One of the most spiritually and intellectually satisfying elements of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ the is fairness of God. Contrary to centuries of tragically misguided theology about the damnation of those who never even had the chance to learn of Jesus Christ and accept Him, the revelations given through Joseph Smith and others reveal an vastly more merciful God who is truly is our Father and treats His children with fairness. In spite of the temporary pains and injustices of mortality, He opens the gates of eternal salvation to all who will accept and follow Jesus Christ, even those who lived and died before He was born. They, too, can be brought into the presence of God, have their tears wiped away, and enter into eternal life and joy through the supreme power of Jesus Christ and His grace. This expansive grace is true to the covenant-based teachings of the scriptures, which teach that salvation only comes through Jesus Christ. We must not merely acknowledge Him but enter into a covenant to follow Him in faith, allowing Him to change us, cleanse us, and bring us into His presence. All are invited to follow Him and receive eternal joy, no matter the time and place of their mortal lives.
We tend to associate these grand concepts with revelations given years after publication of the Book of Mormon, such as the revelations on baptism for the dead (Doctrine and Covenants 124:29-34, given Oct. 27, 1838), the ministry of Christ during His three days in the grave that initiated the great work of preaching the Gospel to the dead (Doctrine and Covenants 138, given to President Joseph F. Smith on Oct. 3, 1918), Joseph’s vision of his deceased brother Alvin in heaven followed by the revelation that those who died without a knowledge of the Gospel “who would have received it with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom” (Doctrine and Covenants 137:8, given Jan. 21, 1836 — this also teaches that “all children who die before they arrive at the years of accountability are saved in the celestial kingdom of heaven” in vs. 7), and the revelations related to the Temple with its sealing power and work for the dead (e.g., Doctrine and Covenants 128, given Sept. 6, 1842). Whether born into the Gospel or raised in despotically enforced darkness, all our souls matter to God. Through the infinite Atonement of Christ, all will be judged fairly and the full blessings of the Gospel are made accessible to all who will.
These are glorious revelations that greatly amplify our appreciation of just how broad the scope of Christ’s mercy is, reaching out across the centuries to cover the billions who lived before He came and the billions who even today have little access to the message of hope, love, and salvation that Christ brings. But while these came as surprising and joyous revelations to the Saints over the years after the Church was established, there are meaningful echoes of such doctrines already in the Book of Mormon.
The passage of scripture that motivated my reflections here is 2 Nephi 9:23-26, spoken by Nephi’s brother, Jacob:
23 And he commandeth all men that they must repent, and be baptized in his name, having perfect faith in the Holy One of Israel, or they cannot be saved in the kingdom of God.
24 And if they will not repent and believe in his name, and be baptized in his name, and endure to the end, they must be damned; for the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, has spoken it.
25 Wherefore, he has given a law; and where there is no law given there is no punishment; and where there is no punishment there is no condemnation; and where there is no condemnation the mercies of the Holy One of Israel have claim upon them, because of the atonement; for they are delivered by the power of him.
26 For the atonement satisfieth the demands of his justice upon all those who have not the law given to them, that they are delivered from that awful monster, death and hell, and the devil, and the lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment; and they are restored to that God who gave them breath, which is the Holy One of Israel.
This is a beautiful statement on the justice of God. Jesus Christ is the ultimate source of fairness: His suffering satisfies the demands of justice for those who did not know better, for those who were not aware of His commandments and law. They will be judged fairly based on what they knew, not based on doctrines they never heard of.
There is an unresolved tension between the command to “all men” to repent and be baptized and the deliverance of those who did know the law nor that command. Here Jacob and other Book of Mormon writers may have been unaware of the details involved in the salvation of those who died without knowledge of God and the Messiah, including the ministry to the dead and the opportunity to accept baptism once they know the Gospel and are ready to enter into a covenant with Christ, but the fairness of God enabled by the merciful Atonement of Christ was certainly known. Where these is no law, there is no condemnation, and the Atonement of Christ makes it possible for those souls — billions of them — to be saved. How amazingly broad the Atonement is! How vast the grace of Christ!
