The participatory nature of salvation for the dead

July 3, 2009 | 25 comments
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Last Sunday, I taught the EQ lesson on salvation for the dead.  We covered all of the usual ground:  Joseph Smith’s personal sadness at Alvin’s funeral where the preacher informs the family that Alvin is going to Hell; the various statements critical of the then-popular idea among New England Protestants that the unbaptized would be condemned en masse (Jack, I believe that many modern Protestant faiths give much more flexibility on this concept — is that correct?); the shoemaker story designed to highlight the artificial line between the two groups; and so on.  I’ve heard all of this a dozen times in Sunday school or EQ.

But from there, I nudged the class in a different direction, an idea that I had been wondering about.  Given that church members (1) reject the idea of damnation for the untaught, and (2) believe that baptism is necessary for salvation, it is clear that some form of work-around is necessary.  But is there any reason why the work-around should take the form that it does?

After all, the existing work-around — research family member’s name, turn it all in, do a whole series of ordinances (baptism, confirmation, endowment, sealing) individually — has some potential disadvantages.  It is very labor intensive, requiring member participation on a broad level at every stage of the process.  It is also inefficient.  Our stake family history specialist told me last year that duplication rates are as high as 80% in some districts — that is, four of the five people you do temple work for, already had it done.  The church is trying to crack down on duplication, but has had only mixed success so far, and that’s with modern technology.  The duplication rate prior to the computer age was even higher.  (You read critics saying “Hitler was baptized five times” or the like — but it turns out that, prior to computers, a *lot* of people were baptized five or ten or twenty-seven times.)  Also, the existing system has built in blind spots.  It depends on genealogy and good records.  Absent those records, it is literally impossible to do temple work for one’s relatives.  For instance, my ancestors on the Hawaiian side are completely unknown after just a few generations.  Our temple work is a patchwork quilt, with missing spots all over the place.

All of these — labor intensiveness, duplication, blind spots — are potential weaknesses of the current model.

And other models exist which could potentially ameliorate those issues.  The most obvious counter-example is Moroni 8.  We don’t worry about little children, they don’t need baptism at all.  They have been granted a group waiver of sorts.  God makes the rules.  Couldn’t God simply extend the Moroni 8 rule to the untaught?  There’s no reason to think that conceptually, He couldn’t.  An omnipotent God has already issued a group waiver for one group on fairness grounds, so why not another?

Or, He could make the process more efficient, less tied to one-on-one vicarious ordinances.  Why not have one church leader baptized on behalf of everyone who died without the gospel during the year 1800, another baptized on behalf of everyone who died in 1801, and so on?  Sure, it would lack the one-to-one nature of the existing system, but we’re already making a symbolic stand-in.  I don’t see any insurmountable reason God couldn’t offer that option.  It would be much more efficient — after just a few months of work, we would have given salvation to *all* of the dead.

Why stick with our inefficient patchwork-quilt approach?

I suggested that it may be intentional.  The current model, for all of its downsides, is intensely participatory, at the member level.  And when combined with Malachi, with Obadiah and Saviors on Mount Zion, I think this may be a feature, not a bug.  The current model isn’t just about check-the-box for a deceased person, it’s about forging a personal link with an individual member, the hearts of the children, turning to their fathers.

That’s the only way that our existing model makes sense, I think.  Otherwise, God would have put in place a much more efficient system or set of rules.  Which means that the current model is not set up to optimize number-of-persons-covered or any other such metric.  Instead, it’s for . . . us.

25 Responses to The participatory nature of salvation for the dead

  1. Mike H. on July 3, 2009 at 7:02 pm

    I think that the one-to-one system is essential to vicarious work. I learned about personal struggles & tragedies from doing the work of ancestors. Yes, there are still Billions of people who have no record of their existence to do their work from. That is the one of the main purposes of the Millennium. Even those of us who have ancestors from places with good records hit a brick wall around 1500 AD. And, even the impressive looking Royalty Genealogies start lacking good proof before around 1100 AD.

    Yes, duplication of ordinance work is a problem. Better research & more detailed checking of ordinances already done would help. And, the various pedigree & ancestral files still have duplications, or gross errors. Too many need to roll up their sleeves & do actual checking of original records, instead of relying on info that’s been kicking around the family for decades that may not be right. And, a few have not had their work done, yet it was thought it was already done by someone else.

    For those who have no records of their ancestors, there is the extraction program. It always needs more help.

    Those who die before the age of 8 seem to be a totally different category than those who reached accountability without hearing the gospel. See D&C Sections 137 & 138. And, those younger than 8 still need to be sealed to their parents.

