Baptism for the Dead is Evidence for the True Church

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by Mike Clark © 2024  

Note that this article is written in accordance with my understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as taught by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which I am a member. The contents of the article are my own work, and does not necessarily represent the view of the Church.


QUESTION: What about all the billions of humans who have died without ever so much as having heard about Jesus, let alone having a chance to accept Him as their Savior? Are they going to hell?

I have reason to believe that one of the best evidences for the falling away (or apostasy) of the early Church is the abandonment of the doctrine of baptism for the dead.

Baptism for the dead, vicarious baptism or proxy baptism today commonly refers to the religious practice of baptizing a person on behalf of one who is dead — a living person receiving the rite on behalf of a deceased person.

Baptism for the dead is best known as a doctrine of the Latter Day Saint movement, which has practiced it since 1840. It is currently practiced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), where it is performed only in dedicated temples, as well as in several other current factions of the movement. Those who practice this rite view baptism as an essential requirement to enter the Kingdom of God, and therefore practice baptism for the dead to offer it by proxy to those who died without the opportunity to receive it. The LDS teach that those who have died may choose to accept or reject the baptisms done on their behalf.

Answering Objections

In part of the following I will be referring to what The Gospel Coalition (TGC) has written concerning the subject of baptism for the dead, in their attempt to explain it away. Find that article HERE.

Consider 1 Cor. 15:29:

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?

The plain reading of this verse in 1st Corinthians is that at least some Christians in the New Testament were apparently directed to baptize dead people by proxy. And TGC admits this:

“The simplest reading of the text is that some Corinthian Christians were baptized vicariously on behalf of some who’d already died, seeking a spiritual benefit.”

And now for the explaining away.

“The problem with this view, though, is twofold. First, there is no precedent for baptism for the dead in the Bible, the early church, or pagan religions.”

I guess I'm surprised that they would bring in pagan religion as a possible precedent, but they are wrong about there not being a precedent for baptism for the dead in the Bible, because there it is in 1 Cor. 15:29. Isn’t that enough? As far as there being no precedent for it in the early church, that is simply incorrect.

"Early heresiologists Epiphanius of Salamis (Panarion 28) and Chrysostom (Homilies 40) attributed the practice respectively to the Cerinthians and to the Marcionites, whom they identified as heretical 'Gnostic' groups, while Ambrosiaster and Tertullian affirmed that the practice was legitimate and found among the New Testament Christians (though Tertullian later recanted his original beliefs in his later life as he became associated with Montanism)." (See Wikipedia for a more detailed explanation)

From this, it should be very clear that baptism for the dead was practiced among some Christian groups all the way into the 3rd Century. And some continued to do so even later.

And here’s a question: why would Paul use a supposedly heretical practice as support for resurrection, a key gospel doctrine? Sounds a bit unlike him, doesn't it? TGC admits:

“[S]ince Paul doesn’t rebuke the Corinthians for their practice, then their baptism for the dead was harmless or, at worst, a minor offense. If baptism for the dead actually perverted the gospel, he would have denounced it, as he condemns other sins in the letter.”

I ask parenthetically that if baptism for the dead is “harmless” or, at worst, “a minor offense,” and doesn’t actually pervert the gospel, then why do non-LDS Christians condemn the Latter-day Saints for it? Shouldn’t they be following the tolerant example of Paul?

TGC continues:

“No one knows who did it or what spiritual benefit they sought.”

As stated, we do know who did it, and we do know what spiritual benefit they sought. Epiphanius of Salamis (between 320 – 403) reported that he had heard it said that, among followers of Cerinthus, if one of them died before baptism, another was baptized in that person's name (Epiphanius was writing about it because he considered it to be a heresy):

“For their school reached its height in this country, I mean Asia, and in Galatia as well. And in these countries I also heard of a tradition which said that when some of their people died too soon, without baptism, others would be baptized for them in their names, so that they would not be punished for rising unbaptized at the resurrection and become the subjects of the authority that made the world.” (The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis: A Treatise Against Eighty Sects 28, 6:4)

The spiritual benefit that they sought was the saving of those who were unable to be baptized while in life. Isn’t that a very Christian thing? To be concerned for the spiritual welfare of another person, who through no fault of their own, was not able to receive baptism? Isn’t that Christlike? Apparently not, for TGC goes on to say:

“Second, the notion of Christians being baptizing for the sake of those who’ve died offends our theology. It sounds like a magical sacramentalism. It seems to contradict justification by faith alone.”

