One topic about Mormons—a nickname sometimes applied to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—is that they baptize dead people. Sounds a little creepy, right? Well, put that way, it would, but of course, that’s not literally what they do. The practice is called baptism for the dead, meaning on behalf of. It does not do what people tend to think it does, so let’s talk about it.
Baptism for the dead does not make someone a Mormon. Let’s get that out of the way, first thing. What it does is to make certain options available to you that wouldn’t be otherwise. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s start at the beginning.
The beginning of this issue is, of course, the Bible, and the teachings of Jesus. Mormons use the Bible—the King James translation in English and other versions in other languages—as one of their official scriptures. The Bible says a person has to be baptized in order to return to God:
5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God (John 3:5).
Now, think for a moment of all the people throughout history who were never baptized. Some never even heard of baptism. They never had a chance to accept Jesus Christ as their Savior. In fact, based on Bible teachings, most likely even Noah or Moses couldn’t get into Heaven, since Jesus hadn’t been born yet. Does it seem likely God is going to punish them for being born too soon for that—but not too soon to do what God needed them to do?
Mormons believe God is loving and fair. He is our Father and He loves us far too much to deny us anything wonderful without first giving us a chance to obtain it. If you believe that whatever you aren’t fortunate enough to receive in this life you will never have, it becomes difficult to believe in a loving and fair God. However, the Bible suggests God always made a plan to cover those who died without opportunity. In two verses, we learn that Jesus went to preach to those who died without having had the opportunity to receive all the blessings God had to offer them:
“By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:19).”
“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).”
This second verse is particularly difficult to reconcile with the idea that there is no hope for those who died without the gospel. Jesus went to preach to them so they could be judged according to earthly standards, even though they were not living on earth. What was the point of preaching to them if they couldn’t do anything with the new testimony they might gain through the ministering of the Savior?
Paul on Baptism for the Dead
Paul has the answer: “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? (1 Corinthians 15:29)
Paul was trying to help people understand that the resurrection of Jesus Christ was real. He suggested they acted like it was real—they were doing baptisms for the dead. Why were they bothering to do this if they didn’t even believe in it? He was sending a clear message that we must understand the reasons we do things in the gospel, rather than simply practicing a blind faith. However, the fact that he mentioned the practice proves it was really happening—you don’t use false practices to prove truth. So, if the Bible says we must be baptized in order to be saved, and if it says Jesus Himself found post-life missionary work so important He did some of it Himself, and if Paul says baptism for the dead is an approved practice…well….then we need to be doing it if we accept the Bible as true.
What is Baptism for the Dead?
But what, exactly, is baptism for the dead?
In Mormon practice, baptisms for the dead occur in Mormon temples. They are a particularly sacred practice and carry great responsibility. They are one of the few temple ordinances entrusted to teenagers, although adults can do them as well. Mormons do their genealogy, searching out information on their ancestors. They believe families can last forever, not just until death. (You’ll find more on that in this site.) Doing genealogy helps them get to know the family they are connected to forever, but it also allows them to submit those names to the church for future posthumous baptism. The member submits the information, and it is matched by the church against a list of names that cannot be submitted for baptism, such as Holocaust victims, and against names already done. If the name passes the screening, the work can be done. Mormons are taught to only submit the names of those who are their actual ancestors, not random names or names of famous people. A person who knowingly violates these rules can lose the right to submit names.
A living person is baptized in a lovely font in the name of someone who is dead. This is a vicarious ordinance. Jesus demonstrated that vicarious ordinances can have power when He took our sins on Himself and died on the cross for us—His atonement was the greatest of all vicarious ordinances. He did for us what we could not do for ourselves. Baptism for the dead is a vicarious ordinance—doing for our family what they are not able to do for themselves. It is an act of love.
Does this mean the deceased person is now a Mormon? Maybe not. A critical element of Mormon belief is agency. We don’t believe God wants anyone to join His Church through force. We came here to see if we would do what was needed to gain a testimony of the gospel on our own, and our agency continues after death. Here’s what we believe happens after death:
When someone dies, they are taught the true gospel if they don’t already have it. Then they are asked if they would like to accept and live it. This is equivalent to what happens if you meet with Mormon missionaries on earth—they teach, and then invite you to join. If you refuse, you don’t become Mormon. The same holds true after death. If you accept, the ordinances that were done in your name are valid, as if you’d done them yourself on earth. If you reject them (and some people will reject the gospel even knowing for certain it is true), it is as if the ordinance never happened. Without the right to choose, the conversion would not be a conversion at all. Mormons don’t list the person on the church membership records because we don’t know if they accepted or not. They only show up on God’s rolls…He does, of course, know.
So, all the ordinance does is to preserve our right to choose for ourselves. Wouldn’t you be pretty frantic if you got to heaven and found out you missed a step and it was too late for you? You’d be mad and you wouldn’t think God was being very fair if you’d never known about that step. God is always fair and He doesn’t play favorites.
Now, some people do hear about the gospel and reject it. The work is done anyway. Why? People do not convert—God does, through the Holy Ghost. It is the official work of the Holy Ghost to testify of truth to those willing to listen. We, as mortals, have no way of knowing who really had a fair opportunity to receive a testimony. This ordinance does not give second chances—it gives first chances. It would be arrogant of us to decide we are capable of knowing who had received knowledge from the Holy Ghost. Only God can determine that. For this reason, the work is done for everyone. If the person had already had a first chance, God ignores the ordinance. No ordinance of any kind is every valid unless God knows it was necessary and done in the right spirit. Even a regular baptism is not valid if a person did it under false pretenses. We simply have to trust God on this.
Do you believe God is fair and loving? Do you believe He will eternally punish people for things they could not control—or do you think He hopes all His children will return home to Him? If you have struggled to reconcile a loving God with the requirements of baptism and faith, Paul’s mention of baptisms for the dead holds your answer.
Read the official Mormon statement on recent news events concerning this subject: