Reflections on Baptism for the Dead
I stumbled upon something serendipitously in the scriptures (no spiritual coincidences, are there?) that I had missed before in reading a portion of the Old Testament relating to the desecration of the molten ‘sea’ or font that was part of the sacred temple service of ancient Israel. At the time, I was in the Mormon Mount Timpanogos Mormon temple, dressed in white, waiting to perform temple work for my ancestors, reflecting in the quiet, and reading the scriptures. I’ll share what I learned after first providing a little context by introducing the subject of “baptisms for the dead” for friends of other faiths, as addressed, who may be visiting our website. Once again, we’ve created this site, after all, with you in mind, and we hope you’ll engage us in a conversation and ask us your sincere questions. We much prefer that you glean truth from the source than inquire of those who only speculate about our faith, lifestyles, beliefs, and especially about what goes on in dedicated Houses of the Lord–Mormon temples.
Introduction to Baptisms for the Dead
It’s not unique to Mormonism to believe in the ordinance of baptism as a requirement for entrance into God’s kingdom; many Christians likewise believe that, just as the Lord told Nicodemus, baptism is a needful symbol of the death and resurrection of Christ and of our willingness to have our sins remitted and be born again spiritually. In the Savior’s own words:
Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5)?
Yet all of us know that many people have died without the ordinance of baptism, and some among us have lost loved ones in this situation. So how do we reconcile Christ’s statement to Nicodemus with the notion of a just God — if, solely according to what we know of Nicodemus’ conversation, such individuals would be prohibited from entering into the kingdom of God? There is an answer that satisfies both parts of this seeming paradox.
The answer includes, of course, the truth that God is perfectly loving and just. (Often I lament that we so underestimate or under-appreciate Him and His attributes, and we see Him as less than He is and therefore are limited in the faith we can exercise in Him and in the love we give back to Him… But that’s for another post, I suppose!) Back to our conversation. As one prophet stated so well, “It is evident that the Savior’s statement to Nicodemus presupposes that baptisms may be done for those who have died who have not been baptized (Howard Hunter, Ensign, A Temple Loving People).
Since baptism is an earthly ordinance which can be performed only by the living, the Savior prepared a way for baptisms to take place by proxy for those who have passed to the other side through death. How then can those who are dead be baptized if only the living can perform the ordinance? That was the reference of the Apostle Paul’s writing to the Corinthians when he asked this question:
“Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?” (1 Cor. 15:29.)
Baptisms are again performed by the living in behalf of individuals who have died, as is also the laying on of hands for the bestowal of the gift of the Holy Ghost for these same deceased people. These ordinances, though, are performed only in the house of the Lord.
Personal Reflections on Baptisms in Mormon Temples
I was in the San Diego temple once as my daughter and her friend were being baptized for some of my ancestors, and I watched the beautiful ordinance from behind a glass enclosure, framing the baptismal font that is raised to be seated upon the backs of 12 oxen representative of the children of Israel and respective tribes. I saw, but couldn’t hear from where I was seated, what appeared as a joyous, animated but quiet discussion as my daughter handed the names of our family to the officiator, both dressed in white. I watched as our friend, Christian, entered the font and was first baptized for our male ancestors, and as the recorders, attentive, noted the ordinance from the side of the font, leaning inward with interest. Then Kira stepped into the font, the names of our family pronounced as she stood as proxy and was baptized and emerged from the water on their behalf. I watched as others looked on longingly and lovingly. I felt what I can only describe as pure joy and a sure feeling that at least some of those who have passed on for whom the work was being performed were watching from the spirit world and were aware and joyful on that occasion. Of course, everyone has the choice to dismiss the ordinance as well, but on this day, I felt the joy of some who accepted.
Well, interestingly enough, a day later I found myself in the Mount Timpanogos Mormon temple, wanting to follow through with additional temple work for these relatives. As mentioned above, I was pondering the scriptures and the verses I came upon were these:
And king Ahaz cut off the borders of the bases, and removed the laver from off them; and took down the sea from off the brasen oxen that were under it, and put it upon a pavement of stones.
I learned that it was actually Ahaz who had dismantled the font. To him, nothing was sacred. After all, he passed his children through the fire as an offerring to the heathen god, Molech. He took parts of the temple and offered them to the King of Assyria to bribe him into helping him defeat those attacking him — Rezin and the king of Judah. He then broke apart the font. I hadn’t noticed that before. The temple was not just defiled; the very molten ‘sea’ — the building of which was detailed some chapters earlier — was destroyed by a wicked man. The destruction of the temple, the exile, the re-building and the destruction again in Jerusalem, became ever more present reality to me. We are once again in the era of temple building, and one day, the temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt, and the Savior will rule and reign on earth again. Of that I am sure and offer my sincere witness.
We hope you’ll visit a modern temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints before it is dedicated, or one of the international Visitors’ Centers on a temple site.
More on Mormon Baptism for the Dead
LDS News on Church policy for Baptisms for the Dead