Mormons teach that all men, excepting those few who have understood and rejected Mormonism in this life, will be given a second opportunity in the world to come. The Bible, however, distinctly teaches that this life marks the limits of man's probation, and that there is no hope of securing salvation after death. Paul's impassioned plea, "Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation" (2 Cor. 6:2), loses its urgency if acceptance or rejection of Christ can be postponed until after death. The scriptural teaching that the judgment will concern things "done in the body" (2 Cor. 5:10) cannot be harmonized with a man deciding in favor of Christ in some disembodied state, for salvation would then be partially determined by deeds accomplished outside of mortality. The statement of Heb. 9;27, "As it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment; so Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many," similarly removes the possibility of an intervening probation between death and judgment. The eternal validity of Christ's once-for-all sacrifice is as sure as the fact of man's destiny being determined at death; one certainty is the guarantee of the other.
The parable of Lazarus and the rich man further illustrates the doctrine of man's probation being limited strictly to this life. Though the manifest intent of the parable is not to give detailed information about conditions in the next world, it clearly maintains that man's future destiny is determined by his conduct during life. When the beggar Lazarus died he was instantly transformed to heaven, where he enjoyed the comforts denied him in life. The rich man, who had passed his days without so much as a thought for the beggar sitting outside his doors, was immediately consigned to hades, which is pictured as a place of fire and unending torment. There he pleaded that Lazarus might be allowed to alleviate his suffering by bringing him a drop of water, but even this brief relief was denied him. He was told that the blessed cannot give solace to the damned even if they so desired, for there is an impassable chasm separating the two worlds. The rich man, finally realizing his hopeless position, asked that his living brothers might be warned "lest they also come into this place of torment." He was answered that they have sufficient opportunity for salvation in their present lives, and would not believe even if Lazarus were allowed to return from the dead. This confirms the Biblical teaching that the disposition of the soul is determined during this present probation, and that no amount of divine forbearance can change it.(1)
A further illustration of this same theme occurs in Mt. 25:1-13, where Christ's coming in judgment is symbolized by the parable of ten virgins. These ten virgins, representing the whole body of professing Christians, are divided into two classes: those who are at every moment prepared for Christ's coming, and those in whom this same moral preparedness is wanting. Because of Christ's delay in coming the ten virgins slumber, when suddenly they are startled awake by the cry, "Behold, the bridegroom cometh." The virgins hurredly prepare themselves, but some are found to have not prepared well for this crucial hour. They plead with the others for help, but since moral preparedness cannot be transferred from one person to another, they are refused. Frantically they rush about, trying to accomplish in the last moment what they should have done long before. They are, however, too late, for when they return they find the door shut. Crying out, "Lord, Lord, open to us," they are answered, "Verily I say unto you, I know you not." Even though they had repented of their foolishness and humbly sought entry, they were refused, for their days of probation had ended and they were found unprepared.
The silence of scripture provides still another argument against the reality of a second probation. If God had truly made provision for those who have died ignorant of his gospel, we should expect to find this wonderful knowledge clearly presented in the Bible. Not only would such a doctrine be of central importance in every statement of Cod's mercy and justice, but would form a substantial part of those myriad passages dealing with Christ's reconciling work, the universal judgment, and the world's salvation. It could hardly fail to be included in every mention of the heathen who die without knowledge of Christ, and would occupy a significant place in those sections dealing with the future states of the righteous and wicked. Instead of being unambiguously commended in scripture, however, the doctrine of a second probation is nowhere mentioned. The only passage which its advocates can adduce in its support is among the most obscure in all of scripture, and is capable of sustaining interpretations other than those favoring a second probation.
The passage in question is 1 Pet. 3:18-20,
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.
Even if it be granted that Peter was referring to an actual preaching of Christ in the realm of the dead, the text still does not confirm the existence of a universal probation after death. Peter, on the contrary, describes only a particular and limited probation offered to the sinners of Noah's time; he gives absolutely no indication that those living subsequent to the flood are to hope for a second opportunity of salvation. Peter also does not inform his readers of the result of Christ's preaching, nor whether it was a genuine offer of salvation or merely a proclamation of judgment. The most that can be established is that Christ appeared and spoke to the antediluvian sinners; anything else must be forcibly imposed upon the text from without.
