In discussing the concept of baptism for the dead, it will be important to set aside what you think you know about baptism for the dead. We will read what is actually written in the scriptures and analyze the language carefully.
Herein is glory and honor, and immortality and eternal life—The ordinance of baptism by water, to be immersed therein in order to answer to the likeness of the dead, that one principle might accord with the other; to be immersed in the water and come forth out of the water is in the likeness of the resurrection of the dead in coming forth out of their graves; hence, this ordinance was instituted to form a relationship with the ordinance of baptism for the dead, being in likeness of the dead.
Notice what the part in red says. Baptism by water was instituted to form a relationship with the ordinance of baptism for the dead. The LDS Church teaches the opposite, that baptism for the dead was instituted so that those who did not receive baptism by water during life could receive baptism by water by proxy when dead. Yet the scriptures indicate the otherwise.
Notice that verse 12 specifically mentions the resurrection of the dead. Maybe this is being too nit-picky, but it says being immersed in the water and coming forth out of the water is in the likeness of the dead coming out of the grave. The focus is not on going into the grave but on coming out of it.
Let’s read on:
Consequently, the baptismal font was instituted as a similitude of the grave, and was commanded to be in a place underneath where the living are wont to assemble, to show forth the living and the dead, and that all things may have their likeness, and that they may accord one with another—that which is earthly conforming to that which is heavenly, as Paul hath declared, 1 Corinthians 15:46, 47, and 48:
Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual. The first man is of the earth, earthy: the second man is the Lord from heaven. As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy: and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly.
The earthly baptism conforms to the heavenly baptism. Or baptism for the living conforms to baptisms for the dead. Notice that baptism for the dead, that which is heavenly, does not conform to baptism for the living, that which is earthly. This is the opposite of what is taught and practiced today, where baptism for the dead conforms to baptism for the living.
Jesus, in the middle of his ministry, said this about his suffering, death, and resurrection:
But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished!
This obviously wasn’t his baptism by water. That was performed by John at the beginning of his ministry. Nor was it his baptism by fire, that happened at the same time with the Spirit descending and the voice of God from heaven. What is this baptism that Jesus is referring to? He’s talking about his death and resurrection, but using the term baptism.
What if the true baptism for the dead is part of the resurrection process? D&C 128:12 tells us “to be immersed in the water and come forth out of the water is in the likeness of the resurrection of the dead in coming forth out of their graves.” Baptism by water is linked the the resurrection of the dead. “hence, this ordinance was instituted to form a relationship with the ordinance of baptism for the dead“. Baptism is linked to both the resurrection of the dead and baptism for the dead. Baptism for the dead and the resurrection of the dead are probably far more linked that we are taught.
Why dead non-believers don’t need baptism
For us to accept this radical idea, we need to jettison most of what we have been taught about baptism for the dead. We’ve been taught that everyone other than little children needs to be baptized for the remission of sins to be saved. But that isn’t what the scriptures teach. Here we learn that God grades on a curve:
The lord of that servant will come in a day when he looketh not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in sunder, and will appoint him his portion with the unbelievers. And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.
Here we learn just how much of a curve there is:
D&C 45:54 And then shall the heathen nations be redeemed, and they that knew no law shall have part in the first resurrection; and it shall be tolerable for them.
The heathen nations that knew no law have part in the first resurrection! Why is that if they have never been baptized?
Look at the relationship between Mormon’s teachings and Paul’s:
For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law;
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—But it is mockery before God, denying the mercies of Christ, and the power of his Holy Spirit, and putting trust in dead works. 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.
The elephant in the room: today’s baptisms for the dead
So if baptism for the dead isn’t for the remission of sins of those who have died without the gospel, what is happening in the basements of all the
Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints temples?
The first thing to note is how baptisms for the dead were introduced in the 1840s. Joseph first mentioned the concept of baptism for the dead in a funeral sermon on August 15, 1840. Within a few weeks, baptisms were being performed in the Mississippi river. In 1841 over 6,000 baptisms for the dead were performed. Yet there was no revelation from God revealing this ordinance, nor any commandment from God requiring (or authorizing) it to be performed. Was Joseph speaking presumptuously (Deuteronomy 18:20)?
For many of you, this next part won’t be new information. The Lord granted a period of time for the Saints to build the temple. If they didn’t complete it in time, they would be rejected as a church. Notice how strongly the Lord ties this deadline to baptism and baptism for the dead.
31 But I command you, all ye my saints, to build a house unto me; and I grant unto you 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 be 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 your 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;
What really becomes problematic is verse 40:
And verily I say unto you, let this house be built unto my name, that I may reveal mine ordinances therein unto my people;
The ordinances can only be revealed within the house that needed to be built. That house was never truly completed, but was dedicated several months after the Saints abandoned Nauvoo in 1846, almost 18 months after the death of Joseph Smith. It was impossible for the Lord to reveal his ordinances therein – one because the temple was never truly finished, and two, because everyone had left!
