Sunday, 26 January 2014

Mormonism and the old Christian problems of what happens to unbaptized children and virtuous pagans


From very early in the history of Christianity and right through the middle ages, two of the biggest problems for loving Christians were:

1. What happens to unbaptized children? Do they go to Hell?


2. What happened to the pagans who lived before Christ - do they necessarily go to Hell? 


Both of these are linked, and both were a problem because it was assumed that there was no possibility of salvation outwith the sacraments administered by the church, and no possibility of salvation without knowledge of Christ.

This inference has always been resisted by many Christians, since it would imply that God was more cruel, less merciful than ordinary human beings.

But the reason we know about all this, is that the problem was felt particularly acutely among Christian intellectuals who greatly valued - indeed venerated - the Classical learning of the ancient Greeks and pre-Christian Romans - especially the Emperor Trajan who was variously asserted to be in Heaven.


It seems evident that the Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith also felt these problems acutely, and (by his revelations and by logic) inferred that the problem was an artificial one produced by:

1. The false understanding of original sin.

2. The false assertion that there was no salvation outwith the church (specifics depending upon which particular denomination was doing the asserting).

3. A false understanding of the role of sacraments such as baptism and holy communion.


The different take of Mormonism can be seen from two striking passages in the Book of Mormon (taken from ). 

Alma 39:

15 And now, my son, I would say somewhat unto you concerning the acoming of Christ. Behold, I say unto you, that it is he that surely shall come to take away the sins of the world; yea, he cometh to declare glad tidings of salvation unto his people.
 16 And now, my son, this was the ministry unto which ye were called, to declare these glad tidings unto this people, to prepare their minds; or rather that salvation might come unto them, that they may prepare the minds of their achildren to hear the word at the time of his coming.
 17 And now I will ease your mind somewhat on this subject. Behold, you marvel why these things should be known so long beforehand. Behold, I say unto you, is not a soul at this time as precious unto God as a soul will be at the time of his coming?
 18 Is it not as necessary that the plan of redemption should be amade known unto this people as well as unto their children?
 19 Is it not as easy at this time for the Lord to asend his angel to declare these glad tidings unto us as unto our children, or as after the time of his coming?

This passage is a key one in understanding the distinctive doctrines of Mormonism. The idea that it was as easy for people before the coming of Christ to attain salvation as for people after the coming of Christ.

That pre-Christians knew enough for salvation; and that therefore (from the perspective of salvation) the problem of the virtuous pagan disappears.

(This is assuming that there is no such thing as original sin as conceptualized by the medieval church - for which see below.)


This becomes more apparent in what seems to be the most vehemently argued of any section of the Book of Mormon - Chapter 8 of the Book of Moroni:

And now, my son, I speak unto you concerning that which grieveth me exceedingly; for it grieveth me that there should adisputations rise among you.
 For, if I have learned the truth, there have been disputations among you concerning the baptism of your little children.
 And now, my son, I desire that ye should labor diligently, that this gross error should be removed from among you; for, for this intent I have written this epistle.
 For immediately after I had learned these things of you I inquired of the Lord concerning the matter. And the aword of the Lord came to me by the power of the Holy Ghost, saying:
 aListen to the words of Christ, your Redeemer, your Lord and your God. Behold, I came into the world not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance; the bwhole need no physician, but they that are sick; wherefore, little cchildren are dwhole, for they are not capable of committing esin; wherefore the curse of fAdam is taken from them in me, that it hath no power over them; and the law of gcircumcision is done away in me.
 And after this manner did the Holy Ghost manifest the word of God unto me; wherefore, my beloved son, I know that it is solemn amockery before God, that ye should baptize little children.
 10 Behold I say unto you that this thing shall ye teach—repentance and baptism unto those who are aaccountable and capable of committing sin; yea, teach parents that they must repent and be baptized, and humble themselves as their little bchildren, and they shall all be saved with their little children.
 11 And their little achildren need no repentance, neither baptism. Behold, baptism is unto repentance to the fulfilling the commandments unto the bremission of sins.
 12 But little achildren are alive in Christ, even from the foundation of the world; if not so, God is a partial God, and also a changeable God, and a brespecter to persons; for how many little children have died without baptism!
 13 Wherefore, if little children could not be saved without baptism, these must have gone to an endless hell.
 14 Behold I say unto you, that he that supposeth that little children need baptism is in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity; for he hath neither afaith, hope, nor charity; wherefore, should he be cut off while in the thought, he must go down to hell.
 15 For awful is the wickedness to suppose that God saveth one child because of baptism, and the other must perish because he hath no baptism.
 16 Wo be unto them that shall pervert the ways of the Lord after this manner, for they shall perish except they repent. Behold, I speak with boldness, having aauthority from God; and I fear not what man can do; for bperfect clove dcasteth out all fear.
 17 And I am filled with acharity, which is everlasting love; wherefore, all children are alike unto me; wherefore, I love little children with a perfect love; and they are all alike and bpartakers of salvation.
 18 For I know that God is not a partial God, neither a changeable being; but he is aunchangeable from ball eternity to all eternity.
 19 Little achildren cannot repent; wherefore, it is awful wickedness to deny the pure mercies of God unto them, for they are all alive in him because of his bmercy.
 20 And he that saith that little children need baptism denieth the mercies of Christ, and setteth at naught the aatonement of him and the power of his redemption.
 21 Wo unto such, for they are in danger of death, ahell, and an bendless torment. I speak it boldly; God hath commanded me. Listen unto them and give heed, or they stand against you at the cjudgment-seat of Christ.
 22 For behold that all little children are aalive in Christ, and also all they that are without the blaw. For the power of credemption cometh on all them that have dno law; wherefore, he that is not condemned, or he that is under no condemnation, cannot repent; and unto such baptism availeth nothing—
 23 But it is mockery before God, denying the mercies of Christ, and the power of his Holy Spirit, and putting trust in adead works.


For Mormons, the powerful moral intuition that it would be a vile injustice for young children to be condemned to eternal Hell because they were not baptized is, in effect, taken as a reductio ad absurdum of traditional Christian theology - especially the most prevalent 'mainstream' understanding of original sin, which was/is that OS implies a default destiny of Hell for all humans. 


So what happens to the theological status of the sacraments? As so often in Mormon theology, qualitative distinctions are made quantitative - and matters of salvation become matters of theosis/ sanctification or spiritual progression.

For Mormons, baptism is not a matter of salvation; rather it is a necessary step in spiritual progression, and a matter of the provision of objective, supernatural help and assistance in progression. 

Likewise the sacrament of the Eucharist/ Holy Communion/ Lord's Supper is transformed into an objectively-valuable and supernaturally-administered help and assistance in the main business of life: which is resisting corruption and moving closer to God. 



radiobeloved said...

FYI: You can turn off the footnotes on by clicking "Hide Footnotes" at the top of the rightmost margin on a page.

(Now I'll go back and read the rest.)

Bruce Charlton said...

@rb - Thanks - when I am feeling stronger I shall try to fix these quotes...

George said...

It is strange doctrine to hold infants being punished in hell. I'm surprised to see Augustine held this view.

Aquinas's position at least appears moderated, though it seems highly illogical that an infant would be cut off from Heaven through no act of their own or fault of their parents... (e.g. being born in the USSR vs Othodox Russia)

"Saint Thomas Aquinas described the Limbo of Infants as an eternal state of natural joy, untempered by any sense of loss at how much greater their joy might have been had they been baptized. He argued that this was a reward of natural happiness for natural virtue; a reward of supernatural happiness for merely natural virtue would be inappropriate since, due to original sin, unbaptized children lack the necessary supernatural grace. In regards to baptism of desire, Aquinas stated that only adults were capable of this,[17] and this view seemed to be accepted by the Council of Florence, which quotes Aquinas in its Eleventh Session concerning baptism of infants."

Though it could be consistent with the Old Testament, where we see whole countries and generations of descendants being condemned.

George said...

The Catholic position on this matter and the consequences of accepting it makes me very sad. It looks like the Orthodox position may be much closer to Mormon theology.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

There is no problem at all in Catholic teaching about salvation of the unbaptized.