There are a number of factors, however, which suggest an explanation of 1 Pet. 3:18-20 more in sympathy with New Testament thought generally. First, the word translated "spirits" is not the normal word for departed souls. Pneuma is generally used in the New Testament to designate supernatural beings, and in a significant number of instances refers specifically to demons. Second, the qualifying phrase "in prison" recalls the prison in which Satan is confined (Rev. 20:7), and the Jewish-Christian tradition that the fallen angels of Gen. 6 had been imprisoned in Tartarus (1 Enoch 20:2; 2 Pet. 2:4-5; Jude 6-7). Third, the phrase, "when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah," sets the time of the spirits' rebellion prior to the flood. This same identification occurs in 2 Pet. 2:4-5, where we are additionally informed that the errant spirits were not men but the "angels that sinned." These facts, taken together, constitute a strong argument in favor of the "spirits" of 1 Pet. 3:19 being fallen angels. Finally, the word "preached" should not be interpreted in the sense of making a positive offer of salvation. Had Peter's intention been to express Christ's evangelization of departed souls, a more appropriate word would have been euaggelizomai, "to proclaim glad tidings." Peter, however, chose to use kerusso, a word used in secular Greek to mean a public proclamation or announcement. The content of Christ's proclamation was his victorious conquest over the angelic powers. This is in accord not only with those passages which represent Christ as triumphing over his demonic adversaries (Col. 2:15; Phil. 2:10-11; Eph. 4:8-10), but is also sustained by the larger context of 1 Peter itself. The primary emphasis of Peter's first epistle is not upon the conversion of those who persecute Christians; stress is rather placed upon the final victory of Christians over their persecutors. Christ's victorious proclamation of Satan's defeat would therefore assure the readers of Peter's letter that they also would be victorious over their pagan adversaries. We read in 3:22, "[Christ] is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him."
Mormons object to this interpretation by referring to 1 Pet. 4:6, "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." Although this passage clearly states that the gospel was offered to those who are now physically dead, it does not thereby imply a connection with the events narrated in 3:18-20. Peter's use of the conjunction "for" at the beginning of 4:6 relates it not to the divine decensus of 3:19 but to the immediately preceding verses, where Peter speaks of the social ostracism accorded Christians because they no longer join their pagan neighbors in "lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries." Still another reason for distinguishing 4:6 from 3:18-20 is found in the phrase "the gospel preached." Linguistic considerations suggest that Christ was the object or subject of that preaching, not its originator as in 3:19. These differences strongly suggest that the two passages do not deal with the same event.
If there is no reason for linking 4:6 with 3:18-20, is it not possible that 4:6 refers to a post-mortem preaching of the gospel? Three reasons make this most unlikely. First, if Peter had intended to comfort his Christian audience with the thou~ht that pagans could be converted after death, it seems wonderfully strange that he should have also attempted to comfort them by strongly intimating that the condition of non-Christians precluded any possibility of their conversion after death (4:17-18). Second, with the possible exception of the text under consideration, there is no passage in the Bible which clearly teaches the doctrine of a second probation. On the contrary, there are many passages which seem to preclude such a possibility, which means that the consensus of scripture is in the main against the idea of the gospel being preached to dead men. Granting this presumption, it appears not unreasonable to require strict proof from those who find a second probation in 1 Pet. 4:6, and in the absence of such proof begin to explore other possibilities more in harmony with New Testament thought generally. Third, on the view that Peter was advocating a second probation in 4:6, it must be explained how such a digression conforms with the context of the passage. Peter was not discoursing on how God would deal with those who never heard the gospel preached during life but with those who scorned and rejected it during their earthly existence. Since Peter makes it clear that he could not be referring to these in 4:17-18, the only possibility left is that he was referring to those myriads who had died without knowledge of the gospel, but if this is so the passage is at best an unhelpful digression with little if any relationship to the immediate context and none whatever to Peter's purpose in writing the epistle. In the preceding section (4:3-5) Peter had contrasted two disparate ways of life, that of Christian unworldliness and that of pagan license, and found in that contrast a reason for popular resentment against Christians. This thought harmonizes perfectly with Peter's reason for writing the letter, which was to comfort and strengthen believers in the face of pagan derision and persecution. Given such a context, it would have been singularly inappropriate for Peter to suddenly introduce a statement about the gospel being preached to the dead, which not only disrupts the flow of his thought but introduces an idea without application to the needs of his readers.
If for these reasons it appears less than certain that Peter was teaching a second probation in 4:6, to what else could he have been referring? Unfortunately, this is one of those few places in the New Testament where the requirements of the Greek text are somewhat obscure, but in this instance the commentator is fortunate in having a firm and established context from which to interpret the verse. If we then read the passage in relationship to its context (4:2-5), the flow of Peter's thought would seem to move as follows: the Christian no longer lives, as he once did, in unrestrained license but according to the will of God. This their pagan neighbors cannot understand: sinful indulgence is for them a way of life, and they think it alien when their former companions now refuse to join them in their dissolute carousing. For this reason they revile Christians, but the time is coming when they shall have to explain their debauched way of life to God, who will someday judge the living and the dead. Then will the hope of the Christian be justified, even those who heard the gospel preached but have since died. They also, though condemned in the eyes of the world by death, have not believed in vain but will live forever with God in spirit.
