Baptism for the Dead: An Erroneous Practice? – Part 2

Close on Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Ceiling - S. Callisto catacomb. Mid 3rd century A.D.(Continued from Part 1)

Some of the best studies of the early Christian practice of baptism for the dead have come from Hugh Nibley and John A. Tvedtnes. Both of these LDS scholars have written extensively on the topic. I hope to analyze some of their excellent work and provide examples of the practice of baptism for the dead which have been discovered in many different apocryphal and pseudepigraphal texts.

The Shepherd of Hermas

The first text we’ll look at is called the Shepherd of Hermas (also called the Pastor of Hermas). This was a very popular work in early Christianity, and several early Christians considered it scripture with other New Testament texts, combining them into the same canon. It was written in Rome in the second century, and was written in Greek, though a Latin translation was also soon made. Two English translations are now available for reading online at Early Christian Writings, here, and here. If you’re up to it, you can also read the Greek directly.

The text is composed of five visions, twelve mandates, and ten parables. These apocalypses are given to Hermas, a former slave or freedman, who is said to have been the brother of Pope Pius, bishop of Rome. Some believe it is this same Hermas who is the author of the Shepherd of Hermas.

The part of the text that is of interest to us here is from Parable (or Similitude) 9. In this parable, the “Angel of repentance” in the form of a shepherd, comes to teach Hermas concerning the church. The church is compared to the building of a tower, the stones representing faithful members of the church, similar to Paul’s description of the church as one body made up of many members in 1 Corinthians 12, or as a household in Ephesians 2. This vision also has many parallels with Lehi’s vision of the tree of life in 1 Nephi 8, with only certain souls becoming part of the tower while others are cast away from it, wander into forbidden paths, and are lost. Similarities could also be pointed out in the allegory of the olive tree from Jacob 5.

Temple Imagery

Parable 9 is full of temple imagery, the tower being referred to as “the Church” but also as “house of God.” Chapter 2 of Parable 9 describes this tower in more detail, being built upon a large white rectangular rock. This rock had a glittering gate cut out of it, and was guarded round about by twelve virgins dressed in linen robes. Chapter 3 introduces six men who come to oversee the construction of the building, with a multitude of other men. An interesting detail states, “Now the virgins had spread out their hands, as if about to receive something from the men.” The work commences in building the tower out of stones. Some stones are commanded to “ascend out of a certain pit” to go into building the tower. They are carried by the virgins, who stoop down under the stones, and take them through the gate, to the men building the tower. Chapter 4 continues that other stones came up out of the pit to join the tower, all the while being carried only by the guarding virgins through the gate to the tower, it being inefficacious unless “they be carried through the gate by the hands of the virgins.” Chapter 5 speaks of Hermas again, who asks the angel what is meant by all these symbols in the vision. He is told that eventually the meaning will be made known to him.

Chapter 12 begins to recount the symbolism of the different objects in the vision. The rock and the gate represent the Son of God. The conversation on the gate is insightful, being a required entrance to the tower:

“And why is the gate new, sir?” I said. “Because,” he answered, “He became manifest in the last days of the dispensation: for this reason the gate was made new, that they who are to be saved by it might enter into the kingdom of God. You saw,” he said, “that those stones which came in through the gate were used for the building of the tower, and that those which did not come, were again thrown back to their own place? “I saw, sir,” I replied. “In like manner,” he continued, “no one shall enter into the kingdom of God unless he receive His holy name. For if you desire to enter into a city, and that city is surrounded by a wall, and has but one gate, can you enter into that city save through the gate which it has?” “Why, how can it be otherwise, sir?” I said. “If, then, you cannot enter into the city except through its gate, so, in like manner, a man cannot otherwise enter into the kingdom of God than by the name of His beloved Son. You saw,” he added, “the multitude who were building the tower?” “I saw them, sir,” I said. “Those,” he said, “are all glorious angels, and by them accordingly is the Lord surrounded. And the gate is the Son of God. This is the one entrance to the Lord. In no other way, then, shall any one enter in to Him except through His Son. You saw,” he continued, “the six men, and the tail and glorious man in the midst of them, who walked round the tower, and rejected the stones from the building? “I saw him, sir,” I answered. “The glorious man,” he said, “is the Son of God, and those six glorious angels are those who support Him on the right hand and on the left. None of these glorious angels,” he continued, “will enter in unto God apart from Him. Whosoever does not receive His name, shall not enter into the kingdom of God.”

