Mormon Ordinances for the Dead
A. Baptism and other ordinances for the dead are an essential and even a dominant part of the Mormon religion.
Joseph Smith taught that baptism for the dead is “the greatest responsibility in this world that God has laid upon us” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 356). It certainly is the biggest responsibility that the LDS Church has undertaken. Mormons believe that it is their responsibility to be baptized on behalf of the billions of people who were never baptized in the LDS Church—which is to say, far more than 99 percent of the human beings who ever lived.
Their reasoning in support of baptism for the dead is, from their theological standpoint, inescapable. In LDS theology, in order for anyone to be saved, he or she must be baptized by someone who has the priesthood authority. Most people in history have not been so baptized. A few billion people during the past two thousand years were baptized as Christians, but the LDS Church denies the validity of nearly all of these baptisms, since it teaches that the priesthood authority was taken from the earth around the end of the first century and only restored through Joseph Smith in the nineteenth century. Of course, many more billions of people throughout human history—roughly a hundred billion people—were never baptized at all. None of these people can be saved—that is, attain individual salvation in the celestial kingdom—without baptism. Since they are dead and their bodies cannot be baptized, Mormons conclude that living people must undergo baptism on behalf of those dead people who were never baptized (or never baptized properly). Mormons regard it as their sacred duty—their “greatest responsibility,” as Joseph Smith put it—to get baptized on behalf of the dead. In the afterlife, these billions of people—nearly everyone who has ever or will ever live on earth—are given an opportunity to accept the LDS gospel, but to receive the benefits of that gospel someone living on earth must be baptized in their stead.
Being baptized on behalf of others is commonly called vicarious baptism or baptism by proxy. (A proxy is simply someone who acts in another person’s stead or place and on that person’s behalf.) LDS Church teaching links baptism by proxy to its emphasis on reuniting families in the afterlife, and in that context instructs members to get baptized on behalf of departed ancestors who never heard the “restored gospel” (Gospel Principles, 235). In order for proxy baptism to be performed for a departed ancestor, a Mormon must know that person’s name and identify that person as an ancestor (236-37). For that reason, the LDS Church is engaged in the enormous task of attempting to cull names of human beings from every conceivable type of historical record and to identify each person in terms of his or her genealogical relationship to living people. Its Family Search organization claims to have over a billion names in its searchable databases, though a fair number of these are likely to be duplications.
Mormons perform baptisms for the dead only in their temples. In fact, proxy baptisms and other ordinances for the dead account for almost all of the ordinances performed in the temples. The LDS Church urges members as young as twelve years old to prove themselves worthy “to receive a temple recommend” in order to participate in this work (Gospel Principles, 237). Normally, a temple-worthy Mormon will undergo vicarious ordinances for those deceased persons identified as his blood ancestors or close relations, but they may also perform those ordinances for ancestors of other Mormons who are not temple-worthy or who cannot for some other reason go to a temple (237-38).
B. The Mormon argument for performing ordinances for the dead is based on erroneous theological assumptions.
As explained above, the Mormon practice of proxy ordinances, and especially baptism for the dead, is based on specific theological beliefs taught by Joseph Smith. (a) No human being in any period of history can be saved without certain Christian ordinances, especially baptism. (b) Baptism and other ordinances may be performed only by individuals possessing the LDS priesthood authority. (c) To be saved through baptism and other ordinances means to attain individual salvation in the celestial kingdom. (d) Nearly all people who receive that salvation will do so by accepting the “restored” (LDS) gospel in the afterlife. All four of these doctrinal premises are false.
1. Christian baptism is not necessary for the salvation of people in every period of human history.
Mormons believe that a number of ordinances are necessary for individual salvation: not only (1) baptism, but also (2) endowment (a ritual that Mormons believe imparts spiritual power to them) and (3) marriage for eternity (already discussed). The Bible says absolutely nothing about a Christian rite of endowment or about marriage for eternity (let alone proxy ordinances of these types), but of course it does have a fair amount to say about baptism. If people in all periods of history, even before Christ came, needed baptism to be saved, then the Mormons would have an important truth on their side. If, on the other hand, people before Christ came did not need baptism for salvation, the whole Mormon argument for proxy ordinances falls apart.
