Note: The following essay was contributed by frequent contributor Scott S. Mitchell.
In the one of the most enigmatic scriptures in the entire Bible, the apostle Paul, in writing to the Corinthians about the universality of the resurrection, said these words: “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?” (See 1 Corinthians 15:29.) This passage has perplexed Christian scholars, and been the subject of much debate, since the second century A.D., and rightfully so. Jesus himself never taught baptizing for the dead to the Jews in Palestine or the Nephites in the New World. No other prophet, apostle or disciple made any mention of it, either. And even Paul uses the word “they” instead of the word “we” in describing who practices it, without clarifying who “they” refers to. In the next verse, however, he does use the word “we” to describe a separate practice in which he personally participated–“standing in jeopardy every hour”, or being physically endangered by persecutors at all times because of his and his fellows’ Christian beliefs. See 1 Cor. 15:30.
In 1841, however, Joseph Smith, founder of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter “LDS Church” or “Mormonism”), began teaching that the practice of vicarious baptisms for the dead was a vital and integral practice among God’s people, dating back to the beginning of time. The only proof text Joseph cited which actually mentions baptism for the dead was the aforementioned 1 Corinthians 15:29. Consequently, however, the LDS Church began performing baptisms of live persons vicariously for persons who had died without being baptised into Mormonism. To this day, millions of such baptisms are performed each year, exclusively in LDS temples, in order to provide the possibility of salvation to those who died without it.
Interpretation by Bible Scholars
The scholarly response to this passage is uniformly uncertain about it. From the Fully Revised Fourth Edition of The New Oxford Annotated Bible: “It is not clear what was involved in the Corinthian practice of baptism on behalf of the dead. Paul appeals to the practice to suggest to the Corinthians that they have an implicit faith in the resurrection.”1
From Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary:
The exact meaning of this practice is uncertain. Some scholars believe it refers to the re-baptism of Christians for the benefit of people who had died unbaptized but already believing. But other scholars insist it refers to a baptismal formula in the Corinthian church that promised that believers would rise from the dead at the end of time to reign with Christ.2
From Archaeological Study Bible:
Every theory has some problems, but some are more plausible than others:
One explanation holds that Paul was alluding to some form of “proxy baptism” (an individual being baptized to secure the salvation of ancestors, relatives or friends who had died without Christ). There is no indication in his text, however, that Corinthians were being baptized for their ancestors or for other dead pagans—and no evidence that this was ever practiced in the early church.
Some suggest that the term refers to baptism for believers who had died unbaptized; others that it may have been some ritual rated in a superstitious belief that baptism itself almost magical, life-giving power. The Corinthian believers may have been influenced by a local cult of the dead at Corinth. On the other hand, if such a pagan background were behind this practice, we would expect Paul to have voiced disapproval.
Still others propose that the phrase actually means “baptized in the place of the dead” in the sense of taking the place of Christian martyrs who had lost their lives for the faith. This kind of baptism would have been a rite whereby a living believer symbolically took the place of this or her fallen brother or sister. This interpretation has some support in the context, since Paul immediately spoke in the following verses (vv. 30-32) of his own endurance of persecution.3
Book of Mormon Teachings
As stated above, Jesus Christ himself is not reported to have said a word about baptism for the dead when he founded his church in Israel or in the western hemisphere. However, the Book of Mormon prophet Mormon, as quoted in Moroni 8:21-24, left no doubt that a practice like baptism for the dead was not only unnecessary, but was a corruption of the pure gospel preached in the Book of Mormon. This scripture unequivocally teaches that people who don’t have the gospel preached to them in this life don’t need baptism, either as living mortals or as spirits in the spirit world. Baptism is only for people who have had the gospel preached to them and have had the opportunity to knowingly break God’s law. Mormon said:
21 . . . I speak it boldly; God hath commanded me. Listen unto them [Mormon’s words] and give heed, or they stand against you at the judgment-seat of Christ.
22 For behold that all little children are alive in Christ, and also all they that are without the law. For the power of redemption cometh on all them that have no law; wherefore, he that is not condemned, or he that is under no condemnation, cannot repent; and unto such baptism availeth nothing—
23 But it is mockery before God, denying the mercies of Christ, and the power of his Holy Spirit, and putting trust in dead works.
24 Behold, my son, this thing ought not to be; for repentance is unto them that are under condemnation and under the curse of a broken law.
