Dr. Gaskill was born a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Missouri, Joined the LDS Church as a teenager, went on a Mission, and got Graduate Degrees in Theology and Biblical Studies at Notre Dame, the Catholic University, before becoming a Professor of Church Doctrine and History at BYU. His sources include Bruce R. McConkie, Robert Millet, Steven Robinson, and many of the General Authorities supporting the approach to keep us closer to Christianity.
Evidence That the Plan of Salvation Works
Professor of Church History and Doctrine, BYU
Chapter One – The Role of Commandments
Since the very beginnings of the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ a tension has existed between the role played by works and that of grace in the salvation of God’s children.
True, the Mormon faith “grew up,” so to speak, in a predominantly Protestant milieu—and its worship forms clearly mirror that. Nonetheless, views of salvation among Latter-day Saints tend to parallel early twentieth-century Catholic approaches or those of puritanical Protestant beliefs rather than those found in the evangelical Christian movement. Thus, many Latter-day Saints are much more likely to talk about their need to be obedient to covenants and commandments than they are to speak of the exalting grace of God and His Christ.
This tension between grace and works is not altogether a bad thing. Indeed, a congregation that emphasizes good works as the primary means of salvation will likely be made up of overwhelmed and potentially dispirited parishioners. And the opposite is also true; if the emphasis on how one gains salvation is placed entirely upon grace it is likely that complacency and a lack of personal righteousness will be the outcome. Thus, it is imperative that emphasis be placed on both grace and works. Neither operating in a vacuum; neither functional on its own; each dependent upon the other. We must recognize that grace and works are not opposites, but rather two ends of the same stick; two facets of the same eternal plan; two necessary parts of the same redemptive act—the atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ.
In the restored gospel, grace and works ever go hand in hand. No one will ever be exalted by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, if that person is complacent in his approach to the commandments. Nor will anyone find himself exalted solely through seeking to keep all of the commandments of Christ, as no one is able to Ally do so) Indeed, no one (except Jesus) even comes close to keeping all of the commandments. Of course, the principle we are discussing will not be new to the reader. It is a foundational component in accurately understanding the atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, the interplay between these two related forces—grace and works—is occasionally neglected in dialogues about salvation. Sadly, sometimes contentious arguments about who God will save, and how He will save them, are the result of such misunderstandings. Consequently, over the two millennia since Jesus established the Christian faith, many who profess the Christian conviction have, nonetheless, been less than Christ-like to their fellow brothers and sisters in the faith because of divergent views on the issue of grace vs. works. Such should not be the case.
Many centuries before the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent restoration of the gospel, the Christian church was quite clear on the relationship between grace and works. Church fathers from both the Latin and Greek traditions explained the interconnectedness of these two components of salvation in words very similar to the Book of Mormon proclamation: “It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23). In his book, Early Christian Doctrines, patristic scholar J. N. D. Kelly offered the following explanation as to how early Christians perceived the roles of grace and works:
Our salvation comes, stated Gregory Nazianzen, both from ourselves and from God. If God’s help is necessary for doing good and if the good will itself comes from Him, it is equally true that the initiative rests with man’s free will. [John] Chrysostom similarly teaches that without God’s aid we should be unable to accomplish good works; nevertheless, even if grace takes the lead, it co-operates with free will. We first of all begin to desire the good and to incline ourselves towards it, and then God steps in to strengthen that desire and render it effective … So Ambrose states, “In everything the Lord’s power cooperates with man’s efforts”; but he can also say, “Our free will gives us either a propensity to virtue or an inclination to sin.” In numerous passages he lays it down that the grace of salvation will only come to those who make the effort to bestir themselves . . . Theodoret’s view is that, while all men need grace and it is impossible to take a step on the road to virtue without it, the human will must collaborate with it. “There is need,” he writes, “of both our efforts and the divine succour. The grace of the Spirit is not vouchsafed to those who make no effort, and without that grace our efforts cannot collect the prize of virtue.”2
Thus we see that the early Christians commonly held that one was exalted entirely by grace, but that works vouchsafed that grace, enabling the practitioner to lay hold upon it, or qualify for it. Grace could not be earned, according to early Christians. But it wasn’t given to those who made no effort either.
Similarly, the LDS position is that our works cannot save us but are necessary (1) as a manifestation of true or sincere faith, and (2) in order that we might become like God, as we have been commanded to be (see Matthew 5:48). Only the works of Jesus Christ can actually save or exalt.3 Men’s personal works have no power to redeem them—as we can never do sufficient good to override both our sins and also our all-encompassing dependence upon God and Christ. Additionally, it is a fallacy to say that Jesus saves us, but then our works exalt us—an idea I have heard expressed not a few times by members of the Church. That too implies a self-sufficiency that is, at best, damning! Thus, King Benjamin reminds us:
And now, in the first place, he hath created you, and granted unto you your lives, for which ye are indebted unto him. And secondly, he doth require that ye should do as he bath commanded you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you; and therefore he hath paid you. And ye are still indebted unto him, and are, and will be, forever and ever; therefore, of what have ye to boast? (Mosiah 2:23-24)
King Benjamin informs us that we are ever indebted to God and Christ for (1) forgiving us of our sins, and also (2) for blessing us for our meager efforts to be obedient. And, he points out, we are eternally beholden to Him for our very lives. King Benjamin had previously said:
I say unto you, my brethren, that if you should render all the thanks and praise which your whole soul has power to possess, to that God who has created you, and has kept and preserved you, and has caused that ye should rejoice, and has granted that ye should live in peace one with another—I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another—I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants. (Mosiah 2:20-21; emphasis added)
What an acknowledgment! We are unprofitable servants! Although we acknowledge the Lord’s declaration regarding the great worth of souls in the eyes of God (see D&C 18:10), nevertheless, here King Benjamin highlights our cost rather than our worth! And what do we cost? According to scripture, more than we’re worth! We are, each of us, a drain on the system! In the fullest sense, we are not contributors but, rather, more like leeches! Although the message hardly sounds uplifting, on the contrary, uplifting is exactly what it is! With all of the things King Benjamin stated as absolute truth—namely that we are inadequate and continually indebted to God and Christ—yet They still bless us. They still love us. They still guide and protect us. And They have every intent of exalting us, if we desire that it be so. What a profound promise! What an illuminating statement about the nature and depth of divine grace and mercy!
