Mormonism and Early Christianity:

Baptism for the Dead

by Barry Bickmore

©1997. All Rights Reserved.

Reference Info - glossary of ancient Christian writers and documents, guide to abbreviations, bibliography.

"Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." [See my article on the necessity of baptism.] How does one reconcile Jesus' statement with the fact that the unbaptized dead can be saved in the kingdom of God? [See my article on the preaching mission to the dead.] Joseph Smith had an answer that shocked the rest of Christianity - the living can be baptized as proxies for the dead! In this ordinance, one is baptized in behalf of a dead forbear, so that if that person decides to accept the gospel in the spirit world, the ordinance for the entrance into the kingdom of God will have been done for him.

Paul mentioned this ordinance in passing as part of his argument for the reality of the resurrection: "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 Commentators have long recognized that the plain meaning of the passage is that living people were being baptized for dead friends or relatives, but they usually try to get out of it by placing some other, more dubious interpretation on this verse. Thus Henry Halley:

    This seems to mean vicarious baptism, that is, baptism for a dead friend. But there is no other Bible reference to such a practice, and no evidence that it existed in the Apostolic Church. Perhaps a better translation would be "baptized in hope of the resurrection.2

But Paul's statement itself is evidence that baptism for the dead existed in the Apostolic Church! The NIV Study Bible admits that, "The present tense suggests that at Corinth people were currently being baptized for the dead."3 And if "baptized for the dead" really means "baptized in hope of the resurrection", it is an idiom translators have no knowledge of, or they would have used it to sidestep the obvious meaning of the passage.

Another popular argument is that "Paul mentions this custom almost in passing, using it in his arguments substantiating the resurrection of the dead, but without necessarily aproving the practice."4 But why would Paul use some heretical practice in his arguments for the resurrection? Couldn't he find some more firm foundation for this all-important Christian doctrine? And if he mentioned it in passing, wouldn't that mean that his audience, the Corinthians, were thoroughly familiar with the practice and its implications?

A wide variety of such strange interpretations of this verse have been propagated over the centuries. (Jehovah's Witnesses are even so bold as to change the wording of the passage in their Bible: "Otherwise, what will they do who are being baptized for the purpose of [being] dead ones?"5 This is not justified by the Greek text.) The basic premise of all these arguments, however, is that since they have no more information concerning the practice, it must either be illegitimate, or the verse must be interpreted in some other way, because Christianity certainly couldn't have lost an important practice like that! But the information concerning this strange doctrine has been lost, and it took a prophet to restore it. In a recent study of the verse in question, Richard DeMaris of Valparaiso University admits that despite dozens of proposed interpretations, "the reference itself is simply so obscure and our knowledge so limited that we cannot discern just what this rite actually involved or meant."6 However, his article makes it clear that such a rite did exist, even though he contends that it was probably confined to the area of Corinth.

Related to the practice of baptism for the dead is the idea that the spirits of the dead must be baptized in the spirit world after accepting the Gospel there. According to Kirsopp Lake, "The idea that hearing the gospel and baptism is necessary for the salvation of the righteous dead of pre-Christian times is common...."7 For example, the Pastor of Hermas related that the apostles baptized the righteous dead after preaching to them:

    "They were obliged," he answered, "to ascend through water in order that they might be made alive; for, unless they laid aside the deadness of their life, they could not in any other way enter into the kingdom of God. Accordingly, those also who fell asleep received the seal of the Son of God. For," he continued, "before a man bears the name of the Son of God he is dead; but when he receives the seal he lays aside his deadness, and obtains life. The seal, then, is the water: they descend into the water dead, and they arise alive.8

Jesus preached the same doctrine in the Epistle of the Apostles:

    For to that end went I down unto the place of Lazarus, and preached unto the righteous and the prophets, that they might come out of the rest which is below and come up into that which is above; and I poured out upon them with my right hand the water [of] (baptism)... of life and forgiveness and salvation from all evil, as I have done unto you and unto them that believe on me.9

But if the dead receive their baptism in the world of spirits, why do they need vicarious baptism? Clement of Alexandria brought up an interesting point after quoting the passage from Hermas:

    "They went down therefore into the water and again ascended.... But those who had fallen asleep, descended dead, but ascended alive...." Then, too, the more subtle substance, the soul, could never receive any injury from the grosser element of water....10

