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Is Baptism for the Dead a biblical doctrine?

By Bill McKeever and Eric Johnsonbaptistery2

The following is taken from chapter 22 of the 2013 book Answering Mormons’ Questions: Ready Responses for Inquiring Latter-day Saints, pages 173-181. To purchase this valuable resource, click here.

The Bible and the Book of Mormon are in agreement when they proclaim that there are no second chances for salvation. For example, 2 Corinthians 6:2 says, “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” Hebrews 9:27 adds, “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” In the Book of Mormon, Alma 34:32–35 says,

For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors. And now, as I said unto you before, as ye have had so many witnesses, therefore, I beseech of you that ye do not procrastinate the day of your repentance until the end; for after this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed. Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis, that I will repent, that I will return to my God. Nay, ye cannot say this; for that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world. For behold, if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death, behold, ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil, and he doth seal you his; therefore, the Spirit of the Lord hath withdrawn from you, and hath no place in you, and the devil hath all power over you; and this is the final state of the wicked.

Mormons sometimes argue that this passage in Alma refers only to those who know better. This would include apostate Mormons or even so-called “anti-Mormons” who have done a great deal of study on Mormonism. But this passage does not support this premise. In fact, verse 32 says now “is the time for men (in general) to prepare to meet God.” It does not specify that the time is now only for those who have understood the gospel fully and rejected it. If the warning here really is intended for those who know better, then it seems to be directed to every member of the LDS Church. Second Nephi 9:38 puts it clearly: “And, in fine, woe unto all those who die in their sins: for they shall return to God, and behold His face, and remain in their sins.”

Interpreting 1 Corinthians 15:29

In 1 Corinthians 15:29, the apostle Paul wrote, “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?” President David O. McKay (1873–1970) wrote,

Not a few commentators have tried to explain away [this passage’s] true significance; but its context proves plainly that in the days of the apostles there existed the practice of baptism for the dead; that is, living persons were immersed in water for and in behalf of those who were dead—not who were “dead to sin” but who had “passed to the other side.’”(Teachings of Presidents of the Church: David O. McKay, p. 129).

BYU professor Robert Millet said,

Many non-Latter-day Saint scholars believe that in 1 Corinthians Paul was denouncing or condemning the practice of baptism for the dead as heretical. This is a strange conclusion, since Paul uses the practice to support the doctrine of the resurrection. In essence, he says, “Why are we performing baptism in behalf of our dead, if, as some propose, there will be no resurrection of the dead? If there is to be no resurrection, would not such baptisms be a waste of time?” (A Different Jesus, pp. 130-131).

Millet assumes that Paul was a participant in this rite. When verse 29 is dissected, though, it can be seen that Paul purposely did not use the first person we in this verse. Thus, Christian theologian D. A. Carson explained why this assumption is wrong:

The most plausible interpretation is that some in Corinth were getting baptized vicariously for the dead. Several factors, however, put this into perspective. Although Paul does not explicitly condemn the practice, neither does he endorse it. Several writers have offered the following analogy. Imagine a Protestant writing, “Why do they then pray for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all?” No one would take this as an endorsement of the practice of praying for the dead; it is a criticism of the inconsistency of praying for the dead while holding that the dead do not rise. To make this rhetorical question an endorsement of the practice of praying for the dead,one would expect, “Why do we then pray for the dead?” Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 15:29 Paul preserves the more distant they. After all, his primary concern in 1 Corinthians 15 is the defense of the Christian doctrine of resurrection. His rhetorical question in verse 29 may simply be pointing out the inconsistency of those who deny the final resurrection, granted their rather strange baptismal practices. And they were strange. There is no good evidence for vicarious baptism anywhere in the New Testament or among the earliest apostolic fathers. By the same token, there is no hint that this vicarious baptism (if that is what it was) was intended by the Corinthian believers to cover as many deceased people as could be named. If the practice existed at all, it may have been tied to a few people or special cases—for example, when a relative died after trusting the gospel but before being baptized. We really do not know. If it were something like that, one could understand why Paul does not make a federal case of it. In any case, Paul’s clear emphasis is that people are justified by grace through faith, which demands a personal response. Christian baptism is part of that personal response, even as it is a covenantal pledge. In contrast, baptism on behalf of someone who has not exercised such faith sounds like magic—of something far from Pauline thought. (“Directions: Did Paul Baptize for the Dead?” Christianity Today, August 10, 1998).