In what appears to be an effort to give context and parameters to God’s expressed loved, we are wont to quote 2 Nephi 25:23, which reads: “We know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” Too often we misinterpret this to mean that we have to do everything possible—everything within our power—and then God’s grace will kick in. Many see Nephi’s words as a caution, rather than a promise—as though Nephi is saying you do the impossible, and then—and only then—go talk to God about offering you a little help? If that is really what Nephi means, then Jesus will be the only saved being, as He is the only one who has done all He possibly could. But this is not what the passage is teaching. What Nephi is telling us is that it is still by God’s grace that we will be saved—even if we do the very best we can. And why is that the case? Because “all we can do” is inconsequential in comparison to all God does and all that needs to be done. In other words, our meager offering is simply not enough to save or exalt us! Thus, Christ is our Savior. Not our small acts of faithfulness. One commentator paraphrased 2 Nephi 25:23 as follows: “We are saved by grace ‘apart from all we can do,’ or . . . ‘regardless of all we can do.’ Another acceptable paraphrase of the sense of the verse might read, ‘We are still saved by grace, after all is said and done.'”5 Simply put, we cannot separate grace and works, but in the combination of the two, we cannot place the emphasis on our works, but rather on Christ’s. For, even if we expend all of our best efforts, it will take Jesus’ love, concern, righteousness, and power to redeem us from our fallen condition. And yet, that was always the plan!
Let us not forget that the commandments we have been given predate mortality. They predate the fall of Adam and Eve. They existed before you and I were born as spirits in heavenly realms to loving Heavenly Parents. Indeed, they are eternal.6 They are the laws by which all humans who ever have lived, or ever will live, will be judged and potentially exalted: The very laws you and I have been given as commandments are the same laws our Father in Heaven successfully obeyed during His mortal probation. The Prophet Joseph stated:
It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God, and to know that we may converse with him as one man converses with another, and that he was once a man like us; yea, that God himself the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ himself did . . . and you have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done before you.’
Similarly, Elder James E. Talmage of the Council of the Twelve Apostles stated: “The Eternal Father … was once a Man, and has progressed, not by any favor but by the right of conquest over sin, and over death, to His present position of priesthood and power, of Godship and Godliness, as the Supreme Being whom we all profess to worship.”9 President Brigham Young taught this same idea on numerous occasions, stating that God the Father “has passed the ordeals we are now passing through; . . . he has passed through the whole of it, and has received his crown and exaltation.”10 President George Q. Cannon, a counselor to three different presidents of the Church, taught: “The exaltation which God has attained to has been through obedience to these self-same laws that are now taught to us.”11 And Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote this: “The Father … worked out his salvation by obedience to the same laws he has given to us so that we may do the same.”12
The laws and ordinances by which men and women are exalted in the celestial kingdom of our God are eternal and do not change—and because they are eternal, they predate even God.13 Yes, they have always existed and have ever been operative. And no, they are not negotiable. All beings are saved on the same principles—by the same laws and ordinances—in all dispensations, on every earth created by the great God who “upholds all worlds and all things by his power.” But it is imperative to understand that, although we are all judged by the same laws, our circumstances influence what is expected of us individually under those laws.
From the very beginning of the Plan’s institution, we each understood that we would have less ability than Jesus to keep the Father’s commandments. That is why we were taught that an important part of the Plan was the Father’s intention to provide us a Savior. We trusted in that promise and certainly rejoiced at the announcement. Our inequality with Christ made this a necessary component of the Father’s plan. Likewise, you and I are also unequal in our individual abilities to keep the commandments, when compared to each other. Instructively, in Jesus’ parable of the talents (see Matthew 25:14-30) the Lord rewards all his servants equally, even though not all were equally productive. Only the entirely unproductive were dismissed as worthless. It becomes clear in the parable that the reward was not based on how much one did, but rather what one did with what he was given. So it is with us. As Elder James E. Talmage put it:
Both the servant who had been entrusted with five talents and he who had received but two were equally commended, and, as far as we are told, were equally recompensed. The talents bestowed upon each were the gift of his Lord, who knew well whether that servant was capable of using to better advantage one, two, or five. Let no one conclude that good work of relatively small scope is less necessary or acceptable than like service of wider range. Many a man who has succeeded well in business with small capital would have failed in the administration of vast sums; so also in spiritual achievements ‘there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit.’
Of the man endowed with many talents greater returns were expected.’ 5
Likewise, D. Kelly Ogden and Andrew C. Skinner have written:
The parable is not about three levels of goodness but about doing the best we can with what we’ve been given. (As our leaders have often counseled us, it is not where we serve but how we serve that matters.) The servant who doubled his two talents earned the same reward as he who doubled the five talents. They were both faithful, and the faithful, in the end, will be given all the Father has.16
God expects us to seek to be faithful to Him in the stewardship He has given us and conscientious in how we use the talents and gifts He has endowed us with (see Alma 29:6-7). I am not called to be a faithful president of the Church. I am simply called to be as faithful as I can in my small stewardship in my small portion of the vineyard. If the president of the Church is faithful in his stewardship, and I in mine, we will both receive the same reward; namely eternal life in the presence of God.
