Salvation for the Dead: A Response to Luke Wilson
by Matthew Roper
Some critics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints claim that Latter-day Saint teachings regarding salvation for the dead are inconsistent with biblical teachings and are based upon a misreading of 1 Peter 3:19, 4:6, and 1 Corinthians 15:29. Most recently, Luke Wilson of Gospel Truths Ministry (an evangelical anti-Mormon organization based in Michigan) has argued that Mormons are not only biblically wrong, but even inconsistent with the teachings found in the Book of Mormon as well.1 In this paper, I will discuss the concept of salvation for the dead as it was taught by early Christians. First, I will address Wilson’s claim that LDS teachings on Salvation for the dead contradict biblical and Book of Mormon teachings. Second, I will address several questions bearing on the interpretation of 1 Peter 3:19 and 1 Peter 4:6, namely, 1) When and where did Christ go to preach, 2) To whom did He Preach, 3) What did He proclaim there, and 4) Does 1 Peter 4:6 really relate to 1 Peter 3:19. Finally, I will respond to Wilson’s criticisms of the LDS understanding of 1 Corinthians 15:29.
Does Salvation for the Dead Contradict the Bible?
Wilson claims that the notion that those who died without a knowledge of the gospel need to have the opportunity to hear it is in conflict with the teachings of the Bible. According to Wilson, Romans 1:19-20 shows that, “those who do not have the written word of God are nevertheless without excuse according to Paul, because they have rejected God’s revelation of himself through creation and the human conscience” (1995:1). No doubt, the wonders of creation testify to God’s existence, but they do not explain the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While it is certainly true that all men and women have a conscience which helps them distinguish between good and evil, they cannot respond to and accept a gospel they have not heard and it is only the Gospel of Jesus Christ that saves. As Paul observed, “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14). God is not arbitrary and unjust. Somebody, somewhere, has to teach these people so that they may hear and have the opportunity of accepting or rejecting the gospel message before the judgement.
When one examines Romans 1:19-20 carefully, it becomes clear that Paul is not speaking of those who die in ignorance of the Gospel, but is speaking of the consequences of willfully rejecting the gospel when it is offered. “The wrath of God,” says Paul, “is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who hold the truth in unrighteousness.” To hold the truth in unrighteousness, they must first have had the truth and then rejected it. “Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them (Romans 1:18-19). God always reveals the Gospel through his appointed preachers and messengers. When the Gospel of Jesus Christ is preached by the power of God, the conscience or light of Christ within all men and women shows them that what they are hearing is true. If they follow that light, it will lead them to accept the Gospel. If they reject it they will fall back into darkness and sin as Paul tells us (Romans 1:26-32). It is those who have been taught the Gospel who are “without excuse” (Romans 1:20), since even God’s creations honor and obey God’s power and will, even when man does not. The sin of man lies in knowing the truth and rejecting it anyway, “because that when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were they thankful, but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (Romans 1:21). Having openly rejected the Gospel message when it was offered, they brought divine judgements upon themselves (Romans 1:32). Those who die in ignorance of the Gospel message without having the opportunity to receive it, however, are another matter entirely.
