"We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention."
- - Gordon B. Hinckley
October 17, 2014
A Beautiful, Just, and Early Christian Doctrine: Baptism for the Dead
by Jeff Lindsay

In my opinion, the doctrine of "baptism for the dead" is one of the most wonderful issues in the restored Church of Jesus Christ for two reasons:

1) it resolves one of the thorniest of theological issues in a wonderful way that shows the power of God's grace and love, and
2) it provides powerful evidence that Joseph Smith really was a tool through whom Christ restored the fullness of His original Church.

Both of these issues are worthy of pages and pages of discourse, but I'll be brief.

Issue #1). The thorny issue: if salvation is only through Christ, what happens to all the billions of people who lived and died without ever even hearing of Christ?

And if we must be baptized to enter into a covenant with Christ (as Christ plainly teaches in John 3:3-5 and as I discuss more fully on my LDSFAQ page about baptism), what of those that never had a chance?

For centuries, the mainstream theological answer has been that those souls are lost. Some ministers are not so crass today, but many still insist that they go to hell.

I just saw a discussion of that issue on an email list of scientists who are Christians. Most views expressed there on the topic said they go to hell — and it is fair, since we are all depraved — but God in his grace elects to allow some of us to be saved, so why complain?

That really bothers me. The truth is that God loves all his children and wants all to have the opportunity to hear and accept the Gospel of Christ.

On this topic, let me show you a posting to that email group and I'll follow it with my response to them, them some more just for you:

It is a stunning, and somewhat depressing, fact that if our understanding of demographics and history are correct, the vast majority of human beings who are living or who have lived are not Christian.

Furthermore, among those who are living, a majority will die not being a Christian. This implies that the destiny of most of the human race is Hell. Consider the Chinese rice farmer, the Indian beggar, the Russian mobster, the Pakistani Moslem priest, or the French intellectual: each will go through life in a different way — some in misery, others in luxury — but each with their own unique loves, joys, aspirations, fears, desires, triumphs and failures.

And yet their future is the same: an eternity of unimaginable terror. All of human history with its complexity, texture, drama, mystery, and vice is to be sent through a sieve to produce an elegant, bipolar universe of rapture and horror that defies comprehension.


Now my reply to that Christian email group follows:

I wish to proclaim that God is just and will not send a Chinese peasant or an Indian beggar to hell simply because he or she had the misfortune of never hearing about Christ. Yet we know that salvation is only through Christ. The resolution is this: deceased beings, dwelling as spirits and awaiting the time of resurrection and judgment, will be given the opportunity to hear and accept the message of the Gospel. Indeed, God "will [desires to] have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth." (1 Tim. 2:4)

We get some insights into the work of salvation among those who have already died in 1 Peter 3:18-20, which reports that Christ, while dead, "went and preached unto the spirits in prison; which sometime were disobedient."

The passage then indicates that people from the time of Noah were included among those that Christ preached to. The preaching to deceased beings is also mentioned again in 1 Peter 4:6: "For for this cause was the gospel preached to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit."

This suggests that there is still accountability for the acts in the flesh (our mortal existence), and that they will be judged, but they can still gain access to the grace of Christ and repent and come unto Him.

This concept is consistent with Paul's writing about the judgment in Romans 2. In verse 4, he indicates that the goodness of God leads us to repentance, helping us (in verse 5) to avoid wrath on the day of the righteous judgment of God (not arbitrary and unfair!).

Verse 6 reminds us that every man will receive according to his deeds, with "glory, honour, and peace to every man that worketh good" (v. 10), "for there is no respect of persons with God." Respect of persons (partiality) is what God would have if he damned some just because they never had the chance to learn of Christ.

Verses 12 through 15 continue this theme, indicating that when men are judged for their mortal lives, it will be according to what they knew of God's ways — and according to their conscience (a gift of God to all people, in my view).

Verse 16 states that the Gentiles who knew not God's law "shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another."

Without getting into the theology of my particular denomination, let me simply say that I have good reason to believe that God is just, loves all his children, and will be fair in providing an opportunity for all that truly desire His righteousness to gain access to the grace of Christ, if they will accept Him and covenant with Him.

Many will not accept Him, as we see in great evidence today. But God reaches out to each of His children and implores them to follow Him.

Toward that end, I believe that Christ established a tremendous program of missionary work on the other side of the veil — in the spirit world — so that the Gospel message will go forth to His children of every nation and every era.

(I know this sounds wild to many. There are numerous questions that arise, of course, and there are some good answers among many unknown. Happy to discuss — and to take flames as well.)

Some were curious, but not nearly enough, IMHO. There needs to be more Christian curiosity about this most remarkable manifestation of God's grace.

