Answering Difficult Bible Questions

Baptism for the dead: What did Paul mean by this in 1 Corinthians 15:29?

Explain 1 Corinthians 15:29. What is meant by the phrase, “baptism for the dead?”

Explanations it cannot be

This text has been considered by many scholars and commentators as one of the hardest passages to interpret without violating other passages of scripture. Mike Willis stated in his commentary that he has read more than 40 different positions with regard to this text. So we must understand that we cannot go into this text lightly as we try to come to an understanding. One of the easier things to do with the text is define what it could not be referring to. By doing this we can narrow our focus and begin to look at plausible explanations for this text.

Mormon teaching

Mormonism teaches that the living are to be baptized for those who are dead, so they can accept the vicarious baptism in the spirit world. This is the biggest religious group that you will come across that will teach this view point. This is why they spend much time in genealogies so that they can look back and try to save those in their families who have already died that may not be saved. It is interesting that the Book of Mormon itself does not teach the baptism for the dead. In fact, the book of Mormon teaches the opposite that only the time in this life is given to repent and prepare to meet God. But in the book Doctrine and Covenants Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion claimed to receive a revelation that they should be baptized for the dead. This comes from his idea that “it is an unthinkable and immoral doctrine to admit that all those men who died or who will die without baptism are damned forever.” But the ability to baptize for those who have already died violates many biblical passages and biblical principles.

Reasons against baptism for the dead:

Luke 16: Rich man and Lazarus. Abraham clearly told the rich man that there is a great gulf fixed between the two of them and no one can pass between the two. Abraham did not say that there would be a possibility that he could be with Abraham if one of his brothers performed baptism for him. We also see from the story here that there are no second chances once we die. Both the rich man and Lazarus destinations were sealed based upon how they had lived.

Matthew 28:19-20 & Mark 16:16: The great commission. In considering the possibility of baptism for the dead, we must look at the great commission given by Jesus and what he instructed toward baptism. Jesus, in the Matthew account, said, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing 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. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Here we see disciples were made not only by baptizing, but teaching them to obey everything. The dead cannot obey and therefore cannot become disciples. Consider also the account of Mark, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” Belief is a necessary part of salvation. Those who do not believe will be condemned. Those who did not become Christians did not believe and are condemned. Peter in Acts 2:38 said repentance is necessary. We are not saved today by baptism alone, nor can the dead be saved by baptism alone. Confession, belief, repentance, and faithful living are all required for God to grant us salvation. The dead cannot do these things and therefore cannot be saved once they are dead.

2 Corinthians 5:10: Judged by our own deeds. Notice what Paul said to the same people the Corinthians in his second letter. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” By what will we receive our judgment? According to the things done in the body, according to what each person has done. It is not by the things that occur once we are dead. It is not according to what others have done for us. We are judged only by our own works that we did while we were alive on the earth.

Logic: can the reverse occur? If it is possible for people to be baptized for those who have died, then can the reverse occur? Can you do something to reject Christ for someone else? If I die saved, can someone in the future do something to reject Christ for me? Another thought: why must we wait for them to die? Why can we not start baptizing for people who are alive if salvation is something that can be transferred? I believe the problems can be seen. Our works determine our own spiritual eternity, not someone else’s works. Where is the incentive to be obedient to the Lord now? Why not do what you want and leave in your will for someone to get baptized for you? We have no example of this occurring. We see that simply taking the phrase at face value and suggest that baptism for the dead occurs and that is viable. So we must look for another alternative for what Paul is describing here.

Understanding the Passage

Determine the context

The first critical thing that we must do when studying any passage of scripture, but especially when we are dealing with a difficult passage to interpret. Let us look at the context of Paul’s teaching and this will help us weed out what the text cannot be talking about and clue us in as to what the text is about. Notice that this chapter is about proving the resurrection of Christ. Some in Corinth seem to have thought that there was no resurrection of the dead and possibly went so far as to think that Christ did not raise from the dead. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 is going to make arguments to prove that Christ did in fact raise from the dead.

Eyewitness accounts. The first proof that Paul gives is in the first 11 verses of chapter 15. Here Paul says that we have eyewitness accounts of the resurrection of Christ. Christ appeared to Peter, then to the twelve apostles, to more than 500 brethren, James, then to all of the apostles, and to Paul himself. This is proof number one that Christ did raise from the dead.

