LDS Baptism for the Dead:
Answers to Common Questions
This page discusses the uniquely LDS but authentically Christian practice known as "baptism for the dead" mentioned in the New Testament. It is part of the LDSFAQ (Mormon Answers) suite by Jeff Lindsay, my attempt to deal with many common questions about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often called the "Mormon Church"). While I strive to be accurate, my writings reflect my personal understanding and are subject to human error and bias.
2012 Update: Here are some new recommended readings on ancient Christian concepts related to redeeming the dead, with many implications for the reality of the Restoration:
In my opinion, the doctrine of "baptism for the dead" is one of the most wonderful issues in the restored Church of Jesus Christ for two reasons: 1) it resolves one of the thorniest of theological issues in a wonderful way that shows the power of God's grace and love, and 2) it provides powerful evidence that Joseph Smith really was a tool through whom Christ restored the fullness of His original Church. Both of these issues are worthy of pages and pages of discourse, but I'll be brief.
Issue #1). The thorny issue: if salvation is only through Christ, what happens to all the billions of people who lived and died without ever even hearing of Christ? And if we must be baptized to enter into a covenant with Christ (as Christ plainly teaches in John 3:3-5 and as I discuss more fully on my FAQ page about baptism), what of those that never had a chance? For centuries, the mainstream theological answer has been that those souls are lost. Some ministers are not so crass today, but many still insist that they go to hell. I just saw a discussion of that issue on an email list of scientists who are Christians. Most views expressed there on the topic said they go to hell - and it is fair, since we are all depraved - but God in his grace elects to allow some of us to be saved, so why complain? That really bothers me. The truth is that God loves all his children and wants all to have the opportunity to hear and accept the Gospel of Christ.
On this topic, let me show you a posting to that email group and I'll follow it with my response to them, them some more just for you:
It is a stunning, and somewhat depressing, fact that if our understanding of demographics and history are correct, the vast majority of human beings who are living or who have lived are not Christian. Furthermore, among those who are living, a majority will die not being a Christian. This implies that the destiny of most of the human race is Hell. Consider the Chinese rice farmer, the Indian beggar, the Russian mobster, the Pakistani Moslem priest, or the French intellectual: each will go through life in a different way--some in misery, others in luxury but each with their own unique loves, joys, aspirations, fears, desires, triumphs and failures. And yet their future is the same: an eternity of unimaginable terror. All of human history with its complexity, texture, drama, mystery, and vice is to be sent through a sieve to produce an elegant, bipolar universe of rapture and horror that defies comprehension.Now my reply to that Christian email group follows:
I wish to proclaim that God is just and will not send a Chinese peasant or an Indian beggar to hell simply because he or she had the misfortune of never hearing about Christ. Yet we know that salvation is only through Christ. The resolution is this: deceased beings, dwelling as spirits and awaiting the time of resurrection and judgment, will be given the opportunity to hear and accept the message of the Gospel. Indeed, God "will [desires to] have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth." (1 Tim. 2:4)(END OF MY REPLY to a Christian email group)
We get some insights into the work of salvation among those who have already died in 1 Peter 3:18-20, which reports that Christ, while dead, "went and preached unto the spirits in prison; which sometime were disobedient." The passage then indicates that people from the time of Noah were included among those that Christ preached to. The preaching to deceased beings is also mentioned again in 1 Peter 4:6: "For for this cause was the gospel preached to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit." This suggests that there is still accountability for the acts in the flesh (our mortal existence), and that they will be judged, but they can still gain access to the grace of Christ and repent and come unto Him.
This concept is consistent with Paul's writing about the judgment in Romans 2. In verse 4, he indicates that the goodness of God leads us to repentance, helping us (in verse 5) to avoid wrath on the day of the righteous judgment of God (not arbitrary and unfair!). Verse 6 reminds us that every man will receive according to his deeds, with "glory, honour, and peace to every man that worketh good" (v. 10), "for there is no respect of persons with God." Respect of persons (partiality) is what God would have if he damned some just because they never had the chance to learn of Christ. Verses 12 through 15 continue this theme, indicating that when men are judged for their mortal lives, it will be according to what they knew of God's ways - and according to their conscience (a gift of God to all people, in my view). Verse 16 states that the Gentiles who knew not God's law "shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another."
Without getting into the theology of my particular denomination, let me simply say that I have good reason to believe that God is just, loves all his children, and will be fair in providing an opportunity for all that truly desire His righteousness to gain access to the grace of Christ, if they will accept Him and covenant with Him. Many will not accept Him, as we see in great evidence today. But God reaches out to each of His children and implores them to follow Him. Toward that end, I believe that Christ established a tremendous program of missionary work on the other side of the veil - in the spirit world - so that the Gospel message will go forth to His children of every nation and every era. (I know this sounds wild to many. There are numerous questions that arise, of course, and there are some good answers among many unknown. Happy to discuss - and to take flames as well.)
While souls in the spirit world are being taught the Gospel (read Doctrine and Covenants 138 - it's beautiful!), they are faced with a dilemma: they need baptism to enter into a covenant with Christ and receive a washing away of their sins, etc., but they lack physical bodies in which to be baptized. This is why the early Christians and the restored Church have the practice of baptism for the dead, referred to but not explained by Paul in I Cor. 15:29. This passage alludes to (see discussion below) a practice of at least some early Christians who performed vicarious baptism on behalf of deceased ancestors. This practice in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is NOT derived from 1 Cor. 15:29, but from modern revelation which restored that practice and the understanding and authority necessary for it to be done. As a result, we now can go to the Temple and be baptized by immersion in the name of specific deceased ancestors and others, one at a time, name by name, offering our vicarious service as a proxy for the deceased. Having done it several times, I can affirm that it is a marvelous and spiritual experience. Nothing like what the anti-Mormon sources say!
