I recently wrote a three-part series of posts (Part One linked here) on the Atonement of Jesus Christ in which I used some alternate metaphors to attempt to render acceptable to reason what seems like an absurd doctrine at the core of Christianity: that Jesus saved mankind and satisfied justice by taking our sins on himself. I would now like to address what is perhaps the next strangest doctrine, situated immediately next to the core: that baptism (a ritual dunking of the body) is not only a useful and instructive rite but actually essential for full participation in Jesus’s sacrifice and a necessary precondition for entering God’s kingdom–that it is, in a word, a salvific ordinance. The call of Christianity can be summed up as follows: Jesus has atoned for our sins; therefore repent and be baptised. The only part of the call that makes intuitive sense to a contemporary mind is the “repent” portion. Of course we should stop doing bad things and do good things. But what does the suffering of God or a dunk in water have to do with it?
In those essays on the Atonement and in this one on baptism, I rely on no scriptures outside the New Testament, because while as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints I accept additional scripture, I do not wish to invalidate my arguments with the portion of my audience that accepts only the Bible, and my subject matter does not require the use of additional scripture. Certainly any comprehensive treatment of the subject would require me to address all relevant sources, but what I have to say does not. Similarly, while I certainly believe in baptism by immersion, as my title suggests, the particular ideas of this essay do not depend on any particular mode of baptism, but rather with the problem of any human ritual having an eternal and indispensable significance.
The strangeness of the doctrine of baptism derives in part from the fact that, taking the Bible as true, both forgiveness of sins and reception of the Holy Ghost are clearly possible without baptism. Jesus forgives the sins of the paralytic let down through the roof (Luke 5) and the woman who washed his feet with her tears (Luke 7). He also gave authority to his apostles to remit or retain sins without apparent limitation (John 20:23). Luke 1-2 is marked by multiple instances of unbaptised individuals being moved upon by the Holy Ghost, including Anna, Simeon, Zacharias, and most importantly the fetal John the Baptist, of whom it was prophesied that he would be “filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb.” If unbaptised people can receive forgiveness of sins and be filled with the Holy Ghost, then how is baptism essential?
And yet the Lord’s words strongly indicate that it is essential. “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:16). “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38). Interestingly, none of these passages actually states expressly that baptism is essential, and they are the most strongly worded I can find in the Bible. John 3:5 says a man must be born of water to enter God’s kingdom, which has almost universally been interpreted to mean baptism, but there might be room for another interpretation. Mark 16:16 does not say “he that does not believe and receive baptism shall be damned.” Likewise Acts 2. Salvation and the gift of the Holy Ghost are promised to those who believe, repent, and receive baptism; but there is no clear and unambiguous promise that those who do not complete the last step will be damned. Baptism was clearly prescribed for converts, and it would be reading against the grain of the New Testament to say that baptism is inessential–but the text leaves at least a sliver of ambiguity on this point. Still, the overwhelming consensus of the Christian tradition is that baptism is essential.
Several of the church fathers (Augustine among them) taught that there was an exception for martyrs, who through martyrdom receive the baptism of blood. Others have argued for limited additional exceptions. But other than martyrs and the other few exceptions, if any, unbaptised people are consigned to hell according to most of the Christian tradition. The doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints makes baptism an absolute prerequisite for salvation in God’s kingdom in accordance with John 3:5, applying even to martyrs and pagans, but it mitigates the obvious unfairness of damning the vast majority of humanity by positing the possibility of post-mortal preaching to the spirits of the dead and their reception of the bodily ordinance even before resurrection (if they are willing) by means of vicarious baptism for the dead.
While this mitigates the unfairness, it does not eliminate it. Even with the doctrine of baptism for the dead, the souls of the vast majority of humanity are consigned to relative darkness for centuries, if not millenia, before they have any opportunity to receive baptism. And of course without the doctrine of baptism for the dead, the apparent unfairness is far more disturbing. Why should spiritual blessings be withheld for immense periods of time (if there is baptism for the dead) or for all eternity (if there is not) for lack of a physical act, particularly where the dead person is deprived of a body with which to perform the physical act before ever so much as hearing of baptism? Is it beyond God’s power to extend the blessings of forgiveness and of his Spirit until the ordinance is performed? As we have seen, the answer is no–and even if scripture were unclear, the soul’s indignant answer would be, as Paul puts it, “God forbid.” What, then, are we to make of Jesus’s teaching that a man must be born again of water or he cannot enter the kingdom of God?
