Mormon Beliefs About Baptism for the Dead
Paul wrote a letter to the Corinthians to teach them that Christ was indeed resurrected, something they seemed to doubt. As he carefully built his argument, he asked,
Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead? (1 Corinthians 15:29)
He did not take time to explain what baptism for the dead is, making it clear his audience was familiar with the practice. Although some have claimed he was referring to an apostate practice, this would make no more sense than arguing that since children leave out cookies for Santa, this proves Jesus is real. Using a false practice to prove something that is true is not a logical way to approach a problem. We can see that in New Testament Christianity, baptism for the dead was a known practice—and a valid one.
Only Mormons have restored this ancient Biblical practice. Mormon is a nickname for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Baptism for the dead is a vicarious ordinance done on behalf of those who have died without the saving ordinance of baptism by a person with the proper priesthood authority. It is done only in Mormon temples.
It is important to understand that baptism for the dead does not involve actual dead bodies and it does not make anyone a Mormon. So what does it do and why is it necessary?
In the Bible, Jesus taught that baptism is essential for salvation.
5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God (John 3:5).
However, millions of people died without having the opportunity to be baptized—they died before Christ was born, they died without learning that they needed to be baptized, or they died when they were too young to make a choice. Many people did not discover the gospel prior to death. And yet, the Bible says we must be baptized to be saved.
Mormons believe that God is fair and loving. They believe He does not punish people—and certainly not be denying them eternal life—for things over which they have no control He loves all His children and wants them all to have a chance to return home. For this reason, Mormons know He would never doom one of His own children for not even knowing about baptism.
The Bible helps us to understand what happens when a person dies without baptism by a person with the proper authority. Peter explains that when people die without the gospel, they are taught it after their death:
“By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:19).”
6 For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit (1 Peter 4:6).
What is the purpose of teaching people the gospel after death if their case is hopeless? There would be none, of course. In fact, if a good person died without learning the truth, it would be cruel to show him what he missed without giving him hope of accepting what he would have accepted given the choice.
Jesus taught those who died in preparation for their eventual baptism. He knew they needed to make an informed decision when the time came. And it would be a decision—even on Earth, some people reject the truth even when they know it because they don’t want to live the truth. A forced conversion is no conversion at all. Whether in life or after death, each person will have the opportunity to learn the gospel and then to choose whether or not to accept it.
But baptism is still required and spirits cannot be baptized. For this reason, the New Testament Christians performed baptisms for the dead. A living person is baptized in the name of someone who has died at least one year ago—this gives the person time to learn the gospel and make a choice. That person then must decide whether or not he accepts the baptism and the gospel. If he does, the ordinance holds the same force as if he had done it himself. If he rejects it, the ordinance has no power at all. It is as if it were never done. The ordinance does not automatically make someone a Mormon and it is not recorded on church records as a conversion since Mormons have no way of knowing who accepted and who did not.
Baptism for the dead, then, merely preserve a person’s agency—the right to choose for himself. To deny someone baptism is to take away his freedom and condemn him unfairly. Mormons believe strongly in agency and believe that they are providing a loving gift for someone so he has the right to choose.