a reading of 1 Peter 4:6 “is neither the only nor even the most plausible interpretation. Wise Christians do not base any important doctrine — especially one that is controversial and that might also contain heretical implications — on one single, highly debatable passage of Scripture. If this approach were applied by PME [Postmortem Evangelism] advocates to I Corinthians 15:29, it would lead Christians to follow a policy of baptizing living people as proxies for the unbaptized dead.”22 Indeed, it just might.
An Ancient Practice Restored
Joseph Smith observed: “Aside from knowledge independent of the Bible, I would say that it [baptism for the dead] was certainly practiced by the ancient churches … The Saints have the privilege of being baptized for those of their relatives who are dead, whom they believe would have embraced the Gospel, if they had been privileged with hearing it, and who have received the Gospel in the spirit [world], through the instrumentality of those who have been commissioned to preach to them.”37 On another occasion he said: “If we can, by the authority of the Priesthood of the Son of God, baptize a man in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, for the remission of sins, it is just as much our privilege to act as an agent and be baptized for the remission of sins for and in behalf of our dead kindred, who have not heard the Gospel, or the fullness of it.”38
This practice is closely tied to another doctrinal belief of the Latter-day Saints — that the gospel is preached in the postmortal spirit world. The Saints believe this is what Peter meant when he wrote: “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: by which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison.” Further: “Forfar this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit” (i Peter 3:18-19; 4:6, emphasis added). In short, we feel that every person will have the opportunity, either in this life or the next, to receive the fulness of the gospel ofJesus Christ and enter into the everlasting covenant.
Frederic W Farrar, writing in the nineteenth century, observed that “St. Peter has one doctrine that is almost peculiar to himself, and which is inestimably precious.” This doctrine, Farrar adds, is a “much disregarded and, indeed, till recent times, half-forgotten article of the Christian creed; I mean the object of Christ’s descent into Hades. In above the irreverent charge of being ‘secondhand and commonplace.'” Farrar then quotes 1 Peter 3:18-2o and I Peter 4:6 and states: “Few words of Scripture have been so tortured and emptied of their significance as these.” He notes that “every effort has been made to explain away the plain meaning of this passage. It is one of the most precious passages of Scripture, and it involves no ambiguity, except such as is created by the scholasticism of a prejudiced theology. It stands almost alone in Scripture…. For if language have any meaning, this language means that Christ, when His spirit descended into the lower world, proclaimed the message of salvation to the once impenitent dead” And then, in broadening our perspective beyond those of the days of Noah, Farrar writes: “But it is impossible to suppose that the antediluvian sinners, conspicuous as they were for their wickedness, were the only ones of all the dead who were singled out to receive the message of deliverance.”
Continuing, the revered churchman pointed out: “We thus rescue the work of redemption from the appearance of having failed to achieve its end for the vast majority of those for whom Christ died. By accepting the light thus thrown upon ‘the descent into Hell,’ we extend to those of the dead who have not finally hardened themselves against it the blessedness of Christ’s atoning work” Later Farrar writes that “we do not press the inference of Hermas and St. Clement of Alexandria by teaching that this passage implies also other missions of Apostles and Saints to the world of spirits.”39
Between the time of Christ’s death on the cross and his rise from the comb, he went into the postmortal spirit world, preached his gospel, and organized the faithful, in order that the message of truth might be made available to all who are willing to receive it (see D&C 138). But because the sacraments or ordinances of the Church are earthly ordinances and must be performed on this side of the veil of death, Latter-day Saints go into temples to receive the sacraments in behalf of chose who have died without them. “Every man,” Joseph as proxy for them, the Lord has administrators there [in the spirit world] to set them free.”4° He also taught: “Jesus Christ became a ministering spirit (while His body was lying in the sepulchre) to the spirits in prison, to fulfill an important part of His mission, without which He could not have perfected His work, or entered into his rest…. It is no more incredible that God should save the dead, than that he should raise the dead.”11 In that sense, Mormons feel the need to be anxiously engaged in the work of the ministry on both sides of the veil of death.
More often than not, baptism for the dead (together with other temple ordinances) is considered by traditional Christians to be an unnecessary, ill-advised, or even contemptible practice. In the to August 1998 issue of Christianity Today, a reader inquired: “I’ve heard Mormons criticized for getting ‘baptized for the dead; but in I Corinthians 13:29, Paul writes [she then quotes the verse]. Did Jews or early Christians practice this? Why do we believe it’s wrong to practice it today?” D. A. Carson, a respected biblical scholar, responded briefly with familiar arguments against the practice: the doctrine is not taught in the Book of Mormon; is is mentioned in only one place in the Bible; Paul uses the word they (rather than we) in referring to the practice, thus implying that he was not associated with the practice- and, in short, “There is no good evidence for vicarious baptism anywhere in the New Testament or among the earliest apostolic fathers…. If the practice existed at all, it may have been tied to a few people or special cases — for example, when a relative died after trusting the gospel but before being baptized. We really do not know” (p. 63). In a Christian world where people are not persuaded that baptism in the flesh is necessary for entrance into the Lord’s Church and thus essential to salvation (or where baptism is viewed as some type of extraneous and inessential work that somehow undercuts or compromises the saving grace of the Lord), we should not be surprised about some of the reactions to this doctrine and practice.
Some things in Scripture are not perfectly clear,” John MacArthur observed. One notable example is the mention of ‘baptism for the dead’ in I Corinthians 15:29. There are at least forty different views about what that verse means. We cannot be dogmatic about such things.”‘” J. 1. Packer reminded the readers of Christianity Today that any notion of salvation beyond the grave “is nonscriptural speculation and reflects an inadequate grasp of what turning to Christ involves.” Further, he added, any idea of a person not receiving the gospel here in this life and then choosing to receive it hereafter is also unscriptural. He pointed out that “the unbeliever’s lack of desire for Christ and the Father and heaven remains unchanged [after death]. So for God to extend the offer of salvation beyond the moment of death, even for thirty seconds, would be pointless. Nothing would come of it.””
Latter-day Saints believe that the good news or glad tidings of salvation in Christ is intended to lift our sights and bring hope to our souls, to “bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound” (Isaiah 6m). That hope in Christ is in the infinite capacity of an infinite Being to save men and women from ignorance, as well as from sin and death. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is indeed the God of the living (Matthew 22:32), and his influence and redemptive mercies span the veil of death (1 Corinthians 15:19).
And so what of those who never have the opportunity in this life to know of Christ and his gospel; who never have the opportunity to be baptized for a remission of sins and for entrance into the kingdom of God; who never have the privilege of being bound in marriage and sealed in the family unit? In a world gripped by cynicism and strangled by hopelessness, the Latter-day Saints teach of a God of mercy and vision, of an Omnipotent One whose reach to his children is neither deterred by distance nor dimmed by death.