Baptism for the Dead – So What?

Recently, there has been some news where Jews object to the Mormon practice of baptism for the dead, especially for Holocaust victims.  Catholics have also objected to the Mormons use of old church records for the purpose of baptism for the dead.   I came across an Irish Columnist who basically says, “Why do they care?”

I want to point out some interesting things from his article–questions which Mormons should also start asking.  You can see the full article here.

What’s the difference, anyway, between baptising the dead and baptising babies? A tiny infant will have as much understanding as a dead person — none at all — of the complex philosophical belief-system it’s being inducted into when baptised, say, a Catholic. Transubstantiation? There’s daily communicants go to their deaths without any clear understanding of the concept. So what chance the mewling tot?

Indeed, given that all Christian Churches believe that the soul lives on after death and retains understanding and consciousness of self, doesn’t it make more sense to baptise dead adults than live babies?

Apart from which, if the Catholic bishops hold that the beliefs of the Mormons are pure baloney (as they must), and their rituals therefore perfectly meaningless, how can it matter to them what mumbo-jumbo Mormons might mutter over Catholic cadavers?

Let’s look at the facts as understood by the early followers of Christ. For more than 300 years after the Crucifixion, baptism of the dead was widely accepted, its biblical basis located in 1 Corinthians 15, 29: “Otherwise, what shall they do who are baptised for the dead if the dead rise not again at all? Why are they then baptised for them.” In other words, a deceased person could be baptised by proxy: otherwise, how could such a person be included in the Resurrection? A good question.

The radical Cerinthians and the Marcionites were especially energetic baptisers of the dead. It was to wrong-foot these sects, seen as competitors with the official Church at a time when it was consolidating its position as the State religion of the Roman Empire, that the Synods of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397) voted, after bitter debate, to condemn the practice.

He makes the case that the decision to stop baptism for the dead was to marginalize these other Christian sects.  At this point, I wanted to learn more about this practice.  I was aware of the 1 Corinthians reference, but didn’t know that the practice went on for 4 centuries.  So, I decided to see what I could find on this.

John A. Tvedtnes, a Hebrew and early Christian scholar at BYU, writes:

That baptism for the dead was indeed practiced in some orthodox Christian circles is indicated by the decisions of two late fourth century councils. The fourth canon of the Synod of Hippo, held in 393, declares, “The Eucharist shall not be given to dead bodies, nor baptism conferred upon them.” The ruling was confirmed four years later in the sixth canon of the Third Council of Carthage. (John Tvedtnes. “Baptism for the Dead: The Coptic Rationale”. Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research. )

Check out my posts on Marcionism and Gnosticism to learn more about these movements.  Here’s another post on Gnosticism and another on Montanism.  (My 2 gnostic posts are ranked #2 and #8 of my most viewed posts–funny because there aren’t many comments on them.)  There’s also an interesting link to Barry Bickmore‘s site and Jeff Lindsay’s site.

Finally, I like his reasoning here.

What if Mormons are right and Catholics and Protestants wrong?

In that scenario, shouldn’t all members of all other religions be literally eternally grateful to the Mormons for sharing their saving grace even unto and after death?

If, on the other hand, it isn’t the Mormons at all, those who turn out to have been right can wave a merry farewell to the crestfallen followers of Brigham Young as they trundle downwards to their eternal comeuppance.

What’s the problem?

26 comments on “Baptism for the Dead – So What?

  1. Very good points!!! I linked to you on my most recent post…( a brief mention on my religiously neutral blog…)

    Very interesting indeed.

  2. April, thanks for the link!

  3. Hi, I came over from April’s blog.
    I’ve often wondered myself why it’s such a big deal to them. If they don’t believe it’s true, then what’s the big whoop??? I’d never thought about it from the baptizing infants point of view–another excellent point.
    Great post.

  4. Hi there, I linked from April’s blog.

    The interesting thin to me about the Catholics’ stance especially is this: My mother was born in a Catholic hospital, and as a newborn was baptized in case she died quickly (this was in the 1940s). But my mother was LDS. Didn’t matter, they did it to every baby born there. They didn’t record it, and none of these babies was expected to live the religion unless s/he was Catholic and baptized again, but they wanted to take that precaution. Sound familiar?