Bottom line: God has provided a wonderful means for all his children to hear the Gospel and to accept all the blessings and ordinances of the Gospel, including baptism. The temple is the place where this act of service is done, an act which turns the hearts of the children to the fathers and the hearts of the fathers to the children. Completing this work will be one of the major tasks of the millennium (Rev. 7:15).
The Washington Post recently published an article that may help readers better understand the significance of this ordinance for those of our faith. See Michael R. Otterson's 2012 article, "What Baptism for the Dead Means to Mormons."
Issue #2: Baptism for the dead is a powerful evidence that Joseph Smith was a real prophet and the Church of Jesus Christ has been restored. The LDS practice has long been derided as absolute fiction and an abomination, and based on a terrible misinterpretation of 1 Cor.15:29. However, long after Joseph Smith restored the practice through revelation, dozens of ancient documents have turned up showing that early Christians (at least some) indeed believed in and practiced baptism for the dead much as we do today. Hugh Nibley has an excellent article, "Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times," with numerous references showing that this was a real practice in the early Church that was one of the first to be lost in the great apostasy when priesthood and temple ordinances perished. If you have Lost Books of the Bible, you can read in the Pastor of Hermas a wonderful description of the practice, though somewhat metaphorical. (See below for a more complete discussion of what Hermas wrote, and see Similitude Nine of III Hermas online; also read the Pastor of Hermas in the Early Church Fathers section of ccel.org.) This reference did exist during Joseph Smith's time, but was not widely known.
2013 Update: The Pastor of Hermas may seem like an obscure work to us, but that doesn't mean Joseph did not know about it. In fact, it now appears that he did have access to it, at least by 1844, since we know he donated a copy of William Hone's Apocryphal New Testament to the Nauvoo Library in 1844, and that book contained the Pastor of Hermas and some other early Christian writings. See "Baptism for the Dead and William Hone's Apocryphal New Testament." The list of books that Joseph donated in 1844 to the Nauvoo Library is given in Kenneth Godfrey's note, "A Note on the Nauvoo Library and Literary Institute" in BYU Studies, 1974. So, it is possible that some of the cool parallels to early Christian writings in the Restoration may have been triggered or inspired by encounters with early Christian literature in Hone's book or in other sources. Sometimes we Latter-day Saints are too quick to assume that Joseph couldn't have known about something in early Christian literature. Be careful about that assumption. On the other hand, as a young man, Joseph was not a bookworm, and assuming that he combed through vast libraries of information to sieve out nuggets for the Book of Mormon or many other aspects of the Restoration may be an even greater blunder.
Baptism for the dead (and the whole concept of God's grace being extended to all his children who will accept and follow Christ) is one of my favorite things about the Church and is evidence to me not only that the Church has been restored, but that God is a just and loving God.
The revelations that give information on this practice are found in the Doctrine and Covenants, primarily Section 128. It is also mentioned in Doctrine and Covenants 124:29, 33; 127: 5-10; and 138: 33.
This is a common concern, but is based on a misunderstanding. Baptism for the dead does not change anything for the person unless they choose to accept that ordinance. It simply makes it possible for the dead to accept baptism if they want it. It's entirely their choice.
I am surprised at how needlessly emotional this issue gets. If our Church is not true, then performing a vicarious baptism in a temple has no meaning - it could not possibly change anything - so why the concern? It's not like voodoo, where there are (bogus) claims of being able to harm others from a distance. If our Church is bogus, the dead are unaffected by baptism in their behalf, and if our Church is true, the dead are only blessed (never harmed) IF they want the help. There is nothing to worry about. Either way, we're not going to upset any of your relatives in the slightest. And here among the living, we're not going to claim that your ancestors are Mormons or re-baptized Christians or anything else. We do the work for them and let the Lord and them decide whether it has any affect or not.
Some have suggested that baptism for the dead takes away the free agency of the deceased. Not at all. Making a gift available does nothing to take away the freedom of someone else to accept it or reject it. In fact, it enables agency. If the gift were not available, those who never had the chance to receive it would not be able to choose to receive an authorized baptism to express their desire to follow Christ. Rest assured, nothing is being forced on anybody by the loving ordinances that are performed in the Temple.
"Your views on ... "Baptism of the Dead" [represent] POOR theology! Heck, that's just poor reading skills! Anyone (at least anyone without any predispositions!) should be able to read the 15th chapter of the 1st book of Corinthians and understand that Paul is NOT advocating baptizing the dead!!! In fact, he's actually ridiculing those who do it!"
If Paul were making fun of a questionable, pagan practice, why would he cite it as evidence supporting the teachings of Christ? Think about this. He's teaching that resurrection is a reality. If it weren't a reality, then, he asks, what sense would there be to the practice of baptism for the dead? This passage just doesn't make sense if baptism for the dead were a practice he wholly rejected. He cites it as something that is valid and consistent with the doctrine of resurrection. Note the relationship between verse 29 and 32. In verse 32, Paul asks what value all his missionary work in Ephesus would have been if the dead do not rise. He's citing his own godly work and sacrifice as a witness of the reality of the resurrection. Likewise, in verse 29, Paul asks what value baptism for the dead would have if there were no resurrection. For verse 29 to be consistent with the arguments Paul is developing, it is only reasonable to understand that baptism for the dead is also real, inspired of God, and has eternal value, but would be in vain if there were no resurrection. Paul cites the godly work of other Christians as a witness of the reality of the resurrection. It makes no sense to think that he is somehow condemning an evil practice--it would be totally out of place in the context of Chapter 15.