Of course, there is the great dilemma that all of us face. No one—no, not one—is capable of living the commandments fully. No one, save Christ only! From the very hour the commandments were explained to us in the premortal world it was known by all present that we would not be capable of living them to the degree that the law of justice demands—to the degree one must in order to be exalted. It is for this very reason that the Father provided as part of His plan a Savior, a Redeemer, a Messiah. From the foundations of the world the Father chose and foreordained His Only Begotten Son to ransom us all (see 1 Peter 1:20), worlds without end (see Moses 1:33-35). In so doing, He insured that the impossible would become a reality. We would be exalted! Mercy could not rob justice. But Jesus had within Himself the nature and power to satisfy the demands of justice, thereby making mercy an available gift to all who desire it.17
What then must we know about commandments? We must believe they are always given for our safety, protection, growth, and happiness. And we must—with all our hearts—seek to keep them! But they are not given as the primary means of obtaining our exaltation. If that were the case, again, none would be exalted, with the sole exception of Jesus the Christ. Commandments and trials offer us the experiences necessary to learn the lessons of life and opportunities to develop the attributes of godhood. They help us to see things, and others, as God sees them. They often provoke in us a spirit of love, forgiveness, and understanding. And they certainly keep us safe and happy. These are the reasons the Father gave us commandments. He did not reveal them out of a desire to damn us. Jesus was foreordained to be the Messiah long before any of us were sent to earth because the Father knew that we not only could not keep all of His commandments, but also because we needed the trials life and sin bring in order to develop spirituality. In this view, the frustrations and failings of life are really blessings in disguise. We could never become like God without them.
Elder Neal A. Maxwell wisely noted:
The Atonement is there for our daily mistakes. It’s understandable that we focus on the major crises. But we sometimes allow ourselves to be overcome by relentless routineness. That can cause a “daily dampening of things spiritual.” . . . Being tried means being developed. We don’t look at impatience in terms of its downsize. When we are impatient we do not honor what is implied in the words “in process of time.” We foolishly wish to have some moments over and done with, ignoring the possibilities of service inherent in them. If we want to “fly over” (so to speak) some experiences, it likely means that we will miss the chance to be of service [and parenthetically, we will miss opportunities for personal growth and development—for which mortality was designed]. Impatience puts us at risk. We may feel “put upon” by events and circumstances. This is another mistake we can make in not approaching the Atonement in order to draw upon it. And yet these things which we feel “put upon” with actually constitute the customized curriculum needed for our personal development. Too often we push away the necessary and prescribed courses of ‘spiritual calisthenics.’ As if we could withdraw from all of life’s courses and still remain enrolled in school.’ 8
The trials and challenges of life are a blessing—a gift to us from God. A perfectly lived life must be our goal. But a flawed life, marred by the occasional sin or misstep, also has its place in the divine Plan. So much of what we know, so much of life’s “aha’s,” come from lessons taught to us by our mistakes or shortcomings. These little errors are part of the curriculum God designed for the mortal experience.
The message of the Atonement is this: First, God has prepared a way for us to return to Him. And second, God does not require perfection of us in order for us to gain exaltation. Jesus needed to be perfect. You and I only need to accept and apply His perfection—all the while, seeking to be the best we can. As Paul noted, Jesus, “who knew no sin,” took upon Himself our sins “that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). In other words, in Gethsemane and on Golgotha, Jesus willingly became guilty of our sins so that those of us who were willing to love and follow Him might become inheritors of His righteousness.
President Heber J. Grant taught:
If we examine the plan of life and salvation, if we examine the commandments that are given to us as members of the Church of God, we will find that each and every one of those commandments has been given for the express purpose that we may be benefitted, that we may … go back and dwell in the presence of our Heavenly Father … These duties and obligations are calculated to . . . make Gods of us, . . . that we can become joint heirs with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and dwell with Him in the presence of God the Eternal Father throughout all the countless ages of eternity.”
Similarly, Elder Richard L. Evans of the Quorum of the Twelve once remarked:
Despite all discouragements, and sometimes despair, there is the blessed reassuring certainty that the Lord God who gave us life and made us in His image will, with our willingness, lead us to further light, to fuller life, and happiness. For this cause were all the commandments given—and for this He sent His only begotten Son not to condemn, but to save the world (See John 3:17) . . . What else would any father wish for his children? ‘What else would we wish for our own—but happiness and everlasting life with our loved ones? And for this cause are all the counsels and commandments of God given 20
Elder Bruce C. Hafen of the Seventy wrote this: “The commandments of God are designed for our ultimate happiness.”21 Thus, the role of the commandments is not to judge and condemn, but to guide, to teach, to protect, and to enable us to enjoy all that the Father has to give—both in this life and, more particularly, in the life to come. Thanks be to the Father for sending His Only Begotten Son. And thanks be to the Son for loving us enough to come and do the will of the Father. “I stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers me.”22
Chapter Two – A Plan that will Maximize Returns
As Latter-day Saints we speak freely and often about the “Plan of Salvation” or, perhaps better put, the “Plan for Salvation.” Indeed, sacred scripture gives this divine “Plan” many names. Elder Boyd K. Packer compiled the following list of scriptural titles for Heavenly Father’s Plan:
The merciful plan of the great Creator (see 2 Nephi 9:6). The plan of mercy (see Alma 42:15).
The plan of mercy (see Alma 42:31).
The great plan of redemption (see Jacob 6:8; Alma 12:25-26, 30, 32; 17:16; 18:39; 22:13-14; 29:2; 39:18; 42:11, 13).
The eternal plan of redemption (see Alma 34:16). The great plan of redemption (see Alma 34:31).
The plan of salvation (see Jarom 1:2; Alma 24:14; 42:5;
The plan of our God (see 2 Nephi 9:13).