I have no complete answer, but I think that attending to two distinctions is a good starting point. There are things that are in their very nature necessary to prepare us to be with God, such as loving the truth enough to come into the light and remain there even at the cost of confession and abandonment of sin. There are other things that are necessary to prepare us to be with God only because God has ordained them. This is the first distinction. The second is within the category of things necessary only because God has ordained them. Of these, some are in their very nature useful (albeit not inherently necessary) for our preparation to be with God. Devoting one in seven days to the things of God is by nature useful, although the precise formulation of one in seven days is doubtless not inherently essential. There are other things, such as baptism, that are a necessary preparation to be with God only because he has ordained them as signs of things that are essential.
Signs are in their very nature different from the thing they mean. A sign–such as a stop sign–is a thing, but its significance is the thing it means. We don’t usually think about a stop sign as a thing but as a direction: we automatically attend to its injunction without considering its actual presentation in the world as an octangular sheet of metal with red and white paint held up by a perforated metal post. It stands there as a command to be followed or at least nodded at by slowing the car to a walking pace. And there is no reason that the sign had to be octangular or primarily red. There is, in other words, a degree of arbitrariness in the connection between the thing itself (a “signifier” in the theoretical language of Saussure) and the thing meant (the “signified”). But to function well as signs, the signifier should have a uniform and simple presentation–in the case of stop signs, a red octagon–to be immediately recognizable without effort.
So with baptism. The physical act is a signifier. The thing signified is a commitment to discipleship and a reception of grace. There is a degree of arbitrariness in this sign: an alternative ritual can easily be imagined. For example, a person goes down into a crypt or other underground space wearing dirty clothes. The door is closed, leaving the person in complete darkness. The person turns on a dim light and changes into clean white clothes. A trumpet sounds and the door is reopened. The person emerges into the full light of the sun.
As suggested by the similarities of my hypothetical alternative ritual with baptism, the arbitrariness of baptism is not absolute–unlike the arbitrariness of most words, the sounds of which have absolutely no inherent connection to their meanings. Instead, the arbitrariness of baptism is more like the arbitrariness of an onomatopoeic animal sound: it mimics in a simplified, stylized fashion the thing it signifies, but the selection of the particular sound for that animal is still somewhat arbitrary. Horses don’t actually say “neigh.” In Japanese they apparently say “hihiin.” And baptismal water does not actually wash away sins. Only God does that, and he can do it without baptism. (Recall the lame man let down through the roof.)
The problem of baptism, then, is to figure out why God would inflexibly ordain a “mere” signifier as the particular sign he requires us to use to signify to each other and to him the inherently essential realities it somewhat arbitrarily represents. Deals can be made without handshakes, as good and fitting as a handshake is to seal a deal. Why does God require our covenant to be formalized with this particular “handshake”? If someone is committed to God, isn’t that more important than the sign? Wouldn’t God respect that commitment even without a formal ordinance? Isn’t the thing itself more important than the sign of the thing?
Well, yes–but there are good reasons to insist on the formality. For one thing, there would be huge problems for a church if there were no outward sign to mark the entrance of a new member of the covenant. And to serve this function well, the outward sign could only be a solemn ritual. No other kind of sign would be as fitting or as effective.
Beyond this pragmatic organizational function of baptism, people in loving relationships want to see the desires and intentions of the relationship embodied in language or other signs: dads want hugs from their kids, wives want poems or flowers or back massages from their husbands, and young lovers are incessantly discussing their relationship. Good parents institute rituals to embody and enact the love of the parent-child relationship: bedtime stories with snuggling; hand squeezes while standing in line; greeting and farewell rituals, even as simple as “have a good day.” Even preordained punishments are a ritual that embodies and enacts parental care. God is a good parent and he also has instituted rituals for a similar purpose, starting with baptism.
