Reading the prophecies in Isaiah 49 last night, I was impressed with the scope Messianic passage in verse 6:
And he said, It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth.
The scope of the Messiah’s mission extends not just to redeeming the tribes of Israel, but to brining the gift of salvation to the entire world, to Jews and Gentiles, to everyone. The unlimited geographical scope–“to the end of the earth”–and the unlimited cultural or ethnological scope–Israelites and non-Israelites–should raise an obvious question for Christians who believe Jesus Christ is the Messiah and the only source of salvation: What of the temporal scope? What of the absolute scope? Is salvation only offered to those few who lived after the time of Jesus Christ and had a chance to hear the message of the Gospel?
This is one of the issues where the beauty of the Restoration really shines (the “Restoration” referring to our belief that God has brought back or restored the original Church of Jesus Christ and the “fullness” of the Gospel). We now know, as some early Christians apparently knew, that the Gospel is being preached to those that have physically died to also give them a chance to hear the Gospel message. For those that wish to accept, there is even the opportunity to accept valid baptism done for those individuals by proxy, in their name, as if they had been baptized physically (this is the controversial LDS but authentic ancient Christian practice of baptism for the dead). Related biblical passages include 1 Peter 3:18-20:
For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:
By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;
Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.
Also 1 Peter 4:6:
For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.
And the faint hint in 1 Corinthians 15:29:
Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?
Today I’d like to call your attention to the very important topic of Christ’s ministry to the dead. We have amazing details in a modern revelation given to the prophet Joseph Field Smith in 1918 in Section 138 of the Doctrine and Covenants. We learn that Christ, during the three days that his body was dead, visted the spirit world and organized missionary work among the souls of the righteous to take the Gospel message to all those who had lived and died without the privilege of hearing and accepting the Gospel of Jesus Christ (or the Gospel of the Messiah, if you will).
The concept of Christ visiting the spirit world and preaching there is again just hinted at in the Bible. It’s really because of modern revelation that we have these doctrines. But modern scholarship suggests that many ancient Christians understood that Christ during his three days between his death and resurrection visited the souls of those who had died and preached to the them, and that the concept of salvation for the dead is not just a Mormon invention. Here is a new work on the topic that I recommend: “The Harrowing of Hell: Salvation for the Dead in Early Christianity” by Kendel J. Christensen, Roger D. Cook, and David L. Paulsen, Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture, vol. 19, no. 1, pp. 56-77, 2010. What I especially enjoyed about this scholarly work is tracing the history of the loss of the precious doctrines of salvation for the dead. Augustine’s rejection of that concept played an important role in this unfortunate process, for example.
How grateful I am for the Restoration, not just of authority and organization, but of core truths dealing with the fairness and justice of God and the scope of salvation. The Atonement of Jesus Christ and the love and mercy of God are so powerful that they can extend not only to a few privileged souls within earshot of Christian preachers in mortality, but truly to the ends of the earth. Breaking past barriers of geography, lineage, language, and even time, the gift of salvation is offered to all who will accept it, and preaching is being done to reach the whole human family with the message of Christ’s infinite Atonement. Hallelujah!