How we approach the scriptures affects what we see in them. In other words, our assumptions, our traditions, our cultural baggage that we carry with us as we enter the world of scriptural texts are lenses that give meaning and shape to what we find inside those scriptures. Two approaches that I would like to examine today are looking at the scriptures and the teachings of the prophets as a unified, static monolith of doctrine vs looking at them as a dynamic collection of texts written by individuals who each had their own limited view. I intend to look at those views using the doctrine of salvation for the dead as the focal point.
In 1823, Alvin Smith (Joseph Smith’s oldest brother) suddenly became ill. He died a short time later in great pain. Alvin seems to have been considered the brightest and best of the Smith brothers, even within his own family. Yet, according to William Smith, at Alvin’s funeral, a local Presbyterian minister “intimated very strongly that [Alvin] had gone to hell, for Alvin was not a church member, but he was a good boy and my father did not like it.” Apparently, this did not sit well with Joseph Smith, Jr. either. Throughout his life, he grappled with the question of what became of people like Alvin—uncatechized and unbaptized individuals who were good people. Grappling with the question resulted in an evolution of theology concerning redemption of the dead over his lifetime that has been interpreted in different ways.
Among the earliest (and certainly one of the most significant) documents Joseph Smith, Jr. gave to the world was the Book of Mormon. Within the Book of Mormon, Universalism—the idea that God will, sooner or later, redeem and restore all of His creation—is generally opposed. For example, one of the major villains that looms over the narrative in the Book of Alma is Nehor, who taught that “all mankind should be saved at the last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble … for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men; and, in the end, all men should have eternal life” (Alma 1:4). Nehor’s teachings became popular and served as a major religious movement even after the man’s public execution for murder.
Afterwards, Alma went on a preaching tour and visited the Nehor stronghold of Ammonihah, where he and his companion Amulek contended with the ideas that Nehor had taught. Amulek, for example, said that he believed that God “shall not save his people in their sins” and cannot because “no unclean thing can inherit the kingdom of heaven” (Alma 11:36-37). Salvation would be administered through the Atonement of Christ only to “those who believe on his name” (Alma 11:40) and “him that has faith unto repentance” (Alma 34:16). Amulek felt that repentance must be done during mortality, for “this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors. … If we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed” (Alma 34:32-33). When taken at face value, there is no room for repentance after death in Amulek’s thought. Alvin, in this scenario, would likely not have escaped hellfire. He had died without fulfilling the laws of the gospel. Other voices in the Book of Mormon hint that little children and those who lived without the law being given to them will somehow be exempt from this, but no mechanism is given for their salvation asides from the general idea of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
Yet, even while Joseph Smith worked on preparing the Book of Mormon, a 1829 revelation made room for eventual forgiveness to those who do not repent in this life. Written in the voice of the Lord, it stated that “And surely every man must repent or suffer, for I, God, am endless” (D&C 19:4). The text, however, indicated that the suffering would not go on forever:
Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment . . . For, behold, the mystery of godliness, how great it is! For, behold, I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name. Wherefore—Eternal punishment is God’s punishment. Endless punishment is God’s punishment (D&C 19:6, 10-12).
Thus, the words of the scriptures were declared to be tricky phrasing indicating that the suffering of the unrepentant would be Eternal and Endless in the sense of being God’s punishment and not in the sense of going on without end.
This revelation was a very Universalist in its outlook, and resembles what some preachers who believed in Universalist ideals were teaching. Universalists argued that God is a benevolent and generous being whose attributes of love and justice were incompatible with widespread condemnation and permanent torment. They also held that God would not allow Himself to be defeated by Satan and would overcome the effects of Satan’s work by restoring all His creation to its original, pre-Fall glory. For example, eighteenth-century preacher named John Murray indicated that while hell and punishment existed, they were waystations to redemption. Using an idea like the 1829 revelation, Murray reasoned that “it is one thing to be punished with everlasting destruction, and another to be everlastingly punished with destruction.” The comparison he used was that: “If your candle were to burn to endless ages, and you put your finger into that candle, but for a moment, you would suffer, for that moment, the pain of everlasting fire.” Joseph Smith’s ancestors were Universalists, and many early converts to Mormonism had similar roots or beliefs. Unlike the teachings of Amulek, according to this Universalist strain of thought, Alvin would have some sort of opportunity for salvation after enduring death and hell.