The great plan of the Eternal God (see Alma 34:9). The eternal plan of deliverance (see 2 Nephi 11:5). The plan of happiness (see Alma 42:16).
The great plan of happiness (see Alma 42:8). The plan of restoration (see Alma 41:2).
The plan of the Gods (see Abraham 4:21).’
These many titles define the nature of the Plan. Among other things, we learn that it is great, merciful, eternal, redemptive, salvific, restorative, and greatly promoting of our happiness. It is not the “awful plan of damnation,” the “plan of misery,” or the “eternal plan of punishment.” It was not designed for the purpose of punishing or damning us—nor was it implemented to bring us misery and suffering.
To the contrary, the purpose of the Plan—the whole purpose for which it was created and introduced—was the salvation and exaltation of all mankind!2 God offered it as a gift to you and me—a token of His divine, deep, and abiding love for each of His children and for all of His creations. He sought to give us what He has by creating a plan that could make us like He is. We are the blessed recipients of this most wonderful of all designs.
Typically, when we give a gift to someone we love, we want to give the best we have. If we decide to make or create the gift ourselves, we try our hardest to make it the best our skill will allow. If we purchase it, we want to buy the best our personal finances will allow. In this sense, the Father is no different than you and I. He has created and offered to us a great gift—eternal redemption and exaltation. Because God is perfect, His plan for accomplishing His goal is perfect—and thus we could not hope for a better plan. Because He is loving, the gift is given out of love and is ideal (or perfect, complete, nothing lacking), just as His love is ideal, perfect, complete, nothing lacking.
We must remember—and we must firmly believe—that the plan of salvation, the great plan of happiness, was designed to work. Indeed, it would not be called the eternal plan of salvation/happiness/redemption/mercy/deliverance/etc. if it did not work—particularly if its primary effect was the damnation of the vast majority of God’s offspring. From an LDS position, to be damned is to be stopped in one’s progression (i.e., to be forever in a non-exalted state).3 It intuitively goes against everything we know about the nature of God to suggest that He would create and institute a plan that would, by design, damn most of His children. Yes, agency must be preserved. But to design a plan that is so difficult to succeed at that most would fail does not preserve agency. On the contrary, such would thwart both agency and the very thing the Plan was created to accomplish—namely, our exaltation. The thought that God would promote something that would ensure that the vast majority of His children would never again be able to dwell in His presence is incomprehensible. And the assumption that our mother in heaven would idly sit back and allow such a guaranteed flop to eternally strip her of any interaction with her spirit offspring is equally unfathomable. Such could not—and did not—happen!
Additionally, we know that upon having the Plan introduced to us in the premortal world, we were so happy at what the Father was telling us, you and I shouted for joy. We often quote the book of Job, which reads: “The morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:7). Of this verse, President J. Reuben Clark Jr. wrote that it “could well have been the acclaim that came in the Grand Council when the decision was reached to create an earth where those assembled might come . . . that they might . . . have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever.’ (Abraham 3:26.)”4
Elder B. H. Roberts wrote: “It is not unlikely that the shouting of all the sons of God for joy, at the creation of the earth was in consequence of the prospects which opened before these spirits because of the earth-life and the salvation that would come to them through the gospel—even in the prospects of that `eternal life, which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began.” Clearly, those of us who shouted for joy sensed that what God was telling us was good and desirable. Clearly, we felt that the odds were in our favor. There is no sense of foreboding or fear present in the language of scripture. We shouted for joy—not out of fear! If the Father had informed us that “there’s good news and bad news”—and had He continued, “The good news is there is a Plan, but the bad news is most of you are not going to make it back . . .”—surely we would not have felt reason to rejoice. But that is not what happened. The Father literally introduced us to good news: the good news that He had a plan that would readily make us like Him, and the good news that Christ would be sent to atone for our weaknesses and failings. We saw this as a win/win situation.6 We knew we wouldn’t be perfect, but we knew that the Father’s Plan would provide a remedy.
All too often we assume that only a small, select few will return to the Father’s presence, there to dwell with Him for time and for all eternity. Yes, only the select will have the honor and privilege of so doing. But who is it that the Father has selected for this great blessing? Our answer—allof His children! The Father desires that all be exalted. Not just saved, but exalted! He desires that all return to Him to dwell with Him for eternity. He made it clear in the Grand Council before the world was that the Plan has the power and potential to exalt all of us—not just a few lucky ones, or a small number of the exceedingly faithful. Indeed, modern prophetic declarations make it quite clear that more of God’s children will be exalted than will be lost.7
In 1976, one of the most doctrinally conservative voices to bear the prophetic mantle in this dispensation,8 Elder Bruce R. McConkie, said the following to a group of Church Educational System employees gathered in Salt Lake City:
“You tell your students that far more of our Father’s children will be exalted than we think!”9
Many present were surprised, as was evidenced by the audible eruption that immediately rippled through the room. The response was not a negative one—just one of surprise. Most were elated. And yet most had traditionally not thought in such optimistic terms, even though by profession it was their job to spread the “good news” of Christ’s saving ministry.
Elder McConkie was asked by one then present to explain what exactly he meant by this comment, to which he replied:
All faithful Latter-day Saints—those who chart their course toward eternal life, receive the ordinances of salvation, and strive with all their hearts to be true to their covenants—will gain eternal life. Even though they are certainly not perfect when they die, if they have sought to stay on course, in covenant, in harmony with the mind and will of God, they will be saved in the highest heaven. . . . We ought to have hope, [and] we [need] to be positive and optimistic about attaining that glory.10
Indeed, time and again, Elder McConkie made similar comments about his optimistic view of God’s Plan for our exaltation. He said: “If we chart a course of becoming perfect, and, step by step and phase by phase, are perfecting our souls by overcoming the world, then it is absolutely guaranteed—there is no question whatever about it—we shall gain eternal life.””
