Question: Did Paul teach “baptism for the dead,” and is it practiced today in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
Answer: We learn from 1 Corinthians 15:29 that ancient Saints participated in baptisms for the dead, just as we do in the Church today.
Jesus Christ taught that baptism is essential to the salvation of all who have lived on earth (see John 3:5). Many people, however, have died without being baptized. Others were baptized without proper authority. Because God is merciful, He has prepared a way for all people to receive the blessings of baptism. By performing proxy baptisms in behalf of those who have died, Church members offer these blessings to deceased ancestors. Individuals can then choose to accept or reject what has been done in their behalf.
Some people have misunderstood that when baptisms for the dead are performed, deceased persons are baptized into the Church against their will. This is not the case. Each individual has agency, or the right to choose. The validity of a baptism for the dead depends on the deceased person accepting it and choosing to accept and follow the Savior while residing in the spirit world. The names of deceased persons are not added to the membership records of the Church.
The New Testament indicates that baptisms for the dead were done during the time of the Apostle Paul (see 1 Corinthians 15:29). This ordinance was restored with the establishment of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Gospel Topics, “Baptism for the Dead”)
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1 Corinthians 15:29
29 Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all (are not resurrected)? why are they then baptized for the dead?
Note: We use this verse to teach people that baptism for the dead was practiced in Bible times as well as in the latter days. It is interesting to note, however, that the main point of this verse is not baptism for the dead. Rather, the point continues to be that people will be resurrected. From Paul’s statement, we gather that baptism for the dead was such a common practice that Paul used it as a backdrop to strengthen his teaching about resurrection.
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Elder D. Todd Christofferson, Of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles:
Christian theologians have long wrestled with the question, What is the destiny of the countless billions who have lived and died with no knowledge of Jesus? With the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ has come the understanding of how the unbaptized dead are redeemed and how God can be “a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also.”
While yet in life, Jesus prophesied that He would also preach to the dead. Peter tells us this happened in the interval between the Savior’s Crucifixion and Resurrection. President Joseph F. Smith witnessed in vision that the Savior visited the spirit world and “from among the righteous [spirits] … 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. …“These were taught faith in God, repentance from sin, vicarious baptism for the remission of sins, [and] the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands.”
The doctrine that the living can provide baptism and other essential ordinances to the dead, vicariously, was revealed anew to the Prophet Joseph Smith. He learned that the spirits awaiting resurrection are not only offered individual salvation but that they can be bound in heaven as husband and wife and be sealed to their fathers and mothers of all generations past and have sealed to them their children of all generations future. The Lord instructed the Prophet that these sacred rites are appropriately performed only in a house built to His name, a temple. ...
Some have misunderstood and suppose that deceased souls “are being baptised into the Mormon faith without their knowledge” or that “people who once belonged to other faiths can have the Mormon faith retroactively imposed on them.” They assume that we somehow have power to force a soul in matters of faith. Of course, we do not. God gave man his agency from the beginning. “The dead who repent will be redeemed, through obedience to the ordinances of the house of God,” but only if they accept those ordinances. The Church does not list them on its rolls or count them in its membership.
Our anxiety to redeem the dead, and the time and resources we put behind that commitment, are, above all, an expression of our witness concerning Jesus Christ. It constitutes as powerful a statement as we can make concerning His divine character and mission. It testifies, first, of Christ’s Resurrection; second, of the infinite reach of His Atonement; third, that He is the sole source of salvation; fourth, that He has established the conditions for salvation; and, fifth, that He will come again.
The Power of Christ’s Resurrection
As regards the Resurrection, Paul asked, “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not … why are they then baptized for the dead?” We are baptized for the dead because we know that they will rise. “The soul shall be restored to the body, and the body to the soul; yea, and every limb and joint shall be restored to its body; yea, even a hair of the head shall not be lost; but all things shall be restored to their proper and perfect frame.”
“For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living.” It matters tremendously what we do in relation to those who have gone before, because they live today as spirits and shall live again as immortal souls, and that because of Jesus Christ. We believe His words when He said, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.”...
The Infinite Reach of Christ’s Atonement
By identifying our ancestors and performing for them the saving ordinances they could not themselves perform, we are testifying of the infinite reach of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Christ “died for all.” “He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” “God is no respecter of persons:
“But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.”
“Doth he cry unto any, saying: Depart from me? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; but he saith: Come unto me all ye ends of the earth, buy milk and honey, without money and without price.” Our Lord “inviteth … all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.”
It is inconceivable that this invitation, universally extended in life, would be rescinded for those who had not heard it before they died. With Paul, we are persuaded that death poses no such obstacle: “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, … shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Jesus Christ, the Sole Source of Salvation
Our anxiety to ensure that our kindred dead are offered baptism in Jesus’ name is testament to the fact that Jesus Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life” and that “no man cometh unto the Father, but by [Him].” Peter proclaimed, “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.”
“There is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”
Some contemporary Christians, concerned for the billions who have died without a knowledge of Jesus Christ, have begun to wonder if there truly is only “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”
To believe that Jesus is the only savior, they say, is arrogant, narrow-minded, and intolerant. We say, however, that this is a false dilemma. There is no injustice in there being but One through whom salvation may come, when that One and His salvation are offered to every soul, without exception. We need not tamper with the doctrine or temper the good news of Christ.
Conditions of Salvation Set by Christ
Because we believe that Jesus Christ is the Redeemer, we also accept His authority to establish the conditions by which we may receive His grace. Otherwise we would not concern ourselves with being baptized for the dead.
Jesus confirmed that “strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life.” Specifically, He said, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” This means we must “repent, and be baptized every one … in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and … receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.”
The Second Coming of Jesus Christ
Our work for the dead bears witness that Jesus Christ will come again to this earth. In the final verses of the Old Testament, Jehovah declared, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord:
“And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.” ...
The vicarious ordinances we perform in temples, beginning with baptism, make possible an eternal welding link between generations that fulfills the purpose of the earth’s creation. Without this, “the whole earth would be utterly wasted at [Christ’s] coming.” Elijah has, in fact, come as promised to confer the priesthood power that turns hearts and establishes the welding links between the fathers and the children so that once again what is bound on earth “shall be bound in heaven.” When he came, Elijah declared, “The keys of this dispensation are committed into your hands; and by this ye may know that the great and dreadful day of the Lord is near, even at the doors.”...
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Sources: Come, Follow Me–For Individuals and Families, p. 140; The New Testament Made Easier, Part 2, Volume 3, by David J. Ridges, 182; Excerpts from “The Redemption of the Dead and the Testimony of Jesus,” by Elder D. Todd Christofferson, Of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, General Conference October 2000.