Some years ago, while attending a luncheon, I sat next to a very able and perceptive young attorney. I had come to know this young man quite well. I knew him to be a member of a Christian faith other than our own. He knew that I was an active Mormon.
After a few superficial niceties, he asked me some serious questions. He first asked, “Is the Mormon Church Christian?” He added that his question was a theological rather than a moral one; he wanted to understand the role of Jesus in Mormon theology.
Such a broad question overwhelmed me. As I paused to collect my thoughts and to formulate an answer, I realized than any explanation of the role of the Savior in Mormon belief had to begin much earlier than with Christ’s mortal mission. I answered my friend by briefly telling about twelve roles of Jesus the Christ.
First, I explained in brief terms our belief in the eternal nature of man by paraphrasing and explaining several verses of the ninety-third section of the Doctrine and Covenants, where Jesus informed the Prophet Joseph Smith of the eternal nature of the intelligence of man: “I was in the beginning with the Father, and am the Firstborn.
“Ye were also in the beginning with the Father …”
“Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.
“Behold, here is the agency of man.” (D&C 93:21, 23, 29, 31.)
Second, I described the great council in heaven where all the Father’s children met to learn of his plans to further our eternal development. Jesus was the Father’s advocate for that plan which protected that agency of man inherent in the concept of beings possessing an uncreated and eternal existence. Lucifer wanted to alter the plan and eliminate the agency of man. (See Moses 4:1–3.)
Third, we discussed the role of Jesus as the creator of this and countless other worlds, in furtherance of the Father’s plan, which was accepted by the majority of his children. I quoted from the great vision given to Moses:
“And by the word of my power, have I created them, which is mine Only Begotten Son, who is full of grace and truth.
“And worlds without number have I created; and I also created them for mine own purpose; and by the Son I created them, which is mine Only Begotten.” (Moses 1:32–33.)
This view of Jesus in relationship to the universe was entirely new to my friend and left him deeply impressed.
The next role of Jesus, though known and preached by the early church, again was foreign to my friend. I explained that Jesus was Jehovah, God of the Old Testament, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and he who gave the Law of Moses. Jesus informed the Prophet Joseph of this fact in the Kirtland Temple (D&C 110:1–4) and had long before explained his role to the Nephites:
“Behold, I am he that gave the law, and I am he who covenanted with my people Israel; therefore, the law in me is fulfilled, for I have come to fulfill the law; therefore it hath an end.” (3 Ne. 15:5.)
This view of Jesus as Jehovah, the God of the Old Testament, prior to his birth in the flesh, was preached by the early church for four hundred years before being superseded by apostate doctrines. A constant affirmation of the early Jewish Christians as they were accused of subverting the Law and the Prophets, was that what was preached was not new but very, very old, having been preached by Jesus himself to the prophets from the beginning. Arthur Cushman McGiffert, (U.S. theologian, 1861–1933) in his edition of The Church History of Eusebius, notes that this first great church historian held to the same view as did all the early Fathers, that Jesus was the personage who appeared to the prophets in the divine appearances in the Old Testament.
“Eusebius (Palestinian theologian, church historian and scholar, A.D. 260?–340?) accepts the common view of the early Church, that the appearances of God of the Old Testament were appearances of Christ; that is, appearances of the second person of the Trinity. Augustine (early Christian church father and philosopher, A.D. 354–430) seems to have been the first of the Fathers to take a different view, maintaining that such appearances of Christ were not consistent with the identity of essence between Father and Son.” (McGiffert, ed., The Church History of Eusebius, 1890.)
It was only at the point of the fifth great role of the Master that my friend’s knowledge gave us a common background in our discussion of the role of Jesus in Mormon theology. We agreed in our belief that Jesus was born of a virgin, Mary, in fulfillment of prophecy; that he taught the gospel to the people of his day (in our belief, he once again taught the gospel to his people, in direct fruition and fulfillment of his earlier teachings to the prophets) and was crucified. I explained that Mormons believe that Jesus established his church with priesthood power while he was on the earth; that the church was not the creation, as some believe, of Jesus’ followers after the crucifixion. The Master ordained his apostles, sent out the seventy on missions, and had an organization of identifiable officers prior to the crucifixion.