I haven't seen the book yet, but Amazon.com lists a fascinating new title: Baptism on Account of the Dead (1 Cor 15:29): An Act of Faith in the Resurrection by Michael F. Hull (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Academic Publishers, 2005). Here is the description from Amazon.com:
Although 1 Cor 15:29 ("Otherwise what are they to do, who have themselves baptized on account of the dead? If the dead are not really raised, why are they baptized on account of them?") has received a vast amount of attention in the biblical academy, there is no scholarly consensus as to its meaning. In order to break the current impasse, this volume reviews and critiques the over forty different interpretations of 15:29, then examines the verse anew in terms of its literary, historical, and theological contexts within the writings of Paul. On the basis of this study, Hull concludes that 1 Cor 15:29 is a dual rhetorical question in which Paul holds up one group within the Corinthian community as a laudable example for the entire community. Specifically, those who have themselves baptized are undergoing the rite of baptism because of their steadfast faith in the resurrection of Christ and, concomitantly, of Christians. They undergo the rite of baptism "on account! of the dead"--on account of the fact that the dead are destined for life--and thus shame the arrogance and ignorance of those among the Corinthians who deny the resurrection (1 Cor 15:12).
About the Author
Michael F. Hull, S.T.L. (1996) and S.T.D. (2003) in Biblical Theology, Pontifical Gregorian University, is Professor of Sacred Scripture at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, New York.
The book is $163, but I hope to find it in a library soon. Looks like an interesting contribution to help settle the idea that baptism for the dead was a legitimate if not widespread early Christian practice.
What do non-LDS Bible scholars say about 1 Cor. 15:29? Certainly many are doctrinally committed to finding a way to exclude the LDS view, but the lengths they go to in suggesting that this passage means something else than what it appears to mean are most unconvincing! And now the tide has turned. For example, I recently saw a printing of the Protestant New English Bible with a footnote saying that some early Christians did practice vicarious baptism on behalf of their deceased ancestors. Bible scholar Harold Riesenfeld writes, "None of the attempts to escape the theory of a vicarious baptism in primitive Christianity seems to be wholly successful" (in G. Kittel and G. Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, trans. by G.W. Bromiley, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Vol. 8: 512-513, 1972, as cited by as cited by D.C. Peterson and S.D. Ricks, Offenders for a Word, Aspen Books, Salt Lake City, UT, 1992, p. 109). Krister Stendahl, a Lutheran New Testament scholar and former Dean and Professor of Divinity at the Harvard Divinity School, says "the text seems to speak plainly enough about a practice within the Church of vicarious baptism for the dead. This is the view of most contemporary critical exegetes" (K. Stendahl, "Baptism for the Dead: Ancient Sources," Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. D. Ludlow, Vol. 1, 1992, p. 97). ("Exegetes" refers to those who are skilled in scholarly, critical analysis of the scriptures. He's saying that most scholars agree that baptism for the dead, as mentioned by Paul, was a Christian practice. Practiced by how many Christians, and for how long, is another issue, of course. But there is no justification to say that Paul was making fun of the practice.)
You can hear some comments from Krister Stendahl on the LDS Temple and baptism for the dead about halfway through this short video from Mormon Messages:
Another reference is The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament by James Moulten and George Milligan:
Close inspection of the language of the reference makes all attempts to soften or eliminate its literal meaning unsuccessful. An endeavor to understand the dead as persons who are "dead in sin" does not really help; for the condition offered, if the dead are not being raised at all, makes it clear that the apostle is writing about persons who are physically dead. It appears that under the pressure of concern for the eternal destiny of dead relatives or friends some people in the church were undergoing baptism on their behalf in the belief that this would enable the dead to receive the benefits of Christ's salvation. (James Moulten and George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981, p. 651, as cited by Mike Griffith, "Some Notes on Baptism for the Dead in 1 Corinthians 15:29.")
Also of note is Gordon Fee's comments in his work, The First Epistle to the Corinthians:
The normal reading of the text [1 Cor. 15:29] is that some Corinthians are being baptized, apparently vicariously, in behalf of some people who have already died. It would be fair to add that this reading is such a plain understanding of the Greek text that no one would ever have imagined the various alternatives were it not for the difficulties involved. (Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1989, pp. 763-764, as cited by Mike Griffith, op.cit..)
Part of the reason that "the tide has turned" on this issue is the abundance of newly discovered documentation pointing to baptism for the dead as a legitimate ancient Christian practice. One of the most beautiful descriptions of it is found in the early writing, the Pastor of Hermas, which some early Christian groups even treated as scripture. The Ninth Similitude of III Hermas is the passage of interest, and it's available online. (See my discussion below for more information.) Further, Hugh Nibley (an LDS scholar) has compiled a vast array of information - almost all of which came after Joseph Smith was killed - about the practice of baptism for the dead in ancient Christianity. See "Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times," printed in the book Mormonism and Early Christianity by Deseret Book, SLC, Utah, 1987. Fascinating stuff.
An interesting example of the views of a prominent non-LDS scholar is related by R.L. Anderson in Understanding Paul, Deseret Book, SLC, Utah, 1983, p. 413. It's a transcript of a conversation with Dr. Edgar J. Goodspeed, an authority on the New Testament and early Christian documents:
Interview between Dr. Edgar J. Goodspeed and Paul R. Cheesman, held in Dr. Goodspeed's office on the campus to the University of California at Los Angeles during the summer of 1945.
