On any given day, in more than fifty Mormon temples around the world, thousands of faithful Mormons are baptized vicariously for the dead. Most non-Mormons are dimly aware that the Mormons are interested in genealogy, but they are not sure why. Although there is nothing wrong with being interested in genealogy as a hobby, this is far from a hobby for Mormons.
They believe people who have died can be baptized by proxy, thus allowing them the opportunity to become Mormons after their death. The idea behind baptism for the dead is this: God wants each of us to be with him in glory. To effect this, he allows us to accept the Mormon gospel here on earth. If we do not, he sends us to a “spirit prison” until the Mormon gospel has been preached to us there and we convert.
Mormons believe that their church has missionaries in the “spirit world” who are busy spreading the Mormon gospel to dead people who have not yet received it. Should any of these dead people want to convert to Mormonism, they are required to abide by all its rules, one of which is water baptism. Hence the need for proxies to receive the corporeal waters of baptism.
You might be surprised to learn that the Mormon church has teams of men and women microfilming records of Catholic and Protestant parishes, cemetery records, birth and death certificates—virtually any sort of record pertaining to past generations. Mormons hope, in time, to have all the dead of previous generations baptized posthumously into the Mormon church.
Baptism for the Dead vs. Baptism of Desire
One reason Mormons advance the practice of baptism for the dead is a sense of justice. Billions of people have died without ever hearing the gospel of Christ and without having the chance to be baptized into his Church. How could God consign such people to damnation without giving them the chance to be saved? But if they never heard the gospel in this life, when else could they hear and respond to it except in the next life?
There are a number of problems with this line of reasoning. Scripture is very clear in stating that this life is the only chance we get. Once we die, our fate is sealed: “It is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27). There are no “second chances” after death. Consequently, God judges individuals based on their actions in this life. Since he is a just judge, he does not hold people accountable for what they did not and could not have known. Thus, those who do not hear the gospel in this life will be judged based on the knowledge they did have in this life. God gives his light to all people (John 1:9), and the universe itself gives evidence of God (Ps. 19:1-4), evidence which is sufficient to establish basic moral accountability (Rom. 1:18-21). For those who are ignorant by no fault of their own, God will not hold their ignorance against them; but it is wrong to assume that people have no light from God unless they hear an oral proclamation of the gospel.
If they live up to the light that has been shown to them and would have embraced Christ and the gospel had they known about them, then they can be saved (Rom. 2:15-16). Neither is their lack of baptism an obstacle. Scripture reveals that sometimes the graces that normally come through baptism are given to those who have not yet been baptized (Acts 10:44-48). Such people have what the Church terms “baptism of desire” and are united to God through their desire to do what he wants of them.
In the case of those who have not yet heard the gospel or learned of God, but who nevertheless seek to follow the truth as they understand it, they have an implicit desire for God since they desire to follow the truth. They simply do not know that God is the truth. Consequently, they also can be saved through baptism of desire; therefore, a proxy baptism is superfluous, either before their death or after it. They are already united to God, even if they are not fully aware of it in this life (Catechism of the Catholic Church 847-848, 1257-1260).
Thus the Mormon argument from fairness is not persuasive. There are other ways for accounting for God’s justice and mercy in dealing with those who have not heard of God and the gospel. It is not necessary to postulate another preaching of the gospel and a second chance of repentance in the afterlife, much less the necessity of proxy baptism for the dead, on that basis. God can simply let whomever he wants into heaven, whether they have water baptism or not. God is not bound by the sacraments he himself instituted (CCC 1257).
The Bible Doesn’t Teach It
The doctrine of baptism for the dead was first given to the Mormon church by Joseph Smith in 1836 and is found in his Doctrine and Covenants, (but not, as we’ll see, in the Book of Mormon).
St. Paul’s first epistle to the church in Corinth was written to counteract problems he saw developing there. Corinth had its share of pagan religions, but there were also quasi-Christian groups that practiced variations of orthodox Christian doctrines. Enter baptism for the dead.
Mormons cite a single biblical passage to support baptizing members on behalf of dead persons, “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?” (1 Cor. 15:29).
