But baptism for the dead is a central tenet of Mormonism. We can and should defend it better.
Baptism for the dead is the most remarkable theological innovation of any Christian church of the 19th century. It stands as a rebuke to the most offensive of Christian heresies: the heresy of geographic salvation. Every Christian faith, every denomination, Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox, Armenian and Coptic, Arian and Athanasian, Huegenot and Anabaptist, all of them, without exception have in their history--in their recent history--the preposterous absurdity of believing that a loving God would condemn most of His children to eternal torment based solely on the land in which they were born.
And the logic's compelling. If salvation is found only in Christ Jesus and Him crucified, if you must be born of the water and the spirit to be saved, if God really did so love the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life, if that's true, then most of the people born on earth must therefore perish, solely and entirely because of where they happen to have been born. John 3:16 is a glorious scripture, but it also implies inevitably that God loved His Europeans, and for centuries, basically not anybody else.
That particular heresy was more implied than explicitly stated, but its logic is so inescapable, it led to three great Christian responses. Over millennia, Christian missionaries risked their lives to preach in China and Africa and India. That's one response, and we must honor their sacrifices, while acknowledging the fruitless inadequacy of most of their efforts. The second response: violent ethnocentrism, colonialism, wars of conversion, crusades.
But the third response is to enshrine theologically the inevitable absurdity of this heresy, and make it central to Christian faith. The third response has been, historically, the doctrine of predestination. Since God decides where His children will be born, it follows He must love some of us better than others. Or, perhaps, our own inherent sinfulness requires Him to hate us all equally, extending His divine grace to a few, arbitrarily Chosen. Nobody believes that anymore--the whole Christian world believed it for centuries.
Joseph Smith jettisoned the entire superstructure--predestination and geographic salvation and the need for Crusades, all of it, gone. He replaced it with a radical extension of salvic opportunity--extending missionary efforts beyond the grave. And also including, no, requiring, baptism for the dead.
I remember one time, when I worked at a pizza parlor, part of an assembly line laying down sausage with two philosophy majors. The work was mindless--the conversation anything but. One day, one of them asked about the Granite Mountain Record Vault--that repository of geneological records maintained by the Church. "What's in there?" he asked. "Like, paintings, poetry, philosophy? Collected works of Kant, that kind of thing?" He was taken aback, and a bit offended, when I told him we collected names. The goal--the quixotically impossible, gloriously crazy goal--was to collect information about every human being who ever lived on this planet. "Why?" my friend asked, astounded. Why indeed?
Because God wants those people remembered.
I know it can seem comically bureaucratic. God says everyone has to be baptized, so by golly, we're gonna do our best to baptize 'em; they're free to reject it in the afterlife if it's not what they want. But it's part of a larger vision.
Check this out: 2 Nephi 29: 10-11 "Wherefore, because that ye have a Bible ye need not suppose that it contains all my words; neither need ye suppose that I have not caused more to be written.
For I command men, both in the east and in the west, and in the north, and in the south, and in the islands of the sea, that they shall write the words which I speak unto them; for out of the words which shall be written I will judge the world, every man according to their works, according to that which is written."
What does this mean? It means Mohammed really was a prophet. Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu. It means God has spoken to every culture, in their language. And it means salvation, eternal salvation, is as much about what we do as what we believe. It means Jesus wasn't kidding about the Sermon on the Mount. Belief isn't enough; isn't even, probably, all that important. We're supposed to love and serve our brothers and sisters.
Joseph Smith was way ahead of the conversation--you'd be hard-pressed to find a prominent Christian preacher today who thinks Chinese peasants are condemned to Hell, or that our actions don't matter. Or even that Hell exists. That's basically what Rick Warren's talking about, or T.J. Jakes, or Jim Wallis, or David Jeremiah. I imagine they think baptism for the dead's pretty squirrelly (1 Cor. 15:29 notwithstanding), but they don't actually have a better solution to the problem of geographic salvation than a generalized 'I'm sure God will take care of those people.'
Well, that's what we're doing. That's what our temples stand for, that's what they mean. "A great welding link between dispensations" said Joseph Smith. Hearts of children turned to their fathers. God loves all His children, all of them personally, all of them, by name. He wants us to feel that love, to practice it, to implement some part of it in our lives.
So we baptize.