Here is a quote from an Orthodox bishop, Kallistos Ware:
Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. All the categorical strength and point of this aphorism lies in its tautology. Outside the Church there is no salvation, because salvation is the Church" (G. Florovsky, "Sobornost: the Catholicity of the Church", in The Church of God, p. 53). Does it therefore follow that anyone who is not visibly within the Church is necessarily damned? Of course not; still less does it follow that everyone who is visibly within the Church is necessarily saved. As Augustine wisely remarked: "How many sheep there are without, how many wolves within!" (Homilies on John, 45, 12) While there is no division between a "visible" and an "invisible Church", yet there may be members of the Church who are not visibly such, but whose membership is known to God alone. If anyone is saved, he must in some sense be a member of the Church; in what sense, we cannot always say.

The exact same Roman Catholic teaching may be found, for example, in Vatican II Constitution on “The Church” (Lumen Gentium, 13 and 16). The Catholic Encyclopaedia article on the Church (, section on “The necessary means of salvation”) points out, among others, the meaning of belonging to the Church by desire (voto).

The Summa, Tertia Pars, q. 8, art. 3, on Christ as Head of the Church (, is a good example of how well the Aristotelian doctrine of potentiality and act fits with the Church’s teaching. Excerpt: Reply to Objection 1. Those who are unbaptized, though not actually in the Church, are in the Church potentially. And this potentiality is rooted in two things – first and principally, in the power of Christ, which is sufficient for the salvation of the whole human race; secondly, in free-will.)

Nicholas Fulford said...

There is still a problem, because the logic takes one to a position where to kill a child assures the child's salvation, whereas to allow a child to become an accountable adult will lead to the unnecessary and endless suffering of hell for many.

Mercy hence justifies the killing of children so that they might not become accountable and suffer for eternity. To not do this guarantees a great horror for a true believer, as he or she must hope that their child will either not stumble in adulthood, or find salvation once again before that child dies. As is readily observable, many fall away from the faith of their parents, and while given enough time they may return to it, they may also die at a time before they would return. And so, yet again the best action a parent can take is to kill their children to assure salvation.

Oh what horror for a parent to know what may befall their beloved child, and if they live to see their child fallen away and die without salvation, how can they live with the knowledge that had they murdered their child, that child would be in Heaven.

This is of course a gross state of affairs, as it makes the murder of one's children a moral good. And yet there is no denying the logic that a parent by killing their children avoids the risk of their damnation.

Unfortunately, some variant of this logic, does occur in some disturbed adults who kill their own children before committing suicide. From time to time these things appear in the news, and every time it saddens me to see how this logic has become embedded and then executed with such tragic consequences.

Bookslinger said...

It would also go along with your subject matter to mention that those who die _after_ reaching the "age of accountability" (for sin) without being baptized or without being aware of the gospel are accounted for in Mormon doctrine and practice via proxy baptisms for the dead in the temples.

In other words, the work of preaching, learning, repentance, etc., continues on among the spirits of those who have lived then died.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SDR - I realize that there were answers to these problems (such as limbo) relatively late in the history of Christianity, but these have not necessarily been widely understood, believed or caught-on since they have led to confusions about the role of the actual institutional churches.

@NF - there is more than one moral principle governing life: for example the ten commandments.

But it would clearly be unjust for a child's salvation to be utterly contingent upon not getting murdered. And an adult is 'damned' only by their own choice. When the assumption of default damnation is abandoned, then a loving parent wants for their children to grow and become free agents - this being the secondary purpose of life (the primary purpose is to obtain a body and die - like Christ - so as to ascend to the next level).

To understand the issue requires an understanding of the purposes of mortal life. This is mine:

George said...

@SDR - I don't think this addresses the essential nature of free will and punishment in infants. Aquinas clearly asserts unbaptized babies are incapable of reaching Heaven as a consequence of how the Church interprets the doctrine of Original Sin - though Benedict has recently asserted otherwise. So it suggests either the the Church was or is incorrect on this point (as Mormons or Orthodox assert). If the Church was wrong, this still appears to be at conflict with Original Sin and only able to reach theosis through accepting Christ, therefore the fate of infants would seem to necessitate spiritual progress AFTER death, at least for infants and probably children, as Mormons assert.

Gyan said...

"And yet there is no denying the logic"

Love transcends logic. Salvation is not a matter of satisfaction of certain criteria.