Think I’m being nitpicky about the ordinances having to be revealed inside the house of the Lord? Two verses earlier the Lord says he did the same thing with Moses:
38 For, for this cause I commanded Moses that he should build a tabernacle, that they should bear it with them in the wilderness, and to build a house in the land of promise, that those ordinances might be revealed which had been hid from before the world was.
The pattern is not to reveal the ordinances and then build a house to perform those ordinances. The house must be built first, and then the ordinances revealed. The Saints in Nauvoo didn’t do that. God cannot lie. If he says the ordinances must be revealed in a house built to his name, they can’t be revealed elsewhere. Not even in a red brick store.
Read Section 124 carefully. At no point does the Lord say the current baptisms for the dead were acceptable. He states the circumstances in which they cannot be acceptable: if not done in a font in his house (v. 30) or if done after the appointed time (v. 32-33, 35). We could argue that if after the appointed time they are not acceptable, it means that before the appointed time they are acceptable. That’s possible, but not guaranteed.
Consider this parallel: “If you don’t get your drivers license after you turn 16, your driving is unacceptable to the government.” Does that imply that driving without a license before you are 16 is acceptable to the government? No. It states the first time you can acceptably drive, and the conditions you need to meet to do so. To tell a 12 year-old that she can drive all she wants without a license before she turns 16 would be folly.
Did God authorize baptisms for the dead before the temple was completed? On October 3, 1841, Joseph stood up at the end of a church conference and said: “There shall be no more baptisms for the dead, until the ordinance can be attended to in the Lord’s House; and the Church shall not hold another General Conference, until they can meet in said house. For thus saith the Lord!” (HC 4:426).
Interestingly, on November 8, 1841 they dedicated a baptismal font in the basement of the years-away-from-being-finished Nauvoo temple and then resumed baptisms. In HC 4:446, we read “the font was enclosed by a temporary frame building…this font was built for the baptisms for the dead until the Temple shall be finished, when a more durable one will supply its place.” There is no revelation saying that a temporary font in an unfinished temple is acceptable. They knew both that the temple needed to be finished, and that a better font needed to be built, yet they went ahead and started baptizing for the dead.
How do we know they didn’t finish the temple in time and God didn’t reveal the ordinance of baptism for the dead therein?
And if my people will hearken unto my voice, and unto the voice of my servants whom I have appointed to lead my people, behold, verily I say unto you, they shall not be moved out of their place.
The Saints were moved out of Nauvoo before the temple was complete. If God cannot lie, then the only reason they were moved out of their place was because they didn’t do what was commanded. And if they didn’t build the temple in the allotted time, God declared that he not only would not reveal his ordinances, but he would also reject them as a church.
But if they will not hearken to my voice, nor unto the voice of these men whom I have appointed, they shall not be blest, because they pollute mine holy grounds, and mine holy ordinances, and charters, and my holy words which I give unto them. And it shall come to pass that if you build a house unto my name, and do not do the things that I say, I will not perform the oath which I make unto you, neither fulfil the promises which ye expect at my hands, saith the Lord. For instead of blessings, ye, by your own works, bring cursings, wrath, indignation, and judgments upon your own heads, by your follies, and by all your abominations, which you practice before me, saith the Lord.
What are some of the things Mormon said about people who believed that little children and those without the law need to be baptized? That they “denieth the mercies of Christ, and setteth at naught the atonement of him and the power of his redemption. Wo unto such, for they are in danger of death, hell, and an endless torment. I speak it boldly; God hath commanded me. Listen unto them and give heed, or they stand against you at the judgment-seat of Christ…But it is mockery before God, denying the mercies of Christ, and the power of his Holy Spirit, and putting trust in dead works.”
When looking at the modern church, Mormon said:
Mormon 8:35, 38
Behold, I speak unto you as if ye were present, and yet ye are not. But behold, Jesus Christ hath shown you unto me, and I know your doing…, why have ye polluted the holy church of God?
Is it just a coincidence that Mormon 8 and D&C 124 both use the term pollute to describe the church?
What is the real ordinance of baptism for the dead? We don’t know. God didn’t get a chance to reveal it to the Saints in Nauvoo. It appears it has something to do with the resurrection of the dead, not the remission of sins. We need to wait until our season of chastisement is over and God deems that we are ready to receive it before we know the details. Until then, we need to believe what he says, that we were rejected as a church, and that our baptisms both for the living and for the dead are not acceptable unto him. It’s a harsh message, but those are the words of God.