Here another point is relevant: the Bible certainly does not support the claim that people in every period of human history require the Christian rite of baptism to be forgiven of their sins. The Old Testament never mentions baptism, and the New Testament never suggests that Old Testament believers could not be forgiven unless they were baptized. When John the Baptist was baptizing people in the Jordan River, this was not part of the Jewish religious system—it was something new that John was doing out in the wilderness away and apart from the religious establishment to herald and prepare the way for the coming of Jesus (Matthew 3:1-7; 21:25; John 1:25-31; Acts 13:24). Likewise, Christian baptism was neither the continuation of a familiar practice nor the restoration of a lost practice, but a new rite inducting people into the new covenant community in which Jesus Christ was the covenant Mediator or Head (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 2:38-39; Colossians 2:10-12). In this regard baptism is in Christianity analogous to what circumcision was under the Mosaic covenant: a ritual of initiation into the covenant community. Under the Mosaic covenant, circumcision of a family’s male members was the rite for initiating those members (along with the female members of that family) into the covenant community of Israel. Under the new covenant in Christ, baptism of a believer (whether male or female) is the rite for initiating that person into the covenant community of the church (1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:27-28; Ephesians 4:4-6). Israelites under the old covenant were not required to be baptized then, and believers under the new covenant are not required to be circumcised now (Romans 3:30; 1 Corinthians 7:18-19; Galatians 2:7-9; 5:2-6, 11; Colossians 3:11).
The mistake that LDS doctrine makes here is related to the broader error of thinking that believers in the true God in the millennia prior to the coming of Jesus Christ were “Christians” who knew the name Jesus Christ and knew that he was going to die by being crucified and rise physically from the grave on the third day. As we explained in our response to chapter 9 of Gospel Principles, this error throws the integrity of the Old Testament (which has none of this explicit Christian language) into radical doubt and also ignores what the New Testament says about the understanding of pre-Christian believers. The Mormon doctrine of baptism therefore assumes an unbiblical and historically naïve view of God’s revelation to his people prior to the coming of Jesus Christ.
Let us be clear: no sinner, in any period of human history, can be saved in any other way than by the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. But people who lived before the coming of Christ did not need to know the name Jesus, understand how he would procure their salvation, or undergo the rite of Christian baptism—or any other Christian ordinances—in order to be saved. And if those pre-Christian people, including such notable believers as Abraham, Moses, David, and Isaiah, did not need that rite to be saved, no one needs to undergo proxy baptism for them.
2. The LDS “priesthood authority” is not needed to perform valid baptisms (or any other Christian ordinances).
In our responses to chapter 13 and chapter 14 of Gospel Principles we showed that the LDS concept and system of priesthood are unbiblical. In the Bible, the priesthood of Aaron was part of the Mosaic covenant and therefore was made obsolete by the coming of Jesus Christ. The priesthood “after the order of Melchizedek” refers to the heavenly priesthood of Jesus that was prefigured by the priesthood of Melchizedek in Genesis 14 (see Hebrews 5-8 on both these points). In our response to chapter 20, we also critiqued the LDS claim that only Mormon men who hold the LDS priesthood can perform valid baptisms. That claim amounts to saying that no Christian who has been baptized outside of Mormonism during the past nineteen centuries was validly baptized. Since the LDS priesthood orders are unbiblical in the first place, we know this claim is false; but in addition there is the fact that the New Testament treats the matter of who performs baptisms as entirely of no consequence (see especially 1 Corinthians 1:13-17).
IIf the LDS priesthood is not needed in order for baptisms to be validly performed, then it follows that the billions of Christians who have been baptized during the past nineteen centuries without that LDS priesthood do not need proxy baptisms performed on their behalf. They have already been baptized, thank you very much!
3. Baptism symbolizes forgiveness of sins, deliverance from God’s wrath, and the hope of resurrection to immortal life, not exaltation or entrance into a higher kingdom than other people who are saved.
The first person in the Bible to perform baptisms was John the Baptist. The Gospels record that John described submitting to his baptism as an act of “fleeing from the wrath to come” (Matthew 3:7; Luke 3:7). That is, baptism in John’s ministry symbolized repentance motivated by a desire to escape from God’s righteous wrath at the Final Judgment (see also in the same context Matthew 3:2, 10, 12; Luke 3:3, 9, 17). It was not about attaining exaltation in the highest heavenly kingdom, but about salvation from God’s wrath.
In the first Christian sermon, the apostle Peter ended his message with an appeal to the Jews in Jerusalem to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of their sins (Acts 2:38). In context, Peter was telling them how to be restored to a right relationship with God in the aftermath of the sin of the Jewish establishment which was complicit in having Jesus, their Messiah, executed by the Romans (2:22-23, 36-37). In other words, they were in big trouble with God! After telling them to repent and to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, Peter urged them to do so with the words, “Be saved from this perverse generation!” (2:40). As in John the Baptist’s ministry, so here as well the act of getting baptized dramatically symbolized believers’ appeal to God to save them from his righteous anger against their sin.
