Precious Assurance of God’s Fairness: Baptism for the Dead

A number of years ago I participated in a science and religion mail list with a group of scientists who were also Christians. It was there where I came to appreciate the faith of scientists of other religions who are able reconcile their faith (esp. Genesis) with modern science. I think everyone in the group accepted the finding that the earth is old, and so forth, often in ways that were remarkably compatible with what James Talmage taught in his landmark sermon, “The Earth and Man.” BTW, that speech is especially important because, as Michael Ash points out, it appears to be “the only exposition of a Quorum member to have been reviewed and approved by at least some, if not all, of the First Presidency, and then published officially by the Church” (“The Mormon Myth of Evil Evolution,” Dialogue, Vol. 35, 2003, pp. 19-59).

A poignant moment came when a fellow scientist in the group lamented about the “fact” that most of the world was, based on his mainstream theological views, simply doomed for hell because they never had a chance to hear about Christ. Here is his post:

It is a stunning, and somewhat depressing, fact that if our understanding of demographics and history are correct, the vast majority of human beings who are living or who have lived are not Christian. Furthermore, among those who are living, a majority will die not being a Christian. This implies that the destiny of most of the human race is Hell. Consider the Chinese rice farmer, the Indian beggar, the Russian mobster, the Pakistani Moslem priest, or the French intellectual: each will go through life in a different way–some in misery, others in luxury but each with their own unique loves, joys, aspirations, fears, desires, triumphs and failures. And yet their future is the same: an eternity of unimaginable terror. All of human history with its complexity, texture, drama, mystery, and vice is to be sent through a sieve to produce an elegant, bipolar universe of rapture and horror that defies comprehension.


Such sincerity – but such unnecessary sorrow. I am grateful for the knowledge of God’s mercy and justice, and especially of his fairness in providing a way for all to have a chance to accept Christ. How wonderful the restore doctrine of baptism for the dead is to me!

My reply to that Christian group follows:

I wish to proclaim that God is just and will not send a Chinese peasant or an Indian beggar to hell simply because he or she had the misfortune of never hearing about Christ. Yet we know that salvation is only through Christ. The resolution is this: deceased beings, dwelling as spirits and awaiting the time of resurrection and judgment, will be given the opportunity to hear and accept the message of the Gospel. Indeed, God “will [desires to] have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim. 2:4)

We get some insights into the work of salvation among those who have already died in 1 Peter 3:18-20, which reports that Christ, while dead, “went and preached unto the spirits in prison; which sometime were disobedient.” The passage then indicates that people from the time of Noah were included among those that Christ preached to. The preaching to deceased beings is also mentioned again in 1 Peter 4:6: “For for this cause was the gospel preached to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.” This suggests that there is still accountability for the acts in the flesh (our mortal existence), and that they will be judged, but they can still gain access to the grace of Christ and repent and come unto Him.

This concept is consistent with Paul’s writing about the judgment in Romans 2. In verse 4, he indicates that the goodness of God leads us to repentance, helping us (in verse 5) to avoid wrath on the day of the righteous judgment of God (not arbitrary and unfair!). Verse 6 reminds us that every man will receive according to his deeds, with “glory, honour, and peace to every man that worketh good” (v. 10), “for there is no respect of persons with God.” Respect of persons (partiality) is what God would have if he damned some just because they never had the chance to learn of Christ. Verses 12 through 15 continue this theme, indicating that when men are judged for their mortal lives, it will be according to what they knew of God’s ways – and according to their conscience (a gift of God to all people, in my view). Verse 16 states that the Gentiles who knew not God’s law “shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.”

Without getting into the theology of my particular denomination, let me simply say that I have good reason to believe that God is just, loves all his children, and will be fair in providing an opportunity for all that truly desire His righteousness to gain access to the grace of Christ, if they will accept Him and covenant with Him. Many will not accept Him, as we see in great evidence today. But God reaches out to each of His children and implores them to follow Him. Toward that end, I believe that Christ established a tremendous program of missionary work on the other side of the veil – in the spirit world – so that the Gospel message will go forth to His children of every nation and every era. (I know this sounds wild to many. There are numerous questions that arise, of course, and there are some good answers among many unknown. Happy to discuss – and to take flames as well.)

The response was not negative, but it was an area where everyone was somehow comfortable with their viewpoints already. More frankly, my comment didn’t stir up a lot of discussion. On my mission, I also tried to generate interest in the topic with others, and usually failed unless the person was already gung-ho about the Gospel. How do we better communicate just what a powerful and beautiful truth baptism for the dead is? I’ve tried to make a number of points on my page about LDS baptism for the dead, but just feel like I am not coming close in communicating the depth and power of this doctrine. Do you have a favorite article, poem, song, painting, or story that helps you in teaching this sacred doctrine? A story of how you were able to convey something powerful on this topic?

5 comments for “Precious Assurance of God’s Fairness: Baptism for the Dead

  1. Jeff, it appears that most of the Christian world simply has a mental block on this issue. I think your response was very eloquent. I have discussed then famous 1 Corinthians quotation on baptism of the dead with mainstream Christians, and they don’t know what it means, but they sure “know” it doesn’t mean baptizing dead people in Mormon temples. Well, then what else could it mean? They simply have no answer.

    The only solution I can see it to emphasize that our religion contains the fullness of the Gospel that God has revealed. This means that most other religions have part of the Truth — and that is why we generally are less condescending toward other religions than they are toward us — but if you want to get at the fullness you need to understand the principles of the entire Gospel.

    Your approach on your web page is exactly correct — promote the BofM and ask people to contact the missionaries so they can be inspired by the Spirit. That will provide them more intelligence than anything we can write.

  2. Thanks for posting this exchange, Jeff, it is excellent. Ironically, the Book of Mormon teaches that your Christian friend is at greater risk of suffering the endless torments of hell than are the farmers and beggars for whom he sorrows. When Mormon explains why children do not need baptism, he says that someone who believes God will punish people for not accepting Christ, when God never game them the opportunity to accept Christ, “denieth the mercies of Christ, and setteth at naught the atonement of him and the power of his redemption.”

    Mormon says that the person who thus denies Christ’s mercy, and ascribes ugly indifference to God, is “in danger of death, hell, and an endless torment. I speak it boldly; God hath commanded me.”

    Mormon 8:20-24

  3. The Catholic Church has come to believe something similar — not baptism for the dead, of course, but that even those who know not Christ may be saved through Him. (Karl Rahner referred to such people as “anonymous Christians.”) I’ve always liked this passage from Justin Martyr (in the 2nd c. A.D.):

    But lest some should, without reason, and for the perversion of what we teach…cry out against us as though all men who were born before Him were irresponsible — let us anticipate and solve the difficulty. We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them; and among the barbarians, Abraham, and Ananias, and Azarias, and Misael, and Elias, and many others whose actions and names we now decline to recount, because we know it would be tedious.

  4. I found that Eastern societies, with the “Confucian” practice of “Ancestor worship” (which often is not worship at all, but a way to show respect) are often more thoughtful of this topic than those of us in the West. In modern society, we live a life divorced from our ancestors and thus this doctrine would mean little who did not value them. Like your friend, they people can wonder in the abstract, but it means little without a personal connection to them.

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