The central role of the Master, of course, that role which could not be performed by another, was that of Jesus the Christ, who was crucified for the sins of the world. I bore testimony to my friend that I believed this is the most literal way. I told him that though I did not fully understand how one could take upon himself the sins of others and thereby bring into effect a universal resurrection, I knew with all my heart that it was so and that this part of the plan is self-operative and need nor be understood to be effective.
I knew that our belief regarding the sixth role of Jesus would be entirely new to my friend and, because of its peculiar nature, probably alien to his understanding or appreciation. I explained as best I could the mission of Jesus Christ to hades, or hell, or the underworld, the place of departed spirits. Once again I affirmed that this mission was well known to the members of the early church. This mission was true and of critical importance to the Father’s plan.
Jesus told of his intention to his apostles as he spoke to them at Caesarea Philippi just prior to the transfiguration. The Prophet Joseph Smith said that Peter, James, and John received important keys and endowments at the time of the transfiguration, which fact would make more meaningful the Master’s previous comments to Peter regarding binding and sealing powers. (History of the Church: 3:387). After hearing Peter’s great confession, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” in response to the Master’s question, “Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?” The Savior said to Peter that the “gates of hell shall not prevail” against the church (See Matt. 16:13–19).
Hell did not mean to the King James scholars who translated the New Testament what it means to some people today. It did not denote the place where bad people go, the domain of Satan. Rather, it was a synonym for hades, the place of the dead, where all the spirits of all people went at the time of death. Further, “the gates” of a city referred to the outer defenses of the city, keeping those within it separated from those without. Therefore, what the Master was saying to those disciples was simply that the gates, or the outer defenses or boundaries of hades, the place of the dead, would not be able to prevent the church from penetrating hades and freeing those people there bound by death. He was, in effect, announcing his descent into hades, the introduction of the gospel there, and his triumph over the lasting effects of death upon mankind.
I reaffirmed that his belief was among the most ancient beliefs of the early church, the complete knowledge of which had been restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith. In one of the great priesthood sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord revealed to Joseph that he had a plan of salvation sufficient that “not only those who believed after he came in the meridian of time, in the flesh, but all those from the beginning, even as many as were before he came, who believed in the words of the holy prophets, who spake as they were inspired by the gift of the Holy Ghost, who truly testified of him in all things, should have eternal life.” (D&C 20:26.)
The same message was taught by Irenaeus, a second century Christian scholar, in language surprisingly close to that used by Joseph:
“For it was not merely for those who believed on Him in the time of Tiberius Caesar that Christ came, nor did the Father exercise His providence for the men only who are now alive, but for all men altogether, who from the beginning, according to their capacity, in their generation have both feared and loved God, and practiced justice and piety towards their neighbors, and have earnestly desired to see Christ, and to hear His voice.” (Irenaeus, book 4, “Against Heresies,” in The Writings of Irenaeus, vol. 1, Ante-Nicene Christian Library, 1867, pp. 454–55.)
I explained that this doctrine of universal opportunity of salvation involved the introduction of the gospel into hades. Clement of Alexandria writing in the second century, stated:
“Wherefore, the Lord preached the gospel to those in Hades. Accordingly the Scripture says, ‘Hades says to Destruction. We have not seen His form, but we have heard His voice’ … But how? Do not the scriptures show that the Lord preached the gospel to those that perished in the flood … The apostles, following the Lord, preached the gospel to those in Hades. For it was requisite, in my opinion, that as here, so also there, the best of the disciples should be imitators of the Master; so that He should bring to repentance those belonging to the Hebrews, and they of the Gentiles … the Lord descended to Hades for no other reason but to preach the gospel … For it is not right that these should be condemned without trial, and that those alone who lived after the advent [of the Savior] should have the advantage of the divine righteousness … If, then, He preached the gospel to those in the flesh that they might not be condemned unjustly, how is it conceivable that He did not for the same cause preach the gospel to those who had departed this life before His advent” (Clement of Alexandria, book 6, “The Miscellanies,” in The Writings of Clement Alexandria, vol. 2, Ante-Nicene Christian Library, 1867, pp. 328–34. Italics added.)