Cheesman: Is the scripture found in 1 Corinthians 15:29 translated properly as found in the King James Translation?
Goodspeed: Basically, yes.
Cheesman: Do you believe that baptism for the dead was practiced in Paul's time?
Goodspeed: Definitely, yes.
Cheesman: Does the church to which you belong practice it today?
Cheesman: Do you think it should be practiced today?
Goodspeed: This is the reason why we do not practice it today. We do not know enough about it. If we did, we would practice it.
Cheesman: May I quote you as a result of this interview?
Anyway, my reading skills may be poor - but there are serious Bible scholars (including many outside the LDS Church) who seem to suffer from the same deficiency with respect to 1 Cor. 15:29. That doesn't prove anything necessarily, but it suggests that the LDS view might not be utterly unreasonable. However, the LDS view is based on modern revelation from Christ to Joseph Smith, not on any scholar's interpretation of a difficult passage.
The modern evidence for the ancient practice of baptism for the dead accords well with Joseph Smith's prophetic teaching that "it was certainly practiced by the ancient churches" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Section Four 1839-42, p. 179).
Those who disagree with the above views have offered several explanations of what Paul really meant. The idea that he is actually condemning baptism for the dead has been around for centuries. Here is one common form of the argument, as supplied to me in one recent email message:
-There are some who preach that there is no resurrection of the dead. (verse 12)
-If the dead don't rise, Christ didn't rise and everyone's faith in Him is worthless, we are liars, miserable, and should be pitied. (verses 13-19)
-But Christ did rise from the dead! He must reign over death! (verses 20-28)
Then he offers this important, though rhetorical question (the BIG question):
-Why then do you bother to baptize the dead (yes, there were those who called themselves "Christians", who denied the risen Christ, and baptized the dead instead), if you deny that Christ has risen? Who in their right mind would baptize the dead if they didn't even believe that the resurrection of the body was possible?!?!
A reasonable case can be made for the above view. Certainly Paul is arguing for the reality of the resurrection. And certainly he refers to some early believers who were baptizing themselves vicariously - as proxies - on behalf of the dead (several modern translations, such as the New English Bible or RSV, now use "on behalf of the dead"). And obviously some Church members among the Corinthians had apostatized to a degree, for some had lost the understanding of the resurrection of mankind (1 Cor. 15:12). But in my opinion, it's a stretch to say that they were baptizing for the dead "instead" of believing in the resurrection, or that Paul condemns this practice. He clearly argues that baptism for the dead would be ridiculous IF there were no resurrection of the dead. Does the ever logical Paul now cite an invalid practice to prove the validity of the resurrection? He cites the practice as if it were correct to lend valid support to another valid principle. Baptism for the dead makes no sense - IF there is no resurrection. Let's look at the text in 1 Corinthians 15:
12 Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?
13 But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen:
14 And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.
15 Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not.
16 For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised:
17 And if Christ be not raised, your faith [is] vain; ye are yet in your sins.
18 Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished.
19 If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.
20 But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.
21 For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.
22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
23 But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming.
24 Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power.
25 For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet.
26 The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.
27 For he hath put all things under his feet. But when he saith all things are put under him, it is manifest that he is excepted, which did put all things under him.
28 And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.
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?
Paul shows that there are troubling contradictions in the Gospel if the doctrine of salvation does not include the resurrection of mankind. If there is not a resurrection, then the Apostles are false witnesses (v. 15), their preaching is in vain (v. 14), their risks in preaching the Gospel have been in vain (v. 32), the believers have not been forgiven of sins (v. 17), and even Christ's resurrection is contradicted (v. 13 and 16). Paul uses IF ... THEN construction many times in this passage, always with precision and logic, and always using valid concepts to support the resurrection of the dead - a doctrine which some of the may Corinthians have lost, even though they still had a related, valid practice, baptism for the dead. Paul's very use of all these "if" statements has introduced key evidence for the reality of the resurrection: - the reality of Christ's resurrection (v. 13), the integrity of the apostles (v. 15), the forgiveness that comes through Christ (v. 17), the value of baptisms for the dead (v. 29), and the value of the risks that Paul and others have suffered to preach the Gospel (v. 32). (This reasoning is that of R.L. Anderson, Understanding Paul, Deseret Book, SLC, Utah, 1983, pp. 125-126.) In the midst of reciting true and valid points to demonstrate the reality of the resurrection, it doesn't make sense that Paul would introduce an apostate or pagan practice and use it in the same way.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul discusses the resurrection and leads to the issue of resurrection for Christians (verse 18), pointing out that they will resurrect. But then he extends the scope to all mankind, showing that ALL will arise (verse 22, as well as 23-28). Now an obvious question should be apparent: if all are to be resurrected (and judged), what of the vast majority that never heard of Christ? The reference to baptism for the dead addresses this indirectly: salvation can be possible for those who have died without being baptized, even though Christ said baptism was essential to salvation (John 3:3-5, see also my FAQ on baptism). The resurrection of the dead would seem unjust unless those who died without any knowledge of Christ could accept Him. The mention of baptism for the dead makes sense if viewed as a valid practice - one hinting at the resolution to the problem of those who die without a knowledge of Christ - which affirms the reality of the Resurrection and the justice and mercy of God.