  2. chads on July 3, 2009 at 7:06 pm

    Interesting, intriguing thoughts, Kaimi. Thanks.

  3. Kaimi Wenger on July 3, 2009 at 8:12 pm

    Mike,

    Yes, that’s the existing system. On the other hand, there’s no reason why it has to be that way — if an all-powerful God decided to change the structure tomorrow (say, to make things more efficient), He certainly could.

    Your comment highlights what I’m saying. There’s no reason, from a salvation for the dead perspective, why it has to be that way. Rather, the existing system seems to emphasize not merely executing as many ordinances as possible, but instead forging some level of communication between generations. It’s messy and inefficient, but it is the participatory aspect that matters.

    It’s the equivalent of letting your three-year-old “help” you wash the dishes. You don’t do it in order to get the dishes washed more efficiently, you do it to include your child in an important project and teach them how to work.

  4. anon on July 3, 2009 at 8:47 pm

    “I suggested that it may be intentional. The current model, for all of its downsides, is intensely participatory, at the member level.”

    Of course it is. How many dead people can actually fulfill (or rather have the physical means to break) their endowment covenants. It is all about keeping live people in line.

  5. Eric Boysen on July 3, 2009 at 8:57 pm

    Kaimi-

    There is no reason why baptism has to be done by immersing candidates in water, it is so inconvenient. Maybe we could just sprinkle a little water on them. It would retain the symbolism of clensing and renewal. We could go a step further and just spiritual water…

  6. Kaimi Wenger on July 3, 2009 at 9:03 pm

    Err, guys? This is not an attack on current practice. It is only an attempt to see what lessons we can take from current practice. I’m pointing out that the current system is rather difficult and involved, *only* as a way to explain that there may be something significant to this system (despite its other potential disadvantages) and to focus on potential reasons for the current system, as well as what we can take from it.

  7. Kaimi Wenger on July 3, 2009 at 9:07 pm

    (And Eric, you’re right, there’s no reason why we have to do it this way. There is nothing magical about water — don’t you think?

    Thus, the fact that we do it the way we do, suggests that there may be something special about the particular symbolism; and that perhaps we can learn from that. Which is what this post is doing . . . )

  8. Ardis E. Parshall on July 3, 2009 at 9:24 pm

    The several discussions lately about “why not streamline the process according to my novel but un-gospel-like idea?” make me very uncomfortable. I feel as though I can’t participate, because it’s bad Bloggernacle form to preach or to question others’ understanding or acceptance of doctrine, but commenting in any way without challenging misunderstanding implies that I accept the post premises. But Kaimi gives me just enough wiggle room to be able to overlook that aspect of the discussion and comment only on the participatory nature.

    Beyond the potential efficacy of the ordinances for our dead, of course you’re right about the participatory nature: We get an enormous benefit from the entire process, both from the learning that comes in the temple and by helping to weave that binding network that will eventually bring every accepting soul into the eternal family of God.

    But much of the value of the ordinances for us as proxies is lost if we focus on “what’s in it for me” (i.e., thinking only about what can we learn or understand more fully by returning to the temple repeatedly). Participating with a sincere focus on the dead, whether in research or ordinance, gives us a personal investment in the ongoing life and well-being of our dead — a turning of our hearts to them. I don’t think that investment can really be understood by someone whose temple attendance is chiefly for his own good, and for whom the person whom he represents is a stranger, a mere name, an excuse for the right to attend the temple for one’s own benefit. It’s related, I think, to the principle of gaining your life by losing it — the full personal benefit comes only when you’re working for the good of someone other than yourself.

  9. Jones on July 3, 2009 at 9:31 pm

    Heavenly Father doesn’t seem to think that our earthly need for efficiency is a high priority. I’ve been re-reading the BoM. I’ve been thinking — how frustrating it must have been for Lehi and family to get so far out into the wilderness to find out that they needed to go back and get the brass plates from Laban. Hello? Why didn’t that get included in the original vision? So after several botched attempts to get the plates, high stress level on the part of the rebellious and the obedient and a messy and bloody death they head back with the precious record. Then they find out they have to go back yet again. Hey, what about efficiency? Why didn’t the Lord just outline all these needs before we even left. It would have simplified things a great deal. Well, it appears the Lord’s will isn’t always best met in the efficient way.
    Then I think of Christ’s baptism. He didn’t even need to be baptized because He was perfect. But He was baptized. This was both to set the example but also to fulfill all righteousness. Baptism is required to enter the Kingdom of God. Christ showed perfect obedience to that law. So must all other of God’s children that are born into mortality if they desire to return to Father’s presence.
    It may not be efficient what with some people dying before they get a chance to choose to be baptized, but it appears to be required. We suppose that God could change the law if He wanted. Well, what if He couldn’t? What if it is an eternal law that even He must obey for the plan to be perfect and work as designed? I don’t really know. But I do think the plan is perfect even when it seems to be redundant and inefficient. The Lord’s ways are just not our ways.