Given the contextual needs of the passage, there is nothing strange about the interpretation: "For this is why Christ was preached to those who have since died...." The requirements of the Greek text are not antagonistic to such an explication, which has the additional merit of relating 4:6 to its greater context, the primary purpose of the epistle, and the New Testament generally. None of these benefits accrue to the Mormon explanation, which not only isolates 4:6 from its context and Peter's purpose in writing the letter, but makes him espouse a view specifically disallowed by other New Testament writers.(2)
In common with many other exponents of a second probation, Mormons argue that a future offer of salvation is necessary to preserve God's impartiality and justice, otherwise those countless thousands who had died ignorant of Christ could rightly charge him with prejudice. This argument, at first sight so reasonable and humanitarian, is based upon the thoroughly mistaken assumption that ignorance is excusable before God, a notion which the Bible unhesitatingly condemns. Paul, in Rom. 1:18-32, spoke of a primordial knowledge of God vouchsafed to all men. The revelation of creation and the workings of conscience alike testify of the existence, divinity, and power of God; yet men have voluntarily exchanged the truth of God for a lie. Their punishment for abandoning God was that he abandoned them, leaving them to sink ever deeper in the mire of idolatry and polytheism. No man, even the most benighted pagan, can therefore charge God with partiality, for his condemnation is the result of his own wilfull disobedience.
Paul further elaborated this same theme in Rom. 2:11-16, where he applied the principle of God's impartiality to the Gentile world. Unlike the Jews who believed that those outside Israel were without law, Paul argued that the Gentiles possess a natural law engraved upon their hearts. This law manifests itself in moral actions, the workings of conscience, and the subjective process of ethical discrimination, all known and evaluated by God. The universal awareness of moral obligation, Paul concluded, will be the means whereby the Gentile's judgment is either abated or aggravated. This same thought is expressed parabolically in Lk. 12:47-48, "And that servant, which knew his lord's will, ... shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes."
Consistent with this representation is Mt. 25:31-46, where Jesus pictured the nations of the world assembled together for judgment. The question of these nation's identity--whether they are exclusively pagan or composed of believers and unbelievers alike(3) -- is incidental to the primary theme of Jesus' discourse: the crucial test which determines a person's final destiny is his attitude toward his fellow men. There is an unconscious as well as conscious acceptance or rejection of Christ, and the pagan who refuses to acknowledge the moral duties of benevolence and love has rejected Christ just as effectively as if he had rejected the historic Jesus himself.(4) Every moral act is therefore a decision for or against Christ, and provides a legitimate basis upon which God can justly determine rewards and punishments. Taken together with Rom. 1:18-32 and 2:11-16; Mt. 25:31-46 clearly indicates that every man is afforded a sufficient opportunity for salvation during life, and that a second probation is necessary neither to vindicate the justice, mercy, or goodness of God.
Concomitant with the idea of a second probation is the Mormon belief in baptism for the dead. Based upon Paul's comment in 1 Cor. 15:29, "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?," the doctrine of proxy baptism has become a cardinal tenant of Mormonism, amounting at times to a virtual ancestral cult. "The greatest responsibility in this world," Joseph Smith once remarked, "is to seek after our dead," and on another occasion he observed that those who neglect the practice of vicarious baptism do so "at the peril of their own salvation."(5)
Granting that Paul may have been referring to a system of proxy baptism in 1 Cor. 15:29, it by no means follows from this that the Mormon doctrine is sustained by the Bible. The reasons for this are two: first, beyond Paul's brief and obscure allusion, there is absolutely nothing known about such a practice in the early church. Lacking this information, it is gratuitous to assume that the custom to which Paul alluded was equivolent to the Mormon doctrine. Second, while the possibility cannot be denied that proxy baptism was being practiced by certain Christians at Corinth in the first century A.D., it does not follow from Paul's comment that he necessarily approved the custom. Paul did not say, "what shall we do," as if he included himself among the advocates of necrobaptism, but "what shall they do," indicating that it was a practice with which he had no fellowship. This separation is further enforced in vs. 30, where "we also" appears in emphatic antithesis to the "they" of vs. 29. (6)