  5. Thanks for stopping by Mikki! Mina, that is very interesting. It makes the Catholic stance no different than the Mormon stance. With the roles reversed, the Catholics aren’t very happy, are they?

  6. The argument isn’t completely correct. I like posing the question that if these religions don’t believe in Mormon theology than why would it matter. It a matter of pride on their part – more of a “We don’t want to be associated with THAT,” kind of thing. But in regards to arguing it as similar to baptism for the dead is illogical from a Mormon Theological standpoint. The belief is that once a person dies their spirit is simply seperated from the body, but that they can still, in many ways, progress, repent, and come closer to Jesus Christ – including through ordinances necessary to enter the kingdom of God, like baptism. Only a body is still necessary for the ordinance, so it can be performed through proxy. Much like the atoning death of the Savior, taking upon Him our sins through the ultimate act of proxy. The difference beteen that and infant baptism is that infants are innocent, they have yet to sin or have enough consciousness to choose the ordinance. After death, however, the spirit still retains fully the ability to choose to accept the ordinance and repent. Whether the baptism is accepted by them is their choice, but at least having the ordinance done makes the choice more simple for them.

    As to whether Mormons are going southard if they are incorrect, they seem like any other group simply trying to follow God and his teachings. How correct one is to another is less important to how diligently they strive to follo what they believe. The God I know is merciful, and looks at ones heart as much as the limited amount they can understand. Good for people for trying to be good. Especially today, when people would rather be selfish, self-centered, inconsiderate, and incompassionate. They hold family, and family relations in high regard, they want to improve the communities they live in, and they uphold virtue in a virtueless world.

    I take my hat off to them!

  7. Irony, thy name is baptism. *grin*

  8. I have to say, most of me agrees with the columnist’s point. But, I do wonder how I would feel if I found out that soemone, let’s say a Wiccan or a member of the Unification Church, was performing some kind of religious ceremony upon my father or my grandparents, whom have died. I think my initial reaction might be a bit outraged that they were invading my family’s privacy in that way. I think, ultimately, I would would come around to the idea that, even if they are wrong (or especially if they are wrong) what does it matter? In honesty, however, I think that would be a reasoned, intellectual response. On an emotional level, I might still be a little bugged.

  9. GW, you make some good points. It appears to me the author is not LDS, and isn’t making an LDS argument.

    Fifthgen, I don’t know much about Wiccans or the Unification church. If they’re trying to baptize my relative to Satan, yes I’m going to have a problem. So long as they’re not desecrating the memory of my loved ones, I guess I’m fine with it. Since most Christians believe in baptism, it doesn’t seem to me like a desecration to baptize for the dead.

    They may disagree with me, but the scripture in 1 Corinthians will seem to show that it was an early Christian practice. They may choose to disagree with my interpretation, but I don’t think they can call my motives nefarious.

    I remember meeting a Born Again Christian, who promised to pray for my soul. My response was, “Thanks! I can use all the prayers I can get.”

  10. I think the Unification Church is a good example, because they have unorthodox beliefs about Jesus and are considered by many to be a cult. Rightly or wrongly (I believe wrongly) this is how many traditional Christians feel about us. I am sure that members of the Unification Church feel that their religious rites are perfectly edifying and uplifting, but many traditional Christians (or Mormons) may not. If they were gathering information about my dead ancestors, then performing rituals that they believed might result in the ancestors becoming members of the Unification Church, I believe I would have the feelings described above (Intellectually: “Whatever”; Viscerally: Hmmm.)

  11. Fifthgen,

    Of course, many consider the LDS church to be a cult. What is it specifically about the Unification Church that you find troubling?

  12. Most troubling to me is that on the surface, baptism for the dead is often considered, by those who practice it, a ‘mitzvah’ (to borrow a hebrew word, meaning ‘commandment’, ‘good deed’ or ‘religious precept’). The one time I did perform baptisms for the dead, there was something that didn’t feel right about it. It was not something I could articulate at the time. Talking to my mutual teacher about it only led to a, “You just need to read the scriptures, fast and pray” speech.

    For me, the practice seems arrogant, based on the premise that we are right; they are wrong (whether the ‘we’ be LDS, Catholic or any other faith). We are the ‘true church’; the rest are not. We have been saved by accepting Christ as our Savior; you are going to burn in h-ll unless you do too.

