During 2016, LDS members will be studying the latest manual published by their church, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Howard W. Hunter We will evaluate this book regularly, chapter by chapter, by showing interesting quotes and providing an Evangelical Christian take on this manual. The text that is in boldfaced is from the manual, with our comments following.
Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Howard W. Hunter, 2015
“Surely the Lord will support us if we use our best efforts in carrying out the commandment to do family history research and temple work.”
What indication does the Mormon have to show that family history research and temple work are important to Jesus? “Best efforts” to do something that isn’t commanded by Jesus or the Bible is meaningless.
Teachings of Howard W. Hunter
Temples are built for performing ordinances that are essential for the salvation and exaltation of God’s children.
As I explained in the review of Hunter’s previous chapter, this is not the case. See Chapter 13: The Temple: The Great Symbol of our Membership
Temples are sacred for the closest communion between the Lord and those receiving the highest and most sacred ordinances of the holy priesthood. It is in the temple that things of the earth are joined with the things of heaven. … The great family of God will be united through the saving ordinances of the gospel. Vicarious work for the dead and ordinances for the living are the purposes of temples.
The concept that work can be done for those already dead is not biblical. If the Bible disagrees with these doctrines, then why are temples needed?
Baptism for the dead
In response, we often first explain the ordinance known as baptism for the dead. We note that many Christians believe that at the time of death, our status before the Lord is determined for all eternity, for did not Christ say to Nicodemus, “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)?
John 3:5-6 says,
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
We must ask what being “born of water” would have meant to Nicodemus. He certainly didn’t understand Jesus to be referring to water baptism because Nicodemus appears confused as he tried to understand what Jesus meant. In his commentary on John, Leon Morris writes,
Nicodemus could not possibly have perceived an allusion to an as yet non-existent sacrament. It is difficult to think that Jesus would have spoken in such a way that His meaning could not possibly be grasped. His purpose was not to mystify but to enlighten. In any case the whole thrust of the passage is to put the emphasis on the activity of the Spirit, not on any rite of the church. (The Gospel According to John, pp. 215-216).
Another common passage used to support the view of baptismal regeneration (the necessity to be baptized in order to be saved) is Acts 2:38. It reads, “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” The disagreement between Christian and LDS theology stems from the use of the word for in this verse. Those who accept baptismal regeneration argue that this means baptism grants remission of sins. However, the Bible emphasizes that it is the blood of Christ that cleanses a person from sin, not the water of baptism.
For example, Colossians 1:14 says, “In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins.” First John 1:7 adds, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.”
Because the meaning of a word is tied to its context, it can readily be seen how the Greek word translated “for” (eis) in Acts 2:38 cannot mean “in order to obtain” but rather “in view of” or “because of.” The usage indicates “the ground or reason for the action. It answers the question, Why?” Consider a similar usage found in Matthew 12:41: “The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at [eis] the preaching of Jonas [Jonah].” Are we to assume that the people in Nineveh repented in order to obtain the preaching of Jonah? Or was their repentance in view of, or because of, Jonah’s preaching? The latter interpretation makes more sense.
Explaining Acts 2:38, Christian commentator Richard N. Longenecker writes,
In trying to deal with the various elements in this passage, some interpreters have stressed the command to be baptized so as to link the forgiveness of sins exclusively with baptism. But it runs contrary to all biblical religion to assume that outward rites have any value apart from true repentance and an inward change. (“Acts,” in Gaebelein, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 9:283-284)
Following his sermon in Acts 2, Peter stated in Acts 3:19, “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord.” No mention of baptism is made here. Longenecker noted,
This shows that for Luke at least, and probably also for Peter, while baptism with water was the expected symbol for conversion, it was not an indispensable criterion for salvation. (Ibid., p. 284)
Christian theologian G. R. Beasley-Murray explained,
At the close of his address on the same day, Peter calls for his hearers to repent and be baptized, with a view to receiving forgiveness and the Spirit. (Beasely-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament, p. 105)
The act of baptism is not something that saves a person but is an action that comes out of belief. Beasley-Murray wrote,
Baptism is an overt, public act that expresses inward decision and intent; since it is performed in the open, and not in secret, it becomes by its nature a confession of a faith and allegiance embraced. (Ibid., p. 101).
Another biblical passage that should be considered is Acts 16:30–31, where the Philippian jailor asked Paul and Silas what he had to do in order to be saved. They told the jailor simply, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (v. 31). Paul and Silas eventually explained the “word of the Lord” to the jailor and “all that were in his house.” As a result of their saving faith, they were baptized (vv. 32–33).