No reason for faith.Paul’s second argument for the resurrection is in verses 12-19 that if there is no resurrection, then Christ did not raise, our faith is vain, they are all false witnesses, and we are still in our sins. So from the fact that we have hope in Christ is an argument that Christ did raise from the dead and thus we will as well.

Resurrection when all things in subjection.Paul then goes on to explain to the Corinthians when the resurrection will be. The resurrection of the dead came through Christ and will occur when all enemies are abolished, the last enemy being death.

Now verse 29, however we choose to understand this verse, must be in connection with this section of text. The verse is an extension of the argument and further proof of when the resurrection will be and that there is a resurrection of the dead. With this in mind, let us consider a few possible interpretation of this text. Important also to note, especially for those who know some Greek, that the word “for” in the Greek in verse is the word huper and not eis. This word can mean “over, above, for the sake of, on behalf of, with a view toward, with reference to.” It is not like the word eis which is for as in Acts 2:38 for the forgiveness of sins.

Possible understandings

Baptism frees us from the fear of death: This position goes like this: one of the reasons man is baptized is because of his fear of death and the retribution that awaits him beyond the grave. The person who is obedient to the gospel responds because of his fear of the judgment to come (Acts 17:30-31). This has possibilities to it but not one that I accept.

Baptism over the sepulchers of martyrs: This theory supposes that the early church was forced to baptize their converts in the burial tombs of intense persecution. This takes that word for (huper) literally, that they were baptized above the tombs. Scholars note that there is no historical foundation for this theory. We do not read of this occurring in history, nor do we read of a persecution in Corinth yet at this time.

Baptism received on account of the dead: This theory states that a plague of some sort had broken out in Corinth that was killing many. Supposedly, some who were had previously delayed being baptized decided to be baptized for fear of death. But the problem is again that this is supposition and there is no historical reason to believe that a plague was in progress in Corinth.

My understanding of the text

Why be baptized if there is no resurrection?

The argument could thus be summarized. “If the dead do not rise at all, why then are new converts, who one day will die, baptized?” Why be baptized if there is no resurrection? Paul in Romans 6:3-9 explains the symbolism and the reason behind baptism. When we are baptized, we are baptized into Christ’s death. But this is a view toward being raised from the dead to walk in newness of life. If there is no raising of the dead, there is no newness of life, and then there is no reason for baptism. Baptism portrays the very thing that the Corinthians were denying. Baptism is, in part, our declaration that we believe in the resurrection of all the dead, of Christ first and through him all others. If Christ did not rise from the dead, burial with him in baptism is meaningless. This same point is argued by Paul in verse 30. If the dead are not raised, why were the Corinthians being baptized, and why were Paul and others jeopardizing their lives by preaching Christ? Why were they preaching baptism if the dead are not raised and why then would they put their lives on the line.

Grammar change

There is debate as to how to punctuate this verse. Mike Willis does something interesting to this text like I would like to show you for your consideration. Remember that the punctuation that appears in our text was added later by men. You can see the differences in punctuation by looking at the King James versus looking at the American Standard. From this, brother Willis argues the text should be punctuated like this: “Otherwise what shall they do who are baptized? For the dead? Indeed if the dead do not rise again at all, why are people baptized? For them?” With this, the point that we have just made could be further strengthened. Are they baptized to be numbered among the dead who are never to rise again? He goes on in his commentary to show that this verse can be grammatically broken this way and still sustain the Greek of the text without violation.

I do not think that the grammar change is necessary to the understanding of the text. The word huper can do the same thing as breaking the sentences up. I believe Paul to be arguing that there is no point to baptism if all that happens is death and we do not rise again. The other answers, and there are many of them, seem to run into problems at least in my own mind when trying to reconcile it to the theme of the text and arguments that Paul is making. For example, notice verse 32. Paul is still continuing the argument. Why be baptized? Why go through the perils of living a Christian life? Why not simply eat and drink for tomorrow we die? That is the conclusion. That is how we ought to live life if there is no resurrection. Following Christ is voided. Baptism is voided. Salvation is nullified. Instead, Paul is teaching that there is a resurrection and therefore we must be baptized to be part of that resurrection with Christ.

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