Mormon Baptism for the Dead
1 Corinthians 15:29 says,
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?
This is the only reference in the Bible to baptism for the dead, but it is an important one. Paul refers to the eternal nature of human beings. Because of the atonement of Jesus Christ, we will all rise again and be resurrected as immortal beings. Why does this necessitate baptism for the dead, which Paul refers to as if it were a common, ongoing practice among the Saints of his time.
God loves His children. He has taught them His Plan of Salvation and sent His Son to die for them, that they might be saved. Yet, millions of people have dwelt on the earth without having the opportunity to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. They can’t be held completely accountable for their actions if they have never received God’s law, and they can’t choose to repent and have faith in Christ, if they have never heard of Him.
Baptism for the dead could not exist as an ordinance until Christ was crucified. During the three days that He was in the tomb, He went to the spirit world, to those awaiting resurrection, and preached the gospel to the righteous in “paradise,” and sent missionaries to the wicked in “spirit prison.” Thus, these spirits would have the chance to hear the gospel, to decide if they wanted to repent and exercise faith in Christ. However, since the ordinance of baptism cannot be entered into by a spirit, those spirits drawing nigh to Christ needed their baptisms to be performed on earth by those with physical bodies — this is vicarious ordinance work, by proxy.
Modern revelation has revealed marvelous things about the Spirit World, and opened our understanding of Christ’s work there. A glorious vision was given to Mormon prophet and president Joseph F. Smith in 1918. He recorded,
On the third of October, in the year nineteen hundred and eighteen, I sat in my room pondering over the scriptures; And reflecting upon the great atoning sacrifice that was made by the Son of God, for the redemption of the world; And the great and wonderful love made manifest by the Father and the Son in the coming of the Redeemer into the world; That through his atonement, and by obedience to the principles of the gospel, mankind might be saved (Doctrine and Covenants, Section 138: 1-4).
I opened the Bible and read the third and fourth chapters of the first epistle of Peter, and as I read I was greatly impressed, more than I had ever been before, with the following passages: “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:
“By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water” (1 Peter 3:18–20). “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.) (See D&C, 138:6-10.)
As he was pondering, a vision was opened to the prophet. He saw the spirits of the just, who were awaiting resurrection, now that Christ would be resurrected. They were filled with joy.
While this vast multitude waited and conversed, rejoicing in the hour of their deliverance from the chains of death, the Son of God appeared, declaring liberty to the captives who had been faithful; And there he preached to them the everlasting gospel, the doctrine of the resurrection and the redemption of mankind from the fall, and from individual sins on conditions of repentance.
But unto the wicked he did not go, and among the ungodly and the unrepentant who had defiled themselves while in the flesh, his voice was not raised; Neither did the rebellious who rejected the testimonies and the warnings of the ancient prophets behold his presence, nor look upon his face (D&C 138:18-21).
…and I perceived that the Lord went not in person among the wicked and the disobedient who had rejected the truth, to teach them; But behold, from among the righteous, he organized his forces and appointed messengers, clothed with power and authority, and commissioned them to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness, even to all the spirits of men; and thus was the gospel preached to the dead.
And the chosen messengers went forth to declare the acceptable day of the Lord and proclaim liberty to the captives who were bound, even unto all who would repent of their sins and receive the gospel. Thus was the gospel preached to those who had died in their sins, without a knowledge of the truth, or in transgression, having rejected the prophets. These were taught faith in God, repentance from sin, vicarious baptism for the remission of sins, the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands… (D&C, Section 138:29-33).
Mormon Baptism for the Dead is Performed in Mormon Temples
Using their free agency, spirits in the spirit world can choose to accept or reject baptisms performed for them in Mormon temples around the world. Mormons actively do family history work to find the names of their ancestors and have this work performed for them. When ancestors receive these temple ordinances willingly, they may inherit a higher kingdom of heaven, and may be eternally sealed to their families for eternity, and into God’s eternal family, as well.
These the Lord taught, and gave them power to come forth, after his resurrection from the dead, to enter into his Father’s kingdom, there to be crowned with immortality and eternal life, And continue thenceforth their labor as had been promised by the Lord, and be partakers of all blessings which were held in reserve for them that love him (D&C, 138:51, 52).
Mormon baptisms for the dead are performed in a section of Mormon temples called the baptistery. The baptismal font is modeled after the laver in Solomon’s ancient temple. It stands symbolically upon the backs of twelve oxen, representing the twelve tribes of Israel. Youth over the age of 12 may be baptized for the dead, after interviewing with their bishop (congregational leader) to be sure they are worthy to enter the temple. Baptism is by immersion for the remission of sins. The person baptized, then receives by proxy the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands.
The baptistery of the temple is always on the basement level. The water in which a person is baptized is always below ground to represent the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, and the death of the old, sinful person and rebirth as a new person in Christ.
The dead who repent will be redeemed, through obedience to the ordinances of the house of God, And after they have paid the penalty of their transgressions, and are washed clean, shall receive a reward according to their works, for they are heirs of salvation. Thus was the vision of the redemption of the dead revealed to me, and I bear record, and I know that this record is true, through the blessing of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, even so. Amen (D&C 138:58-60).
Note: Some people have misunderstood that when baptisms for the dead are performed, deceased persons are baptized into the Church against their will. This is not the case. Each individual has agency, or the right to choose. The validity of a baptism for the dead depends on the deceased person accepting it and choosing to accept and follow the Savior while residing in the spirit world. The names of deceased persons are not added to the membership records of the Church.
LDS News on Church Policy for Baptisms for the Dead