I Have a Question


Questions of general gospel interest answered for guidance, not as official statements of Church policy.

Was baptism for the dead a non-Christian practice in New Testament times (see 1 Cor. 15:29), or was it a practice of the Church of Jesus Christ, as it is today?

Robert L. Millet, assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University. Baptism for the dead was indeed a practice of the Church of Jesus Christ in the meridian of time. We know that it was practiced among the first-century Christians and that it was restored in our own dispensation through the Prophet Joseph Smith.

“Else what shall they do … ?”

The Apostle Paul refers to the practice of baptism for the dead in 1 Corinthians. Probably written about A.D. 56–57, this book is a masterpiece of religious literature and a remarkable testimony of the Savior and his gospel.

Chapter 15, [1 Cor. 15] perhaps the most doctrinally potent chapter in the epistle, testifies of the resurrection of the Lord. In it Paul presents the core of that message known to us as the gospel, or the “glad tidings” that Christ atoned for our sins, died, rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven. Joseph Smith called these events “the fundamental principles of our religion,” to which all other doctrines are but appendages. 1

Paul presents the necessity for the Savior’s rising from the tomb and explains that the physical evidence of the divine Sonship of Christ is the Resurrection. If Christ had not risen from the dead, Paul asserts, the preaching of the Apostles and the faith of the Saints would be in vain. “If in this life only we have hope in Christ,” he says, “we are of all men most miserable.” (1 Cor. 15:19.)

After establishing that the Lord has conquered all enemies, including death, Paul adds: “And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him [the Father] that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.

“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 Cor. 15:28–29; italics added.)

Interpretations of Paul’s Words

Verse 29 [1 Cor. 15:29] has spawned a host of interpretations by biblical scholars of various faiths. Many consider the original meaning of the passage to be at best “difficult” or “unclear.” One commentator states that Paul “alludes to a practice of the Corinthian community as evidence for Christian faith in the resurrection of the dead. It seems that in Corinth some Christians would undergo baptism in the name of their deceased non-Christian relatives and friends, hoping that this vicarious baptism might assure them a share in the redemption of Christ.” 2

Some recent translations of the Bible have attempted to clarify this passage. The New English Bible, for example, translates 1 Corinthians 15:29: [1 Cor. 15:29] “Again, there are those who receive baptism on behalf of the dead. Why should they do this? If the dead are not raised at all, what do they mean by being baptized on their behalf?”

Many non-Latter-day Saint scholars believe that in 1 Corinthians Paul is denouncing or condemning the practice of baptism for the dead as heretical. This is a strange conclusion, however, since he uses the practice of baptism for the dead to support the doctrine of the Resurrection. In essence, he says, “Why are we performing baptisms in behalf of our dead, if, as some propose, there will be no resurrection of the dead? If there is to be no resurrection, would not such baptisms be a waste of time?”

On the subject of baptism for the dead, one Latter-day Saint writer observes, “Paul was most sensitive to blasphemy and false ceremonialism—of all people he would not have argued for the foundation truth of the Resurrection with a questionable example. He obviously did not feel that the principle was disharmonious with the gospel.” 3

Other Early Christian Allusions

A surprising amount of evidence suggests that the doctrine of salvation for the dead was known and understood by ancient Christian communities. Early commentary on the Pauline statement in Hebrews that “they without us should not be made perfect” (see Heb. 11:40) holds that the passage referred to the Old Testament Saints who were trapped in Hades awaiting the help of their New Testament counterparts and that Christ held the keys that would “open the doors of the Underworld to the faithful souls there.” 4 It is significant that in his book, Dialogue with Trypho, Justin Martyr, the early Christian apologist, cites an apocryphon which he charges had been deleted from the book of Jeremiah, but was still to be found in some synagogue copies of the text: “The Lord God remembered His dead people of Israel who lay in the graves; and He descended to preach to them His own salvation.” 5 Irenaeus also taught: “The Lord descended to the parts under the earth, announcing to them also the good news of his coming, there being remission of sins for such as believe on him.” 6

