In LDS theology, there are certain ordinances that are required to progress; Baptism, Confirmation, The Initiatory (washing and anointing), The Endowment (covenants and instruction on how to enter God’s presence), and Sealing of family relationships to be not only for time but for eternity. Temples have been built, as a house for God, specifically to perform these ordinances for the living and dead. (Chapels, which are more common, are where we go for our weekly worship and learning.)
This is one of the reasons Mormons are heavily invested in genealogy and family history work. We believe that “. . . we without them cannot be made perfect; neither can they without us be made perfect.” (D&C 128:18). We believe this to be in accordance with Malachi 4:6 – “And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.” and 1 Corinthians 15:29 – “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?”. So we work to find our dead, that we can serve them by being proxy for them in obtaining these ordinances. This does not obligate them to accept these ordinances, but gives them the opportunity that they might have the choice available to them.
There have been a few arguments against the push for getting more work done. The best one I know of is wondering how we can assume our ancestors would desire these things, believing that we are dishonoring their memory and the lives they have lived or even died for their religion. This concern has brought about a policy that ask we only do work for those we are directly related to. We’ve also been asked that we take extra care in doing work for those who died in the Holocaust, being sure we are a direct descendant. I know of some people who had personal experience with some very bad, even evil behavior from a close relative, and have purposely left them out of their work, only to have it done my some other well meaning person. We do not know how the Atonement will be applied for anyone, but we can still show compassion for others by respecting these wishes.
The other common argument I see is wondering why spend so much time and effort to do this at all, since we will have the entire Millennial Age, when Christ comes again and personally reigns upon the Earth, to do it all. This one has given me much more to think about.
On one side of the complex where I live is a strip of land, about 3-4 feet wide and about 4-500 feet long. When we moved in, there were some awful overgrown bushes on it. These have since been removed and for the past two tears has been left a bit of a lumpy, somewhat weedy, mess. The Home Owners Association hasn’t had the funds to do anything with it, though there have been ideas on what they would like to do with it, such as cover it with gravel or some other cover. The problem is that before anything can be done, the ground has to be cleared and prepared for this.
So, I’ve started digging at it. I’m terribly out of shape, so I can only manage a few feet at a time. It’s going to take weeks if not months to get it done. It could be that someone will come in with some large power digger and do it easily in a day, but that doesn’t matter. As much as I’m doing this work to eventually benefit the community, I’m also doing this for my own benefit.
Temple Ordinance work for the dead is much the same. We gain a closeness to our ancestors by learning about their lives, sitting as proxy for something they cannot do themselves. We can be in symbiosis with our dead, both benefitting from this time we are essentially working together. Doing the work now, even if incomplete and potentially incorrect, also helps make these people more real to us. Is there anyone you can look in the eye now and say, “we’ll get to you eventually”? How would it feel to you to be passed off as one of the less important masses?
Why not wait ’til these people are resurrected and let them do their own work? Aside from strengthening the bond I mentioned before, I think that there is something about these mortal bodies, as opposed to the bodies these people will have when they are resurrected, that is needed for this work to be in effect. For some reason, whatever meta-physical reaction that happens that makes these Ordinances required cannot be done by those resurrected, but can be done, by proxy, by those living and have effect on those once dead. I’ve no idea why or how this is (we can’t even measure spirit and no resurrected person has submitted themselves for testing), but this makes sense to me.
So, in the Millennial Age, there is going to be a lot more demand for the living to do proxy work for the dead. We will have more than 12 Billion people to do the work for, with only the barest fraction done beforehand. The time to get started on this, even if we can only manage a tiny percentage, is now. They need us, and we, even with our modern sensibilities, blessings, and trials, certainly need them.