In addition to the pragmatic organizational and relational ritual functions of baptism, it serves as another kind of ritual–a coming of age commitment ritual. At least until recently, all societies (to the best of my knowledge) have had set rituals to clearly mark young people’s comings of age and/or assumptions of certain responsibilities. (We still have them (graduations, etc.), but their meanings are getting fuzzier as social expectations give way to individual choice and expression and as specific cultures are blended into a cosmopolitan muddle with few clear boundaries.) Wedding rituals may be the most pertinent as well as the easiest for contemporary people to appreciate: getting married even today remains more than a state of mind–specific words must be said (or at least specific meanings expressed), specific paperwork must be filled out, and specific actions are expected. The wedding rituals of every culture have been an intended part of the journey into adulthood and the assumption of responsibility towards the spouse, the society, and the generation to come. The ritual creates a set-apart point within time and space in which the assumption of solemn responsibilities can be appropriately marked. Common law marriage is also a possibility in some states, but whether a common law marriage exists is almost always ambiguous, and one inevitably wonders why the couple would not choose to formalize their union if they truly considered themselves married. The main possibilities are that the couple considers the cost of formalization too great or they have some moral or philosophical objection to formalization.
Baptism is a sort of betrothal ceremony, and it appears clear that there is no common law marriage within God’s kingdom. Our “marriage” to him requires the free offering of everything we have and are, but there can be no financial objection to formalizing our betrothal: baptism is free. And he does not consider his offer of betrothal to have been accepted until a person has complied with the clear mode of acceptance that he has laid out by commandment. God wants these relationships formalized–both human marriage and discipleship–because the formalization serves multiple important functions, including at least the ones I have so far mentioned: organizational clarity, love ritual, and coming-of-age/commitment ritual.
None of these three functions makes a lot of sense outside the concept of a covenant community. If God and the soul to be saved were alone in the universe, or if the covenant community were not a critical part of the homeward journey, then there would be no need for the appropriately solemn marking of the entry of a soul into the community, and the love and commitment of the God/soul relationship could be expressed exclusively through more personalized actions. The same goes for marriage rituals. Ritual makes sense only within community. That baptism is mandatory at least suggests and perhaps proves that the community of discipleship is essential. We are saved and exalted together or not at all. God’s church is the necessary vehicle of his grace and our growth. The church is where we do not earn heaven, but rather learn heaven. Our heavenly betrothal entails an earthly fellowship: “Thee lift me and I’ll lift thee, and we’ll ascend together.” And perhaps it is not so much that we will all someday enter heaven as that our fellowship with each other and with God will deepen and blossom until it becomes heaven. And surely the sincere disciple at the beginning of his communal journey can have no objection to complying with the ordained mode of formalizing his commitment.
While the organization and edification of the new member and of God’s church together is enough by itself to justify God’s baptism mandate, it is also possible that the ordinance relates directly to God’s heavenly kingdom (as opposed to relating only to his earthly kingdom, the church). If His heavenly kingdom is a kingdom in a more than metaphorical sense, then this could mean a social organization that includes among its members non-omnipotent spirits who perhaps, unlike the King himself, still cannot always directly perceive the essential realities and must rely on signs. And even if signs are not actually necessary for communication and organization in such a society, there is no reason that physical ordinances could not be engaged in for worship–for the glory and beauty and joy of heavenly celebration. Whether or not this is so, certainly the baptism of a new convert on earth marks that soul’s entry into the celebratory community–those who are (or who are striving to be) freed from the crushing weight of self-concern and lust and pride and guilt and able therefore to expand and fill their lungs with the pure air of creation to join in the chorus of Hosannas and Hallelujahs.
The foregoing reasons to my mind satisfactorily explain why God‘s wisdom might dictate that a ritual be mandatorily performed. But they do not fully address the problem of a person who is not aware of the mandate. Suppose there is a morally upright, God-fearing pagan—Zoroaster or Confucius, or one of the millions of people whose names are forgotten to history who went about attempting to do and be good and love truth. They live out their lives without hearing of any such thing as baptism, but what means they have of expressing their highest commitments they use. There may be some other ritual washing or re-clothing ordinance within the religion of their time and place. Is it just for God to have no respect to their offering, as to the offering of Cain?
