Evangelical Questions: Baptism for the Dead (Part 2)
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.
Since we talk about Come Follow Me stuff on this channel I do want to make you aware of a new resource for next year. Dr. Grant Hardy has a new book, The Annotated Book of Mormon. And it is delicious. It’s much closer to a study Bible, but with the Book of Mormon, than I’ve seen before. It includes the entire text of the BoM but has Hardy’s notes embedded on the same page – at least in the physical book. There is a Kindle edition, but it makes the book much harder to use because you have to click about 4 times to actually see the footnotes and get back to your page. The notes are the whole point of this book. And you can just access those much easier in the physical form. I teach Gospel Doctrine in my ward and picked this up to help me prepare for next year. It’s very good.
One other resources you should know about that is coming up. FAIR is hosting an online-only conference specifically focused on just the Book of Mormon. Richard Bushman will be presenting along with many others. Details are available here.
Okay, We talked about baptism for the dead on a past episode in a more general way, but today we’ll get down to some specifics of why this one bothers Evangelicals so much. We’ll use 1 Cor 15:29-32 as our jumping-off point:
Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf? Why are we in danger every hour? I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
So, Evangelicals have an interesting dilemma with this verse about baptism for the dead. Evangelicals generally have a view of the Bible called inerrancy – this means that they see the Bible as being free from error. So, here they have a verse talking about baptism for the dead, they believe the Bible is without error, but they won’t accept the idea of baptism for the dead. But they have to figure out some way to explain this verse. I’m going to lay out the most popular arguments for you as best as I can.
One way they deal with this is to basically say, “Who knows?” One Evangelical leader says it this way, “The phrase ‘baptism for the dead’ is so obscure and perplexing, the meaning so uncertain, and the variety of interpretations so numerous that it seems wise to say it seems impossible to know what the phrase means.” And in one sense, that’s a fair answer – if you don’t know what something means you should say so.
A slightly more sophisticated explanation goes like this: The baptism Paul is using “dead” here in a metaphorical sense. He’s not talking about actual dead people, but rather those who are “dead in sin.” Baptism for the dead is then re-cast as just regular baptism. Another possible option that they put on the table is really a rather odd one, and you have to torture the sentence structure a bit to make it work. But this argument says that “baptism for the dead” actually means “baptism because of the dead.” The idea being that those who had already died had strong testimonies and they were still inspiring currently alive people to get baptized themselves. It doesn’t really work in the structure of the argument, but it’s one of the ways they talk about this. A slight variation on this is that Paul is talking about the martyrs who bravely faced death in the 1st century and were inspiring others to be faithful to Christ.
A slightly less tortured explanation says that the dead who were being baptized for had already decided to trust in Christ, they had just not been baptized yet. So after they die, their friends or family symbolically get baptized for them – but it’s more like a family member finishing a mountain hike on behalf of a loved one who died while trying to complete that hike. Everyone knows that this kind of “on behalf of” isn’t really the person finishing it – it’s just a comforting ritual for the people who are still alive.
The final argument that they use is something like: there is one mention of this practice one time in the Bible so its not enough to build a doctrine on. And they’re partly right, this passage is the only time it is mentioned in the Bible. But the Bible is not the only history we have access to.
1 Cor was written about 55 AD – fast forward to 393 AD (350 years later – longer than the United States has been a country) and it’s still being practiced. No new Bible texts are being written at this time, so we don’t have that, but we do have writings of all kinds from the churches in various locations. We’ll look at one of them: Egypt. We call the Christians there Coptic Christians. The word ‘Coptic’ is derived from the Greek word that means “Egyptian.”
It was Hugh Nibley who put much of this work together initially. He traces through the Coptic writings and shows dozens of Coptic writings talking about baptism for the dead. But eventually other Christians radically distance themselves from the practice. How did this all happen?
In the early Christian world there are lots of competing ideas in various places and their method for deciding who was correct happened through a series of formal councils. Some of these were considered major councils – where there would have been leaders representing all the different areas where faith was being practiced. But some of them were minor councils, and not everyone attended. One such council was called, “The fourth canon of the Synod of Hippo,” it was held in 393AD and in that council, they declared, “The Eucharist shall not be given to dead bodies, nor baptism conferred upon them.” The ruling was confirmed four years later in the sixth canon of the Third Council of Carthage. However, the Coptic Christians were not represented at either council, so they didn’t feel particularly bound to the decisions being made there. Nibly complies all kinds of references to baptism for the dead in their church. Eventually, the Coptic Church split away from the Roman Church in 451, just 50 or so years after this event. It’s not the only reason they split off, but it’s in the mix.
All this to say, Evangelicals use a wide variety of arguments to try to make that verse mean something other than what it means. However, if you asked most of them why they think baptism for the dead is wrong you will probably get something like: Baptism isn’t necessary, only faith is necessary. They tend to think that baptism – even of the living – is just a nice symbolic way of expressing that you belong to Christ. Kind of like finishing the hike where a deceased relative died is a nice symbolic way to help them finish their journey. Most of the time they’re not just rejecting baptism for the dead, they’re side-lining all baptism, even for the living. At best, it’s a nice thing, but it’s not required to be a Christian. At worst it’s an insult to Christ because it’s saying that something needs to be added to his work on the cross.
And I think a lot of Latter-day Saints get stuck here because it’s hard to understand why they see it they way they do. I want to suggest one way to talk about why baptism is so important to our faith just straight out of the Bible. We have a lot of great verses about baptism in our other scriptures – but those are scriptures Evangelicals wont accept, so they might not get you very far. But in the Bible we get this great conversation on baptism in 1 Peter 3. Peter makes the argument that baptism is like Noah’s ark. He says, “After being made alive, [that is Christ] he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits [understood as people who have died]— to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Peter then goes on to say, just a couple verses later in Chapter 4, “For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead.” It’s easy for the modern-reader to make hard lines between chapters, but Paul didn’t write in chapters – those were added later. Take Peter’s argument as a whole and we get something like: Christ wanted even the dead to be saved, baptism is how this happens, and for this reason the gospel is preached to the dead. You can’t separate faith and baptism as only belonging to the living here. Your Evangelical friends or family members might not immediately jump up and accept the idea after this, but it does move the conversation into a wider collection of verses in the New Testament – which is something that helps Evangelicals feel like you are taking scripture seriously.
Okay, that’s all I have for you today. Come back next week and we’ll talk some more.
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.