Carson suggested that the reason the 1 Corinthians 15 passage is difficult to interpret is that this is the only passage in the Bible specifically mentioning “baptism for the dead.” He wrote,

The reason is not that God must say things more than once for them to be true or binding. The reason, rather, is that if something is said only once it is easily misunderstood or misapplied. When something is repeated on several occasions and in slightly different contexts, readers will enjoy a better grasp of what is meant and what is at stake. That is why the famous “baptism for the dead” passage (1 Cor. 15:29) is not unpacked at length and made a major plank in, say, the Heidelberg Catechism or the Westminster Confession. Over forty interpretations of that passage have been offered in the history of the church. Mormons are quite sure what it means, of course, but the reason why they are sure is because they are reading it in the context of other books that they claim are inspired and authoritative. (D.A. Carson, “Must I Learn How to Interpret the Bible?” Modern Reformation 5:3 (May/June 1996): pp. 18-22).

The historical context also needs to be considered, and it reveals that baptism for the dead was not a regular practice of the Christian church. According to Christian theologian Geoffrey W. Bromiley, “apart from a possible reference in Tertullian (De res, 48c), there is evidence of such a practice only among heretical groups like the Cerinthians and the Marcionites,” and neither of these groups existed when 1 Corinthians was written. (G.W. Bromily, “Baptism for the Dead,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. Bromiley, 1:426).

If Doctrine and Covenants 128:17 is true when it says that baptism for the dead is the most “glorious of all subjects belonging to the everlasting gospel,” then it should be expected that the New Testament would have spoken much more about it.

What Does Peter Say?

President Joseph F. Smith (1838–1918) claimed he had a vision on October 3, 1918 that helped him understand two passages found in 1 Peter. He said, “As I pondered over these things which are written, the eyes of my understanding were opened, and the Spirit of the Lord rested upon me, and I saw the hosts of the dead, both small and great” (D&C 138:11). Smith reported that after Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus appeared in the spirit world by “declaring liberty to the captives who had been faithful; And there he preached to them the everlasting gospel . . . And the saints rejoiced in their redemption, and bowed the knee and acknowledged the Son of God as their Redeemer and Deliverer from death and the chains of hell. But his ministry among those who were dead was limited to the brief time intervening between the crucifixion and his resurrection (D&C 138:18–19, 23, 27).”

Smith pointed to 1 Peter 3:19 to show that Jesus gave those who were already dead another chance to accept the gospel. That verse says that He “went and preached unto the spirits in prison.” Because there is not much background information available to us, there are many interpretations of this verse. As New Testament scholar Mark Strauss said, “The verse is enormously difficult to interpret and we simply don’t know what it means,” adding that proposed interpretations “all are educated guesses.” (Email message to the authors, October 11, 2011. Used with permission)

One possible interpretation given by Christian commentators is that the verse “refers to Christ’s announcement to departed spirits of the triumph of his resurrection, declaring to them the victory he had achieved by his death and resurrection, as pointed out in the previous verse.”(Geisler and Rhodes, When Cultists Ask, 296). According to this view, the Greek word for “preached” means “proclaimed.” Even those who rejected God in their earthly lives will acknowledge the lordship of Christ, for Philippians 2:10–11 says every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. However, not all who bow their knees will be able to call Him Savior. The people described in 1 Peter 3:19 are awaiting the final judgment in the same place as the rich man in Luke 16:19–31; they are not being invited to accept a postmortem salvation.

Another popular interpretation connects 1 Peter 3:19 with the reference to Noah in verse 20. Christian commentator Gleason Archer explained that this event “took place, not when Christ descended into Hades after His death on Calvary, but by the Spirit who spoke through the mouth of Noah during the years while the ark was under construction (v. 20). Therefore v. 19 holds
out no hope whatever for a ‘second chance’ for those who reject Christ during their lifetime on earth.” (Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, p. 424).  Thus, according to this interpretation, the people in Noah’s day had their chance to receive the truth while they were alive, but they rejected it and are now awaiting the final judgment. Joseph Smith claimed his vision also gave him understanding of 1 Peter 4:6, another ambiguous passage. It says in part, “For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead.” The New International Version translates the last portion of this, “the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead.” While the word now is not found in the original Greek, it was used by the translators because the context suggests that the preaching of the gospel had been delivered in the past to those who were now deceased. In order to support the Mormon view of a second chance to hear the gospel message and receive salvation after death, the first verb would need to be present tense (i.e., “for this cause is the gospel preached also to them that are dead”). It is not, which is a clear blow to the Mormon interpretation.

To suggest that living people can become “saviors” of those already dead is not a Christian teaching and must therefore be rejected.

Check out this 3-part Viewpoint on Mormonism series that aired May 29-31, 2019 Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  

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