Latter-day Saints are not the only people who recognize the importance of this issue. Stephen T. Davis, a professor of Philosophy at Claremont College has recently written a cogent defense of the resurrection that many evangelicals should gladly welcome.2 Addressing the issue of those who die in ignorance of the Gospel, Davis states:
Suppose there was a woman named Oohku who lived from 370-320 B.C. in the interior of Borneo. Obviously, she would never have heard of Jesus Christ or the Judeo-Christian God; she would never have been baptized, nor would she ever have made any institutional or psychological commitment to Christ or to the Christian church. She couldn’t have done these things; she was simply born in the wrong place and at the wrong time. Could it be right for God to condemn this woman to eternal hell just because she was never able to come to God through Christ? Of course not.3
But how can God’s mercy take effect, since salvation is only in the Gospel of Jesus Christ? As a solution, Davis suggests “post-mortem evangelism.”4 He argues that a number of New Testament passages support this view including Ephesians 4:8-10; 1 Peter 3:18-20; 4:6; and 1 Corinthians 15:29. He notes the early Christian tradition that Christ during the interval between his death and resurrection descended to preach the Gospel to the spirits of the dead. “Despite the scores of interpretations of the difficult texts just cited that have been suggested in the history of Christian thought, this still seems to be a possible and plausible exegesis of 1 Peter 3:18-20; 4:5-6.”5 Davis then reasons, “If the gospel was once preached to the dead, perhaps this practice continues. If so, perhaps the ignorant are preached to after death and receive then the chance they never had before to receive Christ and turn to God.”6
This scripture merely states that the judgement follows death. Latter-day Saints do not question that, however it is what happens in-between death and resurrection before the judgement that is the issue in question. Jesus and the apostles understood there was an interval between the time of death and the resurrection.7
Wilson argues that the story related by Jesus in Luke 16:19-31, “makes clear that there is no opportunity to repent after death” and “excludes the possibility of repentance in the spirit world” (1995:2). Wilson’s example, however, is ill-chosen since it does not describe the fate of one who died in ignorance, but the fate of one who sinned against light and knowledge. Unlike those who die in ignorance of the Gospel, the rich man and his family had already known of “Moses and the prophets” (Luke 16:29). These prophets had repeatedly taught Israel to treat the poor with mercy and kindness. Thus he had not died in ignorance of this truth, but had chosen a life of wickedness in spite of the commandments. Now dead, and having sinned against this light of knowledge, he finds himself suffering torment in hell. This example does not apply to those who die in ignorance.
Does Salvation for the Dead Contradict the Book of Mormon?
Wilson asks why, if the Book of Mormon contains the fulness of the Gospel, why it does not contain explicit references to the teaching of baptism for the dead and other LDS teachings. Latter-day Saints have generally understood that baptism for the dead was only practiced after the time of Christ. Most of the Book of Mormon takes place before the time of Christ, so we should hardly expect pre-Christian references to baptism for the dead in the writings of Nephi, Jacob or Alma. Moreover, the Book of Mormon is an abridgement, so even if Jesus did teach that doctrine during his visit to the Nephites (3 Nephi 26:6-8), we should not be surprised if it is not mentioned in the Book of Mormon. Wilson cites four passages from the Book of Mormon which he suggests are inconsistent with the LDS teaching of salvation for the dead (Mosiah 2:36-39; Moroni 8:22-23; 2 Nephi 9:22-24; Alma 34:31-35). We will briefly examine each of these passages.
In these passages King Benjamin is concerned with those who have already “been taught” concerning the truth (Mosiah 2:34) and then have turned away, coming out in “open rebellion against God” (Mosiah 2:37). He is not speaking of those who died without the opportunity to hear the Gospel, as Wilson implies. In the following chapter, Benjamin goes on to say that the blood of Christ atones for the sins of those “who have died not knowing the will of God concerning them, or who have ignorantly sinned” (Mosiah 3:11). The only way for anyone to be saved is through the atonement and “there shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men” (Mosiah 3:17). Benjamin also indicates that “the time shall come when a knowledge of a Savior shall spread throughout every nation, kindred, tongue and people” (Mosiah 3:21). Since he has just mentioned those who “died not knowing the will of God concerning them” this passage suggests that the time would eventually come when they too would hear that message. “And, behold, when that time cometh, none shall be found blameless before God, except it be little children, only through repentance and faith on the name of the Lord God Omnipotent” (Mosiah 3:22). Contrary to Wilson, this passage is consistent with the LDS teaching.
Moroni 8:22-23 states that those who died without the law are “alive in Christ,” that is, they are eligible for the mercies of Christ extended through the atonement and his Gospel. They are under no condemnation until they accept or reject the Gospel. Until adults could be taught the need to repent and receive the covenant of baptism, that ordinance would make no sense. At some point, however, as King Benjamin indicated earlier, those who died in ignorance would be taught and have the opportunity to accept or reject the Gospel.
Wilson argues that Alma 34:31-35 is also in conflict with LDS teachings about the redemption of the dead (1995:4). Is this so? Hardly. Amulek is teaching the Zoramites, who are dissenters from among the Nephites, who had already been taught concerning Christ, but then had apostatized from the truth. Amulek is warning the Zoramites that if they do not repent in this life, they, having once had the truth and rejected it, will not be saved. The context had nothing to do with salvation for the dead, or baptism for the dead, which is primarily for those who never had the opportunity to hear the Gospel and repent in this life. The Zoramite situation, as apostates and dissenters is obviously quite different from those who die without a knowledge of the Gospel
2 Nephi 9:22-24
What about 2 Nephi 9:22-24? After discussing the need for all to be baptized or they cannot be saved (2 Nephi 9:23-24), Jacob distinguishes between those who have the law and the commandments (2 Nephi 9:27) and those who do not have the law (2 Nephi 9:25-26).