One of the early Christian documents linking the writings of Peter on Christ’s ministry in the spirit world (see 1 Pet. 3:18–20, 1 Pet. 4:6) with those of Paul on baptism for the dead is the “Shepherd of Hermas,” which states that “these apostles and teachers who preached the name of the Son of God, having fallen asleep in the power and faith of the Son of God, preached also to those who had fallen asleep before them, and themselves gave to them the seal of the preaching. They went down therefore with them into the water and came up again, but the latter went down alive and came up alive, while the former, who had fallen asleep before, went down dead but came up alive. Through them, therefore, they were made alive, and received the knowledge of the name of the Son of God.” (Italics added.) 7

The Doctrine of Salvation for the Dead

The doctrine that no man or woman will ultimately be denied a blessing he or she did not have the opportunity to receive is set forth in beauty and plainness in the Book of Mormon. (See 2 Ne. 9:25; Mosiah 3:11; Mosiah 15:24; Alma 41:3; Moro. 8:22.) Further, in our own dispensation, the Prophet Joseph Smith received yet another revelation on the subject of salvation for the dead—the Vision of the Celestial Kingdom. (See D&C 137.)

The words of the Lord to Joseph Smith in 1836 were emphatic and comforting: “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;

“For I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts.” (D&C 137:7–9; italics added.)

Though the Vision of the Celestial Kingdom did not reveal the particulars of how the dead could receive the ordinances of the gospel, such truths were soon forthcoming.

On 15 August 1840, some four and a half years after he received the Vision of the Celestial Kingdom, Joseph Smith delivered his first public discourse on baptism for the dead—at the funeral of Seymour Brunson, a member of the Nauvoo High Council. In that address, the Prophet quoted from 1 Corinthians. According to one account, he “said the Apostle [Paul] was talking to a people who understood baptism for the dead, for it was practiced among them. He went on to say that people could now act for their friends who had departed this life, and that the plan of salvation was calculated to save all who were willing to obey the requirements of the law of God.” 8

Salvation and Baptism for the Dead

Two months later, on 19 October 1840, Joseph Smith wrote: “The Saints have the privilege of being baptized for those of their relatives who are dead [note his tie of this doctrine to the Vision of the Celestial Kingdom] whom they believe would have embraced the Gospel, if they had been privileged with hearing it, and who have received the Gospel in the spirit, through the instrumentality of those who have been commissioned to preach to them while in prison.” (Italics added.) 9

The doctrine of salvation for the dead became a major emphasis of the Prophet Joseph, who later wrote, “The greatest responsibility in this world that God has laid upon us is to seek after our dead,” 10 and “This doctrine was the burden of the scriptures. Those Saints who neglect it in behalf of their deceased relatives, do it at the peril of their own salvation.” 11 The leaders of the Church in Nauvoo were told that “these are principles in relation to the dead and the living that cannot be lightly passed over, as pertaining to our salvation. For their salvation is necessary and essential to our salvation.” (D&C 128:15.)

Thus, both the doctrine of salvation for the dead and the ordinance of baptism for the dead, of which we have but an allusion in Paul’s letter to the former-day Saints, have been revealed and restored in our own dispensation. We live in a day long anticipated by the prophets of ages past—when God has begun to “gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him.” (Eph. 1:10.)

    Notes

  1.   1.

    Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1976), p. 121.

  2.   2.

    Richard Kugelman, “The First Letter to the Corinthians,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, 2 vols., ed. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 2:273.

  3.   3.

    Richard Lloyd Anderson, Understanding Paul (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1983), p. 405.

  4.   4.

    J. A. MacCulloch, The Harrowing of Hell (Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark, 1930), pp. 48–49.

  5.   5.

    Ibid., pp. 84–85; also in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1951), 1:235.

  6.   6.

    Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.27.1, cited in J. B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1962), pp. 277–78.

  7.   7.

    The Shepherd of Hermas, similitude 9.16.2–4 (Loeb Classical Library, Kirsopp Lake trans.); cited in Anderson, Understanding Paul, pp. 407–8.

  8.   8.

    A report of Simon Baker in Journal History, under date of 15 August 1840, in LDS Church Archives; cited in The Words of Joseph Smith, comp. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, 1980), p. 49.

  9.   9.

    Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 179–80.

