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Why Are People Baptized for the Dead?
1 Corinthians 15:29
On August 15, 1840, the Prophet Joseph Smith was preaching at the funeral of Seymour Brunson. Seeing a widow in the congregation who had recently lost a son before he could be baptized, Joseph Smith introduced one of the most significant doctrines of the Restoration: baptisms for the dead.1 This ordinance would be the theme of many of Joseph’s revelations, letters, and discourses during the following months, especially as the Nauvoo Temple was being constructed.2
As biblical evidence that this ordinance was performed in ancient Christianity, Joseph Smith turned to 1 Corinthians 15:29: “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?”3 This verse constitutes the only explicit reference to this ordinance for the deceased in the New Testament, and it has led many modern scholars to wonder what Paul might have been referring to and whether proxy baptisms were actually performed in antiquity. As additional texts have come to light, however, most scholars today conclude that the clearest reading of this verse states that early Christians actually performed vicarious ordinances for the dead.
For example, after reviewing attempts to interpret this passage as referring to a metaphor or a regular baptism, one scholar concluded that “all interpretations which seek to evade vicarious baptism for the dead … are misleading.”4 Similarly, Reginald St. John Parry noted that “the plain and necessary sense of the words implies the existence of a practice of vicarious baptism at Corinth, presumably on behalf of believers who died before they were baptised. … Many attempts have been made to evade this conclusion, but all at the cost of violence to the language. … In fact, all such evasions are wholly due to the unwillingness to admit such a practice, and still more such a reference to it by S. Paul without condemnation.”5
While some scholars may wish to argue that Paul secretly disapproved of vicarious baptisms, no evidence supports this conclusion within 1 Corinthians, especially given Paul’s open willingness to criticize cultural or religious practices that ran counter to the gospel of Jesus Christ, thereby “suggesting [baptism for the dead] was among the accepted Christian practices.”6 In this masterful letter to friends he had lived with for a year and a half, Paul corrected many incorrect beliefs and practices that had crept into the fledgling branch of the Church there, including some incorrect beliefs about the Resurrection. Paul emphasized that like Christ, everyone would be resurrected into a kingdom of glory. In this context, Paul is using baptisms for the dead to ultimately strengthen his argument in favor of the resurrection of the dead—showing that he understood and approved of the practice. Baptism is still a requirement to enter the kingdom of heaven (see John 3:5), and those who died without being able to receive this ordinance would then depend on living individuals to perform these ordinances as a proxy for them.
Limited evidence from other early Christian texts may also allude to baptism for the dead. For example, in the Apocalypse of Peter the Lord declared regarding the dead, “I will give to my called and my elect whomever they request of me from out of punishment. And I will give them a beautiful baptism in salvation … a share in righteousness with my saints.”7 In other words, the righteous Saints could request that salvation be shared with dead sinners, who would then be saved through baptism. Similarly, the Shepherd of Hermas, which was written only about forty years after Paul wrote 1 Corinthians and contained many quotations from early Christian scripture, describes how “apostles and teachers who preached the name of the Son of God” preached the Gospel to the living and the dead. Furthermore, these same Apostles and teachers “descended with [the dead] into the water, and again ascended. But these descended alive and rose up again alive; whereas they who had previously fallen asleep descended dead, but rose up again alive.”8 John A. Tvedtnes has likewise noted that baptisms for the dead have played a significant role in the texts and ordinances of the Coptic Orthodox Church.9
The practice may have been more widespread than the limited evidence now available suggests since Christians generally did not describe any of their ordinances in any depth for the first two centuries, keeping the information sacredly guarded.10 This appears to be especially the case with ordinances performed on behalf of the dead. David L. Paulsen and Brock M. Mason observed that “nearly all the texts purporting to contain teachings of Christ concerning salvation for the dead emphasize that his teachings were closely guarded, reserved only for those whom the Lord deemed worthy to hear them.”11 The sacred silence placed upon this doctrine and these ordinances, then, limits the source material available to modern scholars for study.