Wherefore, he has given a law; and where there is no law given there is no punishment; and where there is no punishment there is no condemnation; and where there is no condemnation the mercies of the Holy One of Israel have claim upon them, because of the atonement; for they are delivered by the power of him. For the atonement satisfieth the demands of justice upon all those who have not the law given to them, that they are delivered from that awful monster, death and hell, and the devil, and the lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment; and they are restored to that God who gave them breath, which is the Holy One of Israel (2 Nephi 9:25-26).
In other words, the atonement of Christ provides the means whereby those who sin in ignorance may be delivered from death and hell and the power of the devil and restored to God’s presence. Since Jacob has just explained that this deliverance comes about only in and through Christ’s atonement and our response to that act: namely, faith in Jesus Christ, repentance from sin and baptism (2 Nephi 9:19-24), it is obvious that those who have died in ignorance of these universal commandments will through “the mercies of the Holy One of Israel” (2 Nephi 9:25) be allowed the opportunity, at some future time to both hear and accept the principles of salvation.
But woe unto him that has the law given, yea, that has all the commandments of God, like unto us, and that transgresseth them, and that wasteth the days of his probation, for awful is his state!” (2 Nephi 9:27).
As we have just noted, Jacob testified that those who died in ignorance are “restored” to that God who gave them life. How was the restoration to be accomplished? The prophet Abinadi taught that after Christ was put to death he saw “his seed” (Mosiah 15:10), meaning he visited the righteous spirits of the prophets and those who had believed their words “since the world began” (Mosiah 15:10-13). After his death Christ would proclaim the joyful news of their redemption from the bands of death. Continuing the work begun in mortality, these faithful spirits continued to publish the gospel or “good tidings” (Mosiah 15:14-15). Many who had died in ignorance had apparently accepted their message in the spirit world (Mosiah 15:11, 22-24). Thus when Christ appeared in the spirit world following his death (Mosiah 15:10-14, 18), there were many already prepared to receive him. These faithful spirits of the prophets and saints continue to publish these “good tidings” now and “hereafter” (Mosiah 15:16-17). Thus, Abinadi explains, it is through the preaching of the departed prophets and saints that the good tidings are declared to those who were denied that opportunity in this life. This is how God redeems many of those, “that have died in ignorance, not having salvation declared unto them. And thus [through the preaching of the departed righteous] the Lord bringeth about the restoration of these; and they have part in the first resurrection, or have eternal life, being redeemed by the Lord” (Mosiah 15:24).
Having demonstrated, contrary to Wilson, that the scriptural passages in the Bible and the Book of Mormon are consistent with the doctrine of salvation for the dead, we will now examine the following questions raised by Wilson’s critique: 1) When and where did Christ go to preach? 2) To whom did He preach? 3) What did Christ proclaim there? 4) Does 1 Peter 4:6 really relate to 1 Peter 3:19.
When and Where Did Christ Go to Preach?
Wilson argues that the LDS understanding is wrong because, “Christ’s preaching [in 1 Peter 3:19] did not take place between his death and resurrection, but after his resurrection, evidently as part of his ascension.” This according to Wilson, “rules out the view that it is a reference to Jesus descending to the abode of deceased human beings during the time His body lay in the tomb” (1995:2).8 Few Biblical scholars follow this radical interpretation of this passage:
Most scholars conclude that this passage does intend to describe a descensus ad inferos [descent into hell], and that therefore the preaching must have taken place in the land of the dead, the underworld.9
No other interpretation than that of the work of the discarnate Spirit of Christ in Hades seems natural and self-evident here. Indeed, all other interpretations merely evade this evident meaning…. It can hardly be doubted that S. Peter is referring to the Descent.10 This preaching took place in the interval between Christ’s death and resurrection.11 The simplest meaning [of 1 Peter 3:19] is that our Lord descended between his passion and resurrection, to preach to the spirits imprisoned in Hades.12
Wilson further argues that 1 Peter, “actually says nothing about a descent. It simply says that Christ ‘went and preached to the spirits.’” Since this is the same word (poreutheis) used in speaking of Christ’s ascension in verse 22, Wilson assumes that verse 19 must refer to the ascension as well. But this does not necessarily follow, since Christ could have done both: gone to preach to the spirits in Hades and then, following his resurrection, ascended into heaven. Moreoever, Hanson has shown how Paul’s words in Romans 10:7 are apparently based upon a Palestinian targum rediscovered in 1956. Hanson concludes, contrary to Wilson, “The doctrine of a descensus is found in NT writings both earlier than and contemporary with 1 Peter.”13 In fact he finds evidence for this doctrine in several other New Testament passages.14 While this argues against Wilson’s interpretation, it lends support to the LDS understanding of this passage: that between his death and resurrection, Christ went and preached to certain spirits in the world of disembodied spirits.
