Note: This article is a chapter in the authorís book One Lord, One Faith.
Baptism for the Dead
Michael T. Griffith
@All Rights Reserved
The New Testament church practiced the ordinance of baptism for the dead, whereby living individuals were baptized on behalf of those who did not have the opportunity to receive this rite in mortality.
SELECTED BIBLE PASSAGES:
Zechariah 9:11: ". . .by the blood of thy covenant I have sent forth thy prisoners out of the pit wherein there is no water."
1 Corinthians 15:29: "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?"
Hebrews 11:40: "God having provided some better thing for us, that they [the dead] without us should not be made perfect."
all must be baptized to enter the
1 Corinthians 15:29
It is significant that most of the modern translations change "baptized for the dead" to "baptized on behalf of the dead." Here is how this verse reads in the RSV: "Otherwise, what do people mean being baptized on behalf of the dead?† If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?"
Despite the clear implications of Paul's questions in 1 Corinthians 15:29, some commentators deny that Paul is referring to an approved Christian practice of proxy baptism for the dead.† Rather, they claim he is citing a heretical rite to persuade his readers to believe in the resurrection.† But it would have been very poor logic for Paul to have appealed to a heretical practice as an example of why the doubting Corinthians should accept the resurrection.
Paul's letters evidence a firm understanding of the principles of logical argumentation.† This is not surprising given Paul's background.† As a young man Paul received fine rabbinical training.† He was well educated and articulate.† He would not have committed the logical fallacy of referring to a practice that he and his readers rejected in order to demonstrate the truthfulness of an important doctrinal tenet.† The reality of the resurrection was the very truth the rite of proxy baptism was supposed to illustrate.† If the practice itself was heretical, why on earth would Paul have cited it in the first place?† Why would he have used it as an illustration to promote faith in any doctrine, much less a key principle like the resurrection?† I agree with what Hugh Nibley has said about Paul's reference to baptism for the dead in verse 29:
Where [in this verse] does he disapprove [of proxy baptism]?† It is true that he wishes to emphasize the intention in this case, and not discuss the practice, which like Ignatius he takes for granted (in fact, his casual mention of it without explanation indicates perfect familiarity with it on the part of the saints), but only as a last resort would one pounce on that as proof that he disapproved the custom.† He certainly does not cite a practice which he condemns, for that, of course, would weaken his argument: if baptism for the dead is wrong, why should it be cited to strengthen that faith in the resurrection which it illustrates? (1987:126‑127)
Another objection raised against the orthodoxy of proxy baptism is Paul's use of terms like "they," "there are those," etc. in reference to people who were being baptized for the dead shows he was talking about non‑Christians.† In other words, according to this argument, Paul used these terms to distinguish between Christians and those who were taking part in proxy baptism.† Paul's use of "we" in verse 30 is supposed to be another indication of this alleged distinction.† One problem with this interpretation is that it assumes that Paul did not approve of baptism for the dead even though he cited the practice to strengthen faith in the resurrection.
Beyond this, it should be kept in mind that Paul was, at least in part, addressing members of the church who were doubting the resurrection.† Not only were these saints questioning the resurrection, but they were apparently stumbling in other areas as well (see, for example, vss. 33‑34).† Therefore, Paul could not really have said "why do you?" baptize for the dead.† Since proxy baptism was one of the "higher ordinances," not all members of the church took part in it, and certainly not those saints who were doubting important doctrines.† Indeed, the Corinthian saints as a whole were "but babes" in the gospel (1 Corinthians 3:1‑3).† Paul could use the pronoun "we" in verse 30 because he was speaking of the danger facing all Christians ("Why stand we in jeopardy every hour?").† Even backsliding saints were liable to encounter persecution simply by virtue of being identified as Christians, regardless of their level of faithfulness.
On the other hand, the sixth‑century theologian Oecumenius suggested that Paul said "why do they baptize for the dead" instead of "why do you" for fear of offending his readers and possibly causing them to abandon the practice (Nibley 1987:127).† Although this is certainly a tempting suggestion, it is unlikely, as Hugh Nibley points out:
. . . it was not all Christians who were baptized for the dead, for Paul reminds the Corinthians that "they," namely someone else and not the Corinthians (who were "but babes") did the work.† But who were the "they"? (1987:130)
In the second‑century Christian text entitled the Shepherd of Hermas we are told that the "they" were "apostles and teachers."† I again quote Nibley:
Who in the church performed the actual ordinance of baptizing for the dead?† It was "those apostles and teachers" of the first generation, according to the Shepherd of Hermas, who "went down living into the water" in behalf of those who had died. . . . (1987:130)†
Proxy work for the dead is even alluded to in the Old Testament.† Robert Millet and Joseph Fielding McConkie discuss an Old Testament foreshadowing of baptism for the dead:
The knowledge that the gospel was to be taught to all, either in this life or the next, and that vicarious ordinances were to be performed, was known to the ancient saints.† There are scriptural, apocryphal, and historical references that evidence that these principles were understood anciently. . . . [A scriptural example] is found in this prophetic statement by Zechariah: "By the blood of thy covenant I have sent forth prisoners out of the pit wherein there is no water" (Zechariah 9:11).† The pit is the spirit world, but what waters are necessary to free one from captivity?† Why, the waters of vicarious baptism‑‑a doctrine taught by Paul and restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith. (1986:156‑158)
The sublime doctrine of baptism for the dead demonstrates the justice and completeness of the plan of salvation.† Thus, even those who die without baptism will have the opportunity to receive this saving ordinance.
The question is often posed, "What of those who died before Christ?"† The restored gospel has the answer: They will be taught the gospel in the spirit world and can receive baptism as a result of proxy baptisms performed on the earth.
1.† Richard Lloyd Anderson, Understanding Paul (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1983), pp. 125‑127, 403‑415.
2.† Hugh Nibley, Mormonism and Early Christianity (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company and F.A.R.M.S., 1987), pp. 100‑167.† These pages constitute chapter three, which is entitled "Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times."
3.† Daniel C. Peterson and Stephen D. Ricks, Offenders for a Word: How Anti‑Mormons Play Word Games to Attack the Latter‑day Saints (Salt Lake City, Utah: Aspen Books, 1992), pp. 108‑110.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:† Michael T. Griffith holds a Masterís degree
in Theology from The Catholic Distance University, a Graduate Certificate in
Ancient and Classical History from American Military University, a Bachelorís
degree in Liberal Arts from Excelsior College, and two Associate in Applied
Science degrees from the Community College of the Air Force.† He also holds an Advanced Certificate of
Civil War Studies and a Certificate of Civil War Studies from