Dead people who died without the opportunity to accept or reject the gospel comprise the overwhelming majority of those who have lived on this earth. When they die, they no longer have the ability in the spirit world to break the commandments of God. Having lived in mortality without Christ’s gospel law, they therefore need no baptism in this life, nor in the world of spirits, where they cannot break any law.
Teachings of Joseph Smith
Despite Mormon’s teachings in the Book of Mormon, in 1841, LDS Church founder Joseph Smith began teaching his followers the church needed to build a temple in its then-headquarters in Nauvoo, Illinois, wherein they could perform baptisms for the dead. Purporting to be quoting the Lord himself, Joseph produced this mandate:
For a baptismal font there is not upon the earth, that they, my saints, may be baptized for those who are dead–
. . .
But I command you, all ye my saints, to build a house unto me; and I grant unto a sufficient time to build a house unto me; and during this time your baptisms shall be acceptable unto me.
But behold, at the end of this appointment your baptisms for your dead shall not ve acceptable unto me; and if you do not these things at the end of the appointment ye shall be rejected as a church, with your dead [!], saith the Lord you God.
For verily I say unto you, that after you have had sufficient time to build a house to me, wherein the ordinance of baptizing for the dead belongeth, and for which the same was instituted from before the foundation of the world, your baptisms for your dead cannot be acceptable unto me;
. . .
And after this time, your baptisms for the dead by those who are scattered abroad, are not acceptable unto me, saith the Lord.
(See Doctrine and Covenants (hereafter “D&C”) 124:29, 31-33, 35. Emphasis and commentary added.)
The assertions and ramifications of the above verses are stunning. According to Joseph Smith, the Lord is claiming something never before taught by anyone in the Old Testament, New Testament or Book of Mormon, even during the time when the kingdom of God was on earth with the Nephites and the resurrected Lord reigned over it–that baptisms for the dead performed in temples was a practice instituted from the foundation of the world. Historically, this assertion is simply false. Everything done in the Israelite and Jewish temples is described in the Bible, and baptisms for the dead are never mentioned. The foremost Jewish scholars have never heard of this temple practice. The Nephite temples were modeled after the Israelites’ temple of Solomon, and the rites of the Mosaic law prevailed there until Jesus brought it to an end. (See 2 Nephi 5:16; Alma 25: 15-16; 3 Nephi 15: 4-9.)
The other startling notion from D&C 124 is that the Lord would not only reject the church, but also its dead, if the Mormons in Nauvoo don’t build the temple by the unstated deadline imposed. Thus, not only would the church cease to be the Lord’s church, ostensibly leaving Him without a church on earth in the latter days, but all the earth’s innocent deceased former inhabitants, who played no part in the Nauvoo saints’ failure to work fast enough, would lose their chance at salvation. This author has no qualms about declaring this notion absurd. God doesn’t work that way. He doesn’t punish the innocent for the supposed derelictions of others. Mormons purport to agree with the author on this point, as manifested by the LDS Church’s second Article of Faith: “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s [or anyone else’s, we might add] transgression.” This author’s conclusion is that D&C 124 is simply not a revelation from God, and Joseph Smith was fallible enough to claim otherwise because he wanted the temple built in Nauvoo that had failed to be built in Jackson County, Missouri.
After mandating a temple be built to facilitate baptisms for the dead and other ordinances to be performed therein, Joseph Smith to expound on his doctrinal views concerning the necessity for baptisms for the dead. His writings from 1842 on this subject are found in a letter he wrote to the church which was later canonized in D&C 128. The passages related to baptisms for the dead are found in D&C 128:12, 16-18.4 It is noteworthy that, unlike most other sections of the D&C, Joseph did not purport the writings in this section to be a revelation from God.5 Instead, D&C 128 is a mere letter to the church that Joseph wrote, in which he argues his scriptural views. It’s also evident from verse 16 that Paul’s one-verse offhand remark from 1 Corinthians 15:29, quoted in the first paragraph of this essay, forms the doctrinal foundation for Joseph’s linking of baptism for the dead to the larger grand gospel plan of salvation.
