Several years ago, during an Internet discussion about vicarious Latter-day Saint baptisms for the dead, I expressed my regret that tensions had arisen between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and at least some Jews over the matter. I found this particularly unfortunate because, theologically, Mormons are very philo-Semitic or pro-Jewish: I’m aware of no other canonical scriptures in any other faith that explicitly denounce anti-Semitism as 2 Nephi 29:3-6 and 3 Nephi 29:8 do. Moreover, I lamented, “Jews have precious few friends around the world.”
That last comment has led some non-Jewish critics of Mormonism to accuse me of being myself “anti-Semitic.” The charge is painful, and deeply ironic. I grew up with the stories and photographs brought back by my father from the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Mauthausen, Austria. (He was ordered to document in photographs what his unit of the Eleventh Armored Division had found there.)
The experience marked his life forever. And it has marked mine. I’ve made a kind of pilgrimage to Mauthausen on several occasions, as well as to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and, almost annually, to Jerusalem’s equivalent shrine, Yad Vashem. And I’ve been horrified recently at the renewed rise of genuine anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere. Criticisms of and demonstrations against Israel, which are entirely legitimate, are too often tinged these days with hatred for Jews as such — which certainly isn’t.
But neither that nor the sensitive question of vicarious baptisms is my topic here.
Those eager to label me an anti-Semite thought they had found the proverbial “smoking gun” when, responding later in that conversation to someone who complained that Mormons seem to believe that Jews “are not worthy enough to receive God’s eternal blessings on their own,” I explained that we do, in fact (and “quite unapologetically”), believe precisely that.
However, these critics routinely omit my accompanying statement: We believe that absolutely nobody — whether Jew or Gentile; whether Mormon, Catholic, Hindu or Buddhist — can earn heaven on personal merit, independent of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Nobody is “worthy enough to receive God’s eternal blessings on their own.”
“There is no other name given whereby salvation cometh,” declared the Book of Mormon’s King Benjamin (Mosiah 5:8) — stating a doctrine far from unique to the Latter-day Saints but, rather, fundamental to Christianity as mainstream believers have understood it since its earliest days.
“I am the way, the truth, and the life,” announces Jesus in John 14:6. “No man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” Christ’s redeeming Atonement is absolutely necessary because “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (see Romans 3:23).
According to the biblical book of Acts, the very first Christian preaching after Christ’s resurrection taught that Jesus offered the only portal to heaven: “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). In Philippians 2:6-11, the apostle Paul quotes what most scholars today consider perhaps the earliest surviving Christian hymn. It closes by asserting “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
In the fourth canto of Dante’s great early 14th-century poem “Inferno,” his guide through the underworld, the Roman poet Virgil, explains that the residents of hell’s first circle, Limbo — including such luminaries as Homer, Euclid, Ptolemy, Aristotle, Plato and Socrates — are damned for eternity not because of any great personal sins, but because, not having heard the message of Christianity, they were never baptized. It’s a cruel doctrine, and untrue, but it plainly assumes that salvation is accessible only through Jesus.
Claremont philosopher Stephen Davis offers a representative modern view of the subject: “As an orthodox Christian,” he writes in his book “Risen Indeed: Making Sense of the Resurrection,” “I affirm that salvation is to be found only in Christ. If any person at any time in this life or the next is ever reconciled to God, it is because of the saving work of Jesus Christ. His life, death and resurrection made it possible.”
The question that remains, though, is essentially that of the Book of Mormon prophet Enos, after he had obtained divine remission of his own sins: “Lord,” he asked, “how is it done?”
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.