What happens to those who die without ever having an opportunity to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ and accept Him as their Savior? What of those who live in nations where the gospel is not preached? Many have wondered about the unique position of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regarding salvation for the dead. Some, like Dr. Krister Stendahl, former dean of the Harvard Divinity School, have named this their “holy envy” of the Latter-day Saints.1 Others have chosen to treat this doctrine with ridicule and disrespect. Still others have attempted to put forth a differing view.
For example, the Christian Research Institute (CRI) teaches that if a person dies without accepting Christ, they are lost to hell forever with no chance of salvation. Not only does this perspective not offer these people or their descendants any hope, it is also unsupported in the scriptures. This article is a brief attempt to explain why.
The following statement from Hank Hanegraaff, President of CRI and host of The Bible Answerman radio program, summarizes CRI’s position on this subject:
Although God is sovereign and he can deal with individuals in extraordinary ways, He tells us in the Bible that there’s no other way to reach Him except through His one provision–the Lord Jesus Christ (John 14:6). From this, we can only conclude that those who have never heard of Christ are indeed lost. They’re lost as a result of their own actions, and not because of God. People don’t end up in hell because of what they haven’t heard; they get there because of their failure to act responsibly on what God has already revealed to them–whether through creation in Romans 1, through their conscience in Romans 2, or through the light of Christ in Romans 3.2
Hanegraaff does not say what constitutes “[acting] responsibly on what God has already revealed.” Are we to assume he means that God preaches the gospel through His creations, that by simply looking at a field of dandelions or a forest of redwoods one may reach the conclusion that he or she is fallen and in need of a Savior? Or that a non-Christian who has a prompting to do something kind for someone else should conclude that he or she must accept Christ? Apparently, CRI would have us believe that God revealing Himself in these ways constitutes sufficient opportunity for an individual to accept Christ as Lord and Savior.
Latter-day Saints agree that God reveals Himself in each of these ways, and that all people should respond to light and truth whenever it is given.3 However, Latter-day Saints recognize that in order to accept Christ and His gospel, a person must first hear the gospel preached. This is what the scriptures teach, as indicated in the following verses, which are part of Paul’s same letter to the Romans referred to above by CRI:
For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.
How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?
And how shall they preach, except they be sent? As it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!
But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Esaias saith, Lord, who hath believed our report?
So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.4
The great Book of Mormon prophet-king Benjamin taught the same principle in his farewell address to his people:
For how knoweth a man the master whom he has not served, and who is a stranger unto him, and is far from the thoughts and intents of his heart?5
Indeed, one must wonder why Jesus gave a specific command to his disciples not to go unto the Gentiles or to the Samaritans.6 What happened to those who died in Samaria before the gospel was taken there? If CRI is correct in their view, this command of Jesus was a condemnation of these people. Why would the Lord later give commandments to His authorized servants to preach the gospel to all the world if simply responding to His creations was sufficient to save them? If this is all that is required, then pagans the world over have occasion to rejoice in their salvation. Likewise, while responding to the promptings of the light of Christ certainly make for a better world–whether or not one has ever heard of Christ–we cannot conclude that it is enough to serve as an invitation to salvation.
Latter-day Saints reject CRI’s position, and proclaim to the world that God is perfectly just and merciful; that “all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile,”7 and that He has provided the means whereby those who leave this life without the opportunity to hear the gospel and receive the ordinances of salvation will have the chance to do so in the spirit world. The doctrine of salvation for the dead was revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith in a vision in the Kirtland Temple in 1836:
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 desires of their hearts.8
That the ancient Saints were taught this doctrine is confirmed by Peter:
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…
Who shall give account to him that is ready to judge the quick and the dead.
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.9
Those of us who are fortunate enough to hear and embrace the gospel in this life are accountable to the Lord for our actions, and if we have not exercised faith in Him, we may lose the inheritance He has in store for us. However, it would be unjust for God to condemn someone to hell just because he or she wasn’t able to hear the gospel preached, through no fault of his or her own.
Hank Hanegraaff again summarized CRI’s position on the September 13, 2002 broadcast of The Bible Answerman program:
The worst thing that can happen is not die under the rubble of the twin towers; the worst thing is not even to die young. The worst thing is to live a long, robust life and never know the Master. I mean, the one thing as Christians we recognize is that life is a vapor–here today, gone tomorrow. The death rate is one per person, we’re all gonna make it. The only ultimate tragedy is to spend a life–not a lifetime, but forever–separated from the love and grace and truth of Jesus Christ–a crisis eternity. That’s the real tragedy. And in the midst of mourning 9-11, we must never forget that every single person who does not know Jesus Christ is a heartbeat away from a crisis eternity. That’s the real tragedy.
The real tragedy is that an influential organization like CRI is promoting such a hopeless, incorrect view of salvation for those who have departed this life without ever hearing of Christ. God loves all of His children, and as a just and merciful Being, He will afford all the same opportunity to partake of His greatest gift: the gift of eternal life through His Son, Jesus Christ.
1 Krister Stendahl, interviewed in Between Heaven and Earth, a television program aired on KBYU television beginning in October 2002.
2 Hank Hanegraaff, “What Happens to People Who Have Never Heard the Gospel?” (17 September 2002).
3 Alma 29:5, 30:44, Doctrine and Covenants 93:31-32.
4 Romans 10:13-17.
5 Mosiah 5:13.
6 Matthew 10:5.
7 2 Nephi 26:33.
8 Doctrine and Covenants 137:7-9.
9 1 Peter 3:18-20, 4:5-6.