Does the Bible Have a Loophole Passage for Getting to Heaven?
Without baptism, Dante and many modern evangelicals say, you can’t gain access to heaven, which means that you go to that other place. But maybe there’s a loophole.
Even if you’re not a Christian you probably know about baptism. Baptism, for every denomination, is the entrance point into Christianity. As Pope Francis said last September, the day of our baptism “is the day on which we were saved, it is the day on which we became children of God.” Without it, Dante and many modern evangelicals say, you can’t gain access to heaven, which means that you go to that other place. But maybe there’s a loophole.
Tucked away in one of the Bible’s most well-worn passages is a reference to “Baptism for the Dead.” In a passage about resurrection in 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul argues that of course people must have a bodily afterlife because if they don’t get resurrected why do people perform baptism for the dead? (1 Cor 15:29). Paul isn’t necessarily endorsing the position but his reference to the practice suggests that something curious was going on. Today “regular” baptism involves not just immersion in water or the trickling water on the forehead, but also some kind of assent or confession of belief. That assent is provided either by the person themselves or, if they are too young, by a child’s parents or godparents.
In the early church baptism was more exclusive. Admission into full participation in the Christian community entailed meeting some high standards and completing an initiation program known today as catechism. In the early church, the period of preparation was lengthy and required the modification of one’s lifestyle. Ideally a person would be admitted into full membership in the church after three years of preparation, an exorcism, and an all-night vigil. How does a dead person do any of this? Is it some kind of funerary ritual? An errant scene from Weekend at Bernie’s that ended up on the cutting room floor? It’s confusing.
Dave Lincicum, a professor at the University of Notre Dame told me, that 1 Corinthians 15 is the “lone sighting” of postmortem baptism in the New Testament. It has interpreters scratching their heads. The most likely option, said Lincicum, is that the passage refers to the vicarious baptism of a live Christian on behalf of those who had died. The reason it was performed, said Lincicum, is a desire to help loved ones: “Recent gentile converts taken with the early Jesus movement and its salvific benefits wanted to extend those perceived benefits to their dead family and friends and found a way to do that in being baptized on behalf of them.”
In a fascinating article on the subject published in Apocrypha, Lincicum argues that the second century text the Acts of Paul and Thecla contains an example of vicarious baptism. According to the story, Thecla, a respectably engaged aristocrat, falls for the mental charms and ascetic message of the comparably blue-collar Apostle Paul. In the story Thecla puts off her baptism until the last possible moment. She is sent to the arena at Antioch to die at the paws of wild beasts but baptizes herself in “the name of Jesus Christ” by diving into a pool of ravenous man-eating seals (why, yes, you did read that correctly and, yes, swimming with seals sounds like something VIPs do at SeaWorld. But I digress).
It’s clearly a scene of self-baptism, which ruffles the feathers of later generations of male commentators, but it may also be something else. Lincicum notes that the story is intermingled with that of a wealthy but righteous woman named Tryphaena, whose daughter Falconilla had died some time before. He told me that earlier in the story “Falconilla appeared to her mother in a dream and named Thecla as a substitute (‘in my place’).” The point was that Thecla would pray for Falconilla and Falconilla would hopefully be translated into the place of the righteous. “Tryphaena consented and confirmed that Thecla would be this substitute by calling her ‘my second child.’” Crucially though, we only learn that the prayer works after Thecla’s auto-baptism. It’s then that Tryphaena proclaims that her child lives. Of course, she does mean Thecla who miraculously exits the arena alive, but the story also suggests that the baptism works for Falconilla. You might call it a two-fer.
That someone would write this kind of story isn’t just a sign that people practiced baptism for the dead it also shows how beguiling the reference in 1 Corinthians was to even ancient readers. “The throwaway line about a 'baptism for the dead',” said Lincicum, “is begging for an apocryphal interpretation, and I think [the] author [of the Acts of Paul and Thecla] has given it just that - in a sense also taming it, by portraying it as an exceptional practice connected to the arena and martyrdom.”
Other than these somewhat exceptional examples we know a bit more about post-mortem baptism from the heresiologists who condemn it. Relatively quickly, baptism for the dead becomes stigmatized by the groups that become orthodox. They associate baptism with schismatic or heretical groups like the followers Montanus (a charismatic who practiced dream incubation and allowed women prophets), Marcion (a Roman teacher who did not use the Hebrew Bible), and Cerinthus (who believed that the resurrection would be a gastronomic and sexual orgy).
We don’t actually know if these groups did practice vicarious baptism for the dead, but the descriptions are eye-opening. John Chrysostom the Bishop of Antioch claims that when a catechumen died before receiving baptism the Marcionites would have a living person hide under the body and answer baptismal questions for the dead. They would subsequently be baptized on their behalf. This makes sense: if hiding under a dead body playing ventriloquist doesn’t make you want to take a bath, what will? His rough contemporary Filaster, Bishop of Brescia in Northern Italy, says that the Montanists didn’t practice vicarious baptism but instead baptized the dead directly. This sounds like a modified funeral ritual.
Taking an entirely different approach, Valentinian Gnostics apparently read 1 Cor. 15:29 as a reference to angels being baptized vicariously on our behalf so that we could become like angels through our own baptism. Most ancient interpreters, however, took the more mundane view that “Baptism of the Dead” is a reference to our own living-and-breathing but spiritually dead bodies, which become alive through baptism.
The only Christ-believing group to interpret 1 Corinthians 15 as a license to practice proxy baptism today is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormonism). In Mormon theology this baptism of the dead is understood as an act of love for deceased family members, but it does not necessarily confer salvation on the deceased. The dead person residing in spirit prison must consent to their baptism for it to be efficacious. The practice has not been without controversy as posthumous baptism is not limited to immediate family members. The practice of baptizing Holocaust victims drew wide ranging criticism in the 1990s and in 2012 the Church had to apologize when it was revealed that it had baptized Anne Frank.
Safeguards to prevent the posthumous baptism of Holocaust victims have been put in place, but it’s clear that young members of the Church in particular enjoy being baptized on behalf of history’s celebrities and celebrity adjacent. Marilyn Monroe, Carrie Fisher, the grandparents of Donald Trump and Steven Spielberg, and the mother of Queen Elizabeth II (and, presumably, now also Prince Philip) have all been baptized by proxy. Church authorities blocked attempts to baptize mass murderers Charles Manson and Stephen Paddock.
In mainstream Christianity, people usually only choose to skirt the rules about post-mortem baptism in the most heart-wrenching of circumstances. Stories about this often relate to the deaths of infants. A study of medieval miracle stories to do with pregnancy and childbirth described by medievalist Barbara Newman found that most prayers for stillborn children were for a baptismal reprieve rather than revivification. These miracles usually play by the book: The infant briefly opens its eyes, some water is splashed, a quick prayer delivered, and the child dies. Parents can take comfort in the knowledge that at least their child can go to heaven.
The tragic circumstances in which people perform baptism for the dead reveals its relatable central core: It’s about metabolizing grief. It not only reassures people that their deceased loved ones are spiritually safe it also helps assuage the helplessness of loss. After the death of a loved one, when all the funeral arrangements and rituals are complete, possession are packed away, and nothing but memories remain, there is nothing left to do. Baptizing loved ones provides a positive (if arguably heretical) outlet for those feelings of helplessness. It’s an active form of prayer that is psychically valuable for the living, if not the dead.