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’ll never forget, during one early morning seminary class, several years back now, when a student shocked me with a very inspired interpretation of a verse of scripture.

Often, as a teacher, you try to anticipate comments. It’s necessary in order to be prepared to answer questions, or to help students seek their own answers. Often, you feel in your preparation you’ve discovered all the most important doctrines, the most important things for your students to know, and grasp. You’ve dug up all the necessary “in the moment” information, and then you turn it over to the Lord.

But then, you have those days that no matter your preparation, no matter your own aha’s while getting ready, God has something better in store…and your students teach you. Those were always my favorite days—when my students came up with profound truths that made my mouth drop open and which set me pondering. And this is one I have never forgotten.

The scripture was Doctrine & Covenants 93:33-34. It reads:

For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy; And when separated, man cannot receive a fulness of joy.

I asked my students, during this particular lesson, to read certain sections of scripture and pull out truths (i.e. doctrines). These two verses were simply in a large block of verses assigned and I hadn’t even focused on them by themselves. Then, one of my students got up when it was his turn to share some “truths” and he said something to the effect of:

What I learned from these verses is that suicide won’t make people happier. Suicide disconnects people from their physical body. And, if a fullness of joy only comes from them being together, or eventually reunited, then maybe if people knew that, they wouldn’t be tempted to commit suicide.

I remember sitting there (because I always sat down when I had my kids stand up and share) stunned. Such a doctrine had never before occurred to me. And certainly reading those verses had never led me to contemplate the intricate doctrines attached to suicide.

In Doctrine and Covenants 138 we find a vision by Joseph F. Smith regarding what happens to people after they die. While studying verses about Christ’s atonement and what He did in the three days His body was in the tomb, Joseph F. Smith received this incredible witness of the spirit world. In verse 11-17 Joseph F. Smith recounts:

As I pondered over these things…the eyes of my understanding were opened, and the Spirit of the Lord rested upon me, and I saw the hosts of the dead, both small and great. And there were gathered together in one place an innumerable company… I beheld that they were filled with joy and gladness, and were rejoicing together because the day of their deliverance was at hand. They were assembled awaiting the advent of the Son of God into the spirit world, to declare their redemption from the bands of death. Their sleeping dust was to be restored unto its perfect frame, bone to his bone, and the sinews and the flesh upon them, the spirit and the body to be united never again to be divided that they might receive a fulness of joy.

Then, in verse 50, we read:

For the dead had looked upon the long absence of the spirits from their bodies as bondage.

Contemplating suicide

Now, if we are to be frank, there are a lot of reasons people contemplate suicide. I myself, during the chaos and struggle leading up to my divorce (9+ years ago now) seriously considered the idea of it. I considered it from a very lucid state of mind, though I was most certainly compromised emotionally and in consequence physically from the stress and lack of sleep and the struggle to maintain my life at the time. I remember perusing all the medications in my house and seeing if any of them could be overdosed on. I did with an acute sense of how ridiculous it was, but I did it anyway.

But, in reality, I knew why I was doing it. And, it wasn’t because I didn’t believe that happiness was out there in the future somewhere. I figured it probably was, though I couldn’t comprehend it at the time. I contemplated suicide because I wanted to get my ex-spouse’s attention. I wanted to find a way to quickly bypass all the pain that was there, at present, and that subconsciously I knew was coming. I wanted to progress through this trial faster. I wanted to shock my ex-spouse into some kind of state where he was willing to see how much I (and our marriage) should mean to him. I wanted to skip past all the unknown drama and hurt, because there seemed to be no end to the pain (both emotional and psychological).

I had never known such numbness, such emptiness, such neglect, nor such personal stagnation. My life was in a horrific limbo. I couldn’t do anything until I knew I had given everything to save the marriage and I couldn’t move forward until the other party “threw in the towel.” And, suicide, in the back of my mind, seemed like a possible way to take control—to force something to happen, because it seemed like nothing was. I was trying so hard to save the marriage and yet it was getting better and it some ways it wasn’t getting worse…it was just stagnating in the slowest possible way.

That contemplation of suicide only lasted one evening. I have the blessing and curse of being incredibly self-aware and nearly incapable of going against my own testimony, my own logic, and reason. Rebellion against common sense and practicality is nearly impossible for me. Thus, so also was suicide.