When Clement, as an investigator, asked Peter, “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?” Peter with reticence described the sacred nature of ordinances for the dead: “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.”12 According to Hugh Nibley, this reticence reflects the “occasions Peter and other apostles are forbidden to talk about certain things” in the New Testament.13 This is especially evident in the bestowal of the apostolic keys upon Peter, giving him power over the gates of hell—that is, the realm of the dead—during which Jesus “gave a watchword” to His Apostles “not to tell it to any man.”14
Eventually the practice of baptism for the dead came to be strongly associated with heretical sects, which further complicated the evidence for the practice among mainstream Christians. For instance, ancient Christian theologians such as Tertullian and Ambrosiaster quoted 1 Corinthians 15:29 as referring to vicarious baptisms but later attempted to distance Christianity from such a practice.15 This later aversion was evidently in response to the Marcionite and Cerinthian heresies since the founders of each sect are each described as performing baptisms on behalf of the dead.16
While some details are conflicting based on extant accounts hostile to these sects, it is clear that baptisms for the dead were still being performed as late as the fifth century AD, albeit without priesthood authority.17 While it may be tempting to dismiss this ordinance because of its acceptance by heretical sects, Scott R. Peterson has observed that “several logical fallacies exist” in such an approach, especially regarding other ordinances such as the sacrament that were likewise accepted by these sects as well as the orthodox church.18
After regarding these later theological developments, Krister Stendahl, the late Bishop of Stockholm for the Church of Sweden, noted: “Once the theological pressures from later possible developments of practice and doctrine are felt less constricting, the text [1 Corinthians 15:29] seems to speak plainly enough about a practice within the Church of vicarious baptism for the dead.”19 That is to say, as Peterson noted, there is little reason to reject the reality of such an authentic Christian ordinance simply because later Church leaders and theologians “had lost a sense of the importance of the rite, while smaller sects … continued to embrace the ordinance.”20
Though the ordinance is only briefly mentioned in the New Testament, it is apparent that baptisms for the dead played an important role in early Christian theology, particularly as it related to salvation for the dead, inaugurated by Christ’s preaching to the deceased and encouraging them to accept that covenantal offer.21 These sacred ordinances thus allow all to accept the love and mercy of God in their lives, giving everyone who has ever lived the opportunity to accept the gospel of Jesus Christ for themselves, through a covenant that is recorded on earth and thereby bound in heaven (D&C 127:7; 128:9).
In modern times, this ordinance and the authority to perform it has been restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith and is performed in temples throughout the world. Baptism and other essential, saving ordinances are performed for those who were unable or unwilling to accept them in this life but might do so on the other side of the veil so they, too, might “live according to God in the spirit” (1 Peter 4:6). As we continue to worship in the temple and perform these ordinances, we have the assurance that just like the early Christians, we might stand as saviors on Mount Zion and bring the blessings of Jesus Christ’s Atonement to all God’s children on both sides of the veil.
Hugh Nibley, “Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times,” in Mormonism and Early Christianity (Provo, UT: FARMS; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1987), 100–167.
Hugh Nibley, “Two Ways to Remember the Dead,” in The World and the Prophets (Provo, UT: FARMS; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1987), 163–171.
Richard D. Draper and Michael D. Rhodes, Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2017), 788–793.
David L. Paulsen and Brock M. Mason, “Baptism for the Dead in Early Christianity,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 19, no. 2 (2010): 22–49.
David L. Paulsen, Kendel J. Christensen, and Martin Pulido, “Redeeming the Dead: Tender Mercies, Turning of Hearts, and Restoration of Authority,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 20, no. 1 (2011): 28–51.
Hans A. Pohlsander, review of Rescue for the Dead: The Posthumous Salvation of Non-Christians in Early Christianity, by Jeffrey A. Trumbower, BYU Studies Quarterly 41, no. 2 (2002): 187–191.
Krister Stendahl, “Baptism for the Dead: Ancient Sources,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols., ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1992), 1:97.
- 1. David L. Paulsen, Kendel J. Christensen, and Martin Pulido, “Redeeming the Dead: Tender Mercies, Turning of Hearts, and Restoration of Authority,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 20, no. 1 (2011): 41.
- 2. Doctrine and Covenants 124:29–39, for instance, describes baptism for the dead as an ordinance specifically meant to be performed in temples, only be performed outside of temples provisionally when no temple had been built and as authorized by the prophet.
- 3. This verse was cited in Joseph’s sermon at the funeral of Seymour Brunson as well as in Doctrine and Covenants 128:16.
- 4. Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983), 1:542n63.
- 5. Reginald St. John Parry, Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges: First Epistle to the Corinthians (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1926), 228–229.
- 6. Richard D. Draper and Michael D. Rhodes, Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2017), 789. Regarding this principle, Paulsen et al., “Baptism for the Dead,” 31, note: “Paul’s failure to openly condemn the practice was in effect an endorsement of the same. It has been asserted that Paul’s lack of condemnation on the subject has a parallel to Paul’s initial unwillingness to condemn the practice of eating meat sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 8:10). But the parallel is weak, since Paul does state explicitly later in the same epistle that such a practice is inherently wrong (1 Corinthians 10:21). We do not find that in respect to baptisms for the dead.”
- 7. Apocalypse of Peter 14.
- 8. Shepherd of Hermas, Similitudes 9.16. The referent to baptisms for the dead has been noted by non–Latter-day Saint scholar Carolyn Osiek in her commentary of the Shepherd. She notes, “These verses, without saying so, present a good argument in favor of baptism in the name of the dead, apparently already an act of piety in first-century Corinth. … [H]ere with the pre-Christian dead, the problem is … they practiced virtue in their lives, but had not received baptism. Through the apostles and teachers, this problem is solved.” Carolyn Osiek, Shepherd of Hermas: A Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1999), 238. Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev of the Eastern Orthodox faith has likewise noted that this verse is often understood in the context of proxy baptisms in Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009), 25n33.
