Mormon Doctrine: Baptism for the Dead

By Wayne Jackson

The fifteenth chapter of Paul’s first Corinthian epistle deals with the subject of the bodily resurrection from the dead. This great treatise easily divides into four sections:

  1. the resurrection of Jesus Christ as documented by the testimony of many eye-witnesses (vv. 1-11);
  2. the Lord’s resurrection from the dead—a divine guarantee of the future resurrection of the body (vv. 12-34);
  3. the spiritual nature of the resurrection body (vv. 35-49); and
  4. the ultimate victory to be associated with the resurrection (vv. 50-58).

In the midst of this chapter, the apostle writes:

Else what shall they do that are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them? (v. 29, ASV).

It is rather well-known that the “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (Mormons) appeals to this passage in order to support their doctrine of vicarious baptism, i.e., the baptism of a living person, with the benefits of the rite (i.e., remission of sins) being transferred to another person, already deceased. According to B.H. Roberts, the major historian of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith, Jr., founder of the LDS movement, wrote:

A man may act as proxy for his own relatives . . . we may be baptized for those whom we have much friendship for (1950, 366).

In 1959, Stephen L. Richards, first counselor in the first presidency of the Salt Lake Church wrote:

All men are equal before the law and all are to have the opportunity, even the dead, to accept the Gospel and receive the promised blessings, but all must know and understand, and the dead who have gone on into the spirit world without knowledge of the Gospel are to be hereafter given an election to embrace it through vicarious works done for them by their descendants and other friends in the brotherhood of the Church. This work is done within the Temples provided for that purpose (1959, 11).

The doctrine of proxy obedience, including the notion that one may be immersed for another person, is wrong. It violates numerous principles of Scripture. Consider the following.

Ezekiel, an Old Testament prophet, argued that neither obedience nor disobedience is transferable from one generation to another.

The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself (Ezekiel 18:20, NASB).

Note that what is said with reference to “righteousness” is equally applicable to “wickedness.”

If it were possible for a living person to submit to an act of righteousness (e.g., baptism), and have the attendant blessing transferred to someone else in the realm of the dead, why could not a living person commit an act of evil (e.g., murder or robbery), and have the resulting condemnation transferred to another in the domain of the dead?

The fact is, the Bible teaches that judgment will be of “each one” according “to what he has done, whether it be good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). Again, “each one of us shall give account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12). No one will be judged upon the basis of another’s deeds.

In the Lord’s parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1ff), the foolish virgins who failed to secure sufficient oil, i.e., they had not made adequate personal preparation, and who subsequently “slept,” i.e., they died (cf. Daniel 12:2; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14), met the bridegroom (Christ) in that same unprepared condition. Moreover, when the foolish attempted to “borrow” preparation from the wise, they were refused. Among other things, this narrative unquestionably teaches that obedience cannot be transferred; it must be individual.

If remission of sins could be supplied to wicked persons in Hades (cf. Luke 16:23), they could depart their place of torment, and enter the realm of the comforted. Yet Jesus plainly taught that “there is a great gulf fixed” between the two states, so that “none may cross over” (Luke 16:26).

Significantly, the verb that is rendered “is fixed” in the Greek New Testament, is a perfect tense, passive voice form. The perfect tense suggests that the boundary is permanent, and the passive voice indicates the barrier was “fixed” by an extraneous force, namely God.

Heaven has decreed that once a person dies, his station in eternity is permanent. It is appointed unto men once to die, and after this there is nothing but judgment (Hebrews 9:27). If one could leave the realm of the condemned and enter the domain of the saved, might not the reverse theoretically be true as well?

The Controversial Passage

And so, in connection with his discussion concerning the resurrection of the dead, Paul writes:

Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them? (1 Corinthians 15:29, NASB).

Admittedly, due to the limited amount of information in the immediate context, this is a difficult passage. More than thirty different views have been expressed by commentators as to its possible meaning. In approaching the passage, however, two factors must be kept in mind.

First, no interpretation may be thrust on this passage which creates a conflict with other Bible verses of clear import. A fundamental principle of biblical exegesis is this: obscure passages always must yield to the light of more lucid passages which speak to the same general theme; never is the reverse the case.

