Baptism for the dead is a predominantly Mormon practice in which a believing relative or representative is baptized in water on behalf of a deceased person. But where did the practice come from and is it scriptural? I will answer these questions in this article.
Note: There are many types of baptism listed in the Bible. Baptism for the dead falls within water baptism.
Where does baptism for the dead come from?
While I appreciate the intention behind the practice, I am convinced baptizing people on behalf of other people has no benefit at all. The only place that the phrase “baptism for the dead” appears in scripture is in 1 Corinthians chapter 15. Here, Paul pens the following:
From here, the Church of the Latter-day Saints (Mormons) believe they have all the instruction they need to perform baptisms on behalf of those who have already passed.
Reasons Why Some Practice Baptism for the Dead
Also known as “proxy baptism”, baptism for the dead intends to offer those who have already passed a means to accept the Mormon version of the gospel of Christ. Here is the logic typically those who believe in the practice of baptism for the dead follow:
- Baptism is essential for salvation, as taught by Jesus Christ.
- Some people die without being baptized, whether by a lack of opportunity or understanding. Others may have been baptized in an “unauthorized” way while they were alive.
- Because God is loving, He allows this person the opportunity to accept baptism by proxy, therefore making them
Is baptism for the dead scriptural?
To understand what Paul meant when he asked about those who were baptized for the dead, let’s first lay out the various interpretations of 1 Corinthians 15:29. These are all the prominent ones I am aware of, there may be more:
- Paul is mentioning an approved, common church practice
- Paul is casually mentioning a harmless, but useless practice the church was doing
- Paul is referencing a pagan practice (notice “they” not “you”)
- Paul means the word “baptism” to be metaphorical.
- Paul means baptized “because of” the dead, or in other words, “motivated by”.
- Paul means baptized on behalf of the “spiritually” dead, not physically.
- My view (explained later in this article)
Can we eliminate any of these on a scriptural basis?
Ironically, there’s only one interpretation from the list above that I can absolutely say is unscriptural. The others have no conflict (as far as I’m aware) with any Biblical doctrine or concept.
So which one is it that disagrees with scripture, and why? The first one – Paul is approving the church ritual of baptism for the dead. Here’s why:
Is Paul advocating for baptism for the dead?
No, Paul is not advocating that people be baptized for the dead. Why? The simple reason is that he never expresses the words “you should do this” (or the like) regarding the ritual. Not convinced by that simple argument? Ok, let’s dig deeper:
5 Reasons Why Paul Is Not Endorsing Baptism for the Dead
The following are 5 reasons why it cannot be true that Paul is advocating the practice of baptism for the dead:
- Baptism for the dead is salvation through works. We are saved by grace and grace is not grace if it is earned. The doctrine of baptism for the dead (and frankly, baptism for salvation as a whole) turns this idea on its head (Ephesians 2:8-9).
- Baptism without a commitment and change of heart is nothing. There is nothing magical about water. Water has no power to save you, regardless of when, where, why, or how. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that water can save a person. Therefore, salvation must come from elsewhere. I suggest that it comes from the heart of a person who accepts and commits to Jesus. We readily say this all the time – “baptism without a change of heart is just getting wet”.
- God doesn’t offer a second chance after death. One piece of evidence for this is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).
- God’s grace is great enough to cover a lack of understanding or opportunity. If God is just (and He is) then He will judge according to the standards and experiences of each person. Some great evidence for this is in Romans 2:12-16. God judges the hearts of man, not the quality of their works. Note: If your heart is not in it, however, the quality of your work will not be good.
- Mention does not equal endorsement. Think about it, you and I and everyone in the world mentions all kinds of practices every day of our lives. Does the utterance of these practices insinuate any kind of approval, disapproval, or endorsement? No. Likewise, a mere mention of the phrase “baptism for the dead” is not the same thing as endorsement. Believing otherwise is a dangerous and poor method for interpretation and deciphering communication. Certainly we can agree that the church in Corinth had a lot of other issues they were working through. Why should we assume that the supposed practice of proxy baptism (if they were indeed doing this, I don’t think they were) is not included in this?
