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.