Preface: This file is an edited extract from a chapter in my book One Lord, One Faith: Writings of the Early Christian Fathers As Evidences of the Restoration (Horizon Publishers, 1996). The complete text of the chapter, along with all references, can be found therein.

ANCIENT EVIDENCE OF BAPTISM FOR THE DEAD
Michael T. Griffith
1996
@All Rights Reserved

The New Testament church practiced the ordinance of baptism for the dead, whereby living individuals were baptized on behalf of those who did not have the opportunity to receive this rite in mortality.

Since all must be baptized to enter the kingdom of God, what of those who die without the opportunity to receive this ordinance? The Lord's restored church can answer this question. The answer is that righteous men and women can go to God's holy temples and be baptized on behalf of those who died without baptism. The persons in the spirit world for whom this has been done are free to accept or reject the baptism. Those who accept it can progress and eventually receive all of the blessings available to members of the Lord's church.

1 Corinthians 15:29

It is significant that many modern translations change "baptized for the dead" to "baptized on behalf of the dead." Here is how this verse reads in the Revised Standard Version: "Otherwise, what do people mean being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?" The New English Bible translates Paul's words as follows: "Again, there are those who receive baptism on behalf of the dead. Why should they do this? If the dead are not raised to life at all, what do they mean by being baptized on their behalf?"

Despite the clear implications of Paul's questions in 1 Corinthians 15:29, some commentators deny that Paul is referring to an approved Christian practice of proxy baptism for the dead. Rather, they claim he is citing a heretical rite to persuade his readers to believe in the resurrection. But it would have been very poor logic for Paul to have appealed to a heretical practice as an example of why the doubting Corinthians should accept the resurrection.

Paul's letters show a firm understanding of the principles of logical argumentation. He would not have committed the logical fallacy of referring to a practice that he and his readers rejected in order to demonstrate the truthfulness of an important doctrinal tenet. The reality of the resurrection was the very truth the rite of proxy baptism was supposed to illustrate. If the practice itself was heretical, why on earth would Paul have cited it in the first place? Why would he have used it as an illustration to promote faith in any doctrine, much less a key principle like the resurrection?

Another objection raised against the orthodoxy of proxy baptism is Paul's use of terms like "they," "there are those," etc. in reference to people who were being baptized for the dead shows he was talking about non-Christians. In other words, according to this argument, Paul used these terms to distinguish between Christians and those who were taking part in proxy baptism. Paul's use of "we" in verse 30 is supposed to be another indication of this alleged distinction. One problem with this interpretation is that it assumes that Paul did not approve of baptism for the dead even though he cited the practice to strengthen faith in the resurrection. Beyond this, it should be kept in mind that Paul was, at least in part, addressing members of the church who were doubting the resurrection. Not only were these saints questioning the resurrection, but they were apparently stumbling in other areas as well (see, for example, vss. 33-34). Therefore, Paul could not really have said "why do you?" baptize for the dead. Paul could use the pronoun "we" in verse 30 because he was speaking of the danger facing all Christians ("Why stand we in jeopardy every hour?"). Even backsliding saints were liable to encounter persecution simply by virtue of being identified as Christians, regardless of their level of faithfulness.

On the other hand, the sixth-century theologian Oecumenius suggested that Paul said "why do they baptize for the dead" instead of "why do you" for fear of offending his readers and possibly causing them to abandon the practice (Nibley 1987:127).  Although this is certainly a tempting suggestion, it is questionable, as Hugh Nibley points out:

          . . . it was not all Christians who were baptized for the dead, for Paul reminds the Corinthians that "they," namely someone else and not the Corinthians (who were "but babes") did the work.  But who were the "they"? (1987:130)

Other Evidence

In the second-century Christian text entitled the Shepherd of Hermas we are told that the "they" were "apostles and teachers" (1987:130).  I again quote Nibley:

          Who in the church performed the actual ordinance of baptizing for the dead?  It was "those apostles and teachers" of the first generation, according to the Shepherd of Hermas, who "went down living into the water" in behalf of those who had died. . . . (1987:130)  

Proxy work for the dead might even be alluded to in the Old Testament. Robert Millet and Joseph Fielding McConkie discuss a possible Old Testament foreshadowing of baptism for the dead:

          There are scriptural, apocryphal, and historical references that evidence that these principles were understood anciently. . . . [A scriptural example] is found in this prophetic statement by Zechariah: "By the blood of thy covenant I have sent forth prisoners out of the pit wherein there is no water" (Zechariah 9:11). The pit is the spirit world, but what waters are necessary to free one from captivity? Why, the waters of vicarious baptism--a doctrine taught by Paul and restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith. (1986:156-158)

The sublime doctrine of baptism for the dead demonstrates the justice and completeness of the plan of salvation. Thus, even those who die without baptism will have the opportunity to receive this saving ordinance. The question is often posed, "What of those who died before Christ?"  The restored gospel has the answer: They will be taught the gospel in the spirit world and can receive baptism as a result of proxy baptisms performed on the earth.

SUGGESTED READING:

1. Richard Lloyd Anderson, Understanding Paul (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1983), pp. 125-127, 403-415.
2. Hugh Nibley, Mormonism and Early Christianity (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company and F.A.R.M.S., 1987), pp. 100-167.
3. Daniel C. Peterson and Stephen D. Ricks, Offenders for A Word: How Anti-mormons Play Word Games to Attack the Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City, Utah: Aspen Books, 1992), pp. 108-110.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michael T. Griffith holds a Master’s degree in Theology from The Catholic Distance University, a Bachelor of Science degree from Excelsior College in Albany, New York, and two Associate in Applied Science degrees from the Community College of the Air Force. He is a two-time graduate of the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, and of the U.S. Air Force Technical Training School in San Angelo, Texas. He is the author of five books on Mormonism and ancient texts. He has completed advanced Hebrew programs at Haifa University in Israel and at the Spiro Institute in London, England. While at Brigham Young University, he was a research assistant for Dr. Ross T. Christensen of the Society for Early Historic Archaeology. His published works on gospel subjects include Refuting the Critics (Bountiful, Utah: Horizon Publishers, 1992) and A Ready Reply: Answering Challenging Questions About the Gospel (Horizon Publishers, 1994), and One Lord, One Faith: Writings of the Early Christian Fathers as Evidences of the Restoration (Horizon Publishers, 1996).

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