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.

Conclusion

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.

BT

I remember my baptism with mixed clarity. Some details are vibrant and mark the day, even ingrain it in my mind with both a combination of anxiety and peace. Other details I cannot recall with more than a flicker, perhaps a blur of faces and flashes of sentiment. But, while I remember a smattering of details, there are only a few which I find now to be of consequence.

Firstly, I know that I was baptized. I know that two men stood at either side of the baptismal font in a room that was lined with brown, scratchy, woven fabric walls and was covered in dark brown moldings and brown, tightly woven commercial carpet. They stood there to witness that when immersed, all of me went under—down to the last stray strand of nearly coal black hair. My baptism was by immersion.

Secondly, one of my joys of the day was knowing that it would be my dad, my wonderful father, who was then bishop of our little ward, who would baptize me. Having authority because of the Melchizedek Priesthood which he held, he raised his right arm up to what is often referred to as “the square” because the upper arm is supposed to be at a right angle from the forearm. He said a very specific prayer, and baptized me in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

My anxiety of the day was my baptismal attire. Somehow or other a past family had forgotten to return some of the baptism dresses that were kept at our modest meetinghouse in Moberly, Missouri. My mother was an excellent seamstress and would certainly have put something together in advance had she known. But the day came, we arrived, and the closet storing those dresses held only attire that was either unsuitable or too large. What then was I baptized in? Well, the tradition is to wear white, and so I was relegated to wear the white blouse I had come in along with the white slip under my skirt. Proving therefore, that a person can be baptized in any respectable type of clothing.

I remember being all too conscious that the boy’s my age would see my underclothes through my wet slip. But, my third memory of the day was that once completely immersed and brought back up out of the water, I hardly worried. Such a concern lost importance in the large scheme of what I was doing. I was whisked off to a private bathroom. Dried and dressed by my mother, and ushered out into that same brown-dominated room to be confirmed a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, again by my father and a couple other priesthood holders. He placed his hands upon my head and commanded me, in the name of Jesus Christ, to receive the Holy Ghost.

As happy as an eight-year-old could be, I was. And while I was not old enough to understand everything, I knew, and felt, that I had made the right choice to be baptized. There was never any question in my mind as to if I should not. And, while I don’t remember any of the talks given that day, who gave them, or what they said, I understood at a very shallow level that I was embarking on a path to do God’s will with my life.

One of my final joys of the day was receiving a two-dollar bill from my CTR teacher, Brother Reeves. All of the kids in my Primary class anxiously awaited getting baptized, because we all knew Brother Reeves would give us a crisp, two-dollar bill. We understood, somehow, that $2 bills were unique, uncommon, and special. And, now, thirty-two years later, I understand that he was trying to teach us that choosing to follow Christ at such an age is even more rare, more uncommon, and more special.

What Baptism is Not

There has been a lot of controversy, since the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, as to what baptism is, who should be baptized, who can perform baptisms, and how a person should be baptized. But, this is not a New Testament-only controversy. Baptism is an eternal ordinance and it was had by Adam and by all thereafter who desired to do God’s will with their lives (Moses 6:51-60; 3 Nephi 11:22-28). Adam, himself, asked after the purpose of baptism, and in the Book of Mormon we read that many were confused as to how it should be done.

Currently, in our modern society, baptism is seen much more casually and is held akin to joining a club. It’s a rite of passage, no more, and thus, it is thought, it can be performed in any numerous ways, by any number of people, and in some religions it is thought to be no more important than in confessing Christ with one’s lips. Many Christian religions encourage baptism, but not all now believe it necessary to salvation.

Baptism is so ancient that it is often taken for granted. And it’s so simple an ordinance that it is easily altered to meet our own desires, expectations, fears, and misunderstandings. Baptism, however, is not a human invention. It is God’s.