Mormons infer that in 1 Corinthians Paul speaks approvingly of living Christians receiving baptism on behalf of dead non-Christians; however, the context and construction of the verse indicate otherwise. The Greek phrase rendered by the King James Version as “for the dead” is huper ton nekron. This phrase is as ambiguous in Greek as it is in English. The preposition huper has a wide semantic range and can indicate “for the sake of,” “on behalf of,” “over,” “beyond,” or “more than.” Like the English preposition “for,” it does not have a single meaning and does not require the Mormon idea of being baptized in place of the dead. Such a reading would be unlikely given the more plausible interpretations available, and even if huper were taken to mean “in the place of,” it doesn’t mean Paul endorses the practice.
First Corinthians 15 is a key chapter for Paul’s teaching on the resurrection of the body. He makes no statement on baptism for dead persons except to note that some unnamed “they” practice it. While the rest of his teaching in chapter fifteen refers to “we,” his Christian followers, “they” are not further identified. Who this group was may not be known with certitude today, but there are some reasonable interpretations:
- Some commentators assume this verse refers to the practice of giving newly baptized children the names of deceased non-Christian relatives, with the hope that the dead might somehow share in the Lord’s mercy.
- Another interpretation envisions the baptism of catechumens who have witnessed the persecution and martyrdom of their Christian predecessors. With their belief that the dead do rise, the Christian candidates come forward boldly and accept both the faith and its consequences.
- A related view holds that the group consists of those baptized in connection with a dead Christian loved one. In the first century, many families were split religiously, as only one or two members may have converted to Christianity. When it came time for these new Christians to die, they no doubt exhorted their non-Christian family members to consider the Christian faith and to embrace it so that they could be together in the next world. After the deaths of their Christian loved ones, many family members no doubt did investigate the Christian faith and were baptized so that they could be reunited with their loved ones in the afterlife.
- Others advance the possibility that Paul was referring to the practice of a heretical cult that existed in Corinth. On this theory, Paul was not endorsing the practice of the group, but merely citing it to emphasize the importance of the resurrection. Rather, his point was: If even heterodox Christians have a practice that makes no sense if there is no resurrection of the dead, how much more, then, should we orthodox Catholics believe in and hope for the resurrection of the dead.
There is no other evidence in the Bible or in the early Church Fathers’ writings of baptism being practiced on the living in place of the dead. Given the silence of Scripture and tradition, we conclude rightly when we see this behavior as another aberration within a community of believers already soundly scolded by Paul for its lack of charity, its factionalism, its immorality, its abuse of the Eucharist, and other matters.
Although we have no way of knowing for sure who was engaging in this practice, it is certain that Paul was not referring to orthodox Christians baptizing the dead. Catholic and Protestant scholars agree on that.
A Flat-Out Contradiction
The case against baptism for the dead is also made by the Mormon scriptures themselves. The current Mormon doctrine on baptism for the dead is quite unlike what Joseph Smith first taught. As in other cases, the Book of Mormon becomes an important tool for the Christian apologist. It contradicts much Mormon theology, and baptism for the dead is no exception.
In Alma 34:35-36 we read: “For behold, if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death, behold ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil, and he does seal you his. Therefore, the spirit of the Lord has withdrawn from you and hath no place in you; the power of the devil is over you, and this is the final state of the wicked.”
In other words, those who die as non-Mormons go to hell, period. There’s no suggestion of a later, vicarious admission into the Mormon church.
We also see present-day Mormon doctrine contradicted in 2 Nephi 9:15: “And it shall come to pass that when all men shall have passed from this first death unto life, insomuch as they have become immortal, they must appear before the judgment seat of the Holy One of Israel, and then cometh the judgment and then must they be judged according to the holy judgment of God. For the Lord God hath spoken it, and it is his eternal word, which cannot pass away, that they who are righteous shall be righteous still, and they who are filthy shall be filthy still; wherefore, they who are filthy . . . shall go away into everlasting fire, prepared for them; and their torment is as a lake of fire and brimstone, whose flame ascendeth up forever and ever and has no end.”
It is unfortunate that Smith abandoned his own, earlier doctrine. It would not have made the Mormon scriptures any more authentic, but it would have prevented millions of futile Mormon proxy baptisms from being performed.