A vision experienced by Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon in 1832 laid out some mechanisms and limitations to this idea of eventual, universal redemption. Often referred to simply as “the Vision” (now as Doctrine and Covenants, Section 76), the revelation expanded the eternal destination of souls from the bifurcate system of heaven and hell to a graded system of four destinations: The Celestial Kingdom, Terrestrial Kingdom, Telestial Kingdom, and a place of condemnation for the sons of perdition. In a way, the system provided a compromise between Universalist ideals of the 1829 revelation and the thought of Amulek. It seems that those who gain the highest (Celestial) kingdom have to do so by their actions during this lifetime, as revealed by those who are able to obtain a place in the second realm of glory, the Terrestrial Kingdom: “Behold, these are they who died without law; and also they who are the spirits of men kept in prison, whom the Son visited, and preached the gospel unto them, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh; who received not the testimony of Jesus in the flesh, but afterwards received it” (D&C 76:72-74). In this Vision, we finally begin to see a mechanism for salvation to those without law and eventual redemption—preaching and acceptance of Jesus in the afterlife—but they could only be redeemed to a degree. According to the theology of 1832, Alvin would be able to obtain the Terrestrial Kingdom, but not the Celestial Kingdom.
Four years later, Joseph Smith had another vision that challenged the limitations indicated by the textual record of the Vision of the Three Degrees of Glory. Joseph Smith recorded that: “The heavens were opened upon us, and I beheld the celestial kingdom of God, and the glory thereof. … I saw Father Adam and Abraham; and my father and my mother; my brother Alvin, that has long since slept” (D&C 137:1, 5). Surprised, Joseph Smith recorded that he “marveled how it was that [Alvin] had obtained an inheritance in that kingdom, seeing that he … had not been baptized for the remission of sins” (D&C 137:6). This statement of astonishment makes sense, particularly since Section 76 indicated that Alvin would be destined for the Terrestrial Kingdom, not the Celestial Kingdom.
In the reasoning of this 1836 vision, however, the Lord made room for the redemption of all who were worthy. He declared that:
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 (D&C 137:7-9).
In Mormon theology of the late 1830s, Alvin could be saved because he would have received the gospel in its fulness and would have been baptized by proper authority if he had been given the chance to do so.
Still, one can sense some underlying tensions in Joseph Smith’s beliefs about salvation for the dead during the late 1830s. One of the main reasons he was surprised to see Alvin in the Celestial Kingdom was that he “had not been baptized for the remission of sins” (D&C 137:6). From the start, Mormons declared that baptism was essential for salvation. The initial constitution of the Church declared that salvation was contingent on being among those who “would believe and be baptized in his holy name, and endure in faith to the end” (D&C 20:25). A year-and-a-half after the 1836 vision with Alvin, a revelation reiterated that: “he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, and he that believeth not, and is not baptized, shall be damned” (D&C 112:29). Latter-day Saints declared that baptism was an absolute requirement for salvation, yet Alvin was to be saved, apparently without baptism.
This paradox of salvation without baptism during mortality was resolved in 1840 with the implementation of proxy baptisms for the dead. At the funeral of Seymour Brunson on 15 August 1840, Joseph Smith read from 1 Corinthians 15, then declared that: “It is the privilege of [members of] this Church to be baptized for all their kinsfolk that have died before this gospel came forth. . . . By so doing, we act as agents for them, and give them the privilege of coming forth in the First Resurrection.” On a later occasion Joseph Smith added that: “It is no more incredible that God should save the dead, than that he should raise the dead. There is never a time when the spirit is too old to approach God. All are within the reach of pardoning mercy, who have not committed the unpardonable sin.” He further elaborated that: “God has made a provision that the spirits of our friends and every spirit in that eternal world can be ferreted out and saved, unless he has committed that unpardonable sin which can’t be remitted to him, whether in this world or in the world of spirits. God has wrought out salvation for all men, unless they have committed a certain sin.” Through baptism for the dead, salvation was opened to almost all the unbaptized deceased.
In contrast to the earliest snapshot of Mormon theology, the door had been opened for exaltation for virtually all humankind. In the statements above, Joseph Smith makes it clear that he believed that everyone could be saved except the few who committed the ill-defined unpardonable sin. This seems to be very different take on salvation than the one found in Amulek’s teachings, or even the 1836 vision. Rather than only those who had received the gospel during their lives and those who would have done so if they had the chance, anyone who had not committed the unpardonable sin could be redeemed. Alvin, of course, would be offered salvation through baptisms for the dead. In late 1840, not long after the doctrine was introduced, Hyrum Smith was baptized as a proxy for Alvin. By favoring near-universal salvation being available through baptisms for the dead, Joseph Smith had found a way to reconciling aspects of Nehor’s universalist teachings with those of Amulek (though there is a significant amount of nuance that I don’t have the space to work through in this already too-long post).
