Mormonism's Baptism for the Dead


Courtesy of Catholic Answers

Before any Mormon can go to the temple and, among other things, be baptized for the dead, he first must be judged worthy to go there. He can't just show up at the temple doors and expect to get in. No one is given entrance without producing a current "temple recommend," rather like a spiritual identification card, that certifies his status as a righteous Mormon.

The first step toward being able to go to the temple is an interview with the ward bishop (roughly equivalent to a parish priest). During this interview a Mormon is quizzed by the bishop to see if he's been faithful in his commitment to the teachings and ordinances of the Mormon Church.

He's questioned on a variety of subjects including his tithing track record; use of alcohol, tobacco, or caffeine; sexual immorality; and any failures to adhere to church doctrines and disciplines.

If the applicant has had difficulties in any of those areas, he won't receive a temple recommend. For the one who doesn't pass the interview, there's no trip to the temple.

The interesting thing is that the majority of Mormons don't have temple recommends. That's not to say they fail their interviews with their bishops. Actually, most Mormons, for a variety of reasons, never make the effort to obtain a temple recommend.

But for the minority who do and who obtain one, the most important ordinance they'll perform in the temple is baptism for the dead.

On any given day, in each of the more than forty temples around the world, thousands of faithful Mormons are baptized vicariously for the dead.

Most non-Mormons are dimly aware that the Mormons are interested in genealogy, but they're not sure why. Of course there's nothing wrong with being interested in genealogy as a hobby, but it's far from a hobby for Mormons.

For them, the whole point behind genealogical work is the idea that those who died as non-Mormons can be baptized vicariously and thus become Mormons posthumously.

This doctrine was first given to the church by Joseph Smith in 1836 and is found in his Doctrine and Covenants, but not, as we'll see, in the Book of Mormon.

In defense of it, Mormons cite a single Bible verse, 1 Corinthians 15:29: "Now, what about those people who are baptized for the dead? What do they hope to accomplish? If it is true, as some claim, that the dead are not raised to life, why are those people being baptized for the dead?"

This is the passage Mormons point to when discussing baptism for the dead. "See, even Paul, who of all people must have known the truth, is talking about the church baptizing its dead." For the Mormon, this is conclusive evidence. But is it really?

The Bible Doesn't Teach It

In Paul's first epistle to the Church in Corinth, he treats a number of subjects. This letter was written to counteract problems he saw developing in Corinth after he had established the Church there. Corinth had its share of pagan religions, but there were also quasi-Christian groups which practiced variations of orthodox Christian doctrines. Enter baptism for the dead.

Although we have no way of knowing for sure who was engaging in this practice, it's certain that Paul wasn't referring to orthodox Christians baptizing the dead. Catholic and Protestant scholars agree on that.

There's no other scriptural reference to it, and none of the Church Fathers discuss it in any of their writings. There is simply no evidence indicating that the early Christian Church practiced baptism for the dead.

When you discuss baptism for the dead with Mormons, remember that it's a very important doctrine to all of them, and it takes on a greater significance to the Mormons who go to the temple. They believe people who've died can be baptized by proxy, thus allowing them the opportunity to become Mormons after their death.

You might be surprised to learn that the Mormon Church has teams of men and women microfilming records of Catholic and Protestant parishes, cemetery records, birth and death certificates--virtually any sort of record pertaining to past generations. Temple Mormons hope, in time, to have all of the dead of previous generations baptized posthumously into the Mormon Church.

The idea behind baptisms for the dead is this: God wants each of us to be with him in glory. To effect this, he allows us to accept the Mormon Gospel here on earth. If we don't, he sends us to a "spirit prison" (in essence, purgatory) until the Gospel has been preached to us there and we convert.

Since we weren't Mormons here on earth, we'll become Mormons there by way of some Mormon temple patron who's been kind enough to baptize us--at least that's the

theory, and it's a theory that's developed over the years and is quite unlike what Joseph Smith first taught.

As in other cases, the Book of Mormon becomes an important tool for the Christian apologist. It contradicts much Mormon theology, and baptism for the dead is no exception.

In Alma 34:35, 36 we read: "For behold, if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death, behold ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil, and he does seal you his. Therefore, the spirit of the Lord has withdrawn from you and hath no place in you; the power of the devil is over you, and this is the final state of the wicked."

Flat-Out Contradiction

In other words, those who die as non-Mormons go to hell, period. There's no suggestion of a later, vicarious admission into the Mormon Church.

We see present-day Mormon doctrine also contradicted in 2 Nephi 9:15: "And it shall come to pass that when all men shall have passed from this first death unto life, insomuch as they have become immortal, they must appear before the judgment seat of the Holy One of Israel, and then cometh the judgment and then must they be judged according to the holy judgment of God. For the Lord God hath spoken it, and it is his eternal word, which cannot pass away, that they who are righteous shall be righteous still, and they who are filthy shall be filthy still; wherefore, they who are filthy...shall go away into everlasting fire, prepared for them; and their torment is as a lake of fire and brimstone, whose flame ascendeth up forever and ever and has no end."

When dealing with Mormons it's good to demonstrate that Joseph Smith contradicted himself, but you can't leave it at that. As in other areas of Mormon theology, it's not difficult to identify the flaws, but that alone won't help you in your task of bringing a soul to Christ.

