Mormonism and temples/Baptism for the dead/Authentic Christian practice

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Baptism for the dead as an authentic ancient Christian practice

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Question: What is baptism for the dead?

Proxy baptism is a way to provide redemption for those who died without hearing the Gospel

Explained Elder G. Todd Christopherson:

Christian theologians have long wrestled with the question, What is the destiny of the countless billions who have lived and died with no knowledge of Jesus? [1] There are several theories concerning the “unevangelized” dead, ranging from an inexplicable denial of salvation, to dreams or other divine intervention at the moment of death, to salvation for all, even without faith in Christ. A few believe that souls hear of Jesus after death. None explain how to satisfy Jesus’ requirement that a man must be born of water and spirit to enter the kingdom of God (see John 3:3-5). Lacking the knowledge once had in the early Church, these earnest seekers have been “forced to choose between a weak law that [allows] the unbaptized to enter heaven, and a cruel God who [damns] the innocent.” [2]
With the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ has come the understanding of how the unbaptized dead are redeemed and how God can be “a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also.” [3]
While yet in life, Jesus prophesied that He would also preach to the dead [see John 5:25]. Peter tells us this happened in the interval between the Savior’s Crucifixion and Resurrection [see 1 Peter 3:18-19]...


Question: Are the dead being "baptized into the Mormon faith?"

The ordinance is provided but is only contingent upon the dead accepting it

Some have misunderstood and suppose that deceased souls “are being baptised into the Mormon faith without their knowledge” [4] or that “people who once belonged to other faiths can have the Mormon faith retroactively imposed on them.” [5] They assume that we somehow have power to force a soul in matters of faith. Of course, we do not. God gave man his agency from the beginning. (See fn11) “The dead who repent will be redeemed, through obedience to the ordinances of the house of God,” [6] but only if they accept those ordinances. The Church does not list them on its rolls or count them in its membership.
Our anxiety to redeem the dead, and the time and resources we put behind that commitment, are, above all, an expression of our witness concerning Jesus Christ. It constitutes as powerful a statement as we can make concerning His divine character and mission. It testifies, first, of Christ’s Resurrection; second, of the infinite reach of His Atonement; third, that He is the sole source of salvation; fourth, that He has established the conditions for salvation; and, fifth, that He will come again. [7]


Question: Does the practice of baptism for the dead have ancient roots?

There is considerable evidence that some early Christians and some Jewish groups performed proxy ordinance work for the salvation of the dead

The most obvious of these is 1 Corinthians 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?

Attempts to shrug this off as a reference by Paul to a practice he does not condone but only uses to support the doctrine of the resurrection are indefensible. Paul's statement makes no sense unless the practice was valid and the saints in Corinth knew it. This is easily demonstrated if we just imagine a young Protestant, who doubts the resurrection, who goes to his pastor with his problem. The pastor answers him, saying, "But what about the Mormons who baptize for the dead? If the dead rise not at all, why are they then baptized for the dead?" You know what the young doubter would say. He would say, "Pastor, they're Mormons! What's your point?"

In fact, we know that baptism for the dead was practiced for a long time in the early church. As John A. Tvedtnes has noted:

... historical records are clear on the matter. Baptism for the dead was performed by the dominant church until forbidden by the sixth canon of the Council of Carthage in A.D. 397. Some of the smaller sects, however, continued the practice. Of the [Cerinthians][8] of the fourth century, Epiphanius wrote:
“In this country—I mean Asia—and even in Galatia, their school flourished eminently and a traditional fact concerning them has reached us, that when any of them had died without baptism, they used to baptize others in their name, lest in the resurrection they should suffer punishment as unbaptized.” (Heresies, 8:7.) [9]

Thus, baptism for the dead was banned about four hundred years after Christ by the church councils. Latter-day Saints would see this as an excellent example of the apostasy—church councils altering doctrine and practice that was accepted at an earlier date.

Tvedtnes continues:

In early Judaism, too, there is an example of ordinances being performed in behalf of the dead. Following the battle of Marisa in 163 B.C., it was discovered that each of the Jewish soldiers killed in the fight had been guilty of concealing pagan idols beneath his clothing. In order to atone for their wrong, Judas Maccabaeus, the Jewish high priest and commander, collected money from the survivors to purchase sacrificial animals for their dead comrades:
“And when he had made a gathering throughout the company to the sum of two thousand drachmas of silver, he sent it to Jerusalem to offer a sin offering, doing therein very well and honestly, in that he was mindful of the resurrection: for if he had not hoped that they that were slain should have risen again, it had been superfluous and vain to pray for the dead. And also in that he perceived that there was great favour laid up for those that died godly, it was an holy and good thought. Whereupon he made a reconciliation for the dead, that they might be delivered from sin.” (2 Maccabees 12:43–46.) [10]


Question: Does the Bible condemn genealogical research?

