JS and the Fate of the Unevangelized


If salvation comes through Jesus Christ, what happens to the billions of human beings who have lived on earth without a reasonable introduction to the Savior and his Gospel? There is an array of different theories on this question, which have been ably summarized in John Sanders, “Those Who Have Never Heard: A Survey of the Major Positions,” in Salvation in Christ: Comparative Christian Views, ed. Roger R. Keller and Robert L. Millet (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2005), 299–325 (link here). Those who are interested in this topic should read the entire article.

On one end of the spectrum is Universalism, defined as “All people will in fact be saved by Jesus. No one is damned forever.” On the other end is Restrictivism, described as “God does not provide salvation to those who fail to hear of Jesus and come to faith in him before they die.” Between these two extremes are three other positions:

Inclusivism: “The unevangelized may be saved if they respond in faith to God based on the revelation they have.”

Postmortem Evangelism: “The unevangelized receive an opportunity to believe in Jesus after death.”

Universal Opportunity before Death: “All people are given opportunity to be saved by God’s sending the gospel (even by angels or dreams) or at the moment of death or by middle knowledge.”

What I find particularly fascinating is that Joseph didn’t just come up with a single alternative, but in fact dabbled in three alternatives to Restrictivism. He of course was not a trained theologian, and accordingly he seemed to feel  a deep and innate sense that Restrictivism was fundamentally unfair. How can we deny salvation to a human being who simply lived in a time and a place where she never had the opportunity to learn of Christ? (Mormons to this day tend to reflect this same reaction, for instance by reacting negatively to this particular feature of Calvinistic dogma.)

Mormonism is of course widely associated with the concept of postmortem evangelism, with its own unique twist of vicarious baptism for the dead. This view denies that a final decision on salvation must occur before death.

But Mormonism also at least dabbles in two of the other categories. The Mormon plan of salvation moves a fair ways in the direction of Universalism. Rather ingeniously, the three degrees of glory, by making all of them glories or heavens (only in various degrees), provides that the Judgment notwithstanding, the vast majority of humanity will inherit a “heaven.” Mormon thought also does away with the traditional Hell in two respects: Spirit Prison is only a temporary state, not an eternal one, and Outer Darkness is a state for which only very few humans would meet the foundational requirements to even be eligible for it. So yes, not strictly universalist, but a long ways towards that point of view.

Joseph also at one point dipped his toe into Universal Opportunity before Death, specifically by means of Middle Knowledge. Sanders explains Middle Knowledge as follows:

The theory of divine omniscience known as middle knowledge, or Molinism, was developed by the Jesuit Molina in the sixteenth-century in an attempt to reconcile divine sovereignty and human freedom. The basic idea is that God knows not only all the things that possibly could happen and all the events that actually will happen, but He also knows what would have happened had something in the circumstances been different. For instance, God knows all the details of your life that would be different if you did not marry the person you did or if you had attended a different university. God knows precisely what you would have done in any given situation if the situation were different in any respect. If, for instance, you had an annual income of $50,000 per year and needed to buy a car, God knows what you would buy. Moreover, God knows what car you would purchase if everything about your life were the same but your annual income was $30,000 instead. It is like Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, in which Scrooge is shown what will happen unless he changes his ways.

In his vision of the celestial kingdom (D&C 137), Joseph articulated a concept of Middle Knowledge with respect to his deceased older brother, Alvin:

And [Joseph] marveled how it was that [Alvin] had obtained an inheritance in that kingdom, seeing that he had departed this life before the Lord had set his hand to gather Israel the second time, and had not been baptized for the remission of sins.

 Thus came the voice of the Lord unto me, saying: 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 desire of their hearts.

So the Prophet Joseph cast his theological net widely so as to avoid what he perceived as the manifest injustice of the restrictivist  position.


  1. We got on the topic of grace vs. works today in SS. Someone quoted 2 Nephi 25:23 in saying that isn’t good that compared to other religions, Mormons believe “that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.”

    So I think we currently lean pretty heavily on restrictivism.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    RE: that image. I’m not sure that I have heard the term “by the grace of the Father” used before.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    EmJen, I would characterize that more as works righteousness v. grace than restrictivism. And of course you’re right, we’re all about those works, baby!

    J., I didn’t even notice that expression (and I don’t recall seeing it before, either).

  4. lastlemming says:

    I am actually partial to the middle knowledge theory (I was unfamiliar with the term). I would render it as “God knows all possible resolutions of quantum uncertainty.” That appeals to me more than a bunch of disembodied beings preaching to one another.

  5. Thanks for this very helpful overview of the positions, Kevin.

  6. orangganjil says:

    I think Joseph was particularly attuned to this topic because of the loss of loved ones he and those around him routinely experienced. It was a doctrine that touched him personally many times.

  7. Something else invades this space: preexistence. Can you make choices before birth that precludes higher degrees of salvation? People argued this for a long time. Section 76 suggests ideas that connect with this (the “heathen”). The Alvin vision may link here too. Fun post, Kevin.

  8. Ever the Book of Mormon dabbles in some universalist ideas with the point that the atonement saves those who died without the gospel as well as saving little children.

  9. Clark Goble says:

    I’m not sure those verses really are embracing middle knowledge. I think it’s more that there’s a heart such that their decisions would have brought them to accept it. But that’s not really middle knowledge more that there’s some property of a person with determinate consequences.