To Whom Did Christ Preach?
While the majority of writers understand 1 Peter 3:18-20 to refer to Christ’s descent to Hades between his death and resurrection, there has been a diversity of opinion as to just who these spirits are. This is true of both early Christianity and modern New Testament scholars.
Perhaps the most popular view was that which affirmed that Christ preached to the patriarchs and the righteous of Old Testament times. According to Ignatius, the disciples of Jesus and “the prophets themselves in the Spirit did wait for him as their teacher. And therefore He whom they rightly waited for, being come, raised them from the dead.”15 Irenaeus affirmed that the Lord descended into Hades in order to preach to “the righteous men” and “the prophets and the patriarchs, to whom he remitted sins in the same way as he did to us.”16 Hyppolytus taught that when Christ was slain he preached the gospel to the souls of the saints.”17
Other early Christian writers were more vague as to the recipients of Christ’s Gospel message. According to Origen, “We assert that not only while Jesus was in the body did he win over not a few persons merely… but also, that when he became a soul, without the covering of the body, he dwelt among those souls which were without bodily covering, converting such of them as were willing to Himself.”18 In another place he specifically cited 1 Peter 3:19 in favor of this view.19 In the Odes of Solomon, a collection of Christian hymns written at about the beginning of the second century, the speaker, Christ, movingly describes his descent into Hades where he liberated spirits held captive there and organized them into a congregation of believers.
I made a congregation of living among his dead; and I spoke with them by living lips; in order that my word may not fail. And those who had died ran toward me; and they cried out and said, “Son of God, have pity on us. And deal with us according to your kindness, and bring us out from the chains of darkness. And open for us the door by which we may go forth to you, for we perceive that our death does not approach you. May we also be saved with you because you are our Savior.” Then I heard their voice and placed their faith in my heart. And I placed my name upon their head, because they are free and they are mine.20
Other early Christian writers suggested that while Christ descended into Hades in the interval between his death and resurrection, the apostles may have participated with Jesus in preaching the gospel to the dead. According to the Sherpherd of Hermas, “These apostles and teachers who preached the name of the Son of God, after falling asleep in the power and faith of the Son of God, preached it not only to those who were asleep, but themselves also gave them the seal of the preaching [i.e. baptism]…. By these then, they were quickened and made to know the name of the Son of God.”21 According to Clement of Alexandria, while the Lord preached the Gospel in Hades, he believed, “that as here, so also there, the best of the disciples should be imitators of the Master; so that He should bring to repentance, those belonging to the Hebrews, and they the Gentiles.” Clement believed that the apostles of the Master taught the just among the Gentiles, “that is, those who had lived in righteousness according to the Law and Philosophy, who had ended life not perfectly, but sinfully. For it was suitable to the divine administration, that those possessed of greater worth in righteousness, and whose life had been pre-eminent, on repenting of their transgressions, thought found in another place, yet being confessedly of the number of the people of God Almighty should be saved, each according to his individual knowledge.” Since God is no respecter of persons, Clement reasoned, “the apostles also, as here, so there, preached the Gospel to those of the heathen who were ready for conversion…. Though they are in Hades and in ward, on hearing the voice of the Lord, whether that of his own person or that acting through His apostles, with all speed, turned and believed.”22