    Ask a Jew what they think about baptism for the dead.

  13. Raechel,

    I see your point, but can I ask you this question? Isn’t it just as arrogant for people of other religions to tell Mormons that they are going to hell, or to confuse the issue and claim that Mormons aren’t Christians?

    I am reminded that a good Jewish friend of mine told me that a Jew can never be excommunicated for any reason–even murder. The rationale is that “God is the judge”, not man. I’m not trying to be flippant, but don’t Jews believe they are God’s chosen people, and everyone else is going to hell? I’m not saying it’s right to fight fire with fire, but all religions can be accused of arrogance, can’t they?

  14. “We have been saved by accepting Christ as our Savior; you are going to burn in h-ll unless you do too.”

    Except, that’s not a Mormon teaching.

  15. Ray, good point. That is not a Mormon teaching. I was over-generalizing about Christian zeal.

    MH –
    I don’t disagree that all religions can be accused of arrogance. But not all religions take it upon themselves to mess with the deceased people of other religions.

    And I must politely dispute a couple of your comments; 1). Jews don’t believe they are ‘the chosen people’. That concept comes Catholicism and Protestantism and the term was bestowed upon Jews. 2). Jews don’t believe in h-ll.

  16. Rachael, obviously, you are 100% correct in your “disputation”. However, if you don’t mind, I’d like to make one clarification of something you said.

    “But not all religions take it upon themselves to mess with the deceased people of other religions.”

    That’s too bad, in the case of Christianity. I mean that seriously. Most religions don’t make exclusivity claims, so it’s understandable that they wouldn’t have any formal way to account for those who die without access to the exclusive action or belief that is claimed to be necessary. I get that and respect that completely. Christianity, however, has this little “No man cometh unto the Father but by me” teaching that does make exclusivity an issue. At the core, this belief creates a fundamental conflict that simply is not addressed in most of the Protestant world – and that’s a shame.

    Mormonism gets around that by allowing work to be done for the dead – so they can CHOOSE to accept it or reject it. There’s no “messing around with the dead”; in common, non-Mormon terms, it simply is an offer of love – to be accepted or rejected by the individual.

    There is an important distinction in the actual wording we use that gets lost in translation too often – even by Mormons. We don’t “baptize the dead” or speak of “baptisms OF the dead”. Rather, we perform “baptisms FOR the dead” or “ON BEHALF OF the dead”. We perform the SYMBOLIC ordinances; there is NO binding element unless the person accepts it.

    This is much like the difference between “live” baptisms in the LDS Church and other Christian denominations. We don’t believe baptism saves – that it is an end unto itself. We believe it is a beginning, and we speak of it as the “gate” – the first step of a journey, not the destination. Therefore, even baptized Mormons can end up later “rejecting” their own baptism and choosing a different path.

    That’s critically important to this discussion, and it gets overlooked by almost everyone who discussed it.

  17. Ray, excellent points.

    Raechel, it is interesting to talk about Jews. Often we act like they are just one monolithic group, but just as Christians are divided into Baptists, Catholics, Methodists, etc, Jews are divided into Orthodox, Reformed, Hasidic, etc. (There is even a group of Samaritans still living in Israel.) So perhaps we are painting Jews with a broad brush. It is my understanding that Orthodox Jews are the ones with the biggest problem with baptism for the dead. My Jewish friend is far from Orthodox.

    I know that Jews have a different concept of hell than Christians, but a quick look at the Old Testament shows tons of scriptures referencing hell, so I’m not sure why you’re making the claims Jews don’t believe in hell. Here’s a short list of a few.

    Deu 32:22 For a fire is kindled in mine anger, and shall burn unto the lowest hell, and shall consume the earth with her increase, and set on fire the foundations of the mountains.

    2Sa 22:6 The sorrows of hell compassed me about; the snares of death prevented me;

    Job 11:8 [It is] as high as heaven; what canst thou do? deeper than hell; what canst thou know?

    Job 26:6 Hell [is] naked before him, and destruction hath no covering.

    Psa 9:17 The wicked shall be turned into hell, [and] all the nations that forget God.

    Psa 16:10 For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.

    A quick look finds Jews as God’s Chosen People as well.

    Deu 7:6 For thou [art] an holy people unto the LORD thy God: the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that [are] upon the face of the earth.

