Christian theologians have long wondered about the destiny of the billions who have lived and died with no knowledge of Jesus.
"With the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ has come the understanding of how the unbaptized dead are redeemed," Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Seventy said Saturday morning.
While yet in life, Jesus prophesied that He would preach to the dead, he said. Joseph F. Smith witnessed in a vision that the Savior visited the spirit world and appointed messengers who carried the light of the gospel to those in darkness. They were taught faith in God, repentance, vicarious baptism for the remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands.
"The doctrine that the living can provide baptism and other essential ordinances to the dead, vicariously, was revealed anew to the Prophet Joseph Smith," Elder Christofferson said. "He learned that the spirits awaiting resurrection are not only offered individual salvation, but that they can be bound in heaven as husband and wife and be sealed to their fathers and mothers of all generations past and have sealed to them their children of all generations future."
Joseph Smith learned these sacred rites are performed only in a house built to His name, a temple.
"Our anxiety to redeem the dead, and the time and resources we put behind that commitment, are, above all, an expression of our witness concerning Jesus Christ," Elder Christofferson said. By identifying our ancestry, and performing the saving ordinances for them, Church members are testifying of the infinite reach of Christ's Atonement.
Work for the dead bears witness that Christ will come again.
"The vicarious ordinances we perform in temples, beginning with baptism, make possible an eternal welding link between generations that fulfills the purpose of the earth's creation," Elder Christofferson said. "Without this, 'the whole earth would be utterly wasted at [Christ's] coming.' "