The unbaptized may be saved but it is better to be baptized.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Gyan - "The unbaptized may be saved but it is better to be baptized. "

I agree, as a general rule, for most people most of the time. But I am impressed by the non sacramental Christian denomination - the Salvation Army (I presume there are others among 'low church' Protestants) - from which I infer that there are ways of Christian living which have other strengths.

Gyan said...

Does the Catholic Church say that unbaptized children goto hell?

It does not, to my best knowledge. It leaves the matter in the hands of a loving God where it rests. So why the controversy?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Gyan - What the RCC has officially said, what its priests have taught, what its laity have believed have and do vary very widely - but I think it fair to say that through much of its history and in many places, people have inferred that - since everyone is born stained by original sin - they absolutely required the sacraments of the church in order to be saved. Sometimes unbaptized children were indeed assumed to be default damned (and, I think, refused burial in consecrated ground) or - if not - excluded from Heaven.

Commodore said...

Wait, so God/the universal nature which constrains God is Utilitarian? I have no problem with dismissing the RCC Sacraments as essential. I tend to agree here with Spurgeon (as in most things) that baptism of infants seems harmless at best and dangerous at worst. And Roman 1:18-32 makes it pretty clear that pagans get The Message and tend to reject it as well. But Old Testament and New seem much less about "how God maximizes utility in an Enlightenment-approved manner" and more "be on God's side".

I sense a bit of the Enlightenment here in this; it's very anti-tribal and Universalist. Judging God in the lens of some philosophical framework. You might say it is common sense, but I'll counter that anything that degrades God and elevates man is instinctively appealing to all Fallen Men. (But, ah, there we see the rub, because men are not apparently fallen?)

“Child,' said the Lion, 'I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own.”

I'll go with the sensible and humble belief on the subject of children. I think God can save children, and probably does. But He is Judge, and I don't gainsay His right to dispose of any soul as He sees fit.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

"since everyone is born stained by original sin - they absolutely required the sacraments of the church in order to be saved"

If you refer to explicit and physical administration of sacraments, this is false. The Church (not the bunch of mistaken or bad Catholics who give us a bad name) teaches that the unbaptized can be saved through the baptism of desire and that anyone who is not in a state of voluntary and unrepented mortal sin at death benefits from the unlimited mercy of God. Bishop Ware pointed out that we do not know how this is so, but we do know that God does not contradict himself.

George said...

@Commodore - I think you are misunderstanding. It isn't about restricting God! At least, not for me. It is about the exact opposite. I agree with you completely in essential. My conclusion is that the RCC was/is trying to restrict God similar to the legalistic Judaic restrictions (e.g. Jesus MUST be evil, because he doesn't conform to the Sabbath - and even God MUST obey the Torah!) - while the opposite is true.

"He is not a tame lion."

We can not assume all innocent unbaptized infants are restricted from Heaven just because that is the apparent exoteric interpreted legalistic definition. Assuming that infants by default go to Hell is actually very callous and hard-hearted on the part of us/the Pharisees.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Gyan said: "To call into question the veracity of Bible and what the Christians have always believed, it only gives ammunition to those that claim that Bible was falsified...

The West simply can not question Bible (and the traditional doctrines) and hope to remain itself.


Bruce Charlton replies - It is not a matter of questioning the Bible but understanding it as best we can.

In my opinion, we cannot understand the Bible if we break it down into sentences to be studied minutely - this leads to the (Protestant, note) horrors of Biblical Scholarship and endless wrangles over endlessly proliferating 'scholarly' translations (both of which treat the text as if a secular historical document).

There is no wholly acceptable way to settle disagreements - but in order to understand the Bible I believe that we ought to regard it 'holistically' and as a simple text to be understood by simple people.

The more detail we try to get out of the Bible, the more that agreement (and personal witness) will break down.

We can, as individuals reading in faith, get an infinite amount of detailed guidance and assistance from the Bible - but as official public dogmatic doctrine - not much: relatively few, simple things.

Arakawa said...