With regard to this final problem, I will only say that in my opinion we as yet have very incomplete information (a fact also true of the Cain and Abel story). We know that God is just and merciful, that he marks the fall of every sparrow and has care for each one of his children. We also know that Time is perceived very differently by him. (“And behold, I come quickly,” he said, two millenia ago.) But we know very little and perhaps do not understand what we think we know about how human spirits are organized in the next world. It seems only reasonable to assume that there are means by which God’s blessings continue to be administered to the fullest extent consistent with justice and mercy–i.e., with each choice in a lifetime of choices bearing its full weight of meaning but God willing to intervene when love dictates. That may still mean that there is a long and slow journey for many of his children from relative darkness to relative light. And it may make very little difference to God if the journey lasts 50 years or 50 million years. There may be periods, even long periods, in which God’s love dictates that numbers of his children are to proceed within the world of spirits with what little light they have for a long time before finally bestowing more. It may be that the souls of the unbaptised who died without a full and fair opportunity for baptism are for reasons as yet unknown made to wait almost the whole course of human history before they get their chance–and I suppose it would be fruitless to speculate about what their existence is like in the meanwhile, or how God’s love is manifest in their unimaginable contexts. We deduce that it must in every context be manifested, in some sense, completely–as inconsistent as that sometimes seems with observed conditions. This apparent inconsistency is called the “Problem of Evil”–a subject for another essay perhaps someday.
But I find it absolutely incompatible with what Christianity reveals about the character of God to believe that any soul should be eternally cast off that has not yet rejected the ordinances God has mandated with full comprehension of what that choice means. I know that many, if not most, of my fellow Christians may disagree, as they are free to do, and as their theology may dictate. But I personally feel sure that no blessing will ultimately be withheld that any of his children are willing to receive–or can be made willing to receive, if need be, by the very pangs of hell. As George MacDonald put it, “Because God is so altogether alien to wrong, because it is to him a heart-pain and trouble that one of his little ones should do the evil thing, there is, I believe, no extreme of suffering to which, for the sake of destroying the evil thing in them, he would not subject them. A man might flatter, or bribe, or coax a tyrant; but there is no refuge from the love of God; that love will, for very love, insist upon the uttermost farthing.” And I would urge that if the merciful, all embracing love of the father of spirits seems, upon mature consideration, to be inconsistent with a theological stance, then the next step should be to consider whether that stance is truly mandated by what God has clearly revealed. I would also urge that eternal damnation for all who at death are unbaptised is not clearly revealed in the Bible: it can be intelligently read to support my view–and has been so read by many, including universalist-leaning Christians of various stripes, of whom George MacDonald is foremost in my mind. I cannot imagine any honest person who has read Unspoken Sermons with an open mind concluding that George MacDonald is not an intelligent reader of the Bible–and he believes that, in the end, every one of God’s children will probably be saved–an extreme to which my own theology does not quite permit me to go, but to which I could perhaps go if I did not accept additional scripture beyond the Bible.
- Although baptism is a “mere”ritual, it is essential to mark the beginning of discipleship. It is essential only because God has mandated it as a sign. The sign functions as the first formal act of obedience as well as serving several practical and spiritual functions:
- It defines membership in the church.
- It ritualizes the soul’s reliance upon God’s river-like love and grace.
- As a betrothal ceremony, it enacts the soul’s commitment to follow Jesus through suffering and death and resurrection to heaven.
- Baptism, like any other ritual, makes sense only within the context of a community. The essentialness of baptism therefore proves, or at least suggests, the essentialness of community in God’s plan for us. It may be that the covenant community does not enter heaven some glorious future day so much as become heaven over the course of a glorious future.
- While Baptism is clearly mandated for all converts to Christianity, the Bible is unclear about God’s intentions for the multitudes of his children who died without baptism. Insofar as the “glad tidings” are to “all people” (Luke 2:10) and God is the Father of all spirits (see Hebrews 12:9), it seems only reasonable to believe that God’s blessings and fellowship will be fully offered to every soul in God’s own time and that only those souls who insistently reject his fellowship will remain forever in darkness.
How can dunking a body in water save a soul? It can’t–but the dunk is nonetheless essential for all who know of the commandment. “Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).