Don’t forget the theological issue in posthumous baptisms

March 14, 2012 | 30 comments
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It occurred to me the other day when I read Givens’ beautiful description of why we perform ordinances for the dead that our response to some critics of the practice of posthumous baptism may be too defensive. In response to those who believe that baptism or some other ordinance or event is required to enter God’s Kingdom, shouldn’t we go on the offensive and ask them what they are doing about those who were never baptized?

Near as I can tell, hundreds of millions, if not billions, of humans have died without even having heard the gospel of any western religion. If your religion consigns them to hell, what are you doing about it?

Just looking at Christian religions, perhaps as many as 80% of Christians believe that baptism is necessary for salvation. Yet, despite this belief, the LDS Church is the only Christian religion that practices posthumous baptism. Given that the practice is even mentioned in the New Testament (1 Cor. 15:29), how is it possible that other Christian Churches have ignored this issue?

If you don’t think posthumous baptism is necessary, then aren’t you either saying that baptism isn’t necessary or that God is a respecter of persons? Or, do you simply not care what happens to those who haven’t heard of Christ and been baptized?

Now, lest my comments come across as too harsh, strident or divisive, I am NOT suggesting that other Christians don’t care about those who weren’t baptized. Nor am I suggesting that their theologies don’t account for this problem. Many, if not all, of other Christian faiths have accounted for this problem in their theology, suggesting that Christ’s atonement takes care of those who died without the opportunity of baptism or making some other accommodation for this issue. I’m not familiar with the details of their theology, so I can’t really address it. But I do know that theologians of other Christian faiths have addressed the question.

However, this theological question has been lost in the criticism of our practice somehow. Commentators like Andrew Sullivan (a Catholic, as I understand it) feel free to criticize our practice, but not address what should be done for those who weren’t baptized and therefore can’t enter the Kingdom of God. Sullivan is hardly alone. Many critics who belong to faiths that require baptism have also criticized our practice, and as far as I’ve seen, not one has addressed the theological problem or acknowledged that their own religion also faces it.

As I wrote recently, I do think Church policy should be followed and that our best policy is to respect the concerns of Jews in the case of holocaust victims. There may be other groups that also deserve this respect. But that is really beside the point. I’m suggesting that in the public debate over our practice we’ve been giving critics a free pass. We should be saying to them:

OK, if posthumous baptism is so offensive, then, under your theology, what should be done for those who haven’t been baptized or who didn’t know the truth?

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30 Responses to Don’t forget the theological issue in posthumous baptisms

  1. Christian J on March 14, 2012 at 9:56 am

    Kent, I’ve been proclaiming this loudly every chance I get(to Sullivan specifically). The notion doesn’t seem to register though. It leads me to believe people don’t take the after-life narrative of their particular tradition very seriously. That’s not an attack – just the most likely conclusion I can come to.

  2. Amira on March 14, 2012 at 9:57 am

    We’ve met people who’ve gone on the Hajj for deceased relatives. Muslims have a different set of beliefs for salvation, but the basic idea is the same.

    I’d also far rather see baptisms for the dead than illegal missionaries trying to convert people to Christianity in countries where it’s not only dangerous for the missionaries to be there, but also the converts.

  3. Mark B. on March 14, 2012 at 10:09 am

    In a Calvinist theology, where God’s foreknowledge predestines one to salvation or damnation, this isn’t a problem. God knew all those who died in ignorance weren’t to be heirs of salvation anyway, so there’s no need for concern for the dead. Besides, they’re dead anyway, and the opportunity for them to have faith has ended, because “after this life, then cometh the judgment.”

    And, baptism is a work, and faith alone saves, so nobody is damned simply because he wasn’t baptized.

    I don’t think your argument will make much headway.

  4. Christian J on March 14, 2012 at 10:27 am

    Mark, for the Calvinist, you’re right, this is already worked out. But any Christian or non who believes in any degree of free will as a component of salvation has to deal with the billions who never had a chance to accept of reject.