There are probably a lot of other reasons that we could list for why the practice of baptism for the dead, but this should suffice for now. If you have other thoughts or reasons, feel free to leave a comment.
Other Questions for Baptism for the Dead Ritual
Apart from the 5 challenges to the practice of baptism for the dead, I have some other questions. In my opinion, these challenges present a fundamental inconsistency in God’s nature and His creation.
- What happens to the people who do not have a proxy baptism? Surely there are countless numbers of people who are still not offered baptism after their death.
- If this is such an important ritual to engage in, why is there no command of it in scripture? Not even the one place it is mentioned is a command for proxy baptism.
- If God can accept a proxy baptism, why not reveal Himself to all mankind now? If He did, then everyone would be forced to accept His existence. Everyone would submit to His will and be saved.
- Why did Joseph Smith suddenly reveal this practice when he “noticed a woman who had lost her son before he could be baptized”? Seems like strange timing. Right? Strange timing.
The Context is About the Resurrection of the Dead
When Paul mentions this ritual that “people” are engaged in, he is in the middle of a monologue about the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. Why is this important? Because context is always key when seeking to understand scripture.
Apparently, there were some in the congregation of the Corinthian church that did not believe in bodily resurrection. Paul is putting that idea to rest (hah, pun) here. He does this by following a chain of logic:
Jesus Christ Was Raised From the Dead
In verses 3-11, Paul provides some extremely convincing evidence for the resurrection of Jesus in bodily (physical) form. First, he appeals to the accuracy of the reported resurrection with the scriptures. That is, being raised on the third day (verse 4).
Then, Paul appeals to the over 500 individuals who witnessed him in raised form at one time. Finally, he appeals to the witness of all the apostles and Paul himself.
If Jesus was raised, how can there be no resurrection?
The simplicity of the point makes it profoundly clear that the resurrection of the dead is true. Paul establishes that the resurrection of the dead is possible (verses 12-19). But next Paul must connect Jesus’ resurrection with each individual follower of Christ.
Christ is Raised, and He is the Firstfruits
Now Paul brings his argument home to those who rejected resurrection theology. Those who have fallen asleep in Christ will be raised just as Jesus was. This is because Jesus is the “firstfruits” of resurrection (in other words, the first of many). So those who belong to Christ will be raised as he was raised (verses 20-28).
Paul continues after this discussing more reasoning in favor of the resurrection that we have to look forward to. He goes on to talk about the physical sufferings we subject ourselves to because we hope for the resurrection. Otherwise, we should just party it up because this is all there is. He also continues by discussing some objections about the methodology for resurrection (which is not too important for this particular topic).
With that contextual license, I will explain what I think Paul means by his statement:
Christ is Raised, and He is the Firstfruits
Paul is clearly calling out an inconsistency in the audience that rejected resurrection. Otherwise, being baptized (for the dead) means nothing at all. This seems like a side reference that Paul sort of injected into his overall argument. If there is no resurrection, there is no reason for the baptism on behalf of the dead.
Consequently, this argument works for any baptism. Why would a person be baptized when living if the dead are not raised?
Bringing In the Context (Resurrection)
The entire argument seems to rest on the meaning of baptism and its relation to resurrection. What do I mean by baptism and its relation to the resurrection? I’ll let Paul himself explain it:
Here’s the crux of my view: baptism is symbolic of our resurrection in Jesus Christ. Knowing this, what Paul says about “baptism for the dead” makes a lot more sense!
In this view, Paul is actually making a statement about baptism being a symbol of our future resurrection! Therefore, a person who doesn’t believe in the resurrection has no business being baptized.
In other words, if baptism represents resurrection, and there is no resurrection, then baptism means nothing. Paul categorizes such a person as “dead” since they believe there is no resurrection. Therefore, those who are still being baptized with this view are baptized “on behalf of the dead” (themselves). If written as a statement instead of a question, I believe Paul’s sentiment could be expressed this way:
The point of baptism is for the dead to raise. So, if there is no resurrection, then why are people baptized? It is like dead people being baptized.
Therefore, Paul’s use of the phrase “baptism for the dead” or “baptism on behalf of the dead” simply refers to a person who is baptized but doesn’t believe in the resurrection.