While Jacob’s discourse may not have been given the attention it deserves, most Latter-day Saints are well aware of related Book of Mormon teachings regarding the salvation of little children. But these teachings also have implications for the salvation of the dead beyond innocent children alone. King Benjamin in his famous sermon at the temple in Zarahemla taught that little children “are blessed; for behold, as in Adam, or by nature, they fall, even so the blood of Christ atoneth for their sins” (Mosiah 3:16). This concept was also taught by Abinadi when he said, “And little children also have eternal life” (Mosiah 15:25). But in the previous verse of Mosiah 15, he spoke about the broad scope of the Atonement regarding adults as well:
24 And these are those who have part in the first resurrection; and these are they that have died before Christ came, in their ignorance, not having salvation declared unto them. And thus the Lord bringeth about the restoration of these; and they have a part in the first resurrection, or have eternal life, being redeemed by the Lord.
Especially well known to most of us is the letter from Mormon to Moroni on the baptism of children recorded in Moroni 8, where we learn that little children do not need baptism and are saved through the grace of Christ. This wonderful teaching clears away centuries of tragic error in much of Christianity regarding the status of children who die before being baptized. Mormon’s epistle echoes some of the language of Jacob in 2 Nephi 9, possibly influenced by the small plates — here I must point to and recommend Clifford Jones’s important 2021 article in Interpreter, “That Which You Have Translated,Which You Have Retained,” which provides a breakthrough in understanding the Words of Mormon and the likelihood that Mormon found and began applying the small plates of Nephi near the beginning of his work on the Book of Mosiah, not after he had concluded his abridgment of the large plates. Just as Jacob argues that those without the law are under no condemnation and are rescued by the Atonement of Christ, so Mormon explains that little children are under no condemnation and likewise saved. But Mormon’s epistle, like the teachings of Jacob and Abinadi, has broad implications regarding the fairness and justice of God, a God Who absolutely is not a partial God (i.e., not an unfair God that denies salvation to people simply because they did not have an opportunity to be baptized):
8 Listen to the words of Christ, your Redeemer, your Lord and your God. Behold, I came into the world not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance; the whole need no physician, but they that are sick; wherefore, little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin; wherefore the curse of Adam is taken from them in me, that it hath no power over them; and the law of circumcision is done away in me.
9 And after this manner did the Holy Ghost manifest the word of God unto me; wherefore, my beloved son, I know that it is solemn mockery before God, that ye should baptize little children.
10 Behold I say unto you that this thing shall ye teach — repentance and baptism unto those who are accountable and capable of committing sin; yea, teach parents that they must repent and be baptized, and humble themselves as their little children, and they shall all be saved with their little children.
11 And their little children need no repentance, neither baptism. Behold, baptism is unto repentance to the fulfilling the commandments unto the remission of sins.
12 But little children are alive in Christ, even from the foundation of the world; if not so, God is a partial God, and also a changeable God, and a respecter to persons; for how many little children have died without baptism!
13 Wherefore, if little children could not be saved without baptism, these must have gone to an endless hell.
14 Behold I say unto you, that he that supposeth that little children need baptism is in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity, for he hath neither faith, hope, nor charity; wherefore, should he be cut off while in the thought, he must go down to hell.
15 For awful is the wickedness to suppose that God saveth one child because of baptism, and the other must perish because he hath no baptism.
16 Wo be unto them that shall pervert the ways of the Lord after this manner, for they shall perish except they repent. Behold, I speak with boldness, having authority from God; and I fear not what man can do; for perfect love casteth out all fear.
17 And I am filled with charity, which is everlasting love; wherefore, all children are alike unto me; wherefore, I love little children with a perfect love; and they are all alike and partakers of salvation.
18 For I know that God is not a partial God, neither a changeable being; but he is unchangeable from all eternity to all eternity.
19 Little children cannot repent; wherefore, it is awful wickedness to deny the pure mercies of God unto them, for they are all alive in him because of his mercy.
20 And he that saith that little children need baptism denieth the mercies of Christ, and setteth at naught the atonement of him and the power of his redemption.
21 Wo unto such, for they are in danger of death, hell, and an endless torment. I speak it boldly; God hath commanded me. Listen unto them and give heed, or they stand against you at the judgment-seat of Christ.
22 For behold that all little children are alive in Christ, and also all they that are without the law. For the power of redemption cometh on all them that have no law; wherefore, he that is not condemned, or he that is under no condemnation, cannot repent; and unto such baptism availeth nothing —
23 But it is mockery before God, denying the mercies of Christ, and the power of his Holy Spirit, and putting trust in dead works.
