The Baptism For the Dead

Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? When then are they baptized for the dead? (1 Corinthians 15:29, N.K.J.V.)

In Mormonism, living members of the Mormon church who are in good standing with the church can be baptized by proxy for their deceased relatives who were never baptized into the church. This practice is known as “the baptism for the dead” and Mormons find their justification for it in our text verse. The practice also explains why the Mormon church operate one of the world’s biggest ancestry websites.

To be clear, Mormons do not equate such a baptism with the automatic “salvation” of the deceased person. It’s more correct to say that the baptism merely gives the deceased person the opportunity to join the Mormon church in the afterlife and achieve spiritual advancement there. Obviously, even in the most ideal of situations, a living Mormon can never know whether or not a deceased relative has taken advantage of the opportunity.

Under Mormon belief, the dead initially go to what we might think of as a “spirit prison.” Mormonism’s scriptural basis for this belief is found in Luke 16:19-31, Christ’s story of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar. As is often the case with Mormon doctrine, the Mormons begin with a legitimate portion of holy scripture and proceed to deviate from mainstream Christianity by applying a different interpretation to the text.

In that story, Jesus describes “hell” (K.J.V.) as being the general realm of all the dead, saved believers and lost unbelievers alike. The Greek word translated as “hell” in the passage is Hades, which is the New Testament equivalent of the Old Testament Hebrew’s Sheol. Hades and Sheol are the same place, the realm of all the dead. As such, the site has two sections to it: a paradise section and a torment section.

Evangelical Christians interpret Ephesians 4:8 to mean that Jesus, as part of His post-resurrection ascension back to heaven, emptied all the souls from the paradise section of Hades/Sheol and transported them to heaven with Him. This event permanently closed the paradise section of Hades/Sheol and allowed for the souls of deceased Christians to from then on be instantaneously transported to heaven at the moment of death. This is how the apostle Paul could rightly teach that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:6-8; Philippians 1:21-23).

As for the torment section of Hades/Sheol, evangelical Christians consider it as being still very much open for business to receive all lost souls at the moment of death. Simply put, it is the “hell” that everybody thinks of when they hear that word. Actually, though, even that section will one day be emptied of all its souls as each of them (along with the lost person’s version of a resurrected body) will be called forth to stand before Christ at the Great White Throne Judgment and be sentenced body and soul to an even greater “hell” known as the eternal lake of fire (Gehenna, in the New Testament Greek) (Revelation 20:11-15).

So, that covers how evangelical Christians interpret Luke 16:19-31. But now let me get back to Mormon belief. The Mormons take 1 Peter 3:19-20 to mean that the dead souls — they refer to them as “spirits” — of the afterlife “prison” are taught by other spirits and that even Jesus Himself teaches them. If a spirit responds to the teaching, believes the Mormon version of the gospel, and thereby gets “saved,” he or she can move from “prison” to “paradise” to await the final judgment. Consequently, it is through the baptism of the dead that lost people, who didn’t heed the Mormon gospel in life and thus become a part of the Mormon church, can do so in death. Furthermore, the baptism of the dead helps Mormons to account for the problem of what to do concerning someone who dies having never heard the gospel.

Still, though, the fundamental question in all this is: “Is the Mormon understanding of the apostle Paul’s reference to ‘the baptism of the dead’ correct?” And the answer to that is, no, it isn’t. For that matter, Mormonism’s entire “gospel” (with its contention that Jesus was the firstborn of God’s “spirit-children,” that Jesus and Lucifer were brothers, and that human beings can literally become “gods”) is seriously whacked. But if the Mormon take on “the baptism of the dead” is wrong, just exactly what did Paul mean by the term? Various interpretations have been offered. Here are three plausible ones:

  1. Some interpret the term to mean that despite the fact that the intensely persecuted Christians of Paul’s day were oftentimes martyred shortly after their public baptisms, this threat of death didn’t stop new Christian converts from being baptized. In this way, these new converts were baptized “for” (in place of, to replace the ranks of) the dead Christians who had been martyred. Under this interpretation, Paul’s argument is that it would be foolish to replace the ranks of Christians martyred in the immediate wake of baptism if there is no such thing as the resurrection of the dead. As commentator William MacDonald, who favors this interpretation puts it, “It would be like fighting on in a hopeless situation.”
  2. Some interpret the term to mean that Christians who submit to baptism view themselves as being symbolically “dead with Christ.” Baptism, of course, symbolically depicts not only Christ’s physical death and resurrection but also the Christian’s. Also, it is the Christian symbolically saying, “I am now dead to sin and raised to walk in the newness of life in Christ.” All of this symbolism regarding death fits the interpretation nicely. This interpretation is lent even more credibility by Romans 6:3-11, a passage where Paul uses terminology such as “baptized into His (Christ’s) death,” “buried with Him through baptism into death,” “united together in the likeness of His death,” and “died with Christ.”
  3. Some interpret the term to refer to people who were converted to Christianity and subsequently baptized on the basis of the testimony of martyred Christians. Under this interpretation, the words “baptized for the dead” would more accurately be translated “baptized with regard to the dead.” The gist of this interpretation is that Christians who were bold enough and obedient enough to be baptized, even though they knew that martyrdom awaited them when they came up from the water, were powerful role models that helped draw others to Christianity. Any religion that could produce such devotion surely had to be something special.

The fact is that any one of these interpretations is far better than the notion that a Christian can be baptized by proxy for a deceased person and have that baptism somehow mean something to the deceased in the afterlife. Even if some of the Christians of ancient Corinth were actually engaging in this strange practice, as some commentators contend, Paul certainly wasn’t advocating the practice. Under this scenario, he was simply pointing out the uselessness of such a practice if there is no resurrection in which any Christian will be rewarded for doing anything.

In conclusion, the main thing to keep in mind about 1 Corinthians 15:29 is that it definitely does not mean a dead person can be saved by another person being baptized on his or her behalf. We know that it can’t mean that because baptism plays no part in salvation anyway. Baptism is merely an outer object lesson a saved person undergoes to publicly evidence the salvation that has already occurred on the inside. Paul himself even said that Christ didn’t send him to baptize but, instead, to preach the gospel (1 Corinthians 1:14-17). That’s a bizarre thing for him to say if baptism plays any role whatsoever in salvation. It would be like him saying, “Jesus sent me to preach the gospel, but I only preach half of it because I don’t make a big deal about baptism.”

Oh, and here’s something else we shouldn’t forget: The Bible teaches that there is absolutely no second chance at salvation in the afterlife. As Hebrews 9:27 says, “…it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (N.K.J.V.). Going back to Christ’s story about the rich man whose soul ended up in “hell” (the torment section of Hades/Sheol), that man surely would have embraced a second chance at salvation if one had been offered. But it wasn’t. The best he could do was plead that his five brothers would be sent a spiritual messenger persuasive enough to keep them from joining him in that awful place of torment. And in the end even that request wasn’t granted. Let this be a lesson to each of us regarding the finality of the decision we make in life concerning whether or not to believe in Jesus as Savior or reject Him. Eternal consequences ride on the back of that decision, and there won’t be any changing those consequences once we leave this life and head out into the next one.

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