Several modern non-LDS commentators agree that Paul was not expressing disapproval of baptism for the dead. For example, F. W. Grosheide in Commentary on the First Epistle to Corinthians (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1953, pp. 372-374, as cited by Todd M. Compton in the Foreword to Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol. 4, 1987), said "the apostle could hardly derive an argument for the resurrection of the body from a practice of which he did not approve." Wayne Meeks, in his book on the church at the time of Paul, The First Urban Christians (Yale, 1983, p. 162, as cited by Compton, op. cit.), is mystified by baptism for the dead but includes it as an early Christian ritual. See also Herman Ridderbos in Paul (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1975, pp. 25, 540).
Not in a way that will satisfy you, no. [Update: the discussion of 1 Peter and the Shepherd of Hermas below might help.] First I must point out that the source of the LDS practice of vicarious baptism for the dead is NOT the Bible, but modern revelation, which is the rock upon which the Church was founded (Matt. 16:16-18). The apostles and prophets, whom Paul said were the foundation of the Church (Eph. 2:18-20), were instituted to guide the Church by revelation (Eph. 4:11-14), to prevent it from being "tossed by every wind of doctrine." What God does, he does through his prophets (Amos 3:7), and so it is in the Restored Church. Details of baptism for the dead and temple work, along with regular baptism, the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, priesthood authority, and all else required in the Church of Jesus Christ, were restored by direct revelation. The real question, therefore, is not whether I can convince anybody that my interpretation of 1 Cor. 15:29 is valid, but whether or not Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. For that issue, I must direct you to a prayerful study of the Book of Mormon.
But let's consider other Biblical passages related to this concept.
First, the idea of vicarious work for others is central to the New Testament. Christ's Atonement is the ultimate example of a vicarious act, a sacrifice done on behalf of all of us. When Paul says baptism "for" or "on behalf of" the dead, he uses the same Greek construction that is used to describe Christ sacrifice "on our behalf." The Greek preposition is "huper," which is often used to convey the representation of one person by another (e.g., in ancient business documents - see Anderson, Understanding Paul, p. 405). This usage occurs over 100 times in the New Testament describing Christ's sacrifice "for" us (1 Cor. 5:7; 11:24; 15:3, etc.)
Two passages in 1 Peter provide evidence that the Gospel was preached to those who had died without a knowledge of Christ. Here is 1 Peter 3:18-21:
18 For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: 19 By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; 20 Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. 21 The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ....And here is 1 Peter 4:6, which follows a reference in verse 5 to "him that is ready to judge the quick and the dead":
For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.
These passages indicate that the Gospel was preached to those who had died physically, including those who had lived long before the time of Christ. This preaching was done in the spirit world (spirit prison). Now what sense is it to preach the Gospel to the dead if they cannot accept it? If they accept it, they will still need to fully enter into the covenant with Christ through baptism by immersion (see 1 Peter 3:21 shown above; Romans 6:1-7; Acts 2:37-38; Mark 16:16; John 3:3-5, etc.), but this sacred ordinance requires a living body. The revealed solution: the dead can accept baptism performed in their behalf (1 Cor. 15:29) - a vicarious act of service. This is part of the process that makes the judgment of God truly just, for an opportunity is provided even to those who are dead to hear and fully accept the Gospel of Christ, and thus "live according to God in the spirit."
As to whether baptism for the dead is consistent with other Biblical passages, consider the following passage written by a Lutheran theologian, Krister Stendahl, published in The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol.1, "Baptism for the Dead: Ancient Sources:"
For those who are interested, Bruce R. McConkie in his book The Promised Messiah, Pg. 241, finds a passage in Zechariah to be relevant to the spirits of the dead who hear the Gospel and desire baptism:
Once the theological pressures from later possible developments of practice and doctrine are felt less constricting, the text seems to speak plainly enough about a practice within the Church of vicarious baptism for the dead. This is the view of most contemporary critical exegetes. Such a practice can be understood in partial analogy with Paul's reference to how the pagan spouses and joint children in mixed marriages are sanctified and cleansed by the Christian partners (1 Cor. 7:14). Reference has often been made to 2 Maccabees 12:39-46, where Judas Maccabeaus, "taking account of the resurrection," makes Atonement for his dead comrades. (This was the very passage which Dr. Eck used in favor of purgatory in his 1519 Leipzig debate with Martin Luther. So it became part of the reason why Protestant Bibles excluded the Apocrypha or relegated them to an Appendix.)
To this could be added that the next link in Paul's argument for a future resurrection is his own exposure to martyrdom (1 Cor. 15:30-32), a martyrdom that Paul certainly thinks of as having a vicarious effect (Phil. 2:17, Rom. 15:16, cf. Col. 1:24).
Such a connection may be conscious or unconscious. In either case it makes it quite reasonable that Paul's remark refers to a practice of a vicarious baptism for the dead.
It was of these that Zechariah prophesied when as part of a longer Messianic utterance, he spoke of "prisoners of hope"; it was of these that he gave assurance that "the Lord their God shall save them." He gives the Messianic message in these words: "By the blood of thy covenant" -- that is, because of the gospel covenant, which is efficacious because of the shedding of the blood of Christ -- "I have sent forth thy prisoners out of the pit wherein is no water." (Zech. 9:11-16.) "Wherein is no water" -- how aptly and succinctly this crystallizes the thought that the saving water, which is baptism, is an earthly ordinance and cannot be performed by spirit beings while they dwell in the spirit world. Did not Paul say in this same connection, "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. 15:29.)