  10. Kaimi Wenger on July 3, 2009 at 9:49 pm

    Again, I’m not suggesting that we streamline the process, or that there needs to be a shake-up of any sort.

    What I am saying is:

    (1) On a purely descriptive level, the existing process is unwieldy and inefficient. No normative implications are intended, I am *only* saying that, on a descriptive level, the process is unwieldy.

    Not that I am _not_ then saying, “let’s change the process.”

    (2) The unwieldiness of the process suggests that there may be oft-overlooked benefits to the procedures that we use. These are *not* just the benefits of getting-ordinances-done, because there are more efficient ways to do that. Rather, there may be specific benefits to the existing procedural framework.

    (3) I suggest that one benefit of the process the level of broad participation which it allows (and in fact requires).

    That’s all I’m saying; please don’t read any conclusions into this post which I haven’t said.

  11. comet on July 3, 2009 at 9:57 pm

    Thanks Kaimi, this is the kind of thinking through church practices and doctrinal issues I wish we’d see more of in the church. It’s invigorating.

  12. ricke on July 3, 2009 at 10:39 pm

    As I have considered the massive investment in time and money required by genealogy and vicarious ordinance work, it seems that something very important is going on. I have come to believe that it is all symbolic of the vicarious atonement. The ancient Hebrews sacrificed animals as symbols of a suffering Messiah, but most of them did not understand the symbolism. In the same way, I think we are required to perform vicarious ordinances as symbols of the vicarious atonement, but most of the time we do it without an awareness of what is being taught. I do not mean to imply that I understand in any way what a vicarious atonement means, but I think it is the primary purpose of work for the dead.

  13. James Olsen on July 3, 2009 at 10:44 pm

    Kaimi, I hope your EQ enjoyed your lesson as much as I did your post. I very much agree that the Lord has specific intentions for the current “unwieldy” set-up. If it were about efficiency, and even if one-by-one unwieldiness were an “eternal law” that couldn’t be changed, there’s still no reason why God couldn’t simply wait until the millenium to accomplish this work. It’s clear that the overwhelming majority of the work will have to be done then anyway. Why not simply have us attend the temple for ourselves now and let the dead wait an extra couple of years/centuries? As you note, there are clear benefits to our learning to be saviors on Mt. Zion now; reciprocal, participatory benefits at the least.

  14. DavidH on July 3, 2009 at 10:47 pm

    Over time, the requirements for work to be done for individuals has been liberalized. I have done work for “Mrs. Jones” or for “Mr. Jones” and I think even for “boy child Jones”–or something like that.

    I do not see any reason why we could not do work for “mother of Mr. Jones”–to my knowledge everyone has a mother, and I cannot think of a reason why we cannot identify the woman that way, even if there is record of her birth or even if her name is not on Mr. Jones’ birth certificate (there does not even have to be a birth certificate for Mr. Jones’ work to be done). We could even do the work for “father of Mr. Jones”. It would be more difficult though to seal “mother of Mr. Jones” to “father of Mr. Jones”, because of the policy of only sealing people who were married to each other in this life. Or maybe we could seal “mother of Mr. Jones” to “father of Mr. Jones”, and let God sort it out in the end–it would not be the first time work would be done that is for whatever reason unnecessary (my grandfather, who was baptized while living, has had his work done again as least four times), inefficient, or ineffective.

    Other aspects of the manner of doing ordinances for the dead have changed and evolved over the years.

    I do think that our method of doing work for the dead is divinely directed, but I do not believe God could not direct it to be done in other ways. And I agree that part of why God has directed us to do it this way is for us, as individuals to do the work on an individual basis, in the same way that Jesus saves us and saves the world, one person at a time.

    I would add that another reason Joseph was surprised to envision Alvin in the Celestial Kingdom is because the previously received section 76 said that those who accepted the gospel in the next life would inherit the Terrestrial Kingdom, not the Celestial Kingdom. Since Alvin died before he could accept the restored gospel, our own section 76 would provide for him to end up the Terrestrial Kingdom. Thus, section 137 illustrates how previous understandings–even written revelations–can be changed through continuing revelation.