Of course you can't baptize a spirit in real water! Such a physically oriented ordinance must be performed in mortality. Although it is not strictly official doctrine, many Latter-day Saints believe that such ordinances must be performed in the spirit world to effectualize the ordinances performed vicariously in the world of the living. After all, a spirit must accept the ordinances done for him. For instance, in a report requested by the First Presidency of the LDS Church, Heber Q. Hale, president of the Boise stake, related that in a vision he had seen, "Ordinances [were] performed in the spirit world effectualizing the individual recipient for their receiving the saving principles of the Gospel vicariously performed here."11

In the Gospel of Nicodemus the concept was taken somewhat further. Two brothers were resurrected in this story after hearing Christ preach in the spirit world. Then, in their resurrected form, they were baptized in the Jordan.

    And after they had thus spoken, the Saviour blessed Adam with the sign of the cross on his forehead, and did this also to the patriarchs, and prophets, and martyrs, and forefathers; and He took them, and sprang up out of Hades.... All these things we saw and heard; we, the two brothers, who also have been sent by Michael the archangel, and have been ordered to proclaim the resurrection of the Lord, but first to go away to the Jordan and to be baptized. Thither also we have gone, and have been baptized with the rest of the dead who have risen. 12

All this has merely hinted at baptism for the dead, but one thing is always certain - the dead need baptism to be saved. Was baptism for the dead practiced in the early Church? Aside from Paul's reference there is only mention of a few heretical groups who preserved the practice. According to Fillion, the Cerinthians and Marcionites, two heretical sects, practiced baptism for the dead on behalf of deceased friends and relatives.13 Epiphanius described the practice of the Cerinthians in Corinth and Galatia:

    Among them there also exists the tradition of which we have heard, namely that when some of them die before being baptized, others are baptized in place of them in their name, so that when they rise in the resurrection they may not pay the penalty of not having received baptism and become subject to the authority of the one who made the world. And this is the reason, so the tradition of which we have heard states, that the holy Apostle said, "If the dead are not rased at all, why are they baptized for them?"14

Why wasn't this practice preserved in the "orthodox" branches of the Church? Peter, in the Clementine Recognitions, may give us a clue:

    When he had thus spoken, I answered: "If those shall enjoy the kingdom of Christ, whom his coming shall find righteous, shall then those be wholly deprived of the kingdom who have died before His coming?" Then Peter says: "You compel me, O Clement, to touch upon things that are unspeakable. But so far as it is allowed to declare them, I shall not shrink from doing so... for not only shall they [the righteous dead] escape the pains of hell, but shall also remain incorruptible, and shall be the first to see God the Father, and shall obtain the rank of honour among the first in the presence of God."15

And the Apostles, near the end of Jesus' discourse in the Epistle of the Apostles, which included mention of the doctrine of salvation for the dead, said: "And we will preach it to those to whom it is fitting."16

Was baptism for the dead kept somewhat secret? Peter seemed to indicate here that the entire subject of salvation for the dead was off limits in casual conversation. The subject of secret rites and doctrines within the early Church will be discussed more fully in a later chapter, but for now it will suffice to point out that all the sacraments of the Church were veiled in secrecy until the third century. According to Davies, in the first two centuries of Christianity: "Baptism and the Eucharist were the twin poles of the Christian's cultic life, but, while references to them are not unplentiful, the observance of the disciplina arcani [secret discipline] inhibited full descriptions of these rites."17 Indeed, Tertullian's On Baptism (ca. 200 A.D.) is "the sole pre-Nicene treatise on any of the sacraments."18

Therefore, it is hardly surprising that baptism for the dead was lost early on, if it was never revealed to everyone. This is unfortunate, however, since this doctrine and practice are essential to an understanding of God's mercy and justice in action.

Before we move on, however, we should deal with the various objections mainstream Christians have had to the LDS practice of baptism for the dead. Although most mainstream Christian critics almost never bother to deal with the LDS arguments summarized above, one Catholic author, Bernard Foschini, at least became familiar with them in passing by reading Hugh Nibley's classic study, "Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times".19 The objections Foschini raises to Nibley's arguments, however, are for the most part laughable.

For example, Foschini points out various scriptures20 which seem to indicate that it is too late for one to change his ways after he dies.21 But he fails to note that baptism for the dead is not considered effective for those who have already rejected Christ - only for those who have never had a proper chance to accept or reject the truth; and the audiences to whom the passages he quotes were directed had heard the Good News.