A Sacrament vs Justification by Faith Alone

Oddly enough, baptism for the dead didn’t offend Paul’s theology; but perhaps Paul had a different theology. As for “magical sacramentalism” and “justification by faith alone,” what are they?

It happens to be the case that Protestantism has largely walked away from the notion of “sacraments” that it once held in common with the Roman Catholic Church. So, what is a sacrament, you might ask?

A sacrament is a Christian rite that is recognized as being particularly important and significant. Different denominations have had different ideas about what constituted a sacrament, but the one being denigrated here as “magical” is the sacrament or rite of baptism. And “justification by faith alone” is the reason why sacraments in general, and baptism in particular, is denigrated by certain denominations.

It is difficult to bypass a discussion on why justification by faith alone is a false doctrine, because it does impinge directly upon my argument for baptism for the dead. But it takes me far from my point here. So, for the sake of argument let’s assume that the faith alone argument is wrong, and proceed. If you need an argument about why it is wrong, please see my article “Justification by Faith Alone is False Doctrine.” Is baptism required for justification, or salvation? The short answer is Yes.

Baptism is Essential to Salvation

From the start, Jesus insisted that it was necessary. When Nicodemus came to question him in the night, Jesus told him

“Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5)

And in fact, Jesus conformed to his own dictum; he himself went to John the Baptist to be baptized. John initially objected, because he clearly recognized that Jesus did not need baptism, since Jesus had no sins to repent of. As John had said, when some Pharisees and Sadducees came to him,

“I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance…” (Matt. 3:11)

But Jesus answered John’s reluctance by saying

“Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.” (Matt. 3:15)

Thus, it should be clear that no-one who wishes to enter the kingdom of God is excused from baptism. This includes the baptism of the Spirit, or figuratively “of fire,” that John said was Jesus’s role to dispense

“…but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire:” (Matt 3:11)

And according to what Jesus told Nicodemus, both components are required to be received in order to enter the Kingdom of God. And Jesus was not excluded from this baptism with the Holy Ghost, for it is recorded that the Holy Ghost descended upon him in the form of a dove at Jesus’s water baptism.

The importance of baptism is touched upon in other parts of the New Testament. After Christ’s resurrection, when he gave the Apostles the Great Commission to take the gospel to the whole world, he said:

He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. (Mark 16:16)


Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: (Matt 28:19)

Later in the New Testament there are further demonstrations as to the necessity for baptism.

In Acts 2, at the Pentecost, those who heard Peter preach and who believed, asked what should they do. He replied:

Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. (Acts 2:38)

Here Peter is doing precisely what Christ commissioned him to do.

In Acts 19 we are told that when Paul came to Ephesus, he found twelve disciples, and asked them if they had received the Holy Ghost since they believed. They replied they had never heard of it, though they said that they had been baptized “unto John’s baptism.” Paul then instructed them that John had taught of the Holy Ghost, and when they had accepted this, he baptized them again. And then they received the Holy Ghost from Paul by the laying on of hands.

One could take from this story that Paul had some doubt that these men had been properly baptized, that is, by proper authority, and so decided it needed to be re-done. But the main point here is that Paul evidently considered that baptism was a necessity. Otherwise, why go to the trouble?

What About the Dead Who Were Never Baptized by No Fault of Their Own?

All of the foregoing is meant to establish that baptism is a necessary requirement in order to have salvation through the Atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ. Nowhere in the New Testament does it suggest in any way that there are any exceptions.

And this introduces a problem of Justice: what is to happen to those people who never had an opportunity in life to believe on Jesus Christ and to be baptized? Are they lost and must go to hell, even if they never had a chance to accept Christ? Is God such a respecter of persons that he would act so unjustly towards his own children, whom he is reported to love? And, according to mainstream Christian thought, those who never even heard of Jesus Christ must unfortunately be consigned to eternal suffering in hell for being in the wrong place and the wrong time. And this would be at God’s own behest, because they did not choose the time and place of their birth.

