According to the Fox News website, back in July 2010, a group of American atheists held a “de-baptismal” service. Edwin Kagin, the atheist presiding over this ceremony, “blasted his fellow nonbelievers with . . . [a] hair dryer to symbolically dry up the holy water sprinkled on their heads in days past.”
Kagin, whose personal website is full of anti-God activism, believes that parents are wrong to baptise their children when they’re little and unable to make an informed decision for themselves. According to the article, Kagin even describes infant baptism as “child abuse”.
One atheist at the gathering said his mother told him that at his infant baptism he “screamed like a banshee . . . so you can see as a young child I didn’t want to be baptised. It’s not fair. I was born atheist and they were forcing me to become Catholic.”
It makes one wonder if, as a child, he ever cried while his parents “forced” him to eat, sleep, or use the toilet, but, digressions aside, the point seems to be that the unbelievers were upset over a baptism they couldn’t choose for themselves.
Some friends of mine had an experience a few years ago with a Christian evangelist who came to the boarding school where they worked. Various faiths were represented at this school— the children’s parents had entrusted their offspring to a caring staff for character development and academic growth.
The evangelist who showed up for the school-sponsored spiritual activity became pushy and underhanded in his methodology. To my friends’ chagrin, he not only put the children on a guilt trip in his effort to get them converted but baptised several children of different faiths without consulting their parents.
Needless to say, the parents were not overjoyed at their children’s newfound faith! They sent emails and letters and made phone calls to the school, complaining about their children’s baptism. They didn’t de-baptise their children with a hair dryer, but they felt just as much angst as the angry atheist.
While I don’t generally side with people like Kagin, and while I think the hair dryer ceremony was a bit juvenile, I do agree with him that baptising people before they can make a decision for themselves isn’t the right thing to do—not because it’s abusive, but because it isn’t biblical. Infant baptism is usually done by sprinkling water on the baby. However, there’s no biblical support for baptising someone as young as a baby, because babies can’t make informed decisions.
The very word in Greek, baptismos, from which we get our English word baptism, means “to immerse”. And in the two primary stories about baptism—the baptism of Jesus and Philip’s baptism of an Ethiopian man in Acts 8:36–40, both candidates were old enough to make an informed decision.
We read that “as soon as Jesus was baptised, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:16, 17).
Historians date Jesus’ baptism to when He was about 30 years old, which is a lot older than many adults who get baptised today. The New Testament records Jesus as a boy spending time in the temple, asking questions about the Bible. Jesus had a spirit of exploration and He grew in wisdom (Luke 2:52). So, obviously, by the time He was 30, He was well informed about the Bible.
When Jesus commissioned His followers to evangelise the entire world, He told them to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19, 20, italics added).
The key concepts here are to make disciples, teach them and baptise them. You can’t be anyone’s disciple or be taught without some kind of study. Not only did Jesus clarify that discipling involves “teaching,” but He went on to include in the curriculum “all” that He had commanded. Considering that people are still doing doctoral dissertations on what Jesus said, there’s a lot to be taught and learned as one contemplates baptism!
"Baptism requires an informed decision by someone who consciously wants to commit his or her life to Jesus."
We don’t need to know everything—no-one ever will—but we must at least have a basic understanding about what a relationship with Jesus involves.
The method of baptism
The story in Acts 8 further highlights how a “believer’s baptism” is to be carried out. Following the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the early Christian leader Philip was on a desert road one day when he met an Ethiopian who was reading the book of Isaiah. Acts says the Ethiopian was reading the passage that says, “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth” (Acts 8:32, 33).
This man, like so many others, puzzled over what these words meant. So he asked Philip, “ ‘Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?’ Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus” (verses 34, 35). Upon learning who Jesus was, the Ethiopian requested baptism. The Bible says that Philip took him down to a body of water, and they both “went down into the water and Philip baptised him” and then they “came up out of the water” (verses 38, 39). The obvious meaning is that Philip baptised this man by dipping him under the water.
While the Bible shares stories of a baby being dedicated to the Lord (for example, Luke 2:22–24), baptism requires an informed decision by someone who consciously wants to commit his or her life to Jesus.
Before we buy cars, we research makes, models and fuel economy. Before we buy houses, we get a comparative market analysis, examine loan options and talk to the neighbours. In the same way, before we decide what faith we want to be baptised into, we need to spend some time exploring what we are committing to.
It’s sad that we spend so much time researching items that last a few years and so little time on truths that impact our eternal destiny!
The irony about Kagin is that his own son is a fundamentalist Christian pastor! The reason he gives for abandoning the lack of faith of his father is that he has experienced “a personal revelation in Jesus Christ”.
The goal of all study of the Bible is to have a personal revelation of Jesus Christ. So whether you’re a born again Christian or someone searching to discover the meaning of Christianity, study diligently. And when God impresses you to be baptised, that is the time to make a commitment.
A short history of baptism
In the century before Christ, Jews began to practise ceremonial washing, including full immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath), to purify after menstruation or intercourse and to signify conversion to Judaism.
In 27 AD, John the Baptist began baptising people in the Jordan River as a sign of their repentance. Jesus’ disciples continued this practice.
From the 3rd century, it became customary for the infant children of Christian believers to be baptised. Parents wanted to secure their child’s salvation early.
The early Muslims of the 7th century, neighbours of Christians and Jews, began to practice ritual washing, including immersion, before prayer.
Some time between the 7th and 17th century, Hindus began ritual bathing festivals at the Ganges and other holy rivers, believing the waters wash away sins. These 12-yearly events are the world’s largest religious gatherings.
From the 8th century, the Roman church allowed sprinkling or pouring baptism. Orthodox churches continued with immersion.
In the 1500s, Anabaptists criticised infant baptism as unbiblical. Instead they practised “believer’s baptism”; that is, when the candidate is old enough to understand and consent. The baptism was by pouring. Thousands of Anabaptists were tortured and killed for their “radicalism” by both Protestant and Catholic governments.
The rise of the Baptists in the 1600s heralded the return of believer’s baptism by full immersion. Today, many Christians—evangelical, Pentecostal and Seventh-day Adventist—follow the same practice, convicted that this is the original, biblical mode of baptism.