One objection frequently urged against this explanation is that Paul would never have mentioned proxy baptism did he not subscribe to it. This objection is fully answered by the following considerations. First, Paul frequently accommodated himself to practices with which he had no real sympathy, such as in his observances of the Jewish ceremonial laws. Second, the type of argument in which an opponent's assumptions are granted in order to demonstrate their irrationality is often employed by the apostle. Thus in Gal. 4:21 he addressed his judaizing opponents, "Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law?" and proceeded to show the illogic of their position from the law itself. Third, when Paul is concentrating on a particular topic he does not abandon it to comment on things incidental to his primary argument. In 1 Cor. 8:10, for instance, Paul mentioned those who "sit at meat in the idol's temple" without any condemnation of the act itself, yet he later spoke of those same persons as sitting at "the table of devils" (l0:21). (7)
The case against proxy baptism does not rest solely upon Paul's apparent disassociation of himself from the practice. Rather it rests upon the irreconcilability of such a custom with the tenor of Paul's entire theology. To suppose that Paul sanctioned vicarious baptism would stultify the fundamental Pauline dictum: faith is the sole prerequisite of salvation, not external rites or sacramental forms. It would deny the Biblical teaching that what a man has done and believed during life determines his condition after death, and would effectively contradict the New Testament view of the nature and efficacy of baptism. Nowhere is the practice of baptism presented as bestowing any magical benefit upon its recipients, but only as providing a symbol and outward seal of an inward and already accomplished reality. Proxy baptism would consequently have no more effect on the dead than did the Egyptian mortuary rites benefit those for whom they were intended.
Another objection to the apostolic validity of vicarious baptism concerns its absence from every portion of scripture excepting 1 Cor. 15:29. It is inconceivable that a doctrine of such central importance should be mentioned but once in the New Testament, and that only in passing. The Mormon explanation that things familiar are often assumed rather than asserted is manifestly inadequate, for it is precisely the most fundamental and familiar doctrines of scripture which are in fact the most widely attested. The doctrinal progression and inter-relatedness observable throughout the Bible, moreover, is notably lacking as regards any system of proxy baptism. It appears suddenly, without any prior intimation or preparation, and vanishes with equal abruptness, leaving only an obscure allusion to a practice which Paul may have tolerated but probably did not condone. To derive from this a dogma essential to salvation is fatal to any sound hermeneutic, and exalts imposition over exposition.
The entire disappearance of vicarious baptism from the early church, although similar observances no less objectionable soon appeared, provides another argument against its apostolic origin. The belief that the acts of the living could benefit the dead prevailed early in the church, and it is well known that the rite of baptism was increasingly invested with an almost magical efficacy. Had proxy baptism been sanctioned by the apostles, its compatabi1ity with these later developments would assure its rapid adoption by the church; yet it was never practiced except by certain sects condemned as heretical by the entire Christian community. Charles Hodge has suggested that the swift and complete disappearance of this custom from the orthodox church is probably to be explained by Paul having censured the practice upon his arrival at Corinth. This may be one of the things Paul intended to "set in order when I come" (1 Cor. l1:34). (8)
Still another objection to the Mormon explanation of 1 Cor. 15:29 is the vagueness of the allusion. While it is certainly possible that Paul was speaking of a vicarious baptism of the living on behalf of the dead, it is by no means certain that this is in fact the meaning of the text. Without knowing more about the situation existing at the time, it may be that Paul was referring to something wholly other than proxy baptism. It is possible, for example, that Paul was alluding to people who were sympathetic to Christianity but had postponed baptism until some Christian relation or friend had died, being then baptized out of respect or affection for the dead.(9) The fact that the grammatical and contextual needs of the passage do not rule out such an interpretation only demonstrates again the vagueness of the allusion, which may have been clear to Paul and the Corinthian Christians but bewildering to every subsequent reader. To erect a doctrine upon such a foundation and then call it "the burden of the scriptures" is as perverse as it is preposterous.(10)
Finally, the Mormon doctrine of vicarious baptism is utterly contrary to the Book of Mormon teaching concerning baptism. The word "baptize" and its cognates is used over 140 times in the Book of Mormon. Its nature, mode, and subjects are discussed at great length, but never in association with the dead. Indeed, the Book of Mormon teaches that the dead have no need of baptism, for they are judged without regard to the law.
For the power of redemption cometh on all them that have no law; wherefore, he that is not condemned, or he that is under no condemnation, cannot repent; and unto such baptism availeth nothing -- but it is mockery before God, denying the mercies of Christ, and the power of his Holy Spirit, and putting trust in dead works (Moroni 8:22-23, cf. 2 Nephi 9:25).