Say it isn’t so!

When one goes online and asks the question “What happens to dead people who never heard of Jesus Christ” one finds numerous answers. Here’s a selection:

  • One answer is to answer without answering (as if to say “Who knows?”).
  • Another starkly states: “The Bible is clear that those who perish without Christ will face an eternity in hell.”
  • Yet another says that they had their chance in life, despite not hearing the Word, because if they didn’t hear the Word it was their own fault, because if they had really wanted to know God, God would have enlightened them in some way.
  • Another is to say that they get resurrected at the end of the Millennium and will then get the chance to believe, and presumably be saved.
  • Catholic doctrine holds that some of those who never heard the gospel in this life are somehow saved via a so-called “baptism of desire.”

Could mainstream Christianity be more confused about the subject? It is actually amazing that so many different, and starkly non-biblical answers could be trotted out, especially from some denominations that claim to be following the Bible and only the Bible.

In summary, mainstream Christianity attempts to get around the problem of Paul’s baptism for the dead by saying that we don’t know what he meant, we don’t know whether he approved of it, and anyway it’s unnecessary.

How Baptism for the Dead Helps Solve the Problem of Justice vs Mercy

Baptism for the dead is the end point for a whole series of principles that are clearly laid out in the Bible, which, without it, would be meaningless. It is the capstone of these principles.

First, as stated earlier, baptism is required if one is to be saved. There is a series of events that must precede this. And in reverse order these are:

  1. Before one is baptized, one must first believe.
  2. Before one believes, one must be taught.
  3. Before one is taught, one must hear of Jesus Christ.

Since the dead are not in this world, they cannot hear the word in the world, so it must be taken to them. And it was.

In 1 Peter, the apostle explains what the Savior was doing between the time he died and the time he was resurrected:

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 the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. (1 Peter 18-20)

Was the Savior only preaching to those who died in the Flood, or was that group only one of the groups there? Why would He be limited to just those? And Peter goes on to explain why it was done:

For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit. (1 Peter 4:6)

What was the point of Christ’s preaching to them? To tantalize them with the salvation that they could not reach because they could not be baptized even if they accepted His preaching? Does this seem logical? Of course not. Does God do things for no purpose?

If Christ preached to them, then they had the ability to accept his message. If they had the capability to accept his message, as those at Pentecost did, then they could repent of their sins. And as Paul wrote, baptism could be offered to them by proxy.

Baptism for the Dead is Restored

On 21 January 1836 the Prophet Joseph Smith was in the temple at Kirtland, Ohio, preparing for the dedication of that temple, when he received a vision from God in which it was shown to him his elder brother, Alvin Smith, as being in the Celestial Kingdom. He wondered at that, because Alvin had died before he could be baptized — and how could he be saved there without baptism? He recorded:

Thus came the voice of the Lord unto me, saying: All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God; Also all that shall die henceforth without a knowledge of it, who would have received it with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom; (Doctrine and Covenants 137:7,8)

The Prophet Joseph Smith had alluded to the doctrine of baptism for the dead in 1836 and 1838, but it wasn't until 1840 he put the practice in place. It was initially done out in the open in bodies of water, such as a river, but the Lord revealed to him that the ordinance belonged to a special building set aside as a temple. The Lord said that until such a temple was available, he would accept those proxy baptisms performed in the open. But afterwards they would be required to be performed in temples only. Once the Nauvoo temple was partially completed to include a special baptismal font, in November 1841, no further proxy baptisms were performed outside a temple.

Why is Baptism for the Dead a Sign of the True Church?

Why is baptism for the dead practiced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints evidence that it is the true church of Jesus Christ? Because it is a true principle of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as shown in the scriptures, that modern Christianity knows little to nothing about, and has categorically rejected.

Why should modern Christianity concern itself with salvation for the dead who had never heard of Jesus Christ? Or who were never offered the chance to be baptized by one holding authority? Because of the Great Commission as given by Christ himself, to teach and baptize all nations. And how can it be a Great Commission if it can only benefit a small minority of God’s children? Because "all nations" must include nations which have passed from the scene along with their people. Not just the ones who just happen to be in mortality when the Gospel was available to them!