How is it possible that Joseph Smith, the man who used the seer stones to produce the Book of Mormon text, could misinterpret biblical scripture, and teach his interpretations as the very word of God? Because, very simply, he didn’t do his homework, and there was no one left in the church by 1842 who dared tell him that his scriptural knowledge was insufficient to support what he was now teaching. Isaiah had described him accurately by referring to “him who is not learned.” (See Isa. 29:12.) Joseph misunderstood a great deal of what he read in the Bible, and forgot much of what he’d read in the Book of Mormon. He seems to have forgotten all of Moroni 8. Not only did he ignore Moroni’s teachings on whom baptism is for, but he had already instituted as a new commandment the baptism of eight-year-olds, who are little children. This violated the clear teaching of Moroni 8 as well, which scrupulously avoids setting any specific age for baptism, instead teaching that parents should be baptized, not their little children. See Moroni 8:10, 11.
Joseph also forgot in his later years in Nauvoo, when the idea of baptizing for the dead began to take shape, what he himself had previously taught in 1836. He forgot that he had already claimed that his brother Alvin, who had never in his mortal life been baptized, was already in the celestial kingdom of God (which Mormonism teaches is the highest level of heavenly glory), without any person ever having been baptized for him. As Joseph had explained, this was because God knew Alvin would have received the gospel had he been permitted to tarry on earth long enough to get baptized. (See D&C 137: 1-8.) No baptism for the dead had been performed for Alvin in 1836, because Joseph Smith hadn’t even thought of the idea, let alone instituted the practice, nor had he claimed to have had a revelation on said point. Even though the Kirtland temple was built during this time, no baptism for the dead were performed therein. So Alvin, and all other good people (see D&C 138: 8-9) were heirs of the celestial kingdom, according to Joseph Smith, without the need of either live baptism or vicarious baptism for the dead. But by 1842, Joseph had forgotten what he’d said six years earlier. This forgetting of his own previous teachings happened a lot during Joseph’s life, which is why Mormonism today contains so many contradictory beliefs. It’s also one of the perplexing problems this website exists to address and illuminate.
Arguments of LDS Apologists
Even if the LDS belief in baptism for the dead weren’t contradicted by Book of Mormon teachings, arguments by LDS apologists defending the practice would still face serious difficulties. Several of them claim that baptism for the dead was a secret practice of the early church which was too sacred to be revealed, but can’t logically explain why it would be any more secret or sacred than baptism of live individuals. If both are essential for salvation of the earth’s inhabitants, both teachings would of course be of equal sacredness, and discussing one would necessarily involve discussing the other.
Apologists also face this question: If Jesus freely discussed and mandated baptism of live individuals, as we know he did (Matt. 28: 19, 3 Nephi 27: 20), why would he never be recorded as having taught baptism for dead individuals, since it was equally important, and would save far more people than live baptisms would? Why would Jesus omit such an important teaching, unless it wasn’t part of his gospel in the first place?
Third, how can it be argued that this teaching and practice was kept secret, while at the same time trying to show that it was NOT kept secret in the writings of early church scholars, and by Paul himself? When God wants something kept secret, why does he allow it to be commonly taught, as apologists claim?
One apologist friend of the author’s has argued that baptism for the dead was obviously taught to the Brother of Jared, then made part of the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon. But how could someone be confident of this, when we have no idea what was in the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon, and don’t know what specific things the Lord told the brother of Jared, other than that which Moroni recorded? Any time one argues something took place while admitting no record of what took place has been revealed, he’s not just on thin ice—he’s fallen through it.
Similarly, what is the point of having a sealed portion of the BoM, if the sealed, secret words get revealed anyway, as some allege occurred with baptism for the dead?
Sixth, since the Book of Mormon teaches that only people who have proven themselves righteous will get to have the contents of the sealed portion revealed to them (3 Nephi 26: 8-11), why would Mormonism publicly teach baptism for the dead to the whole world, regardless of the degree of righteousness of the audience?
Seventh, if baptism for the dead was one of the things shown to the brother of Jared, and thereafter sealed up to be kept secret until a certain time when the righteous were deserving of it, why didn’t Joseph Smith say so? Joseph Smith himself never taught this doctrine to be part of what was taught to the brother of Jared.
Eighth, if baptism for the dead is one of the plain and precious parts of the gospel which was almost totally removed from the New Testament, why didn’t the Book of Mormon restore it? Nephi specifically taught that we could find out what plain and precious parts of the gospel had been removed from the Bible by reading those teachings in the Nephites’ records, which would restore them. 1 Nephi 13: 40.