  5. Dave on March 14, 2012 at 10:51 am

    As I wrote recently, I do think Church policy should be followed and that our best policy is to respect the concerns of Jews in the case of holocaust victims. There may be other groups that also deserve this respect.

    Well, if Jews deserve this respect, then all men and women deserve this respect, whatever their ethnic or racial heritage. God is no respecter of persons. The Church being willing to make these concessions is the first step in the process of discontinuing the practice of baptisms for the dead. [Can you imagine the Church responding to any particular ethnic or racial group that requests similar treatment, "Sorry, we will amend our policy to prohibit the proxy baptism of Jews, but not of your people"?] This could get really messy in a few years, or even during the upcoming presidential election.

  6. Jettboy on March 14, 2012 at 11:05 am

    Dave, I’ve thought of your question, and I think it comes down to the special place of Jews in Mormon theology. They are considered a chosen people where one of the purposes of baptism is to ritualized our adoption into the House of Israel. Therefore Jews, particularly Holocaust victims, have been given a dispensation. I admit its the only reasoning I can come up with that eases the conscience of my religious convictions.

    “God is no respecter of persons.” I know the Scriptures say this, but I don’t think its as blanket a statement as one might suggest. Reading the Scriptures with all the blessings to one set of people or individuals or cursing to another argues against this statement as we understand the concept. I think its a sum total statement of finality and eternal consequence, but I don’t think its about micro-management within mortality.

  7. Bob on March 14, 2012 at 11:10 am

    Kent,
    ” hundreds of millions, if not billions, of humans have died without even having heard the gospel”.
    Why would someone die and then not remember the Gospel (from their pre-life) when the earth veil is lifted from their eyes? Will they not remember having chosen Christ in the “War in Heaven”. Are they not placed on the earth knowing the Gospel (less the earth veil)?

  8. Last Lemming on March 14, 2012 at 11:23 am

    Sorry, we will amend our policy to prohibit the proxy baptism of Jews, but not of your people

    The prohibition extends only to holocaust victims, not to Jews in general (although it would certainly be bad form to deliberately seek out victims of the inquisition). And the exemption for one’s direct line stands in any case. As long as we insist on the right of members to perform proxy baptisms for their own ancestors, the practice is in no danger.

  9. Steve Fleming on March 14, 2012 at 11:31 am

    Good post, Kent. I’m writing about all this stuff in my dissertation and it’s kind of fun in this environment.

  10. anita on March 14, 2012 at 12:05 pm

    thank you for pointing this out–i’ve been waiting for the 1 corinthians scripture to enter the public discourse!

  11. Adam G. on March 14, 2012 at 12:22 pm

    What’s most offensive is the implication that you need to be Mormon to be saved.* While it’s true that other faiths/sects/denominations have theological outs that alllow them to think that not everyone who doesn’t accept their faith in this life is damned, those outs also usually suggest that the dead have to accept their faith, just not as explicitly as Mormons do.

    On the other hand, some people really do think that ‘all religions’ are equally true, but don’t seem to have thought it through. It’s hard to see how we could get to heaven and discover that Christ was simultaneously God and Son of God (Christian) while also just a man without divine attributes (Muslim).

    *technically, exalted, but never mind.

  12. Bob on March 14, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    Many religions view “baptism” as a “Washing” and do wash their dead before burial.

  13. john f. on March 14, 2012 at 2:05 pm

    Great post Kent. Thank you.

  14. Chris on March 14, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    Great post, Kent. Thank you! I feel sad that members of other religions care so much about whether or not we baptize their ancestors if they do belive our religion is true. If anyone performed any ritual that allowed my ancestors to accept or reject their faith, I would be flattered and honored that they took the time and effort to give my ancestors he opportunity to accept (or reject)their religion in the afterlife. Of course, I only do work for my deceased ancestors and would never offend anyone by doing work for anyone outside my own direct family line. Still, it seems ironic that other care so much about a practice that they deem invalid and useless.

  15. Chris on March 14, 2012 at 2:21 pm

    I meant to write “do NOT believe that our religion is true”

  16. Michael H. on March 14, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    Back in high school, the son of an Evangelical minister told me that believing in conversion after death “cheapens the meaning of the Great Commission.” In his view, all those that don’t accept Christ in this life are going to a fiery hell after it – unless we smuggle missionaries and Bibles into their countries and get to them first.