While souls in the spirit world are being taught the Gospel (read Doctrine and Covenants 138 — so beautiful!), they are faced with a dilemma: they need baptism to enter into a covenant with Christ and receive a washing away of their sins, but they lack physical bodies in which to be baptized. This is why the early Christians and the restored Church have the practice of baptism for the dead, referred to but not explained by Paul in 1 Cor. 15:29.

This passage alludes to (see discussion below) a practice of at least some early Christians who performed vicarious baptism on behalf of deceased ancestors. This practice in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not derived from 1 Cor. 15:29, but from modern revelation, which restored that practice and the understanding and authority necessary for it to be done.

The revelations that give information on this practice are found in the Doctrine and Covenants, primarily Section 128. It is also mentioned in Doctrine and Covenants 124:29, 33; 127: 5-10; and 138: 33.

As a result of modern revelation, we now can go to the temple and be baptized by immersion in the name of specific deceased ancestors and others, one at a time, name by name, offering our vicarious service as a proxy for the deceased. Having done it many times, I can affirm that it is a marvelous and spiritual experience.

Bottom line: God has provided a wonderful means for all his children to hear the Gospel and to accept all the blessings and ordinances of the Gospel, including baptism. The temple is the place where this act of service is done, an act that turns the hearts of the children to the fathers and the hearts of the fathers to the children.

Completing this work will be one of the major tasks of the millennium (Rev. 7:15).

The Washington Post once published an article that may help readers better understand the significance of this ordinance for those of our faith. See Michael R. Otterson's 2012 article, "What Baptism for the Dead Means to Mormons."

Issue #2: Baptism for the dead, in my opinion, is evidence that Joseph Smith was a prophet and the Church of Jesus Christ has been restored. The LDS practice has long been derided as absolute fiction and an abomination, and based on a terrible misinterpretation of 1 Cor.15:29.

However, long after Joseph Smith restored the practice through revelation, dozens of ancient documents have turned up showing that early Christians (at least some) indeed believed in and practiced baptism for the dead much as we do today.

Hugh Nibley has an excellent article, "Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times," with numerous references showing that this was a real practice in the early Church that was one of the first to be lost in the great apostasy when priesthood and temple ordinances perished.

If you have Lost Books of the Bible, you can read in the Pastor of Hermas a wonderful description of the practice, though somewhat metaphorical. (See Similitude Nine of III Hermas online; also read the Pastor of Hermas in the Early Church Fathers section of ccel.org.) This reference did exist during Joseph Smith's time, but was not widely known.

Note: The Pastor of Hermas may seem like an obscure work to us, but that doesn't mean Joseph did not know about it. In fact, it now appears that he did have access to it, at least by 1844, since we know he donated a copy of William Hone's Apocryphal New Testament to the Nauvoo Library in 1844, and that book contained the Pastor of Hermas and some other early Christian writings. See "Baptism for the Dead and William Hone's Apocryphal New Testament." The list of books that Joseph donated in 1844 to the Nauvoo Library is given in Kenneth Godfrey's note, "A Note on the Nauvoo Library and Literary Institute" in BYU Studies, 1974. So, it is possible that some of the cool parallels to early Christian writings in the Restoration may have been triggered or inspired by encounters with early Christian literature in Hone's book or in other sources. Sometimes we Latter-day Saints are too quick to assume that Joseph couldn't have known about something in early Christian literature. Be careful about that assumption. On the other hand, as a young man, Joseph was not a bookworm, and assuming that he combed through vast libraries of information to sieve out nuggets for the Book of Mormon or many other aspects of the Restoration may be an even greater blunder.

Baptism for the dead (and the whole concept of God's grace being extended to all his children who will accept and follow Christ) is one of my favorite things about the Church and is evidence to me not only that the Church has been restored, but that God is a just and loving God.

For more from Jeff Lindsay, see Mormanity at http://mormanity.blogspot.com and his Mormon Answers section at http://jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/.

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About Jeff Lindsay

Jeff Lindsay has been defending the Church on the Internet since 1994, when he launched his LDSFAQ website under JeffLindsay.com. He has also long been blogging about LDS matters on the blog Mormanity (mormanity.blogspot.com). Jeff is a longtime resident of Appleton, Wisconsin, who recently moved to Shanghai, China, with his wife, Kendra. He works for an Asian corporation as head of intellectual property. Jeff and Kendra are the parents of 4 boys, 3 married and the the youngest on a mission.

He is a former innovation and IP consultant, a former professor, and former Corporate Patent Strategist and Senior Research Fellow for a multinational corporation.

Jeff Lindsay, Cheryl Perkins and Mukund Karanjikar are authors of the book Conquering Innovation Fatigue (John Wiley & Sons, 2009).

Jeff has a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Brigham Young University and is a registered US patent agent. He has more than 100 granted US patents and is author of numerous publications. Jeff's hobbies include photography, amateur magic, writing, and Mandarin Chinese.

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