The apostle Paul explained that in Christian baptism, believers express their union with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection:
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him” (Romans 6:3-8 ESV).
The LDS Church teaches that all people, including people who explicitly reject Jesus Christ, will be resurrected from the dead just as Christ was and become immortal beings. However, Paul disagrees with this claim. Only those who are united with Christ in his death and resurrection are assured that they will receive “a resurrection like his.” There will be a resurrection of the wicked or unrighteous, but it will be a resurrection for them to stand before Christ in the Final Judgment and receive their eternal punishment (Daniel 12:2; John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15; Revelation 20:12-15). Thus baptism for Christians symbolizes nothing less than salvation from condemnation at the Final Judgment. Baptism is not a step in a process of rising to a higher level of salvation, but is a rite that symbolically represents salvation itself—salvation from God’s righteous wrath that condemns those not redeemed by Christ to eternal loss.
Note the way this biblical view of baptism contrasts with the Mormon practice of proxy baptisms. Mormons think that all human beings have already been assured of resurrection to immortality, so that the only issue outstanding is in which of the three glorious heavenly kingdoms people will reside. They view baptism in this context as one of the works that God requires of people to progress in their efforts to make it into the highest of those heavenly kingdoms. Since not everyone gets a chance to perform this work, God is allowing Mormons to do it for them. But in the Bible’s teaching, baptism is a rite that expresses a person’s humble appeal for merciful deliverance from God’s just condemnation. No one can do this for another person; each person must stand before God in judgment, and each person must appeal to God for mercy. Baptism, as a physical ritual, is not essential for salvation, but what baptism symbolizes is essential for salvation and no one can do it on another person’s behalf.
4. The idea that nearly all people will become “saved” (in any sense) only in the afterlife is without biblical foundation and undermines the Mormon view of mortality as an essential probation.
In a later article in this study guide, we discuss the issue of postmortem salvation — the idea that people who have died without hearing the gospel may have an opportunity to do so in the afterlife. The scope of postmortem salvation in Mormon doctrine, however, is truly staggering. If we take their doctrinal claims seriously, we must conclude that all but a very tiny fraction of one per cent of all human beings who have ever lived will make their choices of eternal consequence only after they die. Mormons account for roughly one-tenth of one per cent of people living today, and roughly one-hundredth of one per cent of all people who have ever lived in history. Hardly any of that 99.99% of non-Mormons in history were validly baptized according to Mormon beliefs or received the other ordinances Mormons view as necessary to exaltation (notably eternal marriage). Yet Mormons claim that all or nearly all of them will be given an opportunity in the spirit world to repent, believe the LDS gospel, and receive the ordinances performed on their behalf by Mormons living on the earth in mortality.
Whatever else one may say about this doctrine, it completely guts the belief that our physical, mortal lives are a period of probation to prepare us for life in the celestial kingdom. According to Gospel Principles, God’s plan was to “provide an earth where we could prove ourselves,” a place where “we could exercise our agency to choose good or evil” (11). “We must continue to follow Jesus Christ here on earth. Only by following Him can we return to our heavenly home” (16). But the LDS doctrine of salvation for nearly all of humanity in the spirit world directly negates this view of life on earth as a proving ground where we must follow Christ to make it back to the celestial kingdom.
As we show in detail in that later article, the Bible does not support the LDS doctrine of postmortem salvation. Following death will come, not the opportunity for salvation, but the pronouncement of judgment (Hebrews 9:27). This judgment will be based on what people do in their bodies (2 Corinthians 5:10). Those who are wicked and unrepentant in this life have no reprieve in the next (e.g., Luke 16:19-31). If we suppose, for the sake of argument, that there are any exceptions to this rule, in the Bible they would indeed have to be exceptions, not the rule, whereas postmortem salvation in Mormon theology is the rule, not an exception. In other words, it is not necessary to prove absolutely that God will not save anyone in the afterlife to show that the Mormon position is false. All we need to know is that as a rule the Final Judgment is based on this life, not on the afterlife.
Once we understand that the norm according to the Bible is that human beings in history will be judged on the basis of their mortal lives, not on their actions or choices in the afterlife, the LDS program of performing proxy ordinances for those billions of people is left without any foundation.