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Soteriology (so·te·ri·ol·o·gy) is theology about salvation. Christianity’s soteriological problem is based on three premises:
- God loves all people and desires their salvation (1 Timothy 2:3–4).
- Salvation comes to those who knowingly and willfully accept Jesus Christ as their Savior (John 3:16).
- Most people live and die without accepting Christ or even knowing that they could or should.
The problem says that all three premises are true, but they can’t be reconciled. Proposed solutions tend to discredit one of the premises. Maybe God doesn’t desire the salvation of all people. Or maybe Jesus saves people who don’t knowingly and willfully accept Him.
The first Christians didn’t have this problem because they didn’t make the unstated assumption that makes it a problem in the first place. In other words, the first Christians didn’t believe that death was a deadline that determined a person’s salvation. Peter taught that Jesus Christ preached His gospel to the dead so they could be judged as justly as the living (1 Peter 3:18–20; 4:6). Paul taught that Christians could be baptized for the dead (1 Corinthians 15:29).
Jeffrey Trumbower’s very cool book Rescue for the Dead (Oxford 2001) traces the doctrine of redemption for the dead through Christian history. It turns out that it was Augustine, not Jesus or his apostles, who decided that death should be a deadline that determined a person’s salvation. But Augustine’s view prevailed in Christ’s church, at least in the West. Many medieval Christians continued to believe that (after his death and before his resurrection) Christ opened the spirit prison. They called this event the “harrowing of hell,” and they created a lot of art depicting it. My favorite images are the ones in which hell is an awful monster, and Christ causes it to cough up its captive dead (as in 2 Nephi 9). However, the Protestant reformers, for all the good they did, generally followed Augustine on this point. Then along came Joseph Smith.
He was immersed in Protestant culture and assumptions. His big brother died painfully in 1823. The loss was heartbreaking to Joseph. It stung even worse when Reverend Benjamin Stockton implied pretty strongly at Alvin’s funeral that he would spend eternity in hell. Joseph couldn’t reconcile Alvin’s goodness, Reverend Stockton’s doctrine, and a just and merciful God.
Fast-forward twelve years to 1836. Joseph now knows from the Book of Mormon that unaccountable infants who die are not damned, but as distasteful as Reverend Stockton’s doctrine still sounds, Joseph doesn’t know that adults who die before embracing the Savior’s gospel are not automatically damned. Sincere and devout but mistaken theologians have caused this problem.
If you’re the Lord Jesus Christ, how will you solve it? How will you inform a world that has already decided otherwise that your saving grace reaches beyond death and saves all who choose to embrace your gospel? Joseph hasn’t even thought to ask. He is so thoroughly acculturated by Protestantism. So how do you get him to become open to it? How do you help him become aware of things he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know?
You show him a vision of the future, and of heaven, and you make sure he sees Alvin there. That makes him marvel and wonder. How will Alvin get past the flaming gates of God’s kingdom? Having purposely provoked the question, you answer it:
All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it, if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God—also all that shall die henceforth, without a knowledge of it, who would have received it, with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom, for I the Lord will judge all men according to their works according to the desires of their hearts (D&C 137).
Desire, not death, is the determinant of salvation through Jesus Christ. He saves all who desire to be saved by Him once they know that good news. Which side of death they are on makes no difference. By removing the assumption that death determines salvation, Jesus resolved the soteriological problem for Joseph and for everyone else. There is no conflict between the premises now.
 David L. Paulsen, Roger D. Cook, and Kendel J. Christensen, “The Harrowing of Hell: Salvation for the Dead in Early Christianity,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 19:1 (2010): 56–77.
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