He also taught:
If we chart a course and follow it to the best of our ability in this life, then when we go out of this life we’ll continue in exactly that same course. We will no longer be subject to the passions and the appetites of the flesh. We will have passed successfully the tests of this mortal probation and in due course we’ll get the fulness of our Father’s kingdom—and that means eternal life in his everlasting presence.12
Addressing a large audience of practicing Latter-day Saints, Elder McConkie once said: “I would suppose . . . that I am now looking out upon a group of men and women who will all go to the celestial kingdom.”13 He also rhetorically asked, “Who can count the number of saved beings in eternity? Our God, who is triumphant in all battles against the forces of evil, will surely be victorious in the numbers of his children who will be saved.”14
Time and again Elder McConkie declared: “Good and faithful members of the Church will be saved [by which I mean exalted] even though they are far from perfect in this life.”15
It should be noted that Elder McConkie is not the only Latter-day Saint with a witness of this optimistic view of the Father’s Plan and its power to save us.
Robert L. Millet, former dean of Religious Education at Brigham Young University, wrote: “There is no ceiling on the number of saved beings in eternity, no cap, no quota by which the Father of us all must and will be governed. Like any parent, he surely desires that all of his sons and daughters receive the message of salvation, work righteousness, and return to him honorably. Not all will, it is true. But many will—a great many.”16
Along with Brother Millet, Brent L. Top (former associate dean of Religious Education at BYU), and Joseph Fielding McConkie (professor of ancient scripture at BYU) penned this: “Let us reason for a moment. In comparison to the number of wicked souls at any given time, perhaps the numbers of faithful followers seem small. But we must keep in mind how many of our spirit brothers and sisters—almost an infinite number—will be saved.”17
Brother Joseph McConkie once wrote: “Of those who kept their first estate and gained the privilege of being born into mortality the vast majority will return to the presence of their heavenly parents to receive the fulness of their divine inheritance.”18
Indeed, simple logic would suggest: “Our God and Father is a successful parent, one who will save far more of his children than he will lose!”
Stephen E. Robinson and H. Dean Garrett wrote: “Those who inherit the celestial kingdom will find themselves in communion and fellowship with billions upon billions of celestial beings like themselves—the hosts of heaven—from billions upon billions of other worlds all created and glorified by the same Jesus Christ who created our world and who will glorify us.”20
In the book Revelations of the Restoration we find the following insight:
It is a false notion, one not worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ, that only a few of God’s children will be saved in the kingdom of God. In his vision of the redemption of the dead, President Joseph E Smith saw an “innumerable company of the spirits of the just, who had been faithful in the testimony of Jesus while they lived in mortality” (D&C 138:12). All these awaited a glorious resurrection—and their number was limited to those who had lived from the days of Adam to the time of the crucifixion of Christ. Similarly, Alma spoke of “many, exceedingly great many, who were made pure and entered into the rest of the Lord their God” (Alma 13:12). Paul told the faithful of his day that they would join “an innumerable company of angels” in the heavenly place (Hebrews 12:22), while Daniel numbered the righteous who would stand before God as a “thousand thousands” who ministered to him, “and ten thousand times ten thousand” who stood before him (Daniel 7:10). When Christ said, “In my Father’s house [kingdom] are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2; see also Smith, History of the Church, 4:184), he was not suggesting that there were various degrees of glory. At that moment he was speaking to the Twelve, and though one of them would betray him, he was giving them the assurance that there was room for them and as many as would believe on their word in his Father’s kingdom. There is no boundary to the heavenly city, no limit that needs to be put on its population. There is room in his Father’s kingdom for every one of his children, if they will but choose to abide there. Were this not the case, were it true that God did not desire to save all of his children, Christ said, “I would have told you” (John 14:2).21
In Revelation 19:1 we read: “And after these things I heard a great voice of much people in heaven, saying, Alleluia; Salvation, and glory, and honour, and power, unto the Lord our God” (see also Revelation 5:11; 7:9). Note that John says that there were many, or “much people in heaven.” Clearly, we should not assume that most of God’s children are going to be damned.22 Indeed, those of us who truly believe in Christ and have faith in His atoning sacrifice must believe that many, many of God’s children will be exalted in the celestial kingdom!”
Of course we do not dismiss scriptural declarations that clearly and accurately describe our personal pathetic circumstances. For example, the apostle Paul informed us: “They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Romans 3:12). Similarly, in Mosiah 2:21 we read: “I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another—I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants.” Truly, as human beings saturated in weakness (see Ether 12:27) simply by virtue of the mortal experience, we are inconsequential in and of ourselves. But the Plan does not leave us to ourselves. We are partnered with Christ. And that alone gives us infinite worth. Thus, although we may be imperfect, unimpressive, or incapable of saving ourselves, God and Christ are not incapable of doing for us what we cannot do ourselves. And we have their love, power, and promises to both guide and preserve us.
But how is it to be done? How will God and Christ exalt more than they will lose in a world seemingly filled with wickedness and sin? Is such a grand promise of so many saved creations from a fallen world realistic, particularly when scripture informs us that God “cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance”? (Alma 45:16; D&C 1:31).
Oh, the greatness of the Plan! Oh, the wisdom of our God! Oh, the forethought He and His Son had in the grand councils before the world was! All has been considered. And all arrangements have been made. We left the presence of the Father, to begin our mortal journey, with the absolute assurance and with complete confidence that the Plan the Father was inviting us to participate in was safe, good, helpful, and exalting. And so it is!
A number of revealed truths lead us to a belief that the Plan works and that you and I likely will be exalted:
• the merciful, loving, and benevolent nature of the Father
• the perfect Atonement wrought by the Son
• the nature and length of the mortal experience
• high infant mortality rates, coupled with the truth that children are not accountable for sin
• Satan is to be bound during the Millennium
All these things, and many more, assure us that the Plan is perfect, that everything has been taken into consideration, and that you and I will likely be exalted.