Baptism is NOT:

What Baptism Is

Baptism IS:

  • a ritual, a memorial event commanded by God to be performed physically, as an outward sign of an inner desire to follow Christ and give one’s life over to God
  • the gate to enter God’s celestial kingdom (John 3:4-5)
  • of eternal effect when performed by someone with true priesthood authority
  • necessary for the basic salvation of all those who are capable of being accountable
  • for those who have a true desire to follow Christ and live their live by God’s will
  • for those who wish to receive the Gift of the Holy Ghost (baptism of fire) and be sanctified over the course of their life by the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost and the receipt of higher ordinances and covenants
  • a choice that takes us off neutral ground and puts us on God’s side (Faith is Not by Chance, but By Choice, Elder Neil L. Andersen, October 2015)

Needless Controversy About Baptism

A lot of people get upset when Church policy (based upon the command of God to His prophet) restricts baptism to some until they reach a certain age. The children of polygamist families and now same-sex marriage families must wait until they are 18 to be receive the ordinance of baptism. Such policies create anger and resentment. Publicly, many decry this as an unkindness, a discriminatory policy, and an unfair one and use it to condemn the prophet, or “the brethren” as uninspired and old-fashioned, even oppressive.

However, for those that understand the incredible sanctity and privilege of such an ordinance as well as God’s mercy, they should have no such qualms nor take such offense. What is God saying by restricting baptism to such individuals?

He is indicating the following:

  1. They are not fully accountable before Him (because of their family situations) until they reach 18! Certainly, they are accountable in many ways, and such a measure does not condone the willful committing of sin, but should such die before the age of 18 and not have a chance to be baptized, they would still be eligible for salvation and exaltation. Much of their accountability regarding the impact of sin made so acceptable in their nurturing home environment is taken into account by God. This is a great comfort and one that has long been preached in Moroni 8:5,10-15,20,22,25.
  2. That the ordinance of baptism and the covenants attached are so sacred as to not be entered into lightly or without a conviction that a person wishes to follow Christ and live by the will of God. Children born into families where a natural softening toward sin (polygamy against the will of God, same-sex marriage against the will of God) need more time—which God knows—to sort out their feelings and decide what they believe. Baptism is sacred. God does not wish any to enter into such a covenant without first having a pure desire to enter His kingdom.
  3. That baptism is more than a gate; it is a journey toward a far greater destiny—the privilege of becoming like God (Doctrine & Covenants 14:7; John 17:3). This is not a spiritual educational path to embark upon lightly. Baptism is not just about “getting in” God’s church. It is about accepting a covenant and ordinance with our eyes looking forward to the future that God deeply desires and intends for us.

Why Baptism?

Christ was baptized to “fulfill all righteousness.” He didn’t need baptism to remit His sins but He did need to be baptized to continue to “do the will of Him that sent me.” He needed baptism to remain perfect, to remain faithful, to remain capable of being our Savior. For Him, to accept baptism was to accept, yet again, His role as our Savior, Mediator, and Redeemer.

His baptism was also an example to us. He went to a man who held authority from God to baptize. He was baptized by immersion. He received the presence of the Holy Ghost and gave His apostles the power and authority to confer the gift of it on others. For His baptism, which He was restoring/re-dispensing was a higher baptism. Unlike the baptism of John which was only unto repentance, Christ’s baptism was of fire (the Holy Ghost) and unto sanctification. And by Christ’s (and thus God-the-Father’s) decree, we need both (baptism unto repentance and the baptism of the Holy Ghost) to enter into the gate to the celestial kingdom of God.

So, unlike Christ, we do need baptism (and a the weekly ordinance/offering of the Sacrament) to continually remit our sins and renew our baptismal covenants. It is yet another outward ritual that helps us to remember our covenants and stay on the covenant path.

InstagramQuotes221

Baptism is a physical marker. Thus, because it takes place externally, and is not merely an internal confession of faith, but a physical sign of our faith, it gives it meaning, memorability, and accountability to our actions of the day and thereafter. Such a physical mark gives us power to keep the covenants we make along with the physical ritual. There were witnesses! People know we made a promise to follow God. It adds to our internal desire a pressure to be true to our outward action

InstagramQuotes448

God is a god of sacrifice, of memorials and rites (such as baptism), and of remembrance. Outward ordinances, such as baptism, are for our benefit. They make it nearly impossible to forget the covenants and promises we have made to God.

Conclusion

I can’t think of a better conclusion to the topic of baptism than this scripture, Mosiah 18:8-10:

…Behold, here are the waters of [baptism]…and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life—Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that he have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?

The priesthood authority to baptize by water and by fire is within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I invite all to renew their baptismal covenants or to seek out such living works as can now be found again on the earth

BT