- 9. See John A. Tvedtnes, “Baptism for the Dead in Early Christianity,” in The Temple in Time and Eternity, ed. Donald W. Parry and Stephen D. Ricks (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies [FARMS], 1999), 67–71; John A. Tvedtnes, “Baptism for the Dead: The Coptic Rationale” (paper presented at a symposium sponsored by the L.A. Mayer Memorial Museum of Islamic Art and the Israel Ministry of Education and Culture, Jerusalem, Israel, June 5, 1981). Tvedtnes also notes that baptisms for the dead may still be practiced among some Coptic Christians in the modern day (“Baptism for the Dead in Early Christianity,” 68).
- 10. For a discussion on the sacred nature of these ordinances meriting such little discussion, see Barry Robert Bickmore, Restoring the Ancient Church: Joseph Smith and Early Christianity, 2nd ed. (Ben Lomond, CA: FAIR, 2013), 158–164.
- 11. David L. Paulsen and Brock M. Mason, “Baptism for the Dead in Early Christianity,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 19, no. 2 (2010): 39. See also Nibley, “Baptism for the Dead,” 113–114. Many of these texts are part of the so-called forty-day literature. For an overview of these early Christian writings, see Book of Mormon Central, “What Might Jesus Have Taught His Apostles for Forty Days? (Acts 1:3),” KnoWhy 678 (July 4, 2023).
- 12. Clementine Recognitions, 1.52.
- 13. Hugh Nibley, “Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times,” in Mormonism and Early Christianity, ed. Todd M. Compton and Stephen D. Ricks (Provo, UT: FARMS; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1987), 104.
- 14. Nibley, “Baptism for the Dead,” 104. Nibley is citing Luke 9:21, drawing on the meaning of the Greek text to offer the present rendering of the text. For a detailed discussion of the gates of hell in this context, see pages 105–109. The idea that the gates of hell referred to Satan’s power and dominion and that therefore Jesus promised the Church would not be overcome by apostasy is a late addition to the text that would be entirely foreign to the New Testament Church.
- 15. For a discussion on Tertullian and Ambrosiaster’s comments, see Paulsen et al., “Baptism for the Dead,” 31–33. Tertullian would later recant his statement about vicarious baptisms in response to the Marcionite heresy, as they still performed baptisms for the dead and Tertullian wanted to distance this sect from orthodoxy as much as possible.
- 16. While Latter-day Saints believe in performing ordinances for the dead, we should not be too quick to conclude based on a few similarities that either Marcion’s or Cerinthus’s teachings were more correct than their contemporaries simply because they preserved a version of this practice. Marcion, for example, rejected the Old Testament and believed Jehovah to be an evil demiurge responsible for trapping the souls of mankind in a material form—all of which runs counter to the truths of the restored gospel. While these two may have maintained some truths that were largely rejected during their lifetimes, they likewise held to many false doctrines that rightly earned them criticism from other Christians.
- 17. For a discussion on the Marcionite practice of proxy baptisms, see Paulsen et al., “Baptism for the Dead,” 39–42. For a brief note regarding the Cerinthian heresy, see Scott R. Peterson, Do the Mormons Have a Leg to Stand On? A Critical Look at LDS Doctrines in Light of the Bible and the Teachings of the Early Christian Church (Orem, UT: Millenial Press, 2014), 244–245.
- 18. Peterson, Do the Mormons Have a Leg to Stand On?, 245. While these ordinances may have been lost as time passed, that is not to say that later Christians stopped being concerned for their dead. Shadows of this doctrine exist in later rites that were performed for the benefit of the dead. For a discussion on how later Christians attempted to remember the dead, see the discussions in Catherine Gines Taylor, “Inclining Christian Hearts: Work for the Dead,” in Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints, ed. Jason R. Combs, Mark D. Ellison, Catherine Gines Taylor, and Kristian S. Heal (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute, 2022), 395–431; and D. Jill Kirby, “Living in the Afterlife: Heaven, Hell, and Places Between,” in Ancient Christians, 392–449.
- 19. Krister Stendahl, “Baptism for the Dead: Ancient Sources,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols., ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1992), 1:97. For another Christian supporter of early Christians securing salvation for deceased loved ones, see the Hans A. Pohlsander, review of Rescue for the Dead: The Posthumous Salvation of Non-Christians in Early Christianity, by Jeffrey A. Trumbower, BYU Studies Quarterly 41, no. 2 (2002): 187–191.
- 20. Peterson, Do the Mormons Have a Leg to Stand On?, 252.
- 21. See 1 Peter 3:18–20; 4:6. For a discussion on how proxy ordinances are so closely interrelated to this ministry, see Nibley, “Baptism for the Dead,” 115–121.
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