Infant Mortality Rates
Thankfully, today, in westernized nations that enjoy ongoing medical advancements, most children survive both childbirth and infancy. Indeed, statistically speaking, most children born in the twenty-first century will live beyond the age of eight—the age of accountability. But such has not always been the case. One need only look back 100 years to see a dramatic increase in infant mortality in comparison to today’s trends.
Consider this. In the United States in 1910, one out of every ten babies died before its first birthday. Even as recently as 1970 the worldwide average for children dying prior to their fifth birthday was approximately 15 percent—that’s 15 percent of all children born upon this planet. Although, as of 2004, the rate of premature deaths worldwide had dropped to around 8 percent; nonetheless, in countries such as Sierra Leone, Niger, or Angola, the statistics are still saddening. For example, Sierra Leone had a 36 percent infant mortality rate in 1970. In 2004 the rate of children dying before their fifth birthday in that nation was still at a staggering 28 percent.24 One study looking at mortality rates of European children within their first year of life suggests that between the early 1500s and the year 1820, approximately 25 percent of all European children lived less than one year.25 This same study indicates that by age five almost 40 percent of European children died during that same era.26 In Roman Egypt (A.D. 12-259) more than 33 percent of all children died before the end of their first year of life.27
It is assumed that these numbers are actually low, because, as one scholar of demography noted, “There was a widespread tendency . . . not to register the burial of an unbaptized infant.”28 A 1973 study concluded that 30-50 percent of all prehistoric and modern, nonindustrialized peoples died prior to adulthood. Indeed, those dying prior to their fifteenth birthday are estimated to be 58.1 percent of the population.29 What of the underdeveloped or third-world countries? Surely their infant mortality rates were much higher. Indeed, President John Taylor stated that, statistically speaking, the total number of people who have died prior to the age of accountability is “more than one-half of the human family.”30 More than 50 percent!
One scholar has observed:
Although the chances of death were overall higher for everyone in the past, the main reason life expectancy was so much lower than today was severe infant mortality. In many historical populations between a fourth [25%] and a third [33%] of newborn infants died in their first year of life . . . Estimating the life expectancy of specific historical populations is difficult, but enough evidence has accrued to permit life expectancies to be estimated for a wide range of human, populations from prehistoric, to ancient, to modern times. . . . Using model life tables we find that in a population with a female life expectancy of twenty-five years about thirty percent of newborn infants will die in their first year of life. And in this population a female at age fifteen has a fifty percent chance of living to see her fiftieth birthday. . . . In a population with a female life expectancy of twenty-five years, women surviving to age fifty needed to have had about 5.1 live births on average in order to keep the population at level numbers.31
What has happened to the more than 50 percent of all of God’s children who have died prior to the age of accountability? The holy scriptures and the teachings of the living prophets on this question are quite clear. In a revelation given in 1836, the Lord gave Joseph Smith a glimpse into the celestial kingdom and declared: “All children who die before they arrive at the years of accountability are saved in the celestial kingdom of heaven” (D&C 137:10). And in an epistle written by Mormon to his son Moroni we read: “I [the Lord] am filled with charity, which is everlasting love; wherefore, all children are alike unto me; wherefore, I love little children with a perfect love; and they are all alike and partakers of salvation” (Moroni 8:17; see vv. 5-22). President Joseph Fielding Smith taught: “It does not make any difference whether it is a Catholic baby, a Protestant baby, or a [Muslim] baby: no matter whose baby it is, it is not responsible for original sin; it is not responsible for any sin; and the mercy of God claims it; and it is redeemed.”32 According to President Smith, every child that dies prior to the age of eight will receive a reward of exaltation in the celestial kingdom of God.33 LDS commentators Hyrum M. Smith (of the Council of the Twelve) and Janne M. Sjodahl wrote: “The celestials must also be numerous, since [all] departed infants belong to that class.”34
Likewise, Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote:
Millions of children, from Adamic times to our day, have died before they arrived at the age of accountability, and, because they were alive in Christ and had never died spiritually, they shall have eternal life. It will come to them through the Atonement of Christ. They never were called upon to undergo and overcome the trials and temptations that almost overpower us. Billions of spirits will come to earth during the Millennium, when Satan is bound, when there is peace on earth, when there is no sorrow because there is no death, when they will not be confronted with the evil and carnality that face us. They will grow up without sin unto salvation. Thus saith the holy word.35
A number of years ago I sat in a high priests group meeting in a ward of which I was not a member. The discussion that particular Sunday was from the Joseph F. Smith Teachings of Presidents of the Church manual. The instructor read the following statement from the manual:
Little children who are taken away in infancy and innocence before they have reached the years of accountability . . . are redeemed, and Satan has no power over them. Neither has death any power over them. They are redeemed by the blood of Christ, and they are saved … Such children are in the bosom of the Father. They will inherit their glory and their exaltation, and they will not be deprived of the blessings that belong to them . . . They will lose nothing by being taken away from us in this way.36
After reading this quotation the instructor indicated that President Smith’s point was that all children who die before the age of eight will be exalted.
At this point one of the brethren in the class raised his hand and objected, stating that this seemed unfair and unbelievable. He cited the overwhelming number of children who have died before the age of accountability and then added, “I cannot believe that God could possibly save that many of His children. And I don’t see how such could be fair, in light of the fact that they’ve all died, and you and I are required to remain past the age of eight.” Another brother chimed in and expressed a similar sentiment about how unfair this seemed.