A third, more idiosyncratic view, advanced by the heretic Marcion was that Christ preached, not to the patriarchs, but to the most wicked of the pre-Christian age “that Cain, and those like him, and the Sodomites, and the Egyptians, and others like them, and, in fine, all the nations who walked in all sorts of abomination, were saved by the Lord, on His descending into Hades, and on their running unto Him” but “that Abel, and Enoch, and Noah, and those other righteous men who sprang from the patriarch Abraham, with all the prophets, and those who were pleasing to God, did not partake in salvation…. that their souls remained in Hades.”23
Among modern biblical scholars I have been able to identify at least three main lines of thought. The first group interprets the “spirits” as referring to the fallen angels (2 Peter 2:4). This is the position taken by Wilson (p. 3). Other scholars, however, have argued that the “spirits” referred to are not the fallen angels, but the spirits of men from the generation of the flood. Cranfield, for example, asserts, “The most probable interpretation is surely that which identifies the spirits in prison with the souls of men who perished in the flood.”24 A third group argues that the “spirits” include both men and angels. “We have therefore three choices here: ‘the spirits in prison’ are either fallen angels or the generation before the flood or those who lived before the coming of Christ generally.” Hanson favors a combination of all three of these possibilities. Whatever the case may be, they would all be spirits now dead. It is probably safest to conclude, as Hanson does, that in 1 Peter 3:18-20, “Christ is represented as having visited the place or the sphere, in which the fallen angels and the generations of men before his coming to earth were found” (i.e. Hades).25
Wilson argues that the allusion to the people at the time of the flood is problematic under the LDS point of view:
If Christ’s proclamation here was an offer of the gospel, a natural question is: Why would Noah’s contemporaries be singled out for an opportunity to repent in the spirit world? Arguably, they were less deserving of a second chance than others, since they had the godly example of the preaching of Noah, which they ignored or rejected. Indeed, since on LDS terms they did not die in ignorance of the gospel…. Why would they even be eligible for a second chance in the spirit world? (1995:2).
Latter-day Saint scripture teaches that Noah preached for 120 years before the flood came (Moses 8:17). It is not unreasonable to believe that some may have died during that time before they had the opportunity to hear Noah preach. In fact, the book of Moses indicates that certain groups of people were specifically excluded from the preaching during this age (Moses 7:2). The preaching in the spirit world would give these individuals an opportunity to accept the Gospel for the first time, not a “second chance” as Wilson suggests. Moreover, the Doctrine and Covenants suggests another possibility: Among those described as inheriting a Terrestrial glory are some, “who died without law; and also they who are the spirits of men kept in prison, whom the Son visited, and preached the Gospel unto them that they might be judged according to men in the flesh. Who received not the testimony of Jesus in the flesh, but afterwards received it” (D&C 76:72-74). Those who reject the Gospel while in mortality will be damned and will be denied eternal life, however, if these individuals accept the Gospel in the spirit world, they will still be able to inherit a Terrestrial glory following the resurrection (D&C 138:58-59). Thus the spirits in 1 Peter 3:19 could include, from the LDS point of view 1) some of those from the time of Noah who died in ignorance, 2) some of those from the time of Noah who rejected his testimony in mortality, but who later repented and accepted the Gospel in the spirit world. It is also possible that some of those from Noah’s day were so hardened and wicked that they rejected the Gospel message even in the spirit world. As Sherman E. Johnson puts it, “The implication of the passage [in 1 Peter 3:19] is clear. It deals with the comprehensive work of Christ in saving all who will respond to the proclaimed word…. Wherever Christ goes he brings both judgement and salvation.”26
What Did Christ Proclaim?