Consider Acts 10:44–48 as well. Here, Peter delivered the gospel of truth to the Gentiles, and before anyone from his audience was baptized in water, the “Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word” (v. 44). Believing Jews who witnessed this event “were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles” (v. 45). As a result, Peter asked the crowd, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (v. 47). Peter obviously recognized the Spirit’s coming upon them as God’s confirmation that the Gentiles were a part of the church, just as the Jewish believers were part of the church.
It would be strange indeed for the Holy Spirit to fall on these Gentiles if they were not already believers. But as previously stated, it is not baptism but faith alone that justifies a person before God. Mormons might argue that if this is the case, they too are qualified for salvation since they also “have faith.” There is a difference, however. The Christian’s faith is based on the fact that Jesus’ sacrifice paid the entire debt of sin. Nothing more can be added to a debt that has been paid in full.
Yet we know that many people have died without the ordinance of baptism, and thus, according to Christ’s statement to Nicodemus, they would be eliminated from entering into the kingdom of God. This raises the question, is God just?
The answer: Yes, God is just!
The answer is, of course God is just.
Wonderful, and I’m so glad Hunter and I agree on this. Yet we agree on the basic idea of “just.” In fact, I think Hunter would have agreed that God is also merciful. Yet we must understand that not everyone receives God’s mercy. Consider what Paul taught in Romans 9:
6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. 9 For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only so, butalso when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?”21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lumpone vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? 25 As indeed he says in Hosea,
“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’
and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’”
26 “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’
there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’”
27 And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the sons of Israel[c] be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved, 28 for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.” 29 And as Isaiah predicted,
“If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring,
we would have been like Sodom
and become like Gomorrah.”
In Mormonism, there is this assumption that all people get one of the kingdoms of glory based on their good behavior in preexistence/premortality. While only those who are fully obedient receive the celestial kingdom, there are also the terrestrial kingdom and the telestial kingdom. This is an assumption with no biblical precedence. While God is a “merciful” God, He is also just–as Hunter pointed out. Those who do not have a relationship with Him are desined for an eternity separated from Him. It’s not a good place to be. In fact, Jesus spent more time talking about hell than heaven! I don’t believe God wants people in hell, but at the same time He did say the road to hell was broad and the road to heaven was narrow. (Matt. 7:12-13) Mormons should not base their doctrine based on personal feelings (i.e. dislike of the idea that there is eternal separation from God), for if their feelings disagree with the teachings of the Bible, then it should be a no-brainer to kow which one to disregard. (Jeremiah 17:9)
It is evident that the Savior’s statement to Nicodemus presupposes that baptisms may be done for those who have died who have not been baptized. Latter-day prophets have told us that baptism is an earthly ordinance that can be performed only by the living. How then can those who are dead be baptized if only the living can perform the ordinance? That was the theme of the Apostle Paul’s writing to the Corinthians when he asked this question:
“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 Cor. 15:29.)
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.”
Of course, 1 Corinthians 15:29 is commonly used by the Latter-day Saint at this point to support his doctrine. It says, “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)
Brigham Young University 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. (“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. Bromiley, “Baptism for the Dead,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed., Bromily, 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.
Does it seem reasonable that persons who have lived upon the earth and died without the opportunity of baptism should be deprived throughout eternity? Is there anything unreasonable about the living performing the baptisms for the dead? Perhaps the greatest example of vicarious work for the dead is the Master himself. He gave his life as a vicarious atonement, that all who die shall live again and have life everlasting. He did for us what we could not do for ourselves. In a similar way we can perform ordinances for those who did not have the opportunity to do them in [their] lifetime.
What’s unreasonable is that this is not something taught by the Bible nor, for that matter, the Book of Mormon. As I mentioned before, Heb. 9:27 and 2 Cor. 6:2 along with Alma 34 show that no work for the dead can be performed.
The endowment is another ordinance performed in our temples. It consists of two parts: first, a series of instructions, and second, promises or covenants that the person receiving the endowment makes—promises to live righteously and comply with the requirements of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The endowment is an ordinance for the great blessing of the Saints—both living and dead. Thus it is also an ordinance performed by the living in behalf of deceased individuals; it is performed for those for whom baptismal work has already been performed.
This “endowment” is never taught in either the Bible or the Book of Mormon. Shouldn’t this concern the Latter-day Saint who believes in ancient scripture?
Another temple ordinance is that of celestial marriage, where wife is sealed to husband and husband sealed to wife for eternity. We know, of course, that civil marriages end at death; but eternal marriages performed in the temple may exist forever. Children born to a husband and wife after an eternal marriage are automatically sealed to their parents for eternity. If children are born before the wife is sealed to her husband, there is a temple sealing ordinance that can seal these children to their parents for eternity, and so it is that children can be sealed vicariously to parents who have passed away. …
All of these priesthood ordinances are essential for the salvation and exaltation of our Father in Heaven’s children.
