Proxy Baptism, Prayer for the Dead, and 1 Cor 15:29

As I am readying myself for work at the hospital, I only have time to quickly post on something that I found interesting.

One of the unique practices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church) is “baptism for the dead”, also known as “proxy baptism”.  This is a ritual (or “ordinance”) that occurs in special buildings called temples, which are only open to Mormons that are deemed “worthy” based on their following of the principles of the faith.  In baptism for the dead, a living person is baptized “for and in behalf of” a deceased person.  This practice is based in part on the LDS belief in the necessity of baptism for salvation, and that it can only be performed on earth.  So, to extend the blessings of baptism to those who did not have a chance to accept it during their earthly lives, LDS baptize themselves on behalf of the deceased, who then have the chance to accept or reject that baptism (proxy baptism does not make a dead person Mormon.  An essential part of proxy ordinance theology is that it extends an offer for the deceased to accept or reject the ordinance.  It is not something that forces a change in that person’s soul).

One of the unique practices of ancient Christianity (found in the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Churches of the East, etc Churches) is that of prayer for the dead.  In Catholicism, it is believed that the dead have two eternal destinations: Heaven or Hell.  However, some souls may have to be cleansed/purified before entrance to Heaven.  It is believed that this occurs in a place/state called “Purgatory”.  According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

III. THE FINAL PURIFICATION, OR PURGATORY

1030 All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.606 The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire:607

As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.608

1032 This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.”609 From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God.610 The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:

Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.611

Part of the necessity for purification before Heaven is based on the belief in “temporal punishment”, which is essentially what Purgatory is.  Catholics believe that after a sin is forgive, the eternal punishment, i.e. Hell, is gone, however temporal punishment remains.  Catholics will therefore perform penance to rid themselves of this temporal punishment (which again applies after the sin is forgiven).  Indulgences also can forgive temporal punishment (a common misconception is that indulgences forgive sins.  They do not.  An indulgence only “works” after the sin is forgiven, since it is remitting temporal punishment due for sins already forgiven).  Purgatory essentially functions in this line, where, if a person still has temporal punishment after they die, it will be remitted in Purgatory.

Catholics believe that prayer for the dead is important because it can reduce the “time” spent in Purgatory being cleansed.  Catholics not only pray for the dead, but also may offer Masses for the departed as well.  This is all in the hope that the deceased will sooner enter into the presence of God, the beatific vision, in Heaven.

One curious verse in the Bible is 1 Corinthians 15:29-

29Else 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?

Mormons of course see this as a reference to their own supposedly restored practice of baptism for the dead.  Traditional Christians, who have no ritual known as “baptism for the dead”, interpret this differently.  Whatever the practice is, Paul is clearly saying that there would be no point in it if the resurrection was not real.  Some believe that this was a practice that was not practiced by Paul (nor the early Christians), since he says “they” are baptizing for the dead, which implies (to those using this argument) that those who are proxy baptizing are “other”.

While there are multiple interpretations of what this verse is referring to, I found it fascinating to look into the Catholic commentary on this verse, as well as its usage in Catholic apologetics.  For example, in the Saint Joseph Edition of the New American Bible (a Catholic Bible), we find this statement in the notes:

“Baptized for the dead: this practice is not further explained here, nor is it necessarily mentioned with approval, but Paul cites it as something in their experience that attests in one more way to belief in the resurrection.”

In the Douay-Rheims Bible (another Catholic translation) online, there is this commentary:

“29 “That are baptized for the dead”… Some think the apostle here alludes to a ceremony then in use; but others, more probably, to the prayers and penitential labours, performed by the primitive Christians for the souls of the faithful departed; or to the baptism of afflictions and sufferings undergone for sinners spiritually dead.”

From the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on “Prayers for the Dead“:

Passing over the well-known passage, 1 Corinthians 3:14 sq., on which an argument for purgatoryEpistle (15:29), where St. Paul argues thus in favour of the resurrection: “Otherwise what shall they do that are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not again at all? Why are they then baptized form them?” Even assuming that the practice here referred to was superstitious, and that St. Paul merely uses it as the basis of an argumentum ad hominem, the passage at least furnishes historical evidence of the prevalence at the time of belief in the efficacy of works for the dead; and the Apostle’s reserve in not reprobating this particular practice is more readily intelligible if we suppose him to have recognized the truth of the principle of which it was merely an abuse. But it is probable that the practice in question was something in itself legitimate, and to which the Apostle gives his tacit approbation.

On the Diocese of Lincoln’s website, in answer to the question “When did the practice of prayer for the dead begin?“:

The Catholic Church, from the time Christ founded her, always prayed for the dead. This practice, since its importance was already revealed by God in the Old Testament, however, was also present in ancient Judaism. The earliest Christian liturgies (worship services) contains prayers for the deceased. Tomb inscriptions and all the evidence from the catacombs indicate that the earliest Christians prayed for their dead and had Masses offered for the repose of their soul. Writing in the year 211 A.D. Tertullian said, “We offer sacrifices for the dead on their birthdays and anniversaries”. Rejection of the doctrine of purgatory only came about when Martin Luther abandoned the Catholic Church and invented the Protestant Religion. There are indications of prayers for the dead in the New Testament (2 Timothy 1:16-18 and 1 Corinthians 15:29-30).

The traditional Catholic website “Fish Easters” finds a correlation between 2 Maccabees 12:44 and 1 Corinthians 15:29-

2 Maccabees 12:44
For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. [see 1 Corinthians 15:29 below]

1 Corinthians 15:29
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? [see 2 Maccabees 12:44 above]

There are many other examples, but I think that these suffice to make my point.  It is interesting to me that those that do not have a practice of prayer for the dead nor proxy baptism see the “baptism for the dead” of 1 Corinthians 15:29 as something “other” that should not be done.  While a few Catholic sources do mention that argument, they also entertain the view that the practice mentioned is something legitimate, more specifically as a reference to their own prayer for the dead (and it is also very interesting that 2 Macc 12:44 uses similar language in referring to prayer for the dead and the resurrection).

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2 comments

  1. Thank You for writing this artical. I found it very interesting and helpful as I was looking into this on behalf of my dad who has passed.

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