Chapter 13 tells us the symbolism of the virgins, and particularly of being vested with certain symbolic clothing, the same clothing with which Christ is vested:

“And these virgins, who are they?” “They are holy spirits, and men cannot otherwise be found in the kingdom of God unless these have put their clothing upon them: for if you receive the name only, and do not receive from them the clothing, they are of no advantage to you. For these virgins are the powers of the Son of God. If you bear His name but possess not His power, it will be in vain that you bear His name. Those stones,” he continued, “which you saw rejected bore His name, but did not put on the clothing of the virgins.” “Of what nature is their clothing, sir?” I asked. “Their very names,” he said, “are their clothing. Every one who bears the name of the Son of God, ought to bear the names also of these; for the Son Himself bears the names of these virgins. As many stones,” he continued, “as you saw [come into the building of the tower through the hands ] of these virgins, and remaining, have been clothed with their strength. For this reason you see that the tower became of one stone with the rock. So also they who have believed on the Lord through His Son, and are clothed with these spirits, shall become one spirit, one body, and the colour of their garments shall be one. And the dwelling of such as bear the names of the virgins is in the tower.”

The Seal of Baptism

Chapter 16 begins to tell how those stones, even having been clothed in the right “spirits,” were required to receive a “seal” before they could unite themselves to the tower:

“Why, sir,” I said, “did these stones ascend out of the pit, and be applied to the building of the tower, after having borne these spirits? “They were obliged,” he answered, “to ascend through water in order that they might be made alive; for, unless they laid aside the deadness of their life, they could not in any other way enter into the kingdom of God. Accordingly, those also who fell asleep received the seal of the Son of God. For,” he continued, “before a man bears the name of the Son of God he is dead; but when he receives the seal he lays aside his deadness, and obtains life. The seal, then, is the water: they descend into the water dead, and they arise alive. And to them, accordingly, was this seal preached, and they made use of it that they might enter into the kingdom of God.”

The required seal was, of course, baptism by immersion in water. It is enlightening that baptism is here called a “seal.” Hermas then asks a very interesting question:

“Why, sir,” I asked, “did the forty stones also ascend with them out of the pit, having already received the seal?

There were some stones, faithful members of the church, that had already received the seal of baptism, and yet they were ascending from the pit as well, with the others. Why were they in the pit? The Shepherd enlightens Hermas:

“Because,” saith he, “these, the apostles and the teachers who preached the name of the Son of God, after they had fallen asleep in the power and faith of the Son of God, preached also to them that had fallen asleep before them, and themselves gave unto them the seal of the preaching. Therefore they went down with them into the water, and came up again. But these went down alive [and again came up alive]; whereas the others that had fallen asleep before them went down dead and came up alive. So by their means they were quickened into life, and came to the full knowledge of the name of the Son of God. For this cause also they came up with them, and were fitted with them into the building of the tower and were builded with them, without being shaped; for they fell asleep in righteousness and in great purity. Only they had not this seal. Thou hast then the interpretation of these things also.”

These stones represented teachers who, after having “fallen asleep” or died, were sent to preach the name of the Son of God to those who had “fallen asleep before them,” and to thereafter give them the seal of baptism. These who had died before them were righteous and pure people, but they had not received the seal of baptism during life. They therefore received the gospel after having died, and were baptized, a required seal for entrance into the kingdom of God.

Hugh Nibley explained that this could have only been an earthly ordinance of the living for the dead because of the requirement of physical water in the ordinance:

What is perfectly clear is that the apostles while they were still living performed an ordinance—the earthly ordinance of baptism in water—which concerned the welfare of those who had already died. That it was an earthly baptism which could only be performed with water is emphatically stated in the sentences immediately preceding those cited . . .1

Clement of Alexandria

This passage from The Shepherd of Hermas is cited by Clement of Alexandria, a respected early Church Father who lived at the end of the second century, who gives a commentary on Christ and his apostles preaching to the dead and their subsequent baptism:

Wherefore the Lord preached the Gospel to those in Hades. . . .