  10. I continually find it interesting that we so readily accept one person’s (JS’s) experience of the spirit world and tend to completely ignore the purported experiences of hundreds, if not thousands, of others. What do the large majority of these other experiences tell us? The consciousness of everyone who dies continues on in another reality dominated by light and love, one that is for most individuals quite pleasant, regardless of whether or not a person was a follower of Christ. Admittedly there are some who, because of their state of mind, find themselves outside of this light and love in outer darkness, but this need be only a temporary condition. Furthermore, there is no judgment by anyone other than ourselves. The progress of everyone continues on as spirits in the spirit world and does not require resurrected bodies.


  11. Aussie Mormon says:

    Is resurrection is unnecessary for progression, what then is its purpose, and why did Christ need to be resurrected?

  12. Aussie Mormon says:

    “If” not “Is”.

  13. That is a good question. Knowing what we now know, based on the accounts of numerous individuals who claim to have experienced the spirit world, it appears that Christ did not have to be resurrected. We must each answer for ourselves why many of the scriptures say otherwise. And then, or course, there is the experience of JS in the sacred grove. Is the actual appearance of two physical beings the only explanation for his experience?

  14. If you take away the time element that one has to become perfected by death, resurrection, judgement, etc… than the concept of eternal progression can viewed as having an infinite amount of time to progress. (aka progression thru the kingdoms). Then instead of the idea of being rewarded based on what you would haven’t actually done, you are instead only just who you are at any point in time. That seems like the kind of grace that is hardest to accept. You then work out your own salvation from grace to grace, etc… This seems to align better with D&C 130:20-21 which declares that there is a law that is irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world that mandates that in order to receive a blessing one has to have been obedient to it rather receive a magical reward on skillfully completing the introduction level, or on what you would have done had the rewards or obstacles been different.

  15. Aussie Mormon says:

    “If you take away the time element that one has to become perfected by death, resurrection, judgement, etc”

    If you take away judgement, then there is no point having laws to judge against.
    If you take away the laws, then you can’t break the laws by sinning (since there would be no good or bad, 2Ne2:13).
    If you can’t sin then there is no point following Jesus, and in fact, nothing Jesus would have had a point.

    However since there are laws decreed in heaven, then there has to be a judgement, and based on the scripture we have, that happens after death and resurrection.

  16. I was not suggesting that there is judgement just that it doesn’t have to be thought of as a one time thing that occurs a particular point in time, which is typically thought to occur either just before death or immediately after or at some future time after that. I’m was simply suggesting that judgement can be an ongoing phenomenon whereby we progress grace by grace continually repenting and using the atonement just like we’re doing now. Sinning would have the exact same effect as it does now. I actually don’t think this really is that radical of idea and fits in pretty well with the way past Mormon thinkers have thought commented on the idea of eternal progression. Here’s a few quotes I came across that I think fit in rather nicely with what I’m saying:

    “None would inherit this earth when it became celestial and translated into the presence of God but those who would be crowned as Gods — all others would have to inherit another kingdom — they would eventually have the privilege of proving themselves worthy and advancing to a celestial kingdom but it would be a slow process [progress?].”
    -Brigham Young, in Wilford Woodruff Journal, 5 Aug 1855

    “Once a person enters these glories there will be eternal progress in the line of each of these particular glories, but the privilege of passing from one to another (though this may be possible for especially gifted and faithful characters) is not provided for.”
    -Joseph F. Smith, Improvement Era 14:87 [November 1910]

    “I am not a strict constructionalist, believing that we seal our eternal progress by what we do here. It is my belief that God will save all of His children that he can: and while, if we live unrighteously here, we shall not go to the other side in the same status, so to speak, as those who lived righteously; nevertheless, the unrighteous will have their chance, and in the eons of the eternities that are to follow, they, too, may climb to the destinies to which they who are righteous and serve God, have climbed to those eternities that are to come.”
    -J. Reuben Clark, Church News, 23 April 1960, p. 3

    “It is reasonable to believe, in the absence of direct revelation by which alone absolute knowledge of the matter could be acquired, that, in accordance with God’s plan of eternal progression, advancement from grade to grade within any kingdom, and from kingdom to kingdom, will be provided for. But if the recipients of a lower glory be enabled to advance, surely the intelligences of higher rank will not be stopped in their progress; and thus we may conclude, that degrees and grades will ever characterize the kingdoms of our God. Eternity is progressive; perfection is relative; the essential feature of God’s living purpose is its associated power of eternal increase.”
    -James E. Talmage, The Articles of Faith [1899 edition] pp. 420-421

    “The brethren direct me to say that the Church has never announced a definite doctrine upon this point. Some of the brethren have held the view that it was possible in the course of progression to advance from one glory to another, invoking the principle of eternal progression; others of the brethren have taken the opposite view. But as stated, the Church has never announced a definite doctrine on this point.”
    -Secretary to the First Presidency in a 1952 letter; and again in 1965

  17. EDIT: I was not suggesting that there is NO judgement just ….

  18. As a Methodist I have always been interested how Joseph’s early connection with Methodists influenced his thought. For example his statement of faith matches the Methodist statement word for word except for baptism. John Wesley never believed the world was going to hell, in fact he taught all good came from influence of the Holy spirit and when people yielded to the good they were in fact yielding to Jesus and grace even if they didn’t know his name. After all Jesus died for the world. In fact infant baptism was built on a progressive view of salvation from infants up in a covenant theology.We as Methodist do not have a premortal view of life. I in fact have always appreciated this view however, and have always felt Joseph’s thought about salvation were very thoughtful concerning the three heavens Paul speaks of. The deep thought of this blog is always refreshing to me. Thanks for your thoughts.

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    Tom, thanks for your thoughts.