baptism for the dead

Baptism For the Dead Again!

 

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.

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New Youtube Video Series on the LDS Temple

One of the unique aspects of the theology of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the “Mormon” church) is the importance of temples.  LDS believe that temples are “houses of the Lord”, where they make sacred covenants with each other and God.  Temples are distinct from meetinghouses/chapels, where LDS meet on Sundays for Sacrament Meeting (the LDS equivalent to Catholic Mass), Sunday School, and other meetings.  While chapels are open to anyone, temples are only open to LDS that are living up to certain standards.  Temples are open to everyone during an “open house” period after they are built, before they are dedicated.

In the temple, various rituals occur, including baptism for the dead, sealings (eternal marriage), and the endowment.  LDS believe that through the power of the priesthood (and the power of “binding and loosing”-Matthew 18:18), they can offer saving ordinances to the deceased, so that they have the opportunity to accept or reject the Gospel of Jesus Christ, if they did not have that opportunity during mortal life.  In the Endowment, the Plan of Salvation is presented, and LDS make covenants with God.  Interestingly, there are various connections between the Endowment ceremony and Freemasonry, a subject of much debate (for a recent book on the subject, try “Exploring the Connection Between Mormons and Masons” by Matthew Brown).  It should also be noted that much of the Endowment ceremony is not discussed by LDS, since they agree to not speak of much of what occurs in the ordinance.

The subject of whether the LDS temple is really a restoration of ancient theology and practice is an important one, since Mormonism does claim to be a restoration of ancient Christianity.  While no Latter-day Saint will claim that the Endowment in its entirety was practiced anciently, they do believe that various aspects of it do reflect ancient Judeo-Christian theology (similarly, no Catholic would say that the early Christians celebrated the Tridentine Mass or the Mass of Paul VI, however both do reflect ancient Judeo-Christian theology, and much of these Masses is found anciently).

Noting this, the authors of two blogs, David Larsen of Heavenly Ascents and David Tayman of Visions of the Kingdom, have teamed up to “present a series of videos illustrating the nature, function, doctrines, and ritual of the ancient Temple, in a manner that will be especially of interest to those desiring to understand the connection with modern Latter-day Saint Temples.”  The first part, called “Sacred Space”, can be viewed here:

In addition, David Larsen has reviewed the book “Temple Themes in Christian Worship” by Margaret Barker, Old Testament scholar and former president of the Society for Old Testament Study.  Margaret Barker’s many books focus on the relationship between the ancient temple and Christian theology and practice, especially in relation to worship/liturgy, and the atonement.  Barker places the role of Jesus Christ in a temple context.  Her scholarship has found much support among LDS, since much of her study into the Old Testament and ancient Israelite religion finds startling parallels in LDS theology, some of which can be read here.  This is especially important considering the claim by critics of Mormonism that Joseph Smith invented LDS theology.  Below are the videos of Larsen’s review of Temple Themes.

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).