Ninth, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon to the Gentiles, and then to the remnant of the house of Israel, is described as both groups receiving “the fulness of the gospel” in 3 Nephi 20: 28, 30. This cannot be referring to the Gentiles receiving the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon, because verse 28 speaks of the Gentiles rejecting that fulness, which we already know won’t happened with the sealed portion. So, how could the BoM be described by Jesus as “the fulness of the gospel” if it’s missing such an extremely essential part of the gospel as apologists claim baptism for the dead to be?
Tenth, why would our current LDS practice require all baptisms for the dead to only be performed in the temple by “Melchizedek Priesthood” authority, when we know anciently neither temples nor Melchizedek priesthood were involved?
Some Mormon scholars have attempted to bolster the historical legitimacy for baptisms for the dead by reference to early patristic and apocryphal writings showing the practice existed among some small groups of Christians. See, e.g., here. In so doing, said scholars begin with the supposition that Joseph Smith’s teachings could not have been in error, and then set out to corroborate him with scattered writings from after the death of the apostles. But it is the Book of Mormon’s purpose, not that of the patristic fathers’ or apocryphal writings’ purpose, to supply us with the plain and precious teachings missing from the Bible. If the Apocrypha or writings of early Catholic fathers were the source to which we should look, the Book of Mormon would have said so, but it said the opposite. But even we were to attach more weight to apocryphal writings, from my own reading of them, I would still interpret them differently than Mormon scholars have done. Those scholars make reference to apocryphal sources such as The Shepherd of Hermas, Epistula Apostolorum or the Gospel of Nicodemus to support Mormonism’s current practice of baptism for the dead. But some early Christian scholars who discussed Paul’s one-verse reference to baptism for the dead seem to agree that it is closely related to other statements he made in other epistles. I happen to agree with them on this point, and feel that the key to understanding 1 Corinthians 15:29 lies in comparing it to three other Pauline scriptures.
This Author’s Theory on What Paul Might Have Meant
These other scriptures seem to suggest the idea of baptisms being performed not only to signal an acceptance of Christ’s gospel, but in a specific, symbolic way so as to memorialize the Christian belief, stated by Paul, that “as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive.” See 1 Cor. 15:22. Consider another similar statement by Paul found in Romans 6, which utilizes the same words and concepts, italicized and boldfaced below, as those set forth in 1 Corinthians 15:29, only in a different and more understandable combination:
3 Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?
4 Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
5 For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection:
6 Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.
This scripture speaks of Christian believers being baptized for the purpose of memorializing Christ’s death, thereby symbolizing our own physical and spiritual deaths. It teaches that not only should we memorialize and symbolize Christ’s death, but we must also allow our old man, i.e., our old, sinful self, to die. If we do, just as Christ rose from the dead, we too shall rise from the dead, both temporally and spiritually. This scripture therefore seems to have the three same main elements as 1 Corinthians 15:29–baptizing for some purpose related to death or the dead and the resurrection.
The second epistle of Paul wherein this same concept of baptism, death and the resurrection being interrelated is repeated is Colossians 2:12, 13, wherein Paul writes that we are–
Buried with [Christ] in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.
And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses.
In light of these two scriptures, I proffer the following possible interpretation of 1 Cor. 15:29, keeping in mind that the verse is an English translation of a short, cryptically worded piece of Pauline esoterica written in Greek (with concepts shared with the previously quoted scriptures in italics and boldface): “Otherwise, what would they do who baptize in such a manner as to symbolize the physical death of the body, and the permanent spiritual death that results from it, if there were no resurrection to save the dead from such a fate? Why would they then perform baptisms which symbolize people dying?”
Even if one accepts that what Paul was describing in 1 Cor. 15: 29 referred to a then-current practice of performing vicarious baptisms for the dead by proxy (a proposition which is by no means universally accepted among scholars), other facts weigh against the conclusion that he was endorsing vicarious baptisms performed on behalf of deceased persons. Virtually every biblical scholar, both ancient and modern, agrees that baptism for the dead was never practiced within the mainstream Christian church, and was never taught or advocated by any apostle or disciple mentioned in the New Testament. It’s entirely possible that Paul was referring in 1 Cor. 15:29 to people who, in their baptismal ceremonies, made special reference to the doctrines taught in 1 Cor. 15:22, Romans 6:3-6 and Col. 2:12-13, quoted above.
