Baptism for the Dead

by Joe R. Price

Mormons contend that the New Testament church practiced baptism for (on behalf of, in the place of) the dead.  Their attempted justification of this hinges, in part, on an understanding of I Corinthians 15:29.  However, their defense of baptism for dead people goes beyond that.  They affirm that after death one still possesses the ability to choose right and wrong.  To them, baptism for a dead person provides that person with the opportunity to choose whether they will accept its benefits and “progress to the celestial kingdom” (Mormon terminology for eternal life).  This is clearly against the meaning of Hebrews 9:27 and Luke 16:25-26.

We should allow plain passages of Scripture to help explain the more difficult ones.  While I Corinthians 15:29 admittedly presents certain challenges of interpretation, the meaning of the passage is within our reach.  While establishing the truth of resurrection from the dead, the apostle offers a motive for baptism that is nullified if there is no resurrection from the dead.  That motive (for being baptized of which Paul speaks) is the death of saints who willingly give their lives for their faith.  Stephen comes to mind, as do other Christians who died at the hand of their persecutors (Acts 7:57-60; 26:10; Revelation 2:13).  Their deaths helped motivate others to be baptized into Christ.  Paul’s point is this:  “if the dead are not raised, why then are they baptized for them?”  If there is no resurrection, to be baptized only to experience martyrdom without future hope of life is indeed futile and foolish (I Corinthians 15:17-19).

The word translated “for” in I Corinthians 15:29 is the preposition huper, and can mean “on account of” (example can be found in Acts 15:26; Romans 1:5).  Notice that Paul makes ascending application in his remarks:  “they” (I Corinthians 15:29), “we” (I Corinthians 15:30) and “I” (I Corinthians 15:31-32).  His summary is that “if the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (I Corinthians 15:32).  To conclude that “baptism for the dead” in I Corinthians 15:29 can only be proxy baptism fails to consider the circumstances that give context and explanation to Paul’s statement.

There is another reason to conclude Paul is not advocating the practice of baptism in the place of the dead. The New Testament teaches there is only “one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5).  Mormonism has added another baptism to the great commission baptism commanded by Jesus (Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:15-16).  When we compare LDS baptism for the dead with the great commission baptism, it becomes apparent that LDS baptism for the dead is the result of human additions to the word of God.

Please note these differences between the baptism preached by Christ’s first-century apostles and the one preached by the 21st-century Mormon apostles:

  • Great Commission Baptism is for the living, is personal, and is for the remission of sins.  It is Biblical and true (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; I Peter 3:21).
  • LDS Baptism for the Dead is for the dead, is in place of someone else, and allegedly provides the dead with a choice to accept or reject its benefit.  It is non-Biblical and false.  This LDS doctrine and practice change the apostolic gospel of the first century; something Galatians 1:6-9 warns us we must never do.

Remember, the living have time and opportunity to obey, praise, and serve God, but the dead await God’s judgment for the deeds done while in the flesh (Isaiah 38:18-19; Hebrews 9:27; Luke 16:19-31; Hebrews 3:7-11).  “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (II Corinthians 5:10).  Utilize the time you have to believe and obey the gospel of Christ; now is the day of salvation (II Corinthians 6:2; Ephesians 5:16; James 4:15-17).

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