“Was baptism for the dead a non-Christian practice in New Testament times?” Ensign, Aug. 1987, 19–21
Robert L. Millet, assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University. Baptism for the dead was indeed a practice of the Church of Jesus Christ in the meridian of time. We know that it was practiced among the first-century Christians and that it was restored in our own dispensation through the Prophet Joseph Smith.
“Else what shall they do … ?”
The Apostle Paul refers to the practice of baptism for the dead in 1 Corinthians. Probably written about A.D. 56–57, this book is a masterpiece of religious literature and a remarkable testimony of the Savior and his gospel.
Chapter 15, [1 Cor. 15] perhaps the most doctrinally potent chapter in the epistle, testifies of the resurrection of the Lord. In it Paul presents the core of that message known to us as the gospel, or the “glad tidings” that Christ atoned for our sins, died, rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven. Joseph Smith called these events “the fundamental principles of our religion,” to which all other doctrines are but appendages.1
Paul presents the necessity for the Savior’s rising from the tomb and explains that the physical evidence of the divine Sonship of Christ is the Resurrection. If Christ had not risen from the dead, Paul asserts, the preaching of the Apostles and the faith of the Saints would be in vain. “If in this life only we have hope in Christ,” he says, “we are of all men most miserable.” (1 Cor. 15:19.)
After establishing that the Lord has conquered all enemies, including death, Paul adds: “And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him [the Father] that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.
“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?” (1 Cor. 15:28–29; italics added.)
Interpretations of Paul’s Words
Verse 29 [1 Cor. 15:29] has spawned a host of interpretations by biblical scholars of various faiths. Many consider the original meaning of the passage to be at best “difficult” or “unclear.” One commentator states that Paul “alludes to a practice of the Corinthian community as evidence for Christian faith in the resurrection of the dead. It seems that in Corinth some Christians would undergo baptism in the name of their deceased non-Christian relatives and friends, hoping that this vicarious baptism might assure them a share in the redemption of Christ.”2
Some recent translations of the Bible have attempted to clarify this passage. The New English Bible, for example, translates 1 Corinthians 15:29: [1 Cor. 15:29] “Again, there are those who receive baptism on behalf of the dead. Why should they do this? If the dead are not raised at all, what do they mean by being baptized on their behalf?”
Many non-Latter-day Saint scholars believe that in 1 Corinthians Paul is denouncing or condemning the practice of baptism for the dead as heretical. This is a strange conclusion, however, since he uses the practice of baptism for the dead to support the doctrine of the Resurrection. In essence, he says, “Why are we performing baptisms in behalf of our dead, if, as some propose, there will be no resurrection of the dead? If there is to be no resurrection, would not such baptisms be a waste of time?”
On the subject of baptism for the dead, one Latter-day Saint writer observes, “Paul was most sensitive to blasphemy and false ceremonialism—of all people he would not have argued for the foundation truth of the Resurrection with a questionable example. He obviously did not feel that the principle was disharmonious with the gospel.”3
Other Early Christian Allusions
A surprising amount of evidence suggests that the doctrine of salvation for the dead was known and understood by ancient Christian communities. Early commentary on the Pauline statement in Hebrews that “they without us should not be made perfect” (see Heb. 11:40) holds that the passage referred to the Old Testament Saints who were trapped in Hades awaiting the help of their New Testament counterparts and that Christ held the keys that would “open the doors of the Underworld to the faithful souls there.”4 It is significant that in his book, Dialogue with Trypho, Justin Martyr, the early Christian apologist, cites an apocryphon which he charges had been deleted from the book of Jeremiah, but was still to be found in some synagogue copies of the text: “The Lord God remembered His dead people of Israel who lay in the graves; and He descended to preach to them His own salvation.”5 Irenaeus also taught: “The Lord descended to the parts under the earth, announcing to them also the good news of his coming, there being remission of sins for such as believe on him.”6
One of the early Christian documents linking the writings of Peter on Christ’s ministry in the spirit world (see 1 Pet. 3:18–20, 1 Pet. 4:6) with those of Paul on baptism for the dead is the “Shepherd of Hermas,” which states that “these apostles and teachers who preached the name of the Son of God, having fallen asleep in the power and faith of the Son of God, preached also to those who had fallen asleep before them, and themselves gave to them the seal of the preaching. They went down therefore with them into the water and came up again, but the latter went down alive and came up alive, while the former, who had fallen asleep before, went down dead but came up alive. Through them, therefore, they were made alive, and received the knowledge of the name of the Son of God.” (Italics added.)7
The Doctrine of Salvation for the Dead
The doctrine that no man or woman will ultimately be denied a blessing he or she did not have the opportunity to receive is set forth in beauty and plainness in the Book of Mormon. (See 2 Ne. 9:25; Mosiah 3:11; Mosiah 15:24; Alma 41:3; Moro. 8:22.) Further, in our own dispensation, the Prophet Joseph Smith received yet another revelation on the subject of salvation for the dead—the Vision of the Celestial Kingdom. (See D&C 137.)
The words of the Lord to Joseph Smith in 1836 were emphatic and comforting: “All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God;
“Also all that shall die henceforth without a knowledge of it, who would have received it with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom;
“For I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts.” (D&C 137:7–9; italics added.)
Though the Vision of the Celestial Kingdom did not reveal the particulars of how the dead could receive the ordinances of the gospel, such truths were soon forthcoming.
On 15 August 1840, some four and a half years after he received the Vision of the Celestial Kingdom, Joseph Smith delivered his first public discourse on baptism for the dead—at the funeral of Seymour Brunson, a member of the Nauvoo High Council. In that address, the Prophet quoted from 1 Corinthians. According to one account, he “said the Apostle [Paul] was talking to a people who understood baptism for the dead, for it was practiced among them. He went on to say that people could now act for their friends who had departed this life, and that the plan of salvation was calculated to save all who were willing to obey the requirements of the law of God.”8
Salvation and Baptism for the Dead
Two months later, on 19 October 1840, Joseph Smith wrote: “The Saints have the privilege of being baptized for those of their relatives who are dead [note his tie of this doctrine to the Vision of the Celestial Kingdom] whom they believe would have embraced the Gospel, if they had been privileged with hearing it, and who have received the Gospel in the spirit, through the instrumentality of those who have been commissioned to preach to them while in prison.” (Italics added.)9
The doctrine of salvation for the dead became a major emphasis of the Prophet Joseph, who later wrote, “The greatest responsibility in this world that God has laid upon us is to seek after our dead,”10 and “This doctrine was the burden of the scriptures. Those Saints who neglect it in behalf of their deceased relatives, do it at the peril of their own salvation.”11 The leaders of the Church in Nauvoo were told that “these are principles in relation to the dead and the living that cannot be lightly passed over, as pertaining to our salvation. For their salvation is necessary and essential to our salvation.” (D&C 128:15.)
Thus, both the doctrine of salvation for the dead and the ordinance of baptism for the dead, of which we have but an allusion in Paul’s letter to the former-day Saints, have been revealed and restored in our own dispensation. We live in a day long anticipated by the prophets of ages past—when God has begun to “gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him.” (Eph. 1:10.)