It should be conceded by all people that since the Almighty governs the entire universe by immutable law, man, who is the greatest of all his creations, must himself be subject to such law. The Lord has stated this truth tersely and convincingly in a revelation to the Church:
“All kingdoms have a law given;
“And there are many kingdoms; for there is no space in the which there is no kingdom; and there is no kingdom in which there is no space, either a greater or a lesser kingdom.
“And unto every kingdom is given a law; and unto every law there are certain bounds also and conditions.
“All beings who abide not in those conditions are not justified.” (D&C 88:36–39.)
This truth is self-evident. Thus, it is only reasonable that we should expect the kingdom of God to be governed by law and all who desire to enter there to be subject to the law. “Behold, mine house is a house of order, saith the Lord God, and not a house of confusion.” (D&C 132:8.)
The Lord has given to man a code of laws that we call the gospel of Jesus Christ. Due to lack of inspiration and spiritual guidance, men may differ in relation to these laws and their application, but there can hardly be a dispute in regard to the fact that such laws do exist, and that all who seek entrance into that kingdom are subject to them.
We teach as fundamentals, first, faith in God the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost; second, sincere repentance from all sin; third, baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost. No man may enter into the kingdom of God without first meeting all of these requirements. This is virtually what the Lord declared to Nicodemus when he said: “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5.)
It must be accepted by all who profess belief in our Savior that this edict is true and final. However, in the centuries past and even now in many so-called Christian communities, a wrong application of this doctrine has led to serious errors and unwittingly to the committing of grievous sins. I refer to the doctrine which proclaims that all who in the flesh have not professed belief in our Lord, or heard of him before death removed them from the earth, are forever damned and without means of escape from the torments of hell. This false conception and application of gospel truth has been a teaching of so-called Christianity from the earliest centuries of our era, but it never was a part of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In his Divine Comedy, Dante depicts the doctrine of damnation for unfortunate souls who die without a knowledge of Christ, as that doctrine was taught in the thirteenth century. According to the story, Dante is lost in the woods, where he is met by the Roman poet Virgil, who promises to show him the punishment of hell and purgatory, and later he is to have a view of paradise. He follows Virgil through hell and later into Limbo, which is the first circle of hell. Here are confined the souls of those who lived virtuous and honorable lives but who, because they were not baptized, merit punishment and are denied forever the blessings of salvation. As Dante looks upon these miserable souls in the upper stratum of hell and sees, as the story says, “many and great, both of children, and of women and men,” he marvels.
His guide asks: “Thou askest not what spirits are these thou seest?”
Dante shows a desire to know, so the guide continues: “I wish thee to know, before thou goest farther, that they sinned not; and though they have merit, it suffices not: for they had not Baptism, which is the portal of the faith that thou believest; and seeing they were before Christianity, they worshipped not God aright; and of these am I myself. For such defects, and for no other fault, are we lost; and only in so far afflicted, that without hope we live in desire.” (Philo M. Buck, Jr., ed., An Anthology of World Literature [New York: Macmillan Co., 1940], p. 446.)
In answer to the earnest inquiry of his mortal guest, who desires to know if any thus punished ever had the privilege of coming forth from this sad condition of torment, the spirit-poet declares that the righteous who had known God from our first parents down to the time of Christ have been exalted. But of these unfortunates who never heard of Christ, he says, “Be thou assured, no spirit of human kind was ever saved.”
However, Dante was not the author of this unfortunate and erroneous doctrine. It had come down from the earliest days of apostasy from the true teachings of Jesus Christ.
The historian Motley, in his Rise of the Dutch Republic, relates the following incident as occurring when Christianity was first introduced in Western Europe. Radbod, a Frisian chieftain, was apparently converted and applied for baptism—and in that day they went down into the water and were immersed. While standing in the water, waiting for the ceremony to be performed, Radbod turned to the priest, Wolfran, and said: “Where are my dead forefathers at present?” The unwise priest, with more zeal than wisdom, replied: “In Hell with all other unbelievers.” “Mighty well,” replied the heathen chieftain, withdrawing from the water, his ire aroused; “then will I rather feast with my ancestors in the halls of Woden than dwell with your little starveling band of Christians in Heaven.” (Vol. 1, p. 20.) Under like circumstances, what answer would you have given?
What a shame it is that this same awful doctrine has come resounding down from that distant day of spiritual darkness and has been made to ring its terrible peal of torment repeatedly in the ears of earnest souls who have sought the salvation of loved ones who have gone before. Well do I remember the anguish in the heart of an earnest, loving mother who was told by a well-meaning but misguided priest that her dead infant was eternally lost because the child had not been christened.
I was visiting at the home of this mother, and she related the following story. Several years before, she had lost a little child. He had not been taken to the minister for sprinkling and had, in that condition, died. The parents sought their minister and asked him to conduct the funeral and give their little one Christian burial; however, this humble request was solemnly, but nonetheless brutally, denied. The parents were told the child was forever lost. Heartbroken, they laid their little child away as an outcast might have been buried, without the rites of that church and without “Christian burial.” How the hearts of those fond parents ached; how their feelings were torn asunder!
For several years this mother, with faith in the teachings of that priest, suffered the most acute mental agony. She knew it was not the fault of her infant that he had not been christened. He was innocent of any wrong. Was not that wrong her own? And in her mind, because of this false teaching, was not she responsible for the eternal suffering of this little one? She felt as the repentant murderer who could not restore the life he had taken, and in this anguish of soul she suffered the punishment of the damned.
It was a happy day when I came to the home of this tormented mother. Even now I can see the joy that came into her tormented face when I explained to her that this doctrine was false—as false as the depths of hell whence it came. I taught her this was not the doctrine of Jesus Christ, who loved little children and who declared that they belonged to the kingdom of heaven. I read to her from the Book of Mormon the words of Mormon to his son Moroni (Moro. 8) and explained that the Lord had revealed to Joseph Smith that “all children who die before they arrive at the years of accountability”—that is, eight years—“are saved in the celestial kingdom of heaven.” (Documentary History of the Church, vol. 2, p. 381.) Yes, the Lord has made it known in this glorious day of restoration:
“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; 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, for I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts.” (DHC, vol. 2, p. 380.)
The gospel of Christ is the gospel of mercy. It is also the gospel of justice. It must be so, for it comes from a God of mercy, not from a cruel monster, as some religionists still believe and declare:
“By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory some men and angels are predestined unto everlasting life, and others fore-ordained to everlasting death. These angels and men, thus predestined and fore-ordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed; and their number is so certain and definite that it cannot be either increased or diminished.”
Is it not horrible to contemplate that gospel truth has been perverted and defiled until it has become such an abomination? Justice, as well as mercy, pleads for the dead who have died without a knowledge of the gospel. How could justice be administered if all the untold multitudes who have died without knowledge of Jesus Christ should be everlastingly consigned, without hope, to the damnation of hell, even though their torment be in the first circle of the place of the damned?
The scriptures say, “Justice and judgment are the habitation of thy throne: mercy and truth shall go before thy face.” (Ps. 89:14.)
The mercy and the love of a just God are reaching out after all his children. In the restoration of the gospel through the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord renewed his proclamation of salvation to the dead; he has declared:
“… Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad. Let the earth break into singing. Let the dead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the King Immanuel, who hath ordained, before the world was, that which would enable us to redeem them out of their prison; for the prisoners shall go free.” (D&C 128:22.)