One of the unique practices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that of baptism for the dead. Mormons believe that ordinances that are performed on this earth for the living can also be performed, by proxy, for the dead. These proxy ordinances (of which baptism for the dead is the most well known since it is the initial “saving ordinance”), occur in special sacred buildings known as temples.
Latter-day Saints believe that after death, a person’s soul goes to the Spirit World. The Spirit World is divided into Paradise (not to be confused with Heaven) and Spirit Prison. Those in Prison have not yet heard and accepted the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is where proxy ordinances such as baptism for the dead come in. Latter-day Saints believe that baptism is an essential ordinance that is necessary for salvation, in accordance with John 3:5. LDS also believe that baptisms must be performed with proper priesthood authority, which is believed to have been restored to this earth and is held by priesthood holders of the LDS Church. Latter-day Saints therefore believe that baptism can be performed be proxy for the deceased who never had the opportunity to be baptized, and believe that 1 Corinthians 15:29 points towards this practice anciently (see this post for some of my thoughts on this in relation to Catholic interpretations of the verse).
This practice of baptism for the dead offers the deceased soul the opportunity to accept or reject the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. This point must be emphasized due to confusion over what Mormons actually believe baptism for the dead does. It does not force a soul to accept Mormonism. Freedom of choice (known as “Free agency” in the LDS Church) is extremely important to Latter-day Saints. The dead that are proxy baptized are not added to the “rolls” of the LDS Church, since it is not known whether they accepted or rejected the proxy baptism. Now, Mormons do offer subsequent proxy ordinances, such as Confirmation, Eternal Marriage, Ordination, and the Endowment, under the assumption that the soul did accept the proxy baptism, however LDS firmly believe that it is up to that soul to accept or reject proxy ordinances, and the living cannot force anyone, whether alive or dead, to do something that they do not want to do. LDS record clearly would indicate the date of death of the person in question, as well as the dates of the proxy ordinances occurring after that date. If one understands the theology behind baptism for the dead, in addition to these dates, there is absolutely no reason to erroneously believe that the person was LDS in this life, or that they are now “forced” to become LDS.
I believe that the practice of baptism for the dead, offering every person the opportunity to accept or reject Jesus Christ provides the best view of a just and loving God. Some Evangelicals believe that if someone did not accept Jesus in this life, they are damned to Hell, whether or not they even heard of Him. Catholics are more moderate, and believe that if someone, through no fault of their own, did not know of Jesus, the Gospel, and His church (the Catholic Church in this view, of course), God can still save them. Catholics also believe that baptism is essential to salvation, however in this case, it is not, and instead there is a “baptism of desire”, where the person who did not have the opportunity to be baptized, since they did not know about the Gospel or the Catholic Church, would receive the effects of baptism if they would have desired it if they knew of its necessity. To me, the problem with the Catholic view is that while it states that baptism is necessary for salvation, it allows for the salvation of non-Christians that don’t have baptism, therefore qualifying the necessity of baptism for salvation.
In contrast, the LDS Church says that baptism is necessary for salvation, and can be offered to those that never had the opportunity to accept it in this life. Those people that never heard of Jesus Christ will have a chance to accept or reject the Gospel. Therefore, if someone is saved, it is because they had faith in Jesus Christ (this of course ignores those who die before they are able to freely make choices, such as the mentally impaired and infants). While the Catholic view is more moderate than the view of some Evangelicals, I still find that the Catholic view presents somewhat odd views of salvation, such as the plan of salvation including Muslims (who have no faith in Jesus Christ). Perhaps the Catholic Church allows for a non-Christian to develop faith in Christ in Purgatory (this is not made explicit in Catholic teaching, since Purgatory is essentially for the remission of temporal punishment as well as venial (“little”) sins). While the Catholic Church does teach that all that are saved, whether Christian or non-Christian, are saved through Jesus Christ, it does not state that that non-Christian must have faith in Christ in the afterlife before that salvation. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints makes it explicit that all will have the opportunity to accept or reject the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that baptism is necessary for salvation, and that those that are saved are saved by accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.