Baptism for the Dead: Revisited

By Wayne Jackson

We received a letter from a distinguished professor at Stanford University, disputing the position we argued relative to the “Latter-day saints” dogma of “baptism for the dead” in another article published on this web site (See Mormon Doctrine: Baptism for the Dead.)

Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of Mormonism, claimed to have received a “revelation” from God on January 19, 1841, which revealed that the practice of “baptisms for your dead” were “instituted before the foundation of the world” (Smith, 124:33).

The learned professor has declined to identify himself specifically as a Mormon, though his attempted rebuttal certainly would suggest that association.

Our friend sought to establish his case in the following fashion. He contends that “proxy baptism” is available to those who had no opportunity to obey the Lord in this life. Supposedly, in the post-death state they have the gospel preached to them. The professor appeals to 1 Peter 4:6 as his proof-text. If these lost souls accept the gospel message, according to the theory proffered, then the baptism of a friend, relative, or interested party on earth will be vicariously transferred to the lost dead person. Our respondent contends that the lost dead retain their power of choice, hence their destiny may be altered in that post-mortem state. But here is an interesting question. If a friend on earth may “be baptized” by proxy for a dead person, why might not that friend “believe” on behalf of the deceased as well, since Christ made both belief and baptism co-equal conditions for salvation (Mk. 16:16)?

The gentleman’s sincere (though erroneous) position is the result of a misunderstanding of a combination of biblical truths. We shall briefly review several of these matters.

  1. Our friend’s first assumption is that there are people in the domain of the dead whose destiny has not been determined as yet. He alleges that these lost ones are not in “hades”, for if they were, their fate would be sealed already, hence no pardon would be possible.

    However, there is no realm of the dead separate from hades in the pre-resurrection existence of human beings. But, given the gentleman’s assertion, exactly where is this place where these individuals are awaiting the opportunity for redemption? Is there a Bible passage that speaks of this environment? He does not clarify this matter. There simply is no biblical basis for the mythical realm of which he speculates.

    In Bible parlance, “hades” is the general receptacle of all the dead (Lk. 16:23; Acts 2:27; see Thayer, p. 11). A study of the ten occurrences of this term in the New Testament reveals that it can refer to the abode of the righteous, or the unrighteous, depending upon the context in which the word is found. Aside from hades, there is no scriptural reference to any realm of the dead between the event of one’s death, and the time of his resurrection from the grave.

    In addition, we would raise this point. If there is a possibility that the lost who are in the realm of the dead may yet exercise their “power of choice” and accept the gospel, as our professor friend contends, why should it be assumed that they would have no chance of redemption in hades? Or even in “hell” (gehenna)? According to the professor’s logic, could the condemned ever be in a position of being beyond hope?
  2. The gentleman maintains that the folks in this unique post-death state were neither obedient nor disobedient on earth. They merely had no opportunity to obey the Lord. The assertion is defective both logically and biblically.

    In logic there is a principle called the law of the excluded middle. It states that a thing either “is,” or it “is not.” There is no middle position. All spiritually-responsible people are classified either as obedient, or disobedient (cf. Jn. 3:36; Acts 14:1-2). The Bible does not equate “ignorance” with “innocence” (Lk. 12:47; Acts 17:31; Rom. 10:2-3; 2 Thes. 1:7-9). [Note: Obedience is not the equivalent of absolute perfection. Abraham was obedient, though he was not sinless.]

    Our friendly adversary engages in semantical gymnastics when he argues that “proxy baptism is not proxy obedience.” Being baptized is an act of obedience (cf. Acts 10:48). If one can be immersed for another, then one has obeyed the Lord on behalf of another, and that is “proxy obedience.” That is simply too plain to miss. Incidentally, the professor conceded that “proxy obedience” is nullified by the instruction of the Parable of the Virgins (Mt. 25:1ff), as we demonstrated in our earlier article.

1 Peter 4:6

A major portion of our respondent’s case appears to be constructed upon his perception of 1 Peter 4:6. We will, therefore, address this passage in some detail. The larger context reads as follows. We are following the ASV/ESV translations, with some personal rendition and/or paraphrase of the text, combined with a few bracketed comments.

“Forasmuch then as Christ suffered in the flesh [by experiencing death], arm yourselves also with the same mind [disciplined temperament]; for he who has suffered in the flesh [i.e., the Christian who has undergone the rigors of persecution, or perhaps, the forfeiture of his life for the Lord’s cause] has ceased from sin [i.e., either has curbed the practice of unrestrained sin, or possibly he has been removed from the arena of temptation by death]. In view of this, you [Christians] should no longer live the rest of your time in the accommodation of fleshly lusts; rather, yield yourselves to the will of God. For the time that is past has been sufficient to satisfy the desire of the Gentiles, who have walked in lasciviousness, lusts, winebibbings, revellings, carousings, and abominable idolatries [a strong ironical statement for emphasis’ sake]. Regarding these matters, they [the worldly] think that it is strange that you do not run with them to the same excess of riot, and so they speak evil of you. But they will give account to him who stands ready to judge the living and the dead. For this very reason [i.e., that of the coming judgment] the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that they might be judged – indeed as people who lived in the flesh, but who [now] live according to God in the spirit [i.e., in the spirit realm].”