Another passage thought to advocate vicarious work for the dead is Mal. 4:5-6, "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse." Mormons believe that this prophecy was fulfilled when Elijah appeared to Joseph Smith and restored the key~ to temple ordinances for the dead. They specifically identify the "fathers" of Malachi's prophecy with the dead, and the "children" with the living who "seek out their genealogy so they can be baptized for their kindred dead."(11)
This is not an interpretation but a travesty. The passage simply means that one of Elijah's functions will be to reinstate proper moral relationships between fathers and sons. The situation presupposed is one of mutual antagonism between children and parents, such as occurred among the Jews when Greek thought collided with the established religion of Israel. Elijah will effect a reunion between families separated by opposing convictions, revive the parental love lost through moral degradation, and generally bring about a restoration of familial affection. Any other meaning cannot legitimately be deduced from either the words, grammar, or context of Mal. 4:5-6.
A consistent but wider application of this passage is found in Lk. 1:16-17, where Malachi's prediction is applied to the work and person of John the Baptist. "And many of the children of Israel shall be turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." Here we are expressly informed that John the Baptist was the object of Malachi's prophecy, and that his work was to reconcile parent and child, to convert the rebellious to the ways of the upright, and generally to prepare a people fit for the Lord. There is no hint of Elijah restoring temple ordinances for the dead, and no indication that the prediction extends beyond the preparatory work of the Baptist.(12) John, in Jesus' words, "is Elijah, which was for to come" (Mt. 11:14).
A final passage supposed to confirm the Mormon doctrine of vicarious work for the dead is Heb. 11:39-40. After a rehearsal of the great examples of faith in the Old Testament, the author of Hebrews wrote, "And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise; God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect." These concluding words are a summary of the entire eleventh chapter, but add the new thought that the full reward of the Old Testament saints was postponed until the advent of Christ. The reason for this deferment was because salvation in its fullest sense was unobtainable before the completion of Christ's work. The atonement, in Alford's words, "changed the estate of the Old Testament fathers and saints into greater and perfect bliss;...so that their perfection was dependent on our perfection: their and our perfection was all brought in at the same time, when Christ 'by one offering perfected forever those who are sanctified.'"(13) The thought of Heb. 11:39-40 is not one of cooperation between the living and the dead, but of the respective times of redemption between the Old and New Testament saints.
Click here for IX: The Book of Mormon
1. The Book of Mormon, in Alma 34:33-35, confirms this same teaching.
2. The above interpretation of 1 Pet. 3:18-20; 4:6 is defended at length by E. G. Selwyn, The First Epistle of St. Peter, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1947), 195-201, 214-216, 314-362; and W. J. Dalton, Christ's Proclamation to the Spirits (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1965).
3. The text itself indicates that the heathen nations were uppermost in Jesus' mind. Anything specifically applicable to Christians is absent from the passage, while the question asked by the righteous in vss. 37-39 presupposes, in A. H. McNeile's words, "that their kindnesses had been wrought with no reference to, or thought of, Christ, they did them not as Christians or to Christians." The Gospel According to St. Matthew (London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1915), 370.
4. James Denney, Studies in Theology (New York: Armstrong & Son, 1895), 243.
5. Smith, History of the Church 6:313; 4:426.
6. T. C. Edwards, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (New York: Armstrong & Son, 1886), 424.
7. Charles Hodge, An Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians (1857; reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1969), 337.
8. Ibid., cf. W. J. Conybeare and J. S. Howson, The Life and Epistles of St. Paul (reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964), 412-13.
9. A. Robertson and A. Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1914), 359-60.
10. Smith, History of the Church 4:426.
11. Richards, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, 171.
12. Mormons seek to find a double fulfillment of Malachi's words in Mt. 17:11, where Jesus apparently spoke of a future coming of Elijah. Closer attention to Jesus' words, however, reveal that he was teaching that Elijah had already come in the person of John the Baptist. The Scribal tradition stated in vs. 10 is in vs. 11 affirmed by Jesus as true, while in vss. 12-13 he states that this same prediction has already been fulfilled by the Baptist. Should Mormons still insist that Mt. 17:11 refers to an appearance of Elijah later than that of the Baptist, they are referred to Rev. 11:3-13, where John predicted the appearance of two witnesses who would appear in Jerusalem shortly before Christ's second coming. If this passage is literally interpreted, the imagery demands that we identify one of the prophets as Elijah, which would fulfill Mt. 17:11 and therefore make the Mormon application of the verse superfluous.
13. Henry Alford, The Greek Testament,. rev. by E. F. Harrison, 4 vols. (Chicago: Moody Press, l968), 4:234.