Baptism for the Dead



This is another entry in my series on difficult passages in the Bible.  This time I want to address a passage that mentions baptism for the dead.  As before I will present the passage, professional commentary, and then at the end I will weigh in with my own thoughts.


“29 Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?” 1 Cor 15:29 ESV 


Wow!  What the heck is that?  Does that mean we are supposed to baptize for people who have already died?  Why would we do that?  Is everyone getting this wrong and missing out?


“Having been carried forward by his argument of the consequences of Christ’s resurrection to a triumphant burst of victory, the apostle now returns to his general proposition, his object being to show here the futility of all Christian devotion in case death is the final end. Referring to a rite which was then in use in some Christian communities, either that people were baptized on behalf of, instead of, dead persons, in the foolish belief that the benefits of the Sacrament would be credited to the dead, or that some Christians chose to be baptized over the graves of the sainted dead, as a confession of their belief that the blessings of Christ’s resurrection are transmitted in Baptism, and that the baptized believers will rise to eternal life with Christ, Paul states that this custom would be without sense and reason if there is no resurrection of the body. For that was the slogan of the unbelievers: The idea of a bodily resurrection is absolutely false! Referring to his own case, Paul asks: And why do we run hazards every hour? What object would there be in his braving death from day to day if there were no hope of reward for the apostles, for the pains of their self-denial, in the state of resurrection ? Take away a Christian’s hope of a future life with Christ, and you render the misery and tribulation of this present life unbearable. Paul emphasizes this point with the greatest vehemence: Daily I am dying; on account of the many dangers besetting me I am always on the brink of death. There was not a day, not an hour of the day, in which he might not expect to be seized and led forth to his execution. And to arouse the Corinthians to a realization of the meaning he wishes to convey, he adds the solemn oath: By your glorying, brethren, which I have in Christ Jesus, our Lord. The Corinthian believers themselves were the glory of Paul which, as their apostle, he had in Christ Jesus, chap. 9, 1. 2, which he had laid up as a precious possession in the hands of his Savior.” – Kretzmann Commentaries

“In verses 1-19, the fact of Christ’s resurrection is detailed by Paul. Beginning in verse 20 and going through verse 23, Paul speaks about the order of the resurrection. Christ was the first one raised – in a glorified body – and next will be those who are His at His return. Verses 24 – 29 then mention Christ’s reign and the abolition of death. This is when this controversial verse occurs: “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?”

Just north of Corinth was a city named Eleusis. This was the location of a pagan religion where baptism in the sea was practiced to guarantee a good afterlife. This religion was mentioned by Homer in Hymn to Demeter 478-79.1 The Corinthians were known to be heavily influenced by other customs. After all, they were in a large economic area where a great many different people frequented. It is probable that the Corinthians were being influenced by the religious practices found at Eleusis where baptism for the dead was practiced.” – CARM

What does it mean?

I like how the commentaries above bring in some historic perspective on this.  The overall teaching of the passage is about the truth of the Bodily Resurrection of believers that we all have to look forward to.  Paul seems to use this anecdote of baptism of the dead to support his case.  But it is not entirely clear from the text what he meant by that.

“12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? ; 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. ; 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. ; 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. ; 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. ; 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. ; 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. ; 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. ; 20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. ; 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. ; 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. ; 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. ; 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. ; 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. ; 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. ; 27 For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. ; 28 When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all. ; 29 Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf? ; 30 Why are we in danger every hour? ; 31 I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! ; 32 What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” ; 33 Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” ; 34 Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame.” 1 Cor 15:12-34 ESV 

If you’re only looking at the above passage, and not bringing in anything else you cannot tell for certain any of the following:

  • How do you baptize for the dead?
  • Is it a good thing?
  • Is it a bad thing?
  • What is it’s purpose?
  • Were Christians doing it?

The answer to each one of those questions has to be assumed if you are purely exegeting the text.  The historic evidence is interesting but without it this is a dead end.  Because of that I do not believe this is a clear text.  And without anything else to compare it to we should very resolutely not draw any conclusions or practices from it.

You may ask, why did I write a whole post on how we should do nothing?  Well the answer is that it is important in and of itself to know when you should intentionally not draw any conclusions from a Biblical text.  When it is not clear and cannot be cross referenced simply leave it alone.  This is a very good Biblical principle that protects us from error.

About ACTheologian

I am a layman who blogs my Biblical studies. Enjoy, please read with an open Bible and do double check with your pastor.
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