Wilson argues that Christ’s proclamation in 1 Peter 3:19 was not an offer of Salvation through the Gospel at all, but rather, “a proclamation of victory over the demonic spirits” (1995:3).27 His argument for this is based mainly on the fact that the term kurusso (meaning to announce, make known or proclaim) is used in 1 Peter 3:19, rather than euangelizomai (“bring, announce good news”). Wilson admits that kurusso is also used at different times in the New Testament to refer to the preaching of the Gospel, but argues that if the writer had really meant that Christ preached the Gospel he would have used the other term. Cranfield, responding to this very line of argument states, “But it is much more likely that [kurusso] has here its normal New Testament sense of preaching the gospel.”28 According to Hunter, this view “can only be carried through if we wrest the meaning of the Greek words in the most unnatural way. The simplest meaning is that our Lord descended between his passion and resurrection, to preach to certain spirits in Hades…. Christ went down ‘in the spirit,’ says Peter, into Hades, between his death and resurrection, in order to offer salvation to sinners who had died without hearing the gospel and getting a chance to repent.”29 According to Hanson:
The great majority of editors believe that Christ preached the message of salvation to the spirits in prison; this view is held by Friedrich, MacCulloch, Reicke, Bieder, Windisch-Preiser, Schweitzer, Cranfield, Schelkle, Best, and Brooks…. Only Dalton and Kelly maintain that what Christ proclaimed to the spirits in prison was a message of damnation. Both are influenced by inter-testamental literature in which a figure such as Enoch is sent to proclaim doom to the rebellious angels in captivity. But we must allow for the fact that we are dealing with a Christian text. The redeeming mission of Christ is all important here; this must surely have been the context of Christ’s message to the spirits in prison, according to our author.30
In other words, Christ, “preached the salvation which God had achieved through him…. The author [of 1 Peter] is concerned to emphasize the universal scope of God’s salvation.”31 Or as another scholar notes, when Jesus preaches in Hades, it is as “the herald of the gospel.”32
Is 1 Peter 4:6 Related to 1 Peter 3:19?
Wilson argues that Latter-day Saints erroneously connect 1 Peter 3:18-21 with 1 Peter 4:6. He argues that while the former describes Christ’s proclamation of doom to the fallen angels, the latter refers to the gospel having been preached to Christians now dead (1995:3-4). Contrary to Wilson, many scholars do connect the two passages in describing Christ’s descent and his preaching to the spirits of the dead in Hades. MacCulloch, for instance, argues for the unity of the two passages, but interprets 1 Peter 4:6 as referring to “a general preaching” to the dead in Hades as opposed to the preaching to Noah’s generation in 1 Peter 3:18-21, both performed by Christ during the three day interval.33 Others, however, view these two passages as referring to the same event: “By far the most likely explanation is that [in 1 Peter 4:6] there is a reference back to 3:19″ and that the “dead” of 4:6 are to be identified with the spirits of 3:19.34 For our purposes here, it is only necessary to point out that many scholars do connect the two passages as do the Latter-day Saints, as referring to Christ’s preaching in the spirit world.
Does 1 Corinthians 15:25 refer to Proxy Baptism?
Wilson believes that Paul disassociates himself from those at Corinth who were practicing baptism for the dead, since he uses the term “they” instead of “I” or “we.” If one were to follow Wilson’s reasoning here, a Latter-day Saint could turn his argument on its head. Paul alludes to the testimony of those who witnessed Christ’s resurrection. He speaks of the testimony of Cephas, James, the twelve apostles, and others including himself who witnessed the reality of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:1-8). Although Paul considers himself the very least of the apostles (15:9) he has “laboured more abundantly than they all” (15:10). “Therefore whether it were I or they so we preach, and so ye believed” (15:11). Note here, that if we were to follow Wilson’s argument, then we would have to conclude that both they and we refer to the apostles and others who like Paul witnessed the reality of the resurrection. If there is no resurrection from the dead, not only is the faith of the Corinthians vain (15:4), but “we [Paul and the apostles] are found false witnesses of God because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ” (15:15). Likewise, when Paul speaks of they in verse 10, he refers directly to the apostles, affirming that his testimony is consistent with theirs (15:10-11). He further speaks of “they” who have already fallen asleep or died faithfully in their witness of the resurrection and testimony of Christ (15:18). Again, if we were to follow Wilson’s own argument that the use of the term they is the key to interpreting 1 Corinthians 15:29, then we would have to see in it, not a reference to heretical Christians as Wilson argues, but to the apostles and other faithful witnesses of the resurrection: “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” (15:29). As I said, a Latter-day Saint could have a little fun with this kind of argument. As tempting as that might be, however, that is not the real reason why Wilson’s argument is faulty.