Do not [the Scriptures] show that the Lord preached the Gospel to those that perished in the flood, or rather had been chained, and to those kept “in ward and guard”? And it has been shown also, in the second book of the Stromata, that the apostles, following the Lord, preached the Gospel to those in Hades. For it was requisite, in my opinion, 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; that is, those who had lived in righteousness according to the Law and Philosophy, who had ended life not perfectly, but sinfully. . . .

If, then, the Lord descended to Hades for no other end but to preach the Gospel, as He did descend; it was either to preach the Gospel to all or to the Hebrews only. If, accordingly, to all, then all who believe shall be saved, although they may be of the Gentiles, on making their profession there; since God’s punishments are saving and disciplinary, leading to conversion, and choosing rather the repentance thorn the death of a sinner; and especially since souls, although darkened by passions, when released from their bodies, are able to perceive more clearly, because of their being no longer obstructed by the paltry flesh.

If, then, He preached only to the Jews, who wanted the knowledge and faith of the Saviour, it is plain that, since God is no respecter of persons, the apostles also, as here, so there preached the Gospel to those of the heathen who were ready for conversion. And it is well said by the Shepherd, “They went down with them therefore into the water, and again ascended. But these descended alive, and again ascended alive. But those who had fallen asleep, descended dead, but ascended alive.” . . .

One righteous man, then, differs not, as righteous, from another righteous man, whether he be of the Law or a Greek. For God is not only Lord of the Jews, but of all men, and more nearly the Father of those who know Him. For if to live well and according to the law is to live, also to live rationally according to the law is to live; and those who lived rightly before the Law were classed under faith, and judged to be righteous, — it is evident that those, too, who were outside of the Law, having lived rightly, in consequence of the peculiar’ nature of the voice, 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. . . .

So I think it is demonstrated that the God being good, and the Lord powerful, they save with a righteousness and equality which extend to all that turn to Him, whether here or elsewhere. For it is not here alone that the active power of God is beforehand, but it is everywhere and is always at work. . . . that they who heard and believed should be saved; and that those who believed not, after having heard, should bear witness, not having the excuse to allege, We have not heard.

What then? Did not the same dispensation obtain in Hades, so that even there, all the souls, on hearing the proclamation, might either exhibit repentance, or confess that their punishment was just, because they believed not? And it were the exercise of no ordinary arbitrariness, for those who had departed before the advent of the Lord (not having the Gospel preached to them, and having afforded no ground from themselves, in consequence of believing or not) to obtain either salvation or punishment. For it is not right that these should be condemned without trial, and that those alone who lived after the advent should have the advantage of the divine righteousness. But to all rational souls it was said from above, “Whatever one of you has done in ignorance, without clearly knowing God, if, on becoming conscious, he repent, all his sins will be forgiven him.” . . .

If, then, He preached the Gospel to those in the flesh that they might not be condemned unjustly, how is it conceivable that He did not for the same cause preach the Gospel to those who had departed this life before His advent?2

The Vision of the Redemption of the Dead

This language is almost identical to that of the vision of President Joseph F. Smith in his vision of the redemption of the dead in D&C 138:

And as I wondered, my eyes were opened, and my understanding quickened, 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,

And all other principles of the gospel that were necessary for them to know in order to qualify themselves that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.

And so it was made known among the dead, both small and great, the unrighteous as well as the faithful, that redemption had been wrought through the sacrifice of the Son of God upon the cross. (D&C 138:29–35)

I beheld that the faithful elders of this dispensation, when they depart from mortal life, continue their labors in the preaching of the gospel of repentance and redemption, through the sacrifice of the Only Begotten Son of God, among those who are in darkness and under the bondage of sin in the great world of the spirits of the dead.

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. (D&C 138:57–59)

(Continued in Part 3)

  1. Hugh Nibley, “Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times,” Mormonism and Early Christianity, 100-67, <>. []
  2. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 6.6, <>. []

One Trackback

  1. [...] to be very interesting and I just skimmed over it. Thank you. Do you have more articles? Baptism for the Dead: An Erroneous Practice? – Part 2 | – LDS Temple Study Blog – Su… Baptism for the Dead in Early Christianity Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times – Maxwell [...]

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *


Olark Livehelp