    I never got around to asking him why God was trusting in the arm of man to bring about his creations’ salvation.

  17. Stephen Hardy on March 14, 2012 at 3:14 pm

    Can anyone point me to sources that explain the practice of baptism for the dead in the early Christian church? How widely was it practiced? Where? (By this I mean, in what buildings, and in what cities.) When was it stopped, and why? I am not a biblical scholar or an early Christian scholar, or come to think if it, I am not a scholar at all. Because I am not aware of early Christians doing this, then I have wondered if it is a mis-tranlsation, or if it refers to a practice somewhat different from what we do. How is this interpreted by those in other Christian sects? I saw one commentary, where 1 Cor 15:29 was interpreted as describing people who had been baptised into the church and thus replacing those who had died. This isn’t a very satisfactory interpretation. But I wonder, again, what evidence is there that early Christians performed rites for those who had died.

  18. Frank Pellett on March 14, 2012 at 3:24 pm

    I had thought one explanation for the 1 Cor verse was that it was condemning those who were baptizing for the dead, since the dead do not rise. I found it similar to the explanation that there is no marriage in heaven, since there is no marrying or giving in marriage.

    A parallel I’m reminded of in LDS circles is when we take literally the injunction to “shake the dust from our feet” at those who will not listen to the Gospel. Who are we to judge they have had all the chances to accept the Gospel they are going to get?

  19. Bob on March 14, 2012 at 4:43 pm

    @ Chris,
    ” Still, it seems ironic that other care so much about a practice that they deem invalid and useless”.
    This is the same argument used during the Priesthood Ban: “If we are the true church and doing God’s will__then our denial of the Priesthood to Blacks is fair. If we are NOT the true church__then we have denied then nothing”.
    It’s uncaring of Mormons to keep telling others their ideas/ways of Salvation are useless and wrong__and only Mormons the power to save. them.

  20. Todd on March 14, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    Kent said:

    “If you don’t think posthumous baptism is necessary, then aren’t you either saying that baptism isn’t necessary or that God is a respecter of persons? Or, do you simply not care what happens to those who haven’t heard of Christ and been baptized?”

    Kent, these are not the only three options.

    Perhaps the act of baptism is merely a symbol and not absolutely required; what is required would be what baptism represents. If true then we Mormons are guilty AGAIN of assuming literalness.

    Kent then said:

    “Commentators… feel free to criticize our practice, but not address what should be done for those who weren’t baptized and therefore can’t enter the Kingdom of God.”

    Kent, why so literal? Perhaps baptism for the dead is a symbol or ritual of unity like partaking of the sacrament is an act of unity.
    I think the problem lies in thinking that ordinances are “salvific” (overused word, I think) instead of recognizing that the purpose of ordinances might be to simply shape the minds of the living.

  21. Kristine on March 14, 2012 at 6:30 pm

    Kent, there are actually very good reasons for having a different policy towards Jews than towards other religious/ethnic groups. One is that there is arguably a Mormon case to be made that God’s covenant with Israel is still in force. The other is that Western Christians have an ugly history of forcibly converting Jews, which makes baptizing them particularly offensive.

  22. Kevin Barney on March 14, 2012 at 8:38 pm

    Stephen no. 17, I personally think it’s a slam dunk that 1 Cor. 15:29 is referring to a practice of vicarious baptism for one’s loved ones who had passed on without the opportunity. You might like this post of mine, which explores some of the ways people have tried to twist the verse to avoid that conclusion:

    http://bycommonconsent.com/2008/11/16/hoi-baptizomenoi-huper-ton-nekron/

    So we know that members of the Church were doing this at Corinth. Of course, Paul’s comments on it were neutral; he was simply using the practice as a datum in his argument in favor of a physical resurrection. He neither explicitly recommended nor anathematized the practice.