The Latter-day Saint concept of genealogy work to learn of the dead and perform ordinances such as baptism on their behalf is also related to interesting passages such as Malachi 4:5,6 (turning the hearts of the children to the fathers in preparation for Christ's return) and Hebrews 11:39,40, though our understanding of these concepts is derived from modern revelation, not an interpretation of a few passages.
While the LDS concept of baptism for the dead is arguably consistent with the Bible, it required modern revelation to restore the practice, including the necessary knowledge and priesthood keys (Matt. 16:18; Heb. 5:9) to perform it in a valid and proper way so that what is sealed on earth might be sealed in heaven as well.
This is a good point. There mere fact that some early groups practiced baptism for the dead is hardly a reason for others to accept it. However, as discussed above, I think Paul is citing that early Christian rite as a VALID practice, not as one of the many apostate ideas that he and the apostles were fighting with such vigor. (This, by the way, was one of the reasons God put apostles and prophets in charge of his Church, and why we still need them today - to keep Christians on course through inspired leadership [Eph. 4:11-14].) After the loss of the apostles, the apostasy that they were already fighting off became worse. Among the first theological casualties was an understanding of baptism for the dead, along with other concepts that were anathema to the popular Greek philosophy (Neoplatonism) of the day. By the time of Tertullian, baptism for the dead was considered a heresy, and he - and many since him - worked hard to explain it away. According to the LDS view, the practice was restored by revelation through the Prophet Joseph Smith in the 1830s, along with many other aspects of the original Church of Jesus Christ.
This seems to be a case of wrestling with the scriptures. The context of 1 Peter 3:18-22, which speaks of Christ going to preach to the dead while He was physically dead, is one of rescuing the sinners, not damning them all the more. "He, the just, suffered for the unjust, to bring us to God" (1 Peter 3:18, New English Bible). That His mission was to rescue and not torment is further clarified a few verses later in 1 Peter 4:6: "Why was the Gospel preached to those who are dead? In order that, although in the body they received the sentence common to men, they might in the spirit be alive with the life of God" (New English Bible). The spirits of the dead, including those who died long before Christ was born, had the Gospel preached to them - not to add to their torment, but to make it possible to enjoy the life of God.
In fact, this theme of Christ rescuing the souls of the dead by descending into Hades is an ancient and widespread theme in Christianity, one that persisted into the Middle Ages but seems to have been more fully lost since the Reformation. Christ's mission of rescuing souls in hell is sometimes called the Descensus or the "Harrowing of Hell" or the "Descent into Limbo." Daniel C. Peterson provides support for the Descensus as a standard Christian theme for centuries with abundant references and images of Christian artwork in "Skin Deep," his review of Rudiger Hauth's anti-Mormon work, Die Mormonen in FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1997, pp. 99-146 (see esp. 131-139). Christ's spiritual descent into hell is mentioned in several versions of the Apostles Creed and the Athanasian Creed, and other Christian documents. It is even found in Dante's Inferno (IV.52-63), which mentions how Christ rescued the spirits of Adam, Abel, Moses, Noah, Abraham, David, Rachel, and others. After referring to many other examples, Peterson summarizes:
There seems little point in further multiplying references. "Most Christian theologians," says the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church of the so-called Descensus, "believe that it refers to the visit of the Lord after His death to the realm of existence, which is neither heaven nor hell in the ultimate sense, but a place or state where the souls of pre-Christian people waited for the message of the Gospel, and whither the penitent thief passed after his death on the cross (Lk. 23.43)."
[F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 395, as cited by Peterson, p. 137; Peterson also cites extensive treatments on the Descensus in other books.]
The only supremely important and personal decision that matters is what the individual in question decides. Baptism for the dead will be made available by proxy for every person who never had the chance to be baptized after reaching the age of accountability. That doesn't make the person a Mormon or make any decision for them at all! They don't get listed on our membership records. The proxy baptism has no effect that should cause any worry. It gives the person in the spirit world the privilege of accepting or rejecting that baptism. It's their decision. Our command is to carry out this work for all mankind. We're doing as much as we can now, but the records are inadequate for all mankind. The remaining work will be done during the great Millennium, when the Book of Revelation indicates that the saints will be working in the temple night and day.
Yes, the early Christian writer Hermas definitely provides evidence that baptism for the dead was a biblical and Christian concept. His writings were even revered as scripture by some early Christians, though they are not part of the modern canon. Richard L. Anderson in his book, Understanding Paul (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983), provides an excellent discussion of the teachings in Hermas on this topic. I quote from pages 408 - 410:
Some scholars are too cautious to link 1 Peter 3:19 on Christ preaching in the spirit prison with 1 Peter 4:6 on the general preaching to the dead. But the key words for preaching in those verses are kerusso and euangelizo, the only two words in the New Testament that are consistently used of the missionary proclamation of the gospel. These synonyms show that Peter is talking of similar events. God cannot reach all his children without sending messengers to the worlds of the living and of the dead. And the two Greek words just mentioned constantly refer to teaching baptism as well as faith. For instance, nearly every baptism mentioned in Acts is preceded by one of these words, generally translated "preach" or "preach the gospel." Christ's commission to the Twelve at the end of Matthew and Mark commands baptism as the immediate result of the preaching. Thus, Peter virtually suggests Paul's baptism for the dead in his verbs for preaching to the dead, the same verbs that are found in the above early Christian references on Christ's visit to the spirit world. In turn, Paul virtually suggests Peter's concern for the living and the dead in the context of baptism for the dead in 1 Corinthians 15:29, as already discussed in the chapter treating that letter. And the two interrelated doctrines come together in the document known as the Shepherd of Hermas, which derives its name from a series of visions and teachings from an angel as a shepherd. In the second century the Muratorian Canon gives the date as midcentury: "But Hermas composed the Shepherd quite recently in our times in the city of Rome, while his brother, Pius, the bishop, occupied the chair of the city of Rome."