When the revelations and teachings of Joseph Smith are read as fossilized snapshots of a dynamic theology, it can result in an expanded view of salvation. The result in this case is a theology that points towards salvation being open to almost everyone, even after death. Different approaches to reading the scriptures and teachings of prophets, however, result in different conclusions. An example of a different approach is the one Elder Bruce R. McConkie took. Elder McConkie believed that: “Truth is always in harmony with itself. The word of the Lord is truth, and no scripture ever contradicts another, nor is any inspired statement of any person out of harmony with an inspired statement of another person. … When we find seeming conflicts, it means we have not as yet caught the full vision of whatever points are involved.” Reading with this approach to exegesis, the Book of Mormon, various visions and revelations, and other teachings of Joseph Smith are not snapshots of an evolving theology, but expressions of truth that all need to be reconciled to each other.
The results of this reading in Elder McConkie’s theology is a more limited salvation. He did accept proxy work for the dead as an opportunity for salvation, but placed limitations on those who would benefit from this work based on the earlier revelations of the 1820s and 1830s:
There is no such thing as a second chance to gain salvation. This life is the time and the day of our probation. After this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed.
For those who do not have an opportunity to believe and obey the holy word in this life, the first chance to gain salvation will come in the spirit world. If those who hear the word for the first time in the realms ahead are the kind of people who would have accepted the gospel here, had the opportunity been afforded them, they will accept it there. Salvation for the dead is for those whose first chance to gain salvation is in the spirit world. …
There is no other promise of salvation than the one recited in [D&C 137]. Those who reject the gospel in this life and then receive it in the spirit world go not to the celestial, but to the terrestrial kingdom.
Thus, Elder Bruce R. McConkie believed that there is indeed a time when the spirit is too old to approach God and not everyone can be saved in the fullest sense of the word in the afterlife.
The differences between Bruce R. McConkie’s beliefs and Joseph Smith’s later teachings about salvation for the dead lays bare an important tension in Latter-day Saint thought. Do we believe that continuing revelation results in continuous revision that supersedes previous revelations, or should revelation be weighed on how it conforms to existing canonical writings? In this discussion, two approaches to understanding the doctrine of salvation for the dead have been presented. In the approach where subsequent revelations superseded past ones, everyone who has not committed the unpardonable sin can eventually reach the Celestial Kingdom. In the approach where established canon and doctrine are weighed as equal to later revelations, universal salvation is tempered by earlier revelations that limit salvation to those who did not reject the gospel at some point in their lifetime and locks everyone into a kingdom of glory after judgement. How the question of continuous revision versus reconciling all canonical writing is resolved by the individual bears a tremendous impact on shaping their theology.
Updated 5/30/2020 for greater accuracy in discussing D&C 76 and texts discussed from the book of Alma.
 For a discussion of Alvin’s role in the Smith family, see Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, first Vintage Books edition (New York: Vintage Books, 2007), 42, 45-46, 54-55
 William Smith, interview by E. C. Briggs and J. W. Peterson, Oct. or Nov. 1893, originally published in Zion’s Ensign; reprinted in Deseret Evening News, Jan. 20, 1893, p. 2. Cited in Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2007), 401-402.
 See 2 Nephi 9:25; Mosiah 3:16, 21; Mosiah 15:25; and Moroni 8:22.
 John Murray, Letters and Sketches of Sermons, (Boston: Joshua Belcher, 1812), 2:253.
 Vilate M. Kimball to Heber C. Kimball, Oct. 11, 1840, Vilate M. Kimball letters, Church History Library; spelling and capitalization standardized.
 “The Doctrine of Baptism for the Dead,” A Sermon Delivered on 3 October 1841 (from Times and Seasons [Nauvoo, Illinois] 2 [15 October 1841], 24:577.
 Stan Larson, “The King Follett Discourse: A Newly Amalgamated Text,” BYU Studies 18, no. 2 (1978), 13.
 See Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, 403.
 See, for example, Fiona Givens and Terryl Given, The Christ Who Heals (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2017), 118-126.
 Bruce R. McConkie, “Finding Answers to Gospel Questions,” cited in Teaching Seminary: Preservice Readings (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2004), 43.
 Bruce R. McConkie, “The Seven Deadly Heresies,” BYU speech 1 June 1980, https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/bruce-r-mcconkie_seven-deadly-heresies/
 I realize in this version of this essay, I don’t discuss progression to the Celestial Kingdom, but that will probably come up in another post.