Interestingly, I noted a thread of argument arise recently in the Russian Orthodox Church, championed by Alexei Osipov, also moving away from an understanding of infant baptism as necessary. The arguments for this are:

(a) The experience of the Church in Byzantium, which preferred to baptise at the age of accountability. Osipov cites in particular St. Basil the Great as an example of a Saint who was baptized at age-30, in spite of not being a convert, but in fact belonging to a family of other Saints.

(b) The understanding of baptism, conversion, repentance, faith, as something that can only be performed with full and conscious understanding and intent, in order to have effect. This does not exclude baptism and communion of infants, but these can only be understood and carried out properly when the parents genuinely bear the burden of accountability on behalf of the infant. (As an aside, for longtime readers of Bruce's blog, this will make much more sense in the context of the more general notion of coinherence as elucidated by Charles Williams.) In particular, for communion to be effective requires the parents to take on the feat of properly preparing for the communion (wrt. fasting and ascesis, confession of sins), again on behalf of the infant.

Osipov does comment that there is a more common trend for people to decay towards a 'pagan' understanding of the Sacraments as external, magical rites which happen independently of the will of the recipient, and baptism of infants becomes problematic in that context.

(c) [more generally, most controversially] Osipov's universalist theological leaning which, whatever its faults, necessarily de-emphasizes the understanding of the Sacraments as a formal 'ticket to salvation', and places the focus back on them as a concrete means by which the grace of God is conveyed to the faithful. This makes the objections that baptism should be administered as a reasoned, conscious choice carry much more weight.

In some ways, Osipov seems to be refuting the same three false understandings mentioned in the post above, but citing canonized Saints of the Orthodox Church, rather than any Mormon scriptures.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ara - Something which I found very striking and thought provoking, in relation to the sacrament of Holy Communion was discovering through my reading that that some of the hermit-Saints (especially those revered in the Eastern Orthodox tradition) seemed to go for very long periods without it - even decades. This seems significant.

Arakawa said...


Indeed. I can't comment on Communion too deeply, never having had the blessing; but I would guess that a Christian with discernment, and certainly a Saint in particular would have some experiential sense of when they needed this particular aid in their lives, rather than needing to follow an arbitrary scheme (twice a year? once a month? once every two weeks? as often as possible?).

I'm also discovering more appreciation than I expected for Osipov, by the way -- he appears to teach a very clear variety of co-inherence. e.g. his advice on praying for a suicide:

"Not only can you pray for them, but you MUST! [...] And you must not just pray [for such a person], but pray with redoubled effort! But the question of how you should pray in this case, unfortunately, has been obscured in lots and lots of fog.

We have to understand that we cannot sway God to pity -- not because He is cruel, but because He is already absolute Love; He cannot love anymore than He already is. Therefore the substance of our prayer is reduced to -- what? Our prayer for any person, not just a suicide, is directed not to placate an angry God, but -- is based on the fact that we are able, by our own podvig, through purifying ourselves and our own soul from its infirmities, are able thereby to help them find healing.

Only by healing ourselves from our own sins and passions, and according to the measure that we do so, does our prayer become an aid to the other person.

You see how this is? We often understand incorrectly, thinking, if we put in a request at the temple, or say 'Lord have mercy', we are begging God [to change His mind]; but God cannot love anyone more than He already does! The only way to help another person with our own prayer lies in -- and I repeat -- the struggle for our own purification.

So, if we want to be a benefit to the dead, what do we do? If we actually want to make a difference, we must begin -- finally begin -- to follow the Commandments, as far as we are able; to live a pure life; to pray at the Church services; to confess our sins; to take Holy Communion; according to the measure that we do this, our prayers will serve as a help to the other person.

These things are often not understood. People think 'I'll just send pieces of paper to as many churches and monasteries I can'; certainly not! You have to understand, if we're so lacking in love and zeal for our neighbour, then who else do we think will have it?"

(transcribed from

The idea seems to pop up frequently enough in those of his talks that I've browsed through -- that people can live the Christian life for the sake of their child, their neighbour, and that doing (or neglecting to do so!) has definite effects. This is a much more practical statement of the doctrine of co-inherence than found in Charles Williams, I think.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ara - The way I am tending to think about this kind of prayer, and its efficacy, is that the person prayed-for becomes aware of our love; and this may affect his choice to reject, or accept, salvation.