  23. Ivan Wolfe on March 14, 2012 at 9:22 pm

    A preacher once told me on my mission that the theology was that, at the instant of death, all humans were given a chance to accept or reject Christ.

    How that worked, he wasn’t sure, and I can’t really figure out. I guess an angel appeared and gave them sufficient knowledge to make a decision?

    IIRC, that preacher was with the Church of God in Christ, a pentecostal denomination. I have no idea if that was his idiosyncratic belief, or a widely held one. I’ve never heard it since then, though.

  24. Reeder on March 15, 2012 at 12:17 am

    Speaking of things being left out of the discussion, is it just me, or has all of the attention on posthumous baptism lately nearly completely overlooked the doctrine of Christ establishing the preaching of the gospel among the dead during his time in the Spirit World (1 Peter 3:19, 4:6) which work is continued by “faithful elders of this dispensation” (Doctrine and Covenants 138:57)?

  25. Bob on March 15, 2012 at 2:39 am

    @ Reeder,
    What will the dead learn that they don’t already know?

  26. Kent Larsen on March 15, 2012 at 5:31 am

    Kevin (22), I’m fairly sure that you are correct in this view. For example, the commentary in the Anchor Bible on 1 Cor. 15:29 (written by biblical scholars W. F. Orr and J. A. Walther), says this:

    The allusion to the idea and/or practice of baptism on behalf of the dead is unique in the New Testament in this passage. Practices of heretical Christians in later centuries do not explain the meaning of whatever was being done by some people in the Corinthian Church in Paul’s time. Close inspection of the language of the reference makes all attempts to soften or eliminate its literal meaning unsuccessful.… It appears that under the pressure of concern for the eternal destiny of dead relatives or friends some people in the church were undergoing baptism on their behalf in the belief that this would enable the dead to receive the benefits of Christ’s salvation.… Since the mention is so unspecific and there is no information from any other New Testament writing (nor, it may be added, in the apostolic fathers), the practice must be considered a curious anomaly, which apparently dropped out of view until revived by some second- and third-century sectarians.

    —- Orr, William F. and James Arthur Walther. I Corinthians. (The Anchor Bible) (1976), p. 337.

    In the (very few) other places I’ve looked, I’ve found similar statements of confusion about the practice.

  27. Kent Larsen on March 15, 2012 at 5:44 am

    Reeder (24), I’m not sure that I quite understand your point. I don’t think that the view that Baptism for the Dead is offensive, weird or incorrect necessarily means that this preaching didn’t occur (FWIW, like 1 Cor. 15:29, the commentary in the Anchor Bible for 1 Peter, written by scholar Bo Reicke, also does not conflict with standard LDS interpretation for 3:19 and 4:6). While the fact that Christ preached to those in the spirit does imply that something needs to be done for those who didn’t hear the word in the flesh, I’m not sure it goes far enough to be helpful — at least not to the degree that 1 Cor. 15:29 does.

    But, if I were writing a theological defense of our practice (which I’m probably not qualified to do), I would clearly include the 1 Peter passages. They do strengthen the argument significantly.

  28. ray on March 16, 2012 at 7:52 am

    In all the hoopla over LDS proxy baptisms, would it not be a good idea to point out that we are not exactly baptizing a dead person, but are performing a proxy baptism for that person which he or she can accept or reject. To say we are baptizing dead Jewish people, for example, is not — at least in my mind — correct. In fact, we do not say we are performing baptism of the dead. We are performing baptism for the dead. Big difference.

  29. It's Not Me on March 18, 2012 at 1:04 pm

    For those who posed the question about why the dead would not immediately remember the pre-earth life and all that happened there, perhaps I don’t understand the question (rhetorical?).

    If the dead immediately remembered everything that happened before they came to earth, why would there be any need at all for preaching in the spirit world? Seems to me that the only thing a dead person would be sure of is that there is life after death.

  30. palerobber on March 19, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    if other christians shared all your base assumptions, i’m sure they’d act more like you. but since they don’t, your questions and implied criticisms are pointless.

    btw, why do mormons persist is a worldwide missionary effort among the living when it would be much more efficient to just always wait until people die to baptise them?

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