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Defending the Faith: But what of those who never heard?

Published: Thursday, July 31 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

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I’ve recently re-read Stephen Davis“Risen Indeed: Making Sense of the Resurrection,” a book that powerfully affected my thinking when it first appeared in 1993. The Russell K. Pitzer Professor of Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College in California, Davis contends that “Christians are within their intellectual rights in believing that Jesus was raised from the dead.”

“The thesis of the book,” he explains, “is that the two central Christian resurrection claims — namely, that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead and that we will all be raised from the dead — are defensible claims.”

Accordingly, he sets out to defend both doctrines against historical and philosophical criticisms that have been made of them.

But there is a brief subordinate argument in “Risen Indeed” that has struck me just as forcefully this time as on my two previous readings. Even in its details, it might have been offered by a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Having met Davis a few times, I expect that this statement would amuse him. In fact, since he’s had considerable contact with Mormonism and Mormons over the years since his book was published, I’m confident that he’s heard similar statements before. Perhaps from me.)

In the book’s eighth chapter, “Resurrection and Judgment,” Davis argues against “universalism,” the doctrine that everybody goes to heaven. Then, however, assuming universalism to be false, he confronts the thorny issue of what happens to those who’ve never adequately understood the message of Christianity or, perhaps, owing to accidents of time and location, have never heard it at all.

A believing Christian himself, Davis upholds the orthodox view that salvation comes only through Jesus Christ. But does that doctrine (quite plainly taught in the New Testament) mean that God consigns such people — perhaps the vast majority of humankind — to hell? (Historically, hundreds of millions have died without so much as hearing the name of Jesus.) If so, can God still be considered just or fair?

While the Bible authoritatively answers many questions for Christians, Davis points out, it doesn’t necessarily answer every question that Christians might have. It certainly doesn’t explain the fate of those who never learn about Jesus.

Of course, some argue that God can do anything he wants, and that, accordingly, we have no right to question his justice. But, Davis replies, this still doesn’t tell us what happens to those who die ignorant of the Christian message. Other theologians point out that, since all humans are sinners, we actually all deserve hell — which leaves no room for complaint from or about those who actually go there. But such arbitrariness still seems unfair, and we would rightly criticize a father who severely punished one son while another, equally guilty, received a reward.

He takes note of Catholic doctrine regarding those who die in “invincible ignorance,” which declares that non-Christians who obey the morality available to all, who live upright lives, will be saved by the grace of God (compare Doctrine and Covenants 137). But, as he observes, the Bible insists that nobody is fully righteous — and the scriptural requirement of accepting Christ for salvation cannot simply be ignored.

So Davis proposes “a conjecture,” which he terms “postmortem evangelism” — in other words, what Latter-day Saints would call missionary work in the spirit world. Then he asks, “Does anything in the Bible support this conjecture? Well, perhaps.” And, at this point, he mentions three New Testament passages — along with “Paul’s cryptic but apparently approving comments about baptism for the dead in 1 Corinthians 15:29,” on which he doesn’t elaborate much.

The three passages are Ephesians 4:8-10, 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 1 Peter 4:5-6, all of which discuss Christ’s preaching to the spirits in prison between his death on the cross and his resurrection (compare Doctrine and Covenants 138), an idea that Davis entertains quite seriously.

“The key word,” Davis’ discussion concludes, “is perhaps. We have no ground to dogmatize here. I do not think we know the fate of those who die in ignorance of Christ. All I am sure of is that God’s scheme for the salvation of human beings will turn out to have been just, perhaps in ways we cannot now understand.”

Latter-day Saints should be deeply grateful, on this point as on others, for modern revelation. In today’s smaller world, what happens to those who die ignorant of the gospel is a far more urgent question than ever before. We’re fortunate to know that our just and loving Father has provided for them.

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson and speaks only for himself.

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