The automatic salvation of little children is hard to reconcile with the rest of what we know about the plan of salvation. If there is an “official” doctrine of the Church, it is that all little children are automatically saved in the celestial kingdom. Two representative examples are the EoM entry and BRM’s Ensign article on the same subject. However, it doesn’t take too much pondering of the “big picture” to wonder how this makes sense with the rest of our doctrine.
Why should children be exalted automatically? One way of answering is to say that gaining exaltation is matter of being sinless. Since little children cannot sin (D&C 29:47), the are assured exaltation (so reasons BRM in the link above). The problem with this answer is that it conflates sinlessness with celestialness. According to Joseph Smith, the entire plan of salvation exists because of our need to progress from a weak state to an advanced state like that of our Father. In LDS theology, progression is always governed by agency, and free-will requires the possibility of wrong choices as well as right ones. It is difficult to conceive of any reason that those who die as little children will uniformly and without exception choose the right during their progression when everyone else makes a lot of mistakes.
This leads to an alternate explanation, which is that those who die in infancy were already celestial before coming to earth. This explanation ship-wrecks on the same problem of free-will because the deaths of little children are often the result of the free choices of people on earth. In other words, God does not choose which children die in infancy, so he has no way of insuring that all those who die in infancy were celestial before being born. We all know of infants who have died because of accident or homicide, and we do not expect that if they had lived into adulthood they would have lived sinless lives (as one would expect if they were already celestial).
The doctrine of automatic exaltation for children also leads to the unacceptable (but unavoidable) conclusion that killing children is doing them an eternal favor. Supposedly God’s plan in the pre-existence was unable to guarantee our exaltation, but automatic exaltation says that I can guarantee the exaltation of my children by killing them before they turn eight. Clearly, this will not do.
My solution is to look more closely at the scriptural evidence for the exaltation of little children. In doing so, I find good reason to suppose little children are not automatically exalted. We begin in the Book of Mormon.
The speeches by Jacob (2 Ne 6-10), King Benjamin (Mosiah 2-5), and Abinadi (Mosiah 12-16) are closely related and build upon one another. Jacob introduces the idea that those who die without law are automatically saved by the atonement (2 Ne 9:25-26). Benjamin adds to that the idea that little children are automatically covered by the atonement (Mosiah 3:11,16). Abinadi repeats the same two groups as being automatically covered (Mosiah 15:24-25). As I have previously argued, the BoM prophets did not understand salvation for the dead or degrees of glory. Thus, they had no way to explain how God would save those who died without hearing the gospel. In lieu of the doctrine of salvation for the dead, they were told that those who died without law would be automatically covered by the atonement. Since the only two destinations they were aware of were eternal life and eternal damnation, they taught that both groups would go to receive eternal life. This is, of course, much better than the alternative of saying that those without the chance to hear the gospel would be eternally damned through no fault of their own.
In September 1830, Joseph was given the same message as that in the BoM, that little children are redeemed from the foundation of the world (D&C 29:46-48). This is followed by the suggestive statement that “it is given unto them even as I will, according to mine own pleasure” and then this enormous hint that there was more to the story to be revealed later:
49 And, again, I say unto you, that whoso having knowledge, have I not commanded to repent?
50 And he that hath no understanding, it remaineth in me to do according as it is written. And now I declare no more unto you at this time. Amen. (D&C 29)
In February 1832, Joseph Smith received The Vision in which he learned about the degrees of glory, but at this time he still did not know about salvation for the dead. In the vision, he got a brief description of what kinds of people end up in each degree of glory and “those who died without law” were said to go to the terrestrial (middle) kingdom (D&C 76:71-72). No mention was made of little children.
In January 1836, Joseph Smith saw his brother Alvin in the celestial kingdom and marveled at how he got there because he had not been baptized (D&C 137). Based on D&C 76 he would have expected Alvin to be in the terrestrial kingdom. The doctrine of automatic salvation for those without law was replaced by the doctrine of so-called “middle knowledge,” or the knowledge of what “would have been.”
7 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; (D&C 137)
The important thing to notice is that this is not the full doctrine of salvation for the dead. In fact, we no longer believe that God judges those without law based on what they “would have done.” Instead, we believe that they are presented with the gospel in the spirit world and are given a chance to respond to the gospel in the same sense that people on earth were given that chance. Notice that in D&C 137:10, Joseph was shown that little children were also saved in the celestial kingdom. The two groups are still showing up together.
By January 1841, the doctrine of baptism for the dead had been revealed (D&C 124:29) and the saints were coming to understand how the dead could be saved.
In October 1918, Joseph F. Smith received a vision of the spirit world and learned about the gospel being preached to the dead. He learned that the full gospel was preached to those in the spirit world. This (together with D&C 137) overturned the previous teaching in D&C 76:73-74 which said that those who received the gospel in the spirit world (quoting 1 Pet 4:6) would go to the terrestrial kingdom. D&C 138 leaves no doubt that those who die without the law have the chance to receive the fullness of the gospel and exaltation in the celestial kingdom.
Where does that leave us with the salvation of children?
We have seen that the salvation of the ignorant has historically been tied to the salvation of little children. In the absence of a doctrine of salvation for the dead, both groups have been said to have automatic tickets to heaven based on the atonement. We have also seen how this doctrine was replaced, piece by piece, with the doctrine of salvation for the dead with respect to those who have died without the law. The new doctrine of salvation for the dead makes a lot more sense with respect to our understanding of the big picture and the plan of salvation. The doctrine of salvation for little children has not received a similar explanation, so it remains clouded in the same mystery that it used to share with the salvation of the ignorant.
It seems to me that the obvious conclusion is that more will some day be revealed about the salvation of little children and that when we are given the full story it will look a lot like the salvation for everyone else. The dead are saved on the same principles and under the same constraints (free-will, need for progress, etc.) that everyone else is. I suspect that little children, likewise, will need the same types of experiences and opportunities that everyone else does. Until more is revealed, I choose to believe that such provisions will be made and that the salvation of children need not turn our theology on its head. Accordingly, I am not going to kill my children to get them a free pass to heaven.
What’s your reason?
[Associated radio blog song: Beautiful South - Something That You Said]
[Another associated radio blog song: Rancid - Salvation]
 The same mistake is sometimes made with respect to telestial salvation.
 Moroni, in his diatribe against infant baptism, cites the same two groups as being exempt. (Moroni 8:22)