Evangelical Questions: Baptism for the Dead
by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about baptism for the dead. As you know we’re going through the Come Follow Me readings and addressing common questions that Evangelicals ask about our faith as we go along. Our purpose here is not to fuel debate but to help you understand where your Evangelical friends and family are coming from so that you can have better conversations with them, and perhaps even be able to offer them a bit of our faith in a way they can understand.
I will remind you about the FAIR Conference August 2-4 in Provo, Utah. You can buy tickets and come in person, or you can stream online for free. Go to FAIRLatterdaySaints.org to sign up for streaming. I am speaking on Friday – get this – in between Keith Erekson (Director of Historical Research for the church) and Brant Gardner who has written more books on church history than a normal person will read in their lifetime. So I’m feeling pretty lucky.
Today we’re going to talk more about baptism. We will jump off of Matthew 28:19:
Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.
We covered baptism in a couple of the older episodes of this show in terms of authority to baptize. But today we’re going to talk about the Latter-day Saint practice of baptism for the dead.
First, I will tell you my understanding of the practice before I knew much about the church. I’m sure you’ve heard people say this before, but feel free to snicker anyway. I had heard of the practice as a child, and I don’t know if this was told to me, or if I interred it on my own, but my understanding was that this meant an actual dead body was being dunked under the water. I tried to work out how this might happen for people who had been long dead becaue it didn’t seem likely that they were digging up dead bodies and the best I could do was liken it to the Catholic practice of “relics.” In casual vocabulary we use the word “relic” to mean any old object from another era, but the technical religious definition of it is that it’s a bone, or bone fragment, from someone who was considered a Saint. For example, you can go to many of the Cathedrals in Eurpose and see their relics on display – and they’re usually small shadow-boxes with a very small bone inside. So, I figured maybe somehow “baptism for the dead” was baptizing relics. I don’t know, that’s the best I could come up with. And as crazy as this explanation sounds to Latter-day Saint ears you have to understand that I was a very religiously curious child and teenager, and as soon as I was an adult I was reading every theology book I could get access to – so it’s not like I was uninterested in figuring out how things worked. And if I – a weird religious kid who grew up into a weird religious adult – couldn’t quite work it out, then you can be sure other people have odd understandings of this practice too. Maybe theirs go odd in a different direction – mind went odd in a very concrete way – but I’ve met very few non-LDS people who can clearly articulate what the point of baptism for the dead is. All that to say, we should give our Evangelical friends a break on this one when they don’t understand it very well.
So we’re going to look at the main Evangelicals (and others) have understood, or misunderstood, what is happening in baptism for the dead as a way of helping you see a better path for this conversation.
One of the ways they misunderstand this is that they think we are saying: God has no criteria for salvation. If everyone – even dead people who had never trusted in Christ – can be saved, isn’t this Universalism? They would cite something like John 3:5, “except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” The problem the Evangeliclas rightly point out here is that traditionally God is either Holy and has requirements to be in his presence, or he is merciful and allows everyone to be saved without any requirements, and there isn’t much in between. This was a real puzzle that needs to be solved. Either God is a monster who damns people to hell even if they never had an actual chance to accept him – or he has a path for everyone to meet the requirements to be in his presence. Before Joseph Smith puts all of this together no one had figured out a way for God to be both holy AND mercifully fair to people who had not accepted him.
So here is some timeline of how God reveals this to Joesph a tiny bit at a time. In 1836 he has his vision where he sees his brother Alvin in the Celestial Kingdom despite never having been baptized (this is D&C 137) – and in 1840 he preaches for the first time that baptism for the dead is a possibility. But we have to go all the way back to 1831 to see where this started.
In 1832 Joseph gets the vision that we now call D&C 76 where he was taught that there are different pasts of Heaven appropriate to the faithfulness of different people. It’s not a binary system of either Heaven or Hell and he starts to understand the requirements for these different areas. I’ll quote from the very best article on this topic, Ryan Tobler’s, “Saviors on Mount Zion,” in the 2013 Journal of Mormon History. He says, “Seemingly mindful of how messy life on earth could be, the revelation confirmed sentiments previously held by Joseph Smith, that God would expect no more than humankind could give. He had written to his uncle in 1833 that “men will be held accountable for the things which they have and not for the things they have not, and this revelation seemed to bear that doctrine out. Here was a God who looked on the heart and acknowledged extenuating circumstances. A full, celestial salvation was available to everyone with a good heart and righteous desires. God would hold nothing back from those who died unenlightened.” In other words, everyone would be given the chance to understand Jesus’ sacrifice, give their lives to God, and follow his commands – even if they were already dead.
But the question is still left – isn’t this Universalism? Are there no requirements for entrance into Heaven whatsoever and all humans who have ever lived go there? Up until this point in history the revelation that Joseph had received hinted at the idea that there was a way through this problem, but it had not been spelled out yet. Joseph was having the principles laid out for him, but he had not yet been given a revelation that put them all together – that doesn’t come until Joseph first teaches about it in 1840. But even before that we start to get some hints.