    Who knows, maybe section 139, yet to be received, will modify our work for the dead along the lines Kaimi suggests. :)

  15. Ziff on July 3, 2009 at 11:23 pm

    Great points, Kaimi. I think you could extend this logic to ordinances for the living. For example, lots of people get married on the same day. What’s to prevent God from revealing that they could all be married in a single big ceremony, like the Unification Church does? (Maybe it could be done in the Conference Center with most people participating by satellite.) Nothing, really. As you point out, he can run ordinances however he wants. But instead he requires each of us to go through it on our own, I assume for reasons similar to the ones you cite for ordinances for the dead. He wants us to each show our commitment and make our covenants individually and feel the weight of it alone, without perhaps thinking we can socially loaf.

    Ardis (#8) I think you make a good point about the value of the work being lost for us one we start thinking of how we can benefit. I suspect this is probably true for all kinds of service. Once we’re consciously hedonistic about it, it’s not doing us much good.

  16. Mike H. on July 3, 2009 at 11:38 pm

    DavidH raises some points misunderstood:

    D&C 76:71 And again, we saw the terrestrial world, and behold and lo, these are they who are of the terrestrial, whose glory differs from that of the church of the Firstborn who have received the fullness of the Father, even as that of the moon differs from the sun in the firmament.
    72 Behold, these are they who died without law;

    Yes, if you look at these versus very strictly, then there seems to be no hope of Celestial glory for those who die without the Gospel. But, what good would the work in the Temple be for the dead if that was true? Yes, sections 137 & 138 do clarify that. I even had a Sunday School Teacher who tried to tell us that the dead who receive the Gospel still can’t reach the Celestial Kingdom back in my teen years, but I quoted back:

    D&C 137:7 Thus came the voice of the Lord unto me, saying: 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;
    8 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;

    Section 76 was revealed on February 16, 1832. Section 137 was revealed on January 21, 1836. I’m glad you pointed this out, since some feel it hopeless for, or cheated by, people accepting the Gospel after mortality.

  17. Aaron on July 4, 2009 at 9:12 am

    Here’s a radical idea: maybe there’s great value in doing genealogy for its own sake. I’m not suggesting anyone stop doing genealogy for temple work, but the idea expressed above that we can learn much of great importance by researching our ancestors should be motivation enough to do it. After all, I remember when most stakes were reporting that more non-members were using our library facilities than members.

  18. Kevin Barney on July 4, 2009 at 9:50 am

    Great post, Kaimi.

    D&C 137, quoted in no. 16 above, was the first work around, and note that it didn’t require our elaborate system of vicarious baptism, but was based on the contrary to fact condition of whether they would have accepted the gospel had they been permitted to tarry.

    I believe that some evangelicals take a similar tack (thinking along the lines of Jack’s current series of posts). My recoolection is that there is one of those “four views of” books on the fate of the unevangelized, and the D&C 137 solution is basically one of those views.

    I agree that the superiority of our current system is its participatory nature.

  19. Edje Jeter on July 4, 2009 at 1:56 pm

    Family bonds across time are established and maintained in the same way they are in time: “on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities.” As we work with (literally) our (trans-temporal) families in the temple and through family history, learn about them, forgive them, develop compassion for them, and so on, we develop eternal family relationships.

    Also, IMHO, the “they without us cannot be made perfect, neither can we without our dead be made perfect” idea is much more than checking a name off a list of ordinances. The ordinances are necessary, but the development of the eternal, trans-temporal relationships are also essential.

    Also, ditto Ardis.

  20. Geoff B on July 4, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    Kaimi, this is one of my favorites of the posts you have done. I think make an excellent point: the ordinances, like tithing, the Word of Wisdom, blessings and other Church activities, are as much for our own development as they are for the recipients. God is a good guy that way. :)

  21. Bob on July 4, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    #20 and others: So which is it: We should be thinking only of the dead, or “..(it is) as much for our own development as the recipients”?.
    Kaimi, the current the existing process is not only unwieldy and inefficient, it is impossible. Once you get at a certain cultural stage, you no longer have records of names and birth dates, and you no longer have marriages or parenthood as we know it. The child has no father, because there is no understanding of sex. The child simplify become a member of the mother’s tribe, and likely will be raised by mother’s brother.

  22. Dave on July 5, 2009 at 7:40 am

    Yes, a fine post Kaimi, raising interesting questions. I’m not sure why some people are threatened by interesting questions.