I was shocked, although not speechless. I raised my hand and expressed my disappointment in the comments of these two brethren. I said, “This should be cause for rejoicing, not jealousy! What a blessing to know that so many are going to be exalted. Yes, you and I have remained. But President Smith’s words fill me with hope, not with frustration and anger. Just because we don’t understand why we remain when others are taken does not make God’s Plan unfair. It only highlights how limited we are in our views.”
Elder Bruce R. McConkie reminds us: “Whatever the Lord does is right whether we understand his purposes or not…. There will be billions of millennial mortals who will never be tested, as fully as we are, and who will go on to eternal life, as do little children, because an Almighty God in his infinite wisdom arranges that kind of a life for them.”37
As noted, then, it appears that more than half of all people who have ever lived have died before the age of accountability. And doctrinally speaking, these folks are guaranteed exaltation in the celestial kingdom of God. Yes, they will need to have saving ordinances performed vicariously on their behalf, but they will be saved. There is no doubt about it! And what a testament such news is to God’s love and mercy and to the functionality of the Plan He authored!
Now some may ask, “How do we know each of these were supposed to die at an early age? Could any of these deaths have been an accident? Could any of those who died before the age of eight been destined by God to live past the age of accountability, but because of agency, they did not?” To this we answer no! God is in charge and His plans are never frustrated. Elder Neal A. Maxwell noted that “no righteous individual dies an untimely death”39– and certainly “unaccountable” implies “righteous” in God’s eyes. In a modern revelation we read: “Thy days are known, and thy years shall not be numbered less” (D&C 122:9). Elsewhere in the Doctrine and Covenants we are told: “For there is a time appointed for every man, according as his works shall be” (D&C 121:25). Likewise, President Joseph Fielding Smith stated: “No righteous man [or woman] is taken before his [or her] time.”39 From President Spencer W Kimball we read: “I am positive in my mind that the Lord has planned our destiny. We can shorten our lives [by living recklessly], but I think we cannot lengthen them very much.”” Elsewhere President Kimball wrote: “Just as Ecclesiastes (3:2) says, I am confident there is a time to die, but I believe also that many people die before ‘their time’ because they are careless, abuse their bodies, take unnecessary chance, or expose themselves to hazards. I believe we may die prematurely [through unrighteous living], but seldom exceed our time very much … God controls our lives … but gives us our agency. We may … foolishly shorten or terminate them.” But, if we are living righteously, when our time comes the Lord will take us 4′ President Ezra Taft Benson stated: “It has been said that the death of a righteous person is never untimely because our Father sets the times. I believe that with all my soul.””
Those who passed away before the age of accountability did so because such was the plan of God. Obviously, in His eyes they are deemed righteous. Thus their death was not premature. And all of them have been exalted and will dwell for eternity with that same God in His heavens.43 As Elder Neal A. Maxwell once noted, when we understand that God intends to exalt all who die before the age of accountability, “Infant mortality, which rages in so many parts of the world, is . . . placed in a reassuring doctrinal context (see D&C 137:10).”44
The Mentally Handicapped
The good news does not end with the salvation and exaltation of little children who die before the age of eight. The restored gospel also provides a comforting message regarding all those who are born with mental handicaps. President Joseph Fielding Smith put it this way: “Mentally deficient persons, those who are incompetent of understanding, are classed among those who are redeemed as little children through the Atonement of our Redeemer.”45 In the Encyclopedia of Mormonism we read: “Latter-day Saints believe in the ‘infinite and eternal’ power of the Atonement, that it will bring to all mankind an end to the basic effects of the Fall of Adam: it automatically forgives the sins of those who are . . . children under the age of eight, [or] mentally handicapped.”46 It seems reasonable to me that if one who has a mental handicap is on an intellectual level of someone less than eight years of age, that person, upon death, will also be exalted in the celestial kingdom—guaranteed!
Now, although we have no way of calculating how many of God’s children have been sent to earth to traverse this mortal experience in a mentally handicapped body, nonetheless, we do know that each has the promise of eternal life. And, more particularly, we realize that this beautiful truth only adds to the numbers of exalted individuals previously cited. Thus, again, an incredibly large number of Father’s children will be exalted in the celestial kingdom.
The Millennium will play a significant role in the statistics of which we have been speaking. Why? Because so many will be born during that thousand year period when Satan is bound and righteousness reigns. From A New Witness for the Articles of Faith we read: “More people will live on earth during the Millennium than in all prior ages combined many times over.”47 Elsewhere we read:
What of the countless billions of those children to be born during the great millennial era—during a time when disease and death have no sting nor victory over mankind? This is that time … when “children shall grow up without sin unto salvation” (D&C 45:58). Given the renewed and paradisiacal state of the earth, it may well be that more persons will live on the earth during the thousand years of our Lord’s reign—persons who are of at least a terrestrial nature—than the combined total of all who have lived during the previous six thousand years of the earth’s temporal continuance. Indeed, who can count the number of saved beings in eternity? Our God, who is triumphant in all battles against the forces of evil, will surely be victorious in the numbers of his children who will be saved.48
In his book The Millennial Messiah, Elder McConkie wrote:
Truly the millennial era is the age of salvation. It has been established by the Lord to save souls. Truly he shall send to earth during that blessed period those who earned the right, by faith and devotion in the premortal life, to receive their mortal probation in a day of peace and righteousness. It is not unreasonable to suppose that more people will live on earth during the millennial era than in all the six millenniums that preceded it combined. And all those who live on the new earth with its new heavens shall be saved. The Lord be praised for his goodness and grace.”
