For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water…
…For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries. In all this, they are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excesses of dissipation, and they malign you; but they will give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God. (1 Peter 3:18-20; 4:3-6)
Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them? (1 Corinthians 15:29)
Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself; and He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment. (John 5:25-29)
This topic is a great place for us to begin this series, because it illustrates many of the problems associated with passages like these. For one thing, there is a heretical application for these verses that Joseph Smith has thrown into the mix. One might be nervous about raising the topic at all, worried about what the heterodox might do with it, or worried that people will raise their eyebrows, thinking that you don't know what you believe about some cultish doctrine, etc. A related concern is the fact that these verses have possible implications toward central tenets of the gospel.
Actually, I do know for certain what these verses do not say. They do not say that I can don my holy underwear and get saved for Grandma in her stead. They do not say that, no matter what you do with Jesus here on earth, you'll get to play in the postmortem bonus round and wind up in Heaven after all.
Now, here's where I wish to avoid the Hoover Hermeneutic. Having said what these passages do not say, I believe that I am under some obligation (whether I am capable of meeting the obligation satisfactorily or not) to assert something substantive that these verses do say. They all appear to be planks of an argument—to say something that God considered profound enough to include not merely as a parenthetical aside (which would be authoritative enough by itself) but as a fact to buttress some doctrinal or ethical argument.
The problem is, although I've considered several interpretive arguments by a wide spectrum of orthodox interpreters, I have not gained confidence in any particular approach to these passages. I'm inviting you to change that sad state of affairs. Tell me what these passages teach us about the relationship between the gospel and the dead. If I've already heard your approach and have questions about it, I'll shoot them back at you. We'll see what ensues.