While chatting with a friend last week, a question came up about my religion. My friend had heard a story about the Mormon practice of performing baptisms on behalf of people who have died. As it does to most people who hear about this practice, this seemed odd to my friend. It seemed especially odd (and somewhat disturbing) given that the story was about someone who was baptized on behalf of her father who was a devoted atheist. My friend found it strange that a group of people like the Mormons, who always seem so nice, would essentially force their religion on someone after death, even when that person had clearly expressed his distaste for any religion at all during his life.
I acknowledged that, put that way, this practice would seem strange, and probably off-putting, to just about anyone. I then proceeded to explain how that explanation of what baptism for the dead really is is not quite right. I thought it would be useful to repeat my explanation here.
First, Mormon doctrine gives some clarity to the concept of “heaven.” It actually gives a lot of clarity, but I’ll leave that for a later post. For now, it sufficeth to say that instead of a strict black and white description of heaven and hell, we believe in a more expansive view of the afterlife, consisting of something more like a continuum of levels of post-mortal attainment where different levels have different rewards and different requirements. Most importantly, the highest level requires that we go through certain prescribed actions (sometimes known as rituals or ordinances). The first of these ordinances is baptism.
We believe it is not only important to be baptized in the generic sense, but that one’s baptism follow a strict set of rules in order to fulfill the requirement and allow entrance into the highest level of heaven. One of these rules is that the individual performing the baptism must have the authority (or priesthood) to do so. Since we believe this authority is only present in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and that it was absent from the Earth from around the time of Christ’s original apostles through the 1800s when Joseph Smith received it once again, this requirement leaves a big question: What happens to all the good people who were never baptized by someone with the authority? Are they prohibited from entering the highest level of heaven?
If they were, it would seem like something is not quite fair. We know God is fair, so something is clearly wrong here. Either baptism cannot be an absolute requirement, or there must be another opportunity for people who were not baptized in this life to fulfill this ordinance. This is where the practice of baptism for the dead comes in. We believe baptism requires a body, and the dead are clearly without bodies. So, we lend our bodies to them. In Mormon temples, we are baptized once again by someone with authority, but this time, instead of saying our name, the individual doing the baptism says the name of the deceased individual. See, it’s not as crazy as it sounds. We’re not digging up bodies and throwing them in water. We’re just performing a baptism using someone else’s name.
But what about the question of whether we’re forcing our religion on the dead despite their wishes? This is also a misconception. We believe that after death, everyone will have the opportunity to learn the gospel of Jesus Christ. This will happen pretty much the same way it does here. The deceased will be taught by knowledgeable individuals who are also deceased. They will study out the teachings, and then they will choose whether to accept. If they accept the teachings, they will clearly desire baptism, but unfortunately, they can’t do it for themselves because they have no body. Instead, we do it for them. Then they have a choice. In reality, the situation in which we don’t perform a proxy baptism for them is the situation in which they are having their ability to choose stripped from them. When we perform this service, they can make the choice for themselves.
Returning to the story discussed above, if the father chooses to remain a firm atheist after this life, that is his choice. The family does not take away that option by performing a baptism, rather they add another possibility that wasn’t present before, the opportunity to accept the baptism and enter the highest level of heaven.
For more information about this topic, including references to passages in the New Testament discussing the practice of baptism for the dead, see this website.