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"Why Are They Then Baptized For The Dead?"


Contender Ministries


A writer to Contender Ministries once asked why Mormons are so interested in genealogies.  The answer lies in their most prolific temple ceremony – baptism for the dead.  LDS members are directed to research their ancestry, so that they might be baptized “by proxy” for those members of their family who died without having received a Mormon baptism during their lifetime.  This includes people who died before Joseph Smith instituted Mormonism, as well as all those who died without having accepted the LDS Church as the “one, true church.”  In this article, we’ll examine this odd ritual, and see what the Bible has to say about it. 

The practice of water baptism started with the ministry of John the Baptist.  Some claim that baptism as a Jewish practice pre-dated John, but that’s not entirely accurate.  The ritual cleansing with water in Judaism (called the Mikvah), was reserved for priests who cleansed themselves before approaching the altar in the temple to perform sacrifices.  This is not the same as the baptism that accompanied conversion in Christianity.  In the Bible, baptism took the form of full immersion into a body of water (the Greek baptizo actually means “to immerse”).  Today, Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Eastern Orthodox typically use a form of sprinkling, where other Protestant denominations favor full immersion. 

Biblically, the act of baptism does not confer salvation.  The Bible is clear that salvation is gained from faith apart from works (Ephesians 2:8-9).  Mormons and several other cultic or aberrant movements don’t agree.  As works-based religions, they include baptism as a means for gaining salvation.  To buttress this doctrine, they love to point to Acts 2:38.  This verse, part of Peter’s proclamation of the gospel on the day of Pentecost, reads, “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.”

It is important to note that in those days, baptism usually occurred shortly after conversion.  To say that Acts 2:38 joins baptism with repentance as co-equal works of gaining salvation is to misinterpret this verse in light of other scripture.  The Book of Acts demonstrates that baptism is a sign of conversion, not a means to salvation.  In Acts 10:47, believers were indwelt by the Holy Spirit prior to being baptized.  In Acts 16:30-31, when the jailer asked Paul and Silas, “What must I do to be saved?” they told him, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.”  Here we have an act of belief – faith – alone, without the performance of rituals or sacraments.  Another example is given in Luke 23:43, when Jesus conferred salvation to the thief on the cross after the thief’s confession of faith, with no baptism involved.  Paul aptly pointed out that our righteous standing before God is “by faith from first to last” (Romans 1:17).  Those who recognize the true source of our salvation recognize that baptism is a sign of obedience and an outward confession of our faith.  It symbolizes the washing away of our old nature.  Yet the substance of salvation is not water; it is the blood of Jesus Christ that cleanses our hearts and our minds, and renders us new creations.  

That said, let’s move on to the LDS practice of baptism for the dead.  Former LDS President Joseph Fielding Smith wrote: 

But greater than all this, so far as our individual responsibilities are concerned, the greatest is to become saviors, in our lesser degree which is assigned us, for the dead who have died without a knowledge of the Gospel.  Joseph Smith said, ‘The greatest responsibility in this world that God has laid upon us, is to seek after our dead’…It will suffice here to say that the Lord has placed upon us this responsibility of seeing that our dead receive the blessings of the Gospel.  Said Joseph Smith: ‘Those saints who neglect it, in behalf of their deceased relatives, do it at the peril of their own salvation.’1

Obviously, little else needs to be said regarding the importance of this practice by the LDS faithful.  Nobody wants to be in “peril of their own salvation.”  Interestingly, as important as baptism for the dead is, there is no basis for it within the Book of Mormon.  In fact, the LDS Church readily admits that the only scriptural support for this practice is 1 Corinthians 15:29, which reads, “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?  But is this really a support for baptism for the dead?  Not if we read this verse in context. 

As we begin to read this chapter, we see Paul testifying to the fact that Jesus was resurrected from the dead, and after doing so, appeared to many people.  After listing Christ’s post-resurrection appearances, Paul presents a question in verse 12, “Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?”  Here, Paul is addressing a group of people in the Church at Corinth (“some among you”) that are obviously denying the doctrine of resurrection from the dead.  In verses 13 through 19, Paul lays this heresy on the line by saying that if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Jesus did not rise from the dead, and we are all in deep trouble.  Our eternal hope would be lost if there is no resurrection, Paul rightly contends.  In verse 20, Paul turns from describing the consequences of this heresy to reasserting the truth of Christ’s resurrection.  Finally, we arrive at verse 29.  Far from condoning baptism for the dead, Paul distanced himself from this practice by saying, “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead…. Why are they then baptized for the dead?  If Paul condoned the practice of baptism for the dead, he should have used the pronoun we instead of they.

So who is the “they” to whom Paul refers?  Context dictates that Paul must have been referring to the same fringe element of the Corinthian church that he mentioned in verse 12.  Apparently, this group that denied the resurrection, was astonishingly being baptized by proxy for the dead.   Paul pointed out the dichotomy between their disbelief in the resurrection, and this heretical practice that is pointless without the resurrection.  In exposing the opposing belief and practice, Paul also set himself apart from both.

Baptism for the dead would not be practiced if its practitioners did not believe that the souls of unbelievers might somehow be saved after their death.  Yet this belief is contrary to very clear scripture.  For instance, Hebrews 9:27 says, “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.”  It’s difficult to fathom a verse that more clearly explains that we choose our eternal destiny before our death, not after.  Another compelling passage of scripture is found in Luke 16:19-31.  The words of Jesus here are too important to not quote in context:

There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day:  And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.  And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.  And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.  But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.  And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that [would come] from thence.  Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father's house: For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment.  Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.  And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.  And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.” [emphasis added]

Jesus teaches here that choices made during our lifetime cement our eternal destination with no options for parole.  There is a “great gulf fixed” between the saved in Heaven and the unsaved in hell, and no amount of baptism for the dead will enable anyone to bridge that gulf. 

I understand the feelings of those who mourn the passing of a loved one who never chose to submit to Jesus Christ while they were alive.  Yet baptism by proxy for the dead is still as heretical as it was in 1st century Corinth.  It is imperative that we as Christians approach our living friends and relatives with the great news of the gospel, before death takes them to the wrong side of the impassable gulf.  Paul spoke of this great news in the same chapter of his letter to Corinth:  O death, where [is] thy sting? O grave, where [is] thy victory?  The sting of death [is] sin; and the strength of sin [is] the law.  But thanks [be] to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:55-57, emphasis added)

 

NOTES:

1.  Smith, Joseph Fielding; The Way to Perfection, pp. 153-154.