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?