Regarding this text we offer the following observations.

  1. The admonition is designed to encourage Christians to remain faithful in view of their persecution, and the ultimate judgment which all must face. Death does not destroy the victory that God’s people receive at the end of their days on earth.
  2. The grammar of verse 6 does not support the Mormon theory. The text does not affirm that the gospel is being preached to the lost in the realm of the dead; rather the gospel “was preached” (eueggelisthe — aorist tense — a past activity) to the dead ones (that is, the ones now dead – cf. NASB, NIV, ESV). The dead ones [plural] are “deceased Christians,” not deceased lost persons (cf. Danker, p. 668), who, at one time during their earthly sojourn were lost, but, by virtue of their obedience to the gospel (cf. 4:17), now are redeemed, and thus prepared for the judgment mentioned in verse 5.
  3. The language of 1 Peter 4:6 reflects a figure of speech similar to that known as prolepsis (see Bullinger, pp. 914-15; Dungan, pp. 329ff), by which two events, separated by time, are condensed into the same statement. The preaching was done while the people were on earth, but they were in the realm of the dead when the apostle penned his epistle.

    Peter’s language in 4:6 is strikingly similar to that of 3:18-20, which affirms that Christ, by means of the Spirit (cf. 1:11), and through Noah, preached to the “spirits” that were “in prison” at the time the apostle wrote his letter, but who were alive on earth at the time of Noah’s ministry. (For a thorough discussion of this passage see Grudem, pp. 170-72; esp. pp. 203ff; Woods, pp. 100ff).

    Renowned scholar, F.F. Bruce, observed that 1 Peter 4:6 was not speaking of “people who were dead when the gospel was preached to them, but people who were dead at the time when the epistle was written” (p. 129).
  4. Many writers have called attention to the insuperable difficulties associated with the theory that alleges the gospel is being offered currently to the dead. And such is no less true for the dogma of “vicarious baptism,” that has attached itself to this false ideology. In his classic text which deals with the science of Bible interpretation, M.S. Terry comments specifically concerning the “folly” of placing a “literal construction” upon 1 Peter 3:18-20; 4:6. He contends there is no authority elsewhere in Scripture for the “delusive” doctrine of “future pardon” beyond the boundaries of earthly life (pp. 462-463).

    The theory espoused by Mormonism generates far more problems than it professes to solve. For example, how does the Mormon practitioner of “proxy baptism” know who has accepted the gospel in the spirit world, and thus for whom he may, or may not, assign a “proxy immersion”? And what if someone of the spirit realm accepts the gospel, but no one is ever immersed for him/her? What is that person’s ultimate fate? If he/she is to be saved anyhow, what is the purpose of the proxy baptism? On the other hand, if the person who accepts the gospel message in the spirit world remains lost, because no one is immersed for him/her, would not that mean that such a one would be condemned on the basis of another’s failure to obey? And would not this contradict the clear Bible teaching that one is accountable for his own conduct (Rom. 14:12; 2 Cor. 5:10)?

    Conclusion

    Our objector’s case simply cannot be sustained. The position is without any biblical basis, and the logic employed to construct it is flawed.

    We conclude this discussion by introducing a quotation from The Book of Mormon.

    “For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors. 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” (Alma 34:32-33).

    Note: For a devastating history and refutation of the Mormon doctrine of “baptism for the dead,” see Jack Free’s book, Mormonism and Inspiration, Chapters 17, 18.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Bruce, F. F. 1973. Answers to Questions. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Bullinger, E. W. 1968. Figures of Speech Used in the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
  • Danker, F.W., et al. 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
  • Dungan, D. R. n.d. Hermeneutics. Cincinnati, OH: Standard.
  • Free, Jack. 1962. Mormonism and Inspiration. Concord, CA: Pacific Publishing.
  • Grudem, Wayne. 2002. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries — 1 Peter. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  • Smith, Joseph, Jr. 1952. Cited in: Doctrine and Covenants. Salt Lake City, UT: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
  • Terry, Milton S. 1890. Biblical Hermeneutics. New York, NY: Eaton & Mains.
  • Thayer, J. H. 1958. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark.
  • Woods, Guy N. 1959. A Commentary on the New Testament Epistles of Peter, John, and Jude. Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate.
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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.