The Shepherd of Hermas is not a source for new doctrine, for its main theme is preserving the faith. Its author is dutiful and conservative, seeking to hold to what he had been taught in a Christian career going back to the turn of the century and Clement of Rome, whom he mentions.... Thus, he is a source for the common doctrines and practices of the Christian Church. And he welds preaching to the dead to baptism for the dead. These doctrines come in the allegory of building the tower, which the angel defines as the Church [Anderson cites The Shepherd of Hermas, Similitude 9.16.2-4 (Loeb Classical Library, Kirsopp Lake trans.) I have a slightly different translation with essentially the same content: The Third Book of Hermas, Similitude 9, in The Lost Books of the Bible, Alpha House, Inc., Newfoundland, 1926, reprinted by World Publishing, New York, 1972, pp. 247-267; see especially verses 150-159, p. 258. Another translation is available online at www.newadvent.org/fathers/02013.htm.] The three lower courses of stones represent the foundation generations of the righteous men of the Old Testament, with the last and largest number of 40 representing the "prophets and teachers of the preaching of the Son of God." These have the seal, clearly defined as baptism by (1) the requirement "to come up through the water that they might be made alive"; (2) the quotation of John 3:5, referring to water as the way to "enter into the kingdom of God"; and (3) the summary, "the seal, then, is the water." As the following passage begins, Hermas's messenger is explaining that the pre-Christian dead - "who had fallen asleep" - were also baptized; this is followed by the explanation that the New Testament priesthood bearers had been baptized again to make this possible [Anderson cites Sim. 9.16.3-7; see also The Third Book of Hermas, Sim. 9, vs. 152-160]:
"So these also who had fallen asleep received the seal of the Son of God and 'entered into the kingdom of God'. . . . This seal, then, was preached to them also, and they made use of it 'to enter into the kingdom of God.'"
"Why, Sir," said I, "did the 40 stones also come up with them from the deep, although they had received the seal already?"
"Because," said he, "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. . . . For they had fallen asleep in righteousness and in great purity, only they had not received this seal. You have then the explanation of these things also."
Some parts of the above message are obvious, and others are clear in the light of Hermas's purpose in writing. Since the above words explain the vision-parable or allegory, they relate to Christian doctrine and practice. The plainest point is that after death the "apostles and teachers" continued their missionary labors in the spirit world, adding the dimension that preaching to the dead continued after Christ. The consequences of that doctrine are revolutionary. Thus, the spirits do not merely receive an announcement of Christ's victory; continued preaching assumes individual growth there and acceptance of gospel principles beyond simple belief. Thus, the emphasis on baptism for the pre-Christian righteous logically fits the scheme. But what kind of baptism? . . .
Hermas's book proves that he is a Christian traditionalist, and the spirit-world passage underlines the point by three repetitions of the words of John 3:5 on entering the kingdom of God through water. He is so bound by scripture that he cannot imagine salvation without baptism, and he obviously writes with consciousness of Peter's words on preaching in the spirit world. Thus, Hermas also writes with awareness of Paul's reference to baptisms of the living for the dead. Those "fallen asleep" in his passage are, of course, the dead, and his subject closes with plain words about the righteous who had died without baptism. So Hermas is discussing what Christians believe about baptism for the dead; so this "pious and conscientious" author certainly refers to the known baptism for the dead and not the unknown. That explains his question to the angel, for he found it contradictory that the New Testament priesthood leaders went into the deep again, the symbol of their personal baptisms. If they would merely baptize others, there could be no puzzle. So Hermas's question was really about rebaptism of those already baptized. The explanation was that both groups go into the water, but the effect of remission of sins is only for those dying without baptism. This cooperative baptism is proxy baptism, the only type mentioned by the "apostles and teachers" that he refers to. The joint immersion in water is part of the symbolism not expressly interpreted, referring to the earthly baptisms that were a shared experience of the living and the dead.
I believe you are referring to Alma 34:33-35:
33 And now, as I said unto you before, as ye have had so many witnesses, therefore, I beseech of you that ye do not procrastinate the day of your repentance until the end; for after this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed.
34 Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis, that I will repent, that I will return to my God. Nay, ye cannot say this; for that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world.
35 For behold, if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death, behold, ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil, and he doth seal you his; therefore, the Spirit of the Lord hath withdrawn from you, and hath no place in you, and the devil hath all power over you; and this is the final state of the wicked.
This does seem to say that the wicked will not be able to change after death. But the audience is the group called the Zoramites in the Book of Mormon, a group of former Nephites that had once had true religion but had rebelled against it and left. Alma, Amulek and others went to the rebellious Zoramite and preached the Gospel seeking to bring them back. The words of Amulek in Alma 34:33-35 can be understood to mean that those who have heard the Gospel and knowingly reject it, and who know they need to repent but refuse to do, cannot procrastinate repentance until the time of death or after. But this says nothing about those who have not had a fair chance to hear and accept the Gospel.
A couple of common misinterpretations of this passage from Alma are addressed well by John Tvedtnes and Matthew Roper in their short article, "Do Not Procrastinate the Day of Your Repentance," Insights (a FARMS publication), Oct. 2000.
