Misunderstanding leads to ignorance, rumors and even bigotry. The many misconceptions of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continue to be strung across the blogosphere and even national television. Among the lesser-known doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ, baptisms for the dead has been mischaracterized recently and taken out of context to marginalize the believers of Mormonism. In a poorly researched article, a well-known atheist recently described the belief as part of “the weird and sinister belief system of the LDS.” The casual observer may agree with this author if the doctrine is not understood. The following is a brief description of what Mormons believe in the context of baptisms for the dead.
Mormons believe that all men and women ever born on earth will live again and even be resurrected like Jesus Christ (Romans 6:5; Mosiah 6:18). We also believe that as resurrected beings, all men and women will be judged according to their works and live in a degree of glory for eternity (1Cor 15:35-44). After death and before judgment, there also exists a time when man’s spirit awaits judgment. It is during this time that Mormons believe everyone will be given the opportunity to hear the gospel (1Peter 4:6).
This unique doctrine illustrates the infinite justice and mercy of our Heavenly Father; the doctrine that regardless of circumstance on earth, the gospel will be preached to each soul so that each individual may accept or reject the message. This means any person in any time. People in China or Africa where Christianity has not been preached, great-great grandparents that never knew of Christ, every son or daughter of God will get to hear and chose the good news.
Like most Christians, Mormons believe there are certain earthly ordinances, like baptism, that must be performed in order to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Because the deceased await the day of judgment as spirits, those that have passed on cannot perform these ordinances for themselves. This is where Mormons follow the direction of Christ’s church as taught in the Bible by Paul and perform ordinances for those who could not and did not (1Cor 15:29).
Mormons absolutely do not believe that anyone is posthumously made a Mormon by virtue of performing the ordinance. In fact, we believe that the agency to choose that we possess here on earth will continue to exist in the eternities. This means that although a baptism may be performed in a Mormon temple for a certain ancestor, it is still up to that ancestor to decide and choose to accept the gospel.
There is nothing spooky about the ordinance. No graves are robbed and no cadavers are to be found on the premise of a Mormon temple. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints perform the baptism nearly identical to the way the ordinance is performed outside the temple. A living member stands as proxy for their ancestor that has passed on. We believe that the temple is a sacred place set aside to do work for the dead, and that is why the ordinance is not performed in the standard chapels or elsewhere.
Mormons don’t intend to offend anyone with their practice of baptizing the dead. They simply try to fulfill Elijah’s prophecy of turning "the heart of the children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6) by giving those that have passed an opportunity to know and accept the gospel of Jesus Christ.