The Bible rejects the use of genealogies to "prove" one's righteousness, or the truth of one's teachings

Critics charge that the Bible condemns genealogy, and therefore the Latter-day Saint practice of compiling family histories is anti-Biblical, often citing 1 Timothy 1:4 or Titus 3:9.

The Bible does not condemn all genealogy per se. Rather, it rejects the use of genealogy to "prove" one's righteousness, or the truth of one's teachings. It also rejects the apostate uses to which some Christians put genealogy in some varieties of gnosticism.

Latter-day Saints engage in genealogical work so that they can continue the Biblical practice of providing vicarious ordinances for the dead

Latter-day Saints engage in genealogy work so that they can continue the Biblical practice—also endorsed by Paul—of providing vicarious ordinances for the dead, such as baptism (See 1 Corinthians 15:29) so that the atonement of Christ may be available to all who would choose it, living or dead. See: Baptism for the dead

The Bible clearly does not reject all uses of genealogy

This can be seen through its many genealogical lists, including two such lists for Jesus Christ Himself. (See Matthew 1:1–24 and Luke 3:23–38.)

The condemnation of "genealogies" in Timothy and Titus likely came because:

  • the Christians perceived a Jewish tendency to be pre-occupied by "pure descent" as a qualification for holding the priesthood. Since only pure descendents of Levi could hold the priesthood, there was endless wrangling about one's pedigree—since Paul considers the Aaronic Priesthood to have been superceded by Christ, the great High Priest like Melchizedek (see Hebrews 5), this probably strikes him as pointless.
  • some Jewish scribes and other teachers claimed that their "traditions" were directly descended from Moses, Joshua, or some other prominent leader, and thus superior to the Christian gospel.[11]
  • some gnostic sects had involved accounts of the descent of the Aeons (up to 365 "generations" in one scheme) and other mystic or pagan variations thereon.[12]

Since all these genealogies were either speculative or fabricated, they could cause endless, pointless debate.[13] Rather Paul wants the faith (in Christ) which builds up ("edifying") testimonies and lives.


Question: Is temple work a form of "ancestor worship"?

Baptism for the dead does not in any way represent "ancestor worship"

Critics Jerald and Sandra Tanner claim that Church members' "obsession with the dead approaches very close to ancestral worship." In support of this, they quote Elder Adney Y. Komatsu, Assistant to the Council of the Twelve, Ensign May 1976, p.102. The critics wish to show that baptism for the dead is a form of "ancestor worship." In order to accomplish this, they extract phrases from a story told by Elder Komatsu about a couple that wished to be married, but were denied permission by the boy's parents. The use of genealogical research was the key that opened the door to allowing the couple to eventually be married. The authors carefully extract the phrases that they want to use, thereby making it impossible to see what Elder Komatsu was actually talking about. Baptism for the dead does not in any way represent "ancestor worship," and the authors had to search pretty hard to find a quote that they could butcher sufficiently to support this conclusion.

Reference Original quote... Mined quote... Use of sources
The Changing World of Mormonism p. 517. "This obsession with the dead approaches very close to ancestral worship." May I share with you this afternoon an experience that happened to a young couple who were members of the Church in Japan. They wished to be married, and as is the custom in Japan, they sought permission from their nonmember parents for the marriage to be performed. The boy’s parents refused to give permission. With concern and disappointment, the young couple prayerfully sought ways to fill their lives with meaningful Church activities and trusted that permission would be forthcoming later.

At this time Church members were planning a trip to the Hawaii Temple, and much emphasis was made and was being placed on the importance of genealogical research. So the couple joined with others in seeking out their ancestors and in planning to have the temple work done for them. The girl searched diligently through shrines, cemeteries, and government record offices, and was able to gather seventy-seven names. The boy’s uncle, who was a respected and influential member of the family, heard of this and was deeply impressed with and interested in her work. He noted the intense devotion of the girl to honoring her ancestors and suggested that such a young lady would be a good wife for his nephew. Permission was granted for the young people to be married, and the marriage was performed. Later they were sealed in the Hawaii Temple.

