Thursday, February 3, 2011

A More Generous View of Salvation: Why Baptism for the Dead?

 A More Generous View of Salvation
by Daniel C. Peterson, from 

The New Testament plainly states that, besides Jesus Christ, "there is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). And yet hundreds of millions of souls, probably most who have ever lived, have never heard the name of Jesus Christ. Are they lost forever? If so, can God be considered just, let alone merciful?

During lunch with a conservative Protestant clergyman and his wife years ago, the conversation turned to the salvation of the unevangelized, those who never encountered Christianity. "They're damned," the pastor said. But, I objected, that seems massively unfair. What about ancient Chinese peasants? They never had a chance. "Maybe God hates the Chinese," the pastor's wife replied. I looked for a mischievous twinkle in her eye but saw none. I was stunned.

"God's justice is not like our justice," her husband explained. Which certainly seemed true. They made God's justice seem more like our injustice. Creating people out of nothing, he puts them where they cannot possibly hear the message of salvation and then tortures them eternally for their failure to accept it. (In fairness, many modern Christian thinkers struggle with this issue and would be as appalled as I was by my dining companions' comments.)

The illustrious medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri, upon entering (fictionally) into the next world, was astonished at what he saw: "I should never have believed," he wrote in his "Inferno," "that death could have unmade so many souls" (3:56-57). Strikingly, despite his admiration for Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Homer, the great Islamic philosophers Avicenna and Averroes, and the chivalrous Muslim military hero Saladin, Dante felt obliged to place them all in hell. Even his guide, companion and "kindly master," the great Roman poet Virgil was barred from heaven. Virgil explains this to Dante as follows:

I'd have you know, before you go ahead,
they did not sin; and yet, though they have merits,
that's not enough, because they lacked baptism,
the portal of the faith that you embrace.
And if they lived before Christianity,
they did not worship God in fitting ways;
and of such spirits I myself am one.
For these defects, and for no other evil,
we now are lost and punished just with this:
we have no hope and yet we live in longing. (4:33-41)

Happily, Joseph Smith proclaimed a more generous view of salvation. He noted that even the New Testament itself suggests a hopeful solution, citing the Apostle Paul's passing reference to baptism for the dead, a practice long since forgotten, condemned or ignored by mainstream Christianity, in 1 Corinthians 15:29.

Though vicarious or "proxy" baptism receives only this brief biblical mention, modern revelation restored ancient Christian practice. An interesting article by David Paulsen and Brock Mason in the latest issue of the "Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture" surveys the scattered and fragmentary evidence for "Baptism for the Dead in Early Christianity." It is available online at

In striking contrast to the mass murders recorded in history, vicarious service in Latter-day Saint temples seeks to bring the love of God and the hope of salvation to every human who ever lived.

The power of the Atonement of Christ extends even to those who did not hear: Everybody who has ever lived is to be individually remembered, labored for and valued, thus vindicating the justice of God and illustrating the breadth of his redemptive grace.

"Brethren," wrote Joseph Smith, "shall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not backward. Courage, brethren; and on, on to the victory! Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad. Let the earth break forth into singing. Let the dead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the King Immanuel, who hath ordained, before the world was, that which would enable us to redeem them out of their prison; for the prisoners shall go free."

(Note: Vicarious temple rituals are offerings. They do not force compliance or acceptance and impose no change of identity, heritage or religious belief. Neither is the recipient added to the membership rolls of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.)

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