As John Tvedtnes has pointed out,
The Greek original of 1 Corinthians 15:29 does not use the pronoun they. It says, “Otherwise, what will do the ones being baptized for the dead?” The text uses a passive participle form, “the being baptized [ones],” as a substantive (where it is usually accompanied by the definite article). Participles reflect gender, number, and case, but not person. Hence, there is no third person plural (they) in the Greek original…. Being devoid of reference to person, the passage does not restrict the practice to “false teachers” as Wilson contends.35
In fact, most commentators admit that Paul does not pass judgement on the practice of baptism for the dead, one way or the other, although he did use it in support of his testimony of the resurrection of the dead. Below I have given a sampling from many of the commentaries on 1 Corinthians 15:29.
The text seems to speak plainly enough about a practice within the church of vicarious baptism for the dead. This is the view of most contemporary exegetes.36
The normal reading of the text is that some Corinthians are being baptized, apparently vicariously, in behalf of some people who have already died. It would be fair to add that this reading is such a plain understanding of the Greek text that no one would ever have imagined the various alteratives were it not for the difficulties involved.37
Again, the apostle alludes to a practice of the Corinthian community as evidence for a 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.38
Paul alludes in passing to a local practice of baptism for the dead, according to which certain Corinthians would seem to have undergone baptism on behalf of their departed relatives. (Paul is not passing judgement on the practice, but simply appealing to it as additional support for his argument about the resurrection of believers.)39
It appears that under the pressure of concern for the eternal destiny of dead relatives or friends some people in the Church were undergoing baptism on their behalf in the belief that this would enable the dead relatives to receive the benefits of Christ’s salvation…. He attaches neither praise nor blame to the custom. He does take it as an illustration of faith in the future destiny of the dead.40
Baptized on behalf of the dead is possibly proxy-baptism on behalf of friends who had died unbaptized.41
Of the many interpretations offered the most plausible is perhaps that which views the practice as an irregular type of baptism, possibly by proxy (so Moffatt) for those who died unbaptized.42
The most common opinion among critical scholars is that Paul was referring to the practice of vicarious baptism on behalf of dead persons.43
Possibly there was a custom in Corinth which allowed vicarious baptism–live people being baptized on behalf of dead people.44
Perhaps some members of the congregation underwent further baptism on behalf of friends or relatives who had received instruction in the Christian faith but had died before they had themselves been baptized.45
The wording is in favor of the “normal” exposition in terms of “vicarious baptism”: in Corinth living people have themselves vicariously baptized for dead people. Paul does not criticize the custom, but makes use of it for his argument.46
There is something approaching a consensus among commentators that, according to the obvious meaning of the words, it is a reference to vicarious baptism, people “who have themselves baptized on behalf of the dead.”47
In summary, Wilson’s arguments against the LDS understanding of the doctrine of Redemption for the dead is unpersuasive on a number of grounds. It has been shown that, contrary to Wilson this teaching is consistent with both the Bible and the Book of Mormon, and that some early Christians as well as modern biblical scholars interpreted and interpret biblical teachings such as those found in 1 Peter 3:19; 4:6 and 1 Corinthians 15:29 in ways similar to that of Latter-day Saints. The Latter-day Saint understanding of 1 Peter 3:19 and 4:6 and 1 Corinthians 15:29 is a plausible interpretation which finds substantial support in the writings of early Christianity and even some modern biblical scholars who often express uncertainty as to how they can reconcile such interpretations with their own theology, while Latter-day Saints can find interesting parallels to their own.
1 Luke P. Wilson, “Does the Bible Teach Salvation for the Dead” Heart and Mind: The Newsletter of Gospel Truths Ministries (January-March 1995): 1-4; Wilson, “Did Jesus Establish Baptism for the Dead?” Heart and Mind (January-March 1997): 1-4. For another response to these articles see John A. Tvedtnes, “The Dead Shall Hear the Voice” FARMS Review of Books 10/2 (1998): 184-99.
2 Stephen T. Davis, Risen Indeed: Making Sense of the Resurrection (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993).
3 Davis, 151.
4 Davis, 162.
5 Davis, 163.
6 Davis, 164.
7 See for example, Merrill F. Unger, Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1961), 437-38; D.S. Russell, The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic 200 A.D.-A.D. 100 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964), 353-90; Richard Bauckham, “Hades, Hell,” in David Noel Freedman, ed., Anchor Bible Dictionary 6 vols (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 3:14-15; Alan E. Bernstein, The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds (London and Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1993), 154-65.