You Must Explain What Baptism Is

You have to help Mormons recognize the problems with Mormon theology, and then--

this is the most important part--you've got to be able to offer a solution to the problems. You might begin with what Christian baptism really is.

The Catholic Church defines it as "the act or sacrament of the Church by which, through regeneration by water and the Spirit, the properly disposed person is incorporated into the Church, consecrated by the baptismal character to exercise the cult of the Christian religion, and enabled to bear witness to Christ (a) by receiving the other sacraments, (b) by prayer and thanksgiving, (c) by the witness of a holy life, and (d) by self-denial and active charity" ("Lumen Gentium" 2:10, 11).

(By the way, don't be thrown by the word "cult" here; it's referring to the newly baptized person taking his place in the Church, exercising his Christianity within and through the Church.)

When discussing this topic or any topic with Mormons, be prepared for their escape hatches, especially their chief one. When faced with contradictions between the Bible and their theology, they'll tell you the Bible isn't translated correctly in that instance.

"We believe the Bible to be the Word of God as far as it is correctly translated" (Eighth Article of Faith). As you might expect, they find fault with the translating precisely in those places where the King James Version (which is the one they use) undermines Mormon beliefs.

Mormon theology, like that of fundamentalism, is deficient in its understanding of the nature and effects of baptism. Both Mormons and fundamentalists say baptism is merely an ordinance, not a sacrament in the Catholic sense, but Mormons mean by the term ordinance more than fundamentalists do.

They believe baptism effects a change in the soul of the convert. Fundamentalists don't believe that. They think baptism produces no change in the soul. Rather, it's an outward symbol of conversion. Both positions contain some truth, but they miss the essential point--regeneration.

What separates Mormons from Catholics on this issue is the understanding of original sin and it's relationship with baptism. Catholics believe in original sin. Mormons don't.

The Second Article of Faith in the Mormon Church says, "We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam's transgression." For Mormons, there is no sacramental cleansing of original sin because there is no original sin that needs to be cleansed. That's why Mormons don't baptize infants.

Adam's Sin Affects (and Infects) All

To help Mormons understand the importance of baptism, you must demonstrate the fact that all men are, until baptism, out of God's friendship due to Adam's sin. Initially they won't agree with you because they've been taught that in a way it was actually a good thing that Adam sinned. They don't actually call it a sin; instead they call it a transgression.

In the book "Mormon Doctrine," the late Bruce McConkie, a leading Mormon theologian and apologist, wrote: "Modern Christendom has the false doctrine of original sin. Although Scriptures abundantly show that men will be punished for their own sins and not for Adam's transgression, the common view is that all men are tainted with sin and denied blessings because of Adam's fall."

McConkie never provides any of the "abundant" evidence he refers to. He gives a few quotations from the "Catholic Encyclopedia" which explain the Catholic teaching on original sin and, as a corollary, infant baptism. He ridicules Catholic teaching, but doesn't offer the reader any evidence that would support the Mormon position.

Mormon theology teaches that God wanted Adam to sin so the "pre-ordained plan of salvation" might come to fruition. The conflict lies in Mormonism's teaching on free will.

On one hand, it emphasizes the fact that Adam was endowed by God with free will, but it also maintains that God, in a sense, prevented him from exercising it when it came to the Fall--Adam couldn't not fall. McConkie says, "In conformity with the will of the Lord, Adam fell both spiritually and temporally."

What Baptism Really Does

To explain Catholic teaching on baptism you need to demonstrate the reality of original sin, its effects on the souls of all people, and the necessity of baptism for its removal. Some excellent verses to use are Genesis 3:16-24, Romans 5:12-19, 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, and Galatians 3:27.

Several things happen at baptism. First, the spiritual (though not physical) effects of original sin are removed from the soul. This removal is accompanied by an infusion of sanctifying grace, which makes the soul spiritually alive. The soul receives an indelible character that irrevocably identifies it as a member of the heavenly family.

Also, all punishment due to pre-baptismal actual sins is completely remitted. This kind of baptism--the only kind mentioned in the Bible--is for the living, not for the dead. Our chance to become heirs with Christ comes here on earth. Once we've died, there is no chance to be baptized.

Most Mormons don't understand this traditional Christian position. They're also mistaken in their understanding of the Catholic Church's position on the state of unbaptized souls.

They think the Church condemns to hell all who haven't been baptized with water. Not so. We know God judges each person according to the graces he received while on earth. For example, a person living in a remote area may die never having heard the name Jesus, never having come near a Christian.

The Catholic Church teaches that if such a person lived according to his conscience, and if he made a positive effort to know, love, and serve God, even if he was wrong in his approach, he will be eligible to receive salvation through Christ's work on the Cross.

The Mormon Church claims to have the only "fair" answer to the question of the destiny of the unbaptized Mormons think baptism for the dead is the only logical and merciful way to get around the problem.

They're dead wrong. The merits of Christ's sacrifice can be applied without baptism by water through baptism of desire or blood.

The three points to remember when discussing baptism with Mormons are (1) the reality of original sin, (2) the sacramental nature and spiritual effects of baptism, (3) and the Church's teachings on the destiny of unbaptized souls.

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