24 Behold, my son, this thing ought not to be; for repentance is unto them that are under condemnation and under the curse of a broken law. (Moroni 8:8-24)
As an aside, I should also note that Mormon also appears to have been influenced by an important teaching on the brass plates that may be behind the statements of Mosiah and Abinadi regarding the salvation of little children. That teaching may be closely related to the wording we find in the Book of Moses: “Hence came the saying abroad among the people, that the Son of God hath atoned for original guilt, wherein the sins of the parents cannot be answered upon the heads of the children, for they are whole from the foundation of the world” (Moses 6:54). That little children are “whole from the foundation of the world” (Moses 6:54) is echoed in Mormon’s “little children are alive in Christ, even from the foundation of the world” (Moroni 8:12). This is one of nearly 100 parallels between the Book of Moses and the Book of Mormon that suggest that numerous concepts found in the Book of Moses but not in the KJV Bible may have been on the brass plates. See Jeff Lindsay and Noel B. Reynolds, “‘Strong Like unto Moses’: The Case for Ancient Roots in the Book of Moses Based on Book of Mormon Usage of Related Content Apparently from the Brass Plates,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 44 (2021): 1-92. (The count is actually over 120 parallels based on new work since that publication to be discussed here at Arise from the Dust in coming days.)
Mormon’s epistle in Moroni 8 goes beyond clarifying that the Atonement of Christ benefits all little children who die without a chance to be baptized. It also reminds us in vs. 22 that “all they that are without the law” are also under no condemnation from the law they didn’t know and will have mercy through the Atonement of Christ.
I rejoice in the broad scope of the Atonement as taught in the Book of Mormon and in the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. Christ frees us from the bondage of governments and circumstances that keep people ignorant of Christ, even breaking past the barriers of time and space to reach people who lived in times and places without the good news of Jesus Christ. This scope of the grace of Christ, as taught in the Book of Mormon and the scriptures of the Restoration, is far broader than many have even imagined, including most of those who claim that Latter-day Saints are not even Christians because we allegedly limit the grace of Christ by teaching that we need to follow Christ and keep His commandments. Such criticism is rooted in the world’s pervasive amnesia about the ancient covenant-related meanings of grace and faith (see Relational Grace and Relational Faith by Brent Schmidt, an outstanding scholar exploring the ancient but long perverted meanings of the words translated as “grace” and “faith” in the Bible — also see my review of Relational Faith here at Arise from the Dust).
While the world has forgotten much about the Lord’s covenants and the need for us to have a covenant-based relationship with a just and loving God, the Book of Mormon writers have given us powerful words to remind us of basic truths and give us the ancient and true perspectives on faith, grace, mercy, justice, and divine fairness. In fact, there may be even more to the Book of Mormon than we have recognized on the marvelous concept of redeeming the dead and bringing the blessings of the Gospel to all who will gladly receive it. See Steven C. Fotheringham, “Glad Tidings from Cumorah: Interpreting the Book of Mormon through the Eyes of Someone in Hell,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 46 (2021): 101-130. Fotheringham brings out some fascinating subtle points implied by the wording in several passages of the Book of Mormon indicating that some writers seemed to recognize that there would be a work of ministry to the dead as part of the gathering of Israel, and that the text of the Book of Mormon would be play a role in bringing the Gospel message to many in the spirit world. I believe he makes a reasonable argument that may add more depth and subtlety to that remarkable voice from the dust, the Book of Mormon. While it may be fascinating that its doctrines pertaining to the fairness of God may have been way ahead of the slowly developing understanding of Joseph Smith, the important thing is that this book is a powerful witness of the goodness of God and the monumental scope of the Atonement of Christ, while also being a tool for bringing God’s blessings to the this world, and, if Fotheringham’s study is correct, also a tool to bless many in the spirit world as well.
In a world where so many are angry about the injustices they perceive, the Book of Mormon brings a message of peace about how to handle our grievances, how to lift and bless the oppressed, and how to find joy and peace in Christ, the source of ultimate love, compassion, justice, and divine fairness in the end.
– Jeff Lindsay, May 30, 2023