Well folks, it seems as if the practice of baptism for the dead is in the news again. While I won’t get into the actual recent events that have occurred (since they have been all over the news, and the Church itself has responded to this controversy adequately) I would like to, once again, discuss what members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka the “Mormon Church”) believe about baptism for the dead, since the vast majority of comments I’ve read on these news articles demonstrate an erroneous understanding of our practice.
Latter-day Saints, like many other Christians, believe that baptism is an essential ordinance, or sacrament, for our salvation. Mormons believe that the Bible teaches that to be saved, we must follow the example of Jesus Christ and be baptized. Baptism is seen as our entry into the kingdom of God, marking our entrance into His Church, and where we take upon ourselves the name of Jesus Christ. Mormons believe that when Christ was on the earth, He established His Church. Mormons believe that our Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is a restoration of that original Church. With that belief in the restoration of the original Church and the fulness of the Gospel, or Good News, of Jesus Christ, we believe that the priesthood of Christ is on the earth again, and is only to be found in the Church of Jesus Christ. Authority in priesthood rites is seen throughout the Bible, including where Jesus Christ specifically sought out John the Baptist to be baptized.
When someone desires to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, after demonstrating faith in Christ and repenting of their sins, that individual is baptized by immersion in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Many individuals, such as myself, may have already been baptized in another faith tradition. Since Mormons believe that priesthood authority is needed to perform sacred ordinances such as baptism, and that this authority is only found in the true, restored Church of Jesus Christ, all people are baptized to enter the Church.
A dilemma that all Christian communities have to deal with is, what happens to the billions of people throughout human history that never had the chance to hear about and have faith in our Savior Jesus Christ, nor the opportunity to be baptized? If baptism is necessary for salvation, as the Bible teaches, then are these people lost? Some Christians hope in the mercy of God for those souls, though they cannot say definitively what happens to them. Others say that these souls are lost. Mormons on the other hand reject these positions, and instead believe that God has established a way whereby the deceased can have an opportunity to accept Christ, and accept baptism and other sacred, saving ordinances.
Mormons practice these “proxy ordinances” in sacred buildings known as temples. Temples are regarded as literal houses of the Lord, where God’s presence can be felt in a special way, and where we can perform various sacred rites. Baptism for the dead is one such rite. Mormons find scriptural support for the practice in 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?”. Mormons believe that through baptism for the dead, the deceased have the opportunity to accept OR reject the effects of baptism, thereby having the same opportunity in the next life that some had in this life to accept Jesus Christ and be baptized by His priesthood authority. I cannot emphasize “accept OR reject” enough, since it is this portion of the practice that is lost on 90% of the critical comments I have recently read.
- Mormons do not believe that baptism for the dead forces someone to become a Mormon. It does not add that person to the “rolls” of the Church. Instead, Latter-day Saints firmly believe that free-will, whether in this life or the next, is important, and is a necessary requirement for sacred ordinances. We do not practice infant baptism, since we believe that someone must choose for themselves to accept Christ and accept His baptism. Likewise, baptism for the dead is believed to present the deceased soul with the opportunity to accept or reject that ordinance.
- Mormons do not believe that baptism for the dead obscures the historical record, or that people looking at history will mistakenly believe that the individual was a Latter-day Saint in this life. Records of proxy ordinances clearly indicate that the ordinance was performed after the death of the individual, and was a proxy ordinance. Also, any interested enough in our rituals would then know the point made above, that the ordinance doesn’t “make someone a Mormon” either.
- Mormons are sincere in their practice of baptism for the dead. We believe that we are helping our brothers and sisters by offering them blessings that we believe lead to eternal life with our Father in Heaven, Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, and our families. While we never force someone to believe what we do, and as already emphasized, we do not believe that proxy ordinances force someone into something that they would not want, we do believe that we are offering them the opportunity to accept something that we believe is true and good.
So what actually happens during a baptism for the dead ritual? As already mentioned, these ordinances only occur in our temples. They do not occur in our meetinghouses, where we meet for Sunday worship and other activities (individuals that join the Church of Jesus Christ in this life are usually baptized in the meetinghouse or in some suitable body of water, and not in the temple). In temples there is a baptismal font like the ones in the pictures of this post. All patrons of the temple change out of “street clothing” and into all white clothing. The individual then steps into the baptismal font, and is baptized on behalf of a deceased person, sometimes a direct ancestor. The ritual is pretty much the same as a “living” baptism, except the formula, or words spoken, includes the name of the deceased individual. Mormons believe that through the power of the priesthood of Christ, what is done on earth can be sealed in Heaven, and therefore temple rites can have an effect in the afterlife. It is through this rite that Latter-day Saints believe the deceased have the opportunity to accept or reject the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ if they did not have the opportunity to do so in this life.
As for my own personal thoughts and experiences, I have participated in baptisms for the dead a number of times since my baptism into the Lord’s Church one year ago. It has been a very spiritual experience for me, as I believe I have participated in the work of our Savior Jesus Christ in bringing others unto Him, and that this can be done in this life and the next. The belief in proxy ordinances for me allows for all the have the opportunity to hear the good news of Jesus Christ, and to be able to choose for themselves whether they will accept Him and His Gospel. No longer do we have to hope in the unknown, or believe that most will be damned. Instead, all will have the opportunity to use their free will to come to Christ, if they so desire. This doctrine is one of the many beliefs that remains an attractive, Biblical (1 Corinthians 15:29) aspect of the restored Gospel that is only to be found in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If Jesus is indeed the Christ, is indeed our Savior, that it is necessary to have faith in Him to be saved, and that baptism really is necessary for salvation, baptism for the dead becomes the great equalizer in the grand scheme of human existence. I am truly grateful for the restoration of this practice.