Baptism for the dead is a short way of saying: baptism for those who died without the opportunity to be baptized. So, the first question most people have is, “Why do baptisms for the dead?
Paul himself said (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?
Isn’t this a great question? It’s rhetorical and pointed toward Paul’s audience who was struggling with the doctrine of the resurrection. Yes, so the fundamental, underlying reason for baptism (whether alive or dead) relates directly to the Resurrection. In effect, Paul was saying, “Why do we do baptisms for the dead, then? Why have you done baptisms for the dead if the dead don’t rise?” Because Christ’s church, which He instated with Peter as chief apostle and revelator (Matthew 16:16-19) had the ordinance baptisms for the dead “for those who died without the opportunity to be baptized.”
The physical rite and spiritual ordinance and covenant of baptism is that important. It’s so important that God has made is possible for any who have died without the opportunity, and who are willing to “live according to God in the spirit” but lack the ordinances to “be judged according to men in the flesh” (1 Peter 4:6, Doctrine & Covenants 138:11-34) to receive this ordinance prior to their resurrection. This is what baptism for the dead is for and that is why we do them.
But, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
In the scriptural context around this verse (in 1 Corinthians 15:29), Paul is talking about the atonement of Jesus Christ, which while we often focus on its grace for forgiving sin also includes the resurrection (the reuniting of the body with the spirit in perfect form after one has died). What Paul is alluding to in 1 Corinthians 15 is that all of us will rise again, just as Christ rose and was reunited with His physical body in perfect, immortal form, so also will we (1 Corinthians 15:12-24). The Resurrection (as this reuniting is termed) takes place before the final judgment, or the time when God will judge each of us “according to our works, according to the desires of our hearts” (Doctrine & Covenants 137:9) and then portion to each of us our eternal glory and kingdom (Doctrine & Covenants 88:15-24,27-41).
Celestial, Terrestrial, and Telestial
Why do we do baptisms for the dead? Why do we do baptisms? Why do we partake of the sacrament? Why do we receive temple ordinances? Why do we make covenants with God? Why do we try to keep the commandments and emulate Christ at all?
Answer: because the ordinances we receive and the covenants we make and keep determine the type of resurrection (the type of resurrected body) we will receive (Doctrine & Covenants 76:71-119, see also Doctrine & Covenants 88:15-24,27-41).
Answer: because the ordinances we receive and the covenants we make and keep determine the level of grace Christ is able to offer us. (ibid)
Answer: because the ordinances we receive and the covenants we make and keep determine the type of person we become through God’s grace (celestial, terrestrial, or telestial).
Christ taught Nicodemus (John 3:5):
Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
The celestial kingdom of God has three heavens or degrees. In order to enter the lowest, we must have received the ordinance of baptism and kept the covenants appertaining thereto. In order to obtain the highest, we must receive the ordinance and covenant of eternal marriage (also referred to scripturally as the New and Everlasting Covenant) and keep that covenant (Doctrine & Covenants 131:1-4).
The highest degree of the celestial kingdom is for those that aspire to be like God (Doctrine & Covenants 132:1-24). It is for those who desire eternal increase (eternal family), and to attain to a perfection of godly attributes. Remember, the ability to have and raise children is rampant in mortality, but after this life only bodies resurrected to the highest degree of the celestial glory will have such powers (Doctrine & Covenants 132:14-17).
If the celestial kingdom (at any level) is not our aspiration—though it is the station God wishes us to obtain and which He exerts all His efforts to invite us and entice us to seek (Moses 1:39)—then God, in His wisdom and love, has provided lesser kingdoms of glory to accommodate our eternal desires and comfort (Doctrine & Covenants 88:15-24,27-41).
The Terrestrial kingdom is more or less for those that believe in God but do not desire to faithfully emulate Him or to keep His commandments. They are of the belief that selective obedience is satisfactory. These are those that are not faithful to their testimony of Jesus Christ. Remember, the abilities of a terrestrial body will be lesser than those of a celestial body. There will be no eternal family, nor the ability (despite the immortal state of the bodies) to procreate or create families.
The Telestial kingdom is more or less for those who are completely unrepentant and who persist in lying, stealing, killing, committing sexual sins, and perpetuating selfishness and anger and die (unrepentant) in those sins.
God is Both Just and Merciful
In short, the whole purpose of baptism for the dead is that God may be just and merciful to ALL of His children. As each of us are born in different times of the world, there is no guarantee that during those lifetimes we will all have the chance to hear God’s plan of salvation preached to, nor to receive the ordinances that are necessary and attached thereto. Thus, God, in His infinite wisdom has established an interim state between death and the resurrection (and final judgment).
Joseph F. Smith said (Doctrine & Covenants 138:29-34):
And as I wondered (regarding 1 Peter 4:6), my eyes were opened, and my understanding quickened, and I perceived that the Lord went not in person among the wicked and the disobedient [dead] who had rejected the truth, to teach them (during the 3 days while his body lie in the grave); But behold, from among the righteous [dead], he organized his forces and appointed messengers, clothed with power and authority, and commissioned them to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness, even to all the spirits of men; and thus was the gospel preached to the dead.
And the chosen messengers went forth to declare the acceptable day of the Lord and proclaim liberty to the captives who were bound, even unto all who would repent of their sins and receive the gospel. Thus was the gospel preached to those who had died in their sins, without a knowledge of the truth, or in transgression, having rejected the prophets.
These were taught faith in God, repentance from sin, vicarious baptism for the remission of sins, the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, And all other principles of the gospel that were necessary for them to know in order to qualify themselves that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.
Now, it’s easy to think that when people die and realize there is an afterlife and that God is likely real, that they will simply reform themselves. But, it’s not so easy. It turns out, all the choices we make and the person we become through those choices is still who we are when we pass from this life into the spirit world (Alma 34:34). C.S. Lewis taught this eloquently when he said that every decision we make is slowing turning us into something, into a heavenly creature or a hellish one (Mere Christianity, Book 4, Chapter 4, Law of Obedience, Paragraph 8).
Baptism for the Dead is NOT About Compulsion
Agency is one of God’s most sacred laws. People often get mad at members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for performing baptism for the dead. They think we do it to force people to join our church. But, such is not our doctrine. We do such baptisms out of love for God and for His children. And, as agency is paramount for all of God’s children, we perform such baptisms “that the dead who have not had the opportunity to receive baptism may choose to accept it, of their own free will“. It’s like depositing money into a spiritual bank account vicariously, for-and-in-behalf-of a deceased person. IF, in the spirit world they choose to repent and accept the gospel of Jesus Christ—to any degree of glory—and desire the ordinance of baptism, they can receive it vicariously IF it has been performed for them by a living person. They can go retrieve their ordinance which has been performed from them from the spiritual bank. That’s a loose metaphor, but it will hopefully help with understanding.
Baptism for the dead is one of the ordinances performed only in temples of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints around the world. Based upon the same principle of agency, we also perform ordinances of higher covenants and blessings, vicariously, in the temples as well, including: the New and Everlasting covenant of marriage, for couples and families who were not able to be sealed together during their mortal lives.
Baptism for the dead is about helping those who have died; without the opportunity to learn of Jesus Christ, without the opportunity to learn about God’s plan of salvation, and to live by its ordinances, covenants, and precepts; to have access to such things vicariously. It is about being “saviors on mount zion” (Obadiah 1:21). It is about feeding God’s lambs (John 21:15). It’s about selflessness and love for our ancestors and for all those of our spiritual brothers and sisters who never had the gospel “because they knew not where to find it” (Doctrine & Covenants 123:12).
If you want to learn more about baptism, see my previous blog Why Baptism? Baptism 101.