A similar knowledge was given by revelation to a modern prophet, Joseph F. Smith, as he earnestly sought the meaning of Peter’s account of Christ preaching to the spirits in prison (see D&C 138).
Many of the fathers of the early church emphasized time and again that Christ descended into hades and organized a missionary force from among the prophets, his disciples from the time of the Master’s mission as Jehovah.
I mentioned to my friend that an ordinance necessarily related to this function of the Master was that of baptism for the dead, or baptism by proxy. I noted that this was what Paul was referring to when he cited this ordinance to the saints at Corinth as proof of the reality of a physical resurrection: “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead?” (1 Cor. 15:29). This practice of proxy baptism survived in the rural parts of the Roman Empire, relatively uncorrupted by the philosophies of the urban centers, until well into the fourth century and perhaps longer.
My friend’s background permitted us to talk of the seventh role of Jesus with common understanding. We discussed the resurrection, the appearance of Jesus to Mary, to Peter and the brethren, to the two on the road to Emmaus, to Peter and others fishing in Galilee; and finally the ascension of the Lord. I pointed out to my friend that the Lord undoubtedly used this time to further instruct his apostles. Whatever the subjects of those teachings, he left indisputable lessons to us all on the literal nature of the resurrection (his appearance to the brethren: “Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have” [Luke 24:39]) and the promise of an equally literal return (at the time of the ascension: “Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven” [Acts 1:11]).
The eighth great mission of the Master again found my friend in ignorance. I described the ministry of the Lord to the Western Hemisphere, in fulfillment of his statement to the Jews: “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.” (John 10:16). I told my friend that the Father introduced his Son to the people of this continent: “Behold my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, in whom I have glorified my name—hear ye him.” (3 Ne. 11:7.) I described how Jesus organized a church like that which he had established in the East. Twelve disciples were called and ordained; great miracles were performed—the blind were made to see, the lame to walk. Children were blessed with miracles not matched by those in the East. A dissertation was given by Jesus on the nature and functions of the House of Israel unequaled by any other single scriptural reference. The sacrament was instituted and the Holy Ghost bestowed. Finally, after a three-day ministry, Jesus ascended.
I mentioned a ninth mission of the Master about which we know very little other than that it occurred. Jesus, in speaking to the Nephites, stated that he had yet other sheep who would also hear his voice (3 Ne. 16:1–5). Consequently, there must have been other people who enjoyed a personal ministration of the Master, though we do not now have the records of such a ministry.
The tenth mission of the Master was the ushering in of the restoration through the Prophet Joseph Smith. I described, through my own testimony of the occasion, how Joseph Smith asked God to direct him to the true church. I related the events of the First Vision: that the Father and the Son appeared to Joseph, and from the time of that event other angelic ministrations occurred to Joseph Smith sufficient to restore the knowledge of the gospel and the priesthood power to again establish the Church of Jesus Christ upon the earth as it had been when the Master personally established his church at the meridian of time.
I grouped together as the eleventh mission of the Master several appearances of the Savior to different people, from Joseph Smith, subsequent to the First Vision, to others of the prophets, including Lorenzo Snow, pointing out to my friend the reality of the Master’s direction of his church today as in time past.
Finally, I described to my friend the final and yet unfulfilled role of Jesus Christ in the great plan of his Father. I stated that Mormons believe in the literal second advent of the Master, to rule over the earth that he, under the direction of the Father, created.