“Celestial marriage” is another doctrine not taught in the Bible. In an account given in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus was approached by members of the Sadducees, the Jewish religious party that did not believe in a bodily resurrection from the dead (Matt. 22:23–33; Mark 12:18–27; Luke 20:27–38). Trying to trick Him, these leaders presented what appears to be a hypothetical situation involving seven brothers. When the oldest brother died, he left a wife and no children. According to the Mosaic law, the next oldest unmarried brother took the woman for his wife. However, the second brother died, as did the third through seventh brothers. Before they died, each of them had married the oldest brother’s wife, making her a widow seven times over.
In Mark 12:23 they asked, “In the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as wife.” Jesus chastised His inquisitors in verse 24, saying they did not know the Scriptures. Verse 25 reads, “For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” At face value and as it has been historically interpreted, Jesus appears to be saying that heaven will be much different from life as it is known on earth. While the gifts of sex and procreation are important parts of the earthly life, these will not be a part of the afterlife. The joys in store for the believer are incredibly more magnificent than the temporary pleasure of sexual or familial fulfillment.
May we be valiant in hastening our family history and temple work.
As we do the work in [the] temple for those who have gone beyond, we are reminded of the inspired counsel of President Joseph F. Smith who declared: “Through our efforts in their behalf, their chains of bondage will fall from them, and the darkness surrounding them will clear away, that light may shine upon them; and they shall hear in the spirit world of the work that has been done for them by their children here, and will rejoice” [in Conference Report, Oct. 1916, 6].
This sacred work [family history and temple work] has a prominent place in the hearts and minds of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. I speak for all of the Brethren when I thank those who have given valuable contributions in providing the saving ordinances for those beyond the veil. … We are grateful to the army of volunteers who move this mighty work forward throughout the world. Thank you all for what you are doing so well.
The Prophet Joseph Smith stated, “The greatest responsibility in this world that God has laid upon us is to seek after our dead” [Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (2007), 475]. He also stated: … “Those Saints who neglect it in behalf of their deceased relatives, do it at the peril of their own salvation” [Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, 471–72].
Catching the same vision of this important revelation, President Brigham Young said: “We have a work to do just as important in its sphere as the Savior’s work was in its sphere. Our fathers cannot be made perfect without us; we cannot be made perfect without them. They have done their work and now sleep. We are now called upon to do ours; which is to be the greatest work man ever performed on the earth” (Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1941, p. 406).
Every prophet who has led this church from the days of Joseph Smith until the present has repeated this same sublime truth. Guided by these truths, the Church has been from the beginning of this dispensation engaged in the work of salvation and exaltation for all the sons and daughters of God, regardless of when they lived on the earth.
Notice how Hunter is required to quote the founder of his religion (and other leaders) with very little support from the Bible? (And, as pointed out, the 1 Cor. 15 passage so often used is not a strong passage to support baptism for the dead.) This is a doctrine emphasized in the “latter-day” church, not the “former-day” church.
With regard to temple and family history work, I have one overriding message: This work must hasten. The work waiting to be done is staggering and escapes human comprehension. Last year  we performed proxy temple endowments for about five and a half million persons, but during that year about fifty million persons died. This might suggest futility in the work that lies before us, but we cannot think of futility. Surely the Lord will support us if we use our best efforts in carrying out the commandment to do family history research and temple work. The great work of the temples and all that supports it must expand. It is imperative! …
Since that time the Mormon temples have tripled in number. Suppose the work for the dead has tripled as well. It seems to be an impossible work. Using “our best efforts,” Hunter says, is necessary. Yet it will be impossible to get the research for every person born in this world, from the pygmies in New Guinea to scores of tribes and clans that will never be counted. And what about infants and young children dying every day in wars, revolutions, and famine? How in the world could this work ever be completed?
My beloved brothers and sisters, may we be valiant in hastening our family history and temple work. The Lord said, “Let the work of my temple, and all the works which I have appointed unto you, be continued on and not cease; and let your diligence, and your perseverance, and patience, and your works be redoubled, and you shall in nowise lose your reward, saith the Lord of Hosts” (D&C 127:4).
I encourage you in your efforts with these words of the Prophet Joseph Smith: “Brethren, shall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not backward. Courage, brethren; and on, on to the victory! Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad. Let the earth break forth into singing. Let the dead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the King Immanuel, who hath ordained, before the world was, that which would enable us to redeem them out of their prison; for the prisoners shall go free” (D&C 128:22).
I love this work. I know the Lord will provide all that will be required to accomplish it as we devotedly do our part. May the Lord bless each of us as we make our contribution to this great work, which we must accomplish in our day.
This “work” will never be accomplished, no matter how good the intentions and how organized the effort. Perhaps more resources ought to be funneled to the living rather than the dead.