However, other people contemplate it for reasons that may include: escape, fear, depression, revenge, control, psychological collapse, or despair. Other reasons tend to be more fanatic and are rare and I’m not sure such fanatic and eccentric reasons for taking one’s own life are related to this article at all.

superhero

Bodies are a spiritual catalyst and a spiritual amplifier

However, no matter why a person may contemplate suicide, it’s important to understand that no matter how difficult life “in their body” is, that abandoning that body doesn’t necessary mean happiness. Bodies (whether mortal or immortal) are powerful. They are a power (i.e. glory, Abraham 3:26) that our spirit gains by simply coming to this life. To cast them off, no matter how much pain or suffering we may be experiencing, is to cast off the most powerful tool we have to access happiness.

The scriptures teach us that eternal happiness is achieved first and foremost by having our body and spirit together, or reunited (if we have died). A physical body (whether mortal or immortal) is a godly power. It’s something God had that we didn’t, and it is one of the primary reasons we chose to come into this mortal world.

A body grants us the power to create life, manipulate matter, and do all sorts of amazing things by the sheer act of our spiritual/mental will. In a body (D&C 138:33-35) we can gain access to ordinances and covenants that allow us to take advantage of God’s grace and by so doing seek godliness—to be like God. We can’t do that without a body!

Without a body…none of these critical, eternal things are possible unless done vicariously by proxy individuals who have bodies. And God has made it clear that this is not the best way, though it is available (Alma 34:32-36) because our bodies amplify who we are and are a catalyst to godly development. Simply separating our body from our spirit won’t make us into something we aren’t already, fundamentally. We are who we become while we are in our bodies. Our bodies have an amplifying effect upon our spirits (2010, Bednar, David. A, Things as They Really Are). Our bodies also have the power to help us change, and improve, our fundamental spiritual nature. If our spiritual nature needs improvement and refinement, a mortal body can help us accomplish that faster than eons of existence as a mere spirit.

A lot of people who don’t understand the purpose of life foolishly assume that religion is about simply being a good person. It is not. God’s plan of salvation and the fullness of His truth is about becoming like Him. We can’t do that by casting off our body simply to escape pain or trouble, to abandon fears, to avoid dealing with the very real physical struggles of depression and other psychological, to enact revenge, to seek control, or to escape despair. Our body is the very godly tool that allows us, through perseverance, to transcend pain and trouble, to overcome fears, to conquer depression and other psychological struggles, to gain peace and conquer forgiveness, and to find joy.

To cast off our body purposefully is to give up the power to gain happiness and joy. It does not create the power to gain happiness and joy.

Death comes to all

Death is a very real thing. It comes to each of us in God’s own will and time. It is the doorway to other pieces of God’s plan for us prior to our eventual resurrection. But, even to God death (separation of the body and spirit) is temporary. Through the atonement and resurrection of Jesus Christ we will get our bodies back, perfected and immortal. His body is eternally connected with His spirit and so will ours be. Our body, because of the atonement of Jesus Christ, belongs to God (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). It is His to take, not ours to cast off.

Martyrdom and Sacrifice

There is only one person, in all of God’s plan, who got to choose (by God’s divine decree) when to offer up His physical body and cast it away and when to take it up again and reunite it with His spirit, and that was Christ (John 10:17-18). And, He did so in a supreme act of self-sacrifice and by a vicarious ordinance to save us both physically and spiritually for eternity. He didn’t do it to escape anything. Rather, He wished that He might not have to do so (Matthew 26:39).

Throughout scripture we see that God commands people to kill in rare instances, to be the hand of justice. We also see God commanding His prophets, apostles, and people to die for His truths rather than to compromise. We also see many people giving their lives to save others. Such instances, it would seem, are the only godly ways to walk purposefully into death. And God is the judge and grants the authority to do so.

Conclusion

What’s God’s feeling about suicide? Even as mortals we understand that suicide is not a solution, ultimately. It’s not something we should choose, and even non-religious people recommend against it. But how God treats it for those that commit suicide? That’s not for us to worry about. It’s in God’s hands.

But, if you are contemplating suicide, or if you know someone who is, please share with them God’s love for them. Remind them how precious and powerful their body is. And that just as their body allows them to experience so much pain and sorrow, it is also the catalyst and godly tool which can allow them to seek ultimately joy and happiness, both in this life, and in the life to come. Remind them that their soul (spirit + body) is, by the grace of God, the tool He has given them which gives them the power to find, create, and seek happiness and joy. Love them. Encourage them to hang on. Encourage them to seek help. To find answers. To take ownership of their ability (that body) to change their lives!

BT