Second, the correct view of this verse must relate to the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, since that is the primary thrust of the context. The mention of baptism obviously is incidental to the apostle’s main argument.

Let us now consider several factors in this enigmatic passage.

One must look carefully at the pronouns. Paul does not say: “What will we do who are baptized for the dead?” That surely would have been the construction if he had been alluding to a dogma which he and other faithful Christians were practicing. Rather, he says: “What will those do.” The pronoun is a third person form.

Some expositors suppose that Paul refers to an ancient heretical sect who, though practicing baptism on behalf of deceased believing friends, denied the body’s ultimate resurrection (perhaps influenced by Greek philosophy which held that the fleshly body is intrinsically evil). According to this view, Paul, by use of an ad hominem argument (i.e., reasoning from an opponent’s position), exposes their theological inconsistency. In other words, if there is to be no resurrection of the body, immersion for the dead is a useless procedure.

The chief problem with this, in the minds of many, is the fact that there is no first-century historical evidence of any such sect. It is true that Tertullian (ca. 160-220 A.D.), a church scholar in Carthage, believed this practice did exist in Corinth. He wrote:

Now it is certain that they [some of the Corinthians] adopted this (practice) which such a presumption as made them suppose that the vicarious baptism (in question) would be beneficial to the flesh of another in anticipation of the resurrection (On The Resurrection Of The Flesh 48).

In another treatise, Tertullian refers to the practice of those who “were vainly baptized for the dead” (Against Marcion 5.10). But observe that even he characterizes the practice as vain.

A second problem with this view is this: why would Paul mention, even in an ad hominem fashion, this practice of proxy baptism, without any censure, when such a practice is so patently foreign to New Testament teaching regarding the nature of baptism? Does it make sense that the apostle would rebuke one error (no resurrection), and yet pass over in silence an equally false view (proxy baptism)?

Some interpret the phrase “for the dead” as reflecting an expression which emphasizes the motive for the baptism, i.e., being baptized, in some sense, on account of the dead.

Hermann Cremer noted that in this passage the baptism was not said to be “for the advantage of the dead,” but that the dead saints, inasmuch as they will rise again to a glorious resurrection, provide the living with an occasion to be immersed (1962, 128; cf. Lenski 1963, 690).

According to this view, Paul would be saying: “If there is to be no resurrection, as some of you allege (v. 12), why do you continue to practice baptism, thus following the example of those saints (now dead), who were baptized in order to become Christians?” In other words, there is no virtue in the ongoing practice of baptism, which depicts a burial/resurrection, if, in fact, there is to be no resurrection from the dead.

Some scholars suggest that the preposition huper—“for the dead”—can signify the sense of “in the place of,” or “in the stead of” (cf. Arndt and Gingrich 1967, 846).

This might reflect the meaning that those being baptized were doing so in order to take “the place of” the dead. James MacKnight refers to an ancient Greek writer who describes the replacement of soldiers who died in battle: “They decreed to enlist other soldiers in the place of huper those who had died in the war” (1954, 203).

The meaning of the passage might thus be: “If, as some of you argue, there will be no resurrection, why do you continue to baptize folks to take the place of your comrades who have died in defense of their faith? If there is to be no resurrection, why replenish the church?”

Conclusion

While there are several possible meanings of this difficult passage, which, in general, are consistent with the immediate context and the overall teaching of the Scriptures, any view of the passage which clearly contradicts plain Bible teaching must be forthrightly rejected. The Mormon view of proxy baptism certainly falls into this category. It has no validity.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Arndt, William and F. W. Gingrich. 1967. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago, IL: University of Chricago Press.
  • Cremer, Hermann. 1962. Biblico-Theological Lexicon of New Testament Greek. Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark.
  • Lenski, R. C. H. 1963. First and Second Corinthians. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg.
  • MacKnight, James. 1954. Apostolical Epistles. Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate.
  • Richards, Stephen L. 1959. About Mormonism. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret News Press.
  • Roberts, B. H., ed. 1950. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints. Vol. 6. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret News Press.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.