Because Christ went to those nations who had died without God and preached to them, they must also be offered the chance to be baptized. This can only be done by proxy, as Paul taught. And to deny them this opportunity is not just or merciful!

But how are we to do this, if we don’t know who they are?

The Scriptural Need for Genealogical Research

In the last two verses in the last book of the Old Testament, the prophet Malachi states the following:

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse. (Malachi 4:5,6)

There has been some argument among mainline Christians as to what this means. Many conclude that the Elijah as spoken of here is John the Baptist, because after the vision on the Mount of Transfiguration, which included the personage of Elijah (Elias in the New Testament) Peter, James, and John asked Jesus: “Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come?”

And Jesus answered and said unto them, Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things. But I say unto you, That Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them. Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist. (Matthew 17:10-13)

These three disciples understood from Malachi, as the Jews did, that Elijah was to return at some point. It has been the custom of observant Jews to each year reserve a place at the Passover meal, and to keep the door open during its celebration, so that Elijah could come as Malachi prophesied.

But there are three problems with connecting Elijah with John the Baptist. First of all, Elijah lived around 800 BC, and according to the Bible, did not taste of death, but was taken into heaven:

And it came to pass, as [Elijah and Elisha] still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. (2 Kings 2:11)

  • First, John the Baptist was born a mortal man from mortal parents; he did not come down from heaven. To connect John with Old Testament Elijah introduces reincarnation into Christian doctrine, and that would seem to be going too far.
  • Second, Elijah’s work was to “turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers.” Did John the Baptist do this? No, he did not.
  • Finally, Malachi says that Elijah was to come “before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord”. Was John the Baptist the forerunner of that day? No, he was not; he was the forerunner of the first coming of the Messiah.

There is thus a problem when associating John the Baptist with Elijah the prophet as written in Malachi.

It must be concluded therefore that the disciples incorrectly understood that John the Baptist was in fact the prophet Elijah. And did Jesus mean that John was literally that prophet? John himself, when asked about it, denied that he was the prophet Elijah. It must be concluded that John was not literally Elijah, but was a type of Elijah, or Elias, and the forerunner of the first appearance of the Messiah, just as Malachi indicates that the prophet Elijah was to be a forerunner of the Second Coming, which is “the great and dreadful day of the Lord.”

The Return of Elijah so that Hearts are Turned

What is this “turn[ing] the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers”? Well, ask yourself how we can proxy baptize our dead ancestors, if we don’t know who they are?

“It was, I am informed, on the third day of April, 1836, that the Jews, in their homes at the Paschal feast, opened their doors for Elijah to enter. On that very day Elijah did enter—not in the home of the Jews to partake of the Passover with them, but he appeared in the House of the Lord, erected to his name and received by the Lord in Kirtland, and there bestowed his keys to bring to pass the very things for which these Jews, assembled in their homes, were seeking” (Elder Joseph Fielding Smith in Conference Report, April 1936)

What was the effect of this appearance of Elijah in the Kirtland Temple in 1836?

Gordon B. Hinckley, 15th president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, noted the worldwide interest in family history that took root after the return of Elijah in 1836 and testified of the divine purpose in that increased interest:

“There are today many genealogical and family history societies in the world. I think they all have come into existence subsequent to the visit of Elijah. One of the oldest and most prestigious is the New England Historic Genealogical Society, organized in 1844, the year of the Prophet’s death. Since then, and in more recent years particularly, there has been a tremendous surge of interest in family history…

“There are millions across the world who are working on family history records. Why? Why are they doing it? I believe it is because they have been touched by the spirit of this work, a thing which we call the spirit of Elijah. It is a turning of the hearts of the children to their fathers. Most of them do not understand any real purpose in this, other than perhaps a strong and motivating curiosity.

