baptism

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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My Thoughts on Baptism for the Dead

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.