    Deu 14:2 For thou [art] an holy people unto the LORD thy God, and the LORD hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that [are] upon the earth.

    1Kiings 3:8 And thy servant [is] in the midst of thy people which thou hast chosen, a great people, that cannot be numbered nor counted for multitude.

  18. Ray – I appreciate your clarifications. Your explanation and distinctions seem far less threatening for a non-believer. To be frank, I may borrow the baptism analogy (as a mere ‘stepping stone’) should I find myself in a similar debate. Thank you.

    MH — using the King James version of the bible as a representation of Jewish beliefs is hardly fair or accurate. I suggest you reference the same scriptures in the Hebrew Old Testament, the Tanakh. Only there, will you find the Hebrew interpretation.

    The concept of ‘hell’ is ‘shoel’ in Hebrew, also refered to as the ‘nether world’. Sheol literally means a grave or pit. It is known as the place where the dead gather, both righteous and unrighteous. It is not thought a place of eternal damnation, nor is it a ‘consequence’ of one’s actions among the living.

    From the JPS Tanakh;

    Deut 32.22 For a fire is kindled in My nostril, and burneth unto the depths of the nether-world, and devoureth the earth with her produce, and setteth ablaze the foundations of the mountains.

    Psa 9:18 (apparently 9:17 in the KJV?) The wicked shall return to the nether-world, even all the nations that forget G-d.

    As for being the ‘chosen people’, the Old Testament (KJV or Hebrew bible) refers not to “jews” as the Lord’s people but to anyone who chose to follow God. It was not a term of exclusivity, as in, jew = chosen. Noah was not a Jew, but was he not chosen by God?

  19. Raechel,

    I did not know you were a Jewish scholar. I’m impressed. Thanks for the insights.

    I decided to go to the Judaism 101 website, because any time I asked my Jewish friend a question, he would usually go there for the answer, print it out, and hand it to me the next day.

    So, here’s what it says about Hell at http://www.jewfaq.org/cgi-bin/search.cgi?Keywords=hell

    The place of spiritual punishment and/or purification for the wicked dead in Judaism is not referred to as Hell, but as Gehinnom or She’ol. According to most sources, the period of punishment or purification is limited to 12 months, after which the soul ascends to Olam Ha-Ba or is destroyed (if it is utterly wicked). See Olam Ha-Ba: The Afterlife.

    So, I clicked on Olam Ha-Ba and got this answer

    Olam Ha-Ba: The Afterlife

    Traditional Judaism firmly believes that death is not the end of human existence. However, because Judaism is primarily focused on life here and now rather than on the afterlife, Judaism does not have much dogma about the afterlife, and leaves a great deal of room for personal opinion. It is possible for an Orthodox Jew to believe that the souls of the righteous dead go to a place similar to the Christian heaven, or that they are reincarnated through many lifetimes, or that they simply wait until the coming of the messiah, when they will be resurrected. Likewise, Orthodox Jews can believe that the souls of the wicked are tormented by demons of their own creation, or that wicked souls are simply destroyed at death, ceasing to exist. “

    There is much more info on this, so I suggest you go there instead of listen to my interpretation. It’s at http://www.jewfaq.org/olamhaba.htm

    It seems there is quite a bit of leeway on the concept of Hell, even if one claims to be an Orthodox Jew. It seems likely that some Jews have a similar concept of hell as Christians, and some Jews simply believe a wicked person is destroyed at death. I guess a 12 month time limit is a little different than a Catholic/Protestant idea of hell.

    I did a search for “chosen people”, and came up pretty empty. But I will refer you to the story of Joshua. As you are aware, the Israelites believed that God wanted them to inherit the land of the Canaanites. I compared this to the Crusades in my previous post, Joshua’s Holy War.

    It seems to me that you are quibbling with my claim that the Jews believe they are God’s chosen people. Perhaps it is semantics, but I find the actions of Joshua to be pretty “arrogant”, as you put it, and indicative of a people who set themselves up as superior to their enemies, all in the name of God.

    Yes, you’re right, the term “Jew” was never used until the time of Abraham.