“There has to be a purpose in this tremendous expenditure of time and money. That purpose, of which we bear solemn witness, is to identify the generations of the dead so that ordinances may be performed in their behalf for their eternal and everlasting blessing and progress.” (“A Century of Family History Service,” Ensign, Mar. 1995)

To Avoid the Earth Being Smitten with a Curse

Christ’s Great Commission, if it is to actually be “great,” must involve not merely those who are living upon the earth when the Gospel is available. It must necessarily extend beyond the living of the present, to the deceased of the past. And why must this be? Simply for this reason: all of us, living or dead, are the children of the same Heavenly Father. Else why did the Lord, between the time of his death and his resurrection, visit those multitudes who had passed from life into death? Was his visit a mockery? Of course not.

In 1918, a vision was received by Joseph F. Smith, the then prophet and president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It pertained to the mission of the Lord Jesus Christ during the time he was separated from his body. The complete account of that vision can be found in the Doctrine and Covenants, Section 138.

President Smith was pondering upon some of the scriptures I have presented here, in particular the third and fourth chapters of the first epistle of Peter. He wrote about this as follows:

“On the third of October, in the year nineteen hundred and eighteen, I sat in my room pondering over the scriptures; and reflecting upon the great atoning sacrifice that was made by the Son of God, for the redemption of the world; and the great and wonderful love made manifest by the Father and the Son in the coming of the Redeemer into the world; that through his atonement, and by obedience to the principles of the gospel, mankind might be saved.”

As he did so, he reported that “the eyes of my understanding were opened, and the Spirit of the Lord rested upon me, and I saw the hosts of the dead, both small and great.” He then saw in vision the Lord Jesus Christ as he ministered among the dead.

“And there he preached to them the everlasting gospel, the doctrine of the resurrection and the redemption of mankind from the fall, and from individual sins on conditions of repentance… But unto the wicked he did not go, and among the ungodly and the unrepentant who had defiled themselves while in the flesh, his voice was not raised…”

Since the Lord was among the dead for only a short time, his voice could not reach all at once, and the wicked would not hear his voice at all. He wondered how it was possible for the Lord to preach to those spirits and perform the necessary labor among them in so short a time.

“And as I wondered, my eyes were opened, and my understanding quickened, and I perceived that the Lord went not in person among the wicked and the disobedient who had rejected the truth, to teach them; but behold, from among the righteous, he organized his forces and appointed messengers, clothed with power and authority, and commissioned them to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness, even to all the spirits of men; and thus was the gospel preached to the dead.”

As it was shown to President Smith, the work to teach the dead goes on to this day. Since many billions of men and women who had not the chance to hear the gospel in mortality have passed from life unto death over the past couple of thousands of years since the Savior visited there, it was shown to him that the work continues.

He wrote:

“I beheld that the faithful elders of this dispensation, when they depart from mortal life, continue their labors in the preaching of the gospel of repentance and redemption, through the sacrifice of the Only Begotten Son of God, among those who are in darkness and under the bondage of sin in the great world of the spirits of the dead.”

And thus the work of redemption goes forth in that great Spirit World. And it goes on while we here yet in mortality have the task of seeking out of the names of all of the dead whom we can find, in order to see to performing the labor of baptism for the dead.

Because for many millions and billions of the dead there are no earthly records available, obviously we will not be able to complete all of the work during our time. How then will the work be done for all who have ever lived?

In the Book of Revelation we read in chapter 20 that after Satan is bound and has power no more, that the righteous saints would live and reign with Christ for that period. As for the rest of the dead:

"But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection." (Rev 20:5)

What purpose will there be for that thousand years of peace that God has promised after the Lord comes again, except to finish the great work of redeeming of all the dead? As written in Luke, Jesus assured his disciples:

“Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God? … Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows.” (Luke 12:6)

If God knows his sparrows, then he knows all of his children, and he knows all of their names. Those names will have to be made known to his servants in that era of peace, that all matters pertaining to salvation will be accomplished according to his will.

The Work and Glory of God

In scripture revealed by God to Joseph Smith, God told Moses the purpose of his work:

“For behold, this is my work and my glory — to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39)

It is clear that God will not rest until all who can be saved will be saved. And according to the prophet Malachi, we must be a part of it.

For these reasons it should be clear that the true Church of Jesus Christ is that church which seeks to do the Lord’s work of salvation in respect of all who live or who have lived upon the earth.

Of course I am not saying that any church that baptizes for the dead is the true Church of Jesus Christ. But it is one of the characteristics of that church.


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