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Pacific Ponderings

A Doctrine to Dry Dante’s Tears

Dear Campus ‘Ohana:

We recently have had many occasions to ponder the doctrine of the redemption of the dead. In October, we celebrated the centennial of President Joseph F. Smith vision on the subject, D&C 138. For Come Follow Me, we studied the verses in 1 Peter 3-4 that inspired President Smith’s vision. And during the month of November, we celebrated the centennial of the Laie Hawaii Temple, concluding Sunday evening with a stirring devotional where we were encouraged to engage more fully in the work of salvation for the dead. Many of us have increased our personal efforts to help redeem the dead. I had the privilege recently to perform initiatory ordinances for eight ancestors who were born between 1527 and 1628. Today, my grandchildren are in the Laie temple doing vicarious baptisms for family names.

All this has led me to reflect on the doctrine of the redemption of the dead. Sometimes I wonder if we appreciate how truly extraordinary this doctrine is in the Christian world. Christians for centuries have worried and wept over the fate of unbaptized infants and virtuous pagans. And none more poignantly than Dante. The problem of the fate of virtuous pagans is figured memorably in the tears he sheds when his beloved guide Virgil leaves him, unable to enter Heaven. This essay meditates on how the glorious doctrine revealed to the Prophet Joseph can dry Dante’s tears.

But Virgil — he had left us there bereft
Of himself — Virgil, sweetest father — Virgil
To whom I gave myself for my salvation!

Not even all our ancient mother lost
Could keep my cheeks, already washed with dew,
From turning dark once more with troubled tears.
(Purgatorio, 30.49-54)

One of the most poignant moments in world literature occurs in the Divine Comedy at the end Purgatory when Dante’s beloved guide Virgil must leave him. Virgil accompanies Dante as far as he can—to the outer limit of Heaven. But worlds without end, Virgil cannot enter Paradise. For Virgil is a virtuous but unbaptized pagan. As such, he can never enter God’s full presence, never participate in the beatific vision: “never, never, never, never, never”—to borrow King Lear’s tragic lament over his dead daughter Cordelia.

Therefore Dante weeps as he is about to enter Paradise, just as Eve wept when she left Eden. He weeps for the lost companionship of his sweetest father ( dolcissimo patre), one who had been as dear to him on his journey as both a father and a mother but who must return to Limbo on the outermost ring of Hell, there to dwell with other great souls and the spirits of unbaptized infants.

My dear friend and former student Justin Collings recently read Dante’s Comedy to his older children every morning while he was on a sabbatical in Italy. They cried along with the poet when Dante turns around to discover that Virgil—Virgil, Virgil, beloved Virgil—is gone, gone forever, never to return.

Dante does the best he can for Virgil and, implicitly, for all righteous non-Christians. He permits him to come up to the very outskirts of Heaven. But no further! For Dante is bound by the doctrine of his church, which stipulates that baptism is required to enter the kingdom of God.

So Dante weeps for Virgil, just as many Christians have wept for the souls of loved ones whom their church said could never be saved in Heaven. And he wonders about the justice of a theology that condemns to hell a man born on the banks of the Indus River who lives as good a life as he can but who dies unbaptized, never having heard of Christ (see Paradiso 19).

Perhaps the boldest doctrine revealed to Joseph Smith is the doctrine of the redemption of the dead (see D&C 128:9). It is also among the sweetest doctrines of the Restoration. It is a doctrine calculated to cause the earth to “break forth in singing,” “the mountains [to] shout for joy,” and “the sun, moon, and the morning stars [to] sing together” (D&C 128: 22-23). The Prophet Joseph called it “the most glorious of all subjects belonging to the everlasting gospel” (D&C 128:17).

It is a doctrine to dry Dante’s tears—and ours!—as the work of gathering goes forward in the temple for those on both sides of the veil.

Let me end by quoting a beautiful new poem about temple work written by Justin Collings.

House of Redemption

Since the days of Father Adam,
Countless souls have lived and died,
More than mortal mind can fathom—
Hearts that cracked and eyes that cried.

Billions felt themselves forgotten—
Shunned, rejected, scorned, alone.
Now the Holy One Begotten
Comes to claim them as His own.

In this House of sweet redemption,
Souls imprisoned He sets free;
In this place of bright ascension,
He proclaims their liberty.

Souls that thought themselves forsaken
Hear their names pronouncéd blessed;
He who all their sins has taken
Welcomes them into His rest.

He who bore their endless sorrow,
He who felt their nameless grief,
Now unveils a wondrous morrow—
Recompense and sweet relief.

The burdens of their mortal life
Here are nowhere to be seen;
The beggar and the beggar’s wife
Here are crowned as king and queen.

Here as saviors on Mount Zion
We’ll prepare them for the day
When the lamb lies with the lion,
And all cares shall pass away.

When with robes of glory burning
We shall join the heav’nly choir
And shall hail the King returning
On a sea of glass and fire.

Then the meek ones and the lowly
Shall attend Him on His throne;
Then the penitent made holy
Shall be known as they are known.

Then, His kingly grace extending
All the blessings held in store,
We shall dwell with joys unending
In His house forevermore.