  10.   10.

    Ibid., p. 356.

  11.   11.

    Ibid., p. 193.

Can you explain why Hebrews 5:7–8 refers to Melchizedek, as a footnote in the LDS edition of the Bible states, instead of to Christ?

Robert J. Matthews, Dean, College of Religious Education, Brigham Young University. The footnote to Hebrews 5:7 in the LDS edition of the Bible refers to an entry on the manuscript of the Joseph Smith Translation. The entry for Hebrews 5 reads: “Note—the seventh and eighth verses of this chapter are a parenthesis alluding to Melchisedec and not to Christ.” (JST manuscript, NT 2, folio 4, p. 139.)

Still, although Hebrews 5:7–8 [Heb. 5:7–8] does not refer to Christ directly, it does so indirectly. These verses are part of a lengthier passage about Jesus that reads as follows:

“So also Christ glorified not himself to be made an high priest; but he that said unto him, Thou art my Son, to day have I begotten thee.

“As he saith also in another place, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec.

“Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared;

“Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered;

“And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him;

“Called of God an high priest after the order of Melchisedec.” (Heb. 5:5–10.)

The nature of the message in chapter five is that ministers must be called of God, by revelation, as was Aaron (Heb. 5:1–4); Christ was not a usurper of authority but was properly called by his Father, and is a priest forever, after the order of Melchisedek (Heb. 5:5–8); Christ is the author of eternal salvation (Heb. 5:9–10); and there are many doctrines to be learned when the hearers are ready (Heb. 5:11–14).

As can be clearly seen, verse six introduces the name and priesthood of Melchizedek (spelled Melchisedec in these verses). Verses seven and eight follow as a reminder or suggestion of who Melchizedek was. These verses recite something of his faithfulness, even as a child, as if to explain why a priesthood was named after him and why even Jesus, the Son of God, would be called after that priesthood.

Note that the passage makes perfectly good sense and reads smoothly if one moves directly from verse six to verse nine, skipping verses seven and eight. The message about Jesus flows comfortably, even without the parenthetical allusion to Melchizedek.

The reference to Melchizedek was undoubtedly inserted because Melchizedek was a type or a foreshadowing of Christ. This is made evident in JST Hebrews 7:3 [JST, Heb. 7:3], where the verse states that Melchizedek and “all those who are ordained unto this priesthood are made like unto the Son of God, abiding a priest continually.” Hence, Hebrews 5:7–8 [Heb. 5:7–8], while referring specifically to Melchizedek, has equal, though indirect, application to Jesus Christ because Melchizedek typifies Christ.

Elder James E. Talmage in Jesus the Christ, page 135, uses Hebrews 5:8 [Heb. 5:8] in this manner, detailing the fact that Jesus in his mortal life was subject to infirmities of the flesh and was tempted in like manner as are other men. This shows that Jesus, though a Son, gave voluntary obedience to the gospel. Elder Bruce R. McConkie in Mormon Doctrine, in the entry for “Obedience,” likewise cites Hebrews 5:8–9 [Heb. 5:8–9] as an example of Jesus’ perfect obedience.

If we read Hebrews 5 [Heb. 5] in the spirit and the sense of its intended meaning, we can see that verses seven and eight refer directly to Melchizedek, but that Melchizedek is used here as an example of Christ. Elder Bruce R. McConkie dealt with this subject in commenting upon Hebrews 5:7–10 [Heb. 5:7–10]:

“These verses make clear reference to Christ and his mortal ministry and are in complete harmony with other scriptures which bear on the same matters, as also with sermons of the early brethren of this dispensation. …

“The fact is, verses 7 and 8 apply to both Melchizedek and to Christ, because Melchizedek was a prototype of Christ and that prophet’s ministry typified and foreshadowed that of our Lord in the same sense that the ministry of Moses did. (Deut. 18:15–19; Acts 3:22–23; 3 Ne. 20:23; JS—H 1:40.) Thus, though the words of these verses, and particularly those in verse seven, had original application to Melchizedek, they apply with equal and perhaps even greater force to the life and ministry of him through whom all the promises made to Melchizedek were fulfilled.” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965–1973, 3:157.)