  20. Raechel, I just realized I have been spelling your name incorrectly. I’m sorry.

    You said:

    “Sheol literally means a grave or pit. It is known as the place where the dead gather, both righteous and unrighteous. It is not thought a place of eternal damnation, nor is it a ‘consequence’ of one’s actions among the living.”

    That sounds almost exactly like the “Spirit World” (also not divided strictly along lines of “righteousness” – since we believe there are “righteous” spirits in Spirit Prison who simply are waiting to be freed), which is a radically different belief than Protestantism. That’s interesting.

  21. […] Since God is the ultimate judge, and “who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God “, the LDS baptize all and let God be the judge.  (I previously discussed baptism for the dead from a non-LDS Irish writer.) […]

  22. I realise this discussion is very old but maybe you (Mormon Heretic) are still reading this and might find what I have to add useful.

    Chosen People…

    Jews (Israelites) do indeed think of themselves as “chosen people”. However, this does not imply that they are chosen as the sole group to go to heaven (or the next world) while everybody else perishes in hell. It’s not obvious why people would think that, unless they simply assume the worst when it comes to Jews. According to Jewish faith (and also according to its offsprings, Christianity and Islam), G-d chose the Israelis for _something_, but not specifically for something good (for the Israelites).

    In fact it is rather bad. Jews believe that while non-Jews will go to the next world after death if they have been good people, Jews have the added responsibility to follow Jewish law, which is more strict than most. So Jews were in fact chosen, according to Judaism, to be less likely to go to the next world as they have to follow extra laws and not just be good.

    As for the arrogance of Joshua, he was not more arrogant than everybody else who ever invaded a land, and certainly not more arrogant than the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks, and British (who also at different times invaded that same land, excluding the Persians who were in fact welcomed by the inhabitants). The Zionists were the first to buy rather than invade the land starting in 1870. But the typical way to take the land was, like everywhere else on earth, invasion. That doesn’t make Joshua very arrogant as such.

    It should also be noted that the Israelite invasion of Canaan did not come out of nowhere. According to the Bible the tribe had lived in Canaan before the time spent in Egypt and was settled in Salem (later Jerusalem) with the permission of the local king Melkitsedek. Furthermore, I think it is highly relevant that Israelites spoke Hebrew, a Canaanite dialect. Abraham was from Assyria but he and his sons quickly adopted the local language which the Israelites kept even in Egypt. That too is not a sign of arrogance. Note that Abraham and some others were the only ones who came from Assyria. The rest of the tribe were local Canaanites who married into the family. By the time of Exodus the Israelites were a Canaanite tribe and returned to the land of (most of) their fathers only to find it settled by other Canaanite tribes in the mean time. They were not complete strangers looking for a land to rule, they were a homeless tribe going back to the city they had permission (by the king) to live in.

  23. Before I forget…

    Judaism also doesn’t believe that the Israelites are the only “chosen people”. We happily acknowledge that other nations might be chosen too, perhaps for other tasks. We also acknowledge that other nations have their own prophets and ways to G-d. We don’t even specifically deny the existence of other gods, we just don’t recognise or care about them. The Bible itself acknowledges the existence of specific people who were prophects but not Isrelites or ancestors of Israelites (Bilaam) and even a non-Israelite messiah (annointed king, Cyrus the Great, a Persian).

    But generally when it comes to the arrogance of being the chosen people, most Jews, I suspect, would like to answer that a) the arrogant are not the chosen but those who claim the power to decide what the chosen are chosen for and b) please, world, please, chose somebody else for a while.

  24. Andrew, I appreciate the comments. I haven’t read this conversation for a while, so at first I couldn’t figure out what the “chosen people” was about concerning a “baptism for the dead” post, but I realize Raechel and I got sidetracked on the discussion. Anyway, thanks again for your input–I did find it valuable and interesting. Since you mentioned Balaam, perhaps you might be interested in adding some insights into whether Balaam was a prophet or a wicked man?

  25. […] in 2009, I wrote about a non-LDS writer from Ireland who didn’t object to the LDS practice: Baptism for the Dead–so what?  But in dealing with Nazi Germany where one’s genealogy could cause a death sentence makes […]

  26. […] in 2009, I wrote about a non-LDS writer from Ireland who didn’t object to the LDS practice: Baptism for the Dead–so what?  But in dealing with Nazi Germany where one’s genealogy could cause a death sentence makes […]

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