Thursday, August 9, 2012

On the matter of Baptism for the Dead - Harrowing of Hell

Up till yesterday, I haven't been able to see the value in the LDS practice of Baptism for the Dead, and in trying to learn how it figures so largely in the temple work, up to this point I have seen the one reference in the New Testament whereby Paul speaking to the Corinthians calls into comparison the practice of baptism for the dead, making the fact that such a ritual was a norm in that time and place apparent.   I thought it peculiar that an entire practice in these modern times could be based on a ritual of antiquity based on a quick reference verse in NT bible.  In my mind there was not strong enough reason for me to wish to involve myself in the practice, while respecting that the rite meant a great deal to the members who did observe it.

Another non-compelling reason for me to wish to include the 'temple experiences' as part of my own experience in Mormon faith practices.  Already on my list of not sure I even want to experience the temple is the compelling reason that the Church requires one to go through a temple recommend interview with the Bishop of the Ward.  Condition of being eligible to go into the temple is what is called being worthy.  Seriously objecting to that word and what it conveys, I was already greatly put off inasmuch as if a member is not considered 'worthy' then that may well mean the member is 'unworthy'.  I don't like the psychological messages that puts into people's minds.  As humans, it seems to me, we already have enough of a struggle in finding our worth without another condition being set upon us as in temple worthy or temple unworthy. I don't like how it feels to me.  An extension of the worthy concept as defined by the LDS Church includes a requirement to pay tithing.  That is another thought for another time, and to wrap it up, I don't like the idea of an enforced tithing as the means of contribution to the needs of the Church.

Enter Hugh W. Nibley with his thoughts on the matter, published in a transcript (online here) 'Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times' at Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship (a BYU component) with an in depth look at the practice.  I'm so ready to resist and as I continue to read encounter concepts familiar to me that I am hooked into reading the rest of the article, getting only about half way through it and I stop to tell my husband of my find, asking him if he knows much about Hugh Nibley, and suggesting to him that if he hasn't read this particular article, he might be interested in reading it given some of the concepts we have explored together in other venues.

What would that be?

-- mention of a Coptic papyrus found in 1895, purported to be account of teaching of Christ to his apostles after the resurrection in salvation for the dead.

-- mention of names familiar to me as early Christian scholars; Justin (a Christian convert), Clement of Alexandria, Ignatius, Irenaeus, Tertullian, St Augustine; Origen, Plato

-- involving people of the bible; Peter (of the Disciples); Matthew, Luke, Mark (of the NT); James; John; Moses; Elias; Abraham, Issac, Jacob, John the Baptist;

-- mention of concepts familiar to me; Gates of Hell; Satan; Devil; Prince of this world; medieval Easter Drama with Satan and Death; underworld; God as a Cloud; Nicaea; Nicene Creed;  Hades; Dante's Inferno (depiction of his concept of Hell); ransom; Jesus destroying death (or Death); apocryphal books (Apocrypha); gnosis; apostolic times; Apostles Creed

There is no need to reinterpret what Nibley has already put to word and reader can read the article (already linked above).   What this new way of looking at that which I disavowed has alerted me to a deeper exploration.  I am mindful of the young missionary who pointed out verses in New Testament of the renting of the veil upon death of Jesus on the cross and His descending into hell before ascending (harrowing of hell).

Today then upon further examination, I encountered NT verses actually using the term 'spirit prison' - a term used in LDS teachings that I have not heard in any of my other spiritual affiliations.  See NT- 1 Peter 3:19-20 and then see 1 Peter 4:6 and Ephesians 4: 8-10 and OT - Isaiah 24:21-22. 

Given that there is a fullness of body of beliefs predating the formation of the religion of Joseph Smith, it is not a belief that I would wish to discard without giving attention to it's formation and application.  And in that regard as I take off my holding shelf a look at the concept of baptism for the dead, I come to appreciate why it might be revered as biblical, as a practice that did occur and as something I deem worthy of further exploration on my part.

In appreciated respect for the artists of the antiquities portrayals of the Harrowing of Hell, iconography of the same, and how art influences my mind, it seems there is a chunk of early Christian history absent of my understanding.  Ahhh, the humility of it all.  And perhaps that is the holiness that comes down to incarnate in humankind in bringing each of us a deeply needed sense of humility at what we do not know, cannot know, and yet know we do not know.

link - slideshow with many images of Harrowing of Hell

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