[Note to readers: Last month I wrote about the basic structure of the book of Ether , which offers a quick way to demonstrate to Sunday school classes, youth, and friends how carefully crafted the Book of Mormon is. I had originally intended to write a follow-up article about some of the other remarkable patterns in Ether, but I’ll put that off for a month since there has been an exciting development in my life—last week my 36-lecture DVD/CD course “Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition” was released by The Teaching Company.
Christians have long worried about whether God plays favorites. Since salvation only comes through Jesus Christ, what fate awaits the hundreds of millions who lived outside of Christendom, who never had a chance to hear the gospel, or who died without baptism, perhaps even before Jesus was born? From medieval Catholic speculations about Limbo to Rob Bell’s recent evangelical book Love Wins, there has been a great deal of unease about reconciling God’s love for all his children with the fact that for most of history only a minority of the world’s population had access to prophets, apostles, or scriptures.
One of the intriguing findings in Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s American Grace
(flagged by the writers at the lds.org Newsroom) is that Latter-day Saints are unusual in combining a strong belief in the existence of one true religion with a conviction that those outside of their faith, including non-Christians, can gain salvation or go to heaven. The idea of a God who is ethically demanding but also fair is, to me, one of the most attractive features of Mormonism, though it may be a bit puzzling to outsiders. Of course, the way that we balance the two seemingly contradictory beliefs is through our doctrines of missionary work in the spirit world and baptism for the dead. Neither of these concepts is prominent in the Book of Mormon, but even in that early scripture there is evidence of God’s deep concern for people throughout history and across the globe.
One of the fundamental teachings of the Book of Mormon is that God’s saving acts were not restricted to Palestine. After his resurrection, Jesus visited the Americas, where he met descendants of the house of Israel who had been given prophetic warnings of coming. So not only were there Christians in the New World before Columbus, there had even been devout Christians before Jesus’ birth. But that is not all. Nephi and Jacob had suggested that other offshoots of Israel had been led by God elsewhere in the world (2 Ne. 29:13-14; Jacob 5), and Jesus told the Nephites gathered at the temple in Bountiful that he needed to visit those peoples as well (3 Ne. 16:1-3). There were also non-Israelite groups, such as the Jaredites, to whom Christ had revealed himself (at least to some extent; more on this next month).
Before his own remarkable vision, Nephi expressed his belief that the power of the Holy Ghost was “the gift of God unto all those who diligently seek him, as well in times of old as in the time that he should manifest himself unto the children of men. For he is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and the way is prepared for all men [and presumably women] from the foundation of the world, if it so be that they repent and come unto him (1 Ne. 10:17-18). And this seems to involve more than just warm feelings or the twinges of conscience, for the Lord later revealed to Nephi that “I command all men, both in the east and in the west, and in the north and in the south, and in the islands of the sea, that they shall write the words which I speak unto them; for out of the books which shall be written I will judge the world, every man according to their works, according to that which is written” (2 Ne. 29:11). It appears that we should expect the word of God, in some form or other, to be manifest in texts throughout the centuries and around the world.
The classic exposition of this doctrine of global revelation comes when Alma the Younger, in his “O that I were an angel” speech, wishes that he could preach the gospel in such a way that the entire world would hear. That wasn’t possible at the time (what would he have thought of radio, TV and the Internet?), but he takes comfort in the fact that God has already been laying the groundwork: “The Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have” (Alma 29:8). Given this explicit assertion, we should be asking ourselves, “Where are the promised texts from around the globe that contain a measure of God’s word?” Perhaps there are some that will be revealed, like the Book of Mormon, at some future date, but in the meantime I would argue that many of the world’s great religious figures and philosophers received inspiration and taught true principles that are encompassed within the gospel. These individuals, teaching their own people in their own language, helped their followers to live morally and open their hearts to spiritual matters.
This is not exactly a radical belief. The First Presidency issued a statement on February 15, 1978 which declared that “the great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God's light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals.” And in Preach My Gospel (p. 46), Buddha, Confucius, and Mohammed are specifically listed as examples of the inspired teachers spoken of by Alma.
So what would Alma have thought of Buddha? Of course, the two would not have agreed on everything—resurrection is not reincarnation, nirvana is not heaven, and Zen meditation is not exactly what Nephi had in mind when he spoke of “pondering in your hearts”—but I believe that Alma would have respected a teacher who focused attention on the problem of suffering and who urged people to follow the Five Precepts: no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no lying, and no intoxicants.
Similarly, I suspect that Alma, who had held both political and ecclesiastical office and was deeply engaged in social reform, would have responded positively to many of Confucius’ ideas, which included emphasis on education, moral government, ritual, personal morality (especially respect for parents and family), and hierarchy (though in a cooperative rather than a confrontational mode). Confucius once said that the pinnacle of his own ethical development was when, at the age of seventy, he could finally “follow what my heart desired without transgressing what was right.” Perhaps Alma would have been reminded of the reaction of the people of Lamoni to the preaching of his friend Ammon: “their hearts had been changed, that they had no more desire to do evil” (Alma 19:33; cf.