It is a Japanese tradition that families gather together for special holidays in January and August. As this young couple joined their family members on these special occasions, they displayed their book of remembrance, and much interest was generated in their work and in the reasons for it. They discussed with those relatives assembled their ancestral lines and the importance of completing the genealogical research. It was difficult for their nonmember families to understand the reasons for a Christian church teaching principles such as “ancestral worship,” for this was a Buddhist teaching and tradition.

Today many young men and women are completing their family group sheets and are teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to their parents and their relatives by this method. Through genealogical research and through doing temple work for their progenitors, and especially with a temple now becoming available in Tokyo, members can so live that the gospel will yet be embraced by many more in the Orient. This great work has just begun. —Elder Adney Y. Komatsu, May 1976

May I share with you this afternoon an experience that happened to a young couple who were members of the Church in Japan.... the couple joined with others in seeking out their ancestors and in planning to have the temple work done for them. The girl searched diligently through shrines, cemeteries, and government record offices, and was able to gather seventy-seven names.... As this young couple joined their family members ... they displayed their book of remembrance.... They discussed with those relatives assembled their ancestral lines and the importance of completing the genealogical research. It was difficult for their nonmember families to understand the reasons for a Christian church teaching principles such as "ancestral worship," for this was a Buddhist teaching and tradition.... Through genealogical research and through doing temple work for their progenitors, and especially with a temple now becoming available in Tokyo, members can so live that the gospel will yet be embraced by many more in the Orient Elder Adney Y. Komatsu, Assistant to the Council of the Twelve, Ensign May 1976, p.102


Charles Penrose (1912): "Baptism for the dead—How do we know which of our deceased relatives are to be baptized for"?

Charles W. Penrose, "Peculiar Questions Briefly Answered," Improvement Era Vol. 15, Num. 11 (September 1912):

Question 12: Baptism for the dead—How do we know which of our deceased relatives are to be baptized for, and how do we know when we are to be baptized for them?
Answer: If instead of "we" the questioner had used the word "you," we would answer: Often by personal revelation, always by the law of kindred and genealogy, and the direction of those divinely appointed to administer the ordinances commanded.[14]


D. Todd Christofferson (1998): "The principle of vicarious service should not seem strange to any Christian"

D. Todd Christofferson:

The principle of vicarious service should not seem strange to any Christian. In the baptism of a living person, the officiator acts, by proxy, in place of the Savior. And is it not the central tenet of our faith that Christ’s sacrifice atones for our sins by vicariously satisfying the demands of justice for us? As President Gordon B. Hinckley has expressed: “I think that vicarious work for the dead more nearly approaches the vicarious sacrifice of the Savior Himself than any other work of which I know. It is given with love, without hope of compensation, or repayment or anything of the kind. What a glorious principle.[15]

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Notes

  1. John Sanders, introduction to What about Those Who Have Never Heard? Three Views on the Destiny of the Unevangelized, by Gabriel Fackre, Ronald H. Nash, and John Sanders (1995), 9.
  2. Mormonism and Early Christianity (Vol. 4 of Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by Todd Compton and Stephen D. Ricks, (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Company ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987), 101.
  3. Alma 42:15
  4. See Ben Fenton, “Mormons Use Secret British War Files ‘to Save Souls,’ ” The Telegraph (London), 15 Feb. 1999.
  5. Greg Stott, “Ancestral Passion,” Equinox (April/May 1998): 45.
  6. D&C 138:58
  7. D. Todd Christofferson, "The Redemption of the Dead and the Testimony of Jesus," Ensign (November 2000), 9. off-site (Footnotes have in places been integrated into the main text; citation for has been slightly modified.
  8. The source erroneously refers to the "Marcionites" instead of the "Cerinthians".
  9. John A. Tvedtnes, "Proxy Baptism," Ensign (February 1977), 86. off-site
  10. John A. Tvedtnes, "Proxy Baptism," Ensign (February 1977), 86. off-site
  11. George H. Fudge, "I Have a Question: How do we interpret scriptures in the New Testament that seem to condemn genealogy?," Ensign (March 1986), 49.
  12. John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible, 1811-1817, New Testament, "1 Timothy 1:4" & "Titus 3:9"
  13. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds., The Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968), 353.
  14. Charles W. Penrose, "Peculiar Questions Briefly Answered," Improvement Era 15 no. 11 (September 1912). off-site
  15. D. Todd Christofferson, "The Redemption of the Dead and the Testimony of Jesus," Ensign (January 1998).