8 This is the view of William Joseph Dalton, Christ’s Proclamation to the Spirits: A Study of 1 Peter 3:18-4:6 (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1965).
9 Anthony Tyrrell Hanson, The New Testament Interpretation of Scripture (London: SPCK, 1980), 130. See also Hanson, “Salvation Proclaimed: I 1 Peter 3:18-22,” Expository Times 93/4 (January 1982): 102.
10 MacCulloch, The Harrowing of Hell: A Comparative Study of an Early Christian Doctrine (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1930), 61.
11 C.E.B. Cranfield, “The Interpretation of I Peter iii.19 and iv.6,” Expository Times (September 1958): 370. See also 371.
12 Archibald M. Hunter, “The First Epistle of Peter,” in The Interpreter’s Bible Commentary 12 vols (New York and Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1979), 12:132-33. See also Donald Senior, 1 & 2 Peter (Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, 1980), 70.
13 Hanson, “Salvation Proclaimed,” 102. For a detailed discussion of Matthew 12:38-41; Acts 2:24; Romans 10:6-8; Ephesians 4:7-10; 5:14, 25-27; 1 Peter 3:19 and 4:6 as they relate to the Christian doctrine of Christ’s descensus into Hades see Hanson, New Testament Interpretation of Scripture, 122-56.
14 Hanson, New Testament Interpretation of Scripture, 122-56.
15 Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians 9, in Roberts and Donaldson, 1:62.
16 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4:26, in Roberts and Donaldson, 1:499.
17 Hyppolytus, Treatise on Christ and Anti-Christ in Roberts and Donaldson, 5:209.
18 Origen, Against Celsus 2:43, in Roberts and Donaldson, 4:448.
19 Origen, Commentary on John 6:18, in Roberts and Donaldson 10:367-68.
20 Odes of Solomon 42, in Charlesworth, 2:771.
21 Sherpherd of Hermas, similitude 9:16, in Roberts and Donaldson, 2:49.
22 Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 6:6, in Roberts and Donaldson, 2:490-92.
23 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1:27, in Roberts and Donaldson, 1:352.
24 Cranfield, “The Interpretation of I Peter iii.19 and iv.6,” 370.
25 Hanson, “Salvation Proclaimed,” 102.
26 Sherman E. Johnson, “The Preaching to the Dead,” Journal of Biblical Literature 79/1 (1960): 51.
27 This is the argument raised by Edward Gordon Selwyn, The First Epistle of St. Peter (London: 1846).
28 Cranfield, “The Interpretation of I Peter iii.19 and iv.6,” 371.
29 Hunter, “The First Epistle of Peter,” 132-33.
30 Hanson, The New Testament Interpretation of Scripture, 131-32.
31 Hanson, “Salvation Proclaimed,” 102.
32 Senior, 1 & 2 Peter, 70.
33 MacCulloch, The Harrowing of Hell, 59-60.
34 Cranfield, “The Interpretation of I Peter iii.19 and iv.6,” 371; See also Alfred Firmin Loisy, The Birth of the Christian Religion (New Hyde Park: New York: University Books, 1962), 270; Hunter, “The First Epistle of Peter,” 133; Johnson, “The Preaching to the Dead,” 48-51.
35 Tvedtnes, 196.
36 Krister Stendahl, “Baptism for the Dead: Ancient Sources,” in Ludlow, Encyclopedia of Mormonism 1:97.
37 Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 763-64.
38 Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Ronald Murphy, eds., The Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1968, 2:273.
39 The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible 1:350.
40 William Orr, James Arthur Walthur, eds., 1 Corinthians (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1976), 337.
41 D. Guthrie and J.A. Motyer, et al., The Eerdman’s Bible Commentary Third edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 1072.
42 F.F. Bruce, ed., The International Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Marshall Pickering/Zondervan, 1986), 1384.
43 John Coolidge Hurd Jr., The Origin of 1 Corinthians (Macon, Ga: Mercer University Press, 1983), 136.
44 R. Paul Caudill, First Corinthians: A Translation with Notes (Nashville, Tn.: Broadman Press, 1983), 211.
45 Margaret E. Thrall, The First and Second Letters of Paul to the Corinthians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), 109-910.
46 Hanz Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians: A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 275.
47 James Downey, “1 Cor 15:29 and the Theology of Baptism,” Euntes Docete 38 (1985): 23.