Ignoring the LDS belief that vicarious works must be accepted or rejected by the beneficiary, Foschini erects a straw-man argument that baptism for the dead would take away free-will!

    If we, independently from the dead, can decide or change their eternal destinies, then the fact that they are damned or saved can no longer be attributed to their faults or their merits, but to ours. It would be our responsibility! It would be impossible, if we willed it, that anyone should go to hell!22

But this contradicts Paul's testimony that the righteous dead of Israel could not be made perfect without the Christians of his day: "God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect."23 Therefore, the salvation of the dead must depend in some measure upon us!

Given that the condition of the dead is unalterable, Foschini then reasons that Christ preached the Gospel to the dead only "as an announcement of the Redemption already accomplished."24 In other words, Christ merely went to the dead to tell them they were damned to hell. And yet Peter insists that the Gospel was preached so that they could "live according to God in the spirit"25, so apparently the dead can change their ways!

Finally, Foschini objects to Nibley's use of passages from the writings of the early Christian fathers to support the LDS belief. For, if an apostasy had occurred, as Mormons believe, why quote men who had lost the truth?

    Finally, if after the passing of the Apostles, the bankruptcy of the Church and of her true doctrine became glaringly apparent in her struggle with the gnostic so-called, why does Nibley now stress so much the words of men who had lost the Lord's doctrine? Why does he choose a few words of the Fathers who lived in the general disaster of the Church and hold them as true?26

Here Foschini entirely misses the point. No Latter-day Saint ever argued that the writings of the post-Apostolic Christians were to be considered authoritative! Rather, our point is that in many cases these documents preach doctrines that are at odds with mainstream Christian interpretation, but strikingly similar to those revealed to Joseph Smith. In light of this fact the LDS claims that an apostasy occurred, whereby many of the original doctrines and practices of the Church were gradually lost, and that these truths were restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith are entirely plausible. And if one admits that the LDS claims are plausible, he will be that much more likely to ask God whether they are, in actuality, true.


1 1 Corinthians 15:29.

2 Halley, Halley's Bible Handbook, p. 600.

3 The NIV Study Bible, p. 1757.

4 The NIV Study Bible, p. 1757.

5 1 Corinthians 15:29, The New World Translation.

6 DeMaris, "Corinthian Religion and Baptism for the Dead (1 Corinthians 15:29): Insights from Archaeology and Anthropology", Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 114, no. 4 (1995), p. 661.

7 Lake, The Apostolic Fathers, vol. 2, p. 263.

8 The Pastor of Hermas, Sim. 9:16, in ANF 2:49.

9 Epistle of the Apostles, in ANT, p. 494.

10 Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 6:6, in ANF 2:491-492.

11 Hale, The Heavenly Manifestation Given to Heber Q. Hale, President of the Boise Stake.

12 The Gospel of Nicodemus, in ANF 8:438-439.

13 Fillion, La Sainte Bible commentee d'apres la Vulgate, translated in Barker, The Divine Church, vol. 1, p. 68.

14 Epiphanius, Panarion 28, in Amidon, tr., The Panarion of St. Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis.

15 Clementine Recognitions 1:52 in ANF 8:91.

16 Epistula Apostolorum 40, in NTA 1:219.

17 Davies, The Early Christian Church, p. 102.

18 Davies, The Early Christian Church, p. 121.

19 Nibley, "Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times", in Mormonism and Early Christianity, pp. 100-167.

20 e.g. Hebrews 9:27, Matthew 25:13, and Luke 16:19-31.

21 Foschini, "Those who are Baptized for the Dead", p. 71.

22 Foschini, "Those who are Baptized for the Dead", p. 71. It is ironic that a Catholic should raise this particular argument against baptism for the dead. Linwood Urban writes that Martin Luther had a similar objection to medieval Catholic practice: "Luther soon realized, however, that his objections to the sale of indulgences applied with equal force to Masses offered on behalf of the dead. Like idulgences, Masses were bought and sold in the belief that remission of penalty would be granted to individuals in purgatory without regard to the state of their souls." (Urban, A Short History of Christian Thought, p. 283.)

23 Hebrews 11:40.

24 Foschini, "Those who are Baptized for the Dead", p. 71.

25 1 Peter 4:6.

26 Foschini, "Those who are Baptized for the Dead", p. 71.