In the book of Revelation, John describes the vision he had of the throne of God and the exalted beings who surrounded it. He informs us: “I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne and . . . the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands” (Revelation 5:11; see also 7:9; 19:1). Of this verse Elder McConkie wrote:
Lord, are there few that be saved or many (Luke 13:23), is the query in the hearts of many disciples. The answer: Few as compared to the hosts of men in our present worldly society (Matt. 7:13-14), but many when all who so obtain are counted together. Here John sees 100,000,000, plus thousands of thousands. Later he shall see “a great multitude [of saved persons], which no man could number.” (Rev. 7:9.) The expansion of world population being what it is, we can suppose that the billions who live on earth during the Millennium—and who “grow up without sin unto salvation” (D&C 45:58)—shall far exceed in number the total hosts of men who have lived during the preceding six thousand years. Truly, in the aggregate, there are many who shall be saved!”
Thus, it appears that during the Millennium—when Satan is bound and we are enabled to live “without sin unto salvation” (D&C 45:58)—righteousness will abound and many, if not most, who live upon the earth during that period of peace will be exalted. If one couples this reality with the unfathomable number of people to be born during the Millennium, the message is one to rejoice over.
Again, God has provided the circumstances that will enable a vast number of His children to successfully make their return to His presence. Billions who live during that thousand year period will be exalted. Praise be to the Father and the Son! The Plan works!
We must not forget to add the inhabitants of the cities of Enoch and Melchizedek to our total of successfully saved beings. During the eras of both of these stalwart and saintly brethren, translation was the norm within the Church.51 Indeed, likely most from Enoch’s Zion, Melchizedek’s Salem, and those living in “the golden era of the Nephites,” were translated and thus exalted. And how many other “holy societies” have experienced similar things and yet a knowledge of their miracles are lost to us?52 We have no idea exactly how many of the Saints were sent by the Father to dwell upon the earth during that period of the Church’s history. All we can say with certainty is that those who were translated—a number that can conservatively be placed in the millions, if not higher—were all guaranteed exaltation.
The Spirit World
It has become somewhat colloquial to say, “It is ten times harder to accept the gospel in the spirit world than it is to accept it here on earth.” It is unclear where this popular saying has its origins.” In actuality, there is evidence that the statement is simply untrue.
First of all, since we know that more people will hear the restored gospel in the spirit world than will hear it here on earth—and most of God’s children will receive their ordinances vicariously in temples while their spirits dwell in the world of the departed—it makes no sense that acceptance of the gospel in the spirit world will somehow arbitrarily be “ten times harder.” For what reason would God make such the case? Particularly since that’s the realm where most of His children will be introduced to the truths of Christ’s atonement and the restoration of His gospel. It seems contrary to the nature of God to intentionally put stumbling blocks in front of His children so that they will have difficulty accepting the very thing He sent them to earth to find and embrace.
More to the point, latter-day prophets and apostles have suggested that the gospel is actually readily accepted by those who hear it in the spirit world.” For example, in the April 1894 general conference of the Church, President Wilford Woodruff stated: “There will be very few, if any, [in the spirit world] who will not accept the gospel.”56 Likewise, Church patriarch Eldred G. Smith taught that there are constantly “many” in the spirit world who are accepting the gospel; and this has been the case since Christ first introduced it upon His post-mortal visit there.57 Anthon H. Lund, of the First Presidency, taught that we need to work “in faith” for those in the spirit world. We need to believe that they “will accept the Gospel.” “They are longing for the work to be done” on their behalf. Then he added this: “There are many more going to join the ranks of the Saints” in the spirit world, adding dramatically to the numbers of those who accepted the gospel here in morality.58
President Joseph Fielding Smith taught that, since we who have the gospel are of the house of Israel, then our ancestors who have passed on before us—even if they did not have the gospel—are also of the house of Israel. Thus, according to President Smith, they are “likely to receive the gospel” in the spirit world.59 John Henry Smith, of the First Presidency, stated that God’s “great plan, as revealed to us, provides for the redemption of millions who have gone before without a knowledge of His Gospel.”60 President Lorenzo Snow taught: “When the Gospel is preached to the spirits in prison, the success attending that preaching will be far greater than that attending the preaching of our Elders in this life. I believe there will be very few indeed of those spirits who will not gladly receive the Gospel when it is carried to them. The circumstances there will be a thousand times more favorable.”°’
To this point much has been said about the billions upon billions of God’s children whom He intends to exalt; and the message thus far has been one of optimism. Nonetheless, you may be asking yourself right about now: “That’s great news for all of those groups mentioned. But I’m not mentally handicapped, I didn’t die before the age of accountability, I’m not a translated being, I’m not living during the Millennium, and I’m not being presented the gospel in the spirit world. So what about me? What about my salvation? Do things merely ‘look good’ for every group except for me? And how, specifically, does all of this optimism translate into my personal exaltation?”
Additionally, it should be pointed out that the very fact that Father’s Plan is designed to save so many of these groups mentioned does indirectly say something about your exaltation and mine. After all, we know that the Father is an entirely just and fair God (see Isaiah 45:21; see also Mosiah 2:28; Alma 42:15; 57:26). We know that He is no respecter of persons (see Acts 10:34; see also Moroni 8:12; D&C 1:35; 38:16). Thus, we know God could not create such an optimistic and successful plan for everyone except you and me. Because we know that the odds are in favor of exaltation for all those categories we have thus far discussed, we know by default—because of God’s nature—that such must also be the case for us. We must believe that for us also, the odds are in our favor! For you and me, things look very good, too! Yes, there are things we must do—and we’ll speak of those in the chapters to come. But the hard things have been taken care of by the Father and the Son. What we’re called to do is quite easy, in comparison.
Doctrinally speaking, it certainly appears that the Plan was designed to work, that it was created to exalt more individuals than it would damn. Such a doctrine “tastes good” to those who have felt of God’s love and “tender mercies” (Psalm 51:1). Such a doctrine brings comfort, reassurance, and a confidence to endure trials. Such a doctrine builds hope and faith. And such a doctrine enables us to see God for what He really is—the ultimate, loving Father.