Most scholars cite Tertullian’s writings to show that the practice of vicarious baptisms for dead persons was practiced at latest by the late 2nd Century A.D. However, this argument, while true, doesn’t help demonstrate that the practice was well-accepted among Christians; it does the opposite. Tertullian condemned the idea of baptism for the dead as heretical, writing in 207 or 208 AD. In “Against Marcion” 10, he wrote that the proper interpretation of 1 Cor. 15: 29 was that it concerned the idea of being baptized for the body which was destined to die and rise again. He made clear that Marcion, a cult leader who practiced baptism for the dead, but didn’t even believe in the resurrection from the dead, was far removed from actual Christian doctrine and practice. All Christian scholars accept that Marcion was apostate, and his denial of the resurrection constituting good evidence of that, despite the fact that he may have enjoyed a sizable following. So, the fact that the Marcionites engaged in baptisms for the dead certainly isn’t evidence of it being practiced in the early church.
About a century after Tertullian, scholar John Chrysostom, writing in Homily XL of his Homilies on the Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (available free of charge online), explained that what Paul was referring to in 1 Corinthians 15: 29 was an accepted practice among Christians for the convert to say these words immediately before descending into the water: “I believe in the resurrection of the dead,” whereupon the baptism would be performed to symbolize death and resurrection. This explanation of why Paul might have worded that one little verse the way he did seems entirely plausible to me, much more so than the Book-of-Mormon-contradicting and uncorroborated explanation that Joseph Smith came up with when he decided to expound on those words eleven years after the LDS church was founded.
A final word: Our habit in Mormonism to accept without questioning Joseph Smith’s teachings on biblical subjects has often led us to have less biblical understanding than mainstream Christians of other churches. Notice how much doctrinal structure we Mormons have built on a few, awkwardly worded and cryptic words from Peter, found in 1 Peter 3: 18-20:
For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:
By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;
Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in he days Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.
Christian scholars, interpret this scripture to demonstrate that the group Jesus taught in the spirit prison (which is itself another term not found elsewhere in the Bible or Book of Mormon), is a very small, narrowly defined group; it appears to be the same souls who are described in Genesis 6: 1-5, who were sons of God who should have known better than to copulate with the daughters of men.6 But if it were an important part of the gospel to understand this scripture, assuming Peter knew what he was talking about, I believe Jesus would have expounded on it perhaps in the Bible, but certainly in the Book of Mormon. But he didn’t. When Joseph Smith did start expounding on it, there was again no one left in the early LDS Church who dared challenge his understanding of it; they’d already left. Predictably, the doctrine which resulted from Joseph Smith’s interpretation was at odds with Alma’s teachings in Alma 40 of the Book of Mormon, which Joseph appears not to have remembered. It’s up to us now to do the homework and research such doctrines, intellectually and spiritually, before we accept and teach ideas built on such insubstantial scriptural foundations.
- The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 4th edition, Michael D. Coogan, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 2021.
- Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Ronald F. Youngblood, Gen. Ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995), p. 160
- Archaeological Study Bible (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2010), p. 1646
- For the author’s thought on Joseph’s misinterpretations of scriptures found in these verses, see Erroneous LDS teachings from the Doctrine and Covenants and LDS Church History Regarding Elijah and Redeeming the Dead elsewhere on this website.
- It’s also interesting to note that in the LDS Church’s published 1842 personal history of Joseph Smith (see Joseph Smith—History 1:36-39 in The Pearl of Great Price) Moroni is reported as having quoted Malachi 4: 5-6 differently to Joseph than the way Joseph himself quotes Malachi in D&C 128: 17. The Church history version is also different from the way Jesus himself quoted the same verses from Malachi in 3rd Nephi 25:5, 6. The Church’s 1842 version also differs from Joseph’ own original 1835 version of Moroni’s visit, as told to Oliver Cowdery, in which he didn’t claim Moroni had quoted Malachi at all. (See Messenger and Advocate, vol. 1, pp. 78-80, February 1835.) It thus appears that for some reason, the LDS Church’s 1842 history of Joseph Smith supplements Moroni’s words and adds things the angel didn’t actually say when he visited Joseph in 1823, unless Jesus was quoted incorrectly in the Book of Mormon when he repeated Malachi’s words, and unless Joseph’s accounts in the Messenger and Advocate and in D&C 128 are both in error.
- The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Ibid., p. 2130