There are many blessings provided through the LDS Temple concept. Work for the dead is a very important part of those blessings, but there are others. LDS members make sacred covenants in the Temple, including the marriage covenant, and through the Temple draw closer to God. It is a house of prayer, of revelation, of worship, and beauty. I'm grateful for all the blessings that the restored Temple provides us in these days, though I am especially impressed by the mercy and goodness that is expressed in the ordinance of baptism for the dead.
The Redemption of the Dead and the Testimony of Jesus - a marvelous sermon by Elder D. Todd Christofferson at the October 2000 General Conference.
The Covenant of Baptism: To Be in the Kingdom and of the Kingdom - a talk by Elder Robert D. Hales.
Baptism for the Dead by Michael T. Griffith.
Baptism for the Dead in an Ancient Christian Text: The Shepherd Of Hermas and Proxy Baptism by Michael T. Griffith
"Some Notes on Baptism for the Dead in 1 Corinthians 15:29" by Mike Griffith. Cites many sources discussion baptism for the dead and 1 Cor. 15:29.
"Baptism for the Dead in Early Christianity" by John A. Tvedtnes, from The Temple in Time and Eternity, pp. 55-78. Excellent survey of related practices and teachings that we know of from several early Christian groups.
Baptism for the Dead: The Coptic Rationale - a scholarly review by Dr. John A. Tvedtnes of the early Christian practice of baptism for the dead, as understood by Coptic Christians. This paper was presented at a 1981 symposium in Jerusalem, sponsored by the L.A. Mayer Memorial Museum of Islamic Art and the Israel Ministry of Education and Culture and later published in Special Papers of the Society for Early Historic Archaeology, No. 2 (September 1989). The Jerusalem symposium marked the opening of an exhibit of Coptic art at the museum, where Dr. Tvedtnes one of two American scholars invited to speak.
"The Dead Shall Hear the Voice" - A review of an anti-Mormon publication by the inimitable John Tvedtnes in FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 10, No. 2, 1998.
Temple Imagery in the Epistles of Peter by Daniel B. McKinlay, an excellent and scholarly essay that includes treatment of passages in Peter about the preaching of the Gospel to the dead (including a discussion of alternate interpretations that others have offered). Available at FARMS, reprinted Temples of the Ancient World: Ritual and Symbolism (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1994, pp. 492-514).
"The Harrowing of Hell: Salvation for the Dead in Early Christianity" by Kendel J. Christensen, Roger D. Cook, and David L. Paulsen. A thorough scholarly exploration of an often-forgotten early Christian theme. Quoting from the conclusion of this paper: "God 'sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved' (John 3:17). The doctrine of the harrowing of hell explains how this can be despite the fact that so many have died without hearing the Son's message of salvation. This doctrine was present in apocalyptic Judaism and in apocalyptic Christianity, and Christ taught the doctrine to his disciples. It was also confirmed by the church fathers and in the Apostles' Creed. Subsequently, it was rejected first by Augustine and later by Reformers such as Calvin and Luther, This led, regrettably, to its almost universal disappearance from the teachings of modern-day Christendom."
"Baptism for the Dead in Early Christianity" by David L. Paulsen, and Brock M. Mason. They provide evidence that the practice of baptism for the dead existed in some early Christian6 communities. They show that early Christians, including New Testament writers, taught that baptism is essential to salvation. Because of this belief, vicarious baptisms were performed to ensure that the unbaptized dead would not be denied access to salvation. They also examine 1 Corinthians 15:29 and support what some modern scholars call the "majority reading," which understands 15:29 as a reference to vicarious baptism. They also explore the historical practice of proxy baptisms by early Christian communities which, of course, are now labeled "heretical." Fascinating paper.
Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times - an early, groundbreaking article by Dr. Hugh Nibley. More evidence has been found since this scholarly exploration was first published in 1948, but it's still valuable today. Nibley provides many exciting leads and reviews a variety of ancient sources not available to Joseph Smith.
"Temple Imagery in the Epistles of Peter" by Daniel B. McKinlay, an excellent and scholarly essay that includes treatment of passages in Peter about the preaching of the Gospel to the dead (including a discussion of alternate interpretations that others have offered). Available at FARMS, reprinted Temples of the Ancient World: Ritual and Symbolism (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1994, pp. 492-514).
"Redeeming the Dead: Tender Mercies, Turning of Hearts, and Restoration of Authority" by David L. Paulsen, Kendel J. Christensen, and Martin Pulido. This paper (1)reviews historical responses to this doctrine until the Reformation; (2) examine modern treatments of postmortem preaching of the Gospel and vicarious ordinances for the dead; (3) details the sequences of Joseph Smith's revelations related to redemption for the dead; and (4) explains how the doctrines of the Restoration solve the soteriological problem of evil.
Ancient Evidences for Baptism for the Dead (archived) - this file is an edited extract from a chapter in Michael T. Griffith's book, One Lord, One Faith: Writings of the Early Christian Fathers As Evidences of the Restoration (Horizon Publishers, 1996).
Questions about the Dead - do they live as spirit beings or are they just unconscious (or nonexistent)? Raymond Woodworth answers these questions.
Maximus Nothus Decretum: A Look at the Recent Catholic Declaration regarding Latter-day Saint Baptisms - an excellent article by Alonzo Gaskill from FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 13, No. 2, 2001, pp. 175-196.
Mormonism and Early Christianity (an excellent site by Barry Bickmore)
Views of a Non-LDS Scholar, Krister Stendahl, on the Ancient Practice of Baptism for the Dead - brief comments from Bishop Stendahl, a Lutheran, who was formerly the Dean and Professor of Divinity at the Harvard Divinity School. (Scroll down to see Krister Stendahl's section.)