    One is the group waiver question. If God has indeed issued a group baptism waiver for those who died under 8, it seems to establish the point that God can issue group waivers. The doctrinal question then becomes: why doesn’t God just issue a group baptismal waiver to all souls who died without access to baptism, and judge them on their works of goodness or evildoing at the Last Day? If there is nothing unjust about such a judgment (which seems tough to argue against) and it is within God’s power, why all the busy work doing vicarious baptisms? So we need a “doctrine of group baptismal waivers” to explain this on doctrinal grounds.

    The other interesting question is the sociological view of doctrine you have hinted at — the idea that the practice justifies the doctrine rather than the doctrine justifying the practice. In other words, the practice of adults going to LDS temples to do temple work is what is important: it keeps us busy doing genealogy work, it keeps us going to holy places and making covenants several times each year, it makes the temple recommend process a potent pseudo-disciplinary tool for leaders who need to prod a church full of natural men and women into being more righteous and holy.

    The practice then explains the doctrine: we need some doctrinal justification to support the continuance of such a useful practice. If the justification wasn’t the necessity of one-on-one vicarious baptism and endowment, we’d come up with another doctrinal justification. After all, no one seriously thinks that if the name extraction program ran out of names, LDS leaders would just shut down 130+ LDS temples. They would come up with a creative doctrinal solution and maintain the existing set of practices.

  23. Bryan H. on July 5, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    Same with missionary work. There’s a lot of imagery in the scriptures about fields being white and ready to harvest and thrashing the nations by the spirit, which for those of us who grew up on farms evokes memories of massive threshing machines mowing over fields with the chaff billowing in the wind. But how does God thrash? Two by two, with a sicle.

  24. Bookslinger on July 5, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    Jones in #9 makes a good point about efficiency. Zion’s Camp, and the Mormon Battalion are more recent examples of inefficiency on the surface. Sending full-time missionaries to countries or areas where they baptize, on average, one convert (or less) per missionary per mission, also seems very inefficient on the surface.

    The church did about 160 years of temple work in essentially just a handful, merely a few dozen, temples; and then will likely have done another 30 to 40 years work in a hundred to two hundred temples, before the Great Day.

    All that vicarious temple-work done since the first Nauvoo temple, even including all the duplications, is a drop in the bucket compared to the grand work to be done in a thousand to two thousand or more temples throughout the span of the Milliennium.

    Perhaps what’s been done so far is mainly on-the-job practice and training. It’s been a ramp-up, a learning curve, where inefficiencies are expected, and used to gain experience, even if it’s a collective experience. The Lord is letting the church learn by trial and error, on the job, as it were.

    As far as blind-spots or empty patches: at the Great Day, the veil will be rent in a dramatic, and literally earth-moving, fashion. We are also told that messengers from the other side will bring information throughout the Millennium. Given that the resurrected and returned Lord will personally reign on earth for a thousand years, and given that not just church members, but likely the whole planetary population will be aware of that fact, it shouldn’t be too much of a shock for everyone to realize that angels will also be visiting, ministering, teaching, etc. After all, if everyone witnesses the Lord’s arrival with a few concourses of angels, later visitations by angels wouldn’t need to be kept secret. The existence of other realms and their inhabitants will have already been made common knowledge.

    We currently tend to think that the temple administrators are only able to accept the names/dates/info for ordinances from mortals. But once the veil is rent, what would there be to prevent the temple administrators from accepting names/dates/info directly from angelic messengers?

    My speculation is that the heavenly messengers won’t be talking to just the living descendents of the dead, but may go directly to the temple presidents/recorders/workers directly, and say: “Here’s the info, please do the work for these names.” And that would likely be necessary for those dead who have no living descendants.

    We’ve been promised that once the “Great Day” transpires, a lot of mysteries are going to be revealed. And along with the revelation of “mysteries”, a whole lot of new policies and procedures will also likely be revealed.

    A final thought: Today’s (and the past 160 year’s worth of) genealogists, temple administrators, temple workers, and temple patrons will likely be among those future “angelic visitors” bringing temple-ready genealogy information back from the other side to their mortal successors. The Lord is training us today for future assignments.

  25. anon Temple worker on July 9, 2009 at 12:07 pm

    I drive 100 miles each way every week to work a shift in a little temple. I feel that when I say someone’s name out loud during an ordinance is the time when I feel the closest to that person and to Heavenly Father. Think about how many times we say each name.

    While I love going to the Temple, I don’t much love the drive. A few years back, when I switched from 2x monthly to every week, I traded my loaded Camry for an OK Corolla to be able to afford to go more often. I give up the nicer car, the $ and the time because I am doing a service for my sisters that they cannot do.