Again from the same article by Tobler we get, “In an editorial Q&A in the Elders’ Journal, a Church-owned newspaper, he (Joseph) responded to a question about the fate of those who had died without embracing Mormonism. “If Mormonism be true,” asked the inquiry, “what of all those who died without baptism?” The editorial offered a new and suggestive response. “All those who have not had an opportunity of hearing the Gospel, and being administered unto by an inspired man in the flesh,” it said, “must have it hereafter, before they can be finally judged.” It was a reply that opened another dimension of possibilities, since it appeared to extend the scope of human action beyond the grave. If not only gospel instruction, but the “administration” of saving ordinances were somehow available in the afterlife, the shape of God’s designs for saving the dead changed substantially.
So, Latter-day Saints, I know that doesn’t sound shocking to your ears. You’re probably wondering why I’m spelling out what you already know so well….but this is the first time in history where there is a possibility that God can be BOTH holy and fair. It avoids the problem of Universalism which says there are no requirements whatsoever – all are saved without ever doing or accepting anything, and a strict reformed teaching that says: If you don’t have the opportunity to accept Christ before you die, you are out of luck forever because God has strict requirements. The revelations given to Joseph about baptism for the dead solve that problem.
Though Evangelicals are still saying, Wait, not so fast. And the problem they raise here is about agency.
Their worry – and you can understand it – is that if a member of the church is baptized on behalf of a deceased relative today isn’t that taking away the agency of that person? If you get baptized for them today they’re being allowed to bypass the requirements for agreeing to this whole process. But of course we believe that the dead still have a choice. They can still choose to accept the work done for them – and to what degree they will accept it. Evangelicals will often wonder, “Well, who wouldn’t accept it? If you stand someone on the cliff looking down into Hell, who isn’t going to accept an offer of salvation?” But that’s a very Protestant way of thinking about Heaven. Without Josephs’s 1832 revelation about the various parts of Heaven for the people who accept (and agree to live by) various covenants then none of the work for deceased relatives makes sense – the Evangelicals would be right, anyone would choose Heaven if Hell were placed right in front of them. Instead, the Latter-day Saint conceptualization of this is that each person gets to choose exactly what covenants they want to live by. And yes, living by covenants comes with blessings that are also given, but those who choose to live without the restrictive parts of covenants are not dangled over Hell asking if they want to be saved. They’re being asked: How close to you want to live to God, knowing that there are requirements for holiness placed upon those who want to live closer to him.
They don’t believe in baptism for the dead because they believe the dead who did not place their trust in Christ (even if they had never heard of Christ) go directly to Hell with no chance of ever stopping the eternal torment. So right from the get-go they have a very different version of what is happening. One of the thoughts that kept coming to me when I was taking lessons to join our church was: I never thought I had a choice of what to believe as far as eternity goes. But the idea that God punishes people for eternity, even when they had never heard of him, is cruel and offensive. If I get a choice about what to believe I want to believe the thing that most seems like it is consistent with the character of God – that everyone will get a fair chance.
How our different views on when holiness matters come into play
Now, Evangelicals do something interesting right here. They make a very similar argument that we make about temples. Let me explain. We’re both working with the same ingredients, as it were, but we’re baking very different cakes. Those ingredients are: 1) The problem of sin preventing us from being close to God 2) God’s requirement of holiness 3) The solution of Jesus Christ 4) The need for a physical act to represent a spiritual act – going under the water as death, rising again as Christ rose again. We both agree on the ingredients at play here. But we put them in different order, and it matters.
Evangelicals say 1) the problem of sin 3) the solution of Jesus Christ 4) baptism as symbol of resurrection 2) God requires holiness to get into Heaven – and it is Jesus who provides this holiness ultimately.
Latter-day Saints would agree about this in terms of baptism for living people. But we believe that salvation is available to all, even if they’re dead. So for proxy baptisms, we place things in a different order. 1) the problem of sin 2) the requirement of holiness 3) the solution of Jesus 4) the need for a physical act. It’s that second ingredient “the requirement of holiness” that everything hinges on. Evangelicals view the requirement of holiness as God requiring only holy things in his presence – and what they mean by that is that the only ones allowed into Heaven will be the ones who are holy (because of Christ.) But when we talk about proxy baptisms there is a sense that we are partnering with God to accomplish work for people who can not accomplish it for themselves because they no longer have a physical body with which to accomplish it. Standing in as a proxy requires holiness on our part because it is as if we are standing before God on behalf of this person. Of course, our holiness is Christ’s holiness – it’s not some holiness we pull off on our own. But because we are going to get our own physical bodies involved, holiness is required. I understand why Evangelicals get upset that we want privacy in our temple worship, but the part they’re missing is that this is a, “holiness unto the Lord” issue that we actually agree on – they just apply that standard to holiness after death, and we apply it to helping in the salvation of people who are already dead. We say that temples are, “a place where heaven touches the earth, a place where marvelous blessings are bestowed, and a place where we can feel closer to our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ as we strive to become more like Them.”
No one, not Evangelicals and not Latter-day Saints, are saying that holiness doesn’t matter. We would all say that it does. But they would say – in a sense – that it doesn’t matter until they themselves are dead and will be judged. And at that moment it is required. And we would say that if we want to help our dead loved ones go into the presence of the Lord that our holiness is required now.
Well, that is it for today. Next week we’re talking about, “What makes someone an apostle?” and I think you’ll be fascinated by it. I will see you then.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.